W. R. Thompson: A Dickens Mystery

I

N a re­cent issue of Black­wood, Mr An­drew Lang re­turns to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood ques­tion, re­view­ing the mat­ter afresh with char­ac­ter­is­tic shrewd­ness and charm. One rea­son for writ­ing the ar­ti­cle seems to be that Mr Lang wish­es to re­cant the opin­ion ex­pressed in his "lit­tle book of 1905," viz. that Jasper failed in his at­tempt on Edwin Drood's life. This re­can­ta­tion, how­ev­er, does not mean that Mr Lang has gone over to the other side—for, like Tar­iff Re­form and Hered­i­ty, Dick­ens's un­fin­ished story has given rise to op­pos­ing schools—but that he has aban­doned hope of a so­lu­tion. He has now "no the­o­ry as to how the novel would have been wound up," and be­lieves that it "man­i­fest­ly pass­es the wit of man to dis­cov­er how the mys­tery would have been solved by its maker." Hav­ing lost hope in him­self, Mr Lang nat­u­ral­ly has lit­tle con­fi­dence in the other learned men, "Heads of Hous­es and Pro­fes­sors of Greek," who have writ­ten books and ar­ti­cles on the sub­ject. So, in the most friend­ly and pleas­ant way, he ad­vis­es them to re­turn to the Home­r­ic Ques­tion, on which the "purest bosh may be, and is, writ­ten by the gravest au­thor­i­ties." Here sure­ly is can­dour wor­thy of Mrs Bil­lickin her­self. "I do not tell you that your bed­room floors is firm, for they are not. … Your slates are all a lit­tle loose at that ele­wa­tion." One hopes that the "Heads of Hous­es," etc., arc not like Mr Hon­eythun­der, who re­marked once, frown­ing­ly, "A joke, sir, is wast­ed upon me."

We know from Forster what Dick­ens's plan of the story was be­fore it was start­ed, and there is noth­ing in the twen­ty-three chap­ters we pos­sess in­con­sis­tent with that plan. In­deed it may be said that care­ful prepa­ra­tions are made for the car­ry­ing out of the plan, and, ere the frag­ment clos­es, the ap­pear­ance of Datch­ery means that Jasper is to have the crime brought Home to him. Datch­ery has re­alised the sig­nif­i­cance of Dur­dles. It is quite true, of course, as Mr Lang says, that Dick­ens's method of novel writ­ing being "hab nab at a ven­ture," any one of a score of con­sid­er­a­tions might have led him to de­part from his orig­i­nal plan. He might have re­stored the miss­ing Drood, might have taken pity on Jasper as on a being pos­sessed, might have whipt off Datch­ery's white wig, and re­vealed Edwin him­self in the " idle buffer" who was never re­al­ly idle, might even have made Neville Land­less a quite unique­ly sub­tle and brazen vil­lain. When, hav­ing seen Datch­ery fall to "with a good ap­petite" at Mrs Tope's break­fast-table, we come upon those trag­ic as­ter­isks that tell of the sud­den quench­ing of a mighty ge­nius, the whole world of con­jec­ture is be­fore us. Is it worth while set­ting out since the guide has fall­en silent?

One feels that had the story been fin­ished, both Dur­dles and the Deputy would have been " in " at the un­rav­el­ling. Was not the Deputy him­self some­thing of a mys­tery? "Don't you go a-makin' my name pub­lic. When they says to me in the Lock-up, a - going to put me down in the book, ' What's your name ?' I says to them, ' Find out.' Like­ways, when they says, ' What's your re­li­gion?' I says, ' Find out.' "And Dur­dles from the very first ap­pears as a man not to be ap­proached light­ly, as Mr Sapsea can tes­ti­fy." You are my friend," said Mr Sapsea. "Don't you get into a bad habit of boast­ing," re­tort­ed Dur­dles. "It'll grow upon you. ... I don't like lib­er­ties." Fur­ther, Dur­dles is the man with the keys, and he is not happy when they are being han­dled and clinked by Jasper. On the night of the visit to the cathe­dral, the first thing he noted on awak­ing from the drugged sleep was that the key had dropped from his hand. Un­doubt­ed­ly we are meant to re­gard Dur­dles as hav­ing the power of the keys. That pe­cu­liar mal­a­dy of his, "Tombat­ism," by virtue of which he was on fa­mil­iar terms with "the old 'uns," has a sig­nif­i­cance in re­la­tion to the clear­ing up of the mys­tery. With the two-foot rule and the ham­mer Dur­dles can tell where the dead lie in the cathe­dral. "Dur­dles comes by his knowl­edge through grub­bing deep for it, and hav­ing it up by the roots when it don't want to come." Sure­ly the care ex­pend­ed on Dur­dles, on his foot-rule, his ham­mer, and keys, is in­con­sis­tent with a mere­ly hid­den and not mur­dered Drood. Dick­ens could treat his plots with royal in­dif­fer­ence, but noth­ing could ex­ceed the tenac­i­ty with which he clung to his odd char­ac­ters. It is dif­fi­cult to get away from Dur­dles's own state­ment: "Ev­ery­body knows where to find Dur­dles when he is want­ed," and to doubt that when he was fi­nal­ly want­ed he was able to pro­duce the key. "'Why, Dur­dles,' ex­claimed Jasper, 'you are un­der­mined with pock­ets.' 'And I car­ries weight in 'em too, Mr Jasper. Feel those,' pro­duc­ing two other large keys."

"There re­mains," says Mr Lang, "the great puz­zle, who was Datch­ery? No­body can tell." Pro­fes­sor Jack­son's the­o­ry, fol­low­ing that of Mr Cum­ming Wal­ters, that Datch­ery was He­le­na Land­less in dis­guise, is de­scribed by Mr Lang as in­cred­i­ble. Edith Dombey, as Mr Chester­ton says, might as well im­per­son­ate Major Bag­stock; yes, and it might be added, Miss Twin­kle­ton the Fly­ing Wait­er. The pre­sent writ­er has not gone through the lit­er­a­ture of the sub­ject, but won­ders if any one has sug­gest­ed that Baz­zard was Datch­ery? Cer­tain­ly, from the time Datch­ery ap­pears in Clois­ter­ham, Baz­zard is seen no more in Mr Grew­gious's of­fice in Sta­ple Inn. And Mr Grew­gious's al­lu­sion to his ab­sence is pe­cu­liar. There is a ca­su­al­ness about it quite ab­sent from his or­di­nary ref­er­ences to Baz­zard, of whom he stood some­what in awe. " In fact he is off duty, here, just at pre­sent, and a firm down­stairs lend me a sub­sti­tute." "But," he adds, "it would be ex­treme­ly dif­fi­cult to re­place Mr Baz­zard." Now we know that Mr Grew­gious more than sus­pect­ed Jasper, and Mr Grew­gious is one of those char­ac­ters who, in a Dick­ens story, are never wrong. Their in­stincts are never at fault, for the sim­ple rea­son that they are the in­stincts of good and true men. Grew­gious is the faith­ful, ro­man­tic sort whom Dick­ens loves to exalt. His good­ness is not mere sim­plic­i­ty, but real in­sight. As is well-known, he was an "An­gu­lar" man, and so like­ly to err in deal­ing with "glob­u­lar" top­ics. But that was just his mod­est self-es­ti­mate. As a mat­ter of fact, his method of han­dling af­fairs was dis­tin­guished by noth­ing so much as its "glob­u­lar" qual­i­ty; he could see all round a sub­ject bet­ter than most. Now it is quite pos­si­ble that Baz­zard — though, ac­cord­ing to Mr Grew­gious, an "An­gu­lar" clerk — had also "glob­u­lar" gifts, and that, as Datch­ery, he found scope for these in Clois­ter­ham. <...>

There is one point of light — Datch­ery was not Mrs Bil­lickin in dis­guise. That lady's can­dour makes the very thought of such a thing im­pos­si­ble. "' Can we see the rooms,' asked Mr Grew­gious. 'Mr Grew­gious, you can,' replied Mrs Bil­lickin. 'I will not dis­guise it from you, sir, you can.'" In any case, Mrs Bil­lickin was phys­i­cal­ly unfit for Datch­ery's task. For this we have her own word — " I was put in youth to a very gen­teel board­ing-school, and a poor­ness of blood flowed from the table which has run through my life."