Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852-1853) - Chapter 7 -
The Ghost's Walk
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
"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.
"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.
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"I don't know it, sir." Rosa is shyer than
"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
"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."