THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD
By Charles Dickens
An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect. What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in number and attendants. Still the Cathedral Tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility.
Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court. He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed, upon a bedstead that has indeed given way under the weight upon it. Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, to kindle it. And as she blows, and shading it with her lean hand, concentrates its red spark of light, it serves in the dim morning as a lamp to show him what he sees of her.
‘Another?’ says this woman, in a querulous, rattling whisper. ‘Have another?’
He looks about him, with his hand to his forehead.
‘Ye’ve smoked as many as five since ye come in at midnight,’ the woman goes on, as she chronically complains. ‘Poor me, poor me, my head is so bad. Them two come in after ye. Ah, poor me, the business is slack, is slack! Few Chinamen about the Docks, and fewer Lascars, and no ships coming in, these say! Here’s another ready for ye, deary. Ye’ll remember like a good soul, won’t ye, that the market price is dreffle high just now? More nor three shillings and sixpence for a thimbleful! And ye’ll remember that nobody but me (and Jack Chinaman t’other side the court; but he can’t do it as well as me) has the true secret of mixing it? Ye’ll pay up accordingly, deary, won’t ye?’
She blows at the pipe as she speaks, and, occasionally bubbling at it, inhales much of its contents.
‘O me, O me, my lungs is weak, my lungs is bad! It’s nearly ready for ye, deary. Ah, poor me, poor me, my poor hand shakes like to drop off! I see ye coming-to, and I ses to my poor self, “I’ll have another ready for him, and he’ll bear in mind the market price of opium, and pay according.” O my poor head! I makes my pipes of old penny ink-bottles, ye see, deary—this is one—and I fits-in a mouthpiece, this way, and I takes my mixter out of this thimble with this little horn spoon; and so I fills, deary. Ah, my poor nerves! I got Heavens-hard drunk for sixteen year afore I took to this; but this don’t hurt me, not to speak of. And it takes away the hunger as well as wittles, deary.’
She hands him the nearly-emptied pipe, and sinks back, turning over on her face.
He rises unsteadily from the bed, lays the pipe upon the hearth-stone, draws back the ragged curtain, and looks with repugnance at his three companions. He notices that the woman has opium-smoked herself into a strange likeness of the Chinaman. His form of cheek, eye, and temple, and his colour, are repeated in her. Said Chinaman convulsively wrestles with one of his many Gods or Devils, perhaps, and snarls horribly. The Lascar laughs and dribbles at the mouth. The hostess is still.
[Picture: In the Court]
‘What visions can she have?’ the waking man muses, as he turns her face towards him, and stands looking down at it. ‘Visions of many butchers’ shops, and public-houses, and much credit? Of an increase of hideous customers, and this horrible bedstead set upright again, and this horrible court swept clean? What can she rise to, under any quantity of opium, higher than that!—Eh?’
He bends down his ear, to listen to her mutterings.
As he watches the spasmodic shoots and darts that break out of her face and limbs, like fitful lightning out of a dark sky, some contagion in them seizes upon him: insomuch that he has to withdraw himself to a lean arm-chair by the hearth—placed there, perhaps, for such emergencies—and to sit in it, holding tight, until he has got the better of this unclean spirit of imitation.
Then he comes back, pounces on the Chinaman, and seizing him with both hands by the throat, turns him violently on the bed. The Chinaman clutches the aggressive hands, resists, gasps, and protests.
‘What do you say?’
A watchful pause.
Slowly loosening his grasp as he listens to the incoherent jargon with an attentive frown, he turns to the Lascar and fairly drags him forth upon the floor. As he falls, the Lascar starts into a half-risen attitude, glares with his eyes, lashes about him fiercely with his arms, and draws a phantom knife. It then becomes apparent that the woman has taken possession of this knife, for safety’s sake; for, she too starting up, and restraining and expostulating with him, the knife is visible in her dress, not in his, when they drowsily drop back, side by side.
There has been chattering and clattering enough between them, but to no purpose. When any distinct word has been flung into the air, it has had no sense or sequence. Wherefore ‘unintelligible!’ is again the comment of the watcher, made with some reassured nodding of his head, and a gloomy smile. He then lays certain silver money on the table, finds his hat, gropes his way down the broken stairs, gives a good morning to some rat-ridden doorkeeper, in bed in a black hutch beneath the stairs, and passes out.
* * * * *
That same afternoon, the massive gray square tower of an old Cathedral rises before the sight of a jaded traveller. The bells are going for daily vesper service, and he must needs attend it, one would say, from his haste to reach the open Cathedral door. The choir are getting on their sullied white robes, in a hurry, when he arrives among them, gets on his own robe, and falls into the procession filing in to service. Then, the Sacristan locks the iron-barred gates that divide the sanctuary from the chancel, and all of the procession having scuttled into their places, hide their faces; and then the intoned words, ‘WHEN THE WICKED MAN—’ rise among groins of arches and beams of roof, awakening muttered thunder.
A DEAN, AND A CHAPTER ALSO
Whosoever has observed that sedate and clerical bird, the rook, may perhaps have noticed that when he wings his way homeward towards nightfall, in a sedate and clerical company, two rooks will suddenly detach themselves from the rest, will retrace their flight for some distance, and will there poise and linger; conveying to mere men the fancy that it is of some occult importance to the body politic, that this artful couple should pretend to have renounced connection with it.
Similarly, service being over in the old Cathedral with the square tower, and the choir scuffling out again, and divers venerable persons of rook-like aspect dispersing, two of these latter retrace their steps, and walk together in the echoing Close.
Not only is the day waning, but the year. The low sun is fiery and yet cold behind the monastery ruin, and the Virginia creeper on the Cathedral wall has showered half its deep-red leaves down on the pavement. There has been rain this afternoon, and a wintry shudder goes among the little pools on the cracked, uneven flag-stones, and through the giant elm-trees as they shed a gust of tears. Their fallen leaves lie strewn thickly about. Some of these leaves, in a timid rush, seek sanctuary within the low arched Cathedral door; but two men coming out resist them, and cast them forth again with their feet; this done, one of the two locks the door with a goodly key, and the other flits away with a folio music-book.
‘Mr. Jasper was that, Tope?’
‘Yes, Mr. Dean.’
‘He has stayed late.’
‘Yes, Mr. Dean. I have stayed for him, your Reverence. He has been took a little poorly.’
‘Say “taken,” Tope—to the Dean,’ the younger rook interposes in a low tone with this touch of correction, as who should say: ‘You may offer bad grammar to the laity, or the humbler clergy, not to the Dean.’
Mr. Tope, Chief Verger and Showman, and accustomed to be high with excursion parties, declines with a silent loftiness to perceive that any suggestion has been tendered to him.
‘And when and how has Mr. Jasper been taken—for, as Mr. Crisparkle has remarked, it is better to say taken—taken—’ repeats the Dean; ‘when and how has Mr. Jasper been Taken—’
‘Taken, sir,’ Tope deferentially murmurs.
‘Why, sir, Mr. Jasper was that breathed—’
‘I wouldn’t say “That breathed,” Tope,’ Mr. Crisparkle interposes with the same touch as before. ‘Not English—to the Dean.’
‘Breathed to that extent,’ the Dean (not unflattered by this indirect homage) condescendingly remarks, ‘would be preferable.’
‘Mr. Jasper’s breathing was so remarkably short’—thus discreetly does Mr. Tope work his way round the sunken rock—‘when he came in, that it distressed him mightily to get his notes out: which was perhaps the cause of his having a kind of fit on him after a little. His memory grew DAZED.’ Mr. Tope, with his eyes on the Reverend Mr. Crisparkle, shoots this word out, as defying him to improve upon it: ‘and a dimness and giddiness crept over him as strange as ever I saw: though he didn’t seem to mind it particularly, himself. However, a little time and a little water brought him out of his DAZE.’ Mr. Tope repeats the word and its emphasis, with the air of saying: ‘As I have made a success, I’ll make it again.’
‘And Mr. Jasper has gone home quite himself, has he?’ asked the Dean.
‘Your Reverence, he has gone home quite himself. And I’m glad to see he’s having his fire kindled up, for it’s chilly after the wet, and the Cathedral had both a damp feel and a damp touch this afternoon, and he was very shivery.’
They all three look towards an old stone gatehouse crossing the Close, with an arched thoroughfare passing beneath it. Through its latticed window, a fire shines out upon the fast-darkening scene, involving in shadow the pendent masses of ivy and creeper covering the building’s front. As the deep Cathedral-bell strikes the hour, a ripple of wind goes through these at their distance, like a ripple of the solemn sound that hums through tomb and tower, broken niche and defaced statue, in the pile close at hand.
‘Is Mr. Jasper’s nephew with him?’ the Dean asks.
‘No, sir,’ replied the Verger, ‘but expected. There’s his own solitary shadow betwixt his two windows—the one looking this way, and the one looking down into the High Street—drawing his own curtains now.’
‘Well, well,’ says the Dean, with a sprightly air of breaking up the little conference, ‘I hope Mr. Jasper’s heart may not be too much set upon his nephew. Our affections, however laudable, in this transitory world, should never master us; we should guide them, guide them. I find I am not disagreeably reminded of my dinner, by hearing my dinner-bell. Perhaps, Mr. Crisparkle, you will, before going home, look in on Jasper?’
‘Certainly, Mr. Dean. And tell him that you had the kindness to desire to know how he was?’
‘Ay; do so, do so. Certainly. Wished to know how he was. By all means. Wished to know how he was.’
With a pleasant air of patronage, the Dean as nearly cocks his quaint hat as a Dean in good spirits may, and directs his comely gaiters towards the ruddy dining-room of the snug old red-brick house where he is at present, ‘in residence’ with Mrs. Dean and Miss Dean.
Mr. Crisparkle, Minor Canon, fair and rosy, and perpetually pitching himself head-foremost into all the deep running water in the surrounding country; Mr. Crisparkle, Minor Canon, early riser, musical, classical, cheerful, kind, good-natured, social, contented, and boy-like; Mr. Crisparkle, Minor Canon and good man, lately ‘Coach’ upon the chief Pagan high roads, but since promoted by a patron (grateful for a well-taught son) to his present Christian beat; betakes himself to the gatehouse, on his way home to his early tea.
‘Sorry to hear from Tope that you have not been well, Jasper.’
‘O, it was nothing, nothing!’
‘You look a little worn.’
‘Do I? O, I don’t think so. What is better, I don’t feel so. Tope has made too much of it, I suspect. It’s his trade to make the most of everything appertaining to the Cathedral, you know.’
‘I may tell the Dean—I call expressly from the Dean—that you are all right again?’
The reply, with a slight smile, is: ‘Certainly; with my respects and thanks to the Dean.’
‘I’m glad to hear that you expect young Drood.’
‘I expect the dear fellow every moment.’
‘Ah! He will do you more good than a doctor, Jasper.’
‘More good than a dozen doctors. For I love him dearly, and I don’t love doctors, or doctors’ stuff.’
Mr. Jasper is a dark man of some six-and-twenty, with thick, lustrous, well-arranged black hair and whiskers. He looks older than he is, as dark men often do. His voice is deep and good, his face and figure are good, his manner is a little sombre. His room is a little sombre, and may have had its influence in forming his manner. It is mostly in shadow. Even when the sun shines brilliantly, it seldom touches the grand piano in the recess, or the folio music-books on the stand, or the book-shelves on the wall, or the unfinished picture of a blooming schoolgirl hanging over the chimneypiece; her flowing brown hair tied with a blue riband, and her beauty remarkable for a quite childish, almost babyish, touch of saucy discontent, comically conscious of itself. (There is not the least artistic merit in this picture, which is a mere daub; but it is clear that the painter has made it humorously—one might almost say, revengefully—like the original.)
‘We shall miss you, Jasper, at the “Alternate Musical Wednesdays” to-night; but no doubt you are best at home. Good-night. God bless you! “Tell me, shep-herds, te-e-ell me; tell me-e-e, have you seen (have you seen, have you seen, have you seen) my-y-y Flo-o-ora-a pass this way!”’ Melodiously good Minor Canon the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle thus delivers himself, in musical rhythm, as he withdraws his amiable face from the doorway and conveys it down-stairs.
Sounds of recognition and greeting pass between the Reverend Septimus and somebody else, at the stair-foot. Mr. Jasper listens, starts from his chair, and catches a young fellow in his arms, exclaiming:
‘My dear Edwin!’
‘My dear Jack! So glad to see you!’
‘Get off your greatcoat, bright boy, and sit down here in your own corner. Your feet are not wet? Pull your boots off. Do pull your boots off.’
‘My dear Jack, I am as dry as a bone. Don’t moddley-coddley, there’s a good fellow. I like anything better than being moddley-coddleyed.’
With the check upon him of being unsympathetically restrained in a genial outburst of enthusiasm, Mr. Jasper stands still, and looks on intently at the young fellow, divesting himself of his outward coat, hat, gloves, and so forth. Once for all, a look of intentness and intensity—a look of hungry, exacting, watchful, and yet devoted affection—is always, now and ever afterwards, on the Jasper face whenever the Jasper face is addressed in this direction. And whenever it is so addressed, it is never, on this occasion or on any other, dividedly addressed; it is always concentrated.
‘Now I am right, and now I’ll take my corner, Jack. Any dinner, Jack?’
Mr. Jasper opens a door at the upper end of the room, and discloses a small inner room pleasantly lighted and prepared, wherein a comely dame is in the act of setting dishes on table.
‘What a jolly old Jack it is!’ cries the young fellow, with a clap of his hands. ‘Look here, Jack; tell me; whose birthday is it?’
‘Not yours, I know,’ Mr. Jasper answers, pausing to consider.
‘Not mine, you know? No; not mine, I know! Pussy’s!’
Fixed as the look the young fellow meets, is, there is yet in it some strange power of suddenly including the sketch over the chimneypiece.
‘Pussy’s, Jack! We must drink Many happy returns to her. Come, uncle; take your dutiful and sharp-set nephew in to dinner.’
As the boy (for he is little more) lays a hand on Jasper’s shoulder, Jasper cordially and gaily lays a hand on his shoulder, and so Marseillaise-wise they go in to dinner.
‘And, Lord! here’s Mrs. Tope!’ cries the boy. ‘Lovelier than ever!’
‘Never you mind me, Master Edwin,’ retorts the Verger’s wife; ‘I can take care of myself.’
‘You can’t. You’re much too handsome. Give me a kiss because it’s Pussy’s birthday.’
‘I’d Pussy you, young man, if I was Pussy, as you call her,’ Mrs. Tope blushingly retorts, after being saluted. ‘Your uncle’s too much wrapt up in you, that’s where it is. He makes so much of you, that it’s my opinion you think you’ve only to call your Pussys by the dozen, to make ’em come.’
‘You forget, Mrs. Tope,’ Mr. Jasper interposes, taking his place at the table with a genial smile, ‘and so do you, Ned, that Uncle and Nephew are words prohibited here by common consent and express agreement. For what we are going to receive His holy name be praised!’
‘Done like the Dean! Witness, Edwin Drood! Please to carve, Jack, for I can’t.’
This sally ushers in the dinner. Little to the present purpose, or to any purpose, is said, while it is in course of being disposed of. At length the cloth is drawn, and a dish of walnuts and a decanter of rich-coloured sherry are placed upon the table.
‘I say! Tell me, Jack,’ the young fellow then flows on: ‘do you really and truly feel as if the mention of our relationship divided us at all? I don’t.’
‘Uncles as a rule, Ned, are so much older than their nephews,’ is the reply, ‘that I have that feeling instinctively.’
‘As a rule! Ah, may-be! But what is a difference in age of half-a-dozen years or so? And some uncles, in large families, are even younger than their nephews. By George, I wish it was the case with us!’
‘Because if it was, I’d take the lead with you, Jack, and be as wise as Begone, dull Care! that turned a young man gray, and Begone, dull Care! that turned an old man to clay.—Halloa, Jack! Don’t drink.’
‘Asks why not, on Pussy’s birthday, and no Happy returns proposed! Pussy, Jack, and many of ’em! Happy returns, I mean.’
Laying an affectionate and laughing touch on the boy’s extended hand, as if it were at once his giddy head and his light heart, Mr. Jasper drinks the toast in silence.
‘Hip, hip, hip, and nine times nine, and one to finish with, and all that, understood. Hooray, hooray, hooray!—And now, Jack, let’s have a little talk about Pussy. Two pairs of nut-crackers? Pass me one, and take the other.’ Crack. ‘How’s Pussy getting on Jack?’
‘With her music? Fairly.’
‘What a dreadfully conscientious fellow you are, Jack! But I know, Lord bless you! Inattentive, isn’t she?’
‘She can learn anything, if she will.’
‘If she will! Egad, that’s it. But if she won’t?’
Crack!—on Mr. Jasper’s part.
‘How’s she looking, Jack?’
Mr. Jasper’s concentrated face again includes the portrait as he returns: ‘Very like your sketch indeed.’
‘I am a little proud of it,’ says the young fellow, glancing up at the sketch with complacency, and then shutting one eye, and taking a corrected prospect of it over a level bridge of nut-crackers in the air: ‘Not badly hit off from memory. But I ought to have caught that expression pretty well, for I have seen it often enough.’
Crack!—on Edwin Drood’s part.
Crack!—on Mr. Jasper’s part.
‘In point of fact,’ the former resumes, after some silent dipping among his fragments of walnut with an air of pique, ‘I see it whenever I go to see Pussy. If I don’t find it on her face, I leave it there.—You know I do, Miss Scornful Pert. Booh!’ With a twirl of the nut-crackers at the portrait.
Crack! crack! crack. Slowly, on Mr. Jasper’s part.
Crack. Sharply on the part of Edwin Drood.
Silence on both sides.
‘Have you lost your tongue, Jack?’
‘Have you found yours, Ned?’
‘No, but really;—isn’t it, you know, after all—’
Mr. Jasper lifts his dark eyebrows inquiringly.
‘Isn’t it unsatisfactory to be cut off from choice in such a matter? There, Jack! I tell you! If I could choose, I would choose Pussy from all the pretty girls in the world.’
‘But you have not got to choose.’
‘That’s what I complain of. My dead and gone father and Pussy’s dead and gone father must needs marry us together by anticipation. Why the—Devil, I was going to say, if it had been respectful to their memory—couldn’t they leave us alone?’
‘Tut, tut, dear boy,’ Mr. Jasper remonstrates, in a tone of gentle deprecation.
‘Tut, tut? Yes, Jack, it’s all very well for you. You can take it easily. Your life is not laid down to scale, and lined and dotted out for you, like a surveyor’s plan. You have no uncomfortable suspicion that you are forced upon anybody, nor has anybody an uncomfortable suspicion that she is forced upon you, or that you are forced upon her. You can choose for yourself. Life, for you, is a plum with the natural bloom on; it hasn’t been over-carefully wiped off for you—’
‘Don’t stop, dear fellow. Go on.’
‘Can I anyhow have hurt your feelings, Jack?’
‘How can you have hurt my feelings?’
‘Good Heaven, Jack, you look frightfully ill! There’s a strange film come over your eyes.’
Mr. Jasper, with a forced smile, stretches out his right hand, as if at once to disarm apprehension and gain time to get better. After a while he says faintly:
‘I have been taking opium for a pain—an agony—that sometimes overcomes me. The effects of the medicine steal over me like a blight or a cloud, and pass. You see them in the act of passing; they will be gone directly. Look away from me. They will go all the sooner.’
With a scared face the younger man complies by casting his eyes downward at the ashes on the hearth. Not relaxing his own gaze on the fire, but rather strengthening it with a fierce, firm grip upon his elbow-chair, the elder sits for a few moments rigid, and then, with thick drops standing on his forehead, and a sharp catch of his breath, becomes as he was before. On his so subsiding in his chair, his nephew gently and assiduously tends him while he quite recovers. When Jasper is restored, he lays a tender hand upon his nephew’s shoulder, and, in a tone of voice less troubled than the purport of his words—indeed with something of raillery or banter in it—thus addresses him:
‘There is said to be a hidden skeleton in every house; but you thought there was none in mine, dear Ned.’
‘Upon my life, Jack, I did think so. However, when I come to consider that even in Pussy’s house—if she had one—and in mine—if I had one—’
‘You were going to say (but that I interrupted you in spite of myself) what a quiet life mine is. No whirl and uproar around me, no distracting commerce or calculation, no risk, no change of place, myself devoted to the art I pursue, my business my pleasure.’
‘I really was going to say something of the kind, Jack; but you see, you, speaking of yourself, almost necessarily leave out much that I should have put in. For instance: I should have put in the foreground your being so much respected as Lay Precentor, or Lay Clerk, or whatever you call it, of this Cathedral; your enjoying the reputation of having done such wonders with the choir; your choosing your society, and holding such an independent position in this queer old place; your gift of teaching (why, even Pussy, who don’t like being taught, says there never was such a Master as you are!), and your connexion.’
‘Yes; I saw what you were tending to. I hate it.’
‘Hate it, Jack?’ (Much bewildered.)
‘I hate it. The cramped monotony of my existence grinds me away by the grain. How does our service sound to you?’
‘Beautiful! Quite celestial!’
‘It often sounds to me quite devilish. I am so weary of it. The echoes of my own voice among the arches seem to mock me with my daily drudging round. No wretched monk who droned his life away in that gloomy place, before me, can have been more tired of it than I am. He could take for relief (and did take) to carving demons out of the stalls and seats and desks. What shall I do? Must I take to carving them out of my heart?’
‘I thought you had so exactly found your niche in life, Jack,’ Edwin Drood returns, astonished, bending forward in his chair to lay a sympathetic hand on Jasper’s knee, and looking at him with an anxious face.
‘I know you thought so. They all think so.’
‘Well, I suppose they do,’ says Edwin, meditating aloud. ‘Pussy thinks so.’
‘When did she tell you that?’
‘The last time I was here. You remember when. Three months ago.’
‘How did she phrase it?’
‘O, she only said that she had become your pupil, and that you were made for your vocation.’
The younger man glances at the portrait. The elder sees it in him.
‘Anyhow, my dear Ned,’ Jasper resumes, as he shakes his head with a grave cheerfulness, ‘I must subdue myself to my vocation: which is much the same thing outwardly. It’s too late to find another now. This is a confidence between us.’
‘It shall be sacredly preserved, Jack.’
‘I have reposed it in you, because—’
‘I feel it, I assure you. Because we are fast friends, and because you love and trust me, as I love and trust you. Both hands, Jack.’
As each stands looking into the other’s eyes, and as the uncle holds the nephew’s hands, the uncle thus proceeds:
‘You know now, don’t you, that even a poor monotonous chorister and grinder of music—in his niche—may be troubled with some stray sort of ambition, aspiration, restlessness, dissatisfaction, what shall we call it?’
‘Yes, dear Jack.’
‘And you will remember?’
‘My dear Jack, I only ask you, am I likely to forget what you have said with so much feeling?’
‘Take it as a warning, then.’
In the act of having his hands released, and of moving a step back, Edwin pauses for an instant to consider the application of these last words. The instant over, he says, sensibly touched:
‘I am afraid I am but a shallow, surface kind of fellow, Jack, and that my headpiece is none of the best. But I needn’t say I am young; and perhaps I shall not grow worse as I grow older. At all events, I hope I have something impressible within me, which feels—deeply feels—the disinterestedness of your painfully laying your inner self bare, as a warning to me.’
Mr. Jasper’s steadiness of face and figure becomes so marvellous that his breathing seems to have stopped.
‘I couldn’t fail to notice, Jack, that it cost you a great effort, and that you were very much moved, and very unlike your usual self. Of course I knew that you were extremely fond of me, but I really was not prepared for your, as I may say, sacrificing yourself to me in that way.’
Mr. Jasper, becoming a breathing man again without the smallest stage of transition between the two extreme states, lifts his shoulders, laughs, and waves his right arm.
‘No; don’t put the sentiment away, Jack; please don’t; for I am very much in earnest. I have no doubt that that unhealthy state of mind which you have so powerfully described is attended with some real suffering, and is hard to bear. But let me reassure you, Jack, as to the chances of its overcoming me. I don’t think I am in the way of it. In some few months less than another year, you know, I shall carry Pussy off from school as Mrs. Edwin Drood. I shall then go engineering into the East, and Pussy with me. And although we have our little tiffs now, arising out of a certain unavoidable flatness that attends our love-making, owing to its end being all settled beforehand, still I have no doubt of our getting on capitally then, when it’s done and can’t be helped. In short, Jack, to go back to the old song I was freely quoting at dinner (and who knows old songs better than you?), my wife shall dance, and I will sing, so merrily pass the day. Of Pussy’s being beautiful there cannot be a doubt;—and when you are good besides, Little Miss Impudence,’ once more apostrophising the portrait, ‘I’ll burn your comic likeness, and paint your music-master another.’
Mr. Jasper, with his hand to his chin, and with an expression of musing benevolence on his face, has attentively watched every animated look and gesture attending the delivery of these words. He remains in that attitude after they, are spoken, as if in a kind of fascination attendant on his strong interest in the youthful spirit that he loves so well. Then he says with a quiet smile:
‘You won’t be warned, then?’
‘You can’t be warned, then?’
‘No, Jack, not by you. Besides that I don’t really consider myself in danger, I don’t like your putting yourself in that position.’
‘Shall we go and walk in the churchyard?’
‘By all means. You won’t mind my slipping out of it for half a moment to the Nuns’ House, and leaving a parcel there? Only gloves for Pussy; as many pairs of gloves as she is years old to-day. Rather poetical, Jack?’
Mr. Jasper, still in the same attitude, murmurs: ‘“Nothing half so sweet in life,” Ned!’
‘Here’s the parcel in my greatcoat-pocket. They must be presented to-night, or the poetry is gone. It’s against regulations for me to call at night, but not to leave a packet. I am ready, Jack!’
Mr. Jasper dissolves his attitude, and they go out together.
THE NUNS’ HOUSE
For sufficient reasons, which this narrative will itself unfold as it advances, a fictitious name must be bestowed upon the old Cathedral town. Let it stand in these pages as Cloisterham. It was once possibly known to the Druids by another name, and certainly to the Romans by another, and to the Saxons by another, and to the Normans by another; and a name more or less in the course of many centuries can be of little moment to its dusty chronicles.
An ancient city, Cloisterham, and no meet dwelling-place for any one with hankerings after the noisy world. A monotonous, silent city, deriving an earthy flavour throughout from its Cathedral crypt, and so abounding in vestiges of monastic graves, that the Cloisterham children grow small salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses, and make dirt-pies of nuns and friars; while every ploughman in its outlying fields renders to once puissant Lord Treasurers, Archbishops, Bishops, and such-like, the attention which the Ogre in the story-book desired to render to his unbidden visitor, and grinds their bones to make his bread.
A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity. So silent are the streets of Cloisterham (though prone to echo on the smallest provocation), that of a summer-day the sunblinds of its shops scarce dare to flap in the south wind; while the sun-browned tramps, who pass along and stare, quicken their limp a little, that they may the sooner get beyond the confines of its oppressive respectability. This is a feat not difficult of achievement, seeing that the streets of Cloisterham city are little more than one narrow street by which you get into it and get out of it: the rest being mostly disappointing yards with pumps in them and no thoroughfare—exception made of the Cathedral-close, and a paved Quaker settlement, in colour and general confirmation very like a Quakeress’s bonnet, up in a shady corner.
In a word, a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral-bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath. Fragments of old wall, saint’s chapel, chapter-house, convent and monastery, have got incongruously or obstructively built into many of its houses and gardens, much as kindred jumbled notions have become incorporated into many of its citizens’ minds. All things in it are of the past. Even its single pawnbroker takes in no pledges, nor has he for a long time, but offers vainly an unredeemed stock for sale, of which the costlier articles are dim and pale old watches apparently in a slow perspiration, tarnished sugar-tongs with ineffectual legs, and odd volumes of dismal books. The most abundant and the most agreeable evidences of progressing life in Cloisterham are the evidences of vegetable life in many gardens; even its drooping and despondent little theatre has its poor strip of garden, receiving the foul fiend, when he ducks from its stage into the infernal regions, among scarlet-beans or oyster-shells, according to the season of the year.
In the midst of Cloisterham stands the Nuns’ House: a venerable brick edifice, whose present appellation is doubtless derived from the legend of its conventual uses. On the trim gate enclosing its old courtyard is a resplendent brass plate flashing forth the legend: ‘Seminary for Young Ladies. Miss Twinkleton.’ The house-front is so old and worn, and the brass plate is so shining and staring, that the general result has reminded imaginative strangers of a battered old beau with a large modern eye-glass stuck in his blind eye.
Whether the nuns of yore, being of a submissive rather than a stiff-necked generation, habitually bent their contemplative heads to avoid collision with the beams in the low ceilings of the many chambers of their House; whether they sat in its long low windows telling their beads for their mortification, instead of making necklaces of them for their adornment; whether they were ever walled up alive in odd angles and jutting gables of the building for having some ineradicable leaven of busy mother Nature in them which has kept the fermenting world alive ever since; these may be matters of interest to its haunting ghosts (if any), but constitute no item in Miss Twinkleton’s half-yearly accounts. They are neither of Miss Twinkleton’s inclusive regulars, nor of her extras. The lady who undertakes the poetical department of the establishment at so much (or so little) a quarter has no pieces in her list of recitals bearing on such unprofitable questions.
As, in some cases of drunkenness, and in others of animal magnetism, there are two states of consciousness which never clash, but each of which pursues its separate course as though it were continuous instead of broken (thus, if I hide my watch when I am drunk, I must be drunk again before I can remember where), so Miss Twinkleton has two distinct and separate phases of being. Every night, the moment the young ladies have retired to rest, does Miss Twinkleton smarten up her curls a little, brighten up her eyes a little, and become a sprightlier Miss Twinkleton than the young ladies have ever seen. Every night, at the same hour, does Miss Twinkleton resume the topics of the previous night, comprehending the tenderer scandal of Cloisterham, of which she has no knowledge whatever by day, and references to a certain season at Tunbridge Wells (airily called by Miss Twinkleton in this state of her existence ‘The Wells’), notably the season wherein a certain finished gentleman (compassionately called by Miss Twinkleton, in this stage of her existence, ‘Foolish Mr. Porters’) revealed a homage of the heart, whereof Miss Twinkleton, in her scholastic state of existence, is as ignorant as a granite pillar. Miss Twinkleton’s companion in both states of existence, and equally adaptable to either, is one Mrs. Tisher: a deferential widow with a weak back, a chronic sigh, and a suppressed voice, who looks after the young ladies’ wardrobes, and leads them to infer that she has seen better days. Perhaps this is the reason why it is an article of faith with the servants, handed down from race to race, that the departed Tisher was a hairdresser.
The pet pupil of the Nuns’ House is Miss Rosa Bud, of course called Rosebud; wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish, wonderfully whimsical. An awkward interest (awkward because romantic) attaches to Miss Bud in the minds of the young ladies, on account of its being known to them that a husband has been chosen for her by will and bequest, and that her guardian is bound down to bestow her on that husband when he comes of age. Miss Twinkleton, in her seminarial state of existence, has combated the romantic aspect of this destiny by affecting to shake her head over it behind Miss Bud’s dimpled shoulders, and to brood on the unhappy lot of that doomed little victim. But with no better effect—possibly some unfelt touch of foolish Mr. Porters has undermined the endeavour—than to evoke from the young ladies an unanimous bedchamber cry of ‘O, what a pretending old thing Miss Twinkleton is, my dear!’
The Nuns’ House is never in such a state of flutter as when this allotted husband calls to see little Rosebud. (It is unanimously understood by the young ladies that he is lawfully entitled to this privilege, and that if Miss Twinkleton disputed it, she would be instantly taken up and transported.) When his ring at the gate-bell is expected, or takes place, every young lady who can, under any pretence, look out of window, looks out of window; while every young lady who is ‘practising,’ practises out of time; and the French class becomes so demoralised that the mark goes round as briskly as the bottle at a convivial party in the last century.
On the afternoon of the day next after the dinner of two at the gatehouse, the bell is rung with the usual fluttering results.
‘Mr. Edwin Drood to see Miss Rosa.’
This is the announcement of the parlour-maid in chief. Miss Twinkleton, with an exemplary air of melancholy on her, turns to the sacrifice, and says, ‘You may go down, my dear.’ Miss Bud goes down, followed by all eyes.
Mr. Edwin Drood is waiting in Miss Twinkleton’s own parlour: a dainty room, with nothing more directly scholastic in it than a terrestrial and a celestial globe. These expressive machines imply (to parents and guardians) that even when Miss Twinkleton retires into the bosom of privacy, duty may at any moment compel her to become a sort of Wandering Jewess, scouring the earth and soaring through the skies in search of knowledge for her pupils.
The last new maid, who has never seen the young gentleman Miss Rosa is engaged to, and who is making his acquaintance between the hinges of the open door, left open for the purpose, stumbles guiltily down the kitchen stairs, as a charming little apparition, with its face concealed by a little silk apron thrown over its head, glides into the parlour.
‘O! it is so ridiculous!’ says the apparition, stopping and shrinking. ‘Don’t, Eddy!’
‘Don’t what, Rosa?’
‘Don’t come any nearer, please. It is so absurd.’
‘What is absurd, Rosa?’
‘The whole thing is. It is so absurd to be an engaged orphan and it is so absurd to have the girls and the servants scuttling about after one, like mice in the wainscot; and it is so absurd to be called upon!’
The apparition appears to have a thumb in the corner of its mouth while making this complaint.
‘You give me an affectionate reception, Pussy, I must say.’
‘Well, I will in a minute, Eddy, but I can’t just yet. How are you?’ (very shortly.)
‘I am unable to reply that I am much the better for seeing you, Pussy, inasmuch as I see nothing of you.’
This second remonstrance brings a dark, bright, pouting eye out from a corner of the apron; but it swiftly becomes invisible again, as the apparition exclaims: ‘O good gracious! you have had half your hair cut off!’
‘I should have done better to have had my head cut off, I think,’ says Edwin, rumpling the hair in question, with a fierce glance at the looking-glass, and giving an impatient stamp. ‘Shall I go?’
‘No; you needn’t go just yet, Eddy. The girls would all be asking questions why you went.’
‘Once for all, Rosa, will you uncover that ridiculous little head of yours and give me a welcome?’
The apron is pulled off the childish head, as its wearer replies: ‘You’re very welcome, Eddy. There! I’m sure that’s nice. Shake hands. No, I can’t kiss you, because I’ve got an acidulated drop in my mouth.’
‘Are you at all glad to see me, Pussy?’
‘O, yes, I’m dreadfully glad.—Go and sit down.—Miss Twinkleton.’
It is the custom of that excellent lady when these visits occur, to appear every three minutes, either in her own person or in that of Mrs. Tisher, and lay an offering on the shrine of Propriety by affecting to look for some desiderated article. On the present occasion Miss Twinkleton, gracefully gliding in and out, says in passing: ‘How do you do, Mr. Drood? Very glad indeed to have the pleasure. Pray excuse me. Tweezers. Thank you!’
‘I got the gloves last evening, Eddy, and I like them very much. They are beauties.’
‘Well, that’s something,’ the affianced replies, half grumbling. ‘The smallest encouragement thankfully received. And how did you pass your birthday, Pussy?’
‘Delightfully! Everybody gave me a present. And we had a feast. And we had a ball at night.’
‘A feast and a ball, eh? These occasions seem to go off tolerably well without me, Pussy.’
‘De-lightfully!’ cries Rosa, in a quite spontaneous manner, and without the least pretence of reserve.
‘Hah! And what was the feast?’
‘Tarts, oranges, jellies, and shrimps.’
‘Any partners at the ball?’
‘We danced with one another, of course, sir. But some of the girls made game to be their brothers. It was so droll!’
‘Did anybody make game to be—’
‘To be you? O dear yes!’ cries Rosa, laughing with great enjoyment. ‘That was the first thing done.’
‘I hope she did it pretty well,’ says Edwin rather doubtfully.
‘O, it was excellent!—I wouldn’t dance with you, you know.’
Edwin scarcely seems to see the force of this; begs to know if he may take the liberty to ask why?
‘Because I was so tired of you,’ returns Rosa. But she quickly adds, and pleadingly too, seeing displeasure in his face: ‘Dear Eddy, you were just as tired of me, you know.’
‘Did I say so, Rosa?’
‘Say so! Do you ever say so? No, you only showed it. O, she did it so well!’ cries Rosa, in a sudden ecstasy with her counterfeit betrothed.
‘It strikes me that she must be a devilish impudent girl,’ says Edwin Drood. ‘And so, Pussy, you have passed your last birthday in this old house.’
‘Ah, yes!’ Rosa clasps her hands, looks down with a sigh, and shakes her head.
‘You seem to be sorry, Rosa.’
‘I am sorry for the poor old place. Somehow, I feel as if it would miss me, when I am gone so far away, so young.’
‘Perhaps we had better stop short, Rosa?’
She looks up at him with a swift bright look; next moment shakes her head, sighs, and looks down again.
‘That is to say, is it, Pussy, that we are both resigned?’
She nods her head again, and after a short silence, quaintly bursts out with: ‘You know we must be married, and married from here, Eddy, or the poor girls will be so dreadfully disappointed!’
For the moment there is more of compassion, both for her and for himself, in her affianced husband’s face, than there is of love. He checks the look, and asks: ‘Shall I take you out for a walk, Rosa dear?’
Rosa dear does not seem at all clear on this point, until her face, which has been comically reflective, brightens. ‘O, yes, Eddy; let us go for a walk! And I tell you what we’ll do. You shall pretend that you are engaged to somebody else, and I’ll pretend that I am not engaged to anybody, and then we shan’t quarrel.’
‘Do you think that will prevent our falling out, Rosa?’
‘I know it will. Hush! Pretend to look out of window—Mrs. Tisher!’
Through a fortuitous concourse of accidents, the matronly Tisher heaves in sight, says, in rustling through the room like the legendary ghost of a dowager in silken skirts: ‘I hope I see Mr. Drood well; though I needn’t ask, if I may judge from his complexion. I trust I disturb no one; but there was a paper-knife—O, thank you, I am sure!’ and disappears with her prize.
‘One other thing you must do, Eddy, to oblige me,’ says Rosebud. ‘The moment we get into the street, you must put me outside, and keep close to the house yourself—squeeze and graze yourself against it.’
‘By all means, Rosa, if you wish it. Might I ask why?’
‘O! because I don’t want the girls to see you.’
‘It’s a fine day; but would you like me to carry an umbrella up?’
‘Don’t be foolish, sir. You haven’t got polished leather boots on,’ pouting, with one shoulder raised.
‘Perhaps that might escape the notice of the girls, even if they did see me,’ remarks Edwin, looking down at his boots with a sudden distaste for them.
‘Nothing escapes their notice, sir. And then I know what would happen. Some of them would begin reflecting on me by saying (for they are free) that they never will on any account engage themselves to lovers without polished leather boots. Hark! Miss Twinkleton. I’ll ask for leave.’
That discreet lady being indeed heard without, inquiring of nobody in a blandly conversational tone as she advances: ‘Eh? Indeed! Are you quite sure you saw my mother-of-pearl button-holder on the work-table in my room?’ is at once solicited for walking leave, and graciously accords it. And soon the young couple go out of the Nuns’ House, taking all precautions against the discovery of the so vitally defective boots of Mr. Edwin Drood: precautions, let us hope, effective for the peace of Mrs. Edwin Drood that is to be.
‘Which way shall we take, Rosa?’
Rosa replies: ‘I want to go to the Lumps-of-Delight shop.’
‘A Turkish sweetmeat, sir. My gracious me, don’t you understand anything? Call yourself an Engineer, and not know that?’
‘Why, how should I know it, Rosa?’
‘Because I am very fond of them. But O! I forgot what we are to pretend. No, you needn’t know anything about them; never mind.’
So he is gloomily borne off to the Lumps-of-Delight shop, where Rosa makes her purchase, and, after offering some to him (which he rather indignantly declines), begins to partake of it with great zest: previously taking off and rolling up a pair of little pink gloves, like rose-leaves, and occasionally putting her little pink fingers to her rosy lips, to cleanse them from the Dust of Delight that comes off the Lumps.
‘Now, be a good-tempered Eddy, and pretend. And so you are engaged?’
‘And so I am engaged.’
‘Is she nice?’
‘Immensely tall!’ Rosa being short.
‘Must be gawky, I should think,’ is Rosa’s quiet commentary.
‘I beg your pardon; not at all,’ contradiction rising in him.
‘What is termed a fine woman; a splendid woman.’
‘Big nose, no doubt,’ is the quiet commentary again.
‘Not a little one, certainly,’ is the quick reply, (Rosa’s being a little one.)
‘Long pale nose, with a red knob in the middle. I know the sort of nose,’ says Rosa, with a satisfied nod, and tranquilly enjoying the Lumps.
‘You don’t know the sort of nose, Rosa,’ with some warmth; ‘because it’s nothing of the kind.’
‘Not a pale nose, Eddy?’
‘No.’ Determined not to assent.
‘A red nose? O! I don’t like red noses. However; to be sure she can always powder it.’
‘She would scorn to powder it,’ says Edwin, becoming heated.
‘Would she? What a stupid thing she must be! Is she stupid in everything?’
‘No; in nothing.’
After a pause, in which the whimsically wicked face has not been unobservant of him, Rosa says:
‘And this most sensible of creatures likes the idea of being carried off to Egypt; does she, Eddy?’
‘Yes. She takes a sensible interest in triumphs of engineering skill: especially when they are to change the whole condition of an undeveloped country.’
‘Lor!’ says Rosa, shrugging her shoulders, with a little laugh of wonder.
‘Do you object,’ Edwin inquires, with a majestic turn of his eyes downward upon the fairy figure: ‘do you object, Rosa, to her feeling that interest?’
‘Object? my dear Eddy! But really, doesn’t she hate boilers and things?’
‘I can answer for her not being so idiotic as to hate Boilers,’ he returns with angry emphasis; ‘though I cannot answer for her views about Things; really not understanding what Things are meant.’
‘But don’t she hate Arabs, and Turks, and Fellahs, and people?’
‘Certainly not.’ Very firmly.
‘At least she must hate the Pyramids? Come, Eddy?’
‘Why should she be such a little—tall, I mean—goose, as to hate the Pyramids, Rosa?’
‘Ah! you should hear Miss Twinkleton,’ often nodding her head, and much enjoying the Lumps, ‘bore about them, and then you wouldn’t ask. Tiresome old burying-grounds! Isises, and Ibises, and Cheopses, and Pharaohses; who cares about them? And then there was Belzoni, or somebody, dragged out by the legs, half-choked with bats and dust. All the girls say: Serve him right, and hope it hurt him, and wish he had been quite choked.’
The two youthful figures, side by side, but not now arm-in-arm, wander discontentedly about the old Close; and each sometimes stops and slowly imprints a deeper footstep in the fallen leaves.
‘Well!’ says Edwin, after a lengthy silence. ‘According to custom. We can’t get on, Rosa.’
Rosa tosses her head, and says she don’t want to get on.
‘That’s a pretty sentiment, Rosa, considering.’
‘If I say what, you’ll go wrong again.’
‘You’ll go wrong, you mean, Eddy. Don’t be ungenerous.’
‘Ungenerous! I like that!’
‘Then I don’t like that, and so I tell you plainly,’ Rosa pouts.
‘Now, Rosa, I put it to you. Who disparaged my profession, my destination—’
‘You are not going to be buried in the Pyramids, I hope?’ she interrupts, arching her delicate eyebrows. ‘You never said you were. If you are, why haven’t you mentioned it to me? I can’t find out your plans by instinct.’
‘Now, Rosa, you know very well what I mean, my dear.’
‘Well then, why did you begin with your detestable red-nosed giantesses? And she would, she would, she would, she would, she WOULD powder it!’ cries Rosa, in a little burst of comical contradictory spleen.
‘Somehow or other, I never can come right in these discussions,’ says Edwin, sighing and becoming resigned.
‘How is it possible, sir, that you ever can come right when you’re always wrong? And as to Belzoni, I suppose he’s dead;—I’m sure I hope he is—and how can his legs or his chokes concern you?’
‘It is nearly time for your return, Rosa. We have not had a very happy walk, have we?’
‘A happy walk? A detestably unhappy walk, sir. If I go up-stairs the moment I get in and cry till I can’t take my dancing lesson, you are responsible, mind!’
‘Let us be friends, Rosa.’
‘Ah!’ cries Rosa, shaking her head and bursting into real tears, ‘I wish we could be friends! It’s because we can’t be friends, that we try one another so. I am a young little thing, Eddy, to have an old heartache; but I really, really have, sometimes. Don’t be angry. I know you have one yourself too often. We should both of us have done better, if What is to be had been left What might have been. I am quite a little serious thing now, and not teasing you. Let each of us forbear, this one time, on our own account, and on the other’s!’
Disarmed by this glimpse of a woman’s nature in the spoilt child, though for an instant disposed to resent it as seeming to involve the enforced infliction of himself upon her, Edwin Drood stands watching her as she childishly cries and sobs, with both hands to the handkerchief at her eyes, and then—she becoming more composed, and indeed beginning in her young inconstancy to laugh at herself for having been so moved—leads her to a seat hard by, under the elm-trees.
[Picture: Under the trees]
‘One clear word of understanding, Pussy dear. I am not clever out of my own line—now I come to think of it, I don’t know that I am particularly clever in it—but I want to do right. There is not—there may be—I really don’t see my way to what I want to say, but I must say it before we part—there is not any other young—’
‘O no, Eddy! It’s generous of you to ask me; but no, no, no!’
They have come very near to the Cathedral windows, and at this moment the organ and the choir sound out sublimely. As they sit listening to the solemn swell, the confidence of last night rises in young Edwin Drood’s mind, and he thinks how unlike this music is to that discordance.
‘I fancy I can distinguish Jack’s voice,’ is his remark in a low tone in connection with the train of thought.
‘Take me back at once, please,’ urges his Affianced, quickly laying her light hand upon his wrist. ‘They will all be coming out directly; let us get away. O, what a resounding chord! But don’t let us stop to listen to it; let us get away!’
Her hurry is over as soon as they have passed out of the Close. They go arm-in-arm now, gravely and deliberately enough, along the old High-street, to the Nuns’ House. At the gate, the street being within sight empty, Edwin bends down his face to Rosebud’s.
She remonstrates, laughing, and is a childish schoolgirl again.
‘Eddy, no! I’m too sticky to be kissed. But give me your hand, and I’ll blow a kiss into that.’
He does so. She breathes a light breath into it and asks, retaining it and looking into it:—
‘Now say, what do you see?’
‘Why, I thought you Egyptian boys could look into a hand and see all sorts of phantoms. Can’t you see a happy Future?’
For certain, neither of them sees a happy Present, as the gate opens and closes, and one goes in, and the other goes away.
Accepting the Jackass as the type of self-sufficient stupidity and conceit—a custom, perhaps, like some few other customs, more conventional than fair—then the purest jackass in Cloisterham is Mr. Thomas Sapsea, Auctioneer.
Mr. Sapsea ‘dresses at’ the Dean; has been bowed to for the Dean, in mistake; has even been spoken to in the street as My Lord, under the impression that he was the Bishop come down unexpectedly, without his chaplain. Mr. Sapsea is very proud of this, and of his voice, and of his style. He has even (in selling landed property) tried the experiment of slightly intoning in his pulpit, to make himself more like what he takes to be the genuine ecclesiastical article. So, in ending a Sale by Public Auction, Mr. Sapsea finishes off with an air of bestowing a benediction on the assembled brokers, which leaves the real Dean—a modest and worthy gentleman—far behind.
Mr. Sapsea has many admirers; indeed, the proposition is carried by a large local majority, even including non-believers in his wisdom, that he is a credit to Cloisterham. He possesses the great qualities of being portentous and dull, and of having a roll in his speech, and another roll in his gait; not to mention a certain gravely flowing action with his hands, as if he were presently going to Confirm the individual with whom he holds discourse. Much nearer sixty years of age than fifty, with a flowing outline of stomach, and horizontal creases in his waistcoat; reputed to be rich; voting at elections in the strictly respectable interest; morally satisfied that nothing but he himself has grown since he was a baby; how can dunder-headed Mr. Sapsea be otherwise than a credit to Cloisterham, and society?
Mr. Sapsea’s premises are in the High-street, over against the Nuns’ House. They are of about the period of the Nuns’ House, irregularly modernised here and there, as steadily deteriorating generations found, more and more, that they preferred air and light to Fever and the Plague. Over the doorway is a wooden effigy, about half life-size, representing Mr. Sapsea’s father, in a curly wig and toga, in the act of selling. The chastity of the idea, and the natural appearance of the little finger, hammer, and pulpit, have been much admired.
Mr. Sapsea sits in his dull ground-floor sitting-room, giving first on his paved back yard; and then on his railed-off garden. Mr. Sapsea has a bottle of port wine on a table before the fire—the fire is an early luxury, but pleasant on the cool, chilly autumn evening—and is characteristically attended by his portrait, his eight-day clock, and his weather-glass. Characteristically, because he would uphold himself against mankind, his weather-glass against weather, and his clock against time.
By Mr. Sapsea’s side on the table are a writing-desk and writing materials. Glancing at a scrap of manuscript, Mr. Sapsea reads it to himself with a lofty air, and then, slowly pacing the room with his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, repeats it from memory: so internally, though with much dignity, that the word ‘Ethelinda’ is alone audible.
There are three clean wineglasses in a tray on the table. His serving-maid entering, and announcing ‘Mr. Jasper is come, sir,’ Mr. Sapsea waves ‘Admit him,’ and draws two wineglasses from the rank, as being claimed.
‘Glad to see you, sir. I congratulate myself on having the honour of receiving you here for the first time.’ Mr. Sapsea does the honours of his house in this wise.
‘You are very good. The honour is mine and the self-congratulation is mine.’
‘You are pleased to say so, sir. But I do assure you that it is a satisfaction to me to receive you in my humble home. And that is what I would not say to everybody.’ Ineffable loftiness on Mr. Sapsea’s part accompanies these words, as leaving the sentence to be understood: ‘You will not easily believe that your society can be a satisfaction to a man like myself; nevertheless, it is.’
‘I have for some time desired to know you, Mr. Sapsea.’
‘And I, sir, have long known you by reputation as a man of taste. Let me fill your glass. I will give you, sir,’ says Mr. Sapsea, filling his own:
‘When the French come over, May we meet them at Dover!’
This was a patriotic toast in Mr. Sapsea’s infancy, and he is therefore fully convinced of its being appropriate to any subsequent era.
‘You can scarcely be ignorant, Mr. Sapsea,’ observes Jasper, watching the auctioneer with a smile as the latter stretches out his legs before the fire, ‘that you know the world.’
‘Well, sir,’ is the chuckling reply, ‘I think I know something of it; something of it.’
‘Your reputation for that knowledge has always interested and surprised me, and made me wish to know you. For Cloisterham is a little place. Cooped up in it myself, I know nothing beyond it, and feel it to be a very little place.’
‘If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man,’ Mr. Sapsea begins, and then stops:—‘You will excuse me calling you young man, Mr. Jasper? You are much my junior.’
‘By all means.’
‘If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man, foreign countries have come to me. They have come to me in the way of business, and I have improved upon my opportunities. Put it that I take an inventory, or make a catalogue. I see a French clock. I never saw him before, in my life, but I instantly lay my finger on him and say “Paris!” I see some cups and saucers of Chinese make, equally strangers to me personally: I put my finger on them, then and there, and I say “Pekin, Nankin, and Canton.” It is the same with Japan, with Egypt, and with bamboo and sandalwood from the East Indies; I put my finger on them all. I have put my finger on the North Pole before now, and said “Spear of Esquimaux make, for half a pint of pale sherry!”’
‘Really? A very remarkable way, Mr. Sapsea, of acquiring a knowledge of men and things.’
‘I mention it, sir,’ Mr. Sapsea rejoins, with unspeakable complacency, ‘because, as I say, it don’t do to boast of what you are; but show how you came to be it, and then you prove it.’
‘Most interesting. We were to speak of the late Mrs. Sapsea.’
‘We were, sir.’ Mr. Sapsea fills both glasses, and takes the decanter into safe keeping again. ‘Before I consult your opinion as a man of taste on this little trifle’—holding it up—‘which is but a trifle, and still has required some thought, sir, some little fever of the brow, I ought perhaps to describe the character of the late Mrs. Sapsea, now dead three quarters of a year.’
Mr. Jasper, in the act of yawning behind his wineglass, puts down that screen and calls up a look of interest. It is a little impaired in its expressiveness by his having a shut-up gape still to dispose of, with watering eyes.
‘Half a dozen years ago, or so,’ Mr. Sapsea proceeds, ‘when I had enlarged my mind up to—I will not say to what it now is, for that might seem to aim at too much, but up to the pitch of wanting another mind to be absorbed in it—I cast my eye about me for a nuptial partner. Because, as I say, it is not good for man to be alone.’
Mr. Jasper appears to commit this original idea to memory.
‘Miss Brobity at that time kept, I will not call it the rival establishment to the establishment at the Nuns’ House opposite, but I will call it the other parallel establishment down town. The world did have it that she showed a passion for attending my sales, when they took place on half holidays, or in vacation time. The world did put it about, that she admired my style. The world did notice that as time flowed by, my style became traceable in the dictation-exercises of Miss Brobity’s pupils. Young man, a whisper even sprang up in obscure malignity, that one ignorant and besotted Churl (a parent) so committed himself as to object to it by name. But I do not believe this. For is it likely that any human creature in his right senses would so lay himself open to be pointed at, by what I call the finger of scorn?’
Mr. Jasper shakes his head. Not in the least likely. Mr. Sapsea, in a grandiloquent state of absence of mind, seems to refill his visitor’s glass, which is full already; and does really refill his own, which is empty.
‘Miss Brobity’s Being, young man, was deeply imbued with homage to Mind. She revered Mind, when launched, or, as I say, precipitated, on an extensive knowledge of the world. When I made my proposal, she did me the honour to be so overshadowed with a species of Awe, as to be able to articulate only the two words, “O Thou!” meaning myself. Her limpid blue eyes were fixed upon me, her semi-transparent hands were clasped together, pallor overspread her aquiline features, and, though encouraged to proceed, she never did proceed a word further. I disposed of the parallel establishment by private contract, and we became as nearly one as could be expected under the circumstances. But she never could, and she never did, find a phrase satisfactory to her perhaps-too-favourable estimate of my intellect. To the very last (feeble action of liver), she addressed me in the same unfinished terms.’
Mr. Jasper has closed his eyes as the auctioneer has deepened his voice. He now abruptly opens them, and says, in unison with the deepened voice ‘Ah!’—rather as if stopping himself on the extreme verge of adding—‘men!’
‘I have been since,’ says Mr. Sapsea, with his legs stretched out, and solemnly enjoying himself with the wine and the fire, ‘what you behold me; I have been since a solitary mourner; I have been since, as I say, wasting my evening conversation on the desert air. I will not say that I have reproached myself; but there have been times when I have asked myself the question: What if her husband had been nearer on a level with her? If she had not had to look up quite so high, what might the stimulating action have been upon the liver?’
Mr. Jasper says, with an appearance of having fallen into dreadfully low spirits, that he ‘supposes it was to be.’
‘We can only suppose so, sir,’ Mr. Sapsea coincides. ‘As I say, Man proposes, Heaven disposes. It may or may not be putting the same thought in another form; but that is the way I put it.’
Mr. Jasper murmurs assent.
‘And now, Mr. Jasper,’ resumes the auctioneer, producing his scrap of manuscript, ‘Mrs. Sapsea’s monument having had full time to settle and dry, let me take your opinion, as a man of taste, on the inscription I have (as I before remarked, not without some little fever of the brow) drawn out for it. Take it in your own hand. The setting out of the lines requires to be followed with the eye, as well as the contents with the mind.’
Mr. Jasper complying, sees and reads as follows:
ETHELINDA, Reverential Wife of MR. THOMAS SAPSEA, AUCTIONEER, VALUER, ESTATE AGENT, &c., OF THIS CITY. Whose Knowledge of the World, Though somewhat extensive, Never brought him acquainted with A SPIRIT More capable of LOOKING UP TO HIM. STRANGER, PAUSE And ask thyself the Question, CANST THOU DO LIKEWISE? If Not, WITH A BLUSH RETIRE.
Mr. Sapsea having risen and stationed himself with his back to the fire, for the purpose of observing the effect of these lines on the countenance of a man of taste, consequently has his face towards the door, when his serving-maid, again appearing, announces, ‘Durdles is come, sir!’ He promptly draws forth and fills the third wineglass, as being now claimed, and replies, ‘Show Durdles in.’
‘Admirable!’ quoth Mr. Jasper, handing back the paper.
‘You approve, sir?’
‘Impossible not to approve. Striking, characteristic, and complete.’
The auctioneer inclines his head, as one accepting his due and giving a receipt; and invites the entering Durdles to take off that glass of wine (handing the same), for it will warm him.
Durdles is a stonemason; chiefly in the gravestone, tomb, and monument way, and wholly of their colour from head to foot. No man is better known in Cloisterham. He is the chartered libertine of the place. Fame trumpets him a wonderful workman—which, for aught that anybody knows, he may be (as he never works); and a wonderful sot—which everybody knows he is. With the Cathedral crypt he is better acquainted than any living authority; it may even be than any dead one. It is said that the intimacy of this acquaintance began in his habitually resorting to that secret place, to lock-out the Cloisterham boy-populace, and sleep off fumes of liquor: he having ready access to the Cathedral, as contractor for rough repairs. Be this as it may, he does know much about it, and, in the demolition of impedimental fragments of wall, buttress, and pavement, has seen strange sights. He often speaks of himself in the third person; perhaps, being a little misty as to his own identity, when he narrates; perhaps impartially adopting the Cloisterham nomenclature in reference to a character of acknowledged distinction. Thus he will say, touching his strange sights: ‘Durdles come upon the old chap,’ in reference to a buried magnate of ancient time and high degree, ‘by striking right into the coffin with his pick. The old chap gave Durdles a look with his open eyes, as much as to say, “Is your name Durdles? Why, my man, I’ve been waiting for you a devil of a time!” And then he turned to powder.’ With a two-foot rule always in his pocket, and a mason’s hammer all but always in his hand, Durdles goes continually sounding and tapping all about and about the Cathedral; and whenever he says to Tope: ‘Tope, here’s another old ’un in here!’ Tope announces it to the Dean as an established discovery.
In a suit of coarse flannel with horn buttons, a yellow neckerchief with draggled ends, an old hat more russet-coloured than black, and laced boots of the hue of his stony calling, Durdles leads a hazy, gipsy sort of life, carrying his dinner about with him in a small bundle, and sitting on all manner of tombstones to dine. This dinner of Durdles’s has become quite a Cloisterham institution: not only because of his never appearing in public without it, but because of its having been, on certain renowned occasions, taken into custody along with Durdles (as drunk and incapable), and exhibited before the Bench of justices at the townhall. These occasions, however, have been few and far apart: Durdles being as seldom drunk as sober. For the rest, he is an old bachelor, and he lives in a little antiquated hole of a house that was never finished: supposed to be built, so far, of stones stolen from the city wall. To this abode there is an approach, ankle-deep in stone chips, resembling a petrified grove of tombstones, urns, draperies, and broken columns, in all stages of sculpture. Herein two journeymen incessantly chip, while other two journeymen, who face each other, incessantly saw stone; dipping as regularly in and out of their sheltering sentry-boxes, as if they were mechanical figures emblematical of Time and Death.
To Durdles, when he had consumed his glass of port, Mr. Sapsea intrusts that precious effort of his Muse. Durdles unfeelingly takes out his two-foot rule, and measures the lines calmly, alloying them with stone-grit.
‘This is for the monument, is it, Mr. Sapsea?’
‘The Inscription. Yes.’ Mr. Sapsea waits for its effect on a common mind.
‘It’ll come in to a eighth of a inch,’ says Durdles. ‘Your servant, Mr. Jasper. Hope I see you well.’
‘How are you Durdles?’
‘I’ve got a touch of the Tombatism on me, Mr. Jasper, but that I must expect.’
‘You mean the Rheumatism,’ says Sapsea, in a sharp tone. (He is nettled by having his composition so mechanically received.)
‘No, I don’t. I mean, Mr. Sapsea, the Tombatism. It’s another sort from Rheumatism. Mr. Jasper knows what Durdles means. You get among them Tombs afore it’s well light on a winter morning, and keep on, as the Catechism says, a-walking in the same all the days of your life, and you’ll know what Durdles means.’
‘It is a bitter cold place,’ Mr. Jasper assents, with an antipathetic shiver.
‘And if it’s bitter cold for you, up in the chancel, with a lot of live breath smoking out about you, what the bitterness is to Durdles, down in the crypt among the earthy damps there, and the dead breath of the old ’uns,’ returns that individual, ‘Durdles leaves you to judge.—Is this to be put in hand at once, Mr. Sapsea?’
Mr. Sapsea, with an Author’s anxiety to rush into publication, replies that it cannot be out of hand too soon.
‘You had better let me have the key then,’ says Durdles.
‘Why, man, it is not to be put inside the monument!’
‘Durdles knows where it’s to be put, Mr. Sapsea; no man better. Ask ’ere a man in Cloisterham whether Durdles knows his work.’
Mr. Sapsea rises, takes a key from a drawer, unlocks an iron safe let into the wall, and takes from it another key.
‘When Durdles puts a touch or a finish upon his work, no matter where, inside or outside, Durdles likes to look at his work all round, and see that his work is a-doing him credit,’ Durdles explains, doggedly.
The key proffered him by the bereaved widower being a large one, he slips his two-foot rule into a side-pocket of his flannel trousers made for it, and deliberately opens his flannel coat, and opens the mouth of a large breast-pocket within it before taking the key to place it in that repository.
‘Why, Durdles!’ exclaims Jasper, looking on amused, ‘you are undermined with pockets!’
‘And I carries weight in ’em too, Mr. Jasper. Feel those!’ producing two other large keys.
‘Hand me Mr. Sapsea’s likewise. Surely this is the heaviest of the three.’
‘You’ll find ’em much of a muchness, I expect,’ says Durdles. ‘They all belong to monuments. They all open Durdles’s work. Durdles keeps the keys of his work mostly. Not that they’re much used.’
‘By the bye,’ it comes into Jasper’s mind to say, as he idly examines the keys, ‘I have been going to ask you, many a day, and have always forgotten. You know they sometimes call you Stony Durdles, don’t you?’
‘Cloisterham knows me as Durdles, Mr. Jasper.’
‘I am aware of that, of course. But the boys sometimes—’
‘O! if you mind them young imps of boys—’ Durdles gruffly interrupts.
‘I don’t mind them any more than you do. But there was a discussion the other day among the Choir, whether Stony stood for Tony;’ clinking one key against another.
(‘Take care of the wards, Mr. Jasper.’)
‘Or whether Stony stood for Stephen;’ clinking with a change of keys.
(‘You can’t make a pitch pipe of ’em, Mr. Jasper.’)
‘Or whether the name comes from your trade. How stands the fact?’
Mr. Jasper weighs the three keys in his hand, lifts his head from his idly stooping attitude over the fire, and delivers the keys to Durdles with an ingenuous and friendly face.
But the stony one is a gruff one likewise, and that hazy state of his is always an uncertain state, highly conscious of its dignity, and prone to take offence. He drops his two keys back into his pocket one by one, and buttons them up; he takes his dinner-bundle from the chair-back on which he hung it when he came in; he distributes the weight he carries, by tying the third key up in it, as though he were an Ostrich, and liked to dine off cold iron; and he gets out of the room, deigning no word of answer.
Mr. Sapsea then proposes a hit at backgammon, which, seasoned with his own improving conversation, and terminating in a supper of cold roast beef and salad, beguiles the golden evening until pretty late. Mr. Sapsea’s wisdom being, in its delivery to mortals, rather of the diffuse than the epigrammatic order, is by no means expended even then; but his visitor intimates that he will come back for more of the precious commodity on future occasions, and Mr. Sapsea lets him off for the present, to ponder on the instalment he carries away.