After a second bottle of wine was opened and the chilled gin punch was finished, the group began to sing travelling songs—some of which I’d sung with Dickens when it had been just the two of us wandering around the country or in Europe the previous decade. This day, as we approached Birmingham, Dickens was moved to dance a sailor’s hornpipe for us as we all whistled accompaniment. When he was finished and out of breath, Dolby gave him the last glass of punch and Dickens began teaching us the drinking song from Der Freischütz. Suddenly an express roared past us going the opposite way on the adjoining track and Dickens’s lovely felt hat was whisked right off his balding head by the vacuum. Wills, who seemed more the consumptive type than an athlete, launched his long arm out the window and caught the hat just before it disappeared forever into the countryside. We all applauded and Dickens pounded the frail man heartily on the back.
“I lost a sealskin cap earlier on this tour under almost exactly the same circumstances,” Dickens said to me as he took the felt hat from Wills and tugged it back on. “I would have hated parting ways with this chapeau. Thank God Wills is famous for his defensive fielding. I can’t remember whether he was famous for playing at Deep fine leg or Backward short leg, but his fielding abilities are legendary. His shelves groan with silver cups.”
“I have never played the game of…” began Wills.
“Never mind, never mind,” laughed Dickens, clapping his companion on the back again. George Dolby boomed out laughter that must have been heard from one end of our express to the other.
IN BIRMINGHAM, I got a taste of the texture and timing of the tour.
I had certainly stayed in my share of hotels, and while such travel was usually enjoyable, I was very aware of Dickens’s ill health the previous winter and spring and also knew from personal experience that constant travel and the vagaries of hotel life do little to allow recovery from ill health. He had confided in me that his left eye continued to blur and ache fiercely, that his belly constantly felt distended, that flatulence was a problem all during the tour, and that the vibration of the trains gave him a sort of nausea and vertigo from which he never had time to recover during his short stays in the cities in which he performed. Balancing near-daily travel and exhausting nights of reading was obviously pushing Dickens to and beyond the limits of his endurance.
Upon arriving in Birmingham, before resting or unpacking his valise, Dickens hurried over to the theatre. Wills was preoccupied with other duties, but Dolby and I followed the Inimitable.
Touring the hall with the theatre owner, Dickens immediately ordered changes. As per his instructions, seats on either side of the stage and certain box seats had been either removed or roped off, but now he stood at his customised reading lectern and ordered even more seats on either side of the large theatre to be eliminated. Everyone attending his reading had to be within direct and unoccluded line of sight. Not only to see him clearly, I understood, but so that he could make eye contact with them.
His advance workers had already erected a large maroon screen that would be behind him as he spoke; the screen was seven feet high and fifteen feet wide and there was a carpet of the same colour between the screen and his lectern. The unique gas lighting was also in place. Here Dickens’s gas man and lighting expert had set two upright pipes rising about twelve feet on either side of his reading lectern. Connecting the two pipes but hidden from the sight of the audience by a maroon board was a horizontal row of gaslights in tin reflectors. In addition to this bright lighting, there was a gaslight on each pipe that was protected by a green shade and which was aimed directly at the reader’s face.
I stood in the glow of this clever lighting rig and the two targeted lamps for only a minute but the glare was intimidating. I would have found it very difficult, if not impossible, to read from any book with those lights shining in my face, but I knew that Dickens rarely if ever read from his prompt books doing these ostensible readings. He had memorised all the hundreds of pages of text he would be performing—read and memorised and altered and improved and rehearsed each story at least two hundred times—and would either close the book he had in his hand after beginning his performance or merely turn the pages, absentmindedly and symbolically, as he went along. Most of the time his eyes would be staring through the blazing rectangle of gas lighting towards the audience. Yet for all that ferocious gaslit glow, Dickens could still see the faces of all those in his audience. He deliberately left the house lighting high enough for that.
Before relinquishing my spot at Charles Dickens’s reading desk, I studied the desk itself. Propped on four slender and elegant legs, the table rose to about the height of the Inimitable’s inimitable navel. Flat-topped, the desk was covered by a crimson piece of cloth this afternoon. On either side of the table were small ledges, the one on the right designed to hold a carafe of water, the one on the left meant for Dickens’s expensive kid gloves and a pocket handkerchief. Also on the left side of the desktop was a rectangular block of wood on which Dickens could—and frequently did—rest either his left or right elbow when he leaned forward. (He often read from just to the left of the desk itself and, I knew from seeing him at previous readings in London, might suddenly lean forward almost boyishly with his right elbow on that raised block and his expressive hands in motion. The effect was to make the audience feel an even more personal and intimate bond with him.)
Now Dickens cleared his throat and I moved away from the desk and down off the stage as the author stood at his reading desk and tested the acoustics of the hall with various snippets from the readings he would do that night. I joined George Dolby in the last row of the balcony.
“The Chief began the tour by reading from his Christmas story ‘Doctor Marigold,’ ” whispered Dolby although we were far away from Dickens. “But it didn’t quite work, at least not to the Chief’s satisfaction—and I do not have to tell you that he is the ultimate perfectionist—so he improves it while leaning towards more of the old favourites: the death scene of Paul from Dombey and Son, the Mr, Mrs, and Miss Squeers scene from Nicholas Nickleby, the trial from Pickwick, the storm scene of David Copperfield, and, of course, A Christmas Carol. The audiences can never get enough of A Christmas Carol.”
“I am sure they cannot,” I said drily. I was on record for noting my disdain for the “Cant and Christmas season.” I also noticed that Dolby’s stammer was not present when he whispered. How very strange such afflictions are. Having been reminded of afflictions, I removed the small travelling flask that now held my laudanum and took several swallows of it. “I am sorry I cannot offer you some of this,” I said to Dolby in a conversational tone, unintimidated by Dickens’s still reciting snippets of this and that from his distant stage. “Medicine.”
“I understand perfectly,” whispered Dolby.
“I am surprised that ‘Doctor Marigold’ did not please the masses,” I said. “Our Christmas Issue with that story sold more than two hundred and fifty thousand copies.”
Dolby shrugged. “The Chief got laughs and tears with it,” he said softly. “But not enough laughs and tears, he said. And not at precisely the right times. So he set it aside.”
“Pity,” I said, feeling the careless warmth of the drug enter my system. “Dickens rehearsed it for more than three months.”
“The Chief rehearses everything,” whispered Dolby.
I did not know how I felt about this absurd appellation of “Chief” that Dolby had assigned to Dickens, but the Inimitable himself seemed to enjoy the title. From everything I could perceive, Dickens enjoyed almost everything about the big, burly, stammering bear of a manager. I had no doubt that this common theatrical tradesman was usurping the position of close friend and occasional confidant that I had held with Dickens for more than a decade now. Not for the first time—and not for the first time under the clarity of laudanum—I saw precisely how Forster, Wills, Macready, Dolby, Fitzgerald—all of us—were mere planets vying and contesting to see who could circle the closest revolutions aro
Without another word I rose and left the theatre.
I HAD INTENDED to return to the hotel—Dickens would go there to rest the few hours before his performance, I knew, but would withdraw into himself, not engaging in conversation until after the long night of readings was over—but found myself wandering the dark and sooty streets of Birmingham, wondering why I was there.
Eight years earlier, in the autumn of 1858—after I had accompanied Dickens on that fool’s errand of a trip north pursuing Ellen Ternan (being convinced by Dickens that we were travelling as research for our collaboration on Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices) and after I had almost died on Carrick Fell—I returned to London with my eye firmly fixed on the theatre. Immediately after the success of The Frozen Deep the previous year, the famous actor Frederick “Frank” Robson had purchased my earlier melodrama The Lighthouse—which Dickens had starred in just as he had in The Frozen Deep—and on 10 August, 1857, my dream of becoming a professional dramatist came true. Dickens sat with me in the author’s box and applauded as others did (I confess to standing and taking a bow during the ovation) but “ovation” may be too strong a word; the applause sounded rather more respectful than enthusiastic.
Reviews of The Lighthouse were equally respectful and tepid. Even gentle John Oxenford of the Times wrote—“We cannot avoid the conclusion that The Lighthouse, with all its merits, is rather a dramatic anecdote than an actual drama.”
Despite this effluvium of tepidity, for months in 1858 I had—to use a phrase I shared with Dickens then—exhausted my brains in the service of more theatrical composition.
It was Dickens’s son Charley, just back from Germany and sharing impressions of a grisly place there in Frankfurt called the Dead House, who gave me my inspiration. I immediately put pen to paper and dashed off a play called The Red Vial. My two lead characters were a lunatic and a lady poisoner (I have always had a fascination with poison and those who poison). I set the main scene of The Red Vial in the Dead House. I confess, Dear Reader, that I thought the set and setting wonderful—a room full of corpses all laid out on cold slabs under sheets, each with a finger wrapped in a string that led upward to a dangling alarm bell, should one of the “dead” not be dead at all. The entire macabre setting reached into the deepest areas of our fears of premature burial and the walking dead.
Dickens himself said little when I proposed the idea and later when I read him the actual sections of the play as I finished them, but he did visit London’s asylum in quest of small details that would add more believability to my lead lunatic. Robson, who had done such a fine job in The Lighthouse, accepted the play for the Olympic Theatre and took the role of the lunatic. I enjoyed the rehearsals immensely, and all of the actors involved assured me that the play was wonderful. They agreed with my premise that although London theatre-goers had become a lumpen lot with dulled minds, a sufficiently strong stimulation might awaken them.
On 11 October, 1858, Dickens accompanied me to The Red Vial’s premiere performance and arranged an after-theatre supper party for me and my friends at his now wifeless home at Tavistock House. A group of at least twenty of us sat together during the performance.
It was a disaster. While my friends shuddered at the delightfully morbid and melodramatic parts, the rest of the audience snickered. The loudest snickers came at the climax of my Dead House scene where—too obviously, according to critics after the fact—one of the corpses rang the bell.
There was no second performance. Dickens tried to be upbeat during all the rest of that endless night, telling jokes at the expense of London audiences, but the supper at Tavistock House was very trying for me. As I later overheard that brat Percy Fitzgerald say—it was a real case of funeral baked meats.
But the disaster of The Red Vial did nothing to dissuade me from my decided course of simultaneously disturbing, fascinating, and repelling my fellow countrymen. Shortly after the wild success of The Woman in White, I was asked the secret of my success and I modestly told my interlocutor—
1. Find a central idea
2. Find the characters
3. Let the characters develop the incidents
4. Begin the story at the beginning
Compare, if you will, this almost scientific artistic principle with the haphazard way that Charles Dickens had thrown his novels together over the decades: pulling characters out of the air (often based willy-nilly on people in his own life) without a thought as to how they might serve the central purpose, mixing in a plethora of random ideas, having characters wander off into incidental occurrences and unimportant side-plots having nothing to do with the overriding idea, and often beginning his story in mid-flight, as it were, violating the important Collins principle of first-things-first.
It was a miracle that we had been able to collaborate the number of times we had. I prided myself not a small bit on bringing some coherence to the plays, stories, travel accounts, and longer works we had outlined or worked on together.
So why, I wondered on this unseasonably cool and rainy May evening in Birmingham, was I here watching Dickens as he was entering the last legs of what sounded to be an amazingly successful reading tour of England and Scotland? Critics incessantly criticised my flair for what they called “melodrama,” but what on earth should one call this new and bizarre combination of literature and rampant theatricals that Dickens was pursuing on the stage this very night? No one in our profession had ever seen anything like it before. No one in the world had ever seen or heard anything like it before. It demeaned the role of author and turned literature into a half-shilling carnival. Dickens was pandering to the masses like an onstage clown with a dog.
These were the thoughts that were in my mind at the time I walked down a dismal, windowless street—more alley than lane if truth be told—as I turned back towards my hotel, only to find two men barring my path.
“Excuse me, please,” I said brusquely, waving my gold-headed cane to get them out of the way.
They did not budge.
I walked to the right in the narrow lane, but they moved to their left. I stopped and began walking to my left, and they shifted to their right.
“What is this?” I demanded. Their only answer was to begin moving towards me. Both men put their hands in their tattered jacket pockets and when those calloused, filthy hands emerged, it was with short knives.
I turned quickly and began hurrying towards the main thoroughfare, only to see a third man step into the lane and block it, his bulky form a threatening silhouette against the brighter evening light beyond him. He also held something in his right hand. Something that glinted in that failing light.
I confess here, Dear Reader, that my heart began to pound wildly and I felt an urgent liquidity in the region of my bowels. I do not like to think of myself as a coward—what man does?—but I am a small man, and a peaceful one, and though I might write fiction from time to time about violence, fisticuffs, mayhem, and murder, these are not things that I had then personally experienced, nor wanted to.
At that moment I wanted to run. I had the absurd but real compulsion to call out for my mother, although Harriet was hundreds of miles away.
Even though none of the three men said a word, I reached into my jacket and removed my long wallet. Many of my friends and acquain-tances—certainly Dickens—thought me a shade too reluctant to part with money. Actually, Dickens and his friends, all having been gifted with money for many years, ignored my need for pecuniary discipline and thought me cheap, a penny-pinching miser in the mode of pre-revelation Ebenezer Scrooge.
But at that moment I would have given up every pound and shilling I had on me—and even my not-gold but quite serviceable watch—if these ruffians would only let me pass.
As I said, they did not demand money. Perhaps that is what frightened me most. Or perhaps it was the terribly serious and inhuman looks on their bewhiskered faces—especially the alert deadness combined w
“Wait!” I said weakly. And again, “Wait… wait…”
The big man in the shabby clothes raised the knife until it was almost touching my chest and neck.
“Wait!” shouted a much louder and much more commanding voice from behind the four of us, towards the thoroughfare, where there was still light and hope.
My assailants and I all turned to look.
A small man in a brown suit was standing there. Despite the commanding voice, the figure was no taller than I. He was hatless, and I could see short, curly grey hair plastered to his head by the light rain that was falling.
“Go away, friend,” growled the man holding the knife to my throat. “You don’t want no part of this.”
“Oh, but I do,” said the short man and ran towards us.
All three of my assailants turned in his direction, but my legs felt too unsteady to allow me to bolt. I was sure that within seconds both I and my would-be rescuer would be lying dead on the filthy paving stones in that unnamed, lightless lane.
The brown-suited man, whom I had first thought to be as portly as I but who I now saw to be compact but as muscled as a diminutive acrobat, reached into his tweedy suit jacket and quickly brought out a short, obviously weighted piece of wood that looked like a cross between a sailor’s marlin spike and a policeman’s club. This club had a dull, heavy head and appeared to be cored with lead or something as heavy.
Drood by Dan Simmons / Horror / Mystery & Detective / Fantasy have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes