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Bleak House
by Charles Dickens
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes

(London, 1853)

Published in 20 monthly instalments in 1852-3, Dicken's complex story ventilates the author's disdain for the archaic and unjust court system, perhaps based on his own experiences as a law clerk, and as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his earlier books.

For more works by Dickens, see The Index
Abridged: GH/JH

Bleak House

I. - In Chancery

London. Michaelmas term lately over. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Fog everywhere, and at the very heart of the fog sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. No man alive knows what it means. It has passed into a joke. It has been death to many, but it is a joke in the profession.

Mr. Kenge (of Kenge and Carboy, solicitors, Lincoln's Inn) first mentioned Jarndyce and Jarndyce to me, and told me that the costs already amounted to from sixty to seventy thousand pounds.

My godmother, who brought me up, was just dead, and Mr. Kenge came to tell me that Mr. Jarndyce proposed, knowing my desolate position, that I should go to a first-rate school, where my education should be completed and my comfort secured. What did I say to this? What could I say but accept the proposal thankfully?

I passed at this school six happy, quiet years, and then one day came a note from Kenge and Carboy, mentioning that their client, Mr. Jarndyce, being in the house, desired my services as an eligible companion to this young lady.

So I said good-bye to the school and went to London, and was driven to Mr. Kenge's office. He was not altered, but he was surprised to see how altered I was, and appeared quite pleased.

"As you are going to be the companion of the young lady who is now in the Chancellor's private room, Miss Summerson," he said, "we thought it well that you should be in attendance also."

Mr. Kenge gave me his arm, and we went out of his office and into the court, and then into a comfortable sort of room where a young lady and a young gentleman were standing talking.

They looked up when I came in, and I saw in the young lady a beautiful girl, with rich golden hair, and a bright, innocent, trusting face.

"Miss Ada," said Mr. Kenge, "this is Miss Summerson."

She came to meet me with a smile of welcome and her hand extended, but seemed to change her mind in a moment, and kissed me.

The young gentleman was her distant cousin, she told me, and his name Richard Carstone. He was a handsome youth, and after she had called him up to where we sat, he stood by us, talking gaily, like a light-hearted boy. He was very young, not more than nineteen then, but nearly two years older than she was. They were both orphans, and had never met before that day. Our all three coming together for the first time in such an unusual place was a thing to talk about, and we talked about it.

Presently we heard a bustle, and Mr. Kenge said that the court had risen, and soon after we all followed him into the next room. There was the Lord Chancellor sitting in an armchair at the table, and his manner was both courtly and kind.

"Miss Clare," said his lordship. "Miss Ada Clare?" Mr. Kenge presented her.

"The Jarndyce in question," said the Lord Chancellor, turning over papers, "is Jarndyce of Bleak House - a dreary name."

"But not a dreary place, my lord," said Mr. Kenge.

"Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House is not married?" said his lordship.

"He is not, my lord," said Mr. Kenge.

"Young Mr. Richard Carstone is present?" said the Lord Chancellor.

Richard bowed and stepped forward.

"Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House, my lord," Mr. Kenge observed, "if I may venture to remind your lordship, provides a suitable companion for - - "

"For Mr. Richard Carstone!" I thought I heard his lordship say in a low voice.

"For Miss Ada Clare. This is the young lady, Miss Esther Summerson."

"Miss Summerson is not related to any party in the cause, I think."

"No, my lord."

"Very well," said his lordship, after taking Miss Ada aside and asking her if she thought she would be happy at Bleak House. "I shall make the order. Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House has chosen, so far as I may judge, a very good companion for the young lady, and the arrangement seems the best of which the circumstances admit."

He dismissed us pleasantly and we all went out. As we stood for a minute, waiting for Mr. Kenge, a curious little old woman, Miss Flite, in a squeezed bonnet, and carrying a reticule, came curtsying and smiling up to us, with an air of great ceremony.

"Oh!" said she, "The wards in Jarndyce. Very happy, I am sure, to have the honour. It is a good omen for youth, and hope, and beauty when they find themselves in this place, and don't know what's to come of it."

"Mad!" whispered Richard, not thinking she could hear him.

"Right! Mad, young gentleman," she returned quickly. "I was a ward myself. I was not mad at that time. I had youth and hope; I believe beauty. It matters very little now. Neither of the three served, or saved me. I have the honour to attend court regularly. I expect a judgment. On the Day of Judgment. I have discovered that the sixth seal mentioned in the Revelations is the great seal. Pray accept my blessing."

Mr. Kenge coming up, the poor old lady went on. "I shall confer estates on both. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment. This is a good omen for you. Accept my blessing."

We left her at the bottom of the stairs. She was still saying, with a curtsy, and a smile between every little sentence, "Youth. And hope. And beauty. And Chancery."

The morning after, walking out early, we met the old lady again, smiling and saying in her air of patronage, "The wards in Jarndyce! Ve-ry happy, I am sure! Pray come and see my lodgings. It will be a good omen for me.

Youth, and hope, and beauty, are very seldom there."

She took my hand and beckoned Richard and Ada to come too, and in a few moments she was at home.

She had stopped at a shop over which was written, "Krook, Rag and Bottle Warehouse." Inside was an old man in spectacles and a hair cap, and entering the shop the little old lady presented him to us.

"My landlord, Krook," she said. "He is called among the neighbours the Lord Chancellor. His shop is called the Court of Chancery."

She lived at the top of the house in a room from which she had a glimpse of the roof of Lincoln's Inn Hall, and this seemed to be her principal inducement for living there.

II. - Bleak House

We drove down to Bleak House, in Hertfordshire, next day, and all three of us were anxious and nervous when the night closed in, and the driver, pointing to a light sparkling on the top of a hill, cried, "That's Bleak House!"

Bleak House, from the first book edition

"Ada, my love, Esther, my dear, you are welcome. Rick, if I had a hand to spare at present I would give it you!"

The gentleman who said these words in a clear, hospitable voice, kissed us both in a fatherly way, and bore us across the hall into a ruddy little room, all in a glow with a blazing fire.

"Now, Rick!" said he, "I have a hand at liberty. A word in earnest is as good as a speech. I am heartily glad to see you. You are at home. Warm yourself!"

While he spoke I glanced at his face. It was a handsome face, full of change and motion; and his hair was a silvered iron grey. I took him to be nearer sixty than fifty, but he was upright, hearty, and robust.

So this was our coming to Bleak House.

The very next morning I was installed as housekeeper and presented with two bunches of keys - a large bunch for the housekeeping and a little bunch for the cellars. I could not help trembling when I met Mr.

Jarndyce, for I knew it was he who had done everything for me since my godmother's death.

"Nonsense!" he said. "I hear of a good little orphan girl without a protector, and I take it into my head to be that protector. She grows up, and more than justifies my good opinion, and I remain her guardian and her friend. What is there in all this?"

He soon began to talk to me confidentially as if I had been in the habit of conversing with him every morning for I don't know how long.

"Of course, Esther," he said, "you don't understand this Chancery business?"

I shook my head.

"I don't know who does," he returned. "The lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared. Its about a will, and the trusts under a will - or it was once. It's about nothing but costs now. It was about a will when it was about anything. A certain Jarndyce, in an evil hour, made a great fortune and made a great will. In the question how the trusts under that will are to be administered, the fortune left by the will is squandered away; the legatees under the will are reduced to such a miserable condition that they would be sufficiently punished if they had committed an enormous crime in having money left them, and the will itself is made a dead letter. All through the deplorable cause everybody must have copies, over and over again, of everything that has accumulated about it in the way of cartloads of papers, and must go down the middle and up again, through such an infernal country-dance of costs and fees and nonsense and corruption as was never dreamed of in the wildest visions of a witch's sabbath. And we can't get out of the suit on any terms, for we are made parties to it, and must be parties to it, whether we like it or not. But it won't do to think of it! Thinking of it drove my great-uncle, poor Tom Jarndyce, to blow his brains out."

"I hope sir - " said I.

"I think you had better call me Guardian, my dear."

"I hope, Guardian," said I, giving the housekeeping keys the least shake in the world, "that you may not be trusting too much to my discretion. I am not clever, and that's the truth."

"You are clever enough to be the good little woman of our lives here, my dear," he returned playfully; "the little old woman of the rhyme, who sweeps the cobwebs of the sky, and you will sweep them out of our sky in the course of your housekeeping, Esther."

This was the beginning of my being called Old Woman, and Mother Hubbard, and Dame Durden, and so many names of that sort, that my own soon became quite lost.

One of the things I noticed from the first about my guardian was that, though he was always doing a thousand acts of kindness, he could not bear any acknowledgments.

We had somehow got to see more of Miss Flite on our visits to London: for the Lord Chancellor always had to be consulted before Richard could settle in any profession, and as Richard first wanted to be a doctor and then tired of that in favour of the army, there were several consultations. I remember one visit because it was the first time we met Mr. Woodcourt.

My guardian and Ada and I heard of Miss Flite having been ill, and when we called we found a medical gentleman attending her in her garret in Lincoln's Inn.

Miss Flite dropped a general curtsy.

"Honoured, indeed," she said, "by another visit from the wards in Jarndyce! Very happy to receive Jarndyce of Bleak House beneath my humble roof!"

"Has she been very ill?" asked Mr. Jarndyce in a whisper of the doctor.

"Oh, decidedly unwell!" she answered confidentially. "Not pain, you know - trouble. Only Mr. Woodcourt knows how much. My physician, Mr.

Woodcourt" - with great stateliness - "The wards in Jarndyce; Jarndyce of Bleak House. The kindest physician in the college," she whispered to me.

"I expect a judgment. On the Day of Judgment. And shall then confer estates."

"She will be as well, in a day or two," said Mr. Woodcourt, with an observant smile, "as she ever will be. Have you heard of her good fortune?"

"Most extraordinary!" said Miss Flite. "Every Saturday Kenge and Carboy place a paper of shillings in my hand. Always the same number. One for every day in the week. I think that the Lord Chancellor forwards them.

Until the judgment I expect is given."

My guardian was contemplating Miss Flite's birds, and I had no need to look beyond him.

III. - I Am Made Happy

I sometimes thought that Mr. Woodcourt loved me, and that, if he had been richer, he would perhaps have told me that he loved me before he went away. I had thought sometimes that if he had done so I should have been glad. As it was, he went to the East Indies, and later we read in the papers of a great shipwreck, that Allan Woodcourt had worked like a hero to save the drowning, and succour the survivors.

I had been ill when my dear guardian asked me one day if I would care to read something he had written, and I said "Yes." There was estrangement at that time between Richard and Mr. Jarndyce, for the unhappy boy had taken it into his head that the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce would yet be settled, and would bring him fortune, and this kept him from devoting himself seriously to any profession. Of course, he and my darling Ada had fallen in love, and my guardian insisting on their waiting till Richard was earning some income before any engagement could be recognised, increased the estrangement. I knew, to my distress, that Richard suspected my guardian of having a conflicting claim in the horrible lawsuit and this made him think unjustly of Mr. Jarndyce.

I read the letter. It was so impressive in its love for me, and in the unselfish caution it gave me, that my eyes were too often blinded to read much at a time. But I read it through three times before I laid it down. It asked me would I be the mistress of Bleak House. It was not a love-letter, though it expressed so much love, but was written just as he would at any time have spoken to me.

I felt that to devote my life to his happiness was to thank him poorly for all he had done for me. Still I cried very much; not only in the fulness of my heart after reading the letter, but as if something for which there was no name or distinct idea were lost to me. I was very happy, very thankful, very hopeful, but I cried very much.

On entering the breakfast-room next morning I found my guardian just as usual; quite as frank, as open, as free. I thought he might speak to me about the letter, but he never did.

At the end of a week I went to him and said, rather hesitating and trembling, "Guardian, when would you like to have the answer to the letter?"

"When it's ready, my dear," he replied.

"I think it's ready," said I, "and I have brought it myself."

I put my two arms around his neck and kissed him, and he said was this the mistress of Bleak House? And I said "Yes," and it made no difference presently, and I said nothing to my pet, Ada, about it.

It was a few days after this, when Mr. Vholes, the attorney whom Richard employed to watch his interests, called at Bleak House, and told us that his client was very embarrassed financially, and so thought of throwing up his commission in the army.

To avert this I went down to Deal and found Richard alone in the barracks. He was writing at a table, with a great confusion of clothes, tin cases, books, boots, and brushes strewn all about the floor. So worn and haggard he looked, even in the fulness of his handsome youth!

My mission was quite fruitless.

"No, Dame Durden! Two subjects I forbid. The first is John Jarndyce. The second, you know what. Call it madness, and I tell you I can't help it now, and can't be sane. But it is no such thing; it is the one object I have to pursue."

He went on to tell me that it was impossible to remain a soldier; that, apart from debts and duns, he took no interest in his employment and was not fit for it. He showed me papers to prove that his retirement was arranged. Knowing I had done no good by coming down, I prepared to return to London on the morrow.

There was some excitement in the town by reason of the arrival of a big Indiaman, and, as it happened, amongst those who came on shore from the ship was Mr. Allan Woodcourt. I met him in the hotel where I was staying, and he seemed quite pleased to see me. He was glad to meet Richard again, too, and promised, on my asking him, to befriend Richard in London.

IV. - End of Jarndyce and Jarndyce

Richard always declared that it was Ada he meant to see righted, no less than himself, and his anxiety on that point so impressed Mr. Woodcourt that he told me about it. It revived a fear I had had before, that my dear girl's little property might be absorbed by Mr. Vholes, and that Richard's justification to himself would be this.

So I went up to London to see Richard, who now lived in Symond's Inn, and my darling Ada went with me. He was poring over a table covered with dusty papers, but he received us very affectionately.

I noticed, as he passed his two hands over his head, how sunken and how large his eyes appeared, and how dry his lips were. He spoke of the case half-hopefully, half-despondently, "Either the suit must be ended, Esther, or the suitor. But it shall be the suit - the suit." Then he took a few turns up and down, and sank upon the sofa. "I get so tired," he said gloomily. "It is such weary, weary work."

"Esther, dear," Ada said, very quietly, "I am not going home again.

Never any more. I am going to stay with my dear husband. We have been married above two months. Go home without me, my own Esther; I shall never go home any more."

I often came to Richard and his wife, and I often met Mr. Woodcourt there. Richard still suspected my guardian, and refused to see him, and when I said this was so unreasonable, my guardian only said, "What shall we find reasonable in Jarndyce and Jarndyce? Unreason and injustice from beginning to end, if it ever has an end. How should poor Rick, always hovering near it, pluck reason out of it?"

It was some months after this when Mr. Woodcourt asked me to be his wife, and I had to tell him I was not free. But I had to tell him that I could never forget how proud and glad I was at having been beloved by him.

He took my hand and kissed it, and was like himself again.

All this time my guardian had never referred to his letter or my answer, so I said to him next morning I would be the mistress of Bleak House whenever he pleased.

"Next month?" my guardian said gaily.

"Next month, dear guardian."

At the end of the month my guardian went away to Yorkshire, and asked me to follow him. I was very much surprised, and when the journey was over my guardian explained that he had asked me to come down to see a house he had bought for Mr. Woodcourt, with whom he was always very pleased.

It was a beautiful summer morning when we went out to look at the house, and there over the porch was written. "Bleak House." He led me to a seat, and sitting down beside me, said:

"When I wrote you the letter to which you brought the answer" - my guardian smiled as he referred to it - "I had my own happiness too much in view; but I had yours, too. Hear me, my love, but do not speak. When Woodcourt came home, I saw that there was other happiness for you; I saw with whom you would be happier. Well, I have long been in Allan Woodcourt's confidence, although he was not, until yesterday, in mine.

One more last word. When Allan Woodcourt spoke to you, my dear, he spoke with my knowledge and consent. But I gave him no encouragement; not I, for these surprises were my great reward, and I was too miserly to part with a scrap of it. He was to come and tell me all that passed, and he did. I have no more to say. This is Bleak House. This day I give this house its little mistress, and before God it is the brightest day in all my life."

He rose, and raised me with him. We were no longer alone. My husband - I have called him by that name full seven happy years now - stood at my side.

"Allan," said my guardian, "take from me the best wife that ever man had. What more can I say for you than that I know you deserve her?"

He kissed me once again. And now the tears were in his eyes as he said, more softly, "Esther, my dearest, after so many years, there is a kind of parting in this too. I know that my mistake has caused you some distress. Forgive your old guardian in restoring him to his old place in your affections. Allan, take my dear."

We all three went home together next day. We had an intimation from Mr.

Kenge that the case would come on at Westminster in two days, and that a certain will had been found which might end the suit in Richard's favour.

Allan took me down to Westminster, and when we came to Westminster Hall we found that the Court of Chancery was full, and that something unusual had occurred. We asked a gentleman by us if he knew what case was on. He told us Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and that, as well as he could make out, it was over. Over for the day? "No," he said; "over for good."

In a few minutes a crowd came streaming out, and we saw Mr. Kenge. He told us that Jarndyce and Jarndyce was a monument of Chancery practice, and - in a good many words - that the case was over because the whole estate was found to have been absorbed in costs.

We hurried away, first to my guardian, and then to Ada and Richard.

Richard was lying on the sofa with his eyes closed when I went in. When he opened them, I fully saw, for the first time, how worn he was. But he spoke cheerfully, and said how glad he was to think of our intended marriage.

In the evening my guardian came in and laid his hand softly on Richard's.

"Oh, sir," said Richard, "you are a good man, a good man!" and burst into tears.

My guardian sat down beside him, keeping his hand on Richard's.

"My dear Rick," he said, "the clouds have cleared away, and it is bright now. We can see now. And how are you, my dear boy?"

"I am very weak, sir, but I hope I shall be stronger. I have to begin the world."

He sought to raise himself a little.

"Ada, my darling!" Allan raised him, so that she could hold him on her bosom. "I have done you many wrongs, my own. I have married you to poverty and trouble, I have scattered your means to the winds. You will forgive me all this, my Ada, before I begin the world?"

A smile lit up his face as she bent to kiss him. He slowly laid his face upon her bosom, drew his arms closer round her neck, and with one parting sob began the world. Not this - oh, not this! The world that sets this right.

* * * * *

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