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Charles Dickens > Bleak House > Chapter XLII

Bleak House

Chapter XLII

In Mr. Tulkinghorn's Chambers

From the verdant undulations and the spreading oaks of the Dedlock
property, Mr. Tulkinghorn transfers himself to the stale heat and
dust of London. His manner of coming and going between the two
places is one of his impenetrabilities. He walks into Chesney Wold
as if it were next door to his chambers and returns to his chambers
as if he had never been out of Lincoln's Inn Fields. He neither
changes his dress before the journey nor talks of it afterwards.
He melted out of his turret-room this morning, just as now, in the
late twilight, he melts into his own square.

Like a dingy London bird among the birds at roost in these pleasant
fields, where the sheep are all made into parchment, the goats into
wigs, and the pasture into chaff, the lawyer, smoke-dried and
faded, dwelling among mankind but not consorting with them, aged
without experience of genial youth, and so long used to make his
cramped nest in holes and corners of human nature that he has
forgotten its broader and better range, comes sauntering home. In
the oven made by the hot pavements and hot buildings, he has baked
himself dryer than usual; and he has in his thirsty mind his
mellowed port-wine half a century old.

The lamplighter is skipping up and down his ladder on Mr.
Tulkinghorn's side of the Fields when that high-priest of noble
mysteries arrives at his own dull court-yard. He ascends the door-
steps and is gliding into the dusky hall when he encounters, on the
top step, a bowing and propitiatory little man.

"Is that Snagsby?"

"Yes, sir. I hope you are well, sir. I was just giving you up,
sir, and going home."

"Aye? What is it? What do you want with me?"

"Well, sir," says Mr. Snagsby, holding his hat at the side of his
head in his deference towards his best customer, "I was wishful to
say a word to you, sir."

"Can you say it here?"

"Perfectly, sir."

"Say it then." The lawyer turns, leans his arms on the iron
railing at the top of the steps, and looks at the lamplighter
lighting the court-yard.

"It is relating," says Mr. Snagsby in a mysterious low voice, "it
is relating--not to put too fine a point upon it--to the foreigner,

Mr. Tulkinghorn eyes him with some surprise. "What foreigner?"

"The foreign female, sir. French, if I don't mistake? I am not
acquainted with that language myself, but I should judge from her
manners and appearance that she was French; anyways, certainly
foreign. Her that was upstairs, sir, when Mr. Bucket and me had
the honour of waiting upon you with the sweeping-boy that night."

"Oh! Yes, yes. Mademoiselle Hortense."

"Indeed, sir?" Mr. Snagsby coughs his cough of submission behind
his hat. "I am not acquainted myself with the names of foreigners
in general, but I have no doubt it WOULD be that." Mr. Snagsby
appears to have set out in this reply with some desperate design of
repeating the name, but on reflection coughs again to excuse

"And what can you have to say, Snagsby," demands Mr. Tulkinghorn,
"about her?"

"Well, sir," returns the stationer, shading his communication with
his hat, "it falls a little hard upon me. My domestic happiness is
very great--at least, it's as great as can be expected, I'm sure--
but my little woman is rather given to jealousy. Not to put too
fine a point upon it, she is very much given to jealousy. And you
see, a foreign female of that genteel appearance coming into the
shop, and hovering--I should be the last to make use of a strong
expression if I could avoid it, but hovering, sir--in the court--
you know it is--now ain't it? I only put it to yourself, sir.

Mr. Snagsby, having said this in a very plaintive manner, throws in
a cough of general application to fill up all the blanks.

"Why, what do you mean?" asks Mr. Tulkinghorn.

"Just so, sir," returns Mr. Snagsby; "I was sure you would feel it
yourself and would excuse the reasonableness of MY feelings when
coupled with the known excitableness of my little woman. You see,
the foreign female--which you mentioned her name just now, with
quite a native sound I am sure--caught up the word Snagsby that
night, being uncommon quick, and made inquiry, and got the
direction and come at dinner-time. Now Guster, our young woman, is
timid and has fits, and she, taking fright at the foreigner's
looks--which are fierce--and at a grinding manner that she has of
speaking--which is calculated to alarm a weak mind--gave way to it,
instead of bearing up against it, and tumbled down the kitchen
stairs out of one into another, such fits as I do sometimes think
are never gone into, or come out of, in any house but ours.
Consequently there was by good fortune ample occupation for my
little woman, and only me to answer the shop. When she DID say
that Mr. Tulkinghorn, being always denied to her by his employer
(which I had no doubt at the time was a foreign mode of viewing a
clerk), she would do herself the pleasure of continually calling at
my place until she was let in here. Since then she has been, as I
began by saying, hovering, hovering, sir"--Mr. Snagsby repeats the
word with pathetic emphasis--"in the court. The effects of which
movement it is impossible to calculate. I shouldn't wonder if it
might have already given rise to the painfullest mistakes even in
the neighbours' minds, not mentioning (if such a thing was
possible) my little woman. Whereas, goodness knows," says Mr.
Snagsby, shaking his head, "I never had an idea of a foreign
female, except as being formerly connected with a bunch of brooms
and a baby, or at the present time with a tambourine and earrings.
I never had, I do assure you, sir!"

Mr. Tulkinghorn had listened gravely to this complaint and inquires
when the stationer has finished, "And that's all, is it, Snagsby?"

"Why yes, sir, that's all," says Mr. Snagsby, ending with a cough
that plainly adds, "and it's enough too--for me."

"I don't know what Mademoiselle Hortense may want or mean, unless
she is mad," says the lawyer.

"Even if she was, you know, sir," Mr. Snagsby pleads, "it wouldn't
be a consolation to have some weapon or another in the form of a
foreign dagger planted in the family."

"No," says the other. "Well, well! This shall be stopped. I am
sorry you have been inconvenienced. If she comes again, send her

Mr. Snagsby, with much bowing and short apologetic coughing, takes
his leave, lightened in heart. Mr. Tulkinghorn goes upstairs,
saying to himself, "These women were created to give trouble the
whole earth over. The mistress not being enough to deal with,
here's the maid now! But I will be short with THIS jade at least!"

So saying, he unlocks his door, gropes his way into his murky
rooms, lights his candles, and looks about him. It is too dark to
see much of the Allegory over-head there, but that importunate
Roman, who is for ever toppling out of the clouds and pointing, is
at his old work pretty distinctly. Not honouring him with much
attention, Mr. Tulkinghorn takes a small key from his pocket,
unlocks a drawer in which there is another key, which unlocks a
chest in which there is another, and so comes to the cellar-key,
with which he prepares to descend to the regions of old wine. He
is going towards the door with a candle in his hand when a knock

"Who's this? Aye, aye, mistress, it's you, is it? You appear at a
good time. I have just been hearing of you. Now! What do you

He stands the candle on the chimney-piece in the clerk's hall and
taps his dry cheek with the key as he addresses these words of
welcome to Mademoiselle Hortense. That feline personage, with her
lips tightly shut and her eyes looking out at him sideways, softly
closes the door before replying.

"I have had great deal of trouble to find you, sir."

"HAVE you!"

"I have been here very often, sir. It has always been said to me,
he is not at home, he is engage, he is this and that, he is not for

"Quite right, and quite true."

"Not true. Lies!"

At times there is a suddenness in the manner of Mademoiselle
Hortense so like a bodily spring upon the subject of it that such
subject involuntarily starts and fails back. It is Mr.
Tulkinghorn's case at present, though Mademoiselle Hortense, with
her eyes almost shut up (but still looking out sideways), is only
smiling contemptuously and shaking her head.

"Now, mistress," says the lawyer, tapping the key hastily upon the
chimney-piece. "If you have anything to say, say it, say it."

"Sir, you have not use me well. You have been mean and shabby."

"Mean and shabby, eh?" returns the lawyer, rubbing his nose with
the key.

"Yes. What is it that I tell you? You know you have. You have
attrapped me--catched me--to give you information; you have asked
me to show you the dress of mine my Lady must have wore that night,
you have prayed me to come in it here to meet that boy. Say! Is it
not?" Mademoiselle Hortense makes another spring.

"You are a vixen, a vixen!" Mr. Tulkinghorn seems to meditate as
he looks distrustfully at her, then he replies, "Well, wench, well.
I paid you."

"You paid me!" she repeats with fierce disdain. "Two sovereign! I
have not change them, I re-fuse them, I des-pise them, I throw them
from me!" Which she literally does, taking them out of her bosom
as she speaks and flinging them with such violence on the floor
that they jerk up again into the light before they roll away into
corners and slowly settle down there after spinning vehemently.

"Now!" says Mademoiselle Hortense, darkening her large eyes again.
"You have paid me? Eh, my God, oh yes!"

Mr. Tulkinghorn rubs his head with the key while she entertains
herself with a sarcastic laugh.

"You must be rich, my fair friend," he composedly observes, "to
throw money about in that way!"

"I AM rich," she returns. "I am very rich in hate. I hate my
Lady, of all my heart. You know that."

"Know it? How should I know it?"

"Because you have known it perfectly before you prayed me to give
you that information. Because you have known perfectly that I was
en-r-r-r-raged!" It appears impossible for mademoiselle to roll
the letter "r" sufficiently in this word, notwithstanding that she
assists her energetic delivery by clenching both her hands and
setting all her teeth.

"Oh! I knew that, did I?" says Mr. Tulkinghorn, examining the wards
of the key.

"Yes, without doubt. I am not blind. You have made sure of me
because you knew that. You had reason! I det-est her."
Mademoiselle folds her arms and throws this last remark at him over
one of her shoulders.

"Having said this, have you anything else to say, mademoiselle?"

"I am not yet placed. Place me well. Find me a good condition!
If you cannot, or do not choose to do that, employ me to pursue
her, to chase her, to disgrace and to dishonour her. I will help
you well, and with a good will. It is what YOU do. Do I not know

"You appear to know a good deal," Mr. Tulkinghorn retorts.

"Do I not? Is it that I am so weak as to believe, like a child,
that I come here in that dress to rec-cive that boy only to decide
a little bet, a wager? Eh, my God, oh yes!" In this reply, down
to the word "wager" inclusive, mademoiselle has been ironically
polite and tender, then as suddenly dashed into the bitterest and
most defiant scorn, with her black eyes in one and the same moment
very nearly shut and staringly wide open.

"Now, let us see," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, tapping his chin with the
key and looking imperturbably at her, "how this matter stands."

"Ah! Let us see," mademoiselle assents, with many angry and tight
nods of her head.

"You come here to make a remarkably modest demand, which you have
just stated, and it not being conceded, you will come again."

"And again," says mademoiselle with more tight and angry nods.
"And yet again. And yet again. And many times again. In effect,
for ever!"

"And not only here, but you will go to Mr, Snagsby's too, perhaps?
That visit not succeeding either, you will go again perhaps?"

"And again," repeats mademoiselle, cataleptic with determination.
"And yet again. And yet again. And many times again. In effect,
for ever!"

"Very well. Now, Mademoiselle Hortense, let me recommend you to
take the candle and pick up that money of yours. I think you will
find it behind the clerk's partition in the corner yonder."

She merely throws a laugh over her shoulder and stands her ground
with folded arms.

"You will not, eh?"

"No, I will not!"

"So much the poorer you; so much the richer I! Look, mistress,
this is the key of my wine-cellar. It is a large key, but the keys
of prisons are larger. In this city there are houses of correction
(where the treadmills are, for women), the gates of which are very
strong and heavy, and no doubt the keys too. I am afraid a lady of
your spirit and activity would find it an inconvenience to have one
of those keys turned upon her for any length of time. What do you

"I think," mademoiselle replies without any action and in a clear,
obliging voice, "that you are a miserable wretch."

"Probably," returns Mr. Tulkinghorn, quietly blowing his nose.
"But I don't ask what you think of myself; I ask what you think of
the prison."

"Nothing. What does it matter to me?"

"Why, it matters this much, mistress," says the lawyer,
deliberately putting away his handkerchief and adjusting his frill;
"the law is so despotic here that it interferes to prevent any of
our good English citizens from being troubled, even by a lady's
visits against his desire. And on his complaining that he is so
troubled, it takes hold of the troublesome lady and shuts her up in
prison under hard discipline. Turns the key upon her, mistress."
Illustrating with the cellar-key.

"Truly?" returns mademoiselle in the same pleasant voice. "That is
droll! But--my faith! --still what does it matter to me?"

"My fair friend," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, "make another visit here,
or at Mr. Snagsby's, and you shall learn."

"In that case you will send me to the prison, perhaps?"


It would be contradictory for one in mademoiselle's state of
agreeable jocularity to foam at the mouth, otherwise a tigerish
expansion thereabouts might look as if a very little more would
make her do it.

"In a word, mistress," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, "I am sorry to be
unpolite, but if you ever present yourself uninvited here--or
there--again, I will give you over to the police. Their gallantry
is great, but they carry troublesome people through the streets in
an ignominious manner, strapped down on a board, my good wench."

"I will prove you," whispers mademoiselle, stretching out her hand,
"I will try if you dare to do it!"

"And if," pursues the lawyer without minding her, "I place you in
that good condition of being locked up in jail, it will be some
time before you find yourself at liberty again."

"I will prove you," repeats mademoiselle in her former whisper.

"And now," proceeds the lawyer, still without minding her, "you had
better go. Think twice before you come here again."

"Think you," she answers, "twice two hundred times!"

"You were dismissed by your lady, you know," Mr. Tulkinghorn
observes, following her out upon the staircase, "as the most
implacable and unmanageable of women. Now turn over a new leaf and
take warning by what I say to you. For what I say, I mean; and
what I threaten, I will do, mistress."

She goes down without answering or looking behind her. When she is
gone, he goes down too, and returning with his cobweb-covered
bottle, devotes himself to a leisurely enjoyment of its contents,
now and then, as he throws his head back in his chair, catching
sight of the pertinacious Roman pointing from the ceiling.

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