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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBleak House - Chapter VII - The Ghost's Walk
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Bleak House - Chapter VII - The Ghost's Walk Post by :Stilbox Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dickens Date :December 2010 Read :2781

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Bleak House - Chapter VII - The Ghost's Walk

While Esther sleeps, and while Esther wakes, it is still wet weather
down at the place in Lincolnshire. The rain is ever falling--drip,
drip, drip--by day and night upon the broad flagged terrace-
pavement, the Ghost's Walk. The weather is so very bad down in
Lincolnshire that the liveliest imagination can scarcely apprehend
its ever being fine again. Not that there is any superabundant life
of imagination on the spot, for Sir Leicester is not here (and,
truly, even if he were, would not do much for it in that
particular), but is in Paris with my Lady; and solitude, with dusky
wings, sits brooding upon Chesney Wold.

There may be some motions of fancy among the lower animals at
Chesney Wold. The horses in the stables--the long stables in a
barren, red-brick court-yard, where there is a great bell in a
turret, and a clock with a large face, which the pigeons who live
near it and who love to perch upon its shoulders seem to be always
consulting--THEY may contemplate some mental pictures of fine
weather on occasions, and may be better artists at them than the
grooms. The old roan, so famous for cross-country work, turning his
large eyeball to the grated window near his rack, may remember the
fresh leaves that glisten there at other times and the scents that
stream in, and may have a fine run with the hounds, while the human
helper, clearing out the next stall, never stirs beyond his
pitchfork and birch-broom. The grey, whose place is opposite the
door and who with an impatient rattle of his halter pricks his ears
and turns his head so wistfully when it is opened, and to whom the
opener says, "'Woa grey, then, steady! Noabody wants you to-day!"
may know it quite as well as the man. The whole seemingly
monotonous and uncompanionable half-dozen, stabled together, may
pass the long wet hours when the door is shut in livelier
communication than is held in the servants' hall or at the Dedlock
Arms, or may even beguile the time by improving (perhaps corrupting)
the pony in the loose-box in the corner.

So the mastiff, dozing in his kennel in the court-yard with his
large head on his paws, may think of the hot sunshine when the
shadows of the stable-buildings tire his patience out by changing
and leave him at one time of the day no broader refuge than the
shadow of his own house, where he sits on end, panting and growling
short, and very much wanting something to worry besides himself and
his chain. So now, half-waking and all-winking, he may recall the
house full of company, the coach-houses full of vehicles, the
stables fall of horses, and the out-buildings full of attendants
upon horses, until he is undecided about the present and comes forth
to see how it is. Then, with that impatient shake of himself, he
may growl in the spirit, "Rain, rain, rain! Nothing but rain--and
no family here!" as he goes in again and lies down with a gloomy
yawn.

So with the dogs in the kennel-buildings across the park, who have
their resfless fits and whose doleful voices when the wind has been
very obstinate have even made it known in the house itself--
upstairs, downstairs, and in my Lady's chamber. They may hunt the
whole country-side, while the raindrops are pattering round their
inactivity. So the rabbits with their self-betraying tails,
frisking in and out of holes at roots of trees, may be lively with
ideas of the breezy days when their ears are blown about or of those
seasons of interest when there are sweet young plants to gnaw. The
turkey in the poultry-yard, always troubled with a class-grievance
(probably Christmas), may be reminiscent of that summer morning
wrongfully taken from him when he got into the lane among the felled
trees, where there was a barn and barley. The discontented goose,
who stoops to pass under the old gateway, twenty feet high, may
gabble out, if we only knew it, a waddling preference for weather
when the gateway casts its shadow on the ground.

Be this as it may, there is not much fancy otherwise stirring at
Chesney Wold. If there be a little at any odd moment, it goes,
like a little noise in that old echoing place, a long way and
usually leads off to ghosts and mystery.

It has rained so hard and rained so long down in Lincolnshire that
Mrs. Rouncewell, the old housekeeper at Chesney Wold, has several
times taken off her spectacles and cleaned them to make certain
that the drops were not upon the glasses. Mrs. Rouncewell might
have been sufficiently assured by hearing the rain, but that she is
rather deaf, which nothing will induce her to believe. She is a
fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat, and has such a
back and such a stomacher that if her stays should turn out when
she dies to have been a broad old-fashioned family fire-grate,
nobody who knows her would have cause to be surprised. Weather
affects Mrs. Rouncewell little. The house is there in all
weathers, and the house, as she expresses it, "is what she looks
at." She sits in her room (in a side passage on the ground floor,
with an arched window commanding a smooth quadrangle, adorned at
regular intervals with smooth round trees and smooth round blocks
of stone, as if the trees were going to play at bowls with the
stones), and the whole house reposes on her mind. She can open it
on occasion and be busy and fluttered, but it is shut up now and
lies on the breadth of Mrs. Rouncewell's iron-bound bosom in a
majestic sleep.

It is the next difficult thing to an impossibility to imagine
Chesney Wold without Mrs. Rouncewell, but she has only been here
fifty years. Ask her how long, this rainy day, and she shall
answer "fifty year, three months, and a fortnight, by the blessing
of heaven, if I live till Tuesday." Mr. Rouncewell died some time
before the decease of the pretty fashion of pig-tails, and modestly
hid his own (if he took it with him) in a corner of the churchyard
in the park near the mouldy porch. He was born in the market-town,
and so was his young widow. Her progress in the family began in
the time of the last Sir Leicester and originated in the still-room.

The present representative of the Dedlocks is an excellent master.
He supposes all his dependents to be utterly bereft of individual
characters, intentions, or opinions, and is persuaded that he was
born to supersede the necessity of their having any. If he were to
make a discovery to the contrary, he would be simply stunned--would
never recover himself, most likely, except to gasp and die. But he
is an excellent master still, holding it a part of his state to be
so. He has a great liking for Mrs. Rouncewell; he says she is a
most respectable, creditable woman. He always shakes hands with
her when he comes down to Chesney Wold and when he goes away; and
if he were very ill, or if he were knocked down by accident, or run
over, or placed in any situation expressive of a Dedlock at a
disadvantage, he would say if he could speak, "Leave me, and send
Mrs. Rouncewell here!" feeling his dignity, at such a pass, safer
with her than with anybody else.

Mrs. Rouncewell has known trouble. She has had two sons, of whom
the younger ran wild, and went for a soldier, and never came back.
Even to this hour, Mrs. Rouncewell's calm hands lose their
composure when she speaks of him, and unfolding themselves from her
stomacher, hover about her in an agitated manner as she says what a
likely lad, what a fine lad, what a gay, good-humoured, clever lad
he was! Her second son would have been provided for at Chesney
Wold and would have been made steward in due season, but he took,
when he was a schoolboy, to constructing steam-engines out of
saucepans and setting birds to draw their own water with the least
possible amount of labour, so assisting them with artful
contrivance of hydraulic pressure that a thirsty canary had only,
in a literal sense, to put his shoulder to the wheel and the job
was done. This propensity gave Mrs. Rouncewell great uneasiness.
She felt it with a mother's anguish to be a move in the Wat Tyler
direction, well knowing that Sir Leicester had that general
impression of an aptitude for any art to which smoke and a tall
chimney might be considered essential. But the doomed young rebel
(otherwise a mild youth, and very persevering), showing no sign of
grace as he got older but, on the contrary, constructing a model of
a power-loom, she was fain, with many tears, to mention his
backslidings to the baronet. "Mrs. Rouncewell," said Sir
Leicester, "I can never consent to argue, as you know, with any one
on any subject. You had better get rid of your boy; you had better
get him into some Works. The iron country farther north is, I
suppose, the congenial direction for a boy with these tendencies."
Farther north he went, and farther north he grew up; and if Sir
Leicester Dedlock ever saw him when he came to Chesney Wold to
visit his mother, or ever thought of him afterwards, it is certain
that he only regarded him as one of a body of some odd thousand
conspirators, swarthy and grim, who were in the habit of turning
out by torchlight two or three nights in the week for unlawful
purposes.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Rouncewell's son has, in the course of nature
and art, grown up, and established himself, and married, and called
unto him Mrs. Rouncewell's grandson, who, being out of his
apprenticeship, and home from a journey in far countries, whither
he was sent to enlarge his knowledge and complete his preparations
for the venture of this life, stands leaning against the chimney-
piece this very day in Mrs. Rouncewell's room at Chesney Wold.

"And, again and again, I am glad to see you, Watt! And, once
again, I am glad to see you, Watt!" says Mrs. Rouncewell. "You are
a fine young fellow. You are like your poor uncle George. Ah!"
Mrs. Rouncewell's hands unquiet, as usual, on this reference.

"They say I am like my father, grandmother."

"Like him, also, my dear--but most like your poor uncle George!
And your dear father." Mrs. Rouncewell folds her hands again. "He
is well?"

"Thriving, grandmother, in every way."

"I am thankful!" Mrs. Rouncewell is fond of her son but has a
plaintive feeling towards him, much as if he were a very honourable
soldier who had gone over to the enemy.

"He is quite happy?" says she.

"Quite."

"I am thankful! So he has brought you up to follow in his ways and
has sent you into foreign countries and the like? Well, he knows
best. There may be a world beyond Chesney Wold that I don't
understand. Though I am not young, either. And I have seen a
quantity of good company too!"

"Grandmother," says the young man, changing the subject, "what a
very pretty girl that was I found with you just now. You called
her Rosa?"

"Yes, child. She is daughter of a widow in the village. Maids are
so hard to teach, now-a-days, that I have put her about me young.
She's an apt scholar and will do well. She shows the house
already, very pretty. She lives with me at my table here."

"I hope I have not driven her away?"

"She supposes we have family affairs to speak about, I dare say.
She is very modest. It is a fine quality in a young woman. And
scarcer," says Mrs. Rouncewell, expanding her stomacher to its
utmost limits, "than it formerly was!"

The young man inclines his head in acknowledgment of the precepts
of experience. Mrs. Rouncewell listens.

"Wheels!" says she. They have long been audible to the younger
ears of her companion. "What wheels on such a day as this, for
gracious sake?"

After a short interval, a tap at the door. "Come in!" A dark-
eyed, dark-haired, shy, village beauty comes in--so fresh in her
rosy and yet delicate bloom that the drops of rain which have
beaten on her hair look like the dew upon a flower fresh gathered.

"What company is this, Rosa?" says Mrs. Rouncewell.

"It's two young men in a gig, ma'am, who want to see the house--
yes, and if you please, I told them so!" in quick reply to a
gesture of dissent from the housekeeper. "I went to the hall-door
and told them it was the wrong day and the wrong hour, but the
young man who was driving took off his hat in the wet and begged me
to bring this card to you."

"Read it, my dear Watt," says the housekeeper.

Rosa is so shy as she gives it to him that they drop it between
them and almost knock their foreheads together as they pick it up.
Rosa is shyer than before.

"Mr. Guppy" is all the information the card yields.

"Guppy!" repeats Mrs. Rouncewell, "MR. Guppy! Nonsense, I never
heard of him!"

"If you please, he told ME that!" says Rosa. "But he said that he
and the other young gentleman came from London only last night by
the mail, on business at the magistrates' meeting, ten miles off,
this morning, and that as their business was soon over, and they
had heard a great deal said of Chesney Wold, and really didn't know
what to do with themselves, they had come through the wet to see
it. They are lawyers. He says he is not in Mr. Tulkinghorn's
office, but he is sure he may make use of Mr. Tulkinghorn's name if
necessary." Finding, now she leaves off, that she has been making
quite a long speech, Rosa is shyer than ever.

Now, Mr. Tulkinghorn is, in a manner, part and parcel of the place,
and besides, is supposed to have made Mrs. Rouncewell's will. The
old lady relaxes, consents to the admission of the visitors as a
favour, and dismisses Rosa. The grandson, however, being smitten
by a sudden wish to see the house himself, proposes to join the
party. The grandmother, who is pleased that he should have that
interest, accompanies him--though to do him justice, he is
exceedingly unwilling to trouble her.

"Much obliged to you, ma'am!" says Mr. Guppy, divesting himself of
his wet dreadnought in the hall. "Us London lawyers don't often
get an out, and when we do, we like to make the most of it, you
know."

The old housekeeper, with a gracious severity of deportment, waves
her hand towards the great staircase. Mr. Guppy and his friend
follow Rosa; Mrs. Rouncewell and her grandson follow them; a young
gardener goes before to open the shutters.

As is usually the case with people who go over houses, Mr. Guppy
and his friend are dead beat before they have well begun. They
straggle about in wrong places, look at wrong things, don't care
for the right things, gape when more rooms are opened, exhibit
profound depression of spirits, and are clearly knocked up. In
each successive chamber that they enter, Mrs. Rouncewell, who is as
upright as the house itself, rests apart in a window-seat or other
such nook and listens with stately approval to Rosa's exposition.
Her grandson is so attentive to it that Rosa is shyer than ever--
and prettier. Thus they pass on from room to room, raising the
pictured Dedlocks for a few brief minutes as the young gardener
admits the light, and reconsigning them to their graves as he shuts
it out again. It appears to the afflicted Mr. Guppy and his
inconsolable friend that there is no end to the Dedlocks, whose
family greatness seems to consist in their never having done
anything to distinguish themselves for seven hundred years.

Even the long drawing-room of Chesney Wold cannot revive Mr.
Guppy's spirits. He is so low that he droops on the threshold and
has hardly strength of mind to enter. But a portrait over the
chimney-piece, painted by the fashionable artist of the day, acts
upon him like a charm. He recovers in a moment. He stares at it
with uncommon interest; he seems to be fixed and fascinated by it.

"Dear me!" says Mr. Guppy. "Who's that?"

"The picture over the fire-place," says Rosa, "is the portrait of
the present Lady Dedlock. It is considered a perfect likeness, and
the best work of the master."

"'Blest," says Mr. Guppy, staring in a kind of dismay at his
friend, "if I can ever have seen her. Yet I know her! Has the
picture been engraved, miss?"

"The picture has never been engraved. Sir Leicester has always
refused permission."

"Well!" says Mr. Guppy in a low voice. "I'll be shot if it ain't
very curious how well I know that picture! So that's Lady Dedlock,
is it!"

"The picture on the right is the present Sir Leicester Dedlock.
The picture on the left is his father, the late Sir Leicester."

Mr. Guppy has no eyes for either of these magnates. "It's
unaccountable to me," he says, still staring at the portrait, "how
well I know that picture! I'm dashed," adds Mr. Guppy, looking
round, "if I don't think I must have had a dream of that picture,
you know!"

As no one present takes any especial interest in Mr. Guppy's
dreams, the probability is not pursued. But he still remains so
absorbed by the portrait that he stands immovable before it until
the young gardener has closed the shutters, when he comes out of
the room in a dazed state that is an odd though a sufficient
substitute for interest and follows into the succeeding rooms with
a confused stare, as if he were looking everywhere for Lady Dedlock
again.

He sees no more of her. He sees her rooms, which are the last
shown, as being very elegant, and he looks out of the windows from
which she looked out, not long ago, upon the weather that bored her
to death. All things have an end, even houses that people take
infinite pains to see and are tired of before they begin to see
them. He has come to the end of the sight, and the fresh village
beauty to the end of her description; which is always this: "The
terrace below is much admired. It is called, from an old story in
the family, the Ghost's Walk."

"No?" says Mr. Guppy, greedily curious. "What's the story, miss?
Is it anything about a picture?"

"Pray tell us the story," says Watt in a half whisper.

"I don't know it, sir." Rosa is shyer than ever.

"It is not related to visitors; it is almost forgotten," says the
housekeeper, advancing. "It has never been more than a family
anecdote."

"You'll excuse my asking again if it has anything to do with a
picture, ma'am," observes Mr. Guppy, "because I do assure you that
the more I think of that picture the better I know it, without
knowing how I know it!"

The story has nothing to do with a picture; the housekeeper can
guarantee that. Mr. Guppy is obliged to her for the information
and is, moreover, generally obliged. He retires with his friend,
guided down another staircase by the young gardener, and presently
is heard to drive away. It is now dusk. Mrs. Rouncewell can trust
to the discretion of her two young hearers and may tell THEM how
the terrace came to have that ghostly name.

She seats herself in a large chair by the fast-darkening window and
tells them: "In the wicked days, my dears, of King Charles the
First--I mean, of course, in the wicked days of the rebels who
leagued themselves against that excellent king--Sir Morbury Dedlock
was the owner of Chesney Wold. Whether there was any account of a
ghost in the family before those days, I can't say. I should think
it very likely indeed."

Mrs. Rouncewell holds this opinion because she considers that a
family of such antiquity and importance has a right to a ghost.
She regards a ghost as one of the privileges of the upper classes,
a genteel distinction to which the common people have no claim.

"Sir Morbury Dedlock," says Mrs. Rouncewell, "was, I have no
occasion to say, on the side of the blessed martyr. But it IS
supposed that his Lady, who had none of the family blood in her
veins, favoured the bad cause. It is said that she had relations
among King Charles's enemies, that she was in correspondence with
them, and that she gave them information. When any of the country
gentlemen who followed his Majesty's cause met here, it is said
that my Lady was always nearer to the door of their council-room
than they supposed. Do you hear a sound like a footstep passing
along the terrace, Watt?"

Rosa draws nearer to the housekeeper.

"I hear the rain-drip on the stones," replies the young man, "and I
hear a curious echo--I suppose an echo--which is very like a
halting step."

The housekeeper gravely nods and continues: "Partly on account of
this division between them, and partly on other accounts, Sir
Morbury and his Lady led a troubled life. She was a lady of a
haughty temper. They were not well suited to each other in age or
character, and they had no children to moderate between them.
After her favourite brother, a young gentleman, was killed in the
civil wars (by Sir Morbury's near kinsman), her feeling was so
violent that she hated the race into which she had married. When
the Dedlocks were about to ride out from Chesney Wold in the king's
cause, she is supposed to have more than once stolen down into the
stables in the dead of night and lamed their horses; and the story
is that once at such an hour, her husband saw her gliding down the
stairs and followed her into the stall where his own favourite
horse stood. There he seized her by the wrist, and in a struggle
or in a fall or through the horse being frightened and lashing out,
she was lamed in the hip and from that hour began to pine away."

The housekeeper has dropped her voice to a little more than a
whisper.

"She had been a lady of a handsome figure and a noble carriage.
She never complained of the change; she never spoke to any one of
being crippled or of being in pain, but day by day she tried to
walk upon the terrace, and with the help of the stone balustrade,
went up and down, up and down, up and down, in sun and shadow, with
greater difficulty every day. At last, one afternoon her husband
(to whom she had never, on any persuasion, opened her lips since
that night), standing at the great south window, saw her drop upon
the pavement. He hastened down to raise her, but she repulsed him
as he bent over her, and looking at him fixedly and coldly, said,
'I will die here where I have walked. And I will walk here, though
I am in my grave. I will walk here until the pride of this house
is humbled. And when calamity or when disgrace is coming to it,
let the Dedlocks listen for my step!'

Watt looks at Rosa. Rosa in the deepening gloom looks down upon
the ground, half frightened and half shy.

"There and then she died. And from those days," says Mrs.
Rouncewell, "the name has come down--the Ghost's Walk. If the
tread is an echo, it is an echo that is only heard after dark, and
is often unheard for a long while together. But it comes back from
time to time; and so sure as there is sickness or death in the
family, it will be heard then."

"And disgrace, grandmother--" says Watt.

"Disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold," returns the housekeeper.

Her grandson apologizes with "True. True."

"That is the story. Whatever the sound is, it is a worrying
sound," says Mrs. Rouncewell, getting up from her chair; "and what
is to be noticed in it is that it MUST BE HEARD. My Lady, who is
afraid of nothing, admits that when it is there, it must be heard.
You cannot shut it out. Watt, there is a tall French clock behind
you (placed there, 'a purpose) that has a loud beat when it is in
motion and can play music. You understand how those things are
managed?"

"Pretty well, grandmother, I think."

"Set it a-going."

Watt sets it a-going--music and all.

"Now, come hither," says the housekeeper. "Hither, child, towards
my Lady's pillow. I am not sure that it is dark enough yet, but
listen! Can you hear the sound upon the terrace, through the
music, and the beat, and everything?"

"I certainly can!"

"So my Lady says."

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