Sven Karsten: Tracing “The Unaccountable Expedition”

Surely an unaccountable sort of expedition! That Durdles himself, who is always prowling among old graves, and ruins, like a Ghoul—that he should be stealing forth to climb, and dive, and wander without an object, is nothing extraordinary; but that the Choir- Master or any one else should hold it worth his while to be with him, and to study moonlight effects in such company is another affair. Surely an unaccountable sort of expedition, therefore!

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Y dear Droodist, in this article I’d like to offer you an exciting journey into Chapter XII to explore ghastly dungeons of crypt and then ascend to the central Tower of Rochester Cathedral along with Durdles and Mr. Jasper. There is nothing new you will learn about Edwin’s disappearance in this article, though you will have the pleasure to materialize fictitious characters in our real world. We are going to enjoy the beauty of medieval architecture along the quest, which is also nice.

So, in the beginning of Chapter XII we can see Mr. Sapsea, who often takes a walk (‘airing’) in Cathedral Close and thereabouts, especially around Mrs. Sapsea’s monument, he watches for strangers, hoping to see them ‘retiring with a blush’, after reading his inscription.

Mr. Sapsea, walking slowly this moist evening near the churchyard with his hands behind him, on the look-out for a blushing and retiring stranger, turns a corner, and comes instead into the goodly presence of the Dean, conversing with the Verger and Mr. Jasper.

If Mr. Sapsea starts his walk all the way from his house along The High Street, and then turns left a corner just before Jasper’s house, that corner—is at turn from Boley Hill into College Yard. We can see this corner in Luke Fildes’s illustration, we can view the same posts, only the road is different, for it was covered with new pavement, that’s why it ascended by half a meter. Chimney pipes of the Minor Canon Corner are visible on the background behind the talking men.

The men part after the conversation.

… The lamplighter now dotting the quiet Close with specks of light, and running at a great rate up and down his little ladder with that object — his little ladder under the sacred shadow of whose inconvenience generations had grown up, and which all Cloisterham would have stood aghast at the idea of abolishing—the Dean withdraws to his dinner, Mr. Tope to his tea, and Mr. Jasper to his piano. There, with no light but that of the fire, he sits chanting choir-music in a low and beautiful voice, for two or three hours; in short, until it has been for some time dark, and the moon is about to rise.

Then he closes his piano softly, softly changes his coat for a pea-jacket, with a goodly wicker-cased bottle in its largest pocket, and putting on a low-crowned, flap-brimmed hat, goes softly out.

Dickens draws our attention to the fact, that Jasper didn’t turn his lamp on, however the lamp was burning half an hour later, by the time Jasper reached Cathedral.

One might fancy that the tide of life was stemmed by Mr. Jasper's own gatehouse. The murmur of the tide is heard beyond; but no wave passes the archway, over which his lamp burns red behind his curtain, as if the building were a Lighthouse.

There is nothing mysterious in that: Mrs. Tope might have heard that Jasper, her lodger had stopped playing and chanting and went up turning his lamp on to set his table for dinner. There was no one to turn it off, since Jasper was out. His lamp would burn the same fashion on the night of Drood’s disappearance.

But Edwin Drood is alive at the moment, getting his betrothal ring from Mr. Grewgious, while Jasper is heading towards Durdles’s house along The High Street:

Repairing to Durdles's unfinished house, or hole in the city wall, and seeing a light within it, he softly picks his course among the gravestones, monuments, and stony lumber of the yard, already touched here and there, sidewise, by the rising moon.

We've already figured out the location of Durdles Yard during one of our previous investigations. It is located at the end of a lane, the one leading from Maidstone Road (now Crow Lane) to the ruins of the Roman wall. The moon rising from South-East shines sidewise, meaning out of Jasper’s left shoulder.

After a couple of words, Durdles takes his lantern and puts a match or two (lucifers, matches that do not require a box to ignite) in his pocket. Our nocturnal journeymen leave Durdles Yard and set out for Cathedral taking the way across the Monks’ Vineyard, since Durdles in unable to take the straight high street in his already drunken state.

They go on, presently passing the red windows of the Travellers' Twopenny, and emerging into the clear moonlight of the Monks' Vineyard. This crossed, they come to Minor Canon Corner: of which the greater part lies in shadow until the moon shall rise higher in the sky.

They follow the route, which has been already mentioned in one of my previous articles, however moving not behind Minor Canon’s house, but passing the doorways this time. That place still lies in a moon shadow, since that is the North side.

The sound of a closing house-door strikes their ears, and two men come out. These are Mr. Crisparkle and Neville. Jasper, with a strange and sudden smile upon his face, lays the palm of his hand upon the breast of Durdles, stopping him where he stands.

At that end of Minor Canon Corner the shadow is profound in the existing state of the light: at that end, too, there is a piece of old dwarf wall, breast high, the only remaining boundary of what was once a garden, but is now the thoroughfare. Jasper and Durdles would have turned this wall in another instant; but, stopping so short, stand behind it.

‘A piece of old dwarf wall’ has not remained to this day or maybe it was all made up by Dickens. However, we can still achieve the same perspective with Jasper, while he ‘watches Neville, as though his eye were at the trigger of a loaded rifle’, in order to do so, we need to stand our back facing King’s Orchard street and we would get the very same view as Jasper had that night.

The echoes were favourable at those points, but as the two approach, the sound of their talking becomes confused again. […] When they move once more, Mr. Crisparkle is seen to look up at the sky, and to point before him. They then slowly disappear; passing out into the moonlight at the opposite end of the Corner.

That means, Mr. Canon together with his ward move along the end wall of Minor Canon’s house and the precincts behind which Jasper is hiding. Today, there is a crescent stone extension blocking the way to the lawn, and the lawn itself is not there anymore, it is now separated with fencing.


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Jasper and Durdles continue their way along College Yard, until they reach the East portal of Cathedral. Only from this point Jasper’s gatehouse could be seen lit by moonlight all along the lane.

Hence, when Mr. Jasper and Durdles pause to glance around them, before descending into the crypt by a small side door, of which the latter has a key, the whole expanse of moonlight in their view is utterly deserted. One might fancy that the tide of life was stemmed by Mr. Jasper's own gatehouse. The murmur of the tide is heard beyond; but no wave passes the archway, over which his lamp burns red behind his curtain, as if the building were a Lighthouse.

The East portal of Cathedral has two doors: a big door, the main entrance and ‘a small side door, or which the latter has a key’—Durdles opens that small door with the above-mentioned key. From this point, Mrs. Sapsea’s monument is located only twenty meters to the back of our journeymen, the opposed side of Boley Hill Street.

They enter, locking themselves in, descend the rugged steps, and are down in the Crypt.

Just like this, but slightly different. ‘They enter, locking themselves in’ and then move to the opposite corner of the portal (the green line on the right of the map), since the door to the winding staircase leading to the Cathedral Crypt is located in that corner, and then ‘descend the rugged steps, and are down in the Crypt’.

The lantern is not wanted, for the moonlight strikes in at the groined windows, bare of glass, the broken frames for which cast patterns on the ground. The heavy pillars which support the roof engender masses of black shade, but between them there are lanes of light.

Both glass and window frames are broken, but lattices are still preventing town-boys from getting in. The Cathedral Crypt is huge, its height enormous with more than hundred pillars—even prof. Willis used to conduct tours around the place for noble ladies and gentleman with up to three dozen participants. Jasper and Durdles travel down the crypt all the way through nave and choir, talking about ‘old uns’ (probably bishops, rather than nuns) and then level up getting out of the crypt at the crossing of the North transepts (the way is marked with a black line on the map). And then they reach the exit.

On the steps by which they rise to the Cathedral, Durdles pauses for new store of breath. The steps are very dark, but out of the darkness they can see the lanes of light they have traversed. Durdles seats himself upon a step. Mr. Jasper seats himself upon another.

Despite Dickens writing ‘they are to ascend the great Tower’, the Tower is far from the journeymen, they are still in the Crypt, because ‘they can see the lanes of light they have traversed’.

Now Durdles tells his story of ‘the ghost of a cry’, which he heard this time last year when he was asleep—after he ‘turned in here’. ‘Here’ meaning a place in the middle of Cathedral and like seven metres beneath the ground level. Durdles was separated from the inner Cathedral by thick soil, a close door and a pretty good distance down the stairs. The entrance door hundred metres behind was also closed. The only possibility was that somebody might have entered through ‘the groined windows, bare of glass, the broken frames’, saw Durdles sleeping, pushed his head through and tried to wake him up with a terrific shriek, guided by evil intentions. We can guess that it was Jasper screaming because of his inadequate reaction. Jasper had a throat of cast iron with a voice strong enough to wake up even echoes under the Cathedral dome, and of course he could have woken up Durdles as well. Unfortunately, a house located in front of East-Gate House, which was a prototype of Mayor Sapsea’s house is pretty far from the Cathedral (about 300 metres), or we could have guessed that poor Mrs. Sapsea died because of that terrific shriek rather than hypothetical liver.

Let’s continue with Durdles and Jasper, they go up the stairs and get out of the crypt into the second (South) transept, the one close to the chancel. Only in this area, moonlight could be thrown upon their faces through stained-glass window:

Durdles complies, not over-steadily; opens the door at the top of the steps with the key he has already used; and so emerges on the Cathedral level, in a passage at the side of the chancel. Here, the moonlight is so very bright again that the colours of the nearest stained-glass window are thrown upon their faces. The appearance of the unconscious Durdles, holding the door open for his companion to follow, as if from the grave, is ghastly enough, with a purple hand across his face, and a yellow splash upon his brow; but he bears the close scrutiny of his companion in an insensible way, although it is prolonged while the latter fumbles among his pockets for a key confided to him that will open an iron gate, so to enable them to pass to the staircase of the great tower.

The moon is high enough in the sky to shine upon Durdles through windows of the South transept.


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And then they start to ascend the Tower. It might not be the great Tower, but some other tower in the Cathedral.

The tower—is one of the two towers enframing the North transept or so called St. William’s chapel. Both towers contain a winding staircase: the one on the right (west) leading up to galleries of the second floor, as well as down to the crypt, while the left one (east) is only for ascending. Jasper and Durdles take the left winding staircase passing through both of the East transepts (the green line on the map).

Then they go up the winding staircase of the great tower, toilsomely, turning and turning, and lowering their heads to avoid the stairs above, or the rough stone pivot around which they twist. Durdles has lighted his lantern, by drawing from the cold, hard wall a spark of that mysterious fire which lurks in everything, and, guided by this speck, they clamber up among the cobwebs and the dust.

Why was it left, but not the right staircase? There is no difference which staircase to take, but according to medieval architecture left staircase is usually the one leading to the tower. Now here is a screenshot of a TV show with a watchmaker taking down some details of clockwork to repair. We can tell it is the left staircase, because of the window behind him. We can guess it is a shortcut to the tower.

The further passage only proves our theory:

Twice or thrice they emerge into level, low-arched galleries, whence they can look down into the moon-lit nave; and where Durdles, waving his lantern, waves the dim angels' heads upon the corbels of the roof, seeming to watch their progress.

That means, Durdles and Jasper pass along three walls: the front wall of the transept, left side of the transept and the north wall of the choir (the orange line); on their way to the galleries, and then they easily could turn into the moon-lit nave with two adjacent transepts. Only the north one is decorated with stone angel’s heads upon the corbels. The accuracy of Dickens’s description is simply amazing—he exactly mentioned their route of ‘three low-arched galleries’, ‘angels’ heads’ and ‘the moon-lit nave’!

Anon they turn into narrower and steeper staircases, and the night-air begins to blow upon them, and the chirp of some startled jackdaw or frightened rook precedes the heavy beating of wings in a confined space, and the beating down of dust and straws upon their heads.

The accuracy is just incredible! Indeed, there is a doorway about ten feet further. And then to the right, just behind the doorway there is a narrow whole inside the wall with steeply curved stairs going up to the axis line of the Cathedral. Then stairs abrupt suddenly by the choir garret, quite unsuitable place—upon the brick corbels of the roof, though below the tiled ridge roof, right by the bell-ringers’ doorway in the east (the blue line on the map). The night draught blows lightly in that place—the wind is coming through wooden lattice of lancet double windows five meters above. Jasper and Durdles are inside the great Tower of the Cathedral. There are only two levels with two wooden partitions separating them from their final destination.

At last, leaving their light behind a stair—for it blows fresh up here—they look down on Cloisterham, fair to see in the moonlight…

A staircase (a wooden one-flight staircase) is adjacent to the wall of the Tower going all the way from bell-ringers’ room into the dark belfry of cast-iron frames attached to beams with bells and tug wheels (the purple line), and then from the belfry through the clockwork hanging over a beam as if it was the axis of the tower and into the roof (the red line). There is no staircase in the picture, because the photographer stood on it while he took pictures, however it is clear that the other three walls are empty: thus the one-flight staircase must be installed to the west wall of the Tower.

The top of the Tower is not a 400 square meters cemented flat rectangular area as could be expected, collecting water and snow on its surface; but a quadruple-pitch roof, so sloping, that it can’t be seen from below, because of the castellations. It is not safe to walk on tiles, that’s why Jasper and Durdes move closer to castellations, walking carefully over the gutter.

... its ruined habitations and sanctuaries of the dead, at the tower's base: its moss-softened red-tiled roofs and red-brick houses of the living, clustered beyond: its river winding down from the mist on the horizon, as though that were its source, and already heaving with a restless knowledge of its approach towards the sea.

Jasper (always moving softly with no visible reason) contemplates the scene, and especially that stillest part of it which the Cathedral overshadows.

That means, Jasper is looking directly at the North: the moon is in the South behind his back. St. Nicholas Church, the part of the graveyard, that is adjacent to the Cathedral are covered with a moon shadow from the Cathedral and the great Tower, while Jasper’s house is partly lit with moonlight, and a red lamp is still burning in its second floor. Thus, Jasper, just like anyone else in his position is watching his own house from such an extreme perspective. It is neither Sapsea’s monument, which is hidden from view with the roof of the nave nor the expected crime scene (the crime scene is considered to be somewhere around the monument). It would be meaningless for him to view the surrounding of his own house from the great Tower, while he was planning a murder—if he had wanted to check the location of the moon shadow of the great Tower at a particular time, leaning out of his own window would have been sufficient.

It’s interesting, that Google Maps satellite view, posted on ‘Maps’ link, provides the shadows at daylight, which are similar with moon shadows, when the Moon is shining in the South, with the only difference, that the moon shadows are a bit longer.

Durdles is already high after he empties his wicker-cased bottle of cognac with opium added, so now it’s time to descend. Thus, our journeymen start their way backwards, locking the bell-ringers’ rooms (probably by the latch) and the iron door, separating the winding staircase from the Cathedral halls.

The iron gate attained and locked — but not before Durdles has tumbled twice, and cut an eyebrow open once [probably he forgot to lower his head and couldn’t avoid the stair above]— they descend into the crypt again, with the intent of issuing forth as they entered.

They descend into the crypt probably by opening the door leading from the first level to the crypt. It is not mentioned whether Durdles locks that door or not, but that is of less importance, since he’s still holding the key in his hands, and only a moment after he throws himself down dropping the key and falls asleep at once next to a pillar. Now Jasper could easily return to the Cathedral if he wanted, but not into the great Tower, since the key to the iron door is still with Durdles in the inner pocket of his jacket. According to the novel, Durdles was lightly touched (to make sure he’s asleep), but never searched through.

He dreams that the footsteps die away into distance of time and of space, and that something touches him, and that something falls from his hand. Then something clinks and gropes about, and he dreams that he is alone for so long a time, that the lanes of light take new directions as the moon advances in her course.

According to Jasper, Durdles had slept quite a lot,—'Do you know that your forties [winks] have stretched into thousands?'—meaning approximately hour and a half. Jasper is not lying to his friend. First of all, he wouldn’t lie because Durdles heard the bells, when they chimed midnight, and second, Jasper has watch in his pocket (he would change the glass of that watch in the jeweller’s shop few days later), that’s why he knows exactly when the bells are to chime 2 AM.

'What's the time?'

'Hark! The bells are going in the Tower!'

Then Durdles picks up the key (to the Crypt) lying on the ground, ties his bundle (containing, as we know, his dinner, mason’s hammer and the key to Mrs. Sapsea’s monument), then both Jasper and Durdles go upstairs back to the Cathedral and out to the streets (previously locking the entrance door with the same key) and about to go home when suddenly Deputy appears on their way. The idea of Deputy spying on him, makes Jasper so furious, that he strangles the wretched boy almost to death. By this little accident Dickens wants to make it clear, that Jasper is afraid of being spied, since it might hinder his plans—e.g. it might disprove his alibi (note: that Latin word was rarely used by Englishmen then).

Let’s be reasonable. How Deputy could be spying on Jasper from the outside of the Cathedral, while Jasper was waiting for Durdles’s awakening? Maybe out of broken windows of the crypt bare of glass? But why would Deputy climb over the fence in order to look inside, while he had no idea that someone was in? If Jasper had been back to the cathedral and then to the great Tower, he wouldn’t have worried because of Deputy. If he had stood next to Durdles trying to make copies of his keys in a hurry with a wax mould, he shouldn’t have worried because of Deputy hanging around the east portal of the Cathedral either, no one would dare search gentleman’s pockets for wax moulds.

Deputy might have been dangerous only in case he’d left the cathedral and went outside. Going outside is not that big of a deal. Consider him going home for a couple of minutes, to drink some hot tea (or maybe to outline the key shape on the paper), and then returning back to the crypt to make sure poor Durdles hadn’t frozen to death! It is more likely that Jasper wanted to conceal some other actions he performed outside the Cathedral between half past midnight and 2 AM.

What could those actions be? Could he be carrying buckets full of quicklime from Durdles Yards to Mrs. Sapsea’s monument? He probably could. In this case he should have been afraid of being noticed not only by Deputy but all other dweller, whose houses he might have passed on his way. Anyone could have seen a Choirmaster with buckets in his hands by simple leaning a window-blind. What a conspiracy is that? There must be something else.

Could Jasper be meeting someone in front of the Cathedral? Someone like his fiancée, like Rosa or Mrs. Crisparkle (the theory that I mentioned once)? And then he was simply afraid for that lady’s reputation, because Deputy might be spreading rumours about her? Very unlikely. The street that is in front of the Cathedral was lit with moonlight, so brightly that neither man nor lady could sneak unnoticed.

But what did make Jasper so furious:

Instantly afterwards, a rapid fire of stones rattles at the Cathedral wall, and the hideous small boy is beheld opposite, dancing in the moonlight.

‘Opposite’, meaning next to Mrs. Sapsea’s monument!

Was it dangerous for Jasper to come near Sapsea’s monument? Not at all. Besides, his brother-in-law was buried here. Why not visit his grave once in a while?

However, it was dangerous to open the monument. It doesn’t matter whether he opened it to put some quicklime in or simply out of curiosity. It is private property, thing that is considered sacred by Englishmen. My vault is my castle too, a part of my real estate! It’s like opening Mayor Sapsea’s own house with the key stolen from Durdles. The fact is a violation itself, irrespective of his murderous intentions. Jasper committed two crimes while Durdles was asleep: first, he stole a key, and second, he entered private property. That’s why Jasper was so afraid of Deputy, who might be spying on him from behind the bushes. He was afraid that Deputy could tell on him.

His first reaction was—kill the eyewitness:

'What! Is that baby-devil on the watch there!' cries Jasper in a fury: so quickly roused, and so violent, that he seems an older devil himself. 'I shall shed the blood of that impish wretch! I know I shall do it!'

And only Durdles prevents Jasper from murdering the wretched kid. But Deputy even in the moment of rage threatens him mentioning nothing about his crimes— 'I'll blind yer, s'elp me! I'll stone yer eyes out, s'elp me! If I don't have yer eyesight, bellows me!', meaning he saw nothing. Jasper retreats back home in a gloomy state of mind—he realizes that he can’t provide for every eventuality, while even the smallest detail may cause him a lot of harm and ruin all his crafty designs. He’d never thought of it that way, not when he dreamt of his nephew’s death while in opium stupor, not when considering his plans while Mr. Crisparkle was sharing his idea of establishing peace between the young men, not even two hours ago when he laughed at Neville Landless talking of ‘confidence’ to Minor Canon, feeling his superiority.

Did Jasper untie Durdles’s bundle to take the key? He sure did, since Durdles had to ‘tie it afresh’ as he woke up. Durdles would definitely have his bundle tied properly, before he fell into opium intoxication. We remember Durdles munching hard chucks from his bundle near Mr. Crisparkle’s house three-four hours ago, and then tying it up tightly, the knot doesn’t get loose during these hours and there have been no one around but Jasper.

This is why I’m so suspicious of Jasper taking the key out of the bundle and the one that Durdles had dropped and stepping outside almost running. Then Jasper probably crosses the street, unlocks Mrs. Sapsea’s monument and gets back to the Cathedral also softly and silently, leaving the monument door unlocked, but shut. ‘Lay the ground for the manner of the murder’,—as Dickens wrote in his notes to the novel. Jasper put the first key back into the bundle, and the second he puts in front of sleeping Durdles. Jasper thus conceals all vestiges of a crime, and the story goes on according to his plan.

And thus, as everything comes to an end, the unaccountable expedition comes to an end—for the time.

Our today’s investigation has also come to an end, I believe—for the time only. And those who are not bored with the mysteries of the Droods and Cloisterham, may take an exciting virtual tour of Rochester Cathedral on its website, for the sake of curiosity and enlightenment, sneaking into every hidden corner of Cathedral, finding a brass plaque to Charles Dickens and even climbing up to the roof. But, please do not try stoning people below! Are we human or are we Deputy, after all?!

Translated by Lucius Tellus


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