Dickens could not quite conceal his frown when he saw me enter, even though the expression crossed his features for only a fraction of a second—only an old friend who had known him for many years would have noticed the flicker of surprised displeasure—but he then smiled and cried out, “My dear Wilkie—how fortuitous! You have saved me from labouriously writing out my invitation to you. Penmanship was never my strongest quality, and I feared it would take me another half hour to produce the document! Come in, both of you! Sit down, sit down.”
Dickens was perched on the edge of a small reading table and there was a short stack of manuscript pages next to him. He had set out only two chairs where an audience might sit. For a slightly vertiginous moment I was sure that he was going to read notes from his own dreams of the Gods of the Black Land.
“Are we all the audience for… whatever this is?” asked the obviously delighted James T. Fields. The two men seemed to revel in each other’s presence, almost literally shed years as they carried out their boyish adventures, and I’d sensed a sadness in Dickens the last few days. Well, why not? I thought at that moment. When Fields and his wife leave England for America this week, it will be the last time the two men will ever see each other. Dickens will be long dead before Fields ever returns to England.
“The two of you, dear friends, are indeed the only audience for this reading,” said Dickens, who went to shut the door to the library himself and then returned to his easy perch on the edge of the thin-legged table.
“Chapter the First, The Dawn,” read Dickens.
“An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive grey square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air, between the eye and it, from any point of real prospect. What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours…”
And so he read on for almost ninety minutes. James Fields was obviously enthralled. The longer I listened, the colder my skin and scalp and fingertips felt.
Chapter One was an impressionist (and sensationalist) description of an opium smoker coming up and out of his dreams in an opium den obviously based upon Opium Sal’s. Sal herself is there—properly described as “a haggard woman” with a “rattling whisper”—alongside a comatose Chinaman and a Lascar. The viewpoint character, obviously a white man awakening from his own opium dream, keeps muttering, “Unintelligible” as he listens to (and struggles with) the incoherent Chinaman and unconscious but muttering Lascar. He leaves, returning to a “Cathedral town” that is obviously Rochester (under the clumsy pseudonym of “Cloisterham”), and there in the second chapter we meet a cluster of the usual Dickens-style characters, including the Minor Canon, the Reverend Septimus Crisparkle, who is one of those kindly and dim-witted but well-meaning “Muscular Christians” of precisely the sort I was parodying in my own novel-in-progress.
It also becomes clear in this second chapter that the rogue opium-eater whom we’d glimpsed in the first chapter is a certain John Jasper, the lay precentor of the Cathedral. Jasper, we understand at once, has a beautiful voice (strangely more beautiful at some times than at others) and a dark, convoluted soul.
Also in this second chapter, we meet Jasper’s nephew, the shallow, callow, easygoing but obviously lazy and complacent Master Edwin Drood.… I admit that I jumped when Dickens actually read that name aloud.
In the third chapter we hear some rather well-written but gloomy descriptions of Cloisterham and its ancient history and then are introduced to yet another of Dickens’s near-infinite series of perfect, rosy-cheeked, virginal young heroine–romantic interests: this one with the cloyingly insipid name of Rosa Bud. Her few pages of presence did not make me want to strangle her immediately—as so many of his young, virginal, Dickens-perfect young characters such as “Little Dorrit” made me want to do—and by the time Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud take a walk together (we learn that they have been betrothed since childhood through the agencies of conveniently acquainted but deceased parents, but also that young Edwin is condescendingly complacent towards Rosa and the entire engagement, while Rosa simply wants out), I could feel the echoes of Dickens’s estrangement from Ellen Ternan as I’d heard it discussed between them outside the Peckham rail station that evening.
And in these first chapters, Fields and I heard that Dickens had made his Drood—the boy-man Edwin Drood—a young engineer who is going off to change Egypt. And he will be, says some silly woman at the orphanage where Rosa lives (why, oh why must Dickens’s young virgins always be orphans!), buried in the Pyramids.
“But don’t she hate Arabs, and Turks, and Fellahs, and people?” asks Rosa, speaking of the fictional perfect mate for “Eddy” Drood.
“ ‘Certainly not.’ Very firmly.
‘At least she must hate the Pyramids? Come, Eddy.’
‘Why should she be such a little—tall, I mean—goose as to hate the Pyramids, Rosa?’
‘Ah! You should hear Miss Twinkleton,’ often nodding her head and much enjoying the Lumps, ‘bore about them, and then you wouldn’t ask. Tiresome old burying-grounds! Isises and Ibises, and Cheopses, and Pharaohses; who cares about them? And then there was Belzoni, or somebody, dragged out by the legs, half-choked with bats and dust. All the girls say: Serve him right, and hope it hurt him, and wish he had been quite choked.’ ”
And I could see that Dickens was headed towards a continued and almost certainly elaborated comparison of the dust of the crypts and graves in Cloisterham—which is to say Rochester and its very real cathedral—with the real explorers of Egyptian tombs such as Belzoni, “half-choked with bats and dust.”
His third chapter—which is as far as he read to us that day—ended with his coquettish (but still uninterested, in Edwin at least) Rosa saying to this “Drood”—
“ ‘Now say, what do you see?’
‘Why, I thought you Egyptian boys could look into a hand and see all sorts of phantoms. Can’t you see a happy Future?’
For certain, neither of them sees a happy Present, as the gate opens and closes, and one goes in, and the other goes away.”
It was as if Dickens were me writing about what I had seen of Ellen Ternan and him at Peckham Station.
When Dickens set down the last page of his short manuscript—his reading had been quiet, professional, cool, as opposed to the overheated acting of his recent reading tours and especially that of his Murder—James Fields burst into applause. The American looked to be close to weeping. I sat in silence and stared.
“Capital, Charles! Absolutely capital! A wonderful beginning! A marvellous, provocative, intriguing, and beguiling beginning! Your skills have never been more on display.”
“Thank you, my dear James,” Dickens said softly.
“But the title! You’ve not told us. What do you intend to call this wonderful new book?”
“Its title shall be The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” said Dickens, peering over his reading spectacles at me.
Fields applauded his approval and did not notice my sudden sharp intake of breath. But I am certain that Charles Dickens did.
FIELDS HAD GONE upstairs to change for dinner when I followed Dickens back to his study and said, “We need to talk.”
“Do we?” said the Inimitable as he slipped the fifty or so manuscript pages into a leather portfolio and locked the portfolio into one of his desk drawers. “Very well, let us step outside away from the press and eager ears of family, friends, children, servants, and dogs.”
It had been a warm October and it was a warm early evening as Dickens led me to his chalet. Usually by this time of the year the chalet wa
Upstairs on the first floor of his chalet, Dickens waved me to the spare Windsor chair and then sprawled in his own. I could see by the neatly arranged boxes of blue and cream paper, pens, ink pots, and his small statues of fencing frogs that Dickens had been writing out here recently.
“Well, my dear Wilkie, what do you feel we need to talk about?”
“You know very well, my dear Dickens.”
He smiled, took his spectacles out of a case, and set them on his nose, as if he were going to read some more. “Let us assume I do not know and proceed from there. Is it that you did not like the beginnings of my new book? I have written more, you know. Perhaps another chapter or two and your interest would have been engaged.”
“This is dangerous stuff, Charles.”
“Oh?” His surprise did not appear fully feigned. “What is dangerous? Writing a tale of mystery? I told you some months ago that I was sufficiently intrigued by the elements of your Moonstone—the opium addiction, the mesmerism, the Oriental villains, the central mystery of theft—that I might try my own hand at such a novel. So now I am. Or at least I have made a start.”
“You’re using Drood’s name,” I said so softly that it came out as an urgent whisper. I could hear male voices rising in a drinking song from the inn nearby.
“My dear Wilkie,” sighed Dickens. “Would you not agree that it’s time that we—or you—got over this fear of all things Droodish?”
What could I say to that? For a moment I was speechless. I had never told Dickens about Hatchery’s death—the grey glistening cords in the crypt. Or about my night at Drood’s Temple. Or of Inspector Field’s invasion of Undertown and what I now understood of its dire consequences to Field and his men. Or of Reginald Barris—filthy, bearded, living in rags and on scraps, hiding in fear—or of the Overtown temple-hideouts Barris had shown me just four months earlier…
“If I had time this evening,” said Dickens, as if musing to himself, “I would cure you of that obsession. Release you from it.”
I got to my feet and began pacing impatiently back and forth in the small room. “You’ll release yourself from your life if you publish this book, Charles. You once told me that Drood had requested you write a biography of him… but this is a parody.”
“Not in the least,” laughed Dickens. “It shall be a very serious novel which explores the layers and levels and contradictions of the criminal’s mind—in this case, the mind of a murderer, but also an opium addict and both master and victim of mesmerism.”
“How can one be both a master and victim of mesermism, Charles?”
“Be so kind as to read my book when it is finished, my dear Wilkie, and you shall see. Much will be revealed… and not only of the mystery, but perhaps of some of your own dilemma.”
I ignored that, since it made no sense. “Charles,” I said earnestly, leaning on his table and looking down at him as he sat, “do you really believe that smoking opium causes one to dream of flashing scimitars, scores of dancing girls, and—what was it?—‘countless elephants careering in various gorgeous colours’?”
“ ‘. . . white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in numbers and attendants,’ ” corrected Dickens.
“Very well,” I said and stepped back and removed my spectacles to clean them with my handkerchief. “But do you really believe that any number of caparisoned or careering elephants and flashing scimitars are the stuff of an actual opium dream?”
“I have taken opium, you know,” Dickens said quietly. He seemed almost amused.
I confess to having rolled my eyes at this news. “So Frank Beard told me, Charles. A tiny bit of laudanum, and that just a few times, when you could not sleep on one of your last reading tours.”
“Still, my dear Wilkie, laudanum is laudanum. Opium is opium.”
“How many minims did you use?” I asked as I still paced back and forth, from open window to open window. Perhaps it was my own increased laudanum use that morning that kept me so excitable.
“Minims?” said Dickens.
“Drops of the opiate distillate in your wine,” I said. “How many drops?”
“Oh, I have no idea. Dolby handled the ministrations the few evenings I tried that medicinal approach. I would say two.”
“Two minims… two drops?” I repeated.
I said nothing for a minute. That very day, as a guest at Gad’s Hill Place and having brought only a flask and a small refill jug in my baggage for the long weekend, I had drunk at least six hundred minims and possibly twice that. Then I said, “But you cannot convince me—or anyone who has actually researched the drug as I have, my dear Charles—that you dreamt of elephants and scimitars and golden domes.”
Dickens laughed. “My dear Wilkie, just as you said you… ‘tested,’ I believe your word was… your Moonstone character Franklin Blake’s ability to enter his fiancée’s bedroom while she was sleeping…”
“Sitting room next to her bedroom,” I corrected. “My editor insisted on it for propriety’s sake.”
“Ah, yes,” said Dickens with a smile. He had been that editor, of course. “Enter into his fiancée’s bedroom’s sitting room to steal a diamond, all while he was asleep, merely under the influence of laudanum he hadn’t known he’d taken…”
“You’ve expressed your doubts as to the realism of that more than once,” I said sourly. “Even though I’ve told you that I did experiment with similar situations under the influence of the drug.”
“Exactly my point, my dear Wilkie. You stretched the point to serve your plot. And so my caparisoned pachyderms and flashing scimitars—to serve the greater story.”
“This is not the point, Charles.”
“What is, then?” Dickens looked sincerely curious. He also looked sincerely exhausted. Those days, when the Inimitable wasn’t reading to others or at play, he tended to look like the old man he had suddenly become.
“The point is that Drood will kill you if you publish this book,” I said. “You told me yourself that he wants a biography, not a sensationalist novel filled with opium, mesmerism, all things Egyptian, and a weak character named Drood…”
“Weak but important to the story,” interrupted Dickens.
I could only shake my head. “You won’t heed my warning. Perhaps if you had seen the face of poor Inspector Field the morning after he was murdered…”
“Murdered?” said Dickens, suddenly sitting up straight. He removed his spectacles and blinked. “Who said that Charles Frederick Field was murdered? You know very well that the Times said he had died in his sleep. And what is this talk of having seen his face? You certainly could not have, my dear Wilkie. I remember you were in bed ill for weeks at the time and didn’t even know that poor Field had died until I told you many months later.”
I hesitated, considering whether to tell Dickens then about Reginald Barris’s explanation of Inspector Field’s true demise. But then I would have to explain Barris and why and where I saw him and all about the Overtown temples.…
While I was hesitating, Dickens sighed and said, “Your belief in Drood is enjoyable in its own dark way, Wilkie, but perhaps it is time it drew to a close. Perhaps it was a mistake for it ever to have begun.”
“Belief in Drood?” I snapped. “Must I remind you, my dear Dickens, that it was your story of your meeting with him at Staplehurst and your later stories of meeting with the monster in Undertown that got me involved in all this in the first place? It’s a little late, I would say, for you to tell me to cease believing in him, as if he wer
I thought Dickens would laugh at this last broadside, but he only looked sadder and more weary than before and said, as if to himself, “Perhaps it is too late, my dear Wilkie. Or perhaps not. But it is definitely too late this particular Sunday. I must go in and prepare to enjoy one of the last meals I may ever share with dear James and Annie.…”
His voice had become so soft and sad by the end of that sentence that I had to strain to hear the words over the sound of the fox hunters riding away from the Falstaff Inn.
“We shall speak of this another time,” said Dickens as he rose. I noticed that his left leg seemed unable to support his weight for a moment and that he steadied himself with his right hand on the table, getting his balance and teetering there a moment with his left hand and leg flailing uselessly, like a toddling infant taking his first steps, before he smiled again—ruefully this time, I thought—and hobbled out the door and down the stairs as we headed back to the main house.
“We shall speak of this another time,” he said again.
And we did, Dear Reader. But too late, as you will see, to avoid the tragedies to come.
Through the final autumn, winter, and spring of Charles Dickens’s life, he continued writing his novel and I continued writing mine.
Dickens—being Dickens—insisted, of course, on the suicidal folly of using Drood’s name in the title of his new work, even though I heard through Wills, Forster, and that ponce-twit Percy Fitzgerald (who had all but taken my place in the offices of All the Year Round and in Dickens’s confidences) that the Inimitable’s earlier ideas for titles had included The Loss of James Wakefield and Dead? Or Alive? (He had obviously never seriously considered using Edmond Dickenson’s name, as he’d mentioned to me the previous spring—that had been just to bait me.)
I had begun my book months before Dickens had started his, and thus had sold and was to start serialising Man and Wife in Cassell’s Magazine in January of 1870 and had also sold serial rights to my old stalwart, Harper’s Magazine, in New York and—to avoid piracy—had arranged for Harper’s to publish their instalments a fortnight earlier than did Cassell’s. Dickens’s first instalment of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, serialised in green wrappers from Chapman and Hall, was not to see print until April. Meant for a dozen monthly instalments, it would end after six.
Drood by Dan Simmons / Horror / Mystery & Detective / Fantasy have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes