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The Mystery of Edwin Drood

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Author:Charles Dickens


An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the air...
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  An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient EnglishCathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower of itsold Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron inthe air, between the eye and it, from any point of the real prospect.What is the spike that intervenes, and who has set it up? Maybe it isset up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkishrobbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes byto his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in thesunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then,follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, andinfinite in number and attendants. Still the Cathedral Tower rises inthe background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is onthe grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike onthe top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Somevague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration ofthis possibility.

  Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thusfantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports histrembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He is in the meanestand closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the lightof early day steals in from a miserable court. He lies, dressed, acrossa large unseemly bed, upon a bedstead that has indeed given way under theweight upon it. Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, notlongwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two firstare in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, tokindle it. And as she blows, and shading it with her lean hand,concentrates its red spark of light, it serves in the dim morning as alamp to show him what he sees of her.

  ‘Another?’ says this woman, in a querulous, rattling whisper. ‘Haveanother?’

  He looks about him, with his hand to his forehead.

  ‘Ye’ve smoked as many as five since ye come in at midnight,’ the womangoes on, as she chronically complains. ‘Poor me, poor me, my head is sobad. Them two come in after ye. Ah, poor me, the business is slack, isslack! Few Chinamen about the Docks, and fewer Lascars, and no shipscoming in, these say! Here’s another ready for ye, deary. Ye’llremember like a good soul, won’t ye, that the market price is drefflehigh just now? More nor three shillings and sixpence for a thimbleful!And ye’ll remember that nobody but me

and Jack Chinaman t’other side thecourt; but he can’t do it as well as me

has the true secret of mixingit? Ye’ll pay up accordingly, deary, won’t ye?’

  She blows at the pipe as she speaks, and, occasionally bubbling at it,inhales much of its contents.

  ‘O me, O me, my lungs is weak, my lungs is bad! It’s nearly ready forye, deary. Ah, poor me, poor me, my poor hand shakes like to drop off!I see ye coming-to, and I ses to my poor self, “I’ll have another readyfor him, and he’ll bear in mind the market price of opium, and payaccording.” O my poor head! I makes my pipes of old penny ink-bottles,ye see, deary—this is one—and I fits-in a mouthpiece, this way, and Itakes my mixter out of this thimble with this little horn spoon; and so Ifills, deary. Ah, my poor nerves! I got Heavens-hard drunk for sixteenyear afore I took to this; but this don’t hurt me, not to speak of. Andit takes away the hunger as well as wittles, deary.’

  She hands him the nearly-emptied pipe, and sinks back, turning over onher face.

  He rises unsteadily from the bed, lays the pipe upon the hearth-stone,draws back the ragged curtain, and looks with repugnance at his threecompanions. He notices that the woman has opium-smoked herself into astrange likeness of the Chinaman. His form of cheek, eye, and temple,and his colour, are repeated in her. Said Chinaman convulsively wrestleswith one of his many Gods or Devils, perhaps, and snarls horribly. TheLascar laughs and dribbles at the mouth. The hostess is still.

  [Picture: In the Court]

  ‘What visions can _she_ have?’ the waking man muses, as he turns her facetowards him, and stands looking down at it. ‘Visions of many butchers’shops, and public-houses, and much credit? Of an increase of hideouscustomers, and this horrible bedstead set upright again, and thishorrible court swept clean? What can she rise to, under any quantity ofopium, higher than that!—Eh?’

  He bends down his ear, to listen to her mutterings.


  As he watches the spasmodic shoots and darts that break out of her faceand limbs, like fitful lightning out of a dark sky, some contagion inthem seizes upon him: insomuch that he has to withdraw himself to a leanarm-chair by the hearth—placed there, perhaps, for such emergencies—andto sit in it, holding tight, until he has got the better of this uncleanspirit of imitation.

  Then he comes back, pounces on the Chinaman, and seizing him with bothhands by the throat, turns him violently on the bed. The Chinamanclutches the aggressive hands, resists, gasps, and protests.

  ‘What do you say?’

  A watchful pause.


  Slowly loosening his grasp as he listens to the incoherent jargon with anattentive frown, he turns to the Lascar and fairly drags him forth uponthe floor. As he falls, the Lascar starts into a half-risen attitude,glares with his eyes, lashes about him fiercely with his arms, and drawsa phantom knife. It then becomes apparent that the woman has takenpossession of this knife, for safety’s sake; for, she too starting up,and restraining and expostulating with him, the knife is visible in herdress, not in his, when they drowsily drop back, side by side.

  There has been chattering and clattering enough between them, but to nopurpose. When any distinct word has been flung into the air, it has hadno sense or sequence. Wherefore ‘unintelligible!’ is again the commentof the watcher, made with some reassured nodding of his head, and agloomy smile. He then lays certain silver money on the table, finds hishat, gropes his way down the broken stairs, gives a good morning to somerat-ridden doorkeeper, in bed in a black hutch beneath the stairs, andpasses out.

  That same afternoon, the massive gray square tower of an old Cathedralrises before the sight of a jaded traveller. The bells are going fordaily vesper service, and he must needs attend it, one would say, fromhis haste to reach the open Cathedral door. The choir are getting ontheir sullied white robes, in a hurry, when he arrives among them, getson his own robe, and falls into the procession filing in to service.Then, the Sacristan locks the iron-barred gates that divide the sanctuaryfrom the chancel, and all of the procession having scuttled into theirplaces, hide their faces; and then the intoned words, ‘WHEN THE WICKEDMAN—’ rise among groins of arches and beams of roof, awakening mutteredthunder.