Roman De La Rose: What The Water Gave Him

I have a few words of in­tro­duc­tion to say be­fore I start my story. I must warn those of you who read The Blos­som­ing of the Bud that this is very much dark­er in tone and more in keep­ing with the book — con­se­quent­ly there are some pret­ty fe­ro­cious lev­els of angst ahead.
I'm con­tin­u­ing where Dick­ens left off, with­out re­gard to the TV se­ries, though I think I quote the odd bit of non-Dick­en­sian di­a­logue from it at one point. The ac­tion starts five years after the dis­ap­pear­ance of Edwin, and Rosa (as Dick­ens seemed to in­tend in the book) has mar­ried the sailor she met in Lon­don, Mr Tar­tar.
The story was very strong­ly in­spired and in­flu­enced by the Flo­rence and the Ma­chine song What The Water Gave Me (no? re­al­ly!) so I would sug­gest lis­ten­ing to it if you aren't fa­mil­iar with it. I don't ex­pect I'm al­lowed to link to it here but there's a ter­rif­ic ver­sion on youtube (don't have the vol­ume at full blast, though, be­cause it dis­torts hor­ri­bly).

(for adults only)

Chap­ter One

Noth­ing was left of him now but rem­nants.

Rem­nants of a body, for opium had wast­ed him, hol­lowed his face, sunk his eyes into their sock­ets, stretched translu­cent flesh over bone.

Rem­nants of a mind, his once-keen wits dulled by the nar­cot­ic dreams, am­bi­tion re­placed by delu­sion.

Rem­nants of a life, the piano now out of tune, a blank rect­an­gle on the wall where a pic­ture had once hung. Her image, torn down, burnt, noth­ing but ashes.

Around him in the room lay the clut­ter of ad­dic­tion: bro­ken pipes, empty vials, spent match­es. This was his life now, these rem­nants.

"I am in tat­ters," he mur­mured, look­ing through the gate­house win­dow at the dis­tant spire. He would never set foot in that build­ing again. Fi­nal­ly, his dis­so­lu­tion had reached its nadir and the cathe­dral au­thor­i­ties could no longer turn an in­dul­gent blind eye to it. His post was gone, and with it his lodg­ing.

They had made al­lowances for so long now. Five years since Edwin…went. The whis­pers fol­lowed him every where. "Poor soul, he is un­manned by the death of the boy. But sure­ly it is time he stopped giv­ing in to this grief. Sure­ly he is mak­ing him­self ill."

There was nowhere for him to go. From the gate­house to the work­house. But no. That was not for him.

He looked over at the table. One last pipe? What was left was poor stuff and he couldn't af­ford any more. There would be no plea­sure in the dregs. But per­haps it would steel his nerves.

He set­tled in­stead on tak­ing a long draught of what re­mained in the de­canter, then he put on his coat.

He walked out to the marsh­es and across them to the sea. The sun was very low now, and the water dark. Every so often, when­ev­er he saw a large rock or stone, he picked it up and put it in his pock­et.

As he stum­bled over the un­even ground, he heard the dusk cho­rus of the marsh­land birds. "Lit­tle singing bird," he mut­tered to him­self. "Fly away home." He tried a note or two, but it was use­less now. The music was gone. It had been the last thing to leave his soul, but noth­ing now re­mained of that once-great pas­sion.

His mind rushed with the enor­mi­ty of what he planned to do. He felt as if some kind of strug­gle should be tak­ing place in his breast, some­thing to do with con­science. But how could he lay claim to one of those, after the life he had led? Per­haps it was sim­ply ab­sent. But he had had one once. He thought he had.

Ef­forts of mem­o­ry were use­less. What had been real and what an opium dream was no longer know­able. In the ruins of his mind, some­times he thought he saw a light, but more often a blight­ed land­scape of rub­ble and smoke. Hell.

That gave him pause. Was this place worse than hell? Should he try to eke out his days until that par­tic­u­lar de­scent was in­evitable? Yet it seemed he al­ready lived there, in every re­spect but the cor­po­re­al. If he went to the devil, at least the tor­ments would stop the end­less grind of his thoughts. And per­haps there would be no hell at all and he would sim­ply fade into si­lence.

The heady re­lief of this prospect quick­ened his foot­steps until he came close to the shore. The water lapped at the banks, splash­ing here and there. A gust of wind whipped it up, send­ing a shiv­er over the sur­face.

He put his hands in his pock­ets, his fin­gers clos­ing around the stones, feel­ing their shapes, their curves and knobs. He walked to the edge and looked out to sea, to the ships on their way into Chatham docks, dark out­lines dot­ted with light.

Per­haps he was on one of those ships, com­ing home to his Rosa. He screwed up his face, swal­low­ing bit­ter­ness, hands tight­en­ing over the stones. One foot reached out to the depths.

A sound from fur­ther along the bank, to the right, stopped him in his tracks. At first he thought it some small an­i­mal, keen­ing and snuf­fling on the other side of a clump, but then it spoke, though the words were in­dis­tinct.

A woman's voice, high with tears, shaky but fa­mil­iar.

John Jasper re­tract­ed his foot and turned in the di­rec­tion of the speak­er. At first he crept, stealthy, lis­ten­ing to make out the words.

"I am com­ing to you, my love. We will be to­geth­er again."

Then there was a light splash and a sharp in­hala­tion, an­oth­er shiv­er and a wail.

"Oh, it's so cold. But so are you. My poor, cold dar­ling."

Now Jasper ran, up to the top of a small hillock, from which van­tage point the fig­ure of a young woman was clear­ly vis­i­ble, wad­ing out from the shal­lows to­wards the place where the sea bed shelved away into a deep­er stretch of water.

She had fall­en to her knees, her gold­en hair stream­ing down her back, and now she was singing. That voice. He re­called it so pierc­ing­ly that his heart, that shriv­elled thing, seemed to ex­pand to burst­ing. That lit­tle scrap of sound that he had schooled and trained until it was sweet­er and brighter than any­one imag­ined it could be…Oh, she could not do this.

He threw off his coat, flung his boots into the grassy tus­socks and took to the water, find­ing strength and speed in his ur­gen­cy.

She stopped singing and turned her head, but she per­haps did not recog­nise him in the dark­ness.

"Oh, who is there? Please go. Please don't res­cue me."

She bent for­ward and her head dis­ap­peared under the waves. Jasper, heed­less of the cold and the wet weight in his clothes, lunged for­ward des­per­ate­ly. The slack wa­ters lapped around him, pour­ing into his mouth and nose as he stum­bled for­wards, but none of that mat­tered, noth­ing mat­tered save that she should not die.

He caught hold of some­thing, her shawl per­haps, and had to throw the sod­den thing aside, reach­ing out again. Yes, her arm.

She strug­gled to throw him off but he man­aged to drag her back and pin her against him. He pulled her up­right, her head crest­ing the water while she splut­tered and screamed.

He stag­gered and al­most let go of her half a dozen times be­fore they reached the bank, but some­how he still pos­sessed enough force to pre­vent her from suc­ceed­ing in her des­per­ate fight for es­cape.

In some dim re­cess of his mind Jasper clung to enough be­lief in God to thank Him for not al­low­ing him to smoke that last pipe, nor to linger at the gate­house until the with­draw­al pains were upon him. Noth­ing could have saved her then.

He hauled her on to the bank where she lay, gasp­ing and sod­den, and took as many deep breaths as he could, prepar­ing him­self for the ef­fort of strength that lay ahead. It was fully dark now, and the sky was cloud­ed, threat­en­ing rain.

Rosa seemed too far out of her sens­es to make any at­tempt at speech, or to recog­nise him. When, hav­ing put his boots and coat back on, he reached down to pick her up, she lunged at him and said some in­dis­tinct words. "Off," per­haps, and "me". Now was not the time for de­ci­pher­ing her rav­ings, though, and he put ev­ery­thing that was not es­sen­tial to her sur­vival from his mind. He need­ed to get her to a place of warmth and se­cu­ri­ty and no other ob­ject would cross his mind until this was achieved.

He used to dream of hold­ing her in his arms; in his fan­tasies she had been light as a wafer, all ethe­re­al and silken and smelling of peach blos­som. Now, in her soaked skirt and its vol­ume of pet­ti­coats, she weighed heav­i­ly and she clawed at his face so he had to hoist her over his shoul­der if he was to make any head­way at all. This was not how he had dreamt it. And yet it was some­how more beau­ti­ful than any of his imag­in­ings by far.

"I have you," he said to him­self, sway­ing off on the long jour­ney to­wards the town, his arms clamped across the backs of her knees so she couldn't kick. Lit­tle blows from her fists fell in­ef­fec­tu­al­ly be­tween his shoul­der blades at first, but she soon tired of it, and he felt her droop there, her ex­haust­ed sobs min­gling with his foot­falls and the night sounds of the marsh. "You're safe."

He sup­posed she must have shut her eyes, per­haps she had even fall­en into un­con­scious­ness, for she made no sign of recog­nis­ing where they were when he un­locked the door in the arch; she sim­ply hung there all the heav­ier. He should have laid her on the shore, he should have pumped the water from her lungs. But he had been too over­whelmed by panic, too des­per­ate to take her to safe­ty. What if his neg­li­gence had re­sult­ed in her death?

By ac­ci­dent, he grazed her head against the wall dur­ing their as­cent of the stair, and she twitched and wrig­gled over his shoul­der again, com­ing back to life.

Thank God.

He car­ried her through the liv­ing room and into the bed­room, set­ting her down on the nar­row bed.

"Who are you? What is this place?" she cried out, try­ing to sit up.

"Lie still," he said. "I will light a can­dle."

"Oh, I know your voice. Who are you? Why have you fol­lowed me? I did not want to be fol­lowed."

Jasper found a match that wasn't spent and a can­dle that hadn't gut­tered – quite an un­der­tak­ing amongst all the de­tri­tus – and let a low flick­er of light into the gloom.

Rosa's face glowed be­fore him, her eyes round with hor­ror, her hand over her mouth. Slow­ly she took it away.

"Oh, it is you," she said. "Or per­haps I am in hell. Is this hell?"

"It may well be, but you are still among the liv­ing."

She shud­dered vi­o­lent­ly and he saw tears in her eyes.

"Even if I am alive, I do not know if I look upon John Jasper or his ghost."

"I think I may well be my own ghost. I have haunt­ed my­self this past five years."

"What has hap­pened to you? You are so thin."

He made no reply, hav­ing no more words left, nor any de­sire to do any­thing but look at her, at her waxen face and her puffy eyes, her mat­ted hair and the curl of sea­weed cling­ing at her throat.

"You are fright­en­ing me," she whis­pered.

Her fear stirred him. He crouched down, seek­ing spare blan­kets be­neath the bed and putting them be­side her.

"You should get those wet things off," he said. "Wrap your­self up. I will light a fire in the other room. I may have some tea in the caddy."

She made no move but sim­ply looked up at him, her lips slight­ly part­ed, her eyes tor­ment­ed.

"You will take cold. Re­move them, Rosa, or I shall have no al­ter­na­tive but to do it my­self."

Her hands moved rapid­ly to her bodice and he left the room. On shut­ting the door, he leant back against it and put his hands over his face.

What could be the mean­ing of this? Rosa Bud, un­dress­ing, in his room, hav­ing had her life saved by him. He had never had much be­lief in fate – no, he liked to help it along – but what had hap­pened out there in the marsh­es seemed mys­ti­cal in its sig­nif­i­cance. But was it even real? Or had he imag­ined it.

"Oh God, am I dream­ing this?" he groaned.

He tried to dis­miss the pos­si­bil­i­ty by look­ing for the tea caddy and fill­ing the ket­tle. While he dug around in the dregs of the leaves, the first shiv­ers of the evening's with­draw­al pains rat­tled through him. So it wasn't a dream. It was real.

He stopped dead and wait­ed for the spasm to sub­side. It lacked the fe­roc­i­ty of re­cent evenings. His diminu­tion in opium use, forced by fi­nan­cial ne­ces­si­ty, was at least tak­ing the edge off the tor­ture.

If he knelt to set the fire, the cramps were less de­bil­i­tat­ing. His bony fin­gers worked to light the mis­er­able mess of coke and half-charred pa­pers and ash that lay in the grate. He had burned the last of his mu­si­cal scores the pre­vi­ous night and tiny frag­ments of melody were vis­i­ble in the dirt, a few bars here and there.

"Rosa is here," he said to him­self, watch­ing a faint or­ange glow spread it­self amidst the black­ness. He re­hearsed her name again, ex­per­i­ment­ing with the ef­fect it had on him. "Rosa. Rosa Bud. My Rose­bud."

How her very name had once in­flamed him. He re­called a time when he could think of noth­ing but how she would feel be­neath his touch, her lips, yield­ing to him. He had been quite mad with it. One of the few kind­ness­es of opium was its abil­i­ty to re­duce and fi­nal­ly ex­tin­guish phys­i­cal de­sire. At least he had been freed of that, though it had taken a long time, longer than with most, his pas­sions being stronger than those of the com­mon man.

She had been mar­ried for two years be­fore the all-con­sum­ing long­ings and the wake­ful, lust­ful nights had ended. He shut his eyes and breathed through an­oth­er spasm, forc­ing the mem­o­ry of her wed­ding day out of his mind. He had stood by the water's edge that night too, but some­thing had held him back, some inkling or pre­sen­ti­ment that all might not yet be lost.

All at once the re­al­i­sa­tion struck him. Her hus­band, the sailor, was dead. That was why she had gone to the water. He put the ket­tle on its stand and warmed his hands.

He was still wear­ing wet clothes. He hadn't even no­ticed. But what of it if he caught a chill and it gal­loped into fever and killed him? One death was as good as an­oth­er.

If I go, who will care for Rosa?

The ques­tion in­sert­ed it­self into his mind, de­mand­ing no­tice.

"Fool," he mut­tered. "She has any amount of peo­ple to care for her. Grew­gious, Miss Twin­kle­ton, the young Mrs Crisparkle." But where were they now, in her hour of need?

He rocked to and fro until the ket­tle whis­tled and he poured the boil­ing water on to the few leaves he had man­aged to get into the pot.

He knocked on the bed­room door, but there was no reply.

"Rosa," he called.

Si­lence once more.

He took a breath and opened the door. She lay be­neath the blan­kets, sob­bing and shiv­er­ing on the bed.

"Come to the fire," he said soft­ly, drop­ping to his haunch­es by the pil­low.

"I am afraid to," she said.

"Then you are very fool­ish. What are you afraid of?"

"You."

"I will not harm you. I will not touch you. Please come to the fire. I have made tea for you."

"You said you would not touch me be­fore. I sup­pose you do not re­mem­ber it? In the Nuns' House gar­den?"

"Oh. Yes." He looked away, un­com­fort­able. "I do re­mem­ber it."

"You said you would not touch me but you still ter­ri­fied me be­yond any­thing I have ex­pe­ri­enced."

"It was not my in­ten­tion to do so."

"Yet you did."

"Then ac­cept my sin­cere apol­o­gy, Rosa, and come to the fire."

"Go far away from me, and I may. No, fur­ther than that."

He went and stood by the door.

Rosa gath­ered the blan­ket around her­self and stood up. She made a slow, shuf­fling progress out of the room, paus­ing to tell Jasper to get out of her way when she reached the door.

"You have only one chair?" She seat­ed her­self in the thread­bare arm­chair and laid her head back in its com­fort­able re­cess­es.

"I have sold the rest. I have only one cup also." He hand­ed it to her.

She looked about the room, wrin­kling her nose at its dis­ar­ray.

"What are you come to? This place is like a cham­ber from a night­mare."

Jasper sneezed in reply.

"For all your fuss­ing and fret­ting over me, you are still wear­ing wet clothes. You are tak­ing cold."

"No, it is the with­draw­al. It often makes me sneeze," he said un­think­ing­ly.

"With­draw­al?"

"I shall change my clothes," he said, evad­ing the mat­ter at hand by slip­ping into the bed­room.

When he re­turned, in drier gar­ments, Rosa was star­ing into the piti­ful fire and the look in her eyes pierced him. He knew that look, had seen it in his mir­ror. De­spair.

He came clos­er and leant on the chim­ney breast, look­ing down at her.

"You are a widow," he said.

Shak­en from her rever­ie, she glared at him, then her face crum­pled and she dis­solved into tears.

"How bru­tal that word is," she wept. "It is not what I should be."

"But it is what you are."

She nod­ded and tried to wipe her eyes with the blan­ket.

"No, cry," said Jasper. "Cry all you like. It is all the same to me."

"You wished him dead, no doubt," she said, rub­bing her face fu­ri­ous­ly now.

Jasper did not reply but he felt the jus­tice of her ac­cu­sa­tion.

"I thought you would have known. The Mighty, lost in the Bay of Bis­cay with all hands."

"I had not heard. I no longer read the news­pa­pers."

"And no­body here would have told you, for fear that you would ap­pear at his fu­ner­al, ready to make an­oth­er of your re­pul­sive pro­pos­als."

His cheek mus­cles twitched in a stiff ap­prox­i­ma­tion of a smile. Rosa had not quite lost her spir­it, it seemed.

"He is dead. And I am free." She par­rot­ted the words he had spo­ken to her once be­fore, vi­cious­ly sar­don­ic.

The look he gave her sub­dued her flare of anger. She shrank back into the chair and took refuge in the teacup.

He smiled gen­uine­ly then, find­ing that her lit­tle show of an­tag­o­nism had un­frozen some­thing with­in him, made his heart beat with its old ur­gen­cy.

"I did what I said I would do," he ex­plained to her baf­fled face. "I pur­sued you to the death. And then I de­liv­ered you from it."

"How could you think I would love a man who said such ter­ri­ble things?" She paused and fin­ished her tea. "Why did you do it?"

"Do what? Pur­sue you?"

"De­liv­er me."

"How could I not? How could I watch you die?"

"I want­ed to. I still want to."

"I won't let you."

"You have no power to grant or with­hold per­mis­sion from me, Mr Jasper. You are noth­ing to me."

"But you are all I care for."

She put down the cup and curled her­self into a foetal po­si­tion be­neath the blan­ket, bury­ing her head be­tween her knees.

"No," she keened, long and low.

"I have de­stroyed my­self. But I will not see you go the same way. Rosa, when I went to the water, I had the same pur­pose as you. That par­tic­u­lar ap­point­ment will not be kept tonight, though its time will come again. But I will not leave this world until I know that you are safe and hope­ful of liv­ing the rest of your days out. You are twen­ty two, Rosa. Your life is not over be­cause you have lost one per­son dear to you."

She looked up.

"You were going to…?"

"Yes. And I will re­turn. But only when you are with friends and pro­tec­tors who can care for you. Only then will I go back to the water."

• • • • • •

Read more