Mr. Vholes, the unscrupulous lawyer, has got his hooks into Richard. Richard chafes with impatience at the dragging on of the Jarndyce case, and Vholes tells him to be patient. He demands twenty pounds, which Richard does not have. Weevle has occasion to observe Richard, and remarks to Guppy that Richard's case is a case of "smouldering" combustion -- making a grisly joke about the spontaneous combustion of Krook. It seems certain now that Richard is on a descent that cannot be reversed.
Guppy, though he has been charged by Esther not to pursue the matter, thinks that possibly Captain Hawdon's papers might have survived the fire. Smallweed has kept Krook's shop shut up, and is searching for things of value through the mounds of Krook's collected papers of a lifetime.
Tulkinghorn snidley questions Guppy about his association with Lady Dedlock, and Guppy, loyally, gives nothing away.
Chapter 40 concerns itself with the Parliamentary elections, which appear to be going more towards Mr. Rouncewell the ironmaster's way rather than Sir Leicester Dedlock's way. Cousin Volumnia, clumsily, tries to provide encouragement.
Tulkinghorn is present, and with an sadistic turn of mind decides to tell a story, without names, exactly paralleling the sad story of Esther, Lady Dedlock, and Captain Hawdon. As an added twist of the knife, Tulkinhorn adds, obliquely, the element that Lady Dedlock's pretty maid, Rosa, is being morally corrupted by being near her. Volumnnia is certain such a lady doesn't exist, and Sir Leicester seems uninterested. Lady Dedlock knows that she is completely in Tulkinghorn's power now.
It is later in the day when, in Chapter 41, Lady Dedlock confronts Tulkinghorn in his own room. She wants to know why Tulkinghorn would choose to tell the story publicly, and with her husband in the room. This was just Tulkinghorn's way of letting her know that he knew all. What transpires next is an intense scene between the two, where Lady Dedlock threatens to leave Chesney Wold immediately with only the clothes on her back and a little money.
Tulkinghorn, surprisingly, now shows that he does have some human feeling, if only for Sir Leicester's reputation rather than for Lady Dedlock's feelings. He does not wish to have Sir Leicester exposed -- at least not at this time. He will hold the secret over his lady's head, but he promises that he will tell her beforehand should he decide to reveal it.
Chapter 42 brings Tulkinghorn back to London, where he converses with Snagsby. Mr. Snagsby has been harassed by the discarded maid, Mademoiselle Hortense, who tries desperately to contact Tulkinghorn.
Hortense is resentful of Tulkinghorn, because he used her to gain information through Jo by the ruse of dressing in Hortense's clothing. She has not been given any consideration of a new position, though he had told her he would do so. He goes back on his promise (though, in a lawyerly fashion, he denies the letter of a promise, though he obviously intended Hortense to think that he was promising at the time) and threatens Hortense with jail. The woman leaves, vowing to hound Tulkinghorn forever.
The incredibly taut scene of Tulkinghorn telling Lady Dedlock's story to a room of her family and guests shows the nearly superhuman amount of self-control that Lady Dedlock has, and the nearly subhuman amount of humanity that Tulkinghorn has. He verbally tortures her, in front of the most sensitive of witnesses, apparently out of the joy of hurting her. He delights in secrets, and the power they give him over others. He has proved to be a misogynist, being unmarried himself: we recall his thoughts earlier in the novel that women cause most of the trouble in the world, but also make a lot of business for lawyers.
It really seems as if this might be the end for Lady Dedlock -- she is so determined to leave on the night of Tulkinghorn's revelation, and only the thought of hurting Sir Leicester so dreadfully keeps her back. She is getting to the point where she has less and less to lose, which makes her dangerous.
The equally sub-human Hortense arrives and demands retribution from Tulkinghorn, only to be rebuffed. She is seen as most tenacious and single-minded woman, who hates her former mistress and can only obtain employment for herself by squeezing others. Snagsby seems to be quite victimized by her.
Dickens stars throwing clues around willy-nilly at this point. Both Lady Dedlock and Hortense have reason to want Tulkinghorn dead, but does Sir Leicester actually know the secret, too? Tulkinghorn's death is foreshadowed, but it is still done skillfully enough to be unexpected.
There is a sharp satire of British political parties at the beginning of Chapter 42, which doesn't really add anything to the story. Like the call for legal reform that echoes throughout Bleak House, the sense in this political debate that the old, corrupted system might be giving way to a more enlightened and effective reform system resonates with the social, political, economic critique at the heart of the novel.