The Register: Who Was Dick Datchery?

First published in The Register, 13 Oct. 1923


T is often said that, as a maker of plots Dick­ens did not excel. At the time of his death he was en­gaged in an at­tempt to re­fute it (writes J. A. Bren­don in Caseell's Week­ly). He bad hit upon a "very new and cu­ri­ous" idea, and was work­ing en­thu­si­as­ti­cal­ly to de­vel­op it into a baf­fling mys­tery story.

He suc­ceed­ed in this pur­pose be­yond his wildest dreams. Edwin Drood was never fin­ished.

This, briefly, is the story of Edwin Drood, so far as it has been told to us.

The Foun­da­tion.

Edwin Drood and Rosa Bud were or­phans who had grown up with a tacit un­der­stand­ing be­tween them that, in the full­ness of time, they should marry. This mar­riage had been the wish of their par­ents.

Rosa liked Edwin well enough, but had no real love for him. Nor, for that mat­ter, had he any real love for her; he was a dull, colour­less fel­low.

Not so his uncle, John Jasper.

John Jasper was Edwin's se­nior by a few years, and was blind­ly, pas­sion­ate­ly in love with Rosa. Out­ward­ly be pro­fessed a strong re­gard for Edwin. In ward­ly he hated the man.

John Jasper lived at Clois­ter­ham, and was lay pre­cen­tor at the cathe­dral. He was a clever man, and much re­spect­ed in the city. But he was se­cret­ly ad­dict­ed to the opium habit, and, un­known to any of his friends, fre­quent­ed an opium den in Lon­don.

Opium had un­der­mined his moral na­ture and it led him to con­ceive, with hor­ri­ble cun­ning, the de­sign of mur­der­ing Drood. The idea took hold of him one day when he was in the crypt of the cathe­dral.

Dur­dles, a mason who kept the keys of the tombs, was show­ing to him the vault in which the wife of cer­tain Mr. Sapsea had re­cent­ly been placed. If only he could mur­der Drood at night and hide the body in that vault, now, thought Jasper, could the crime pos­si­bly be de­tect­ed?

And it would be an easy mat­ter to drug tlie drunk­en Dur­dles in ad­vance, and take from him the key of the vault. Tlie key of the Sapsea vault, when clinked, had a dis­tinc­tive ring. Dur­dles him­self called at­ten­tion to this cu­ri­ous fact.

Pitch­ing the Note.

Then Dur­dies ven­tured the start­ing in for­ma­tion that by tap­ping with his ham­mer on a vault he could tell whether it con­tained one body or two, some­thing solid or mere­ly ashes.

"Just you give me my ham­mer," said Dur­dles. ''You pitch your note, don't you, Mr. Jasper? So I sound for mine. I taker my ham­mer and I tap. Tap, tap, tap. Solid! I go on tap­ping. Still solid! Tap again. Hallo! Hol­low!"

Say he should mur­der Drood, place the body in the Sapsea tomb, and that Dur­dles with his ham­mer should then tap the vault! The mere idea made Jas­ger turn hot and cold. Then an in­spi­ra­tion came to him. Quick­lime! He must cover the body with quick­lime, "which, will eat your boots, and with a lit­tle handy stir­ring eat your bones."

Be­fore long came the op­por­tu­ni­ty which Jasper await­ed. Neville and He­le­na Land­less, twins, who had had a wild up bring­ing in Cey­lon, ar­rived at Clois­ter­ham to be ed­u­cat­ed by Canon Crisparkle. Neville at once fell in love with Rosa, and so, of course, took a vi­o­lent dis­like to Drood. Jasper as­sid­u­ous­ly en­cour­aged his en­mi­ty.

Now, it so hap­pened that Edwin and Rosa had al­ready bro­ken off their en­gage­ment. They had gone to­geth­er to the of­fice of Mr. Grew­gious, a Lon­don lawyer who was Rosa's guardian; and him they had told of their de­ci­sion.

Save only Mr. Grew­gious, no­body had any idea of this — not even Jasper. And Edwin, it should be noted, still re­tained the ring which Grew­gious had given him to place on Rosa's fin­ger on her wed­ding day — "a rose of di­a­monds and ru­bies del­i­cate­ly set in gold."

The River­side Part­ing.

Soon after this, at Christ­mas, Jasper in­vit­ed Drood and Land­less to his house. The evening was very stormy, and at about mid­night Drood and Land­less went down to the river to see if it had flood­ed.

At the river­side the two men part­ed, and made for their re­spec­tive homes. Edwin Drood's way lay past the cathe­dral.

And there, pre­sum­ably, some­thing hap­pened to him. At any rate, he did not reach his home. After he had part­ed from Neville he was never seen again.

Next day his watch and chain were found in the river. His body could no where be found.

At the in­sti­ga­tion of Jasper, Land­less was ar­rest­ed and charged with mur­der. But the charge failed, owing to in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence, and Land­less was ac­quit­ted.

Now, some time after Drood's dis­ap­pear­ance there ar­rived at Clois­ter­ham a cer­tain Dick Datch­ery, "an idle buffer liv­ing on his means," a well-bred, mil­i­tary-look­ing man, with a big head of white hair and black eye­brows. He came to Clois­ter­ham ad­mit­ted­ly to in­ves­ti­gate the Drood mys­tery, and clear­ly sus­pect­ed Jasper of hav­ing been in­stru­men­tal in the un­hap­py man's dis­ap­pear­ance.

The Se­cret of the Mys­tery.

And there Dick­ens's un­fin­ished story abrupt­ly ends — with Datch­ery adding up his ac­count against Jasper, not on paper, hut by the old tav­ern chalk-mark method. In the last chap­ter, after his meet­ing with the old opium woman who kept the den which Jasper fre­quent­ed in Lon­don, he added ''one thick line to the score."

Who was Dick Datch­ery?

In Datch­ery's iden­ti­ty clear­ly lies the se­cret to the mys­tery of Edwin Drood. Some com­men­ta­tors main­tain that Datch­ery was Drood him­self. But sure­ly this the­o­ry is an in­sult to Dick­ens as an artist. The nov­el­ist had no ex­cuse for de­vel­op­ing the plan of the mur­der in minute de­tail if he bad in­tend­ed it to fail.

The very rules of good sto­ry-telling de­mand that such a char­ac­ter should be got out of the way as soon as pos­si­ble.

Then who was Dick Datch­ery?

Mr. Sapsea? Dur­dies? The claims of nei­ther call for se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion.

Per­haps Dick Datch­ery was Mr. Grew­gious. This has been se­ri­ous­ly sug­gest­ed. It has also been sug­gest­ed that he may have been the lawyer's clerk, Baz­zard — the fool­ish broth­er of Mrs. Bil­lickin, you will re­mem­ber; the man who wrote a tragedy which no one would pro­duce.

The "Prob­a­bles."

But both Grew­gious and Baz­zard were sin­gu­lar­ly ill-suit­ed for the task. Baz­zard was mere­ly a low com­e­dy char­ac­ter: while Grew­gious, who had "short sight" and an "awk­ward, hes­i­tat­ing man­ner," could hard­ly have dis­played the keen ob ser­va­tion and "grand ad­dress" of the mys­te­ri­ous vis­i­tor to Clois­ter­ham. And then that big white wig.

Grew­gious, we are told, had a small head and a "scanty flat crop of hair." What rea­son could he hare had for mas­querad­ing in a very un­com­fort­able "shock of white nair that was un­usu­al­ly thick and ample?"

Had Canon Crisparkle un­der­tak­en to play the part of Datch­ery, his ne­glect of his du­ties and his ab­sence from the cathe­dral would at once have called for com­ment. The canon, there­fore, need not de­tain us. Nor need Neville Land­less; we are given quite def­i­nite in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing his move­ments in Lon­don.

But what about He­le­na Land­less?

We know that she stayed at Clois­ter­ham for some time after Drood's dis­ap­pear­ance, but we are not told for how long. We cer­tain­ly are not told that she was still there when Datch­ery ar­rived; and both in char­ac­ter and ap­pear­ance she was ad­mirably fit­ted for play­ing the part of a man.

In­deed, she had mas­quer­ad­ed in trousers al­ready more than once.

He­le­na, more­over, was a tall, hand­some girl, some­what gip­sy-like in ap­pear­ance. Nor did her re­sem­blance to Dick Datch­ery stop there; she had dark eye­brows; she was a bril­liant con­ver­sa­tion­list, and had an im­pe­ri­ous man­ner. And, if dressed as a man, she would have, of course, a woman's hair to hide. Hence that big, white wig.

He­le­na's In­ter­est.

Fi­nal­ly, no one had go strong an in­ter­est in the fate of Edwin Drood as had He­le­na Land­less. Her broth­er lay under a hor­ri­ble sus­pi­cion of hav­ing mur­dered the un­hap­py man. How could be and her friend, Rosa, marry till his in­no­cence had been es­tab­lished? And how could she her­self marry Canon Crisparkle? But how did she vin­di­cate her broth­er's hon­our? How did she prove Jasper's guilt? By means of Dur­dies' ham­mer and of the ring which Grew­gious had given Drood to place on Rosa's fin­ger on her wed­ding-day. Quick­lime will de­stroy flesh, bones, and even boots, but it will not de­stroy metal; and, un­known to Jasper, that ring had been in Drood's pos­ses­sion when his mur­dered body was thrust into the Sapsea vault.

And there, tes­ti­fy­ing to the crime, it lay when at last "Dick Datch­ery" per­suad­ed Dur­dies to open the tomb.

A Hint or Two.

If you read Edwin Drood again, bear­ing these sug­ges­tions in mind, you will un­der­stand much that was mean­ing­less to you be­fore. And you will no­tice, per­haps, that Dick­ens never al­lows He­le­na ac­tu­al­ly to talk to Jasper. This, sure­ly, was a part of his scheme of skil­ful rev­e­la­tion, voic­es are dif­fi­cult to dis­guise.

If fur­ther ev­i­dence be want­ed, we have Dick Datch­ery's mys­te­ri­ous chalk marks. Men in Dick­ens's day were taught to write a "round" hand, and women a "point­ed" hand with flour­ish­es. He­le­na, there­fore, dared not use pen and paper.

One other prob­lem re­mains to be solved — the iden­ti­ty of the old opium woman. Say the old opium woman was Jasper's moth­er, and that she Knew him to be her son, though he had no idea who she was. ...

When you re-read the book, bear this in mind.