The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 4

Mr. Sapsea

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.

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