Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens: No Thoroughfare

A story in All the Year Round on which Dick­ens and Collins col­lab­o­rat­ed is strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. In "No Thor­ough­fare' (18, Christ­mas Num­ber, 1-48), Oben­reiz­er be­lieves that he has mur­dered George Ven­dale, al­though in fact Ven­dale is only wound­ed. Bin­trey dis­cov­ers this and finds an op­por­tu­ni­ty to have Ven­dale stand "be­fore the mur­der­er, a man risen from the dead'. Oben­reiz­er had used opium 'to try' his vic­tim, in much the same way that Jasper drugs Dur­dles. There are other sim­i­lar­i­ties. A 'cer­tain name­less film' would come over Oben­reiz­er's eyes just as 'a strange film' comes over the eyes of Jasper. Joey Ladle, the cel­lar­man who com­plains of the un­nat­u­ral­ness of work­ing un­der­ground, is a char­ac­ter in the same tra­di­tion as Dur­dles. And Oben­reiz­er's mo­tive for mur­der is jeal­ousy of Ven­dale's win­ning the heart of his niece, Mar­guerite. Like Rosa, Mar­guerite flees to the pro­tec­tion of a trust­ed fam­i­ly lawyer, Bin­trey.

Wendy S. Ja­cob­son: The Com­pan­ion to the Mys­tery of Edwin Drood


NO THOR­OUGH­FARE 

THE OVER­TURE

Day of the month and year, Novem­ber the thir­ti­eth, one thou­sand eight hun­dred and thir­ty-five. Lon­don Time by the great clock of Saint Paul’s, ten at night. All the less­er Lon­don church­es strain their metal­lic throats. Some, flip­pant­ly begin be­fore the heavy bell of the great cathe­dral; some, tardi­ly begin three, four, half a dozen, strokes be­hind it; all are in suf­fi­cient­ly near ac­cord, to leave a res­o­nance in the air, as if the winged fa­ther who de­vours his chil­dren, had made a sound­ing sweep with his gi­gan­tic scythe in fly­ing over the city.

What is this clock lower than most of the rest, and near­er to the ear, that lags so far be­hind to-night as to strike into the vi­bra­tion alone? This is the clock of the Hos­pi­tal for Foundling Chil­dren. Time was, when the Foundlings were re­ceived with­out ques­tion in a cra­dle at the gate. Time is, when in­quiries are made re­spect­ing them, and they are taken as by favour from the moth­ers who re­lin­quish all nat­u­ral knowl­edge of them and claim to them for ev­er­more.

The moon is at the full, and the night is fair with light clouds. The day has been oth­er­wise than fair, for slush and mud, thick­ened with the drop­pings of heavy fog, lie black in the streets. The veiled lady who flut­ters up and down near the postern-gate of the Hos­pi­tal for Foundling Chil­dren has need to be well shod to-night.

She flut­ters to and fro, avoid­ing the stand of hack­ney-coach­es, and often paus­ing in the shad­ow of the west­ern end of the great quad­ran­gle wall, with her face turned to­wards the gate. As above her there is the pu­ri­ty of the moon­lit sky, and below her there are the de­file­ments of the pave­ment, so may she, haply, be di­vid­ed in her mind be­tween two vis­tas of re­flec­tion or ex­pe­ri­ence. As her foot­prints cross­ing and re­cross­ing one an­oth­er have made a labyrinth in the mire, so may her track in life have in­volved it­self in an in­tri­cate and un­ravellable tan­gle.

The postern-gate of the Hos­pi­tal for Foundling Chil­dren opens, and a young woman comes out. The lady stands aside, ob­serves close­ly, sees that the gate is qui­et­ly closed again from with­in, and fol­lows the young woman.

Two or three streets have been tra­versed in si­lence be­fore she, fol­low­ing close be­hind the ob­ject of her at­ten­tion, stretch­es out her hand and touch­es her. Then the young woman stops and looks round, star­tled.

“You touched me last night, and, when I turned my head, you would not speak. Why do you fol­low me like a silent ghost?”

“It was not,” re­turned the lady, in a low voice, “that I would not speak, but that I could not when I tried.”

“What do you want of me? I have never done you any harm?”

“Never.”

“Do I know you?”

“No.”

“Then what can you want of me?”

“Here are two guineas in this paper. Take my poor lit­tle pre­sent, and I will tell you.”

Into the young woman’s face, which is hon­est and come­ly, comes a flush as she replies: “There is nei­ther grown per­son nor child in all the large es­tab­lish­ment that I be­long to, who hasn’t a good word for Sally. I am Sally. Could I be so well thought of, if I was to be bought?”

“I do not mean to buy you; I mean only to re­ward you very slight­ly.”

Sally firm­ly, but not un­gent­ly, clos­es and puts back the of­fer­ing hand. “If there is any­thing I can do for you, ma’am, that I will not do for its own sake, you are much mis­tak­en in me if you think that I will do it for money. What is it you want?”

“You are one of the nurs­es or at­ten­dants at the Hos­pi­tal; I saw you leave to-night and last night.”

“Yes, I am. I am Sally.”

“There is a pleas­ant pa­tience in your face which makes me be­lieve that very young chil­dren would take read­i­ly to you.”

“God bless ‘em! So they do.”

The lady lifts her veil, and shows a face no older than the nurse’s. A face far more re­fined and ca­pa­ble than hers, but wild and worn with sor­row.

“I am the mis­er­able moth­er of a baby late­ly re­ceived under your care. I have a prayer to make to you.”

In­stinc­tive­ly re­spect­ing the con­fi­dence which has drawn aside the veil, Sally—whose ways are all ways of sim­plic­i­ty and spon­tane­ity—re­places it, and be­gins to cry.

“You will lis­ten to my prayer?” the lady urges. “You will not be deaf to the ag­o­nised en­treaty of such a bro­ken sup­pli­ant as I am?”

“O dear, dear, dear!” cries Sally. “What shall I say, or can say! Don’t talk of prayers. Prayers are to be put up to the Good Fa­ther of All, and not to nurs­es and such. And there! I am only to hold my place for half a year longer, till an­oth­er young woman can be trained up to it. I am going to be mar­ried. I shouldn’t have been out last night, and I shouldn’t have been out to-night, but that my Dick (he is the young man I am going to be mar­ried to) lies ill, and I help his moth­er and sis­ter to watch him. Don’t take on so, don’t take on so!”

“O good Sally, dear Sally,” moans the lady, catch­ing at her dress en­treat­ing­ly. “As you are hope­ful, and I am hope­less; as a fair way in life is be­fore you, which can never, never, be be­fore me; as you can as­pire to be­come a re­spect­ed wife, and as you can as­pire to be­come a proud moth­er, as you are a liv­ing lov­ing woman, and must die; for GOD’S sake hear my dis­tract­ed pe­ti­tion!”

“Deary, deary, deary ME!” cries Sally, her des­per­a­tion cul­mi­nat­ing in the pro­noun, “what am I ever to do? And there! See how you turn my own words back upon me. I tell you I am going to be mar­ried, on pur­pose to make it clear­er to you that I am going to leave, and there­fore couldn’t help you if I would, Poor Thing, and you make it seem to my own self as if I was cruel in going to be mar­ried and not help­ing you. It ain’t kind. Now, is it kind, Poor Thing?”

“Sally! Hear me, my dear. My en­treaty is for no help in the fu­ture. It ap­plies to what is past. It is only to be told in two words.”

“There! This is worse and worse,” cries Sally, “sup­pos­ing that I un­der­stand what two words you mean.”

“You do un­der­stand. What are the names they have given my poor baby? I ask no more than that. I have read of the cus­toms of the place. He has been chris­tened in the chapel, and reg­is­tered by some sur­name in the book. He was re­ceived last Mon­day evening. What have they called him?”

Down upon her knees in the foul mud of the by-way into which they have strayed—an empty street with­out a thor­ough­fare giv­ing on the dark gar­dens of the Hos­pi­tal—the lady would drop in her pas­sion­ate en­treaty, but that Sally pre­vents her.

“Don’t! Don’t! You make me feel as if I was set­ting my­self up to be good. Let me look in your pret­ty face again. Put your two hands in mine. Now, promise. You will never ask me any­thing more than the two words?”

“Never! Never!”

“You will never put them to a bad use, if I say them?”

“Never! Never!”

“Wal­ter Wild­ing.”

The lady lays her face upon the nurse’s breast, draws her close in her em­brace with both arms, mur­murs a bless­ing and the words, “Kiss him for me!” and is gone.

•  •  •  •  •  •

Day of the month and year, the first Sun­day in Oc­to­ber, one thou­sand eight hun­dred and forty-sev­en. Lon­don Time by the great clock of Saint Paul’s, half-past one in the af­ter­noon. The clock of the Hos­pi­tal for Foundling Chil­dren is well up with the Cathe­dral to-day. Ser­vice in the chapel is over, and the Foundling chil­dren are at din­ner.

There are nu­mer­ous look­ers-on at the din­ner, as the cus­tom is. There are two or three gov­er­nors, whole fam­i­lies from the con­gre­ga­tion, small­er groups of both sexes, in­di­vid­u­al strag­glers of var­i­ous de­grees. The bright au­tum­nal sun strikes fresh­ly into the wards; and the heavy-framed win­dows through which it shines, and the pan­elled walls on which it strikes, are such win­dows and such walls as per­vade Hog­a­rth’s pic­tures. The girls’ re­fec­to­ry (in­clud­ing that of the younger chil­dren) is the prin­ci­pal at­trac­tion. Neat at­ten­dants silent­ly glide about the or­der­ly and silent ta­bles; the look­ers-on move or stop as the fancy takes them; com­ments in whis­pers on face such a num­ber from such a win­dow are not un­fre­quent; many of the faces are of a char­ac­ter to fix at­ten­tion. Some of the vis­i­tors from the out­side pub­lic are ac­cus­tomed vis­i­tors. They have es­tab­lished a speak­ing ac­quain­tance with the oc­cu­pants of par­tic­u­lar seats at the ta­bles, and halt at those points to bend down and say a word or two. It is no dis­par­age­ment to their kind­ness that those points are gen­er­al­ly points where per­son­al at­trac­tions are. The monotony of the long spa­cious rooms and the dou­ble lines of faces is agree­ably re­lieved by these in­ci­dents, al­though so slight.

A veiled lady, who has no com­pan­ion, goes among the com­pa­ny. It would seem that cu­rios­i­ty and op­por­tu­ni­ty have never brought her there be­fore. She has the air of being a lit­tle trou­bled by the sight, and, as she goes the length of the ta­bles, it is with a hes­i­tat­ing step and an un­easy man­ner. At length she comes to the re­fec­to­ry of the boys. They are so much less pop­u­lar than the girls that it is bare of vis­i­tors when she looks in at the door­way.

But just with­in the door­way, chances to stand, in­spect­ing, an el­der­ly fe­male at­ten­dant: some order of ma­tron or house­keep­er. To whom the lady ad­dress­es nat­u­ral ques­tions: As, how many boys? At what age are they usu­al­ly put out in life? Do they often take a fancy to the sea? So, lower and lower in tone until the lady puts the ques­tion: “Which is Wal­ter Wild­ing?”

At­ten­dant’s head shak­en. Against the rules.

“You know which is Wal­ter Wild­ing?”

So keen­ly does the at­ten­dant feel the close­ness with which the lady’s eyes ex­am­ine her face, that she keeps her own eyes fast upon the floor, lest by wan­der­ing in the right di­rec­tion they should be­tray her.

“I know which is Wal­ter Wild­ing, but it is not my place, ma’am, to tell names to vis­i­tors.”

“But you can show me with­out telling me.”

The lady’s hand moves qui­et­ly to the at­ten­dant’s hand. Pause and si­lence.

“I am going to pass round the ta­bles,” says the lady’s in­ter­locu­tor, with­out seem­ing to ad­dress her. “Fol­low me with your eyes. The boy that I stop at and speak to, will not mat­ter to you. But the boy that I touch, will be Wal­ter Wild­ing. Say noth­ing more to me, and move a lit­tle away.”

Quick­ly act­ing on the hint, the lady pass­es on into the room, and looks about her. After a few mo­ments, the at­ten­dant, in a staid of­fi­cial way, walks down out­side the line of ta­bles com­menc­ing on her left hand. She goes the whole length of the line, turns, and comes back on the in­side. Very slight­ly glanc­ing in the lady’s di­rec­tion, she stops, bends for­ward, and speaks. The boy whom she ad­dress­es, lifts his head and replies. Good hu­moured­ly and eas­i­ly, as she lis­tens to what he says, she lays her hand upon the shoul­der of the next boy on his right. That the ac­tion may be well noted, she keeps her hand on the shoul­der while speak­ing in re­turn, and pats it twice or thrice be­fore mov­ing away. She com­pletes her tour of the ta­bles, touch­ing no one else, and pass­es out by a door at the op­po­site end of the long room.

Din­ner is done, and the lady, too, walks down out­side the line of ta­bles com­menc­ing on her left hand, goes the whole length of the line, turns, and comes back on the in­side. Other peo­ple have strolled in, for­tu­nate­ly for her, and stand sprin­kled about. She lifts her veil, and, stop­ping at the touched boy, asks how old he is?

“I am twelve, ma’am,” he an­swers, with his bright eyes fixed on hers.

“Are you well and happy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“May you take these sweet­meats from my hand?”

“If you please to give them to me.”

In stoop­ing low for the pur­pose, the lady touch­es the boy’s face with her fore­head and with her hair. Then, low­er­ing her veil again, she pass­es on, and pass­es out with­out look­ing back.

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