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.