They appear to take as little note of one another, as any two people, enclosed within the same walls, could. But whether each evermore watches and suspects the other, evermore mistrustful of some great reservation; whether each is evermore prepared at all points for the other, and never to be taken unawares; what each would give to know how much the other knows—all this is hidden, for the time, in their own hearts.

In this passage, which concludes chapter 12, “On the Watch,” the narrator describes the uneasy relationship between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn. Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester’s lawyer, is a frequent visitor at Chesney Wold, and he is accustomed to Lady Dedlock’s haughty, constant boredom and lack of interest in everyone and everything around her. When Lady Dedlock’s interest is piqued by a handwritten document Tulkinghorn brought over one night, he investigates who the writer was and finds him to be a destitute, nameless stranger who had died in his lodgings. Tulkinghorn makes no connection between this stranger and Lady Dedlock, and, when he tells her what he found, she seems to care for the story only as a momentary escape from her endless boredom. The whole incident seems unremarkable and unimportant. However, the narrator lets us know that there is something going on when, in this quotation, he describes the watchful tension between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock.

When the narrator refers to the questions that are “hidden . . . in their own hearts,” he reveals one of the most important motifs of the novel: secrets. Secrets are everywhere in Bleak House, and the concern Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn share—of who knows what—will drive much of the action. Characters go to great lengths to keep their secrets hidden. As this quotation reveals, Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock successfully disguise their watchfulness of each other as indifference; the only reason we know they are watchful is that the narrator tells us. Simply observing their interactions doesn’t reveal much. This quotation is significant because it alerts us that there is a lot going on beneath the surface of this genteel, rigidly structured world.