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Charles Dickens > Bleak House > Chapter L

Bleak House

Chapter L

Esther's Narrative

It happened that when I came home from Deal I found a note from
Caddy Jellyby (as we always continued to call her), informing me
that her health, which had been for some time very delicate, was
worse and that she would be more glad than she could tell me if I
would go to see her. It was a note of a few lines, written from
the couch on which she lay and enclosed to me in another from her
husband, in which he seconded her entreaty with much solicitude.
Caddy was now the mother, and I the godmother, of such a poor
little baby--such a tiny old-faced mite, with a countenance that
seemed to be scarcely anything but cap-border, and a little lean,
long-fingered hand, always clenched under its chin. It would lie
in this attitude all day, with its bright specks of eyes open,
wondering (as I used to imagine) how it came to be so small and
weak. Whenever it was moved it cried, but at all other times it
was so patient that the sole desire of its life appeared to be to
lie quiet and think. It had curious little dark veins in its face
and curious little dark marks under its eyes like faint
remembrances of poor Caddy's inky days, and altogether, to those
who were not used to it, it was quite a piteous little sight.

But it was enough for Caddy that SHE was used to it. The projects
with which she beguiled her illness, for little Esther's education,
and little Esther's marriage, and even for her own old age as the
grandmother of little Esther's little Esthers, was so prettily
expressive of devotion to this pride of her life that I should be
tempted to recall some of them but for the timely remembrance that
I am getting on irregularly as it is.

To return to the letter. Caddy had a superstition about me which
had been strengthening in her mind ever since that night long ago
when she had lain asleep with her head in my lap. She almost--I
think I must say quite--believed that I did her good whenever I was
near her. Now although this was such a fancy of the affectionate
girl's that I am almost ashamed to mention it, still it might have
all the force of a fact when she was really ill. Therefore I set
off to Caddy, with my guardian's consent, post-haste; and she and
Prince made so much of me that there never was anything like it.

Next day I went again to sit with her, and next day I went again.
It was a very easy journey, for I had only to rise a little earlier
in the morning, and keep my accounts, and attend to housekeeping
matters before leaving home.

But when I had made these three visits, my guardian said to me, on
my return at night, "Now, little woman, little woman, this will
never do. Constant dropping will wear away a stone, and constant
coaching will wear out a Dame Durden. We will go to London for a
while and take possession of our old lodgings."

"Not for me, dear guardian," said I, "for I never feel tired,"
which was strictly true. I was only too happy to be in such

"For me then," returned my guardian, "or for Ada, or for both of
us. It is somebody's birthday to-morrow, I think."

"Truly I think it is," said I, kissing my darling, who would be
twenty-one to-morrow.

"Well," observed my guardian, half pleasantly, half seriously,
"that's a great occasion and will give my fair cousin some
necessary business to transact in assertion of her independence,
and will make London a more convenient place for all of us. So to
London we will go. That being settled, there is another thing--how
have you left Caddy?"

"Very unwell, guardian. I fear it will be some time before she
regains her health and strength."

"What do you call some time, now?" asked my guardian thoughtfully.

"Some weeks, I am afraid."

"Ah!" He began to walk about the room with his hands in his
pockets, showing that he had been thinking as much. "Now, what do
you say about her doctor? Is he a good doctor, my love?"

I felt obliged to confess that I knew nothing to the contrary but
that Prince and I had agreed only that evening that we would like
his opinion to be confirmed by some one.

"Well, you know," returned my guardian quickly, "there's

I had not meant that, and was rather taken by surprise. For a
moment all that I had had in my mind in connexion with Mr.
Woodcourt seemed to come back and confuse me.

"You don't object to him, little woman?"

"Object to him, guardian? Oh no!"

"And you don't think the patient would object to him?"

So far from that, I had no doubt of her being prepared to have a
great reliance on him and to like him very much. I said that he
was no stranger to her personally, for she had seen him often in
his kind attendance on Miss Flite.

"Very good," said my guardian. "He has been here to-day, my dear,
and I will see him about it to-morrow."

I felt in this short conversation--though I did not know how, for
she was quiet, and we interchanged no look--that my dear girl well
remembered how merrily she had clasped me round the waist when no
other hands than Caddy's had brought me the little parting token.
This caused me to feel that I ought to tell her, and Caddy too,
that I was going to be the mistress of Bleak House and that if I
avoided that disclosure any longer I might become less worthy in my
own eyes of its master's love. Therefore, when we went upstairs
and had waited listening until the clock struck twelve in order
that only I might be the first to wish my darling all good wishes
on her birthday and to take her to my heart, I set before her, just
as I had set before myself, the goodness and honour of her cousin
John and the happy life that was in store for for me. If ever my
darling were fonder of me at one time than another in all our
intercourse, she was surely fondest of me that night. And I was so
rejoiced to know it and so comforted by the sense of having done
right in casting this last idle reservation away that I was ten
times happier than I had been before. I had scarcely thought it a
reservation a few hours ago, but now that it was gone I felt as if
I understood its nature better.

Next day we went to London. We found our old lodging vacant, and
in half an hour were quietly established there, as if we had never
gone away. Mr. Woodcourt dined with us to celebrate my darling's
birthday, and we were as pleasant as we could be with the great
blank among us that Richard's absence naturally made on such an
occasion. After that day I was for some weeks--eight or nine as I
remember--very much with Caddy, and thus it fell out that I saw
less of Ada at this time than any other since we had first come
together, except the time of my own illness. She often came to
Caddy's, but our function there was to amuse and cheer her, and we
did not talk in our usual confidential manner. Whenever I went
home at night we were together, but Caddy's rest was broken by
pain, and I often remained to nurse her.

With her husband and her poor little mite of a baby to love and
their home to strive for, what a good creature Caddy was! So self-
denying, so uncomplaining, so anxious to get well on their account,
so afraid of giving trouble, and so thoughtful of the unassisted
labours of her husband and the comforts of old Mr. Turveydrop; I
had never known the best of her until now. And it seemed so
curious that her pale face and helpless figure should be lying
there day after day where dancing was the business of life, where
the kit and the apprentices began early every morning in the ball-
room, and where the untidy little boy waltzed by himself in the
kitchen all the afternoon.

At Caddy's request I took the supreme direction of her apartment,
trimmed it up, and pushed her, couch and all, into a lighter and
more airy and more cheerful corner than she had yet occupied; then,
every day, when we were in our neatest array, I used to lay my
small small namesake in her arms and sit down to chat or work or
read to her. It was at one of the first of these quiet times that
I told Caddy about Bleak House.

We had other visitors besides Ada. First of all we had Prince, who
in his hurried intervals of teaching used to come softly in and sit
softly down, with a face of loving anxiety for Caddy and the very
little child. Whatever Caddy's condition really was, she never
failed to declare to Prince that she was all but well--which I,
heaven forgive me, never failed to confirm. This would put Prince
in such good spirits that he would sometimes take the kit from his
pocket and play a chord or two to astonish the baby, which I never
knew it to do in the least degree, for my tiny namesake never
noticed it at all.

Then there was Mrs. Jellyby. She would come occasionally, with her
usual distraught manner, and sit calmly looking miles beyond her
grandchild as if her attention were absorbed by a young
Borrioboolan on its native shores. As bright-eyed as ever, as
serene, and as untidy, she would say, "Well, Caddy, child, and how
do you do to-day?" And then would sit amiably smiling and taking
no notice of the reply or would sweetly glide off into a
calculation of the number of letters she had lately received and
answered or of the coffee-bearing power of Borrioboola-Gha. This
she would always do with a serene contempt for our limited sphere
of action, not to be disguised.

Then there was old Mr. Turveydrop, who was from morning to night
and from night to morning the subject of innumerable precautions.
If the baby cried, it was nearly stifled lest the noise should make
him uncomfortable. If the fire wanted stirring in the night, it
was surreptitiously done lest his rest should be broken. If Caddy
required any little comfort that the house contained, she first
carefully discussed whether he was likely to require it too. In
return for this consideration he would come into the room once a
day, all but blessing it--showing a condescension, and a patronage,
and a grace of manner in dispensing the light of his high-
shouldered presence from which I might have supposed him (if I had
not known better) to have been the benefactor of Caddy's life.

"My Caroline," he would say, making the nearest approach that he
could to bending over her. "Tell me that you are better to-day."

"Oh, much better, thank you, Mr. Turveydrop," Caddy would reply.

"Delighted! Enchanted! And our dear Miss Summerson. She is not
qulte prostrated by fatigue?" Here he would crease up his eyelids
and kiss his fingers to me, though I am happy to say he had ceased
to be particular in his attentions since I had been so altered.

"Not at all," I would assure him.

"Charming! We must take care of our dear Caroline, Miss Summerson.
We must spare nothing that will restore her. We must nourish her.
My dear Caroline"--he would turn to his daughter-in-law with
infinite generosity and protection--"want for nothing, my love.
Frame a wish and gratify it, my daughter. Everything this house
contains, everything my room contains, is at your service, my dear.
Do not," he would sometimes add in a burst of deportment, "even
allow my simple requirements to be considered if they should at any
time interfere with your own, my Caroline. Your necessities are
greater than mine."

He had established such a long prescriptive right to this
deportment (his son's inheritance from his mother) that I several
times knew both Caddy and her husband to be melted to tears by
these affectionate self-sacrifices.

"Nay, my dears," he would remonstrate; and when I saw Caddy's thin
arm about his fat neck as he said it, I would be melted too, though
not by the same process. "Nay, nay! I have promised never to
leave ye. Be dutiful and affectionate towards me, and I ask no
other return. Now, bless ye! I am going to the Park."

He would take the air there presently and get an appetite for his
hotel dinner. I hope I do old Mr. Turveydrop no wrong, but I never
saw any better traits in him than these I faithfully record, except
that he certainly conceived a liking for Peepy and would take the
child out walking with great pomp, always on those occasions
sending him home before he went to dinner himself, and occasionally
with a halfpenny in his pocket. But even this disinterestedness
was attended with no inconsiderable cost, to my knowledge, for
before Peepy was sufficiently decorated to walk hand in hand with
the professor of deportment, he had to be newly dressed, at the
expense of Caddy and her husband, from top to toe.

Last of our visitors, there was Mr. Jellyby. Really when he used
to come in of an evening, and ask Caddy in his meek voice how she
was, and then sit down with his head against the wall, and make no
attempt to say anything more, I liked him very much. If he found
me bustling about doing any little thing, he sometimes half took
his coat off, as if with an intention of helping by a great
exertion; but he never got any further. His sole occupation was to
sit with his head against the wall, looking hard at the thoughtful
baby; and I could not quite divest my mind of a fancy that they
understood one another.

I have not counted Mr. Woodcourt among our visitors because he was
now Caddy's regular attendant. She soon began to improve under his
care, but he was so gentle, so skilful, so unwearying in the pains
he took that it is not to be wondered at, I am sure. I saw a good
deal of Mr. Woodcourt during this time, though not so much as might
be supposed, for knowing Caddy to be safe in his hands, I often
slipped home at about the hours when he was expected. We
frequently met, notwithstanding. I was quite reconciled to myself
now, but I still felt glad to think that he was sorry for me, and
he still WAS sorry for me I believed. He helped Mr. Badger in his
professional engagements, which were numerous, and had as yet no
settled projects for the future.

It was when Caddy began to recover that I began to notice a change
in my dear girl. I cannot say how it first presented itself to me,
because I observed it in many slight particulars which were nothing
in themselves and only became something when they were pieced
together. But I made it out, by putting them together, that Ada
was not so frankly cheerful with me as she used to be. Her
tenderness for me was as loving and true as ever; I did not for a
moment doubt that; but there was a quiet sorrow about her which she
did not confide to me, and in which I traced some hidden regret.

Now, I could not understand this, and I was so anxious for the
happiness of my own pet that it caused me some uneasiness and set
me thinking often. At length, feeling sure that Ada suppressed
this something from me lest it should make me unhappy too, it came
into my head that she was a little grieved--for me--by what I had
told her about Bleak House.

How I persuaded myself that this was likely, I don't know. I had
no idea that there was any selfish reference in my doing so. I was
not grieved for myself: I was quite contented and quite happy.
Still, that Ada might be thinking--for me, though I had abandoned
all such thoughts--of what once was, but was now all changed,
seemed so easy to believe that I believed it.

What could I do to reassure my darling (I considered then) and show
her that I had no such feelings? Well! I could only be as brisk
and busy as possible, and that I had tried to be all along.
However, as Caddy's illness had certainly interfered, more or less,
with my home duties--though I had always been there in the morning
to make my guardian's breakfast, and he had a hundred times laughed
and said there must be two little women, for his little woman was
never missing--I resolved to be doubly diligent and gay. So I went
about the house humming all the tunes I knew, and I sat working and
working in a desperate manner, and I talked and talked, morning,
noon, and night.

And still there was the same shade between me and my darling.

"So, Dame Trot," observed my guardian, shutting up his book one
night when we were all three together, "so Woodcourt has restored
Caddy Jellyby to the full enjoyment of life again?"

"Yes," I said; "and to be repaid by such gratitude as hers is to be
made rich, guardian."

"I wish it was," he returned, "with all my heart."

So did I too, for that matter. I said so.

"Aye! We would make him as rich as a Jew if we knew how. Would we
not, little woman?"

I laughed as I worked and replied that I was not sure about that,
for it might spoil him, and he might not be so useful, and there
might be many who could ill spare him. As Miss Flite, and Caddy
herself, and many others.

"True," said my guardian. "I had forgotten that. But we would
agree to make him rich enough to live, I suppose? Rich enough to
work with tolerable peace of mind? Rich enough to have his own
happy home and his own household gods--and household goddess, too,

That was quite another thing, I said. We must all agree in that.

"To be sure," said my guardian. "All of us. I have a great regard
for Woodcourt, a high esteem for him; and I have been sounding him
delicately about his plans. It is difficult to offer aid to an
independent man with that just kind of pride which he possesses.
And yet I would be glad to do it if I might or if I knew how. He
seems half inclined for another voyage. But that appears like
casting such a man away."

"It might open a new world to him," said I.

''So it might, little woman," my guardian assented. ''I doubt if
he expects much of the old world. Do you know I have fancied that
he sometimes feels some particular disappointment or misfortune
encountered in it. You never heard of anything of that sort?"

I shook my head.

"Humph," said my guardian. "I am mistaken, I dare say." As there
was a little pause here, which I thought, for my dear girl's
satisfaction, had better be filled up, I hummed an air as I worked
which was a favourite with my guardian.

"And do you think Mr. Woodcourt will make another voyage?" I asked
him when I had hummed it quietly all through.

"I don't quite know what to think, my dear, but I should say it was
likely at present that he will give a long trip to another

"I am sure he will take the best wishes of all our hearts with him
wherever he goes," said I; "and though they are not riches, he will
never be the poorer for them, guardian, at least."

"Never, little woman," he replied.

I was sitting in my usual place, which was now beside my guardian's
chair. That had not been my usual place before the letter, but it
was now. I looked up to Ada, who was sitting opposite, and I saw,
as she looked at me, that her eyes were filled with tears and that
tears were falling down her face. I felt that I had only to be
placid and merry once for all to undeceive my dear and set her
loving heart at rest. I really was so, and I had nothing to do but
to be myself.

So I made my sweet girl lean upon my shoulder--how little thinking
what was heavy on her mind!--and I said she was not quite well, and
put my arm about her, and took her upstairs. When we were in our
own room, and when she might perhaps have told me what I was so
unprepared to hear, I gave her no encouragement to confide in me; I
never thought she stood in need of it.

"Oh, my dear good Esther," said Ada, "if I could only make up my
mind to speak to you and my cousin John when you are together!"

"Why, my love!" I remonstrated. "Ada, why should you not speak to

Ada only dropped her head and pressed me closer to her heart.

"You surely don't forget, my beauty," said I, smiling, "what quiet,
old-fashioned people we are and how I have settled down to be the
discreetest of dames? You don't forget how happily and peacefully
my life is all marked out for me, and by whom? I am certain that
you don't forget by what a noble character, Ada. That can never

"No, never, Esther."

"Why then, my dear," said I, "there can be nothing amiss--and why
should you not speak to us?"

"Nothing amiss, Esther?" returned Ada. "Oh, when I think of all
these years, and of his fatherly care and kindness, and of the old
relations among us, and of you, what shall I do, what shall I do!"

I looked at my child in some wonder, but I thought it better not to
answer otherwise than by cheering her, and so I turned off into
many little recollections of our life together and prevented her
from saying more. When she lay down to sleep, and not before, I
returned to my guardian to say good night, and then I came back to
Ada and sat near her for a little while.

She was asleep, and I thought as I looked at her that she was a
little changed. I had thought so more than once lately. I could
not decide, even looking at her while she was unconscious, how she
was changed, but something in the familiar beauty of her face
looked different to me. My guardian's old hopes of her and Richard
arose sorrowfully in my mind, and I said to myself, "She has been
anxious about him," and I wondered how that love would end.

When I had come home from Caddy's while she was ill, I had often
found Ada at work, and she had always put her work away, and I had
never known what it was. Some of it now lay in a drawer near her,
which was not quite closed. I did not open the drawer, but I still
rather wondered what the work could he, for it was evidently
nothing for herself.

And I noticed as I kissed my dear that she lay with one hand under
her pillow so that it was hidden.

How much less amiable I must have been than they thought me, how
much less amiable than I thought myself, to be so preoccupied with
my own cheerfulness and contentment as to think that it only rested
with me to put my dear girl right and set her mind at peace!

But I lay down, self-deceived, in that belief. And I awoke in it
next day to find that there was still the same shade between me and
my darling.

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