The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 5

Mr. Durdles and Friend

John Jasper, on his way home through the Close, is brought to a stand-still by the spectacle of Stony Durdles, dinner-bundle and all, leaning his back against the iron railing of the burial-ground enclosing it from the old cloister-arches; and a hideous small boy in rags flinging stones at him as a well-defined mark in the moonlight. Sometimes the stones hit him, and sometimes they miss him, but Durdles seems indifferent to either fortune. The hideous small boy, on the contrary, whenever he hits Durdles, blows a whistle of triumph through a jagged gap, convenient for the purpose, in the front of his mouth, where half his teeth are wanting; and whenever he misses him, yelps out ‘Mulled agin!’ and tries to atone for the failure by taking a more correct and vicious aim.

‘What are you doing to the man?’ demands Jasper, stepping out into the moonlight from the shade.

‘Making a cock-shy of him,’ replies the hideous small boy.

‘Give me those stones in your hand.’

‘Yes, I’ll give ’em you down your throat, if you come a-ketching hold of me,’ says the small boy, shaking himself loose, and backing. ‘I’ll smash your eye, if you don’t look out!’

‘Baby–Devil that you are, what has the man done to you?’

‘He won’t go home.’

‘What is that to you?’

‘He gives me a ’apenny to pelt him home if I ketches him out too late,’ says the boy. And then chants, like a little savage, half stumbling and half dancing among the rags and laces of his dilapidated boots:–

‘Widdy widdy wen!

I— ket — ches — Im — out — ar — ter — ten,

Widdy widdy wy!

Then — E— don’t — go — then — I— shy —

Widdy Widdy Wake-cock warning!’

— with a comprehensive sweep on the last word, and one more delivery at Durdles.

This would seem to be a poetical note of preparation, agreed upon, as a caution to Durdles to stand clear if he can, or to betake himself homeward.

John Jasper invites the boy with a beck of his head to follow him (feeling it hopeless to drag him, or coax him), and crosses to the iron railing where the Stony (and stoned) One is profoundly meditating.

‘Do you know this thing, this child?’ asks Jasper, at a loss for a word that will define this thing.

‘Deputy,’ says Durdles, with a nod.

‘Is that its — his — name?’

‘Deputy,’ assents Durdles.

‘I’m man-servant up at the Travellers’ Twopenny in Gas Works Garding,’ this thing explains. ‘All us man-servants at Travellers’ Lodgings is named Deputy. When we’re chock full and the Travellers is all a-bed I come out for my ’elth.’ Then withdrawing into the road, and taking aim, he resumes:–

‘Widdy widdy wen!

I— ket — ches — Im — out — ar — ter —’

‘Hold your hand,’ cries Jasper, ‘and don’t throw while I stand so near him, or I’ll kill you! Come, Durdles; let me walk home with you to-night. Shall I carry your bundle?’

‘Not on any account,’ replies Durdles, adjusting it. ‘Durdles was making his reflections here when you come up, sir, surrounded by his works, like a poplar Author. — Your own brother-in-law;’ introducing a sarcophagus within the railing, white and cold in the moonlight. ‘Mrs. Sapsea;’ introducing the monument of that devoted wife. ‘Late Incumbent;’ introducing the Reverend Gentleman’s broken column. ‘Departed Assessed Taxes;’ introducing a vase and towel, standing on what might represent the cake of soap. ‘Former pastrycook and Muffin-maker, much respected;’ introducing gravestone. ‘All safe and sound here, sir, and all Durdles’s work. Of the common folk, that is merely bundled up in turf and brambles, the less said the better. A poor lot, soon forgot.’

‘This creature, Deputy, is behind us,’ says Jasper, looking back. ‘Is he to follow us?’

The relations between Durdles and Deputy are of a capricious kind; for, on Durdles’s turning himself about with the slow gravity of beery suddenness, Deputy makes a pretty wide circuit into the road and stands on the defensive.

‘You never cried Widdy Warning before you begun to-night,’ says Durdles, unexpectedly reminded of, or imagining, an injury.

‘Yer lie, I did,’ says Deputy, in his only form of polite contradiction.

‘Own brother, sir,’ observes Durdles, turning himself about again, and as unexpectedly forgetting his offence as he had recalled or conceived it; ‘own brother to Peter the Wild Boy! But I gave him an object in life.’

‘At which he takes aim?’ Mr. Jasper suggests.

‘That’s it, sir,’ returns Durdles, quite satisfied; ‘at which he takes aim. I took him in hand and gave him an object. What was he before? A destroyer. What work did he do? Nothing but destruction. What did he earn by it? Short terms in Cloisterham jail. Not a person, not a piece of property, not a winder, not a horse, nor a dog, nor a cat, nor a bird, nor a fowl, nor a pig, but what he stoned, for want of an enlightened object. I put that enlightened object before him, and now he can turn his honest halfpenny by the three penn’orth a week.’

‘I wonder he has no competitors.’

‘He has plenty, Mr. Jasper, but he stones ’em all away. Now, I don’t know what this scheme of mine comes to,’ pursues Durdles, considering about it with the same sodden gravity; ‘I don’t know what you may precisely call it. It ain’t a sort of a — scheme of a — National Education?’

‘I should say not,’ replies Jasper.

‘I should say not,’ assents Durdles; ‘then we won’t try to give it a name.’

‘He still keeps behind us,’ repeats Jasper, looking over his shoulder; ‘is he to follow us?’

‘We can’t help going round by the Travellers’ Twopenny, if we go the short way, which is the back way,’ Durdles answers, ‘and we’ll drop him there.’

So they go on; Deputy, as a rear rank one, taking open order, and invading the silence of the hour and place by stoning every wall, post, pillar, and other inanimate object, by the deserted way.

‘Is there anything new down in the crypt, Durdles?’ asks John Jasper.

‘Anything old, I think you mean,’ growls Durdles. ‘It ain’t a spot for novelty.’

‘Any new discovery on your part, I meant.’

‘There’s a old ’un under the seventh pillar on the left as you go down the broken steps of the little underground chapel as formerly was; I make him out (so fur as I’ve made him out yet) to be one of them old ’uns with a crook. To judge from the size of the passages in the walls, and of the steps and doors, by which they come and went, them crooks must have been a good deal in the way of the old ’uns! Two on ’em meeting promiscuous must have hitched one another by the mitre pretty often, I should say.’

Without any endeavour to correct the literality of this opinion, Jasper surveys his companion — covered from head to foot with old mortar, lime, and stone grit — as though he, Jasper, were getting imbued with a romantic interest in his weird life.

‘Yours is a curious existence.’

Without furnishing the least clue to the question, whether he receives this as a compliment or as quite the reverse, Durdles gruffly answers: ‘Yours is another.’

‘Well! inasmuch as my lot is cast in the same old earthy, chilly, never-changing place, Yes. But there is much more mystery and interest in your connection with the Cathedral than in mine. Indeed, I am beginning to have some idea of asking you to take me on as a sort of student, or free ‘prentice, under you, and to let me go about with you sometimes, and see some of these odd nooks in which you pass your days.’

The Stony One replies, in a general way, ‘All right. Everybody knows where to find Durdles, when he’s wanted.’ Which, if not strictly true, is approximately so, if taken to express that Durdles may always be found in a state of vagabondage somewhere.

‘What I dwell upon most,’ says Jasper, pursuing his subject of romantic interest, ‘is the remarkable accuracy with which you would seem to find out where people are buried. — What is the matter? That bundle is in your way; let me hold it.’

Durdles has stopped and backed a little (Deputy, attentive to all his movements, immediately skirmishing into the road), and was looking about for some ledge or corner to place his bundle on, when thus relieved of it.

‘Just you give me my hammer out of that,’ says Durdles, ‘and I’ll show you.’

Clink, clink. And his hammer is handed him.

‘Now, lookee here. You pitch your note, don’t you, Mr. Jasper?’

‘Yes.’

‘So I sound for mine. I take my hammer, and I tap.’ (Here he strikes the pavement, and the attentive Deputy skirmishes at a rather wider range, as supposing that his head may be in requisition.) ‘I tap, tap, tap. Solid! I go on tapping. Solid still! Tap again. Holloa! Hollow! Tap again, persevering. Solid in hollow! Tap, tap, tap, to try it better. Solid in hollow; and inside solid, hollow again! There you are! Old ’un crumbled away in stone coffin, in vault!’

‘Astonishing!’

‘I have even done this,’ says Durdles, drawing out his two-foot rule (Deputy meanwhile skirmishing nearer, as suspecting that Treasure may be about to be discovered, which may somehow lead to his own enrichment, and the delicious treat of the discoverers being hanged by the neck, on his evidence, until they are dead). ‘Say that hammer of mine’s a wall — my work. Two; four; and two is six,’ measuring on the pavement. ‘Six foot inside that wall is Mrs. Sapsea.’

‘Not really Mrs. Sapsea?’

‘Say Mrs. Sapsea. Her wall’s thicker, but say Mrs. Sapsea. Durdles taps, that wall represented by that hammer, and says, after good sounding: “Something betwixt us!” Sure enough, some rubbish has been left in that same six-foot space by Durdles’s men!’

Jasper opines that such accuracy ‘is a gift.’

‘I wouldn’t have it at a gift,’ returns Durdles, by no means receiving the observation in good part. ‘I worked it out for myself. Durdles comes by his knowledge through grubbing deep for it, and having it up by the roots when it don’t want to come. — Holloa you Deputy!’

‘Widdy!’ is Deputy’s shrill response, standing off again.

‘Catch that ha’penny. And don’t let me see any more of you to-night, after we come to the Travellers’ Twopenny.’

‘Warning!’ returns Deputy, having caught the halfpenny, and appearing by this mystic word to express his assent to the arrangement.

They have but to cross what was once the vineyard, belonging to what was once the Monastery, to come into the narrow back lane wherein stands the crazy wooden house of two low stories currently known as the Travellers’ Twopenny:-a house all warped and distorted, like the morals of the travellers, with scant remains of a lattice-work porch over the door, and also of a rustic fence before its stamped-out garden; by reason of the travellers being so bound to the premises by a tender sentiment (or so fond of having a fire by the roadside in the course of the day), that they can never be persuaded or threatened into departure, without violently possessing themselves of some wooden forget-me-not, and bearing it off.

The semblance of an inn is attempted to be given to this wretched place by fragments of conventional red curtaining in the windows, which rags are made muddily transparent in the night-season by feeble lights of rush or cotton dip burning dully in the close air of the inside. As Durdles and Jasper come near, they are addressed by an inscribed paper lantern over the door, setting forth the purport of the house. They are also addressed by some half-dozen other hideous small boys — whether twopenny lodgers or followers or hangers-on of such, who knows! — who, as if attracted by some carrion-scent of Deputy in the air, start into the moonlight, as vultures might gather in the desert, and instantly fall to stoning him and one another.

‘Stop, you young brutes,’ cries Jasper angrily, ‘and let us go by!’

This remonstrance being received with yells and flying stones, according to a custom of late years comfortably established among the police regulations of our English communities, where Christians are stoned on all sides, as if the days of Saint Stephen were revived, Durdles remarks of the young savages, with some point, that ‘they haven’t got an object,’ and leads the way down the lane.

At the corner of the lane, Jasper, hotly enraged, checks his companion and looks back. All is silent. Next moment, a stone coming rattling at his hat, and a distant yell of ‘Wake–Cock! Warning!’ followed by a crow, as from some infernally-hatched Chanticleer, apprising him under whose victorious fire he stands, he turns the corner into safety, and takes Durdles home: Durdles stumbling among the litter of his stony yard as if he were going to turn head foremost into one of the unfinished tombs.

John Jasper returns by another way to his gatehouse, and entering softly with his key, finds his fire still burning. He takes from a locked press a peculiar-looking pipe, which he fills — but not with tobacco — and, having adjusted the contents of the bowl, very carefully, with a little instrument, ascends an inner staircase of only a few steps, leading to two rooms. One of these is his own sleeping chamber: the other is his nephew’s. There is a light in each.

His nephew lies asleep, calm and untroubled. John Jasper stands looking down upon him, his unlighted pipe in his hand, for some time, with a fixed and deep attention. Then, hushing his footsteps, he passes to his own room, lights his pipe, and delivers himself to the Spectres it invokes at midnight.

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