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Charles Dickens > Bleak House > Chapter I

Bleak House

Chapter I

In Chancery

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor
sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. 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. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots,
making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as
full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for
the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses,
scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers,
jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill
temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of
thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding
since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits
to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points
tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits
and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the
tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and
dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.
Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on
the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping
on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and
throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides
of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of
the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching
the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck.
Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a
nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a
balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much
as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by
husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours
before their time--as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard
and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the
muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction,
appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old
corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn
Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor
in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and
mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition
which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners,
holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

On such an afternoon, if ever, the Lord High Chancellor ought to be
sitting her--as here he is--with a foggy glory round his head,
softly fenced in with crimson cloth and curtains, addressed by a
large advocate with great whiskers, a little voice, and an
interminable brief, and outwardly directing his contemplation to
the lantern in the roof, where he can see nothing but fog. On such
an afternoon some score of members of the High Court of Chancery
bar ought to be--as here they are--mistily engaged in one of the
ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on
slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities, running
their goat-hair and horsehair warded heads against walls of words
and making a pretence of equity with serious faces, as players
might. On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause,
some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who
made a fortune by it, ought to be--as are they not?--ranged in a
line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth
at the bottom of it) between the registrar's red table and the silk
gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions,
affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters' reports,
mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them. Well may the
court be dim, with wasting candles here and there; well may the fog
hang heavy in it, as if it would never get out; well may the
stained-glass windows lose their colour and admit no light of day
into the place; well may the uninitiated from the streets, who peep
in through the glass panes in the door, be deterred from entrance
by its owlish aspect and by the drawl, languidly echoing to the
roof from the padded dais where the Lord High Chancellor looks into
the lantern that has no light in it and where the attendant wigs
are all stuck in a fog-bank! This is the Court of Chancery, which
has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire,
which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in
every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod
heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round
of every man's acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means
abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances,
patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the
heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners
who would not give--who does not often give--the warning, "Suffer
any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!"

Who happen to be in the Lord Chancellor's court this murky
afternoon besides the Lord Chancellor, the counsel in the cause,
two or three counsel who are never in any cause, and the well of
solicitors before mentioned? There is the registrar below the
judge, in wig and gown; and there are two or three maces, or petty-
bags, or privy purses, or whatever they may be, in legal court
suits. These are all yawning, for no crumb of amusement ever falls
from Jarndyce and Jarndyce (the cause in hand), which was squeezed
dry years upon years ago. The short-hand writers, the reporters of
the court, and the reporters of the newspapers invariably decamp
with the rest of the regulars when Jarndyce and Jarndyce comes on.
Their places are a blank. Standing on a seat at the side of the
hall, the better to peer into the curtained sanctuary, is a little
mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet who is always in court, from its
sitting to its rising, and always expecting some incomprehensible
judgment to be given in her favour. Some say she really is, or
was, a party to a suit, but no one knows for certain because no one
cares. She carries some small litter in a reticule which she calls
her documents, principally consisting of paper matches and dry
lavender. A sallow prisoner has come up, in custody, for the half-
dozenth time to make a personal application "to purge himself of
his contempt," which, being a solitary surviving executor who has
fallen into a state of conglomeration about accounts of which it is
not pretended that he had ever any knowledge, he is not at all
likely ever to do. In the meantime his prospects in life are
ended. Another ruined suitor, who periodically appears from
Shropshire and breaks out into efforts to address the Chancellor at
the close of the day's business and who can by no means be made to
understand that the Chancellor is legally ignorant of his existence
after making it desolate for a quarter of a century, plants himself
in a good place and keeps an eye on the judge, ready to call out
"My Lord!" in a voice of sonorous complaint on the instant of his
rising. A few lawyers' clerks and others who know this suitor by
sight linger on the chance of his furnishing some fun and
enlivening the dismal weather a little.

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in
course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what
it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been
observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five
minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the
premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause;
innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old
people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously
found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without
knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds
with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised
a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled
has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away
into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers
and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and
gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed
into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left
upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his
brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and
Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court,
perennially hopeless.

Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke. That is the only
good that has ever come of it. It has been death to many, but it
is a joke in the profession. Every master in Chancery has had a
reference out of it. Every Chancellor was "in it," for somebody or
other, when he was counsel at the bar. Good things have been said
about it by blue-nosed, bulbous-shoed old benchers in select port-
wine committee after dinner in hall. Articled clerks have been in
the habit of fleshing their legal wit upon it. The last Lord
Chancellor handled it neatly, when, correcting Mr. Blowers, the
eminent silk gown who said that such a thing might happen when the
sky rained potatoes, he observed, "or when we get through Jarndyce
and Jarndyce, Mr. Blowers"--a pleasantry that particularly tickled
the maces, bags, and purses.

How many people out of the suit Jarndyce and Jarndyce has stretched
forth its unwholesome hand to spoil and corrupt would be a very
wide question. From the master upon whose impaling files reams of
dusty warrants in Jarndyce and Jarndyce have grimly writhed into
many shapes, down to the copying-clerk in the Six Clerks' Office
who has copied his tens of thousands of Chancery folio-pages under
that eternal heading, no man's nature has been made better by it.
In trickery, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, botheration,
under false pretences of all sorts, there are influences that can
never come to good. The very solicitors' boys who have kept the
wretched suitors at bay, by protesting time out of mind that Mr.
Chizzle, Mizzle, or otherwise was particularly engaged and had
appointments until dinner, may have got an extra moral twist and
shuffle into themselves out of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The receiver
in the cause has acquired a goodly sum of money by it but has
acquired too a distrust of his own mother and a contempt for his
own kind. Chizzle, Mizzle, and otherwise have lapsed into a habit
of vaguely promising themselves that they will look into that
outstanding little matter and see what can be done for Drizzle--who
was not well used--when Jarndyce and Jarndyce shall be got out of
the office. Shirking and sharking in all their many varieties have
been sown broadcast by the ill-fated cause; and even those who have
contemplated its history from the outermost circle of such evil
have been insensibly tempted into a loose way of letting bad things
alone to take their own bad course, and a loose belief that if the
world go wrong it was in some off-hand manner never meant to go

Thus, in the midst of the mud and at the heart of the fog, sits the
Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

"Mr. Tangle," says the Lord High Chancellor, latterly something
restless under the eloquence of that learned gentleman.

"Mlud," says Mr. Tangle. Mr. Tangle knows more of Jarndyce and
Jarndyce than anybody. He is famous for it--supposed never to have
read anything else since he left school.

"Have you nearly concluded your argument?"

"Mlud, no--variety of points--feel it my duty tsubmit--ludship," is
the reply that slides out of Mr. Tangle.

"Several members of the bar are still to be heard, I believe?" says
the Chancellor with a slight smile.

Eighteen of Mr. Tangle's learned friends, each armed with a little
summary of eighteen hundred sheets, bob up like eighteen hammers in
a pianoforte, make eighteen bows, and drop into their eighteen
places of obscurity.

"We will proceed with the hearing on Wednesday fortnight," says the
Chancellor. For the question at issue is only a question of costs,
a mere bud on the forest tree of the parent suit, and really will
come to a settlement one of these days.

The Chancellor rises; the bar rises; the prisoner is brought
forward in a hurry; the man from Shropshire cries, "My lord!"
Maces, bags, and purses indignantly proclaim silence and frown at
the man from Shropshire.

"In reference," proceeds the Chancellor, still on Jarndyce and
Jarndyce, "to the young girl--"

"Begludship's pardon--boy," says Mr. Tangle prematurely. "In
reference," proceeds the Chancellor with extra distinctness, "to
the young girl and boy, the two young people"--Mr. Tangle crushed--
"whom I directed to be in attendance to-day and who are now in my
private room, I will see them and satisfy myself as to the
expediency of making the order for their residing with their

Mr. Tangle on his legs again. "Begludship's pardon--dead."

"With their"--Chancellor looking through his double eyeglass at the
papers on his desk--"grandfather."

"Begludship's pardon--victim of rash action--brains."

Suddenly a very little counsel with a terrific bass voice arises,
fully inflated, in the back settlements of the fog, and says, "Will
your lordship allow me? I appear for him. He is a cousin, several
times removed. I am not at the moment prepared to inform the court
in what exact remove he is a cousin, but he IS a cousin.

Leaving this address (delivered like a sepulchral message) ringing
in the rafters of the roof, the very little counsel drops, and the
fog knows him no more. Everybody looks for him. Nobody can see

"I will speak with both the young people," says the Chancellor
anew, "and satisfy myself on the subject of their residing with
their cousin. I will mention the matter to-morrow morning when I
take my seat."

The Chancellor is about to bow to the bar when the prisoner is
presented. Nothing can possibly come of the prisoner's
conglomeration but his being sent back to prison, which is soon
done. The man from Shropshire ventures another remonstrative "My
lord!" but the Chancellor, being aware of him, has dexterously
vanished. Everybody else quickly vanishes too. A battery of blue
bags is loaded with heavy charges of papers and carried off by
clerks; the little mad old woman marches off with her documents;
the empty court is locked up. If all the injustice it has
committed and all the misery it has caused could only be locked up
with it, and the whole burnt away in a great funeral pyre--why so
much the better for other parties than the parties in Jarndyce and

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