George looks at a letter, confused by it. He calls Phil over and reads him the letter. It is from Mr. Smallweed, declaring that the debts Mr. Bagnet owes George will be due tomorrow. The Bagnets soon appear at the gallery and are alarmed that they may be ruined, but George assures them he’ll take care of it. George wonders if someone would buy the shooting gallery. He and Mr. Bagnet set out to visit Mr. Smallweed. On the way there, Mr. Bagnet talks about his wife’s many virtues.
Mr. Smallweed asks Judy to bring the pipe, but George says he doesn’t want to smoke it. George refers to the understanding that he has always had with Mr. Smallweed and reminds him that Mr. Bagnet doesn’t have any money. George asks Mr. Smallweed to explain the understanding to Mr. Bagnet, but Mr. Smallweed smashes the pipe on the floor and says he will destroy George. He tells him to go to his lawyer.
George and Mr. Bagnet visit Tulkinghorn. A client comes out: it is Mrs. Rouncewell. She greets them, saying that she once had a son who became a soldier. Tulkinghorn tells the men they must pay the money and that there’s no other option. George asks to speak privately with Tulkinghorn. He says that he will provide the handwriting sample Tulkinghorn had requested if he’ll let the Bagnets off the hook. Tulkinghorn says that if he leaves the writing, the Bagnets will never again be bothered about this matter, and that all will be as it once was. George gives him the writing—a “letter of instructions.”
Later, at dinner at the Bagnets’ house, George is despondent. He tells the Bagnets’ son, Woolwich, to value his mother and never to be responsible for turning her hair white. He says that Woolwich should have this to think of when he is a man.
Esther tells us that she was sick for many weeks but doesn’t want to talk about it much. At one point, she knew she would see again. Ada had tried to visit her, but Charley forbade her in accordance with Esther’s instructions. As Esther’s sight returns, she reads letters from Ada and feels happy in the quiet house. She begins growing stronger and eventually sits up in bed. She notices the tidiness of the room but also notices that Charley has removed the mirror. When she delicately mentions this to Charley, Charley begins sobbing. Esther reassures Charley that she will be fine even without her old face.
When Mr. Jarndyce visits her, he is overcome with relief and affection, despite her changed face. He tells her how miserable he and Ada were without her and that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit has changed Richard. Richard now suspects Mr. Jarndyce of having conflicting interests. Mr. Jarndyce and Esther hope Richard will come to his senses.
Esther requests to stay in a country home for a week before seeing Ada. Mr. Jarndyce says Boythorn has already offered his house. He also says that Miss Flite is determined to visit her, and they arrange a time for her to come.
Miss Flite is overcome with happiness to see Esther, and she borrows a handkerchief to wipe her eyes. She then says that a poor woman—Charley identifies her as Jenny—followed her and Charley from the coach and said that a woman in a veil had been at the cottage, asking after Esther. This woman took a handkerchief from Jenny that had belonged to Esther. Charley tells Esther that she had left the handkerchief there when Jenny’s baby died. Miss Flite speculates that the woman is the lord chancellor’s wife. Esther suspects it is Caddy Jellyby.
Miss Flite tells Esther that she still expects a judgment from Jarndyce and Jarndyce, just as all her relatives had before they died. She warns Esther that someone must rescue Richard from it.
Miss Flite then tells Esther that her wonderful doctor, Mr. Woodcourt, has been very kind to her. Esther says Mr. Woodcourt is far away, and Miss Flite fills her in on what has happened. There was a shipwreck, but Mr. Woodcourt survived and heroically saved lives.
Esther then confesses a secret: she thinks Mr. Woodcourt once loved her and that she would have been happy if he’d told her. But she is relieved that he doesn’t have to be with her now, since her face is so changed. There is no need to release him from any obligation, because there never was an obligation.
The idea of contagious illnesses appears twice in Bleak House: the smallpox that Jo, Charley, and Esther suffer from, as well as the contagious fervor of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, of which Richard is the latest victim. Both Esther and Richard are irrevocably changed by their illnesses. Although Esther survives her smallpox, she suffers greatly—even going temporarily blind—and emerges with a scarred face. Her appearance is so altered that Charley removes all the mirrors from her rooms, and for several chapters Esther doesn’t attempt to see what she looks like. Although she puts up her usual strong front and resists the urge to indulge in self-pity, the very absence of any melancholy wallowing in her narrative is itself evidence of her sadness. For his part, Richard has ceased to be the loving, warm young man Mr. Jarndyce, Esther, and Ada know and love. Instead, his passion for Jarndyce and Jarndyce has made him suspicious, angry, and distant. Esther knows that she’ll never be beautiful again, but she retains the hope that Richard will see the error of his ways.
The complicated financial arrangement between George, Mr. Smallweed, and the Bagnets, which is nearly impossible to understand, reflects both the tangled web of Jarndyce and Jarndyce as well as the interconnecting threads of the novel’s many storylines. We have the facts, or what seem to be the facts: George once borrowed money from Mr. Bagnet to buy his shooting gallery; Mr. Bagnet borrowed this money from Mr. Smallweed with the understanding that George would repay it; and Mr. Smallweed, generally willing to collect interest instead of demanding repayment, is now demanding payment in full because he’s upset that George wouldn’t provide the lodger’s handwriting. The vaguer aspects of this situation include the many references to the “arrangement” George has with Mr. Smallweed; Mr. Smallweed’s “friend in the city,” who may be Richard or who may be no one at all; and George’s deep devotion to the Bagnets. Dickens does not spend much time elaborating on every element of this messy grouping, and a full understanding of the particulars isn’t the point. Instead, we get a clear sense that characters are linked to each other in complicated ways, that loyalties can be tested, and that motivations are not always what they seem. The shadowy dealings of Mr. Smallweed and George’s growing desperation add more sinister tones to the developing plot.
Esther’s confession about Mr. Woodcourt at the end of chapter 35 isn’t a complete surprise, but it is remarkable in that it reveals the skill and agility of Esther’s storytelling. Although Esther had dropped hints earlier in her narrative about her feelings for Mr. Woodcourt, confirming those feelings here—at the moment when she knows she is no longer beautiful—heightens the emotional effect. Now we understand, in part, why she never revealed her feelings before—as the narrator, she knew that she would get smallpox and indulging in romantic speculations and digressions may therefore have been painful or even irrelevant to her. Only at this point, when discussing Mr. Woodcourt’s heroics and return does Esther finally reveal that he may have loved her. This confession threatens to be egotistical, since she has just been told what a valiant hero Mr. Woodcourt is. However, the twist to her confession—that she is happy he never told her his feelings—stops it from being so. Instead, Esther reveals that she is glad she would not have to be a “chain” for him to “drag,” assuming he would never love her in her changed state. This assumption, and her selfless relief that Mr. Woodcourt is free, are moving, even more so because Esther states her case so briefly and simply, almost as a reluctant afterthought.