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.
Comments and sketches
As I’ve said elsewhere, BLEAK HOUSE is not *necessarily* a haunted house story, but thinking of it this way influences the images I choose and how the I tell the story visually.
Dickens doesn’t disappoint! Ghosts are a recurring theme in his work and BLEAK HOUSE is no exception. It’s more of a backstory here though, it’s not like they’re wandering the halls.
Chesney Wold is the ancestral home of Lord and Lady Dedlock. It is a cold, cavernous place in the country where the Dedlocks spend most of their time, though Lady Dedlock prefers their place in London. The house is famous in the region and it’s not unusual for travelers to stop for an impromptu tour.
The challenge in this scene was to depict the events the housekeeper, Mrs. Rouncewell, is recounting of the ancestral curse that haunts Chesney Wold. The view of the figures we see through the window required special attention, as there were several important elements to keep in mind.
First of all the characters are from a different time period, and I wanted that distinction to be clear but simple. Second, they’re ghosts after all, so I wanted to suggest that they’re somewhat translucent. Thirdly, it’s raining! All this needed to be in a light tonal range to set it apart from the deep shadows and solid blacks of the foreground.
Finally, and most important, is their body language. The complicated tension of marriage versus family sets up the scene, but their relationship, at that moment, needed to be clear. I worked this out in the series of sketches here. The dramatic down angle was a challenge throughout this composition, but it was the smaller, distant figures that demanded my attention.
The interior was researched and planned just as carefully, down to the grandfather clock (which figures in the story!) and the drapery tiebacks.
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