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Charles Dickens > Bleak House > Chapter II

Bleak House

Chapter II

In Fashion

It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion that we want on this
same miry afternoon. It is not so unlike the Court of Chancery but
that we may pass from the one scene to the other, as the crow
flies. Both the world of fashion and the Court of Chancery are
things of precedent and usage: oversleeping Rip Van Winkles who
have played at strange games through a deal of thundery weather;
sleeping beauties whom the knight will wake one day, when all the
stopped spits in the kitchen shall begin to turn prodigiously!

It is not a large world. Relatively even to this world of ours,
which has its limits too (as your Highness shall find when you have
made the tour of it and are come to the brink of the void beyond),
it is a very little speck. There is much good in it; there are
many good and true people in it; it has its appointed place. But
the evil of it is that it is a world wrapped up in too much
jeweller's cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushing of the
larger worlds, and cannot see them as they circle round the sun.
It is a deadened world, and its growth is sometimes unhealthy for
want of air.

My Lady Dedlock has returned to her house in town for a few days
previous to her departure for Paris, where her ladyship intends to
stay some weeks, after which her movements are uncertain. The
fashionable intelligence says so for the comfort of the Parisians,
and it knows all fashionable things. To know things otherwise were
to be unfashionable. My Lady Dedlock has been down at what she
calls, in familiar conversation, her "place" in Lincolnshire. The
waters are out in Lincolnshire. An arch of the bridge in the park
has been sapped and sopped away. The adjacent low-lying ground for
half a mile in breadth is a stagnant river with melancholy trees
for islands in it and a surface punctured all over, all day long,
with falling rain. My Lady Dedlock's place has been extremely
dreary. The weather for many a day and night has been so wet that
the trees seem wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of
the woodman's axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall. The
deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires where they pass. The shot of
a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves
in a tardy little cloud towards the green rise, coppice-topped,
that makes a background for the falling rain. The view from my
Lady Dedlock's own windows is alternately a lead-coloured view and
a view in Indian ink. The vases on the stone terrace in the
foreground catch the rain all day; and the heavy drops fall--drip,
drip, drip--upon the broad flagged pavement, called from old time
the Ghost's Walk, all night. On Sundays the little church in the
park is mouldy; the oaken pulpit breaks out into a cold sweat; and
there is a general smell and taste as of the ancient Dedlocks in
their graves. My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in
the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper's lodge and seeing
the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from
the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the
rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through
the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says
she has been "bored to death."

Therefore my Lady Dedlock has come away from the place in
Lincolnshire and has left it to the rain, and the crows, and the
rabbits, and the deer, and the partridges and pheasants. The
pictures of the Dedlocks past and gone have seemed to vanish into
the damp walls in mere lowness of spirits, as the housekeeper has
passed along the old rooms shutting up the shutters. And when they
will next come forth again, the fashionable intelligence--which,
like the fiend, is omniscient of the past and present, but not the
future--cannot yet undertake to say.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier
baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely
more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might
get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks. He
would on the whole admit nature to be a good idea (a little low,
perhaps, when not enclosed with a park-fence), but an idea
dependent for its execution on your great county families. He is a
gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and
meanness and ready on the shortest notice to die any death you may
please to mention rather than give occasion for the least
impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate,
truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly
unreasonable man.

Sir Leicester is twenty years, full measure, older than my Lady.
He will never see sixty-five again, nor perhaps sixty-six, nor yet
sixty-seven. He has a twist of the gout now and then and walks a
little stiffly. He is of a worthy presence, with his light-grey
hair and whiskers, his fine shirt-frill, his pure-white waistcoat,
and his blue coat with bright buttons always buttoned. He is
ceremonious, stately, most polite on every occasion to my Lady, and
holds her personal attractions in the highest estimation. His
gallantry to my Lady, which has never changed since he courted her,
is the one little touch of romantic fancy in him.

Indeed, he married her for love. A whisper still goes about that
she had not even family; howbeit, Sir Leicester had so much family
that perhaps he had enough and could dispense with any more. But
she had beauty, pride, ambition, insolent resolve, and sense enough
to portion out a legion of fine ladies. Wealth and station, added
to these, soon floated her upward, and for years now my Lady
Dedlock has been at the centre of the fashionable intelligence and
at the top of the fashionable tree.

How Alexander wept when he had no more worlds to conquer, everybody
knows--or has some reason to know by this time, the matter having
been rather frequently mentioned. My Lady Dedlock, having
conquered HER world, fell not into the melting, but rather into the
freezing, mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity, an
equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction,
are the trophies of her victory. She is perfectly well-bred.
If she could be translated to heaven to-morrow, she might be
expected to ascend without any rapture.

She has beauty still, and if it be not in its heyday, it is not yet
in its autumn. She has a fine face--originally of a character that
would be rather called very pretty than handsome, but improved into
classicality by the acquired expression of her fashionable state.
Her figure is elegant and has the effect of being tall. Not that
she is so, but that "the most is made," as the Honourable Bob
Stables has frequently asserted upon oath, "of all her points."
The same authority observes that she is perfectly got up and
remarks in commendation of her hair especially that she is the
best-groomed woman in the whole stud.

With all her perfections on her head, my Lady Dedlock has come up
from her place in Lincolnshire (hotly pursued by the fashionable
intelligence) to pass a few days at her house in town previous to
her departure for Paris, where her ladyship intends to stay some
weeks, after which her movements are uncertain. And at her house
in town, upon this muddy, murky afternoon, presents himself an old-
fashioned old gentleman, attorney-at-law and eke solicitor of the
High Court of Chancery, who has the honour of acting as legal
adviser of the Dedlocks and has as many cast-iron boxes in his
office with that name outside as if the present baronet were the
coin of the conjuror's trick and were constantly being juggled
through the whole set. Across the hall, and up the stairs, and
along the passages, and through the rooms, which are very brilliant
in the season and very dismal out of it--fairy-land to visit, but a
desert to live in--the old gentleman is conducted by a Mercury in
powder to my Lady's presence.

The old gentleman is rusty to look at, but is reputed to have made
good thrift out of aristocratic marriage settlements and
aristocratic wills, and to be very rich. He is surrounded by a
mysterious halo of family confidences, of which he is known to be
the silent depository. There are noble mausoleums rooted for
centuries in retired glades of parks among the growing timber and
the fern, which perhaps hold fewer noble secrets than walk abroad
among men, shut up in the breast of Mr. Tulkinghorn. He is of what
is called the old school--a phrase generally meaning any school
that seems never to have been young--and wears knee-breeches tied
with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings. One peculiarity of his
black clothes and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted,
is that they never shine. Mute, close, irresponsive to any
glancing light, his dress is like himself. He never converses when
not professionaly consulted. He is found sometimes, speechless but
quite at home, at corners of dinner-tables in great country houses
and near doors of drawing-rooms, concerning which the fashionable
intelligence is eloquent, where everybody knows him and where half
the Peerage stops to say "How do you do, Mr. Tulkinghorn?" He
receives these salutations with gravity and buries them along with
the rest of his knowledge.

Sir Leicester Dedlock is with my Lady and is happy to see Mr.
Tulkinghorn. There is an air of prescription about him which is
always agreeable to Sir Leicester; he receives it as a kind of
tribute. He likes Mr. Tulkinghorn's dress; there is a kind of
tribute in that too. It is eminently respectable, and likewise, in
a general way, retainer-like. It expresses, as it were, the
steward of the legal mysteries, the butler of the legal cellar, of
the Dedlocks.

Has Mr. Tulkinghorn any idea of this himself? It may be so, or it
may not, but there is this remarkable circumstance to be noted in
everything associated with my Lady Dedlock as one of a class--as
one of the leaders and representatives of her little world. She
supposes herself to be an inscrutable Being, quite out of the reach
and ken of ordinary mortals--seeing herself in her glass, where
indeed she looks so. Yet every dim little star revolving about
her, from her maid to the manager of the Italian Opera, knows her
weaknesses, prejudices, follies, haughtinesses, and caprices and
lives upon as accurate a calculation and as nice a measure of her
moral nature as her dressmaker takes of her physical proportions.
Is a new dress, a new custom, a new singer, a new dancer, a new
form of jewellery, a new dwarf or giant, a new chapel, a new
anything, to be set up? There are deferential people in a dozen
callings whom my Lady Dedlock suspects of nothing but prostration
before her, who can tell you how to manage her as if she were a
baby, who do nothing but nurse her all their lives, who, humbly
affecting to follow with profound subservience, lead her and her
whole troop after them; who, in hooking one, hook all and bear them
off as Lemuel Gulliver bore away the stately fleet of the majestic
Lilliput. "If you want to address our people, sir," say Blaze and
Sparkle, the jewellers--meaning by our people Lady Dedlock and the
rest--"you must remember that you are not dealing with the general
public; you must hit our people in their weakest place, and their
weakest place is such a place." "To make this article go down,
gentlemen," say Sheen and Gloss, the mercers, to their friends the
manufacturers, "you must come to us, because we know where to have
the fashionable people, and we can make it fashionable." "If you
want to get this print upon the tables of my high connexion, sir,"
says Mr. Sladdery, the librarian, "or if you want to get this dwarf
or giant into the houses of my high connexion, sir, or if you want
to secure to this entertainment the patronage of my high connexion,
sir, you must leave it, if you please, to me, for I have been
accustomed to study the leaders of my high connexion, sir, and I
may tell you without vanity that I can turn them round my finger"--
in which Mr. Sladdery, who is an honest man, does not exaggerate at

Therefore, while Mr. Tulkinghorn may not know what is passing in
the Dedlock mind at present, it is very possible that he may.

"My Lady's cause has been again before the Chancellor, has it, Mr.
Tulkinghorn?" says Sir Leicester, giving him his hand.

"Yes. It has been on again to-day," Mr. Tulkinghorn replies,
making one of his quiet bows to my Lady, who is on a sofa near the
fire, shading her face with a hand-screen.

"It would be useless to ask," says my Lady with the dreariness of
the place in Lincolnshire still upon her, "whether anything has
been done."

"Nothing that YOU would call anything has been done to-day,"
replies Mr. Tulkinghorn.

"Nor ever will be," says my Lady.

Sir Leicester has no objection to an interminable Chancery suit.
It is a slow, expensive, British, constitutional kind of thing. To
be sure, he has not a vital interest in the suit in question, her
part in which was the only property my Lady brought him; and he has
a shadowy impression that for his name--the name of Dedlock--to be
in a cause, and not in the title of that cause, is a most
ridiculous accident. But he regards the Court of Chancery, even if
it should involve an occasional delay of justice and a trifling
amount of confusion, as a something devised in conjunction with a
variety of other somethings by the perfection of human wisdom for
the eternal settlement (humanly speaking) of everything. And he is
upon the whole of a fixed opinion that to give the sanction of his
countenance to any complaints respecting it would be to encourage
some person in the lower classes to rise up somewhere--like Wat

"As a few fresh affidavits have been put upon the file," says Mr.
Tulkinghorn, "and as they are short, and as I proceed upon the
troublesome principle of begging leave to possess my clients with
any new proceedings in a cause"--cautious man Mr. Tulkinghorn,
taking no more responsibility than necessary--"and further, as I
see you are going to Paris, I have brought them in my pocket."

(Sir Leicester was going to Paris too, by the by, but the delight
of the fashionable intelligence was in his Lady.)

Mr. Tulkinghorn takes out his papers, asks permission to place them
on a golden talisman of a table at my Lady's elbow, puts on his
spectacles, and begins to read by the light of a shaded lamp.

"'In Chancery. Between John Jarndyce--'"

My Lady interrupts, requesting him to miss as many of the formal
horrors as he can.

Mr. Tulkinghorn glances over his spectacles and begins again lower
down. My Lady carelessly and scornfully abstracts her attention.
Sir Leicester in a great chair looks at the file and appears to
have a stately liking for the legal repetitions and prolixities as
ranging among the national bulwarks. It happens that the fire is
hot where my Lady sits and that the hand-screen is more beautiful
than useful, being priceless but small. My Lady, changing her
position, sees the papers on the table--looks at them nearer--looks
at them nearer still--asks impulsively, "Who copied that?"

Mr. Tulkinghorn stops short, surprised by my Lady's animation and
her unusual tone.

"Is it what you people call law-hand?" she asks, looking full at
him in her careless way again and toying with her screen.

"Not quite. Probably"--Mr. Tulkinghorn examines it as he speaks--
"the legal character which it has was acquired after the original
hand was formed. Why do you ask?"

"Anything to vary this detestable monotony. Oh, go on, do!"

Mr. Tulkinghorn reads again. The heat is greater; my Lady screens
her face. Sir Leicester dozes, starts up suddenly, and cries, "Eh?
What do you say?"

"I say I am afraid," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, who had risen hastily,
"that Lady Dedlock is ill."

"Faint," my Lady murmurs with white lips, "only that; but it is
like the faintness of death. Don't speak to me. Ring, and take me
to my room!"

Mr. Tulkinghorn retires into another chamber; bells ring, feet
shuffle and patter, silence ensues. Mercury at last begs Mr.
Tulkinghorn to return.

"Better now," quoth Sir Leicester, motioning the lawyer to sit down
and read to him alone. "I have been quite alarmed. I never knew
my Lady swoon before. But the weather is extremely trying, and she
really has been bored to death down at our place in Lincolnshire."

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