Roman De La Rose: The Mystery of John Jasper

Whatever happened to Edwin Drood? Does the answer lie in John Jasper's past?

Chapter I

The birth of a girl, at Kens­ing­ton Palace, in the spring of 1819, the oc­ca­sion of na­tion­al re­joic­ing.

The birth of a boy in the late Oc­to­ber of that same year, not thir­ty miles from the Princess's cot, the oc­ca­sion only of sor­row to all con­cerned, in­clud­ing, if the in­dig­nant protest of his new-mint­ed lungs could be con­sid­ered, the child it­self.

How the world looks dif­fer­ent ac­cord­ing to the va­garies of cir­cum­stance; the first face that greets the child's eyes can weep tears of joy or of de­spair. Is the baby's fu­ture given its di­rec­tion there and then?

It is not known whether Queen Vic­to­ria's blurred in­fant eyes looked up into love or in­dif­fer­ence, but the above­men­tioned boy found human re­sponse only from the fa­tigued old mid­wife who first held him aloft and de­clared him alive and of the male sex.

"Oh, put it away from me," weeps the white-faced girl in the bed. "I don't want to see it."

"If you wants a wet-nurse," says the mid­wife to the stoop­ing woman be­side her, "I've a cousin as charges low rates. She'll keep the babe for a year if you can give her fif­teen shillings down pay­ment."

The old woman mum­bles some­thing about writ­ing to the grand­par­ents, who have the funds she her­self lacks.

"Mind," she says, look­ing dis­pas­sion­ate­ly down at the squalling boy, "they al­ready sends me a reg'lar re­mit­tance for clear­ing up of this mess for 'em."

"Lon­don folks, bain't they?"

"Aye, cler­gy, too."

"Well, I never. Goes to show, don't it? The best fam­i­lies and all. Still, you wants to get that wet-nurse by the looks of 'er. She's weak and she ain't going to have much milk for 'un, even if she wants to feed him her­self."

"Maybe best for all if the lit­tle scrap starves," says the old woman bleak­ly.

"Well, that's up to His ten­der mer­cies, but mean­whiles we must do our best for'n. Who's the sire, do they think?"

If the new­ly-de­liv­ered moth­er minds hav­ing her af­fairs dis­cussed be­fore her in this man­ner, she doesn't show it. Per­haps she is lost to con­scious­ness now, es­cap­ing her hated re­al­i­ty on a sweet sea of dreams.

"Young man from the choir at St Paul's, so they say. Of course, he won't put his name to it. But he was a favourite at the girl's house, gave her music lessons, he did. Her par­ents won't have music in the house now."

"Ter­ri­ble shame." The mid­wife casts a com­pas­sion­ate eye, twitch­ing a lit­tle from tired­ness after a labour of al­most two days, over moth­er and child.

"She came down to me in the spring, she did. They told ev­ery­one she was took ill and pre­scribed coun­try air. Love­ly girl, too, pret­ty lit­tle thing. Could have done well for her­self if only…"

The women sigh in uni­son.

"You'd bet­ter take him," speaks the elder, her tone re­signed. "I'll get your cousin the money. If she can keep him a year and bring him back once he's walk­ing, I think that'll work best all round."

The mid­wife picks the boy up and wraps him in a shawl.

He has worn him­self out with bawl­ing and lies against her chest, gasp­ing and try­ing to chew on a fin­ger he can never quite get into his mouth.

"Fam­ished, poor mite," she says. "Don't you fret, pick­le. You won't go hun­gry long. Say bye bye to your mama. Bye bye. See you soon."

She picks up his lit­tle wrist and makes his hand wave at the sleep­ing girl on the bed.

He finds strength for an­oth­er plain­tive yell.

The el­der­ly lady hands over a jin­gling purse and the mid­wife, after some cur­so­ry in­struc­tions re­lat­ing to post-na­tal care, walks out into the au­tumn night with her bun­dle of prof­it.

(Novem­ber 1820)

It was a lit­tle over a year be­fore the boy re­turned to the place of his birth.

He would not have recog­nised it, of course, and even if he had been more than a day old on his de­par­ture, the place was so wreathed in mist and gen­er­al­ly bowed down and de­pressed by the drab qual­i­ty of the Novem­ber day­light that his rec­ol­lec­tions might not have matched this re­al­i­ty.

It was a low, unas­sum­ing build­ing, the red bricks bear­ing whitish patch­es all over where salt had blown in from the marsh­es close at hand. The win­dows want­ed new frames, for the rot had set in and the lead­ed glass was slow­ly break­ing loose of its moor­ings. The door must be opened with a kick and shut with a shove, and the chim­ney sat at an angle a ca­su­al ob­serv­er might call jaun­ty, though to the cot­tage's oc­cu­pants it was de­testably awry.

Some scrap­py look­ing fowls clucked pet­tish­ly at the build­ing's mar­gins, to the cha­grin of a half-starved goat teth­ered to the fence post.

The lit­tle boy, set down by his nurse­maid at his in­sis­tence, took three wob­bly steps to­wards the horned bleater and then fell flat on his front. This, it seemed, was no startling oc­cur­rence, for he sim­ply stood up again and made an­oth­er run for the goat.

"Ba," he said, turn­ing round and ex­plain­ing his en­thu­si­asm for this crea­ture to his com­pan­ion. "Go ba."

"Yes, it's a goat," she said, scoop­ing him back up be­fore his bon­net strings strayed be­tween the teeth of the mangy beast.

As they picked their way through the high weeds, the door was yanked open and a sullen girl of thir­teen or so came out on to the front step. She would have been pret­ty if she could have found some ap­ples for her cheeks or bright­ness for her eyes, but no such ac­cou­trements had been lo­cat­ed and she had the same thin, pinched look as her sur­round­ings, a fam­ished girl in a fam­ished land.

"Aunt Hetty's abed with her rheuma­tism," she said. "Come in."

She did not look at the child, who clung to his nurse and cried as they bent under the low lin­tel and en­tered the cot­tage be­yond.

The house was two rooms only – one for liv­ing in and one for sleep­ing in, with a lit­tle cook­house shed out the back.

The liv­ing room clung to pre­ten­sions of gen­til­i­ty – the fur­ni­ture was good, but old and shab­by, and the fab­rics were all faded to a re­mark­able de­gree. But it was com­fort­able and clean, and a lit­tle cab­i­net piano, per­haps forty or fifty years old, took pride of place in the front cor­ner.

The nurse­maid took a seat, the child on her knee, while the girl of­fered re­fresh­ments, in a dull, du­ti­ful way.

"No, my love, I'll not keep you. I've five babes to go home to, all hun­gry for ev­ery­thing I can give them. This one has passed his first birth­day and now you must take him back, for I don't keep them be­yond that age, no mat­ter how at­tached I might be­come."

"Are you at­tached to him?" asked the girl, look­ing for the first time at the boy in his cheap but ser­vice­able woollen gown and cap.

"He's sur­prised me, Miss. I didn't think he'd last, but he's got a spir­it in him. I think he willed him­self to live. Look at him now, healthy as any­thing. I did right by him, Miss, I hope you'll agree."

In­deed, the child had over­come an ex­cep­tion­al­ly ad­verse open­ing to his life, and not be­cause his nurse­maid had 'done right' by him. She was cor­rect to at­tribute his thriv­ing to a cer­tain na­tive life force, for many other ba­bies of his exact weight and con­di­tion would scarce­ly have sur­vived the daily ne­glect and in­dif­fer­ence shown to this boy.

"We're obliged to you," said the girl, with­out mean­ing it.

"You'd best take him, then," said the nurse­maid, stand­ing up and prof­fer­ing the child.

"Oh, set him down. He can walk, can't he?"

"Just. Took his first steps a fort­night since."

She put him down on the rug and watched him crawl to­wards a large mar­malade cat asleep by the hearth.

"I'll…be off, then, Miss." The nurse­maid, al­though no nat­u­ral moth­er, seemed per­plexed at the girl's low spir­its on see­ing the child again and un­sure whether to leave him thus. "You'll take good care of my lit­tle sol­dier, won't you? He takes gruel twice a day, and bread and but­ter, but you mustn't give a child meat. Of course, you know that. He won't sleep with­out this."

She hand­ed over a scrap of silky ma­te­ri­al, per­haps a torn-off piece of a scarf.

"Good­bye, my pre­cious," she cooed at the boy, who ig­nored her, far too fas­ci­nat­ed by the cat, and then she was gone.

The girl watched her through the win­dow until the fog swal­lowed her up en­tire­ly, then she turned to look at the child. He was bunch­ing up a fat lit­tle fist in the cat's gin­ger fur.

"She doesn't like that," said the girl.

The cat shot out a paw and scratched the boy, who screamed and burst into tears.

"See." The girl sighed and rolled her eyes. "What a noise. Stop it."

The cat shot, an or­ange streak, into the neigh­bour­ing room.

The girl stood for a while, watch­ing the strange crum­pling of the child's face, be­fore re­luc­tant­ly going to him and lift­ing him into her arms.

"Now don't cry," she said. "I am to be your sis­ter. Your sis­ter, Meg. And you are my lit­tle broth­er, John­ny. Oh, please don't cry. Do you like lul­la­bies? Shall I sing you one?"

She is singing to him, rock­ing him on her knee by the fire, when the old woman comes out of her bed­room, stoop­ing low over her walk­ing stick.

He is no longer cry­ing and his eyes are half-closed, his tiny hand closed around the scrap of silk the nurse­maid brought with her.

"He's got big," com­ment­ed the old lady, falling rather than sit­ting into an arm­chair. "He'll eat us out of house and home, I sup­pose."

"Ma and Pa can af­ford to feed him," said the girl fierce­ly, break­ing off her lul­la­by. "They feed half the starv­ing or­phans round Ludgate Cir­cus al­ready. What would pre­vent them feed­ing their own grand­son?"

"Shame," said Aunt Hetty, and then there was no more to be said.

He re­calls walk­ing through dan­de­lions high­er than his head while the chick­ens pecked at the seed he threw for them, down by his warm bare feet. It seemed as if those early days brought per­pet­u­al sun­shine, though of course this could not truly be the case.

He was al­ways look­ing for a place of his own, a place away from the old woman's walk­ing stick that de­scend­ed so fre­quent­ly and painful­ly on his back and shoul­ders. A place away from Meg's sly pinch­es and wound­ing words and even more wound­ing si­lence. He liked Meg, pret­ty Meg – why would she not like him back?

He and his ally, the mar­malade cat, spent their spring and sum­mer days out of doors, find­ing hid­ing places and dens among the over­grown land around the cot­tage. It wasn't far to the river, though he was strict­ly for­bid­den to go near it. All the same, he some­times drew thrilling­ly close to its fast-flow­ing wa­ters and imag­ined sail­ing away be­yond the place where his line of sight ended and the river dis­ap­peared into wood­land and sky.

His pale skin grew brown in the sun and his hair thick­ened and got only black­er, in­stead of lighter as his aunt and Meg seemed to wish it would.

"Look at him. You could give him to the gyp­sies and they'd have him for their own," said aunt Hetty dis­dain­ful­ly. "You've caught that frock on a bram­ble again. Meg, get the nee­dle and thread."

Con­ver­sa­tion was scant in the cot­tage over meals or af­ter­wards in the par­lour where the clock tick-tocked all day long. What could a young girl and a very old (and al­most com­plete­ly deaf) woman have to dis­cuss, after all? Frac­tured tales of aunt Hetty's youth were some­times told, to which Meg pre­tend­ed to lis­ten whilst eye­ing her book sur­rep­ti­tious­ly.

John­ny would sit under the table, mak­ing a snake out of a length of wool, or sort­ing the spare but­tons into sizes and colours. He stared up at the clock on the man­tel, feel­ing its tick­ing and tock­ing creep­ing into his body and soul. He count­ed the minute di­vi­sions, then grouped them, then put them in twos and threes and count­ed them again. Jess, the mar­malade cat, lay be­side him, trust­ing him now, his only friend.

Their only other vis­i­tor, apart from some trades­men who ruf­fled his hair and clicked their tongues and winked at him, was the vicar's wife.

She came to visit aunt Hetty twice a week. John­ny liked her name – Mrs Crisparkle. Crys­tal. Sparkle. Christ­mas.

"Dear Lord," she said, one au­tum­nal day near his fourth birth­day, after he had been called in from the gar­den, where he had sub­sist­ed all day on wind­fall ap­ples and black­ber­ries. "Has the boy still not spo­ken yet? He is near­ly four, is he not?"

These words were, of ne­ces­si­ty, spo­ken very loud, for aunt Hetty caught only one word in every three these days.

"He un­der­stands all you say to him," said Meg, com­ing into the room with a tray of tea. "Ask him to fetch any­thing and he will. And if he does not like what you say, he is pitched into the most fear­ful fit of tem­per. He can scream all right. But he will not form the words. I think it wil­ful­ness in him, for he ev­i­dent­ly pos­sess­es the ca­pa­bil­i­ty."

"The child's a devil," mum­bled aunt Hetty. "Meg took him t'Clois­ter­ham and he wouldn't come away from the sweet shop win­dow, no, kicked and screamed, he did, and she had to drag him the length of the High Street afore he'd leave off."

John­ny's mem­o­ry float­ed bliss­ful­ly back to the win­dow of the Lumps of De­light shop, a bow-win­dowed heav­en of bright colours and striped sticks of candy and sug­ar-dust­ed jel­lied fruits and rib­bon-wrapped boxes of Turk­ish De­light. Oh, why had not Meg let him go in?

"Come and sit by me, John­ny," in­vit­ed Mrs Crisparkle, lean­ing for­ward. He liked Mrs Crisparkle, who was like a grown-up doll in her frilled dim­i­ty gown and pris­tine bon­net. Be­sides, she smelled of laven­der. He went to her and sat down, twist­ing his old scrap of silk be­tween his fin­gers. "What's this I hear about you never speak­ing, dear? Why, that will never do. A fine young man needs to speak to make his way in the world. Where do you think you shall go and what shall you do, John­ny?"

He twist­ed his silk over and over and kicked his heels against the claw foot of the chaise. It wasn't that he didn't want to speak. He could not ex­plain it. It just seemed bet­ter not to.

"John­ny," re­proached Meg. "Mrs Crisparkle is so kind to take no­tice of you. Is this how you repay her?"

"Oh, no mat­ter," said Mrs Crisparkle. "I wish my Sept might be a few years younger. He could be a play­mate for you. But he is gone away to school now. Should you like to go away to school?"

I know not where­of you speak. What is school?

But he did not pose the ques­tion aloud.

"He sings," said Meg, a lit­tle des­per­ate­ly. "He knows ever so many songs. So he has words. He sim­ply elects not to use them."

"He sings?"

"Yes, he car­ries a tune well for a child of his age."

"Then, thank heav­ens, he has in­tel­lect. There was a mute boy in the vil­lage some years ago. Alas, no­body could make them­selves un­der­stood to him and he was put away."

John­ny's skin prick­led and he found him­self un­able to swal­low sud­den­ly. Peo­ple who did not speak were 'put away'? Where? What could she mean?

"But that is not in ques­tion for you, dear John­ny. Will you sing me a song? I should so like to hear it, for I love music, you know."

"Sing O God Our Help In Ages Past," urged Meg. "You do it so beau­ti­ful­ly. I mean, for a three year old. Please do not ex­pect it to sound like the choir at Clois­ter­ham, Mrs Crisparkle."

"Then shall you ac­com­pa­ny him at the piano, Meg?"

"Oh." She hes­i­tat­ed. "I do not like to…I have not played it in some time."

"It would so oblige me to hear you."

Meg stood abrupt­ly, as if the re­quest had of­fend­ed her in some way, and took the lit­tle key that un­locked the piano lid from the pot on the shelf be­side it.

John­ny could not help fol­low­ing her. He had never seen the lid taken up be­fore and was as­ton­ished to see the ex­panse of pale brown and black keys that lay un­der­neath. He was yet more as­ton­ished when Meg drew up the stool, put her fin­gers on the keys and made sounds come out of them.

He was so wide-eyed and fas­ci­nat­ed that Meg had to play the in­tro­duc­tion, some­what la­bo­ri­ous­ly, twice over be­fore he re­mem­bered to come in with the words.

He liked to sing and he liked the sound of the words in his mouth, though he hard­ly knew what they might mean. He es­pe­cial­ly liked the line 'Time like an ev­er-rolling stream/Bears all its sons away'. The grandeur and solem­ni­ty of it struck him al­ways, mak­ing him feel a small but in­te­gral part of the world, rather than the use­less ad­junct to it he most often saw him­self as.

"Won­der­ful, quite won­der­ful," ap­plaud­ed Mrs Crisparkle rap­tur­ous­ly. "Did you teach him this, Meg?"

"Yes," she ad­mit­ted. Idle Sun­day af­ter­noons when the weath­er was bad were al­ways spent singing hymns and sewing.

"You must teach him his let­ters. I'm sure he will be quick to learn, if he can re­call such vers­es so well. Per­haps if he can spell words, he will also be able to voice them. And, you know, it will be as well for you to have some ex­pe­ri­ence of teach­ing." She dropped her voice low, giv­ing the obliv­i­ous and half-asleep aunt Hetty a side­long glance. "It may well be use­ful, when the time comes."

The grown of the world spoke in such rid­dles, John­ny thought. What time could she mean?

But his at­ten­tion was only briefly cap­tured by this thought, for he had an en­tire new world to dis­cov­er and ex­plore, a world com­posed of ivory and har­mo­ny, bound­ed by wood­en ends of the cab­i­net piano, and he was im­pa­tient to savour its de­lights.

•  •  •  •  •  •

Read more