Scene: London and the Country
Time: 1832 to 1852
Mr. Jarndyce Master of Bleak House
Mr. Boythorn His friend
Sir Leicester Dedlock An aged nobleman
Mr. Boythorn's neighbor
Lady Dedlock His wife
Mr. Tulkinghorn His lawyer
Captain Hawdon A dissipated and poverty-stricken copyist
in London, known as "Nemo"
Esther Summerson Mr. Jarndyce's ward
In reality a daughter of Captain Hawdon and Lady Dedlock
Richard Carstone Wards of Mr. Jarndyce
Vholes Richard's lawyer
Mrs. Rouncewell Sir Leicester's housekeeper
"Mr. George" Proprietor of a London shooting-gallery
Hortense Lady Dedlock's French maid
Miss Flite A little, old, demented woman
Mrs. Jellyby A lady greatly interested in the welfare
of the heathen
Caddy Jellyby Her daughter
Harold Skimpole A trifler with life, preferring to
live at other people's expense
Allan Woodcourt A young surgeon
Grandfather Smallweed A money-lender
Mrs. Smallweed His crazy wife
Mr. Turveydrop The proprietor of a dancing school
and a model of deportment
Prince Turveydrop His son. Later, Caddy's husband
Joe A crossing sweeper
Krook A dealer in rags and old bottles
"Lady Jane" His cat
THE COURT OF CHANCERY
An Englishman named Jarndyce, once upon a time having made a great fortune, died and left a great will. The persons appointed to carry out its provisions could not agree; they fell to disputing among themselves and went to law over it.
The court which in England decides such suits is called the Court of Chancery. Its action is slow and its delays many, so that men generally consider it a huge misfortune to be obliged to have anything to do with it. Sometimes it has kept cases undecided for many years, till the heirs concerned were dead and gone; and often when the decision came at last there was no money left to be divided, because it had all been eaten up by the costs of the suit. Lawyers inherited some cases from their fathers, who themselves had made a living by them, and many suits had become so twisted that nobody alive could have told at last what they really meant.
Such came to be the case with the Jarndyce will. It had been tried for so many years that the very name had become a joke. Those who began it were[Pg 384] long since dead and their heirs either knew nothing of it or had given up hope of its ever being ended.
The only one who seemed to be interested in it was a little old woman named Miss Flite, whom delay and despair in a suit of her own had made half crazy. For many years she had attended the Chancery Court every day and many thoughtless people made fun of her.
She was wretchedly poor and lived in a small room over a rag-and-bottle shop kept by a man named Krook. Here she had a great number of birds in little cages—larks and linnets and goldfinches. She had given them names to represent the different things which the cruel Chancery Court required to carry on these shameful suits, such as Hope, Youth, Rest, Ashes, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Folly, Words, Plunder and Jargon. She used to say that when the Jarndyce case was decided she would open the cages and let the birds all go.
The last Jarndyce that was left had given up in disgust all thought of the famous lawsuit and steadfastly refused to have anything to do with it. He lived quietly in the country in a big, bare building called Bleak House. He was past middle-age, and his hair was silver-gray, but he was straight and strong and merry.
He was rich, yet was so tender-hearted and benevolent that all who knew him loved him. Most[Pg 385] of his good deeds he never told, for he had a great dislike to being thanked. It used to be said that once, after he had done an extremely generous thing for a relative of his, seeing her coming in the front gate to thank him, he escaped by the back door and was not seen again for three months. He never spoke ill of his neighbors, and whenever he was vexed he would pretend to look for a weather-cock and say, "Dear, dear! The wind must be coming from the east!"
It happened, finally, that all the other Jarndyce heirs had died except two, a young girl named Ada Clare and a young man named Richard Carstone. These two, who were cousins, were left orphans. The master of Bleak House, therefore, in the goodness of his heart, offered them a home with him, and this they thankfully accepted. Mr. Jarndyce now wished to find a companion for Ada Clare; and this is how Esther Summerson comes into this story.
Esther was a sweet girl who had been brought up by a stern, hard-hearted woman whom she had always called "godmother," in ignorance of her parentage. She had never known who were her mother or father, for from earliest babyhood her godmother had forbidden her to ask questions concerning them, and she would have had a sad and lonely youth but for her sunny disposition.
It was not till her godmother died suddenly that she found she had a guardian, and that he was[Pg 386] Mr. Jarndyce of Bleak House. How he came to be her guardian was a mystery to her, but she was glad to find herself not altogether friendless. Although he had taken the pains to see her more than once, and had noticed with pleasure what a cheerful, loving nature she had, yet Esther had never, so far as she knew, seen him, so that she received his invitation to come and live at Bleak House with joyful surprise.
She went, on the day appointed, to London, and there she met Ada, whom she began to love at once, and Richard, a handsome, careless young fellow of nineteen. They spent the day together and got well acquainted before they took the morrow's coach to Bleak House.
At the Chancery Court they met poor, crazy little Miss Flite, who insisted on taking them to her room above the rag-and-bottle shop to show them her caged birds. And that night (as they had been directed) they stayed at the house of a Mrs. Jellyby, of whom Mr. Jarndyce had heard as a woman of great charity.
Mrs. Jellyby was a woman with a mission, which mission was the education of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, in Africa, and the cultivation there of the coffee-bean. She thought of nothing else, and was for ever sending out letters or pamphlets about it.
But she seemed unable to see or think of anything nearer home than Africa. The house was[Pg 387] unswept, the children dirty and always under foot, and the meals half-cooked. She would sit all day in slipshod slippers and a dress that did not meet in the back, drinking coffee and dictating to her eldest daughter Caddy (who hated Africa and all its natives) letters about coffee cultivation and the uplifting of the natives of Borrioboola-Gha.
A very strange sort of philanthropist both Esther and Ada thought Mrs. Jellyby. Perhaps, however, Mr. Jarndyce sent them there for a useful lesson, for he afterward asked them what they thought of her, and he seemed well pleased to learn that they considered her ideas of doing good in the world extremely odd.
Next day they drove to Bleak House. Not one of them had ever seen Mr. Jarndyce, but they found him all they had imagined and more—the kindest, pleasantest and most thoughtful person in the world. Before they had been there two days they felt as if they had known him all their lives.
Bleak House was a building where one went up and down steps from one room to another, and where there were always more rooms when one thought he had seen them all. In the daytime there was horseback riding or walking to amuse them, and in the evenings Ada often sang and played to the rest. Altogether the time flew by most pleasantly, and, judging by Mr. Jarndyce's jollity, the wind seldom showed any signs of coming from the east.[Pg 388]
It was soon clear to everybody that Richard was in love with Ada and that Ada was beginning to love him in return. This pleased Mr. Jarndyce, for he was fond of both.
But he was fondest of Esther. He made her his housekeeper and she carried a big bunch of keys and kept the house as clean as a new pin. He used to say she reminded him of:
"Little old woman and whither so high?
To sweep the cobwebs out of the sky."
She was so cheerful, he said, she would sweep the cobwebs out of anybody's sky. And from this they took to calling her "Little Old Woman," and "Cobweb," and "Mother Hubbard," till none of them thought of her real name at all.
Bleak House had a number of visitors who came more or less often. One of these was an old school friend of Mr. Jarndyce's, named Boythorn. He was a big, blustering man with a laugh as big as himself. Wherever he went he carried a tiny tame canary, that used to sit at meal-time perched on the top of his great shaggy head. It was odd to see this wee bird sitting there unafraid, even at one of his "ha-ha-ha's" that shook the whole house.
Mr. Boythorn was exceedingly tender-hearted, but took delight in pretending to be the stubbornest, most cross-grained, worst-tempered individual possible. His neighbor was Sir Leicester Dedlock, a dignified and proud old baronet, and him[Pg 389] Mr. Boythorn loved to keep in perpetual anger by bringing against him all manner of lawsuits regarding the boundary between their land.
Another visitor whom Esther found amusing was Harold Skimpole, a light, bright creature of charming manners, with a large head and full of simple gaiety. He was a man who seemed to trifle with everything. He sang a little, composed a little and sketched a little. But his songs were never completed and his sketches never finished.
His aim in life seemed to be to avoid all responsibility, and to find some one else to pay his debts. He always spoke of himself as a "child," though he was middle-aged. He claimed to have no idea whatever of the value of money. He would take a handful of coins from his pocket and say laughing, "Now, there's some money. I have no idea how much. I don't know how to count it. I dare say I owe more than that. If good-natured people don't stop letting me owe them, why should I? There you have Harold Skimpole." Mr. Jarndyce was far too honest and innocent himself to see through the man's hollow selfishness and was continually paying his debts, as they soon learned.
Most of all Bleak House's visitors, Esther came to like Allan Woodcourt, a handsome dark-haired young surgeon, and before long she found herself unconsciously looking and longing for his coming. Woodcourt was poor, however, and although he[Pg 390] was in love with Esther he did not tell her, but soon sailed away on a long voyage as a ship's doctor.
Thank you for reading!