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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.