William R. Hughes: A Mysterious Dickens-Item

First print­ed in "A Week's Tramp in Dick­ens-Land", 1891


R C. D. Levy, Auc­tion­eer, etc., of Strood, was good enough to lend me what at first sight, and in­deed for some time af­ter­wards, was sup­posed to be a most unique Dick­ens-item. It came into his pos­ses­sion in this way. At the sale of Charles Dick­ens's fur­ni­ture and ef­fects, which took place at Gad's Hill in 1870, Mr. Levy was au­tho­rized by a cus­tomer to pur­chase Dick­ens's writ­ing-desk, which, how­ev­er, he was un­able to se­cure. In trans­fer­ring the desk to the pur­chas­er at the time of the sale, a few old and torn pa­pers tum­bled out, and being con­sid­ered of no value, were dis­re­gard­ed and scat­tered. One of these scraps was picked up by Mr. Levy, and proved on fur­ther ex­am­i­na­tion to be a sheet of head­ed note-pa­per hav­ing the stamp of "Gad's Hill Place, High­am by Rochester, Kent." — On the first page were a few rough sketch­es drawn with pen and ink, which great­ly re­sem­bled some of the char­ac­ters in "The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood" — Dur­dles, Jasper, and Edwin Drood. At the side was a cu­ri­ous row of cap­i­tal let­ters look­ing like a puz­zle. On the sec­ond and third pages were short-hand notes, and on the fourth page a few lines writ­ten in long-hand, con­tin­ued on the next page, — won­der­ful­ly like Charles Dick­ens's own hand­writ­ing, — being the com­mence­ment of a speech with ref­er­ence to a crick­et match. The sheet of paper had ev­i­dent­ly been made to do dou­ble duty, for after the sketch­es had been drawn on the front page, the sheet was put aside, and when used again was turned over, so that what or­di­nar­i­ly would have been page 4 be­came page 1 for the sec­ond ob­ject. No "Daniel" in Strood or Rochester had ever been able to de­ci­pher the mys­te­ri­ous hi­ero­glyph­ics, or make known the in­ter­pre­ta­tion there­of, dur­ing twen­ty years, or give any ex­pla­na­tion of the sketch­es. But ev­ery­body thought that in some way or other they re­lat­ed to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood — and pos­si­bly con­tained a clue to the so­lu­tion of that exquisite frag­ment. So, as a stu­dent and ad­mir­er of Dick­ens, Mr. Levy kind­ly left the mat­ter in my hands to make out what I could of it. Ref­er­ence was ac­cord­ing­ly had to sev­er­al learned pun­dits in the short-hand sys­tems of "Pit­man," "Odell," and "Hard­ing," but with­out avail; and even­tu­al­ly Mr. Gur­ney Archer, of 20, Abing­don Street, West­min­ster (suc­ces­sor to the old-es­tab­lished and em­i­nent firm of Messrs. W. B. Gur­ney and Sons, who have been the short-hand writ­ers to the House of Lords from time im­memo­ri­al), kind­ly tran­scribed the short-hand notes, which re­ferred to a speech re­lat­ing to a crick­et match, a por­tion of which had al­ready been writ­ten out in long-hand, as above stat­ed, — but there was not a word in the short-hand about Edwin Drood!

So far, one por­tion of the mys­tery had been ex­plained — not so the sketch­es, which were still be­lieved to con­tain the key to The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood. As a dernier ressort, ap­pli­ca­tion was made to the foun­tain-head — to Mr. Luke Fildes, R.A., the fa­mous il­lus­tra­tor of that beau­ti­ful work. He re­ceived me most cour­te­ous­ly, scru­ti­nized the doc­u­ment close­ly; we had a long chat about Edwin Drood gen­er­al­ly, the sub­stance of which has been given in a pre­vi­ous chap­ter — but he ad­mit­ted that the sketch­es failed to give any so­lu­tion of the mys­tery.

The doc­u­ment was sub­se­quent­ly sent by Mr. Kit­ton to Mrs. Pe­rug­i­ni, who at once replied that it had caused some mer­ri­ment when she saw it again, as she re­mem­bered it very well. It had been done by her broth­er, Mr. Henry Field­ing Dick­ens, when a young man liv­ing at home at Gad's Hill — that the short-hand notes re­ferred to his speech at a din­ner after one of the nu­mer­ous crick­et match­es held there, and that the sketch­es were rough por­traits of some of the crick­eters. The cap­i­tal let­ters at the side re­ferred to a dou­ble acros­tic. The heads of the speech had been sug­gest­ed by his fa­ther as being de­sir­able to be brought be­fore the crick­et club, which at that time was in a rather droop­ing con­di­tion.

Now al­though the orig­i­nal the­o­ry about this cu­ri­ous doc­u­ment en­tire­ly broke down, and not an atom has been added to what was al­ready known about The Mys­tery of Edwin Drood, still there is one sub­ject of much in­ter­est which the doc­u­ment has brought to light. The short-hand is the same sys­tem, "Gur­ney's," as that which Charles Dick­ens wrote as a re­porter in his early news­pa­per days — a sys­tem not gen­er­al­ly used now, but which he sub­se­quent­ly taught his son to write. Of the many sheets which Dick­ens cov­ered with notes in days gone by not one re­mains. But there are two manuscripts by Dick­ens in Gur­ney's sys­tem of short-hand, now in the Dyce and Forster col­lec­tion at South Kens­ing­ton, which re­late to some pri­vate mat­ters in con­nec­tion with pub­lish­ing ar­range­ments. The doc­u­ment is cer­tain­ly in­ter­est­ing from this point of view (i. e. the sys­tem which Dick­ens used), and from its ref­er­ence to life at Gad's Hill, and es­pe­cial­ly to crick­et, the favourite game men­tioned many times in this book, in which the nov­el­ist took so much in­ter­est. Mr. Henry Field­ing Dick­ens, with whom I had on an­oth­er oc­ca­sion some con­ver­sa­tion on the sub­ject of this sou­venir of his youth at Gad's Hill, re­marked that many more im­por­tant is­sues had hung upon much more slen­der ev­i­dence. It was done about the year 1865-6, be­fore he went to col­lege.

At our in­ter­view Mr. H. F. Dick­ens told me the de­tails of the fol­low­ing touch­ing in­ci­dent which hap­pened at one of the crick­et match­es at Gad's Hill. His fa­ther was as usual at­tired in flan­nels, act­ing as um­pire and en­er­get­i­cal­ly tak­ing the score of the game, when there came out from among the by­standers a tall, griz­zled, and sun-burnt Sergeant of the Guards. The Sergeant walked straight up to Mr. Dick­ens, say­ing, "May I look at you, sir?" "Oh, yes!" said the nov­el­ist, blush­ing up to the eyes. The Sergeant gazed in­tent­ly at him for a minute or so, then stood at at­ten­tion, gave the mil­i­tary salute, and said, "God bless you, sir." He then walked off and was seen no more. In re­count­ing this anec­dote, Mr. H. F. Dick­ens agreed with me that, read­ing be­tween the lines, one can al­most fancy some lin­ger­ing rem­i­nis­cences sim­i­lar to those in the early ex­pe­ri­ence of Pri­vate Richard Dou­bledick.