Mr. Snagsby owns a law stationer’s shop, which stocks all sorts of office and legal supplies, in Cook’s Court near Chancery. He is married to the niece of the original owner of the shop, a very thin woman with a sharp nose, and is a mild, overweight man whose wife often talks over him. He lingers in the doorway of his shop one evening, admiring the sky, and hears his wife shriek “like a shrill ghost in an unquiet grave,” while she rebukes their unhappy servant, Guster.
Mr. Snagsby is a placid, content man. His wife, in contrast, is a very frazzled, stressful woman, who seems to get easily worked up about things that bother her.
Guster has come to the Snagsbys’ from a workhouse and is a thin, unfortunate woman who is subject to seizures. When she is not ill, Guster is a hard worker and is popular with the apprentices in the shop as well as Mr. Snagsby himself. Mrs. Snagsby also appreciates Guster because she can take her anger out on her. Despite her mistress’s cruelty, Guster loves her work and loves the abundance of the little shop.
Workhouses were the first attempt at social housing for poor people in Britain. However, workhouses were notoriously corrupt, dismal places, making servitude seem like a luxury in comparison.
Mrs. Snagsby manages the money and business side of the shop. When they gossip among themselves, the neighbors say that she is a jealous woman and that Mr. Snagsby is henpecked and should stand up to her. Mr. Snagsby, however, is a gentle and thoughtful man and is happy to let his wife handle practical affairs while he spends his time daydreaming. As he stands in the doorway, he sees a crow fly across Chancery Lane.
In the 19th century, it was widely believed that men should be in charge of financial and business concerns, while women should be in charge of domestic ones. Although the neighbors assume that Mr. Snagsby dislikes this arrangement, he is quite happy to let his wife take charge of the business. Mrs. Snagsby is a very imaginative, energetic woman.
The crow flies towards Mr. Tulkinghorn’s house in Lincoln Inn’s Field. He lives in an apartment block occupied by many other lawyers and has a well-furnished and spacious residence. In his living room, a large Roman figure, who represents “Allegory,” is painted on the ceiling. Mr. Tulkinghorn splits his time between this apartment and the country houses of his wealthy clients, whose secrets he knows and conscientiously keeps. It is always impossible to tell what he is thinking. He does not employ clerks to copy his documents and only gives limited information to those who do anonymous work for him.
Mr. Tulkinghorn is like the crow because he is sinister and, as the novel later reveals, dresses all in black. The “Allegory” on Mr. Tulkinghorn’s ceiling both represents the mythological figure of “Allegory” and acts as an allegory throughout the novel. It points to a spot on the ground where Mr. Tulkinghorn’s eventual death will take place and, therefore, is a metaphor for and a representation of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s fate.
Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is in this room, seems to come to a decision about something. He tells his manservant that he is going out and makes his way to Mr. Snagsby’s. Guster fetches Mr. Snagsby, who appears with a slice of bread and butter in his hand, and he leads Mr. Tulkinghorn into a back room. Mr. Tulkinghorn wants to know who copied a piece of work, which refers to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and which was given out by Snagsby. Mr. Snagsby checks his book and finds that it was copied by a law writer known as “Nemo,” who lives nearby.
Mr. Tulkinghorn always has a purpose when he acts, because he considers every decision so carefully, but his motives are not always obvious to others. Mr. Tulkinghorn wants to know who wrote the document that he read to Sir Leicester and which Lady Dedlock enquired about; he suspects from her reaction that she recognized the handwriting. However, Nemo (“no one” in Latin) is clearly a fake name and does not tell Mr. Tulkinghorn much about the man’s identity.
Mrs. Snagsby lurks on the stairs, eager to discover what Mr. Snagsby is up to. Mr. Snagsby tries to sign to her that Mr. Tulkinghorn is an important client. Mr. Tulkinghorn asks where he can find Nemo, and Mr. Snagsby agrees to lead him to Krook’s shop, where Nemo lives. On the way, Mr. Snagsby tells Mr. Tulkinghorn that Nemo is rumored to be a strange fellow who works all night. When they arrive at the shop, Mr. Snagsby asks Mr. Tulkinghorn if he will go inside but Mr. Tulkinghorn says no, thanks Mr. Snagsby, and dismisses him.
Mrs. Snagsby is extremely suspicious and paranoid and, therefore, always wants to know what her husband is doing in case he is plotting against her. Nemo continues to be a mysterious figure and no one in the area seems to know much about him.
Mr. Tulkinghorn pretends to leave the street, but then turns back and enters Krook’s shop. Krook directs him to Nemo’s room and warns Mr. Tulkinghorn that Nemo is a wicked man who has sold his soul to the devil. Mr. Tulkinghorn proceeds upstairs and enters Nemo’s room. The air is sour inside, and Nemo lies on the bed, apparently asleep. Mr. Tulkinghorn calls his name, but Nemo does not wake up. Mr. Tulkinghorn notices the smell of opium in the air and the candle burns down and plunges the room into darkness. The windows over the bed gape in on the scene as Mr. Tulkinghorn tries to rouse the writer.
Mr. Tulkinghorn disguises his visit to Krook because he does not want Mr. Snagsby to know what he is up to, even if this information is inconsequential. He is an extremely careful man and gives nothing away unintentionally. Opium was a common recreational drug during this period. The room is given a personality—the windows like eyes—making it seem like the room itself is horrified by the squalor and destitution which Nemo lives in.