The Puzzle of Dickens's Last Plot, by Andrew Lang

The Story

Dramatis Personae

For the discovery of Dickens’s secret in Edwin Drood it is necessary to obtain a clear view of the characters in the tale, and of their relations to each other.

About the middle of the nineteenth century there lived in Cloisterham, a cathedral city sketched from Rochester, a young University man, Mr. Bud, who had a friend Mr. Drood, one of a firm of engineers — somewhere. They were “fast friends and old college companions.” Both married young. Mr. Bud wedded a lady unnamed, by whom he was the father of one child, a daughter, Rosa Bud. Mr. Drood, whose wife’s maiden name was Jasper, had one son, Edwin Drood. Mrs. Bud was drowned in a boating accident, when her daughter, Rosa, was a child. Mr. Drood, already a widower, and the bereaved Mr. Bud “betrothed” the two children, Rosa and Edwin, and then expired, when the orphans were about seven and eleven years old. The guardian of Rosa was a lawyer, Mr. Grewgious, who had been in love with her mother. To Grewgious Mr. Bud entrusted his wife’s engagement ring, rubies and diamonds, which Grewgious was to hand over to Edwin Drood, if, when he attained his majority, he and Rosa decided to marry.

Grewgious was apparently legal agent for Edwin, while Edwin’s maternal uncle, John Jasper (aged about sixteen when the male parents died), was Edwin’s “trustee,” as well as his uncle and devoted friend. Rosa’s little fortune was an annuity producing 250 pounds a-year: Edwin succeeded to his father’s share in an engineering firm.

When the story opens, Edwin is nearly twenty-one, and is about to proceed to Egypt, as an engineer. Rosa, at school in Cloisterham, is about seventeen; John Jasper is twenty-six. He is conductor of the Choir of the Cathedral, a “lay precentor;” he is very dark, with thick black whiskers, and, for a number of years, has been a victim to the habit of opium smoking. He began very early. He takes this drug both in his lodgings, over the gate of the Cathedral, and in a den in East London, kept by a woman nicknamed “The Princess Puffer.” This hag, we learn, has been a determined drunkard — “I drank heaven’s-hard,”— for sixteen years BEFORE she took to opium. If she has been dealing in opium for ten years (the exact period is not stated), she has been very disreputable for twenty-six years, that is ever since John Jasper’s birth. Mr. Cuming Walters suggests that she is the mother of John Jasper, and, therefore, maternal grandmother of Edwin Drood. She detests her client, Jasper, and plays the spy on his movements, for reasons unexplained.

Jasper is secretly in love with Rosa, the fiancee of his nephew, and his own pupil in the musical art. He makes her aware of his passion, silently, and she fears and detests him, but keeps these emotions private. She is a saucy school-girl, and she and Edwin are on uncomfortable terms: she does not love him, while he perhaps does love her, but is annoyed by her manner, and by the gossip about their betrothal. “The bloom is off the plum” of their prearranged loves, he says to his friend, uncle, and confidant, Jasper, whose own concealed passion for Rosa is of a ferocious and homicidal character. Rosa is aware of this fact; “a glaze comes over his eyes,” sometimes, she says, “and he seems to wander away into a frightful sort of dream, in which he threatens most . . . ” The man appears to have these frightful dreams even when he is not under opium.

Opening of the Tale

The tale opens abruptly with an opium-bred vision of the tower of Cloisterham Cathedral, beheld by Jasper as he awakens in the den of the Princess Puffer, between a Chinaman, a Lascar, and the hag herself. This Cathedral tower, thus early and emphatically introduced, is to play a great but more or less mysterious part in the romance: that is certain. Jasper, waking, makes experiments on the talk of the old woman, the Lascar and Chinaman in their sleep. He pronounces it “unintelligible,” which satisfies him that his own babble, when under opium, must be unintelligible also. He is, presumably, acquainted with the languages of the eastern coast of India, and with Chinese, otherwise, how could he hope to understand the sleepers? He is being watched by the hag, who hates him.

Jasper returns to Cloisterham, where we are introduced to the Dean, a nonentity, and to Minor Canon Crisparkle, a muscular Christian in the pink of training, a classical scholar, and a good honest fellow. Jasper gives Edwin a dinner, and gushes over “his bright boy,” a lively lad, full of chaff, but also full of confiding affection and tenderness of heart. Edwin admits that his betrothal is a bore: Jasper admits that he loathes his life; and that the church singing “often sounds to me quite devilish,”— and no wonder. After this dinner, Jasper has a “weird seizure;” “a strange film comes over Jasper’s eyes,” he “looks frightfully ill,” becomes rigid, and admits that he “has been taking opium for a pain, an agony that sometimes overcomes me.” This “agony,” we learn, is the pain of hearing Edwin speak lightly of his love, whom Jasper so furiously desires. “Take it as a warning,” Jasper says, but Edwin, puzzled, and full of confiding tenderness, does not understand.

In the next scene we meet the school-girl, Rosa, who takes a walk and has a tiff with Edwin. Sir Luke Fildes’s illustration shows Edwin as “a lad with the bloom of a lass,” with a classic profile; and a gracious head of long, thick, fair hair, long, though we learn it has just been cut. He wears a soft slouched hat, and the pea-coat of the period.

Sapsea and Durdles

Next, Jasper and Sapsea, a pompous ass, auctioneer, and mayor, sit at their wine, expecting a third guest. Mr. Sapsea reads his absurd epitaph for his late wife, who is buried in a “Monument,” a vault of some sort in the Cathedral churchyard. To them enter Durdles, a man never sober, yet trusted with the key of the crypt, “as contractor for rough repairs.” In the crypt “he habitually sleeps off the fumes of liquor.” Of course no Dean would entrust keys to this incredibly dissipated, dirty, and insolent creature, to whom Sapsea gives the key of his vault, for no reason at all, as the epitaph, of course, is to be engraved on the outside, by Durdles’s men. However, Durdles insists on getting the key of the vault: he has two other large keys. Jasper, trifling with them, keeps clinking them together, so as to know, even in the dark, by the sound, which is the key that opens Sapsea’s vault, in the railed-off burial ground, beside the cloister arches. He has met Durdles at Sapsea’s for no other purpose than to obtain access at will to Mrs. Sapsea’s monument. Later in the evening Jasper finds Durdles more or less drunk, and being stoned by a gamin, “Deputy,” a retainer of a tramp’s lodging-house. Durdles fees Deputy, in fact, to drive him home every night after ten. Jasper and Deputy fall into feud, and Jasper has thus a new, keen, and omnipresent enemy. As he walks with Durdles that worthy explains (in reply to a question by Jasper), that, by tapping a wall, even if over six feet thick, with his hammer, he can detect the nature of the contents of the vault, “solid in hollow, and inside solid, hollow again. Old ’un crumbled away in stone coffin, in vault.” He can also discover the presence of “rubbish left in that same six foot space by Durdles’s men.” Thus, if a foreign body were introduced into the Sapsea vault, Durdles could detect its presence by tapping the outside wall. As Jasper’s purpose clearly is to introduce a foreign body — that of Edwin who stands between him and Rosa — into Mrs. Sapsea’s vault, this “gift” of Durdles is, for Jasper, an uncomfortable discovery. He goes home, watches Edwin asleep, and smokes opium.

The Landlesses

Two new characters are now introduced, Neville and Helena Landless,1 twins, orphans, of Cingalese extraction, probably Eurasian; very dark, the girl “almost of the gipsy type;” both are “fierce of look.” The young man is to read with Canon Crisparkle and live with him; the girl goes to the same school as Rosa. The education of both has been utterly neglected; instruction has been denied to them. Neville explains the cause of their fierceness to Crisparkle. In Ceylon they were bullied by a cruel stepfather and several times ran away: the girl was the leader, always “dressed as a boy, and showing the daring of a man.” Edwin Drood’s air of supercilious ownership of Rosa Bud (indicated as a fault of youth and circumstance, not of heart and character), irritates Neville Landless, who falls in love with Rosa at first sight. As Rosa sings, at Crisparkle’s, while Jasper plays the piano, Jasper’s fixed stare produces an hysterical fit in the girl, who is soothed by Helena Landless. Helena shows her aversion to Jasper, who, as even Edwin now sees, frightens Rosa. “You would be afraid of him, under similar circumstances, wouldn’t you, Miss Landless?” asks Edwin. “Not under any circumstances,” answers Helena, and Jasper “thanks Miss Landless for this vindication of his character.”

The girls go back to their school, where Rosa explains to Helena her horror of Jasper’s silent love-making: “I feel that I am never safe from him . . . a glaze comes over his eyes and he seems to wander away into a frightful sort of dream in which he threatens most,” as already quoted. Helena thus, and she alone, except Rosa, understands Jasper thoroughly. She becomes Rosa’s protectress. “Let whomsoever it most concerned look well to it.”

Thus Jasper has a new observer and enemy, in addition to the omnipresent street boy, Deputy, and the detective old hag of the opium den.

Leaving the Canon’s house, Neville and Edwin quarrel violently over Rosa, in the open air; they are followed by Jasper, and taken to his house to be reconciled over glasses of mulled wine. Jasper drugs the wine, and thus provokes a violent scene; next day he tells Crisparkle that Neville is “murderous.” “There is something of the tiger in his dark blood.” He spreads the story of the fracas in the town.

Grewgious, Rosa’s guardian, now comes down on business; the girl fails to explain to him the unsatisfactory relations between her and Edwin: Grewgious is to return to her “at Christmas,” if she sends for him, and she does send. Grewgious, “an angular man,” all duty and sentiment (he had loved Rosa’s mother), has an interview with Edwin’s trustee, Jasper, for whom he has no enthusiasm, but whom he does not in any way suspect. They part on good terms, to meet at Christmas. Crisparkle, with whom Helena has fallen suddenly in love, arranges with Jasper that Edwin and Landless shall meet and be reconciled, as both are willing to be, at a dinner in Jasper’s rooms, on Christmas Eve. Jasper, when Crisparkle proposes this, denotes by his manner “some close internal calculation.” We see that he is reckoning how the dinner suits his plan of campaign, and “close calculation” may refer, as in Mr. Proctor’s theory, to the period of the moon: on Christmas Eve there will be no moonshine at midnight. Jasper, having worked out this problem, accepts Crisparkle’s proposal, and his assurances about Neville, and shows Crisparkle a diary in which he has entered his fears that Edwin’s life is in danger from Neville. Edwin (who is not in Cloisterham at this moment) accepts, by letter, the invitation to meet Neville at Jasper’s on Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile Edwin visits Grewgious in his London chambers; is lectured on his laggard and supercilious behaviour as a lover, and receives the engagement ring of the late Mrs. Bud, Rosa’s mother, which is very dear to Grewgious — in the presence of Bazzard, Grewgious’s clerk, a gloomy writer of an amateur unacted tragedy. Edwin is to return the ring to Grewgious, if he and Rosa decide not to marry. The ring is in a case, and Edwin places it “in his breast.” We must understand, in the breast-pocket of his coat: no other interpretation will pass muster. “Her ring — will it come back to me?” reflects the mournful Grewgious.

The Unaccountable Expedition

Jasper now tells Sapsea, and the Dean, that he is to make “a moonlight expedition with Durdles among the tombs, vaults, towers, and ruins to-night.” The impossible Durdles has the keys necessary for this, “surely an unaccountable expedition,” Dickens keeps remarking. The moon seems to rise on this night at about 7.30 p.m. Jasper takes a big case-bottle of liquor — drugged, of course and goes to the den of Durdles. In the yard of this inspector of monuments he is bidden to beware of a mound of quicklime near the yard gate. “With a little handy stirring, quick enough to eat your bones,” says Durdles. There is some considerable distance between this “mound” of quicklime and the crypt, of which Durdles has the key, but the intervening space is quite empty of human presence, as the citizens are unwilling to meet ghosts.

In the crypt Durdles drinks a good deal of the drugged liquor. “They are to ascend the great Tower,”— and why they do that is part of the Mystery, though not an insoluble part. Before they climb, Durdles tells Jasper that he was drunk and asleep in the crypt, last Christmas Eve, and was wakened by “the ghost of one terrific shriek, followed by the ghost of the howl of a dog, a long dismal, woeful howl, such as a dog gives when a person’s dead.” Durdles has made inquiries and, as no one else heard the shriek and the howl, he calls these sounds “ghosts.”

They are obviously meant to be understood as supranormal premonitory sounds; of the nature of second sight, or rather of second hearing. Forster gives examples of Dickens’s tendency to believe in such premonitions: Dickens had himself a curious premonitory dream. He considerably overdid the premonitory business in his otherwise excellent story, The Signalman, or so it seems to a student of these things. The shriek and howl heard by Durdles are to be repeated, we see, in real life, later, on a Christmas Eve. The question is — when? More probably NOT on the Christmas Eve just imminent, when Edwin is to vanish, but, on the Christmas Eve following, when Jasper is to be unmasked.

All this while, and later, Jasper examines Durdles very closely, studying the effects on him of the drugged drink. When they reach the top of the tower, Jasper closely contemplates “that stillest part of it” (the landscape) “which the Cathedral overshadows; but he contemplates Durdles quite as curiously.”

There is a motive for the scrutiny in either case. Jasper examines the part of the precincts in the shadow of the Cathedral, because he wishes to assure himself that it is lonely enough for his later undescribed but easily guessed proceedings in this night of mystery. He will have much to do that could not brook witnesses, after the drugged Durdles has fallen sound asleep. We have already been assured that the whole area over which Jasper is to operate is “utterly deserted,” even when it lies in full moonlight, about 8.30 p.m. “One might fancy that the tide of life was stemmed by Mr. Jasper’s own gate-house.” The people of Cloisterham, we hear, would deny that they believe in ghosts; but they give this part of the precinct a wide berth (Chapter XII.). If the region is “utterly deserted” at nine o’clock in the evening, when it lies in the ivory moonlight, much more will it be free from human presence when it lies in shadow, between one and two o’clock after midnight. Jasper, however, from the tower top closely scrutinizes the area of his future operations. It is, probably, for this very purpose of discovering whether the coast be clear or not, that Jasper climbs the tower.

He watches Durdles for the purpose of finding how the drug which he has administered works, with a view to future operations on Edwin. Durdles is now in such a state that “he deems the ground so far below on a level with the tower, and would as lief walk off the tower into the air as not.”

All this is apparently meant to suggest that Jasper, on Christmas Eve, will repeat his expedition, WITH EDWIN, whom he will have drugged, and that he will allow Edwin to “walk off the tower into the air.” There are later suggestions to the same effect, as we shall see, but they are deliberately misleading. There are also strong suggestions to the very opposite effect: it is broadly indicated that Jasper is to strangle Edwin with a thick black-silk scarf, which he has just taken to wearing for the good of his throat.

The pair return to the crypt, Durdles falls asleep, dreams that Jasper leaves him, “and that something touches him and something falls from his hand. Then something clinks and gropes about,” and the lines of moonlight shift their direction, as Durdles finds that they have really done when he wakens, with Jasper beside him, while the Cathedral clock strikes two. They have had many hours, not less than five, for their expedition. The key of the crypt lies beside Durdles on the ground. They go out, and as Deputy begins stone-throwing, Jasper half strangles him.

Purpose of the Expedition

Jasper has had ample time to take models in wax of all Durdles’s keys. But he could have done that in a few minutes, while Durdles slept, if he had wax with him, without leaving the crypt. He has also had time to convey several wheelbarrowfuls of quicklime from Durdles’s yard to Mrs. Sapsea’s sepulchre, of which monument he probably took the key from Durdles, and tried its identity by clinking. But even in a Cathedral town, even after midnight, several successive expeditions of a lay precentor with a wheelbarrow full of quicklime would have been apt to attract the comment of some belated physician, some cleric coming from a sick bed, or some local roysterers. Therefore it is that Dickens insists on the “utterly deserted” character of the area, and shows us that Jasper has made sure of that essential fact by observations from the tower top. Still, his was a perilous expedition, with his wheelbarrow! We should probably learn later, that Jasper was detected by the wakeful Deputy, who loathed him. Moreover, next morning Durdles was apt to notice that some of his quicklime had been removed. As far as is shown, Durdles noticed nothing of that kind, though he does observe peculiarities in Jasper’s behaviour.

The next point in the tale is that Edwin and Rosa meet, and have sense enough to break off their engagement. But Edwin, represented as really good-hearted, now begins to repent his past behaviour, and, though he has a kind of fancy for Miss Landless, he pretty clearly falls deeper in love with his late fiancee, and weeps his loss in private: so we are told.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve comes, the day of the dinner of three, Jasper, Landless, and Edwin. The chapter describing this fateful day (xiv.) is headed, When shall these Three meet again? and Mr. Proctor argues that Dickens intends that THEY SHALL meet again. The intention, and the hint, are much in Dickens’s manner. Landless means to start, next day, very early, on a solitary walking tour, and buys an exorbitantly heavy stick. We casually hear that Jasper knows Edwin to possess no jewellery, except a watch and chain and a scarf-pin. As Edwin moons about, he finds the old opium hag, come down from London, “seeking a needle in a bottle of hay,” she says — that is, hunting vainly for Jasper.

Please remark that Jasper has run up to town, on December 23, and has saturated his system with a debauch of opium on the very eve of the day when he clearly means to kill Edwin. This was a most injudicious indulgence, in the circumstances. A maiden murder needs nerve! We know that “fiddlestrings was weakness to express the state of” Jasper’s “nerves” on the day after the night of opium with which the story opens. On December 24, Jasper returned home, the hag at his heels. The old woman, when met by Edwin, has a curious film over her eyes; “he seems to know her.” “Great heaven,” he thinks, next moment. “Like Jack that night!” This refers to a kind of fit of Jasper’s, after dinner, on the first evening of the story. Edwin has then seen Jack Jasper in one of his “filmy” seizures. The woman prays Edwin for three shillings and sixpence, to buy opium. He gives her the money; she asks his Christian name. “Edwin.” Is “Eddy” a sweetheart’s form of that? He says that he has no sweetheart. He is told to be thankful that his name is not Ned. Now, Jasper alone calls Edwin “Ned.” “‘Ned’ is a threatened name, a dangerous name,” says the hag, who has heard Jasper threaten “Ned” in his opium dreams.

Edwin determines to tell this adventure to Jasper, BUT NOT ON THIS NIGHT: tomorrow will do. Now, DID he tell the story to Jasper that night, in the presence of Landless, at dinner? If so, Helena Landless might later learn the fact from Neville. If she knew it, she would later tell Mr. Grewgious.

The three men meet and dine. There is a fearful storm. “Stones are displaced upon the summit of the great tower.” Next morning, early, Jasper yells to Crisparkle, who is looking out of his window in Minor Canon Row, that Edwin has disappeared. Neville has already set out on his walking tour.

After the Disappearance

Men go forth and apprehend Neville, who shows fight with his heavy stick. We learn that he and Drood left Jasper’s house at midnight, went for ten minutes to look at the river under the wind, and parted at Crisparkle’s door. Neville now remains under suspicion: Jasper directs the search in the river, on December 25, 26, and 27. On the evening of December 27, Grewgious visits Jasper. Now, Grewgious, as we know, was to be at Cloisterham at Christmas. True, he was engaged to dine on Christmas Day with Bazzard, his clerk; but, thoughtful as he was of the moody Bazzard, as Edwin was leaving Cloisterham he would excuse himself. He would naturally take a great part in the search for Edwin, above all as Edwin had in his possession the ring so dear to the lawyer. Edwin had not shown it to Rosa when they determined to part. He “kept it in his breast,” and the ring, we learn, was “gifted with invincible force to hold and drag,” so Dickens warns us.

The ring is obviously to be a piece de conviction. But our point, at present, is that we do not know how Grewgious, to whom this ring was so dear, employed himself at Cloisterham — after Edwin’s disappearance — between December 25 and December 27. On the evening of the 27th, he came to Jasper, saying, “I have JUST LEFT MISS LANDLESS.” He then slowly and watchfully told Jasper that Edwin’s engagement was broken off, while the precentor gasped, perspired, tore his hair, shrieked, and finally subsided into a heap of muddy clothes on the floor. Meanwhile, Mr. Grewgious, calmly observing these phenomena, warmed his hands at the fire for some time before he called in Jasper’s landlady.

Grewgious now knows by Jasper’s behaviour that he believes himself to have committed a superfluous crime, by murdering Edwin, who no longer stood between him and Rosa, as their engagement was already at an end. Whether a Jasper, in real life, would excite himself so much, is another question. We do not know, as Mr. Proctor insists, what Mr. Grewgious had been doing at Cloisterham between Christmas Day and December 27, the date of his experiment on Jasper’s nerves. Mr. Proctor supposes him to have met the living Edwin, and obtained information from him, after his escape from a murderous attack by Jasper. Mr. Proctor insists that this is the only explanation of Grewgious’s conduct, any other “is absolutely impossible.” In that case the experiment of Grewgious was not made to gain information from Jasper’s demeanour, but was the beginning of his punishment, and was intended by Grewgious to be so.

But Dickens has been careful to suggest, with suspicious breadth of candour, another explanation of the source of Grewgious’s knowledge. If Edwin has really escaped, and met Grewgious, Dickens does not want us to be sure of that, as Mr. Proctor was sure. Dickens deliberately puts his readers on another trail, though neither Mr. Walters nor Mr. Proctor struck the scent. As we have noted, Grewgious at once says to Jasper, “I HAVE JUST COME FROM MISS LANDLESS.” This tells Jasper nothing, but it tells a great deal to the watchful reader, who remembers that Miss Landless, and she only, is aware that Jasper loves, bullies, and insults Rosa, and that Rosa’s life is embittered by Jasper’s silent wooing, and his unspoken threats. Helena may also know that “Ned is a threatened name,” as we have seen, and that the menace comes from Jasper. As Jasper is now known to be Edwin’s rival in love, and as Edwin has vanished, the murderer, Mr. Grewgious reckons, is Jasper; and his experiment, with Jasper’s consequent shriek and fit, confirms the hypothesis. Thus Grewgious had information enough, from Miss Landless, to suggest his experiment — Dickens intentionally made that clear (though not clear enough for Mr. Proctor and Mr. Cuming Walters)— while his experiment gives him a moral certainty of Jasper’s crime, but yields no legal evidence.

But does Grewgious know no more than what Helena, and the fit and shriek of Jasper, have told him? Is his knowledge limited to the evidence that Jasper has murdered Edwin? Or does Grewgious know more, know that Edwin, in some way, has escaped from death?

That is Dickens’s secret. But whereas Grewgious, if he believes Jasper to be an actual murderer, should take him seriously; in point of fact, he speaks of Jasper in so light a tone, as “our local friend,” that we feel no certainty that he is not really aware of Edwin’s escape from a murderous attack by Jasper, and of his continued existence.

Presently Crisparkle, under some mysterious impression, apparently telepathic (the book is rich in such psychical phenomena), visits the weir on the river, at night, and next day finds Edwin’s watch and chain in the timbers; his scarf-pin in the pool below. The watch and chain must have been placed purposely where they were found, they could not float thither, and, if Neville had slain Edwin, he would not have stolen his property, of course, except as a blind, neutralised by the placing of the watch in a conspicuous spot. However, the increased suspicions drive Neville away to read law in Staple Inn, where Grewgious also dwells, and incessantly watches Neville out of his window.

About six months later, Helena Landless is to join Neville, who is watched at intervals by Jasper, who, again, is watched by Grewgious as the precentor lurks about Staple Inn.

Dick Datchery

About the time when Helena leaves Cloisterham for town, a new character appears in Cloisterham, “a white-headed personage with black eyebrows, BUTTONED UP IN A TIGHTISH BLUE SURTOUT, with a buff waistcoat, grey trowsers, and something of a military air.” His shock of white hair was unusually thick and ample. This man, “a buffer living idly on his means,” named Datchery, is either, as Mr. Proctor believed, Edwin Drood, or, as Mr. Walters thinks, Helena Landless. By making Grewgious drop the remark that Bazzard, his clerk, a moping owl of an amateur tragedian, “is off duty here,” at his chambers, Dickens hints that Bazzard is Datchery. But that is a mere false scent, a ruse of the author, scattering paper in the wrong place, in this long paper hunt.

As for Helena, Mr. Walters justly argues that Dickens has marked her for some important part in the ruin of Jasper. “There was a slumbering gleam of fire in her intense dark eyes. Let whomsoever it most concerned look well to it.” Again, we have been told that Helena had high courage. She had told Jasper that she feared him “in no circumstances whatever.” Again, we have learned that in childhood she had dressed as a boy when she ran away from home; and she had the motives of protecting Rosa and her brother, Neville, from the machinations of Jasper, who needs watching, as he is trying to ruin Neville’s already dilapidated character, and, by spying on him, to break down his nerve. Really, of course, Neville is quite safe. There is no corpus delicti, no carcase of the missing Edwin Drood.

For the reasons given, Datchery might be Helena in disguise.

If so, the idea is highly ludicrous, while nothing is proved either by the blackness of Datchery’s eyebrows (Helena’s were black), or by Datchery’s habit of carrying his hat under his arm, not on his head. A person who goes so far as to wear a conspicuous white wig, would not be afraid also to dye his eyebrows black, if he were Edwin; while either Edwin or Helena MUST have “made up” the face, by the use of paint and sham wrinkles. Either Helena or Edwin would have been detected in real life, of course, but we allow for the accepted fictitious convention of successful disguise, and for the necessities of the novelist. A tightly buttoned surtout would show Helena’s feminine figure; but let that also pass. As to the hat, Edwin’s own hair was long and thick: add a wig, and his hat would be a burden to him.

What is most unlike the stern, fierce, sententious Helena, is Datchery’s habit of “chaffing.” He fools the ass of a Mayor, Sapsea, by most exaggerated diference: his tone is always that of indolent mockery, which one doubts whether the “intense” and concentrated Helena could assume. He takes rooms in the same house as Jasper, to whom, as to Durdles and Deputy, he introduces himself on the night of his arrival at Cloisterham. He afterwards addresses Deputy, the little gamin, by the name “Winks,” which is given to him by the people at the Tramps’ lodgings: the name is a secret of Deputy’s.

Jasper, Rosa, and Tartar

Meanwhile Jasper formally proposes to Rosa, in the school garden: standing apart and leaning against a sundial, as the garden is commanded by many windows. He offers to resign his hopes of bringing Landless to the gallows (perhaps this bad man would provide a corpus delicti of his own making!) if Rosa will accept him: he threatens to “pursue her to the death,” if she will not; he frightens her so thoroughly that she rushes to Grewgious in his chambers in London. She now suspects Jasper of Edwin’s murder, but keeps her thoughts to herself. She tells Grewgious, who is watching Neville — “I have a fancy for keeping him under my eye,”— that Jasper has made love to her, and Grewgious replies in a parody of “God save the King”!

“On Thee his hopes to fix

Damn him again!”

Would he fool thus, if he knew Jasper to have killed Edwin? He is not certain whether Rosa should visit Helena next day, in Landless’s rooms, opposite; and Mr. Walters suggests that he may be aware that Helena, dressed as Datchery, is really absent at Cloisterham. However, next day, Helena is in her brother’s rooms. Moreover, it is really a sufficient explanation of Grewgious’s doubt that Jasper is lurking around, and that not till next day is a PRIVATE way of communication arranged between Neville and his friends. In any case, next day, Helena is in her brother’s rooms, and, by aid of a Mr. Tartar’s rooms, she and Rosa can meet privately. There is a good deal of conspiring to watch Jasper when he watches Neville, and in this new friend, Mr. Tartar, a lover is provided for Rosa. Tartar is a miraculously agile climber over roofs and up walls, a retired Lieutenant of the navy, and a handy man, being such a climber, to chase Jasper about the roof of the Cathedral, when Jasper’s day of doom arrives.

Jasper’s Opium Visions

In July, Jasper revisits the London opium den, and talks under opium, watched by the old hag. He speaks of a thing which he often does in visions: “a hazardous and perilous journey, over abysses where a slip would be destruction. Look down, look down! You see what lies at the bottom there?” He enacts the vision and says, “There was a fellow traveller.” He “speaks in a whisper, and as if in the dark.” The vision is, in this case, “a poor vision: no struggle, no consciousness of peril, no entreaty.” Edwin, in the reminiscent vision, dies very easily and rapidly. “When it comes to be real at last, it is so short that it seems unreal for the first time.” “And yet I never saw THAT before. Look what a poor miserable mean thing it is. THAT must be real. It’s over.”

What can all this mean? We have been told that, shortly before Christmas Eve, Jasper took to wearing a thick black-silk handkerchief for his throat. He hung it over his arm, “his face knitted and stern,” as he entered his house for his Christmas Eve dinner. If he strangled Edwin with the scarf, as we are to suppose, he did not lead him, drugged, to the tower top, and pitch him off. Is part of Jasper’s vision reminiscent — the brief, unresisting death — while another part is a separate vision, is PROSPECTIVE, “premonitory”? Does he see himself pitching Neville Landless off the tower top, or see him fallen from the Cathedral roof? Is Neville’s body “THAT”—“I never saw THAT before. Look what a poor miserable mean thing it is! THAT must be real.” Jasper “never saw THAT”— the dead body below the height — before. THIS vision, I think, is of the future, not of the past, and is meant to bewilder the reader who thinks that the whole represents the slaying of Drood. The tale is rich in “warnings” and telepathy.

Datchery and the Opium Woman

The hag now tracks Jasper home to Cloisterham. Here she meets Datchery, whom she asks how she can see Jasper? If Datchery is Drood, he now learns, WHAT HE DID NOT KNOW BEFORE, THAT THERE IS SOME CONNECTION BETWEEN JASPER AND THE HAG. He walks with her to the place where Edwin met the hag, on Christmas Eve, and gave her money; and he jingles his own money as he walks. The place, or the sound of the money, makes the woman tell Datchery about Edwin’s gift of three shillings and sixpence for opium. Datchery, “with a sudden change of countenance, gives her a sudden look.” It does not follow that he is NOT Drood, for, though the hag’s love of opium was known to Drood, Datchery is not to reveal his recognition of the woman. He does what any stranger would do; he “gives a sudden look,” as if surprised by the mention of opium.

Mr. Walters says, “Drood would not have changed countenance on hearing a fact he had known six months previously.” But if Drood was playing at being somebody else, he would, of course, give a kind of start and stare, on hearing of the opium. When he also hears from the hag that her former benefactor’s name was Edwin, he asks her how she knew that —“a fatuously unnecessary question,” says Mr. Walters. A needless question for Datchery’s information, if he be Drood, but as useful a question as another if Drood be Datchery, and wishes to maintain the conversation.

Datchery’s Score

Datchery keeps a tavern score of his discoveries behind a door, in cryptic chalk strokes. He does this, says Mr. Walters, because, being Helena, he would betray himself if he wrote in a female hand. But nobody would WRITE secrets on a door! He adds “a moderate stroke,” after meeting the hag, though, says Mr. Walters, “Edwin Drood would have learned nothing new whatever” from the hag.

But Edwin would have learned something quite new, and very important — that the hag was hunting Jasper. Next day Datchery sees the woman shake her fists at Jasper in church, and hears from her that she knows Jasper “better far than all the reverend parsons put together know him.” Datchery then adds a long thick line to his chalked score, yet, says Mr. Walters, Datchery has learned “nothing new to Edwin Drood, if alive.”

This is an obvious error. It is absolutely new to Edwin Drood that the opium hag is intimately acquainted with his uncle, Jasper, and hates Jasper with a deadly hatred. All this is not only new to Drood, if alive, but is rich in promise of further revelations. Drood, on Christmas Eve, had learned from the hag only that she took opium, and that she had come from town to Cloisterham, and had “hunted for a needle in a bottle of hay.” That was the sum of his information. Now he learns that the woman knows, tracks, has found, and hates, his worthy uncle, Jasper. He may well, therefore, add a heavy mark to his score.

We must also ask, How could Helena, fresh from Ceylon, know “the old tavern way of keeping scores? Illegible except to the scorer. The scorer not committed, the scored debited with what is against him,” as Datchery observes. An Eurasian girl of twenty, new to England, would not argue thus with herself: she would probably know nothing of English tavern scores. We do not hear that Helena ever opened a book: we do know that education had been denied to her. What acquaintance could she have with old English tavern customs?

If Drood is Datchery, then Dickens used a form of a very old and favourite ficelle of his: the watching of a villain by an improbable and unsuspected person, in this case thought to be dead. If Helena is Datchery, the “assumption” or personation is in the highest degree improbable, her whole bearing is quite out of her possibilities, and the personation is very absurd.

Here the story ends.

1 Landless is not “Lackland,” but a form of de Laundeles, a Lothian name of the twelfth century, merged later in that of Ormistoun.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lang/andrew/puzzle-of-dickenss-last-plot/chapter1.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03