Drood, p.37
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       Drood, p.37
 

           Dan Simmons

  More loudly, he said, “May I drop you at the station?”

  Dickens’s uncharacteristic omission of an invitation to Gad’s Hill for supper told me what I already knew—that he would be dining with Ellen Ternan and that he had no intention of returning to Gad’s Hill Place that night.

  “That would be fine,” I said. “Caroline will be waiting for me.”

  As he held the carriage door for me, Dickens said softly, presumably so the coachman would not hear, “Before you dine with the lovely Landlady or the delightful Butler tonight, my dear Wilkie, I would advise a change of raiments and perhaps a warm bath.”

  I paused with one foot on the step, but before I could say something related to opium or to anything else, Dickens added innocently, “The crypts do leave an echo of the rising damp on one, you know… as our friend Dradles illustrated so wonderfully this evening.”

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  Charles Dickens is going to murder Edmond Dickenson.”

  It was the second time in eighteen months that I had sat straight up in bed out of a deep laudanum sleep and shouted those words.

  “No,” I said into the dark, still half-claimed by dream but also imbued with the complete deductive certainty of my yet-to-be created Detective Sergeant Cuff, “Charles Dickens has already murdered Edmond Dickenson.”

  “Wilkie, darling,” said Caroline, sitting up next to me and seizing my arm, “what are you going on about? You’ve been talking in your sleep, my dearest.”

  “Leave me alone,” I said groggily, shaking off her hand. I rose, pulled on my dressing gown, and went to the window.

  “Wilkie, my dear…”

  “Silence!” My heart was pounding. I was trying not to lose the clarity of my dream-revelation.

  I found my watch on the bureau and looked at it. It was a little before three in the morning. Outside, the paving stones were slick with a light sleet falling. I looked at the streetlamp and then searched the small porch on the abandoned house on the corner opposite that lamp until I saw the shadow huddled there. Inspector Field’s messenger—a boy with strange eyes whom the inspector called Gooseberry—was still there, more than a year after I had first spied him waiting.

  I left the bedroom and started for my study but paused on the landing. It was night. The Other Wilkie would be in there, waiting, most probably sitting at my desk and watching the door with unblinking eyes. I went downstairs instead to the small secretary in the parlour, where Caroline and Carrie kept their writing materials. Setting my glasses firmly in place, I wrote—

  Inspector Field:

  I have good reason to believe that Charles Dickens has murdered a young man who survived the Staplehurst train wreck, a Mr Edmond Dickenson. Please meet me at ten AM at Waterloo Bridge so that we can discuss the evidence and prepare a way of trapping Dickens into admitting to the murder of young Dickenson.

  Yr. Obedient Servant,

  William Wilkie Collins

  I looked at the missive for a long moment, nodded, folded it, set it in a thick envelope, used my father’s stamp to seal it, and placed it in an inner pocket of my dressing gown. Then I took some coins from my purse, found my overcoat in the hall closet, pulled on rubbers over my slippers, and went out into the night.

  I had just reached the streetlamp on my side of the street when a shadow on the porch opposite separated itself from the deeper shadow of the porch overhang. In an instant the boy had crossed the street to meet me. He had no coat on and was shivering violently in the rain and cold.

  “You are Gooseberry?” I asked.

  “Yessir.”

  I put my hand on the letter but for some reason did not draw it out. “Is Gooseberry your last name?” I asked.

  “No, sir. Inspector Field calls me that, sir. Because of my eyes, you see.”

  I did see. The boy’s eyes were distinguished not only by their absurd prominence but by the fact that they rolled to and fro like two bullets in an egg cup. My fingers tightened on the letter to his master, but still I hesitated.

  “You’re a crossing sweeper, Gooseberry?”

  “I was a crossing sweeper, sir. No longer.”

  “What are you now, lad?”

  “I’m in training with the great Inspector Field to be a detective, is what,” said Gooseberry with pride, but with no hint of boasting. Between shivers he coughed. It was a deep cough—the kind that had given my mother the horrors whenever any similar sound emerged from Charles or me when we were young—but the urchin had the manners to cover his mouth when he coughed.

  “What is your real name, boy?” I asked.

  “Guy Septimus Cecil,” said the boy through slightly chattering teeth.

  I let go of the letter and brought five shillings out, dropping them into Guy Septimus Cecil’s hurriedly raised palm. I am not sure that I have ever seen another person quite so surprised, with the probable exception of the thugs Mr Reginald Barris had clubbed down in the alley in Birmingham.

  “There’ll be no message from me to your master tonight or for the next three days and nights, Master Guy Septimus Cecil,” I said softly. “Go get a hot breakfast. Rent a room—a heated room. And with whatever you have left over, buy a coat… something made of good English wool to go over those rags. You’ll be no good to either Inspector Field or to me if you catch your death of cold out here.”

  The boy’s gooseberry eyes wandered, although they never seemed to fix on me.

  “Go on, now!” I said sternly. “Don’t let me see you back here until Tuesday next!”

  “Yessir,” Gooseberry said dubiously. But he turned and trotted back across the street, hesitated by the porch, and ran on down the street towards the promise of warmth and food.

  HAVING DECIDED TO DO the hard detective work related to the murder of Edmond Dickenson myself, I set about it with a will the next morning. Fortifying myself with two-and-a-half cups of laudanum (about two hundred minims, if one were applying the medicine drop-by-drop), I took the mid-day train to Chatham and hired a cart to whisk me—although “plod me” would be a better choice of verb given the age and indifference of both the horse and cart-driver—to Gad’s Hill Place.

  As I approached the important interview with Dickens, I began to see more clearly the to-this-point-amorphous idea of my fictional detective in The Eye of the Serpent (or perhaps The Serpent’s Eye), Sergeant Cuff. Rather than the brusque, stolid, and gruff Inspector Bucket of Dickens’s Bleak House—an unimaginative character in the most literal sense, I thought, since he was based so clearly on the younger version of the actual Inspector Field—my Sergeant Cuff would be tall, thin, older, ascetic, and rational. More than anything else, rational, as if addicted to ratiocination. I also imagined my ascetic, grey-haired, hatchet-faced, ratiocinated, pale-eyed and clear-eyed Sergeant Cuff as nearing retirement. He would be looking forward, I realised, to devoting his post-detective life to beekeeping. No, not beekeeping—too odd, too eccentric, and too difficult for me to research. Perhaps— growing roses. That was the ticket… roses. I knew something about roses and their care and breeding. Sergeant Cuff would know… everything about roses.

  Most detectives begin with the murder and spend ages following roundabout clues to the murderer, but Sergeant Cuff and I would invert the process by starting with the murderer and then seeking out the corpse.

  “My dear Wilkie, what a pleasant surprise! The pleasure of your company two days in a row!” cried Dickens as I approached the house and he came out, tugging on a wool cape-coat against the chill wind. “You’re staying for the rest of the weekend, I trust.”

  “No, just stopping by for a quick word with you, Charles,” I said. His welcoming smile was so obviously sincere in his childlike way—a little boy whose playmate has shown up unexpectedly—that I had to return the smile, even though inside I was holding fast to the cool, neutral expression of Sergeant Cuff.

  “Wonderful! I’ve just finished my morning’s work on the last of the introductions and my Christmas story and was about to set
out on my walk. Join me, dear friend!”

  The thought of a twelve- or twenty-mile hike at Charles Dickens’s pace on this windy, snow-threatening November day caused a headache to start its throbbing behind my right eye. “I wish I could, my dear Dickens. But as you mentioned Christmas… well, that was one of the things that I wished to talk to you about.”

  “Really?” He paused. “You—the original ‘Bah! Humbug!’ Wilkie Collins—interested in Christmas?” he said and threw back his head for a true Dickens laugh. “Well, now I can say that I have lived long enough to see all improbabilities come to pass.”

  I forced another smile. “I was just wondering if you were having one of your usual galas this year. The day is not too far distant, you know.”

  “No, no, no, it isn’t,” said Dickens. Suddenly he was calmly and coolly appraising me. “And no, no gala this year, I fear. The new round of readings begins in early December, you may recall.”

  “Ah, yes.”

  “I shall be home for a day or two for Christmas itself,” said Dickens, “and of course you shall be invited. But it shall be a modest affair this year, I’m sorry to tell you, my dear Wilkie.”

  “No worry, no worry,” I said hurriedly, improvising my little scene in a way that I felt would do justice to the yet-to-be-created Sergeant Cuff. “I was just curious… will you be inviting Macready this year?”

  “Macready? No, I think not. I believe his wife is indisposed this season anyway. And Macready travels less and less these days, you remember, Wilkie.”

  “Of course. And Dickenson?”

  “Who?”

  Aha! I thought. Charles Dickens, the Inimitable, the novelist, the man with the iron memory, would not, could not, ever forget the name of the young man whom he’d saved at Staplehurst. This was a murderer’s—or soon-to-be-murderer’s—dissembling!

  “Dickenson,” I said. “Edmond. Surely you remember last Christmas, Charles! The somnambulist!”

  “Oh, of course, of course,” said Dickens even while he waved away the name and the memory. “No. We shan’t be inviting young Edmond this Christmas. Just family this year. And the closest friends.”

  “Really?” I feigned surprise. “I thought that you and young Dickenson were rather close.”

  “Not at all,” said Dickens while he pulled on his expensive and far-too-thin-for-such-a-day kid gloves. “I merely looked in on the young man from time to time during his first months of recovery. He was, you remember, Wilkie, an orphan.”

  “Ah, yes,” I said, as if I could have forgotten this essential clue as to why Dickens had chosen him as his murder victim. “Actually, I had rather looked forward to chatting with young Dickenson on a couple of topics we were discussing last Christmas. Do you remember his address by any chance, Charles?”

  Now he was looking at me most queerly. “You wish to pick up a conversation you were having with Edmond Dickenson almost a year ago?”

  “Yes,” I said in what I hoped was my most authoritative Sergeant Cuff manner.

  Dickens shrugged. “I’m quite sure I don’t remember his address, if I ever knew it. Actually, I believe he moved around quite a bit… restless young bachelor, always changing quarters and so forth.”

  “Hmmm,” I said. I was squinting against the cold wind out of the north that was rustling Dickens’s winter-pruned hedges and driving the last of the sere leaves from the trees in his front yard, but I might as well have been squinting through the suspicion I felt.

  “In fact,” Dickens said brightly, “I believe I remember young Dickenson left England last summer or autumn. To go make his fortune in southern France. Or South Africa. Or Australia. Some promising place like that.”

  He’s playing with me, I thought with an electric surge of Sergeant Cuff–ish certainty. But he does not know that I am playing with him.

  “Too bad,” I said. “I would have enjoyed seeing young Edmond again. But there’s nothing for it.”

  “There isn’t,” agreed Dickens, his voice muffled by the thick red scarf he’d pulled up over his lower face. “Are you sure you won’t join me for the walk? It’s a perfect day for it.”

  “Another day,” I said and shook his hand. “My cart and driver are waiting.”

  But I waited until the writer was out of sight and the tap of his stick out of earshot and then I rapped at the door, handed my hat and scarf to the servant who answered, and went quickly to the kitchen, where Georgina Hogarth was seated at the servants’ table going over menus.

  “Mr Wilkie, what a pleasant surprise!”

  “Halloo, Georgina, halloo,” I said affably. I wondered if I should have wore a disguise. Detectives often wore disguises. I’m sure that Sergeant Cuff did upon occasion, despite his uniquely tall and ascetic appearance. Sergeant Cuff was almost certainly a master of disguises. But then, that ageing Scotland Yard detective did not suffer the handicaps of my disguise-proof shortness, full beard, receding hairline, weak eyes that demanded spectacles, and oversized, bulbous forehead.

  “Georgina,” I said easily, “I just ran into Charles on his way off to his walk and popped in because my friends and I are planning a small dinner party—a few artists and literary people—and I thought that young Dickenson might enjoy such an evening. But we don’t have his address.”

  “Young Dickenson?” Her expression was blank. Was she an accomplice? “Oh,” she said, “you mean that boring young gentleman who sleepwalked here Christmas Day night last.”

  “Precisely.”

  “Oh, he was terribly boring,” said Georgina. “Hardly worth inviting to your wonderful party.”

  “Possibly not,” I agreed, “but we thought he might enjoy it.”

  “Well, I do remember sending out the Christmas invitations last year, so please follow me into the drawing room to the secretary where I keep my files.…”

  Ahah! cried the successful ghost of the unborn Sergeant Cuff.

  GEORGINA HOGARTH’S FEW NOTES from Dickens to Edmond Dickenson had all been mailed to (and presumably then fowarded by) a barrister by the name of Matthew B. Roffe of Gray’s Inn Square. I knew this area well, of course, since I had also studied for the law—indeed, I once described myself as “a barrister of some fifteen years’ standing, without ever having had a brief, or ever having even so much as donned a wig and gown.” My own studies had taken place at the nearby Lincoln’s Inn, although I confess that my “study” there consisted much more of attending to meals provided than to studying, although I do remember reading seriously for the Bar for six weeks or so. After that, my interest in law books waned even as my interest in the meals persisted. At that time, my friends were mostly painters and my own efforts mostly literary. But the Bar was more generous to gentlemen with vague legal aspirations then, and somehow, despite my lack of attendant effort, I became licensed as a barrister in 1851.

  I had never heard of Mr Matthew B. Roffe and—based upon the dinginess of his small, cluttered, dusty, and remote third-storey office near Gray’s Inn—neither had any clients. There was no clerk present in the low-ceilinged little closet of an outer office and no bell to announce me. I could see an old man wearing clothing twenty years out of date, eating a chop at his desk piled high with folders, testaments, volumes, and bric-a-brac, and I cleared my throat loudly to gain his attention.

  He pressed a pair of pince-nez into place on his hook of a nose and stared out of that papered cavern with much blinking of his small and watery eyes. “Eh? What’s that? Who’s there? Enter, sir! Advance and be recognised!”

  I advanced, but when I was not recognised, I gave my name. Mr Roffe had been smiling through the encounter so far, but his expression showed no further recognition upon hearing my name.

  “I received your name and business address through my friend Charles Dickens,” I said softly. It was not the full truth, but it certainly was not an outright lie. “Charles Dickens the novelist,” I added.

  The wizened marionette of a man was galvanised into a response consisting mostly of tw
itches and jerks. “Oh, my, good heavens, oh, yes, I mean… how wonderful, yes, of course… The Charles Dickens gave me your, I mean, gave you my name.… Oh, where are my manners?… Do sit down, please, be seated please, Mr… ah?”

  “Collins,” I said. The chair he had waved me towards probably had not been unburdened of its stack of opened volumes and scrolled documents in years, if not decades. I leaned back against a high stool instead. “This is quite comfortable,” I said, and, in a flourish perhaps not unworthy of Sergeant Cuff, added, “and better for my back.”

  “Oh, yes… well, yes… Would you like some tea, Mr… ah… Mr… oh, dear.”

  “Collins. And yes, I would love some tea.”

  “Smalley!” cried Mr Roffe towards the empty outer office. “Smalley, I say!”

  “I believe your clerk is absent, Mr Roffe.”

  “Oh, yes… no, I mean…” The old man fumbled at his waistcoat, removed a watch, frowned at it, shook it next to his ear, and said, “Mr Collins, I trust it is not a little after nine in the morning or evening?”

  “Indeed not,” I said, referring to my own watch. “It is a bit after four in the afternoon, Mr Roffe.”

  “Ah, that explains Smalley’s absence!” cried the old man as if we had solved a great mystery. “He always goes home for his tea at around three, not returning until after five.”

  “Your profession demands long hours of you,” I said drily. I would have liked to have had that promised tea.

  “Oh, yes, yes… to serve the law is more like a… like a… well, perhaps ‘marriage’ is the term I am looking for. Are you married, Mr Collins?”

  “No, sir. That happy domestic state has eluded me, Mr Roffe.”

  “Myself as well, Mr Collins!” cried the old man, slapping the leather binding of a volume on his desk. “Myself as well. We are two fugitives from bliss, you and I, Mr Collins. But the law keeps me here from before the lamps are lighted in the morning—although, of course, that is Smalley’s job, the lighting of the lamps—until they are extinguished late in the night.”

 
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