No, no one knew—or if they had seen us, they had no idea who the young woman had been and would have thought little of it. Just another young actress on that rogue Wilkie Collins’s arm. I had spent time with so many. Just another young periwinkle. Even Caroline had known of the periwinkles.
I left my chair and went over to sit on the edge of the bed.
Martha stirred, half-rolled towards me, and ceased snoring for a moment, but she did not wake.
The pillow was still in my hands. Now the moonlight covered my long, sensitive fingers as if dabbing them with white paint. Each finger was whiter than the linen on the pillow and suddenly they all seemed to blend with that delicate linen, to sink into it, to melt and become one with the fabric. They became the hands of a corpse disappearing into chalk.
Or melting in a pit of lime.
I leaned forward and held the pillow over Martha’s sleeping face. The scarab behind my right eye scuttled forward for a better view.
Two months earlier, I had told the physician about a married but abandoned female friend of an acquaintance of mine—the woman being alone and with child at the moment and with little money. Could he recommend a midwife?
Beard had given me a partially amused, partially scolding look and said, “Do you know when this female friend of an acquaintance is due?”
“Late June, I think,” I said, feeling my ears burn. “Or perhaps early July.”
“Then I shall look in on her myself in her ninth month… and most probably attend the birth as well. Some midwives are wonderful. Many are murderesses. Give me the lady’s name and address.”
“I do not know such information offhand,” I’d replied. “But I shall ask my acquaintance and send her name and address to you in a letter.”
And so I had. And then forgotten about it.
But Frank Beard might not forget if he read a newspaper this week and…
“D—— n!” I cried and threw the pillow across the room.
Martha was awake in an instant, levering herself upright in bed like some Leviathan rising from the surface of a sheeted sea. “Wilkie! What is it?”
“Nothing, my dear. Just the rheumatical gout and a terrible headache. I apologise for wakening you.”
The headache was real enough, as the scarab—furious for some reason—burrowed itself back into the deepest recesses of my brain.
“Oh, my darling boy,” cried Martha R—— and hugged me to her bosom. Some time later, I fell asleep like that, with my head still on her swollen breast.
THE BOOK I WAS WRITING during this period was titled Man and Wife. The theme of it was how a man might be trapped into a terrible marriage.
I had recently read a report on marriage in our kingdom published the year before by the Royal Commission; astoundingly, the Commission sanctioned the Scottish law which legalised marriage by consent and then defended these marriages by pointing out that they were “wronged-women’s ways” of capturing men with dishonourable intentions towards them. I underlined and then wrote in the margins of the report—“That they act, on certain occasions, in the capacity of a trap to catch a profligate man!!!!”
The four exclamation marks may seem excessive to you, Dear Reader, but I assure you that they were a profound understatement of my emotion at this absurd and obscene twisting of the law to aid a man-hungry wench. The idea of being trapped into marriage—with the consent and help of the Crown!—was a Horror beyond imagining to me. It was a Horror beyond the Entity in the servants’ stairway at Number 90 Gloucester Place.
But I knew that I could never write the book from the point of view of a victimised man. The Reading Public in 1869—nay, the General Public—simply would never see the pathos and tragedy of such a trap inflicted on a man they hypocritically would call a “cad” (even while the majority of those male readers and that male public had a similar “profligate” history).
So I cleverly turned my victimised male into a frail but very high-class and highbred lady trapped—by a mere moment’s indiscretion—into a forced marriage to a brute.
I made the brute not only an Oxford man (oh, how I hated Oxford and everything it represented!!) but an Oxford athlete.
This last aspect of the brute’s character was a stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. You must understand, Dear Reader from the impossibly distant future, that at this time in England, the idiocy of exercise and the absurdity of sports had melded with the hypocrisies of religion to create a monstrosity called “Muscular Christianity.” The idea that good Christians should be “muscular” and throw themselves into any number of mindless, brutish sports was all the rage. More than the rage, Muscular Christianity was both an exercise in Mr Darwin’s insights and an explanation of why England’s Empire had the right to rule the world and all the weak little brown people in it. It was Superiority personified in barbells and track meets and fields of fools jumping and hopping and pushing themselves up and down. The proselytising for this Muscular Christianity belched out from the newspapers, the magazines, and the pulpits. And Oxford and Cambridge—those Grand Old English nurseries for pedantic dolts—embraced it with all their usual arrogant vigour.
So you see why I took such joy in tossing this fad right in the face of my unsuspecting readership. I might be the only one to know that my trapped and abused heroine was really the captured male, but my Oxford brute would create quite enough controversy.
Even in the early stages of writing Man and Wife, I made enemies through it. Frank Beard’s children and Fred Lehmann’s children—all of whom had loved me and whom I had entertained many a time by telling ripping yarns of classic prizefights and by describing the massive biceps of England’s champion, Tom Sayers—heard about my Oxford brute and were furious with me. It was a betrayal to them.
This made me laugh all the more as I pressed Frank Beard into taking me out to various pugilistic and team sport training camps where he served as attending physician from time to time. There I would press the trainers and others for stories of how unhealthy this muscular life truly was—how it turned the athletes into brutes as surely as a return to Darwin’s jungle would—and, through Beard, I hurled questions at the camp doctors about physical and mental breakdowns due to such training. Being out in the sunlight and taking such notes was difficult work for me, but I got through it by sipping from my laudanum flask at least hourly.
The secondary theme of Man and Wife (behind that of the injustice of marriage-by-capture) was that any morality is completely contingent upon a person’s capacity for remorse: a capacity totally lacking in any animal’s (or athlete’s) life.
Beard, a huge sports fan himself, said nothing about my theories as he took me with him to one unhealthy den of sweat after another. On 4 July, 1869, it was Frank who delivered a girl child to Martha at her lodgings on Bolsover Street. It was also Frank who handled the somewhat tricky formalities of registering in the parish records the mother’s name (Mrs Martha Dawson) and the infant’s name (Marian, after my most popular female character) and the father’s name (William Dawson, Esquire, travelling Barrister at Law).
Due to my heavy writing and research schedule, I was not present at the birth but looked in on the mother and squalling infant a week or two after the fact. As I had promised in January and on that October evening of my mistress’s wedding when I had proposed marriage to my dying brother’s wife, I now raised Martha R——’s monthly allowance from £20 to £25. The woman wept when she thanked me.
But I have galloped on too far in this tale and skipped a much more important detail, Dear Reader. For you to fully understand the ending of this story, you need to be with me on the night of Wednesday, 9 June, 1869—the fourth anniversary of Dickens’s accident at Staplehurst and of his first meeting with Drood. It was the last such anniversary that Charles Dickens would live to see.
As serious as Dickens’s physical ailments were and as dire the predictions from his phalanx of doctors, he becam
James and Annie Fields had been his friends since the time of the Inimitable’s first triumphant American reading tour in 1842. James once mentioned to me that even before he and Dickens were socially introduced, he had joined a group of literary enthusiasts who had followed the “strangely dressed Englishman” around Boston during those heady days of Dickens’s first trip there. The depths of Dickens’s affection for these two was partially shown by the fact that when, during his second American tour, he finally was forced to break his usually steadfast rule of never staying in private homes, it was the Fieldses’ lovely home in Boston that became his refuge.
With them on this visit to England came the Charles Eliot Nortons and Dickens’s old friend James Russell Lowell’s daughter Mabel. Also in the entourage was Dr Fordyce Barker and Sol Eytinge, who had illustrated the lovely “Diamond Back” American edition of Dickens’s work.
Great adventures were planned for the period when this group visited Gad’s Hill Place (with the bachelorly overflow staying in the best rooms of the Falstaff Inn across the road), but the Fieldses’ first stop was London, and Dickens promptly took rooms at the St James Hotel in Piccadilly—the same hostelry where I had spent so much money on harbouring and feeding Fechter the previous January—just so that he could be close to the hotel on Hanover Square where the Fieldses were staying.
I had disguised myself in a broad-brimmed hat and dark summer cape-coat and followed them all from the hotels and then later from Gad’s Hill Place. I had purchased a sailor’s spyglass and hired my own cab (its driver and horse as nondescript as my disguise-clothing). All those days of detective work and the act of being in disguise and following someone invariably reminded me of poor, dead Inspector Field.
During the first days of their stay in London, the Fieldses & Co. were more or less launched into the pages of Dickens’s novels; after brisk hikes alongside the Thames (as if to prove that he was as young and healthy as ever), the Inimitable showed them the rooms in Furnival Inn where he had started work on The Pickwick Papers, showed them the room at the Temple where Pip had lived in Great Expectations, and acted out Magwitch stumbling on the very darkened staircase where the scene had been set.
Travelling along behind them in the cab or on foot, I could see Dickens pointing out this old house or that narrow alley where his various characters had lived or died and I remembered a similar tour with him more than a decade earlier when I had been his friend.
I was not invited on their expedition during the day and night of 9 June, the Anniversary—although Dolby was invited to join Fields and Eytinge on the nighttime part of the adventure—but I was there waiting near the Fieldses’ hotel when their carriages set out. Their first out-of-town stop that warm Wednesday afternoon was Cooling Churchyard.
This, of course, is the rural churchyard with its lozenge-shaped graves that Dickens had described so well in the opening of Great Expectations (a disappointment of a book, if one were to ask me). And as I watched through my trusty spyglass from some hundred yards away, I was amazed to see Dickens re-creating the same macabre churchyard-pantomime dinner with which he had entertained Ellen Ternan and her mother and me so long ago in the churchyard at Rochester Cathedral.
There was the same type of flat gravestone selected and used as a dinner table; the same transformation of Charles Dickens, Writer, into Charlie Dickens, Waiter; the same use of a wall as a bar for the gentlemen’s drinks; the same use of crystal and white linen and perfectly roasted squab lifted from hampers in the back of their carriages and delivered by the writer-waiter with the towel over one arm.
Even the nearby marshes and smell of the salt sea were the same, although this stretch of coastal marsh was more desolate and isolated than the Rochester graveyard.
Why was Dickens doing this again with his American friends? Even through the slightly shaky circle of the spyglass, I could tell that James Fields was a bit put off by this forced merrymaking in the midst of a boneyard. The ladies looked actively shocked and ate very little.
Only Eytinge, the illustrator, could be seen to be laughing and joining in the graveyard-theatre gaiety with Dickens, and that is most likely because he had enjoyed three glasses of wine even before the squab was served.
Was this some statement that Dickens, the mortal man, was making in the face of the imminent paralysis or death predicted by Beard and his other doctors?
Or was the scarab in his brain finally driving Dickens mad?
THAT NIGHT, the ladies and most of the other guests were left behind as Dickens took James Fields, a still-inebriated Sol Eytinge, and a very sober George Dolby into the Great Oven of London. (But he did not leave me behind, despite the lack of any invitation—when they left their cab, I followed stealthily on foot.) They paused briefly at a police station on Ratcliffe Highway to pick up a detective policeman who would be their bodyguard for the night’s explorations. I needed no such bodyguard: Detective Hatchery’s pistol was in the oversized pocket of my dark summer cape-coat.
What must have been so exotic, even terrifying, to Boston-born Fields was now, after more than two years of regularly traversing these streets with Hatchery, familiar almost to the point of comfort for me.
Thunderstorms were brewing, lightning rippled all around the pitched, leaning roofs above the narrow lanes, thunder rumbled like constant cannon-fire around a besieged city, but it refused to rain. It only grew hotter and darker. Nerves were on edge everywhere in London, but down here in this suppurating pit of the hopeless poor, this nightmare-market of husbandless women, parentless children, Chinese and Lascar and Hindoo thugs and German and American sailor-murderers on the run from their ships, there was a madness in the air almost as visible as the electrical blue flames that played around the tilted weather vanes and leaped between the iron support cables that ran down like rusted mooring lines from buildings that had long since forgotten how to stand upright on their own.
The tour that Dickens and his police detective were giving the two Americans and Dolby was essentially the same as the ones that Inspector Field and Hatchery had shown the Inimitable and me so long ago: the poorest slums of Whitechapel, Shadwell, Wapping, and New Court off Bluegate Fields; penny lodging houses outside of which drunken mothers insensibly held filthy infants (I watched from a dark distance as Dickens seized one of these children out of its drunken mother’s arms and bore the babe into the lodging house himself); lock-ups filled with thugs and lost children; basement tenements where scores and hundreds of London’s huddled outcasts slept in filth and straw within the constant miasmic stench from the river. The tidal mud this hot night seemed to be made up completely of horse dung, cattle guts, chickens’ viscera, the carcasses of dead dogs, cats, and the occasional hog or horse, and acres upon acres of human excrement. The streets were filled with idle men carrying knives and even more dangerous idle women carrying disease.
Charles Dickens’s beloved Babylon. His very own Great Oven.
In one of his lesser novels (I believe it was the plotting disaster he titled Little Dorrit), Dickens had compared the homeless children who skittered and scattered beneath the arches of Covent Garden to rats and warned that someday these rats, always gnawing at the foundations of the city and society that chose to ignore them, might “bring down the English Empire.” His outrage was real, as was his compassion. This night of 9 June, as I watched through my little telescope from half-a-block distant, I saw Dickens take up a scabbed and filthy child who looked to be dressed in strips of rags. It appeared that James Fields and Dolby were dabbing their eyes while Eytinge watched with a drunken illustrator’s disinterested gaze.
Because it was summer—or as hot as summer—the doors of tenements were open, the windows thrown up, and clusters and mobs of men and women were out in filthy courtyards and no less filthy streets. Even though it was the middle of the work week, most of the men (and not a few of the women) were drunk. Several times t
For the first time, I began to be nervous about my own safety. Although my cheap cape and broad-brimmed hat hid my features and allowed me to mix with most of these mobs, some men took note of me and followed along, calling drunkenly for me to stand them to a drink. I hurried on behind the Dickens party. While they tended to keep to the centre of the street where it was lightest, I crept along in the darkest shadows under porches, tattered awnings, and the leaning buildings themselves.
For a while, I was certain that I was being followed.
There was a small bearded man in rags—it looked as if he had been dressed in filthy strips of seaweed—who lurched along behind me, turning when I turned to follow Dickens’s group, pausing when I paused.
For a wild moment I was sure that it was the Other Wilkie following me and that he had escaped the confines of the house once and for all.
But while this figure (never seen distinctly) was as short as I (and the Other Wilkie), I realised that he was more burly and barrel-chested under those rags than stout in a Wilkie-ish way.
When we entered New Court proper in darkened Bluegate Fields, I no longer saw him following and put it down to coincidence and my nerves. I took several long sips from my flask, reassured myself by touching the pistol in my coat pocket, and hurried to get a bit closer to the strutting policeman, Dickens, Dolby, Fields, and Eytinge.
Drood by Dan Simmons / Horror / Mystery & Detective / Fantasy have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes