The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 6

Philanthropy in Minor Canon Corner

The Reverend Septimus Crisparkle (Septimus, because six little brother Crisparkles before him went out, one by one, as they were born, like six weak little rushlights, as they were lighted), having broken the thin morning ice near Cloisterham Weir with his amiable head, much to the invigoration of his frame, was now assisting his circulation by boxing at a looking-glass with great science and prowess. A fresh and healthy portrait the looking-glass presented of the Reverend Septimus, feinting and dodging with the utmost artfulness, and hitting out from the shoulder with the utmost straightness, while his radiant features teemed with innocence, and soft-hearted benevolence beamed from his boxing-gloves.

It was scarcely breakfast-time yet, for Mrs. Crisparkle — mother, not wife of the Reverend Septimus — was only just down, and waiting for the urn. Indeed, the Reverend Septimus left off at this very moment to take the pretty old lady’s entering face between his boxing-gloves and kiss it. Having done so with tenderness, the Reverend Septimus turned to again, countering with his left, and putting in his right, in a tremendous manner.

‘I say, every morning of my life, that you’ll do it at last, Sept,’ remarked the old lady, looking on; ‘and so you will.’

‘Do what, Ma dear?’

‘Break the pier-glass, or burst a blood-vessel.’

‘Neither, please God, Ma dear. Here’s wind, Ma. Look at this!’ In a concluding round of great severity, the Reverend Septimus administered and escaped all sorts of punishment, and wound up by getting the old lady’s cap into Chancery — such is the technical term used in scientific circles by the learned in the Noble Art — with a lightness of touch that hardly stirred the lightest lavender or cherry riband on it. Magnanimously releasing the defeated, just in time to get his gloves into a drawer and feign to be looking out of window in a contemplative state of mind when a servant entered, the Reverend Septimus then gave place to the urn and other preparations for breakfast. These completed, and the two alone again, it was pleasant to see (or would have been, if there had been any one to see it, which there never was), the old lady standing to say the Lord’s Prayer aloud, and her son, Minor Canon nevertheless, standing with bent head to hear it, he being within five years of forty: much as he had stood to hear the same words from the same lips when he was within five months of four.

What is prettier than an old lady — except a young lady — when her eyes are bright, when her figure is trim and compact, when her face is cheerful and calm, when her dress is as the dress of a china shepherdess: so dainty in its colours, so individually assorted to herself, so neatly moulded on her? Nothing is prettier, thought the good Minor Canon frequently, when taking his seat at table opposite his long-widowed mother. Her thought at such times may be condensed into the two words that oftenest did duty together in all her conversations: ‘My Sept!’

They were a good pair to sit breakfasting together in Minor Canon Corner, Cloisterham. For Minor Canon Corner was a quiet place in the shadow of the Cathedral, which the cawing of the rooks, the echoing footsteps of rare passers, the sound of the Cathedral bell, or the roll of the Cathedral organ, seemed to render more quiet than absolute silence. Swaggering fighting men had had their centuries of ramping and raving about Minor Canon Corner, and beaten serfs had had their centuries of drudging and dying there, and powerful monks had had their centuries of being sometimes useful and sometimes harmful there, and behold they were all gone out of Minor Canon Corner, and so much the better. Perhaps one of the highest uses of their ever having been there, was, that there might be left behind, that blessed air of tranquillity which pervaded Minor Canon Corner, and that serenely romantic state of the mind — productive for the most part of pity and forbearance — which is engendered by a sorrowful story that is all told, or a pathetic play that is played out.

Red-brick walls harmoniously toned down in colour by time, strong-rooted ivy, latticed windows, panelled rooms, big oaken beams in little places, and stone-walled gardens where annual fruit yet ripened upon monkish trees, were the principal surroundings of pretty old Mrs. Crisparkle and the Reverend Septimus as they sat at breakfast.

‘And what, Ma dear,’ inquired the Minor Canon, giving proof of a wholesome and vigorous appetite, ‘does the letter say?’

The pretty old lady, after reading it, had just laid it down upon the breakfast-cloth. She handed it over to her son.

Now, the old lady was exceedingly proud of her bright eyes being so clear that she could read writing without spectacles. Her son was also so proud of the circumstance, and so dutifully bent on her deriving the utmost possible gratification from it, that he had invented the pretence that he himself could not read writing without spectacles. Therefore he now assumed a pair, of grave and prodigious proportions, which not only seriously inconvenienced his nose and his breakfast, but seriously impeded his perusal of the letter. For, he had the eyes of a microscope and a telescope combined, when they were unassisted.

‘It’s from Mr. Honeythunder, of course,’ said the old lady, folding her arms.

‘Of course,’ assented her son. He then lamely read on:

‘“Haven of Philanthropy, Chief Offices, London, Wednesday.

‘“Dear Madam,

‘“I write in the —;” In the what’s this? What does he write in?’

‘In the chair,’ said the old lady.

The Reverend Septimus took off his spectacles, that he might see her face, as he exclaimed:

‘Why, what should he write in?’

‘Bless me, bless me, Sept,’ returned the old lady, ‘you don’t see the context! Give it back to me, my dear.’

Glad to get his spectacles off (for they always made his eyes water), her son obeyed: murmuring that his sight for reading manuscript got worse and worse daily.

‘“I write,”’ his mother went on, reading very perspicuously and precisely, ‘“from the chair, to which I shall probably be confined for some hours.”’

Septimus looked at the row of chairs against the wall, with a half-protesting and half-appealing countenance.

‘“We have,”’ the old lady read on with a little extra emphasis, ‘“a meeting of our Convened Chief Composite Committee of Central and District Philanthropists, at our Head Haven as above; and it is their unanimous pleasure that I take the chair.”’

Septimus breathed more freely, and muttered: ‘O! if he comes to that, let him,’

‘“Not to lose a day’s post, I take the opportunity of a long report being read, denouncing a public miscreant —”’

‘It is a most extraordinary thing,’ interposed the gentle Minor Canon, laying down his knife and fork to rub his ear in a vexed manner, ‘that these Philanthropists are always denouncing somebody. And it is another most extraordinary thing that they are always so violently flush of miscreants!’

‘“Denouncing a public miscreant —”’— the old lady resumed, ‘“to get our little affair of business off my mind. I have spoken with my two wards, Neville and Helena Landless, on the subject of their defective education, and they give in to the plan proposed; as I should have taken good care they did, whether they liked it or not.”’

‘And it is another most extraordinary thing,’ remarked the Minor Canon in the same tone as before, ‘that these philanthropists are so given to seizing their fellow-creatures by the scruff of the neck, and (as one may say) bumping them into the paths of peace. — I beg your pardon, Ma dear, for interrupting.’

‘“Therefore, dear Madam, you will please prepare your son, the Rev. Mr. Septimus, to expect Neville as an inmate to be read with, on Monday next. On the same day Helena will accompany him to Cloisterham, to take up her quarters at the Nuns’ House, the establishment recommended by yourself and son jointly. Please likewise to prepare for her reception and tuition there. The terms in both cases are understood to be exactly as stated to me in writing by yourself, when I opened a correspondence with you on this subject, after the honour of being introduced to you at your sister’s house in town here. With compliments to the Rev. Mr. Septimus, I am, Dear Madam, Your affectionate brother (In Philanthropy), Luke Honeythunder.”’

‘Well, Ma,’ said Septimus, after a little more rubbing of his ear, ‘we must try it. There can be no doubt that we have room for an inmate, and that I have time to bestow upon him, and inclination too. I must confess to feeling rather glad that he is not Mr. Honeythunder himself. Though that seems wretchedly prejudiced — does it not? — for I never saw him. Is he a large man, Ma?’

‘I should call him a large man, my dear,’ the old lady replied after some hesitation, ‘but that his voice is so much larger.’

‘Than himself?’

‘Than anybody.’

‘Hah!’ said Septimus. And finished his breakfast as if the flavour of the Superior Family Souchong, and also of the ham and toast and eggs, were a little on the wane.

Mrs. Crisparkle’s sister, another piece of Dresden china, and matching her so neatly that they would have made a delightful pair of ornaments for the two ends of any capacious old-fashioned chimneypiece, and by right should never have been seen apart, was the childless wife of a clergyman holding Corporation preferment in London City. Mr. Honeythunder in his public character of Professor of Philanthropy had come to know Mrs. Crisparkle during the last re-matching of the china ornaments (in other words during her last annual visit to her sister), after a public occasion of a philanthropic nature, when certain devoted orphans of tender years had been glutted with plum buns, and plump bumptiousness. These were all the antecedents known in Minor Canon Corner of the coming pupils.

‘I am sure you will agree with me, Ma,’ said Mr. Crisparkle, after thinking the matter over, ‘that the first thing to be done, is, to put these young people as much at their ease as possible. There is nothing disinterested in the notion, because we cannot be at our ease with them unless they are at their ease with us. Now, Jasper’s nephew is down here at present; and like takes to like, and youth takes to youth. He is a cordial young fellow, and we will have him to meet the brother and sister at dinner. That’s three. We can’t think of asking him, without asking Jasper. That’s four. Add Miss Twinkleton and the fairy bride that is to be, and that’s six. Add our two selves, and that’s eight. Would eight at a friendly dinner at all put you out, Ma?’

‘Nine would, Sept,’ returned the old lady, visibly nervous.

‘My dear Ma, I particularise eight.’

‘The exact size of the table and the room, my dear.’

So it was settled that way: and when Mr. Crisparkle called with his mother upon Miss Twinkleton, to arrange for the reception of Miss Helena Landless at the Nuns’ House, the two other invitations having reference to that establishment were proffered and accepted. Miss Twinkleton did, indeed, glance at the globes, as regretting that they were not formed to be taken out into society; but became reconciled to leaving them behind. Instructions were then despatched to the Philanthropist for the departure and arrival, in good time for dinner, of Mr. Neville and Miss Helena; and stock for soup became fragrant in the air of Minor Canon Corner.

In those days there was no railway to Cloisterham, and Mr. Sapsea said there never would be. Mr. Sapsea said more; he said there never should be. And yet, marvellous to consider, it has come to pass, in these days, that Express Trains don’t think Cloisterham worth stopping at, but yell and whirl through it on their larger errands, casting the dust off their wheels as a testimony against its insignificance. Some remote fragment of Main Line to somewhere else, there was, which was going to ruin the Money Market if it failed, and Church and State if it succeeded, and (of course), the Constitution, whether or no; but even that had already so unsettled Cloisterham traffic, that the traffic, deserting the high road, came sneaking in from an unprecedented part of the country by a back stable-way, for many years labelled at the corner: ‘Beware of the Dog.’

To this ignominious avenue of approach, Mr. Crisparkle repaired, awaiting the arrival of a short, squat omnibus, with a disproportionate heap of luggage on the roof — like a little Elephant with infinitely too much Castle — which was then the daily service between Cloisterham and external mankind. As this vehicle lumbered up, Mr. Crisparkle could hardly see anything else of it for a large outside passenger seated on the box, with his elbows squared, and his hands on his knees, compressing the driver into a most uncomfortably small compass, and glowering about him with a strongly-marked face.

‘Is this Cloisterham?’ demanded the passenger, in a tremendous voice.

‘It is,’ replied the driver, rubbing himself as if he ached, after throwing the reins to the ostler. ‘And I never was so glad to see it.’

‘Tell your master to make his box-seat wider, then,’ returned the passenger. ‘Your master is morally bound — and ought to be legally, under ruinous penalties — to provide for the comfort of his fellow– man.’

The driver instituted, with the palms of his hands, a superficial perquisition into the state of his skeleton; which seemed to make him anxious.

‘Have I sat upon you?’ asked the passenger.

‘You have,’ said the driver, as if he didn’t like it at all.

‘Take that card, my friend.’

‘I think I won’t deprive you on it,’ returned the driver, casting his eyes over it with no great favour, without taking it. ‘What’s the good of it to me?’

‘Be a Member of that Society,’ said the passenger.

‘What shall I get by it?’ asked the driver.

‘Brotherhood,’ returned the passenger, in a ferocious voice.

‘Thankee,’ said the driver, very deliberately, as he got down; ‘my mother was contented with myself, and so am I. I don’t want no brothers.’

‘But you must have them,’ replied the passenger, also descending, ‘whether you like it or not. I am your brother.’

‘ I say!’ expostulated the driver, becoming more chafed in temper, ‘not too fur! The worm will, when —’

But here, Mr. Crisparkle interposed, remonstrating aside, in a friendly voice: ‘Joe, Joe, Joe! don’t forget yourself, Joe, my good fellow!’ and then, when Joe peaceably touched his hat, accosting the passenger with: ‘Mr. Honeythunder?’

‘That is my name, sir.’

‘My name is Crisparkle.’

‘Reverend Mr. Septimus? Glad to see you, sir. Neville and Helena are inside. Having a little succumbed of late, under the pressure of my public labours, I thought I would take a mouthful of fresh air, and come down with them, and return at night. So you are the Reverend Mr. Septimus, are you?’ surveying him on the whole with disappointment, and twisting a double eyeglass by its ribbon, as if he were roasting it, but not otherwise using it. ‘Hah! I expected to see you older, sir.’

‘I hope you will,’ was the good-humoured reply.

‘Eh?’ demanded Mr. Honeythunder.

‘Only a poor little joke. Not worth repeating.’

‘Joke? Ay; I never see a joke,’ Mr. Honeythunder frowningly retorted. ‘A joke is wasted upon me, sir. Where are they? Helena and Neville, come here! Mr. Crisparkle has come down to meet you.’

An unusually handsome lithe young fellow, and an unusually handsome lithe girl; much alike; both very dark, and very rich in colour; she of almost the gipsy type; something untamed about them both; a certain air upon them of hunter and huntress; yet withal a certain air of being the objects of the chase, rather than the followers. Slender, supple, quick of eye and limb; half shy, half defiant; fierce of look; an indefinable kind of pause coming and going on their whole expression, both of face and form, which might be equally likened to the pause before a crouch or a bound. The rough mental notes made in the first five minutes by Mr. Crisparkle would have read thus, verbatim.

He invited Mr. Honeythunder to dinner, with a troubled mind (for the discomfiture of the dear old china shepherdess lay heavy on it), and gave his arm to Helena Landless. Both she and her brother, as they walked all together through the ancient streets, took great delight in what he pointed out of the Cathedral and the Monastery ruin, and wondered — so his notes ran on — much as if they were beautiful barbaric captives brought from some wild tropical dominion. Mr. Honeythunder walked in the middle of the road, shouldering the natives out of his way, and loudly developing a scheme he had, for making a raid on all the unemployed persons in the United Kingdom, laying them every one by the heels in jail, and forcing them, on pain of prompt extermination, to become philanthropists.

Mrs. Crisparkle had need of her own share of philanthropy when she beheld this very large and very loud excrescence on the little party. Always something in the nature of a Boil upon the face of society, Mr. Honeythunder expanded into an inflammatory Wen in Minor Canon Corner. Though it was not literally true, as was facetiously charged against him by public unbelievers, that he called aloud to his fellow-creatures: ‘Curse your souls and bodies, come here and be blessed!’ still his philanthropy was of that gunpowderous sort that the difference between it and animosity was hard to determine. You were to abolish military force, but you were first to bring all commanding officers who had done their duty, to trial by court-martial for that offence, and shoot them. You were to abolish war, but were to make converts by making war upon them, and charging them with loving war as the apple of their eye. You were to have no capital punishment, but were first to sweep off the face of the earth all legislators, jurists, and judges, who were of the contrary opinion. You were to have universal concord, and were to get it by eliminating all the people who wouldn’t, or conscientiously couldn’t, be concordant. You were to love your brother as yourself, but after an indefinite interval of maligning him (very much as if you hated him), and calling him all manner of names. Above all things, you were to do nothing in private, or on your own account. You were to go to the offices of the Haven of Philanthropy, and put your name down as a Member and a Professing Philanthropist. Then, you were to pay up your subscription, get your card of membership and your riband and medal, and were evermore to live upon a platform, and evermore to say what Mr. Honeythunder said, and what the Treasurer said, and what the sub–Treasurer said, and what the Committee said, and what the sub–Committee said, and what the Secretary said, and what the Vice–Secretary said. And this was usually said in the unanimously-carried resolution under hand and seal, to the effect: ‘That this assembled Body of Professing Philanthropists views, with indignant scorn and contempt, not unmixed with utter detestation and loathing abhorrence’— in short, the baseness of all those who do not belong to it, and pledges itself to make as many obnoxious statements as possible about them, without being at all particular as to facts.

The dinner was a most doleful breakdown. The philanthropist deranged the symmetry of the table, sat himself in the way of the waiting, blocked up the thoroughfare, and drove Mr. Tope (who assisted the parlour-maid) to the verge of distraction by passing plates and dishes on, over his own head. Nobody could talk to anybody, because he held forth to everybody at once, as if the company had no individual existence, but were a Meeting. He impounded the Reverend Mr. Septimus, as an official personage to be addressed, or kind of human peg to hang his oratorical hat on, and fell into the exasperating habit, common among such orators, of impersonating him as a wicked and weak opponent. Thus, he would ask: ‘And will you, sir, now stultify yourself by telling me’— and so forth, when the innocent man had not opened his lips, nor meant to open them. Or he would say: ‘Now see, sir, to what a position you are reduced. I will leave you no escape. After exhausting all the resources of fraud and falsehood, during years upon years; after exhibiting a combination of dastardly meanness with ensanguined daring, such as the world has not often witnessed; you have now the hypocrisy to bend the knee before the most degraded of mankind, and to sue and whine and howl for mercy!’ Whereat the unfortunate Minor Canon would look, in part indignant and in part perplexed; while his worthy mother sat bridling, with tears in her eyes, and the remainder of the party lapsed into a sort of gelatinous state, in which there was no flavour or solidity, and very little resistance.

But the gush of philanthropy that burst forth when the departure of Mr. Honeythunder began to impend, must have been highly gratifying to the feelings of that distinguished man. His coffee was produced, by the special activity of Mr. Tope, a full hour before he wanted it. Mr. Crisparkle sat with his watch in his hand for about the same period, lest he should overstay his time. The four young people were unanimous in believing that the Cathedral clock struck three-quarters, when it actually struck but one. Miss Twinkleton estimated the distance to the omnibus at five-and-twenty minutes’ walk, when it was really five. The affectionate kindness of the whole circle hustled him into his greatcoat, and shoved him out into the moonlight, as if he were a fugitive traitor with whom they sympathised, and a troop of horse were at the back door. Mr. Crisparkle and his new charge, who took him to the omnibus, were so fervent in their apprehensions of his catching cold, that they shut him up in it instantly and left him, with still half-an-hour to spare.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54ed/chapter6.html

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