Drood, p.76
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       Drood, p.76
 

          

  According to Frank Beard, he had already torn himself to pieces. But he went on.

  It was in the middle of March—right when the tour was taking its greatest toll on the man—that the Queen summoned Dickens to Buckingham Palace for an audience.

  Dickens had not been able to walk the previous evening or that morning, but he managed to hobble into Her Majesty’s presence. Court etiquette did not allow him to sit (although the previous year, receiving the same honour, old Carlyle, announcing that he was a feeble old man, had helped himself to a chair and etiquette be d—— ned).

  Dickens stood throughout the interview. (But so did Victoria, leaning slightly on the back of a sofa—an advantage denied to the author standing racked in pain in front of her.)

  This interview had come about partially because Dickens had shown some American Civil War photographs to Mr Arthur Helps, Clerk of the Privy Council, and Helps had mentioned them to Her Majesty. Dickens had forwarded the photographs to her.

  With his usual sense of mischief, Dickens had sent the hapless Helps a note in which he pretended to believe that he was being summoned to the palace in order to be made a baronet. “We will have ‘Of Gad’s Hill Place’ attached to the title of the Baronetcy, please,” he wrote, “— on account of the divine William and Falstaff. With this stipulation, my blessing and forgiveness are enclosed.”

  Reports were that Mr Helps and other members of the court were quite beside themselves with embarrassment over the misunderstanding until someone explained the Inimitable’s sense of humour to them.

  During the interview with the Queen, Dickens quickly turned the subject to the prescient dream that President Abraham Lincoln was purported to have had—and told others about—the night before he was assassinated. Such portents of imminent death were obviously on the Inimitable’s mind at that time, and he had brought up the Lincoln dream with many of his friends.

  Her Majesty reminded him of the time she had attended the performance of The Frozen Deep some thirteen years earlier. The two discussed the evident fate of the Franklin Expedition for a few moments, then the current state of Arctic exploration, and then somehow got onto the perennial issue of the servant problem. From there the long royal audience’s conversation shifted to national education and the appalling price of butcher’s meat.

  I can only imagine and envision, Dear Reader, much as you must so many decades beyond all this, how that audience must have looked and sounded, with Her Majesty standing next to the sofa and behaving, as Dickens later told Georgina, “strangely shy… and like a girl in manner,” and Dickens standing ramrod straight yet seemingly relaxed, perhaps with his hands clasped behind him, while his left leg and foot and left arm were throbbing and aching and threatening to betray him into collapse.

  Before the audience ended, Her Majesty is reported to have said softly, “You know, it is one of our greatest regrets that we have never had the opportunity to hear one of your readings.”

  “I regret it as well, Ma’am,” said Dickens. “I am sorry, but as of just two days ago, they are now finally over. After all these years, my readings are over.”

  “And a private reading would be out of the question?” said Victoria.

  “I fear it would be, Your Majesty. And I would not care to give a private reading at any event. You see, Ma’am, a mixed audience is essential to the success of my readings. This may not be the case with other authors who read for the public, but it has always been the case for me.”

  “We understand,” said Her Majesty. “And we also understand that it would be inconsistent for you to alter your decision. We happen to know, Mr Dickens, that you are the most consistent of men.” She smiled then, and Dickens later confided to Forster that he was sure she was thinking of that time thirteen years before when he had flatly refused to appear before Her Majesty still in his costume and makeup after the comedic farce that had followed The Frozen Deep.

  At the close of the interview, the Queen presented him with an autographed copy of her Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands and asked for a set of his works. “We would prefer, if it is possible,” she said, “that we receive them this afternoon.”

  Dickens had smiled and bowed slightly but said, “I ask once again for Your Majesty’s kind indulgence and for a bit more time in which I shall have my books more suitably bound for Your Majesty.”

  He later sent her the complete set of his works bound in morocco leather and gold.

  THE FINAL READING PERFORMANCE he had mentioned to the Queen occurred on 15 March.

  On that last evening, he read from A Christmas Carol and from the Trial. They had always been the crowds’ favourites. His granddaughter, tiny Mekitty, was present for the first time that night, and Kent later told me that she had trembled when her grandfather— “Wenerables” she called him—had spoken in strange voices. She wailed beyond consolation when she saw her Wenerables crying.

  I was there in the audience that night—in the back, unheralded, in the shadows. I could not stay away.

  For the last time on this Earth, I realised, English audiences were hearing Charles Dickens give voice to Sam Weller and Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.

  The audience was huge and overflowing. Crowds had gathered outside the hall’s two entrances on Regent Street and Piccadilly hours before the event. Later, Dickens’s son Charley told my brother that “I thought I had never heard him read so well and with so little effort.”

  But I was there and I could see the effort that Dickens was using to keep himself composed. Then the trial scene from The Pickwick Papers was over and—as he always did—Dickens simply walked off stage.

  The huge audience went berserk. The standing ovation verged on sheer hysteria. Several times Dickens returned to the platform and then left again and each time he was called back. Finally he calmed the crowd and gave the short speech that he obviously had been labouring on for some time and which he now had to overcome his visible emotions to give—tears were pouring down his cheeks in the gaslights while his granddaughter wailed in the family’s box.

  “Ladies and gentlemen, it would be worse than idle—for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling—if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain.”

  He spoke briefly of those fifteen years during which he had been reading to the public—of how he had seen such readings as a duty to his readers and to the public—and he spoke of that readership’s and public’s sympathy in return. As if in recompense for his departure, he mentioned that The Mystery of Edwin Drood would soon appear (the audience was too rapt and silent and transfixed even to applaud this happy news).

  “From these garish lights,” he concluded, stepping slightly closer to the gaslights and to his silent (except for the soft weeping) audience, “I now vanish forevermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, affectionate farewell.”

  He limped from the stage then, but the relentless roars of applause brought him back one last time.

  His cheeks wet with tears, Charles Dickens kissed his hand, waved, and then limped off the stage for the final time.

  Walking back to Number 90 Gloucester Place through light showers that March night, a new unopened letter from Caroline Clow—more carefully detailed abuses, I was sure—in my pocket, I drank heavily from my silver flask.

  Dickens’s public—that mob of public which I had seen and heard roar that very night—would, whenever that d—— ned beloved writer of theirs finally chose to die, insist on having him buried in Westminster Abbey next to the great poets. I was now certain of that. They would get him there if they had to carry his corpse on their rough-wooled shoulders and dig the grave themselves.

  I resolved to take a day off from my writing the next day—a Wednesday—and go to Rochester and visit the cathedral and seek out Mr Dradles and there make my final arrangements for Charles Dickens’s true demise and interment.

  CHAPTER FORTY-SIX

  Ere is the block,”
whispered Dradles, patting the face of a stone in the wall that looked like all the others in the gloom. “And ’ere the tool to ’andle ’er with.” In the weak lantern light, I saw him reach deep into his layers of flannel and moleskin and filthy canvas and bring out a pry bar as long as my forearm. “And ’ere on top, you see, the notch I chiselled in, Mr Billy Wilkie Collins, sir. Easy as the front door key to your very own ’ouse, you see.”

  I could not really see the niche at the top of the block where it met the mortar, but the flat end of the pry bar found it. Dradles grunted rum fumes at me as he leaned all his weight on the upper part of the bar. The stone screamed.

  I write “screamed,” Dear Reader, rather than “screeched” or “scraped” or “made a loud sound” because the noise this stone block made sliding back several inches out of its ancient place in the wall of the crypt was precisely that of a woman screaming.

  I helped Dradles remove the surprisingly heavy block and set it on the dark, dank stones of the curving crypt stairs. The lantern showed a rectangular hole which I was sure was far too small for my purposes. When Dradles dropped the iron bar on the floor behind me, I confess I jumped several inches.

  “Go on, lean ’n’ peer in, make your acquaintance wi’ the old ’uns there,” cackled the stonemason. He took another drink from his ever-present jug as I held the lantern to the aperture and attempted to peer inside.

  From what I could see, it still looked too small for my purposes. Less than a foot of space separated this outer wall from the first inner wall of an old crypt, and although I could see that this narrow gap dropped a foot or two below the level of the outer walkway and floor where we crouched, much of this cavity stretching away on both sides of the hole we’d made was half-filled with broken stones, ancient bottles, and other rubbish.

  I heard Dradles chuckle to my left. He must have seen my appalled expression in the lamplight.

  “Y’er thinkin’ it’s too narrow, ain’t you, Mr Billy Wilkie Collins? But it ain’t. It’s perfect. Shove aside ’ere.”

  I held the lantern as Dradles squat-walked forward. He patted his bulging pockets and suddenly there was an animal’s long leg bone in his right hand.

  “Where did that come from?” I whispered.

  “One of yer bigger test dogs in the lime pit, ’course. It’s me who does the rakin’ out there, now, in’t it? Now watch and learn.”

  Dradles pushed the long canine femur or whatever it was sideways through the small aperture and tossed it in with a flick of his fingers. I heard it clatter on the rubbish below and several feet to one side.

  “You could get a kennel ’o dogs’ skeletons in ’ere,” he said too loudly. “But it ain’t dogs we’re thinkin’ of to join the old ’uns with their crooks ’ere, is it?”

  I said nothing.

  Dradles patted at his layers of filthy, dusty garments again and suddenly he was holding a human skull missing only its jawbone.

  “Who is… who was that?” I whispered. I hated it that my voice sounded like it was trembling in this narrow but echoing space.

  “Oh, aye, names are important for the dead ’uns, though not for them, but for us quick ’uns, eh?” laughed Dradles. “Let us call ’im Yorick.”

  Once again, the old man must have seen my expression in the lantern light, for he laughed loudly—the echo of that drunken bark coming back from groined vaults on the level above us and from the walls of the curved and descending staircase-corridor we were in and from unimagined rooms and tunnels and pits in the absolute darkness far below.

  “Mr Billy Wilkie Collins mustn’t think that masons of stone don’t know and can’t recite the Bard,” whispered the old man. “’Ere, let us see the last of Poor Yorick.” And with that he fitted the skull carefully through the tight space, held it in one hand, and flicked it to the left and out of sight into the narrow cavity. The noise it made upon hitting the stone and bottles and rubbish below was memorable.

  “Skulls is always the ’ardest part,” Dradles said happily. “Spines, e’en wi’ all the vertebrae intact, you can twist in like a petrified snake an’ it don’t matter if some o’ the parts chip off. Where the skull can go though, there can go the whole man. Or ten whole men. Or a ’undred. Seen enough, Mr Billy Wilkie?”

  “Yes.”

  “Be a good lad, then, and ’elp me lift this stone back in place. When you’re done wi’ your business down ’ere, you let old Dradles know and I’ll touch up the grout ’ere so no one can ever tell that this wall ain’t have been untouched since Noah’s day.”

  Outside in the chilly March wind, I gave the old stonemason £300 in various-size bills. As I counted them out, Dradles’s long, dry tongue kept flicking out like a Galapagos lizard’s, licking his own dusty-stubbled cheeks and upper lip in startling pink-and-grey stabs.

  “And there will be another hundred pounds each year,” I whispered. “As long as you live.”

  He squinted at me. His voice, when he spoke, was much, much too loud. “Mr Billy Wilkie Collins ain’t thinkin’ that old Dradles’s silence ’as to be bought, now, does he? Dradles can be as silent as the next good man. Or the next bad ’un, for that matter. If one who’s done what you plan to do goes to thinkin’ about payin’ for silence, ’e might go to thinkin’ about doin’ more of what he done to make sure o’ that silence. That’d be a mistake, Mr Billy Wilkie. It surely would. I’ve told me apprentice all about this ’ere business and sworn ’im to keep silence on pain of death by Dradles’s wrath, but ’e knows, sir. ’E knows. An’ ’e would let others know if something untowards-like were to ’appen to his good, stalwart old Dradles.”

  I thought a moment about his apprentice—an idiot deaf-mute, if I remembered correctly. But I said, “Nonsense. Think of it as an annuity. And annual payment in exchange for service and your investment in our common…”

  “Dradles knows what an annuity is, sure as he knows ol’ Yorick we left back there was a man of infinite jest, young ’Oratio. Just let Dradles know when you wants the stone, which looks perfectly fine and old now, grouted and mortared up for all of ’ternity.” And with that he turned on his worn heel and walked away, touching his finger to what could have been a brim of what might have been a hat, without looking back.

  MONTHLY SALES OF THE SERIALISED Man and Wife were not as impressive as had been The Moonstone’s. No long lines waited for the monthly release of instalments. Critical reaction was tepid, even hostile. The English reading public was, as I had anticipated, angered by my careful and accurate description of the abuses and self-abuses of the Muscular Christian athlete. Word from the Harper brothers in New York indicated that the American reading public had limited interest in and even less outrage over the unfairness of our English marriage laws, which allowed—even encouraged—entrapment of one member of the couple into an unwanted matrimony.

  None of these facts bothered me in the least.

  If you have not read my Man and Wife there in the future, Dear Reader (although I sincerely hope it is still in print a century and more hence), let me give you a taste of it here. In this scene from Chapter the Fifty-fourth (page 226 in the first edition), I have my poor Hester Dethridge come upon a terrifying (to me, at least) encounter:

  The Thing stole out, dark and shadowy in the pleasant sunlight. At first I saw only the dim figure of a woman. After a little it began to get plainer, brightening from within outwards—brightening, brightening, brightening, till it set before me the vision of MY OWN SELF—repeated as if I was standing before a glass: the double of myself, looking at me with my own eyes.… And it said to me, with my own voice, “Kill him.”

  Cassell’s Magazine had paid me an advance of £500 and a total payment of £750. I had made arrangements to publish Man and Wife in three volumes, with the initial release date being 27 January, with the firm F. S. Ellis. Despite the moderate sales in America, Harper’s was so delighted with the quality of the early instalments that they sent me a totally unexpected cheque for £500. Also, I had written the
novel Man and Wife with both eyes firmly set on its stage adaptation—in some ways, it and my ensuing novels would be theatrical scripts in shorthand—and I looked forward to further income from that very quick translation to both the London and American stage.

  Compare all this to Charles Dickens’s lack of literary production in the past year and more.

  Thus it was all the more galling one day in May when I stepped into the Wellington Street offices of All the Year Round to discuss (demand) reversions of my copyrights with Wills or Charley Dickens—only to find both of them absent to lunch—and, wandering from office to office as was my old habit there, came across an open letter of accounting from Forster and Dolby.

  It was a summary of earnings from Dickens’s readings, and looking at it made the scarab scuttle behind my right eye and brought a band of excruciating headache pain tightening around my forehead. It was through just such rising agony that I read the following in Dolby’s tight, ledger-columned script:

  Charles Dickens’s paid readings over the past years had totalled 423, including 111 given while Arthur Smith was the Inimitable’s manager, 70 under Thomas Headland, and 242 under Dolby. It seemed that Dickens had never kept precise records of his profits under Smith and Headland, but this spring he estimated them at about £12,000. Under Dolby, those profits had reached almost £33,000. This gave a total of some £45,000—an average of more than £100 per reading—and, according to the note from Dickens appended, represented almost half of his entire current estate’s value, estimated at about £93,000.

  Ninety-three thousand pounds. All last year and this, because of my personal investment in the theatrical production of Black and White, my excessive loans to Fechter, the constant upkeep on the grand house on Gloucester Place (and the attendant salaries for the two servants and frequent cook there), my generous payments to Martha R——, and especially the constant need to purchase large quantities of both opium and morphia for personal medicinal reasons, I had been struggling financially. As I had written to Frederick Lehmann the year before (when that good friend had offered to lend me money)—“I shall pay the Arts. Damn the Arts!”

 
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