The narrator says that Mr. Tulkinghorn goes up to his room at Chesney Wold, happy that he told the story. He steps outside and looks at the stars. Lady Dedlock appears. He tells her that he felt he had to let her know that he knew her secret, and that only he knows it so far. She tells him that he was right, and that she knows what will happen to Rosa if her secret is discovered. She offers to write down details to save Sir Leicester any trouble, but Tulkinghorn says it isn’t necessary. She tells him that her jewels and other valuables are all in their places. Tulkinghorn doesn’t understand what she means, and Lady Dedlock declares that she is leaving Chesney Wold immediately. He doesn’t try to stop her but wants to tell her something first. She tells him she wants to move toward the window, and Tulkinghorn fears she’ll jump out and kill herself. But she doesn’t. He tells her that his only concern in all this is Sir Leicester and that her disappearance will destroy him and make her secret immediately known to all. Tulkinghorn suggests that she stay and continue to hide her guilt. He says he will alert her when he must make the secret known. She leaves his room.
The narrator says that Tulkinghorn goes to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. Snagsby arrives at his office with some information about Mademoiselle Hortense. He says his wife is very jealous because Mademoiselle Hortense has been hovering around his shop, determined that someone should let her in to see Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn says to send her to him.
He goes to his chambers. The narrator says it is too dark to see the painted Roman on the ceiling, who points downward. Tulkinghorn unlocks a series of small chests and retrieves a key. He intends to go to the wine cellar, but there is a knock at his door. It is Mademoiselle Hortense. She angrily says that she has done what Tulkinghorn wanted—she showed him her dress that Lady Dedlock wore, she has met “that boy”—and Tulkinghorn says that he paid her. She says she hasn’t spent the money because she is so angry, and she throws it into a corner. She says that she hates Lady Dedlock and asks Tulkinghorn to find her a new job. If he can’t, she offers to help Tulkinghorn disgrace Lady Dedlock. She says she will keep coming to him until he gives her what she wants. Tulkinghorn refuses. He says that if she harasses him, she will go to prison. She leaves, enraged.
Esther studiously avoids mentioning Lady Dedlock, and she does her best not to think about her. She says it doesn’t matter how she struggled not to think about her voice or how she obsessively looked for Lady Dedlock’s name in public.
Esther and Ada talk with Mr. Jarndyce about Richard. Mr. Jarndyce no longer seems to hope that Richard will give up the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Esther reveals that Skimpole has been encouraging Richard, but Mr. Jarndyce can’t be angry because Skimpole is such a child. Esther also tells him that Skimpole introduced Richard to Vholes for five pounds, but Mr. Jarndyce is convinced Skimpole didn’t mean any harm. They go to London to visit Skimpole, who lives in a dingy apartment. He is happy to see them and seems characteristically childlike, which seems to be a relief to Mr. Jarndyce. He tells Skimpole that he mustn’t take money from Richard, but Skimpole says he can’t refuse. He says he thought Richard was rich. He also says he is unable to stop encouraging Richard in the lawsuit, since he understands nothing about it. Skimpole introduces them to his three daughters and his wife and prepares to go to Bleak House with the group.
Esther observes that she didn’t anticipate at this point that something very remarkable was going to happen by the end of the day.
Sir Leicester visits Bleak House unexpectedly. He tells Mr. Jarndyce, Esther, and Ada that he hopes that they are not under the impression that, because of his feud with Boythorn, they aren’t welcome at Chesney Wold. He says that Mrs. Rouncewell told him that a friend of theirs named Skimpole was prevented from seeing the family art. Mr. Jarndyce introduces him to Skimpole, who is in the room. Skimpole says he will visit again. Sir Leicester says he regrets if there was any confusion about their welcome at Chesney Wold, especially since Lady Dedlock respects Mr. Jarndyce.
Esther decides to tell Mr. Jarndyce her secret. She asks if he remembers Lady Dedlock speaking of her sister, and that the two women had parted ways. She asks why they separated, but Mr. Jarndyce claims not to know. But he asks if Esther knows that Boythorn’s old lover was Lady Dedlock’s sister. Esther responds that she hadn’t known this. Mr. Jarndyce tells her that this sister and Boythorn separated because of a quarrel she had with Lady Dedlock. She wrote Boythorn a letter saying she was dead to him, and he never saw her again.
Esther is overcome with grief because she believes that she has caused Boythorn’s heartbreak. She tells Mr. Jarndyce that the sister was her caretaker, and Lady Dedlock is her mother. Mr. Jarndyce comforts her and Esther is deeply grateful to him for his kindness, feeling that she can never repay him.
Mr. Jarndyce tells Esther that she must keep her secret and not tell anyone. Esther says that besides Tulkinghorn, she worries that Mr. Guppy and Mademoiselle Hortense may have suspicions. Before Esther leaves his room, Mr. Jarndyce says he has something to say to her, but that he would rather write it down in a letter. He also says that no matter what happens, he will never be changed from as he is right now.
On the agreed-upon day, Esther sends Charley to get the letter. Esther isn’t surprised that it’s a marriage proposal. She believes that this is a way for her to thank him and make him happy, and the letter makes her happy, but still she cries, feeling as though she has lost something. She tells herself that she must be cheerful from here on out, because she will be happy for the rest of her life. She then remembers Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers, which she burns in the candle.
A few days later, she tells Mr. Jarndyce she has decided to accept the proposal.
When Esther and Ada are walking in the garden, Esther sees Mr. Vholes and Richard enter Bleak House. Charley retrieves Esther and tells her to go to Mr. Jarndyce, who introduces her to Vholes. Vholes explains that Richard’s finances are a mess, and that Vholes can make no more advances. He hopes Richard won’t have to leave his commission. Vholes wanted to alert Mr. Jarndyce to Richard’s state of affairs.
Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther to try to help Richard, and she agrees to go to Deal, where Richard is stationed. Charley accompanies her, and Ada gives Esther a letter for Richard. Esther visits Richard without warning. He looks unhealthy and tired and admits that he’s having problems. He says he has left his commission, since he’s too much trouble to the authorities. He cares only for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit now and won’t let Esther protest. He reads Ada’s letter, in which she offers him a small inheritance. Richard is overcome with despair. He then becomes angry, certain that Mr. Jarndyce had ulterior motives for trying to separate him from Ada. He says he won’t accept Ada’s offer but trusts Vholes to keep moving forward with the suit. He listens to Esther’s pleas, but they do no good.
On her way back to the hotel, Esther sees a boat landing on the beach with many excited people gathered around it. Esther recognizes Mr. Woodcourt and rushes away. At the hotel, Esther chastises herself and writes a note letting him know that she is there. When Mr. Woodcourt visits her, Esther believes she can see how sorry he is for her because of her scarred face. Richard arrives, and he and Mr. Woodcourt converse. Later, Esther asks Mr. Woodcourt if he will befriend Richard and visit him frequently in London. She says she, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce will be very grateful. Mr. Woodcourt agrees.
Women wield a great deal of power in Bleak House, and one of the only instances of weakness occurs when Tulkinghorn convinces Lady Dedlock to stay at Chesney Wold in order to protect her secret. Excepting her emotional discovery of and reunion with her daughter, Lady Dedlock has always put on a haughty, implacable front. Society looks up to her, and she is the emblem of what a great lady is supposed to be. When Tulkinghorn makes it clear that he has the power to destroy her at any time, Lady Dedlock finds herself at someone else’s mercy for the first time. Tulkinghorn recognizes the shock this must be; indeed, when Lady Dedlock requests that they speak by the window, he worries that she plans to kill herself. Shortly after this scene, Mademoiselle Hortense attempts to wield her own power over Tulkinghorn. She, of a much lesser station than Lady Dedlock, isn’t so easily thwarted, and when Tulkinghorn threatens her, she threatens him right back. The fact that Lady Dedlock does give in to Tulkinghorn reveals the depths to which she has fallen, making the extent of her desperation clear.
Esther is the unwitting cause of many people’s unhappiness, which is ironic considering her selfless, generous nature. She is at the heart of Lady Dedlock’s secret, the source of much of her guilt, shame, and regret. She could easily bring about Lady Dedlock’s downfall, as well as Sir Leicester’s and the entire Dedlock clan. Because of Esther’s birth, the relationship between Lady Dedlock and her sister, Miss Barbary, was destroyed, as was the relationship between Miss Barbary and Mr. Boythorn. Esther, who wants nothing but happiness for those she loves, has indirectly brought about desperation and heartbreak. When she tells her secret to Mr. Jarndyce, she seems to half expect him to shun her for the havoc she passively wrought.
Although Mr. Jarndyce’s marriage proposal is rooted in love, it isn’t rooted in romantic love, a distinction that Esther feels intuitively but can’t quite articulate. The letter is full of affection and admiration, and the picture of her future life that Mr. Jarndyce paints for her is happy and peaceful, but Esther senses that something will still be missing. She tells herself she is happy with the proposal, but she does so while sobbing. Burning Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers seems to be her acknowledgment that her hope for romantic love, however small, must now be forgotten forever. Indeed, since Mr. Jarndyce has always been such a father figure for Esther that his marriage proposal instantly seems troubling, even inappropriate, and their relationship lurches into complicated new territory. She still calls him “guardian,” and she says her acceptance “made no difference.” She kisses him, but it seems devoid of passion, and as Esther’s narrative continues, things seem very much as they have always been. She may be the intended mistress of Bleak House, but at this point her position seems not to have changed at all.