Edward Salmon: Mystery on Mystery

First published in „Belgravia“, Sept. 1887

FTER about a decade of hard work as a litterateur, I was beginning in 1871 to feel that I had secured the very smallest niche possible in the Temple of Fame. I was then, as I am now, a novelist—not a Scott, but still a novelist; not a genius, but a sufficiently capable wielder of the pen as penmen go. To be a great popular writer of fiction has always been my ambition, to be a toiling and inadequately-remunerated scribe has, until quite recently, been my lot.

'If the public or the publishers, or whoever it might have been, had been of the mind of some of my generous critics, I might have been pardoned if I had fancied myself one of those heroes who are born, not made. But whilst one reviewer here detected in my work more than a suggestion of 'quite Dickensesque power,' and another a 'strong Wilkie Collins-like uncanniness,' the public was laughing over Dickens and shuddering before Wilkie Collins and—I was writing. I produced a good deal more than the public ever read. For almost every manuscript that was printed, I placed another in the capacious recesses of several pigeon-holes, charitably determined if I was not permitted to realise the full fruits of my labours, some one, when it was posthumously discovered that my work was worth perusing, should have the opportunity of turning an easy shilling.

'Fame and fortune were, I found, not necessarily identical in the great republic of letters. Of the former I seemed to have enough and to spare; of the latter little or none. But it is unfair to grumble. I earned sufficient to make both ends meet, and lucky is the man who can say so much.

'Now and again commissions to 'do' short stories came in, and the pleasure with which I sat down to put my best work into these was infinitely greater than that with which I pegged away at fiction for which it was by no means certain I should find a home, though, as I say, my pigeon-holes were always ready to receive the wanderers, when they returned after many pilgrimages in which they had failed to pass the lions who guard the road to the celestial thrones vulgarly spoken of as editorial chairs. How many literary Christians are there who have never even found their way beyond the Slough of Despond?

'But I am moralising. My object is to show that I was in just that condition of prosperity-nibbling which makes any little rift in the future seem more important than it is, and to explain the pardonable flush of joy with which I one morning found the following epistle lying beside my eggs and bacon:—

Office of the 'Mighty Babylon Magazine,' Fleet Street, K.C,

Dear Sir,—You may have heard that a new monthly, under the above title, is about to be started. I have been so fortunate as to secure the co-operation of some of the ablest of living pens, and now take the liberty of addressing you. I have recently read one or two of your stories, and what I cannot but regard as an excellent idea has occurred to me in consequence. People are still discussing 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.' Poor Charles Dickens left the work a greater mystery than he ever intended it should be. Would you care to entertain the notion of supplying a conclusion to the novel which the master's hand was not allowed itself to finish? I am convinced, after a close examination of your style, that you could do it, and if you will undertake it for us, I am in a position to offer you liberal terms. That such a sequel to the uncompleted story of Edwin Drood, if well done, as I am sure you would do it, would create something in the nature of a sensation, I have no doubt whatever.
—Awaiting your reply, I am, dear sir, yours very truly,

Sept. 1871.

'This was the biggest compliment yet paid to my talents, and it excited me more than any other literary event with which I had ever been associated. 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' was forthwith taken down from my bookshelves and I ran my eye rapidly through it. As I regarded the splendid touches given by the now lifeless hand, I felt it was hardly likely that I could do it justice in any conclusion I might write, but, at the same time, as I turned the incidents of the story over in my mind, I had no doubt that my fertile brain would supply a solution of the mystery. If I showed a momentary hesitation in accepting the offer on the score of good taste, I speedily dismissed it with the philosophic recollection that beggars must not be choosers, nor men anxious to secure further remunerative employment too fastidious when such employment offers. I laid myself open to the charge of being a parasite on genius, but to forego the credit—and the cheque—which a successful wind-up of the abruptly-abandoned work would bring, was not to be thought of, at least in the position I then occupied.

'I wrote to Mr. Fullton by return, suggesting an appointment, and the next day called on him to discuss the matter.

''We want something as popular in tone as it is powerful in execution,' he said after a short conversation: 'you, I think, are the man to do it. And as to terms; a hundred guineas would probably be sufficient to make it worth your while to do your best for us.'

'I hardly believed my ears. One hundred guineas! I had hoped to secure at the very most so!. The vista which the offer opened up was indeed golden, and I left Mr. Fullton with the full intention of showing, in a practical way, that I appreciated his generosity.

'The first thing to be done was to master every incident, however small, in 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.' For days I cogitated over the story and gave particular attention to every side-light sentence which caught my eye. Every moment I could spare I devoted to it, and my wife—a small income is no bar to love—hardly saw my face, except for a few minutes at meal times.

'At the end of a week I had determined on the method in which I would bring the story to a conclusion. I had spotted the murderer to my own satisfaction, had discovered the place where the body was hidden, and had allotted futures of very varied kinds to Mr. Jasper and Mr. Grewgious, Neville and Helena Landless, Mr. Crisparkle, Mr. Tartar, Rosa, and all the other dramatis personce, including ' the Deputy,' with his impish cry of 'widdy-widdy-wake-cock-warning,' and his 'out-arter-ten ' employer, the bottle-loving Durdles.

'My study is a fairly large and comfortable room at the back of the house on the second floor. Very few writers of ghost stories have, I believe, lived in 'haunted' houses; but it is a curious and appropriate coincidence that when I married and took a small house in a suburb long since a part of the West End, the first thing I was told was that one of the rooms had the reputation of being visited occasionally by a ghost. The apartment was really a bedroom, but I thought that if I were still to write stories of the Wilkie Collins kind, I could not do better than employ a chamber which had a character in keeping with my work. The notion was at least suggestive. Nor was the prospect of a ghostly visitation in this instance altogether unpleasant. There was this peculiarity about the tradition; the ghost only appeared in order to accomplish some good end. This was at once original and calculated to remove all superstitious fear.

'When, however, I had had the room fitted up with shelves and my not inconsiderable selection of books adorned the walls, and when my wife's loving care had set it out, with pieces of modest furniture which woman's hand alone knows how to make the most of, it bore any but a ghostly appearance. The spirit of the great minds of the past, among whom must now be numbered that of Dickens, rested peacefully on the shelves, and though for me they haunted the place, their influence was not of the bloodcurdling order. On the contrary, their ghostly presence was peculiarly acceptable.

'In this room I made the beginning of what I hoped would prove a worthy end to 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood.' I had worked myself into a condition of quite feverish excitement over it, and commenced to write with great enthusiasm. But ere I had scribbled a dozen lines, a curious qualm seized me, and for some minutes I was possessed with a strong aversion to going on with it. Was it quite a moral, a wise, or a worthy piece of work? There could be no question that to produce an ineffective sequel would be little short of madness, and only a brilliant effort would save me from the contempt and even anger of the Dickens-loving world. Failure, in other words, would, in the eyes of literary England, be almost criminal.

'But if I succeeded! I experienced a glow of anticipatory pleasure as I thought of the reviews advising everyone who had regretted his inability to learn what had become of Edwin Drood, to read this continuation by another hand—'a continuation second only to that which the master himself could have given us,' I imagined as being the words which the reviewers might be tempted to adopt.

'Silencing my doubts in this way, I forged ahead, and as I got into the spirit of the narrative, all unpleasant thoughts disappeared, and for several days I laboured unceasingly. I never felt anything of my own so much as I did this, and the more I wrote the more I became confident I should do my part of the ' Mystery' well. Such a grind, however, was no light matter, and the pressure soon began to tell. There were several smaller things on which I was engaged, to be done daily, and in the course of a fortnight people began to say I was looking seedy. My wife insisted more than once on my not doing too much, and there was some need for her anxiety.

'One evening, after dinner, I went back into my study with the intention of writing away till midnight. I intended to have a good spell at the desk, but somehow I could not get comfortably to work. My nerves were excitable, and the old self-questionings as to the wisdom of having undertaken the task cropped up again and again. My digestion must have been poor this evening. Nothing else would explain such restlessness. First, the window creaked in an unusual manner; then, the door in some impalpable way seemed to be trying to fly open. At last I could bear it no longer, and, throwing down my pen, I returned to the wife in the drawing-room.

''How unwell you look, dear!' she cried as I entered. 'You really must not work so late. You will make yourself ill, and then work will be impossible.'

''Yes: I am a little done up,' I said. 'I think I must have a brandy and soda; I feel curiously faint.'

''Edwin Drood is more trouble to you than he will ever be worth, I am sure,' she replied. 'You know my ideas on the subject. It is not a work worthy of your talents. Let the hacks complete the story if they like. You can do better things.'

''Ah!' I answered, ' I am too far into it now to draw back. Moreover, my agreement with Fullton is binding, and there is all the labour I have expended on the work. But I must confess I have again to-night felt uneasy on the subject.'

''Be guided by me, dear,' said my wife; 'write and tell Mr. Fullton you can't finish it for him.'

''Impossible,' I answered. 'I have gone in for it, and I must complete it; give me courage to do so. I only wish I did not fluctuate as I do, from enthusiasm to almost disgust whilst writing.'

''Well! well!' said the dear little woman, 'I shall never be quite happy even when it appears. It seems so much like trying to climb by clinging to Dickens's coat-tails, and by endeavouring to echo his thoughts and style.'

'My despondent mood was not long-lived. The brandy and soda had its effect, and presently I went off to my study again. I was in the midst of a situation, which I was anxious to finish. It was now nearly eleven, and by midnight I should have done this and then be ready for bed.

As I walked thoughtfully upstairs and approached the study, I again experienced the same peculiar nervousness that had previously disturbed me, and when I placed my hand on the study door, I gave an involuntary shudder. At the same moment the rattle of pens caught my ear, and I realised the fact that I was in the presence of something. A curious mist filled my eyes, and entering the room, I stood for an instant with my hand before them. As I uncovered them, I started again, and shrank back to the door which I had just closed behind me. Some one was sitting at my desk, busily writing. At any other time than the present I should have done one of two things, demanded his business or have raised a cry. Now I simply stood speechless and immovable, trembling from head to foot. For some seconds the man—for it was a man—sat without regarding me, apparently too preoccupied with his work to notice anything. Then, at last, he rose, and I recognised—myself! (rood heavens! What supernatural embodiment of my own person was this? I tried to cry out, but my tongue was powerless, and unresistingly I, in the flesh, stood, with a cold perspiration on my brow, regarding myself in the spirit. And the spirit entirely overawed the flesh! This was the haunted chamber, and, sceptic as I am, I confess I had never bargained for meeting my own ghost.

'The vague form moved up and down the room several times, just as I am in the habit of doing when thinking. Then suddenly stopping, it placed its back to the fire and gazed steadfastly at me, as I remained by the door where I had entered. Its lips moved, and words, which I caught distinctly, fell from them.

''Yes, yes,' it said; 'Dickens is dead. I will prove to the world that one worthy to succeed him lives.'

'A complacent smile lighted up the face of the ghost—my ghost; but what the meaning of it all was, I was at an entire loss to understand. Still unable to move, but gradually becoming less nervous in the uncanny presence, I was speculating on the significance of this ghostly visitation, when, to my horror, the face began slowly to transform itself, and the body assumed modified proportions. A minute or more seemed to elapse before I was aware precisely what was happening. But as the transformation proceeded, the terrible truth flashed upon me. My ghost was assuming the outward form of the dead novelist, and in another minute I found myself confronted by the image of Charles Dickens himself! I had seen him often in life, and knew him at once. He too gazed steadily into my eyes, but there was about his face a half-troubled, half-disgusted look in striking contrast with the self-satisfaction of my own spiritual incarnation. He raised one hand deprecatingly, and solemnly uttered these words:

''I protest. I was not permitted to fulfil the task I allotted myself. Let no other hand touch it.'

'This imperative injunction sent a conscience-stricken thrill through my frame. Eecent lingering doubts became certainties, and I would have pleaded forgiveness there and then had I been able, but my tongue was still tied. Another minute and it was too late. The mission of the ghost was complete, and as I stood anxious but powerless to make any amends, however slight, for the wrong I contemplated on genius, a black darkness fell upon the room, and I recollect nothing more. I was brought to myself by the sound of my wife's voice.

''You are sure there is nothing serious, Dr. Craine?' I heard her ask, and dreamily opening my eyes, I discovered to my surprise that I was lying on the sofa in our bedroom. My wife and my friend Craine were standing beside me.

''Nothing whatever,' was the answer, 'though there might easily have been. He had merely fainted. Hullo, old fellow!' he continued, as he caught sight of my now wide-open eyes. * How do you feel?'

''Bewildered,' I replied. 'What has happened?'

''You have been putting the steam on a little too much—that is all,' he said with a cheery smile. 'You only want rest and you'll be all right. It was lucky your wife heard you fall.'

''Fall?' I asked hazily. 'I don't understand.'

''You fell just outside your study door. Fortunate for you, my dear fellow, you were not on the stairs. But there, don't talk. Get to bed now and sleep well if you can.'

'Gradually the whole affair came back to me, and I recalled every point of the ghostly transformation which I had witnessed. Had I really witnessed it? or was it merely a dream? My inquiries showed that I had fallen apparently in the act of entering my study. Were they quite sure I was not leaving it? I asked. Absolutely. Yet my remembrance of opening the door and shutting it behind me was distinct as any fact could be. I puzzled myself much in the effort to clear up the mystery, and I am not by any means content to agree that I saw nothing beyond mere mental shadows. The impression was too vivid for that, and I can only regard it as a mysterious outcome of work on a mysterious subject. And what was its significance? Great; for I began to feel that to finish my part of ' Edwin Drood' after this experience was impossible. Whether I had seen Dickens in the spirit or not, the solemn protest rang in my ears, and whatever the result, I determined to have nothing more to do with the book.

'This resolve was strictly in accordance with the tradition of the haunted room, which forced itself now upon my mind. The ghost appeared, as I was told, only to perform some good. The good performed in this case was that I have always since written independent, and I hope creditable, work, and have been saved even the semblance of climbing to higher things on the abiding reputation of the great novelist. My name has figured conspicuously and frequently in 'The Mighty Babylon Magazine,' but not as the would-be solver of another writer's mystery. Dickens left 'Edwin Drood' a mystery, and it remains a mystery chiefly because of my own mysterious experience.