The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 14

When Shall These Three Meet Again?

Christmas Eve in Cloisterham. A few strange faces in the streets; a few other faces, half strange and half familiar, once the faces of Cloisterham children, now the faces of men and women who come back from the outer world at long intervals to find the city wonderfully shrunken in size, as if it had not washed by any means well in the meanwhile. To these, the striking of the Cathedral clock, and the cawing of the rooks from the Cathedral tower, are like voices of their nursery time. To such as these, it has happened in their dying hours afar off, that they have imagined their chamber-floor to be strewn with the autumnal leaves fallen from the elm-trees in the Close: so have the rustling sounds and fresh scents of their earliest impressions revived when the circle of their lives was very nearly traced, and the beginning and the end were drawing close together.

Seasonable tokens are about. Red berries shine here and there in the lattices of Minor Canon Corner; Mr. and Mrs. Tope are daintily sticking sprigs of holly into the carvings and sconces of the Cathedral stalls, as if they were sticking them into the coat-button-holes of the Dean and Chapter. Lavish profusion is in the shops: particularly in the articles of currants, raisins, spices, candied peel, and moist sugar. An unusual air of gallantry and dissipation is abroad; evinced in an immense bunch of mistletoe hanging in the greengrocer’s shop doorway, and a poor little Twelfth Cake, culminating in the figure of a Harlequin — such a very poor little Twelfth Cake, that one would rather called it a Twenty-fourth Cake or a Forty-eighth Cake — to be raffled for at the pastrycook’s, terms one shilling per member. Public amusements are not wanting. The Wax–Work which made so deep an impression on the reflective mind of the Emperor of China is to be seen by particular desire during Christmas Week only, on the premises of the bankrupt livery-stable-keeper up the lane; and a new grand comic Christmas pantomime is to be produced at the Theatre: the latter heralded by the portrait of Signor Jacksonini the clown, saying ‘How do you do to-morrow?’ quite as large as life, and almost as miserably. In short, Cloisterham is up and doing: though from this description the High School and Miss Twinkleton’s are to be excluded. From the former establishment the scholars have gone home, every one of them in love with one of Miss Twinkleton’s young ladies (who knows nothing about it); and only the handmaidens flutter occasionally in the windows of the latter. It is noticed, by the bye, that these damsels become, within the limits of decorum, more skittish when thus intrusted with the concrete representation of their sex, than when dividing the representation with Miss Twinkleton’s young ladies.

Three are to meet at the gatehouse to-night. How does each one of the three get through the day?

Neville Landless, though absolved from his books for the time by Mr. Crisparkle — whose fresh nature is by no means insensible to the charms of a holiday — reads and writes in his quiet room, with a concentrated air, until it is two hours past noon. He then sets himself to clearing his table, to arranging his books, and to tearing up and burning his stray papers. He makes a clean sweep of all untidy accumulations, puts all his drawers in order, and leaves no note or scrap of paper undestroyed, save such memoranda as bear directly on his studies. This done, he turns to his wardrobe, selects a few articles of ordinary wear — among them, change of stout shoes and socks for walking — and packs these in a knapsack. This knapsack is new, and he bought it in the High Street yesterday. He also purchased, at the same time and at the same place, a heavy walking-stick; strong in the handle for the grip of the hand, and iron-shod. He tries this, swings it, poises it, and lays it by, with the knapsack, on a window-seat. By this time his arrangements are complete.

He dresses for going out, and is in the act of going — indeed has left his room, and has met the Minor Canon on the staircase, coming out of his bedroom upon the same story — when he turns back again for his walking-stick, thinking he will carry it now. Mr. Crisparkle, who has paused on the staircase, sees it in his hand on his immediately reappearing, takes it from him, and asks him with a smile how he chooses a stick?

‘Really I don’t know that I understand the subject,’ he answers. ‘I chose it for its weight.’

‘Much too heavy, Neville; much too heavy.’

‘To rest upon in a long walk, sir?’

‘Rest upon?’ repeats Mr. Crisparkle, throwing himself into pedestrian form. ‘You don’t rest upon it; you merely balance with it.’

‘I shall know better, with practice, sir. I have not lived in a walking country, you know.’

‘True,’ says Mr. Crisparkle. ‘Get into a little training, and we will have a few score miles together. I should leave you nowhere now. Do you come back before dinner?’

‘I think not, as we dine early.’

Mr. Crisparkle gives him a bright nod and a cheerful good-bye; expressing (not without intention) absolute confidence and ease

Neville repairs to the Nuns’ House, and requests that Miss Landless may be informed that her brother is there, by appointment. He waits at the gate, not even crossing the threshold; for he is on his parole not to put himself in Rosa’s way.

His sister is at least as mindful of the obligation they have taken on themselves as he can be, and loses not a moment in joining him. They meet affectionately, avoid lingering there, and walk towards the upper inland country.

‘I am not going to tread upon forbidden ground, Helena,’ says Neville, when they have walked some distance and are turning; ‘you will understand in another moment that I cannot help referring to — what shall I say? — my infatuation.’

‘Had you not better avoid it, Neville? You know that I can hear nothing.’

‘You can hear, my dear, what Mr. Crisparkle has heard, and heard with approval.’

‘Yes; I can hear so much.’

‘Well, it is this. I am not only unsettled and unhappy myself, but I am conscious of unsettling and interfering with other people. How do I know that, but for my unfortunate presence, you, and — and–-the rest of that former party, our engaging guardian excepted, might be dining cheerfully in Minor Canon Corner to-morrow? Indeed it probably would be so. I can see too well that I am not high in the old lady’s opinion, and it is easy to understand what an irksome clog I must be upon the hospitalities of her orderly house–-especially at this time of year — when I must be kept asunder from this person, and there is such a reason for my not being brought into contact with that person, and an unfavourable reputation has preceded me with such another person; and so on. I have put this very gently to Mr. Crisparkle, for you know his self-denying ways; but still I have put it. What I have laid much greater stress upon at the same time is, that I am engaged in a miserable struggle with myself, and that a little change and absence may enable me to come through it the better. So, the weather being bright and hard, I am going on a walking expedition, and intend taking myself out of everybody’s way (my own included, I hope) to-morrow morning.’

‘When to come back?’

‘In a fortnight.’

‘And going quite alone?’

‘I am much better without company, even if there were any one but you to bear me company, my dear Helena.’

‘Mr. Crisparkle entirely agrees, you say?’

‘Entirely. I am not sure but that at first he was inclined to think it rather a moody scheme, and one that might do a brooding mind harm. But we took a moonlight walk last Monday night, to talk it over at leisure, and I represented the case to him as it really is. I showed him that I do want to conquer myself, and that, this evening well got over, it is surely better that I should be away from here just now, than here. I could hardly help meeting certain people walking together here, and that could do no good, and is certainly not the way to forget. A fortnight hence, that chance will probably be over, for the time; and when it again arises for the last time, why, I can again go away. Farther, I really do feel hopeful of bracing exercise and wholesome fatigue. You know that Mr. Crisparkle allows such things their full weight in the preservation of his own sound mind in his own sound body, and that his just spirit is not likely to maintain one set of natural laws for himself and another for me. He yielded to my view of the matter, when convinced that I was honestly in earnest; and so, with his full consent, I start to-morrow morning. Early enough to be not only out of the streets, but out of hearing of the bells, when the good people go to church.’

Helena thinks it over, and thinks well of it. Mr. Crisparkle doing so, she would do so; but she does originally, out of her own mind, think well of it, as a healthy project, denoting a sincere endeavour and an active attempt at self-correction. She is inclined to pity him, poor fellow, for going away solitary on the great Christmas festival; but she feels it much more to the purpose to encourage him. And she does encourage him.

He will write to her?

He will write to her every alternate day, and tell her all his adventures.

Does he send clothes on in advance of him?

‘My dear Helena, no. Travel like a pilgrim, with wallet and staff. My wallet — or my knapsack — is packed, and ready for strapping on; and here is my staff!’

He hands it to her; she makes the same remark as Mr. Crisparkle, that it is very heavy; and gives it back to him, asking what wood it is? Iron-wood.

Up to this point he has been extremely cheerful. Perhaps, the having to carry his case with her, and therefore to present it in its brightest aspect, has roused his spirits. Perhaps, the having done so with success, is followed by a revulsion. As the day closes in, and the city-lights begin to spring up before them, he grows depressed.

‘I wish I were not going to this dinner, Helena.’

‘Dear Neville, is it worth while to care much about it? Think how soon it will be over.’

‘How soon it will be over!’ he repeats gloomily. ‘Yes. But I don’t like it.’

There may be a moment’s awkwardness, she cheeringly represents to him, but it can only last a moment. He is quite sure of himself.

‘I wish I felt as sure of everything else, as I feel of myself,’ he answers her.

‘How strangely you speak, dear! What do you mean?’

‘Helena, I don’t know. I only know that I don’t like it. What a strange dead weight there is in the air!’

She calls his attention to those copperous clouds beyond the river, and says that the wind is rising. He scarcely speaks again, until he takes leave of her, at the gate of the Nuns’ House. She does not immediately enter, when they have parted, but remains looking after him along the street. Twice he passes the gatehouse, reluctant to enter. At length, the Cathedral clock chiming one quarter, with a rapid turn he hurries in.

And so HE goes up the postern stair.

Edwin Drood passes a solitary day. Something of deeper moment than he had thought, has gone out of his life; and in the silence of his own chamber he wept for it last night. Though the image of Miss Landless still hovers in the background of his mind, the pretty little affectionate creature, so much firmer and wiser than he had supposed, occupies its stronghold. It is with some misgiving of his own unworthiness that he thinks of her, and of what they might have been to one another, if he had been more in earnest some time ago; if he had set a higher value on her; if, instead of accepting his lot in life as an inheritance of course, he had studied the right way to its appreciation and enhancement. And still, for all this, and though there is a sharp heartache in all this, the vanity and caprice of youth sustain that handsome figure of Miss Landless in the background of his mind.

That was a curious look of Rosa’s when they parted at the gate. Did it mean that she saw below the surface of his thoughts, and down into their twilight depths? Scarcely that, for it was a look of astonished and keen inquiry. He decides that he cannot understand it, though it was remarkably expressive.

As he only waits for Mr. Grewgious now, and will depart immediately after having seen him, he takes a sauntering leave of the ancient city and its neighbourhood. He recalls the time when Rosa and he walked here or there, mere children, full of the dignity of being engaged. Poor children! he thinks, with a pitying sadness.

Finding that his watch has stopped, he turns into the jeweller’s shop, to have it wound and set. The jeweller is knowing on the subject of a bracelet, which he begs leave to submit, in a general and quite aimless way. It would suit (he considers) a young bride, to perfection; especially if of a rather diminutive style of beauty. Finding the bracelet but coldly looked at, the jeweller invites attention to a tray of rings for gentlemen; here is a style of ring, now, he remarks — a very chaste signet — which gentlemen are much given to purchasing, when changing their condition. A ring of a very responsible appearance. With the date of their wedding-day engraved inside, several gentlemen have preferred it to any other kind of memento.

The rings are as coldly viewed as the bracelet. Edwin tells the tempter that he wears no jewellery but his watch and chain, which were his father’s; and his shirt-pin.

‘That I was aware of,’ is the jeweller’s reply, ‘for Mr. Jasper dropped in for a watch-glass the other day, and, in fact, I showed these articles to him, remarking that if he should wish to make a present to a gentleman relative, on any particular occasion — But he said with a smile that he had an inventory in his mind of all the jewellery his gentleman relative ever wore; namely, his watch and chain, and his shirt-pin.’ Still (the jeweller considers) that might not apply to all times, though applying to the present time. ‘Twenty minutes past two, Mr. Drood, I set your watch at. Let me recommend you not to let it run down, sir.’

Edwin takes his watch, puts it on, and goes out, thinking: ‘Dear old Jack! If I were to make an extra crease in my neckcloth, he would think it worth noticing!’

He strolls about and about, to pass the time until the dinner-hour. It somehow happens that Cloisterham seems reproachful to him to-day; has fault to find with him, as if he had not used it well; but is far more pensive with him than angry. His wonted carelessness is replaced by a wistful looking at, and dwelling upon, all the old landmarks. He will soon be far away, and may never see them again, he thinks. Poor youth! Poor youth!

As dusk draws on, he paces the Monks’ Vineyard. He has walked to and fro, full half an hour by the Cathedral chimes, and it has closed in dark, before he becomes quite aware of a woman crouching on the ground near a wicket gate in a corner. The gate commands a cross bye-path, little used in the gloaming; and the figure must have been there all the time, though he has but gradually and lately made it out.

He strikes into that path, and walks up to the wicket. By the light of a lamp near it, he sees that the woman is of a haggard appearance, and that her weazen chin is resting on her hands, and that her eyes are staring — with an unwinking, blind sort of steadfastness — before her.

Always kindly, but moved to be unusually kind this evening, and having bestowed kind words on most of the children and aged people he has met, he at once bends down, and speaks to this woman.

‘Are you ill?’

‘No, deary,’ she answers, without looking at him, and with no departure from her strange blind stare.

‘Are you blind?’

‘No, deary.’

‘Are you lost, homeless, faint? What is the matter, that you stay here in the cold so long, without moving?’

By slow and stiff efforts, she appears to contract her vision until it can rest upon him; and then a curious film passes over her, and she begins to shake.

He straightens himself, recoils a step, and looks down at her in a dread amazement; for he seems to know her.

‘Good Heaven!’ he thinks, next moment. ‘Like Jack that night!’

As he looks down at her, she looks up at him, and whimpers: ‘My lungs is weakly; my lungs is dreffle bad. Poor me, poor me, my cough is rattling dry!’ and coughs in confirmation horribly.

‘Where do you come from?’

‘Come from London, deary.’ (Her cough still rending her.)

‘Where are you going to?’

‘Back to London, deary. I came here, looking for a needle in a haystack, and I ain’t found it. Look’ee, deary; give me three-and-sixpence, and don’t you be afeard for me. I’ll get back to London then, and trouble no one. I’m in a business. — Ah, me! It’s slack, it’s slack, and times is very bad! — but I can make a shift to live by it.’

‘Do you eat opium?’

‘Smokes it,’ she replies with difficulty, still racked by her cough. ‘Give me three-and-sixpence, and I’ll lay it out well, and get back. If you don’t give me three-and-sixpence, don’t give me a brass farden. And if you do give me three-and-sixpence, deary, I’ll tell you something.’

He counts the money from his pocket, and puts it in her hand. She instantly clutches it tight, and rises to her feet with a croaking laugh of satisfaction.

‘Bless ye! Hark’ee, dear genl’mn. What’s your Chris’en name?’

‘Edwin.’

‘Edwin, Edwin, Edwin,’ she repeats, trailing off into a drowsy repetition of the word; and then asks suddenly: ‘Is the short of that name Eddy?’

‘It is sometimes called so,’ he replies, with the colour starting to his face.

‘Don’t sweethearts call it so?’ she asks, pondering.

‘How should I know?’

‘Haven’t you a sweetheart, upon your soul?’

‘None.’

She is moving away, with another ‘Bless ye, and thank’ee, deary!’ when he adds: ‘You were to tell me something; you may as well do so.’

‘So I was, so I was. Well, then. Whisper. You be thankful that your name ain’t Ned.’

He looks at her quite steadily, as he asks: ‘Why?’

‘Because it’s a bad name to have just now.’

‘How a bad name?’

‘A threatened name. A dangerous name.’

‘The proverb says that threatened men live long,’ he tells her, lightly.

‘Then Ned — so threatened is he, wherever he may be while I am a-talking to you, deary — should live to all eternity!’ replies the woman.

She has leaned forward to say it in his ear, with her forefinger shaking before his eyes, and now huddles herself together, and with another ‘Bless ye, and thank’ee!’ goes away in the direction of the Travellers’ Lodging House.

This is not an inspiriting close to a dull day. Alone, in a sequestered place, surrounded by vestiges of old time and decay, it rather has a tendency to call a shudder into being. He makes for the better-lighted streets, and resolves as he walks on to say nothing of this to-night, but to mention it to Jack (who alone calls him Ned), as an odd coincidence, to-morrow; of course only as a coincidence, and not as anything better worth remembering.

Still, it holds to him, as many things much better worth remembering never did. He has another mile or so, to linger out before the dinner-hour; and, when he walks over the bridge and by the river, the woman’s words are in the rising wind, in the angry sky, in the troubled water, in the flickering lights. There is some solemn echo of them even in the Cathedral chime, which strikes a sudden surprise to his heart as he turns in under the archway of the gatehouse.

And so HE goes up the postern stair.

John Jasper passes a more agreeable and cheerful day than either of his guests. Having no music-lessons to give in the holiday season, his time is his own, but for the Cathedral services. He is early among the shopkeepers, ordering little table luxuries that his nephew likes. His nephew will not be with him long, he tells his provision-dealers, and so must be petted and made much of. While out on his hospitable preparations, he looks in on Mr. Sapsea; and mentions that dear Ned, and that inflammable young spark of Mr. Crisparkle’s, are to dine at the gatehouse to-day, and make up their difference. Mr. Sapsea is by no means friendly towards the inflammable young spark. He says that his complexion is ‘Un–English.’ And when Mr. Sapsea has once declared anything to be Un–English, he considers that thing everlastingly sunk in the bottomless pit.

John Jasper is truly sorry to hear Mr. Sapsea speak thus, for he knows right well that Mr. Sapsea never speaks without a meaning, and that he has a subtle trick of being right. Mr. Sapsea (by a very remarkable coincidence) is of exactly that opinion.

Mr. Jasper is in beautiful voice this day. In the pathetic supplication to have his heart inclined to keep this law, he quite astonishes his fellows by his melodious power. He has never sung difficult music with such skill and harmony, as in this day’s Anthem. His nervous temperament is occasionally prone to take difficult music a little too quickly; to-day, his time is perfect.

These results are probably attained through a grand composure of the spirits. The mere mechanism of his throat is a little tender, for he wears, both with his singing-robe and with his ordinary dress, a large black scarf of strong close-woven silk, slung loosely round his neck. But his composure is so noticeable, that Mr. Crisparkle speaks of it as they come out from Vespers.

‘I must thank you, Jasper, for the pleasure with which I have heard you to-day. Beautiful! Delightful! You could not have so outdone yourself, I hope, without being wonderfully well.’

‘I am wonderfully well.’

‘Nothing unequal,’ says the Minor Canon, with a smooth motion of his hand: ‘nothing unsteady, nothing forced, nothing avoided; all thoroughly done in a masterly manner, with perfect self-command.’

‘Thank you. I hope so, if it is not too much to say.’

‘One would think, Jasper, you had been trying a new medicine for that occasional indisposition of yours.’

‘No, really? That’s well observed; for I have.’

‘Then stick to it, my good fellow,’ says Mr. Crisparkle, clapping him on the shoulder with friendly encouragement, ‘stick to it.’

‘I will.’

‘I congratulate you,’ Mr. Crisparkle pursues, as they come out of the Cathedral, ‘on all accounts.’

‘Thank you again. I will walk round to the Corner with you, if you don’t object; I have plenty of time before my company come; and I want to say a word to you, which I think you will not be displeased to hear.’

‘What is it?’

‘Well. We were speaking, the other evening, of my black humours.’

Mr. Crisparkle’s face falls, and he shakes his head deploringly.

‘I said, you know, that I should make you an antidote to those black humours; and you said you hoped I would consign them to the flames.’

‘And I still hope so, Jasper.’

‘With the best reason in the world! I mean to burn this year’s Diary at the year’s end.’

‘Because you —?’ Mr. Crisparkle brightens greatly as he thus begins.

‘You anticipate me. Because I feel that I have been out of sorts, gloomy, bilious, brain-oppressed, whatever it may be. You said I had been exaggerative. So I have.’

Mr. Crisparkle’s brightened face brightens still more.

‘I couldn’t see it then, because I was out of sorts; but I am in a healthier state now, and I acknowledge it with genuine pleasure. I made a great deal of a very little; that’s the fact.’

‘It does me good,’ cries Mr. Crisparkle, ‘to hear you say it!’

‘A man leading a monotonous life,’ Jasper proceeds, ‘and getting his nerves, or his stomach, out of order, dwells upon an idea until it loses its proportions. That was my case with the idea in question. So I shall burn the evidence of my case, when the book is full, and begin the next volume with a clearer vision.’

‘This is better,’ says Mr. Crisparkle, stopping at the steps of his own door to shake hands, ‘than I could have hoped.’

‘Why, naturally,’ returns Jasper. ‘You had but little reason to hope that I should become more like yourself. You are always training yourself to be, mind and body, as clear as crystal, and you always are, and never change; whereas I am a muddy, solitary, moping weed. However, I have got over that mope. Shall I wait, while you ask if Mr. Neville has left for my place? If not, he and I may walk round together.’

‘I think,’ says Mr. Crisparkle, opening the entrance-door with his key, ‘that he left some time ago; at least I know he left, and I think he has not come back. But I’ll inquire. You won’t come in?’

‘My company wait,’ said Jasper, with a smile.

The Minor Canon disappears, and in a few moments returns. As he thought, Mr. Neville has not come back; indeed, as he remembers now, Mr. Neville said he would probably go straight to the gatehouse.

‘Bad manners in a host!’ says Jasper. ‘My company will be there before me! What will you bet that I don’t find my company embracing?’

‘I will bet — or I would, if ever I did bet,’ returns Mr. Crisparkle, ‘that your company will have a gay entertainer this evening.’

Jasper nods, and laughs good-night!

He retraces his steps to the Cathedral door, and turns down past it to the gatehouse. He sings, in a low voice and with delicate expression, as he walks along. It still seems as if a false note were not within his power to-night, and as if nothing could hurry or retard him. Arriving thus under the arched entrance of his dwelling, he pauses for an instant in the shelter to pull off that great black scarf, and bang it in a loop upon his arm. For that brief time, his face is knitted and stern. But it immediately clears, as he resumes his singing, and his way.

And so HE goes up the postern stair.

The red light burns steadily all the evening in the lighthouse on the margin of the tide of busy life. Softened sounds and hum of traffic pass it and flow on irregularly into the lonely Precincts; but very little else goes by, save violent rushes of wind. It comes on to blow a boisterous gale.

The Precincts are never particularly well lighted; but the strong blasts of wind blowing out many of the lamps (in some instances shattering the frames too, and bringing the glass rattling to the ground), they are unusually dark to-night. The darkness is augmented and confused, by flying dust from the earth, dry twigs from the trees, and great ragged fragments from the rooks’ nests up in the tower. The trees themselves so toss and creak, as this tangible part of the darkness madly whirls about, that they seem in peril of being torn out of the earth: while ever and again a crack, and a rushing fall, denote that some large branch has yielded to the storm.

Not such power of wind has blown for many a winter night. Chimneys topple in the streets, and people hold to posts and corners, and to one another, to keep themselves upon their feet. The violent rushes abate not, but increase in frequency and fury until at midnight, when the streets are empty, the storm goes thundering along them, rattling at all the latches, and tearing at all the shutters, as if warning the people to get up and fly with it, rather than have the roofs brought down upon their brains.

Still, the red light burns steadily. Nothing is steady but the red light.

All through the night the wind blows, and abates not. But early in the morning, when there is barely enough light in the east to dim the stars, it begins to lull. From that time, with occasional wild charges, like a wounded monster dying, it drops and sinks; and at full daylight it is dead.

It is then seen that the hands of the Cathedral clock are torn off; that lead from the roof has been stripped away, rolled up, and blown into the Close; and that some stones have been displaced upon the summit of the great tower. Christmas morning though it be, it is necessary to send up workmen, to ascertain the extent of the damage done. These, led by Durdles, go aloft; while Mr. Tope and a crowd of early idlers gather down in Minor Canon Corner, shading their eyes and watching for their appearance up there.

This cluster is suddenly broken and put aside by the hands of Mr. Jasper; all the gazing eyes are brought down to the earth by his loudly inquiring of Mr. Crisparkle, at an open window:

‘Where is my nephew?’

‘He has not been here. Is he not with you?’

‘No. He went down to the river last night, with Mr. Neville, to look at the storm, and has not been back. Call Mr. Neville!’

‘He left this morning, early.’

‘Left this morning early? Let me in! let me in!’

There is no more looking up at the tower, now. All the assembled eyes are turned on Mr. Jasper, white, half-dressed, panting, and clinging to the rail before the Minor Canon’s house.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30