Burton Egbert Stevenson: The City of Edwin Drood

T

HE lit­tle old town of Rochester, snug­gled tip into the curv­ing arm of the Med­way on the Ken­tish bor­der, must al­ways be the chief place of pil­grim­age for the Dick­en­sian. It fair­ly reeks of Dick­ens; it was the scene of his first story and his last, and of many oth­ers in be­tween. Hith­er Mr. Pick­wick and his three com­pan­ions jour­neyed on their first his­toric ex­pe­di­tion out of Lon­don. They stopped at the Bull Hotel, still stand­ing, prac­ti­cal­ly un­al­tered, where their rooms may yet be seen — and even slept in! It was here that Mr. Al­fred Jin­gle and Mr. Tracy Tup­man at­tend­ed a ball — in a room still used for balls — and had an al­ter­ca­tion with Dr. Slam­mer of the Nine­ty-sev­enth, which in­volved the be­wil­dered Mr. Win­kle in a duel next day. It was in this same Bull Hotel, mas­querad­ing under the name of the Blue Boar, that Pip and Mrs. Gargery and Uncle Pum­ble­chook and the Hub­bies and Mr. Wop­sle cel­e­brat­ed a wind­fall of twen­ty-five guineas — the price of Pip's free­dom — by a great din­ner, at which, rather late in the evening, Mr. Wop­sle favoured with Collins's Ode, and threw his blood­stained sword in thun­der down with such ef­fect that the com­mer­cials un­der­neath sent a wait­er up to protest.

It might be added that the Bull lives large­ly on its Pick­wick­ian rep­u­ta­tion. At ei­ther side of the wide en­trance gate­way is a board bear­ing Mr. Jin­gle's words, "Good house. Nice beds"; the words ap­pear also on the bill of fare and the hotel sta­tionery; and if one wish­es to ex­plore the place, a fee of six­pence must first be paid. One other title to fame has the Bull, and this, too, is proud­ly pro­claimed by a board above the en­trance, which in­forms the vis­i­tor that "Queen Vic­to­ria Stayed at This Hotel." In­deed, the inn is known of­fi­cial­ly as "The Bull and Royal Vic­to­ria Hotel," the lat­ter part of the title hav­ing been added in 1836, when the Queen, then Princess Vic­to­ria, trav­el­ling to Lon­don with her moth­er, the Duchess of Kent, was over­tak­en by a ter­rif­ic storm and forced to take refuge at the inn over night. Mr. Jin­gle's eu­logium was pro­nounced by a man who had never stayed in the house, and Princess Vic­to­ria was forced to put up there against her will; so that the two prin­ci­pal items of its ad­ver­tise­ment will not bear a crit­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion. Nev­er­the­less, it is a good house, with pleas­ant rooms and a beau­ti­ful stair­way and a snug bar and a bright, clean cof­fee room, where some of the old fur­ni­ture from Gad's Hill Place has been in­stalled, and a great yard such as one sees nowhere but in these old coach­ing tav­erns; and the pil­grim to Rochester will do well to stop there.

One must stop some days, if one wish­es to ex­haust the Dick­ens in­ter­est of the town and neigh­bour­hood, for Dick­ens's tales are filled with ref­er­ences to Rochester under var­i­ous dis­guis­es. Nat­u­ral­ly enough, for he spent six im­pres­sion­able years of child­hood in the ad­join­ing town of Chatham, and, near­ly forty years later, re­alised a child­hood dream by buy­ing Gad's Hill Place, three miles out on the Gravesend road, where he lived until his death.

But this paper is con­cerned only with Rochester's con­nec­tion with The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. To stu­dents of that un­fin­ished tale — a mys­tery in a dou­ble sense — Rochester is ex­ceed­ing­ly in­ter­est­ing, for, under the thin dis­guise of "Clois­ter­ham," it is used as the scene of its prin­ci­pal events with re­mark­able ex­act­ness of de­tail. The ac­tion cen­tres about the old cathe­dral, it­self one of the most pic­turesque in Eng­land, and it has al­ways been the hope of the pre­sent writ­er that a care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of the ground might give some clue to the so­lu­tion of the story which Dick­ens had in mind. It was his good for­tune to have been able to make that ex­am­i­na­tion last sum­mer, and his far­ther good for­tune to have had as com­pan­ion and guide Mr. Edwin Har­ris, per­haps the most fa­mous Dick­en­sian now liv­ing at Rochester, and the au­thor of a num­ber of mono­graphs deal­ing with Dick­ens's con­nec­tion with the town. If any re­sults were to be ob­tained at all by a care­ful sur­vey of the ground, they would have been ob­tained in such com­pa­ny; but it may as well be said at once that such re­sults as were ob­tained were whol­ly neg­a­tive. In a word, they showed that cer­tain things could not have hap­pened, but they point­ed to no cer­tain so­lu­tion of the mys­tery.

The pro­tag­o­nist of Edwin Drood, it will be re­mem­bered, is John Jasper, choir-mas­ter of Clois­ter­ham cathe­dral, and uncle of the fated Edwin. He is paint­ed as a dark and sin­is­ter in­di­vid­u­al, ad­dict­ed to opium and sub­ject to fits — rather a stage vil­lain, all in all, scarce­ly con­vinc­ing, and by no means so fear­ful as Dick­ens tried to make him. He lived in rooms over the old gate which shut the cathe­dral close from the High Street of the town. "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 bums red be­hind the cur­tain, as if the build­ing were a light-house."

This old gate still stands, a solid and hand­some four-square piece of ma­son­ry, duly marked as "Jasper's Gate­house" by a bronze plate put up by the Dick­ens Fel­low­ship. Above it is the lit­tle one-sto­ry-and-at­tic frame ex­ten­sion where Jasper dwelt. It has been re­mod­eled in­side, so that the rooms no longer cor­re­spond with Dick­ens's de­scrip­tion of them — per­haps they never did — but so far as the ex­te­ri­or goes, it has not changed since the day Dick­ens wrote of it. The march of im­prove­ment, how­ev­er, has swept back the hous­es from one side and cut a street through, so that one may now enter the close with­out going through the gate at all. In Dick­ens's day, the hous­es hugged it close­ly on both sides, and one had only to close and bar the postern gate, which still hangs on its an­cient hinges, to shut off ingress ef­fec­tu­al­ly.

Just with­in the gate, on the left as one en­ters, is the door where Mr. Datch­ery was wont to sit, his white hair about his ears, to watch Jasper's com­ings and go­ings. This was the house of Mr. Tope, the verg­er, and one may enter it now, for a sign above the door pro­claims it. in lan­guage some­what too ar­cha­ic, to be "Ye Olde Gate House Tea Shoppe." The room be­yond is as quaint as could well be imag­ined, with its low, beamed ceil­ing, .its un­even floor, and quite au­then­tic air of an­tiq­ui­ty. But if one is look­ing for lunch, a bet­ter one may be had at the frankly mod­ern shop on the other side of the High Street.

A hun­dred paces or so be­yond the gate is the old grave­yard ad­join­ing the cathe­dral, shut off from the street by a high iron fence. It was through this fence that "Stony" Dur­dles, weav­ing his de­vi­ous way home­ward with Deputy at his heels, was wont to gaze ad­mir­ing­ly at his cre­ations in the tomb­stone line — "sur­round­ed by his works, like a pop­u­lar au­thor." '"Your own broth­er-in-law,'" as Dur­dles re­marked one night to Jasper, "in­tro­duc­ing a sar­coph­a­gus with­in the rail­ing, white and cold in the moon­light. 'Mrs. Sapsea!' in­tro­duc­ing the mon­u­ment of that de­vot­ed wife. 'Late In­cum­bent;' in­tro­duc­ing the Rev­erend Gen­tle­man's bro­ken col­umn. 'De­part­ed As­sessed Taxes;' in­tro­duc­ing a vase and towel, stand­ing on what might rep­re­sent the cake of soap. 'For­mer Pas­trycook and Muf­fin-mak­er, much re­spect­ed;' in­tro­duc­ing grave­stone. 'All safe and sound here, sir, and all Dur­dles's work. Of the com­mon folk, that is mere­ly bun­dled up in turf and bram­bles, the less said the bet­ter. A poor lot, soon for­got."

It is nat­u­ral­ly for the Sapsea mon­u­ment that one looks. As de­scribed in the book, it must have been a sort of buri­al vault which one could enter, for Dur­dles asks Sapsea for the key, in order that he may be sure that it is ship­shape in­side as well as out. Many hints in the story point to the like­li­hood that this mon­u­ment was to play a most im­por­tant part; most com­men­ta­tors be­lieve that it was hith­er Jasper dragged his nephew's body and buried it in a bed of quick­lime; some be­lieve that Edwin died there, or was al­ready dead; oth­ers think that Dur­dles, on his trip of in­spec­tion, stum­bled upon the still-liv­ing body, snatched it forth, and brought it back to life, to con­front the would-be mur­der­er at the end of the story. What­ev­er pur­pose it was to serve, it need only be noted here that no mon­u­ment even re­mote­ly re­sem­bling that as­signed to Mrs. Sapsea ex­ists in the church­yard, or. ap­par­ent­ly, ever has ex­ist­ed there. It seems to have been whol­ly a crea­ture of Dick­ens's fancy — which, of course, only makes it the more im­por­tant,

Just be­yond the grave­yard is the west front of the cathe­dral, with its beau­ti­ful round-head­ed door­way — one of the finest Nor­man door­ways to be seen any­where. To gaze through it into the dim and pic­turesque in­te­ri­or is, in­deed, as Mr. Grew­gious de­clared, "like look­ing down the throat of Old Time"; but it is not the pur­pose here to deal with the ar­chi­tec­ture of this "ven­er­a­ble pile," ex­cept as it con­cerns Edwin Drood. From this point of view, the crypt is eas­i­ly first in in­ter­est, for it was in the crypt that Dur­dles was con­stant­ly nos­ing about, turn­ing up an "old un" now and then, or creep­ing into one of its dark cor­ners to re­cov­er from the ef­fects of a de­bauch; it was the crypt which Jasper care­ful­ly ex­plored, with Dur­dles as guide, one moon­light night — an ex­pe­di­tion about which Dick­ens sought to throw such an air of mys­tery and which he called "un­ac­count­able" so often that every one agrees it had some close con­nec­tion with the plot, the most ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion being that Jasper was seek­ing a suit­able place in which to make away with his nephew and dis­pose of his body, and had about de­cid­ed that the crypt would do.

Forty years ago, the crypt was a dark and gloomy place, half-filled with dirt and rub­bish — stone frag­ments, old tomb­stones, and de­bris of every sort, the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of cen­turies. The glass was bro­ken from the nar­row win­dows, which were yet wide enough for a small boy to squeeze through, and so the boys of the neigh­bour­hood used the place as a kind of gang head­quar­ters. There are many men in Rochester, now verg­ing into the six­ties, who were more fa­mil­iar with it at that time than they have ever been since, and who re­mem­ber dis­tinct­ly its damp and earthy smell, its dark­ness and gen­er­al air of ne­glect and decay. It was in this con­di­tion that it was fa­mil­iar to Dick­ens, and it must have seemed to him a very fit­ting place for the com­mis­sion of such a crime as the mur­der of Edwin Drood. Here, too, a body could have been con­cealed, or placed in a bed of quick­lime, with very lit­tle dan­ger of dis­cov­ery ex­cept by Dur­dles, and every one seems to be agreed that it was by Dur­dles the dis­cov­ery was to be made.

Since then, the crypt has been swept and white­washed, the glass re­stored to the win­dows, and the air of mys­tery quite ban­ished. Throngs of vis­i­tors, at six­pence a head, troop through it daily, under the guid­ance of a verg­er, and it would now be quite im­pos­si­ble to con­ceal any­thing there, as a glance at the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­to­graph will show. So it takes some ef­fort of the imag­i­na­tion to re­con­struct the place as it ap­peared on the night of the "un­ac­count­able ex­pe­di­tion."

Dick­ens has de­scribed its progress with great de­tail, and one can fol­low it step by step. Jasper calls for Dur­dles at the hole in the city wall in which he lives, just back of the Trav­ellers' Twopen­ny, and to­geth­er they cross the Monks' Vine­yard and come to Minor Canon Comer, and pause be­hind a "piece of old dwarf wall, breast high, the only re­main­ing bound­ary of what was once a gar­den, but is now the thor­ough­fare," and which has long since been swept away. Then they walk on to­ward the cathe­dral along a nar­row pas­sage past the mined clois­ters which still ex­ists, and enter the crypt by a small side door of which Dur­dles has the key. The door and the "rugged steps" which they de­scend are, of course, eas­i­ly iden­ti­fied.

They walk up and down the crypt for some time, then mount the flight of steps lead­ing 'into the nave of the cathe­dral, and pause while Dur­dles un­locks the heavy door at the top, "with the key he has al­ready used." It is per­haps worth re­mark­ing that this door does not need a key to be opened from the in­side. In­deed, a key can­not be used, as the bolt of the lock is con­trolled by a catch. The catch is a trick catch, as the pre­sent writ­er found, after he had been shut into the crypt by the verg­er, spent an in­ter­est­ing half hour there, and then tried to get out again, for it was some time be­fore he mas­tered the trick and re­gained his lib­er­ty. The lock is very old, and the key which is need­ed to work it from the out­side is a heavy iron one — per­haps the very one which Dur­dles is sup­posed to have car­ried and which Jasper ex­am­ined so minute­ly.

An­oth­er short flight of steps leads to the choir, which is a few feet high­er than the nave, and here there is an­oth­er gate, an iron one in the beau­ti­ful old choir-screen, which Dur­dles also un­locks. Once in the choir, they cross it di­ag­o­nal­ly to the far cor­ner, pass through the door lead­ing to the cor­ner tower, and "go up the wind­ing stair­case, turn­ing and turn­ing, and low­er­ing their heads to avoid the stairs above, or the rough stone pivot around which they twist. Twice or thrice." Dick­ens adds, "they emerge into low-arched gal­leries, whence they can look down into the moon­lit nave." This is a cu­ri­ous mis­take for Dick­ens, who had pre­sum­ably been up this stair­case many times, to make, for there is no open­ing from the stair­way into the tri­fo­ri­um, nor any through which one can look down into the nave.

It has been the the­o­ry of many peo­ple that Jasper killed his nephew by push­ing him from the top of this tower on the night of the great storm, after hav­ing in­vei­gled him up there in a se­mi-in­tox­i­cat­ed con­di­tion, and that he then de­scend­ed and bun­dled the body into the crypt. A visit to the tower dis­proves this the­o­ry, be­cause there is no way in which this could be done. There is no way to get out to the top of it, for it is cov­ered by a solid four­square roof, and the sin­gle nar­row door opens upon the gut­ter of the church-roof, which is guard­ed by a para­pet some three or four feet high. Over the para­pet at this point a body might, in­deed, be thrown, and would fall a sheer hun­dred feet or more to the pave­ment below. If the body was thrown over at all. it must have been just here, for at every other point the gut­ters over­look the lower roofs of the aisles or of sim­i­lar pro­jec­tions built against the main body of the church. There can be lit­tle doubt that it was from this point Jasper and Dur­dles looked down on Clois­ter­ham. "fair to see in the moon­light.'' They seem to have de­scend­ed with­out going any far­ther; but this is re­al­ly only the be­gin­ning of a most in­ter­est­ing jour­ney. Pass­ing along this gut­ter, one en­ters a lit­tle door lead­ing into the great cen­tral tower of the church. There is a plat­form here, from which a long steep lad­der leads to a trap­door open­ing on the plat­form above the bells. On ei­ther side stretch­es a dim space, cir­cum­scribed above by the heavy tim­bers of the roof, and below by the rolling mass­es of the stone vault­ing of the transepts. A nar­row walk of planks spans this vault­ing, and one creeps for­ward cau­tious­ly above the bil­lows of stone, bend­ing low under the great cross-tim­bers of the roof, and peer­ing down into abysses masked in black­ness.

To the ex­pert in ar­chi­tec­ture, this vault­ing in re­verse must be most in­ter­est­ing; to the stu­dent of Edwin Drood the thought oc­curs that this dark and eyrie place is more sug­ges­tive of tragedy than the crypt could ever have been, and one won­ders if it was not in one of these black pits, whose depths are quite se­cure from any ca­su­al ob­ser­va­tion, and where even Dur­dles never came, that Edwin Drood's body was to be con­cealed, after he had been stran­gled with the long neck­cloth. Dick­ens was, of course, fa­mil­iar with it, and the pic­ture which ap­peared on the cover of the orig­i­nal issue of the story, drawn from di­rec­tions given by Dick­ens him­self, might be held to give some basis for the the­o­ry. For, at the right of the cover, is shown a spi­ral stair up which three men, ob­vi­ous­ly Tar­tar, Grew­gious and Crisparkle, are has­ten­ing. It is un­doubt­ed­ly the tower stair which is de­pict­ed, and the pre­sent writ­er has al­ways be­lieved that the three men were has­ten­ing in pur­suit of the flee­ing Jasper, who was to be cap­tured by the agile Tar­tar after a fierce chase over the cathe­dral roof; but the cause of their haste may re­al­ly be the chance dis­cov­ery of the body some­where in the dim re­cess­es over­head. Or per­haps the con­science-strick­en Jasper, drawn back to the body of his vic­tim, as mur­der­ers so often are in fic­tion, and some­times even in real life, may be all un­con­scious­ly lead­ing them to it.

One point more. An­drew Lang haz­ard­ed the guess that Jasper might have killed his nephew by drug­ging him and then push­ing him down the wind­ing stair­case of the tower. Any one who has been up that stair­case will re­alise the ab­sur­di­ty of this, for it is so nar­row and turns so sharply that no one could pos­si­bly fall down it more than a few steps.

The first turn­ing be­yond the cathe­dral, as one leaves it by the west door, is Minor Canon Cor­ner, lead­ing to Minor Canon Row, "a won­der­ful­ly quaint row of brick ten­e­ments, with odd lit­tle porch­es over the doors, like sound­ing­boards over old pul­pits." In one of them — the sec­ond one from the far end, so Mr. Har­ris says — the ath­let­ic Crisparkle lived with his moth­er, and took the ill-fat­ed Neville Land­less to stay as a pupil. This row of hous­es is quite un­changed, as may be seen from the ac­com­pa­ny­ing pho­to­graph, and is still, no doubt, in­hab­it­ed by the minor canons of the cathe­dral.

A hun­dred yards far­ther on is a pub­lic park known as The Vines, which was once the vine­yard be­long­ing to the Pri­o­ry of Saint An­drew, con­nect­ed with the cathe­dral. That the good monks were fond of wine the size of the vine­yard shows. It is men­tioned many times in Edwin Drood. Three days be­fore his death, Dick­ens, who was find­ing the writ­ing of the story un­ex­pect­ed­ly dif­fi­cult, walked over from Gad's Hill, and spent a long time in The Vines, lean­ing against the fence, ap­par­ent­ly so deep in thought that he did not no­tice, as he cer­tain­ly did not heed, the salu­ta­tions of chance passers-by. That he was pon­der­ing his story can­not be doubt­ed, for the Monks' Vine­yard fig­ures in the pages writ­ten a few hours be­fore his death.

If one leaves The Vines by the gate in front of Restora­tion House and turns to the left along Crow Lane, one comes in a few min­utes to the site of the "Trav­ellers' Twopen­ny," as it is known in Edwin Drood. Its real name was "The White Duck," and Dick­ens cer­tain­ly does not ex­ag­ger­ate its shady char­ac­ter, for its mem­o­ry still sur­vives in Rochester as a pub­lic house so dis­rep­utable that any girl seen com­ing out of it, or out of the alley lead­ing to the rear en­trance, lost her good name at once and for­ev­er. It was torn down many years ago.

The alley which runs back past the place leads to the frag­ment of the an­cient city wall, in which Stony Dur­dles had his abode. The yard in which his mon­u­ments were cut and pol­ished was in front of it, and it will be re­mem­bered that, on the night Jasper paid the place a visit, he near­ly stepped into a heap of quick­lime.

'"Ware that there mound by the yardgate, Mis­ter Jarsper,' says Dur­dles.

'"I see it. What is it?'

"'Lime.'

"Mr. Jasper stops, and waits for him to come up, for he lags be­hind.

"'What you call quick­lime?'

"'Ay!' says Dur­dles; 'quick enough to eat your boots. With a lit­tle handy stir­ring, quick enough to eat your bones.'"

That is all that is said about the quick­lime, but the sug­ges­tion is ob­vi­ous. The one thing which has puz­zled the com­men­ta­tors is to ex­plain how Jasper man­aged to get enough of the stuff to bury a body in in­side the Sapsea vault, or into the crypt. Mr. Lang, or per­haps it is Mr. Proc­tor, sug­gests that Jasper spent a stren­u­ous night wheel­ing it there in a bar­row, and points out the em­pha­sis which Dick­ens lays upon the fact that the close is ab­so­lute­ly silent and de­sert­ed after night­fall, so that Jasper would stand in small dan­ger of dis­cov­ery. But to get to the close, he would have had to come out past the Trav­ellers' Twopen­ny, the one place in Clois­ter­ham where strag­glers were al­most cer­tain to be en­coun­tered at any hour of the night. It is pos­si­ble that Dick­ens may have had at the back of his mind when he began to tale some such de­vel­op­ment, but he must have aban­doned it when he came to con­sid­er it more care­ful­ly.

Re­turn­ing to Crow Lane and pro­ceed­ing on in the di­rec­tion of the High Street, one present­ly finds one's self op­po­site a great, ram­bling, three-sto­ried brick build­ing, with many bays and dorm­ers. It is known as the East­gate House, and is now a mu­se­um owned by the town; but it is also both the Nuns' House of Edwin Drood and the West­gate House of the Pick­wick Pa­pers. It was here that Miss Twin­kle­ton kept her Se­lect Sem­i­nary for Young Ladies; it was here that Rosa Bud and He­le­na Land­less went to school, and it was in the gar­den at­tached that Jasper made his vi­o­lent and threat­en­ing dec­la­ra­tion of love. It is a most in­ter­est­ing pile, dat­ing from 1591; orig­i­nal­ly the man­sion of a great gen­tle­man, Sir Peter Bucke, it fell from that high es­tate, and for many years was re­al­ly used as a school for girls. It is 'as a girls' school that it fig­ures also in Pick­wick, for it was here, one dark night, that Sam Weller boost­ed his port­ly em­ploy­er over the wall, in the ef­fort to pre­vent an elope­ment — an ad­ven­ture which ended in Mr. Pick­wick's dis­com­fi­ture and con­fu­sion.

Just across the street is the three-sto­ried house — each story over­hang­ing the one below — where dwelt Mr. Sapsea, auc­tion­eer and mayor of Clois­ter­ham. The date 1684 is on a shield be­tween the gables; and, by a cu­ri­ous co­in­ci­dence, the lower story -is the of­fice of a firm of auc­tion­eers.

All of which shows how close­ly Dick­ens fol­lowed local to­pog­ra­phy, and how clear­ly he had it in mind, as he built up his tale. No doubt he fan­cied he could thus give an added verisimil­i­tude to a plot sadly in need of it! Only when there was ab­so­lute ne­ces­si­ty did lie in­vent a de­tail — and its in­ven­tion proves how nec­es­sary it was. For in­stance, there is not and never has been a weir in the river near Clois­ter­ham. Dick­ens, to fur­nish an ad­di­tion­al clue to the per­son he wished sus­pect­ed of the mur­der, placed a weir about two miles above the town. As has been said al­ready, there was no buri­al vault in the church­yard such as the one as­signed to Sapsea. And the dark, mys­te­ri­ous. Wilkie Collinsey at­mo­sphere which Dick­ens tried to throw about the cathe­dral precincts ex­ist­ed, of course, only in his imag­i­na­tion.

Some months ago, the pre­sent writ­er haz­ard­ed some con­jec­tures, in The Book­man, as to the out­come of the story. The care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion of its scene, as here out­lined, has added noth­ing new to these, nor sug­gest­ed any mod­i­fi­ca­tion of them, ex­cept per­haps a more pro­nounced lean­ing to­ward the be­lief to which An­drew Lang, after long con­tin­ued ef­fort to find a rea­son­able so­lu­tion, ul­ti­mate­ly came: that Dick­ens him­self did not see clear­ly how the story was to end, and had need to ride most care­ful­ly and adroit­ly to avoid a crop­per at the last.