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Authors: Charles Dickens,Matthew Pearl

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

BOOK: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
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The Mystery of Edwin Drood












  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


  “Another?” says this woman, in a
querulous, rattling whisper. “Have another?”


  He looks about him, with his hand to his


  “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 hearthstone, 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.


  “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




  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


  “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




  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.










  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


  “—Poorly, Tope?”


  “Why, sir, Mr. Jasper was that


  “I wouldn't say “That breathed,” Tope,”
Mr. Crisparkle interposes with the same touch as before. “Not English—to the


  “Breathed to that extent,” the Dean (not
unflattered by this indirect homage) condescendingly remarks, “would be


  “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


  “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.
BOOK: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
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