Drood: A Novel - PDF Free Download (2024)

Drood Dan Simmons

Copyright © 2009 by Dan Simmons All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroup.com [http://www.HachetteBookGroup.com] www.twitter.com/littlebrown [http://www.twitter.com/littlebrown] First eBook Edition: February 2009 Little, Brown and Company is a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc. The Little, Brown name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc. ISBN: 978-0-316-04068-6

also by DAN SIMMONS Song of Kali Phases of Gravity Carrion Comfort Hyperion The Fall of Hyperion Prayers to Broken Stones Summer of Night The Hollow Man Children of the Night Summer Sketches Lovedeath Fires of Eden Endymion The Rise of Endymion The Crook Factory Darwin’s Blade A Winter Haunting Hardcase Hard Freeze Worlds Enough & Time Ilium Hard as Nails Olympos The Terror

“What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition? Some demon whispered — ‘Wilkie! Have a mission.’ ” — A. C. Swinburne Fortnightly Review, Nov., 1889

CHAPTER ONE My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name. Some say that I am a gambling man and those that say so are correct, so my wager with you, Dear Reader, would be that you have neither read nor heard of any of my books or plays. Perhaps you British or American peoples a hundred and twenty-five or so years in my future do not speak English at all. Perhaps you dress like Hottentots, live in gas-lighted caves, travel around in balloons, and communicate by telegraphed thoughts unhindered by any spoken or written language. Even so, I would wager my current fortune, such as it is, and all future royalties from my plays and novels, such as they may be, on the fact that you do remember the name and books and plays and invented characters of my friend and former collaborator, a certain Charles Dickens. So this true story shall be about my friend (or at least about the man who was once my friend) Charles Dickens and about the Staplehurst accident that took away his peace of mind, his health, and, some might whisper, his sanity. This true story will be about Charles Dickens’s final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man—if man he was—named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called “my Babylon” or “the Great Oven.” In this manuscript (which, as I have explained—for legal reasons as well as for reasons of honour—I intend to seal away from all eyes for more than one hundred years after his death and my own), I shall answer the question which perhaps no one else alive in our time knew to ask—“Did the famous and loveable and honourable Charles Dickens plot to murder an innocent person and dissolve away his flesh in a pit of caustic lime and secretly inter what was left of him, mere bones and a skull, in the crypt of an ancient cathedral that was an important part of Dickens’s own childhood? And did Dickens then

scheme to scatter the poor victim’s spectacles, rings, stickpins, shirt studs, and pocket watch in the River Thames? And if so, or even if Dickens only dreamed he did these things, what part did a very real phantom named Drood have in the onset of such madness?” THE DATE OF DICKENS’S DISASTER was 9 June, 1865. The locomotive carrying his success, peace of mind, sanity, manuscript, and mistress was—quite literally— heading for a breach in the rails and a terrible fall. I do not know if you Dear Readers living so many years hence still record or remember history (perhaps you have renounced Herodotus and Thucydides and dwell perpetually in the Year Zero), but if any sense of history remains in your time, you must know well the important events of the year we called Anno Domini 1865. Some events, such as the end of the fraternal conflagration in the United States, were considered of some drama and considerable interest by many in England, although not by Charles Dickens. Despite his great interest in America—having travelled there already and written books about it, not altogether flattering books one must add, and after having struggled so fiercely to receive some recompense for the piracy of his works in that copyright-flaunting chaos of former colonies—Dickens had little interest in a war between some distant North and more-distant South. But in 1865, the year of his Staplehurst disaster, Charles Dickens had reason to be very satisfied indeed with his own personal history. He was the most popular novelist in England, perhaps in the world. Many people in England and America considered my friend to be—outside of Shakespeare and perhaps Chaucer and Keats—the greatest writer who had ever lived. Of course, I knew this to be nonsense, but popularity, as they say (or as I have said), breeds more popularity. I had seen Charles Dickens stuck in a rural, doorless privy with his trousers down around his ankles, bleating like a lost sheep for some paper to wipe his arse, and you will have to forgive me if that image remains more true to me than “the greatest writer who ever lived.” But on this June day in 1865, Dickens had many reasons to be smug. Seven years earlier, the writer had separated from his wife, Catherine, who obviously had offended him in their twenty-two years of marriage by uncomplainingly bearing him ten children and suffering several miscarriages, all the while generally putting up with his every complaint and catering to his every whim. This endeared his wife to him to the point that in 1857, during a walking trip we were taking in the countryside during which we had sampled several bottles of local wine, Dickens chose to describe his beloved Catherine to me as “Very dear to me, Wilkie, very dear. But, on the whole, more bovine than entrancing, more ponderous than feminine… an alchemist’s dull brew of vaguemindedness, constant incompetence, shuffling sluggishness, and self-indulgent idleness, a thick gruel stirred only by the paddle of her frequent self-pity.” I doubt if my friend remembered telling me this, but I have not forgotten. Actually, it was a complaint that did Catherine in, domestically speaking. It seems (actually, it does not “seem” at all—I was there when he purchased the blasted thing)

that Dickens had bought the actress Ellen Ternan an expensive bracelet after our production of The Frozen Deep, and the idiot jeweller had delivered the thing to the Dickenses’ home in London, Tavistock House, not to Miss Ternan’s flat. As a result of this mis-delivery, Catherine had given forth several weeks’ worth of bovine mewlings, refusing to believe that it was merely her husband’s token offering of innocent esteem to the actress who had done such a wonderful (actually, I would say barely competent) job as the hero’s beloved, Clara Burnham, in our… no, my… play about unrequited love in the Arctic. It is true, as Dickens continued to explain to his deeply hurt wife in 1858, that the author had the habit of showering generous gifts on his fellow players and participants in his various amateur theatricals. After The Frozen Deep he had already distributed bracelets and pendants, a watch, and one set of three shirt studs in blue enamel to others in the production. But, then, he wasn’t in love with these others. And he was in love with young Ellen Ternan. I knew that. Catherine Dickens knew that. No one can be sure if Charles Dickens knew that. The man was such a convincing fictionalist, not to mention one of the most self-righteous fellows ever to have trod the Earth, that I doubt if he ever confronted and acknowledged his own deeper motivations, except when they were as pure as springwater. In this case, it was Dickens who flew into a rage, shouting and roaring at the sooncowed Catherine—I apologise for any inadvertent bovine connotation there—that his wife’s accusations were a slur on the pure and luminously perfect person of Ellen Ternan. Dickens’s emotional, romantic, and, dare I say it, erotic fantasies always revolved around sanctified, chivalric devotion to some hypothetical young and innocent goddess whose purity was eternally beyond reproach. But Dickens may have forgotten that the hapless and now domestically doomed Catherine had watched Uncle John, the farce that we had put on (it was the tradition in our century, you see, always to present a farce along with a serious drama) after The Frozen Deep. In Uncle John, Dickens (age forty-six) played the elderly gentleman and Ellen Ternan (eighteen) played his ward. Naturally, Uncle John falls madly in love with the girl less than half his age. Catherine must have also known that while I had written the bulk of the drama, The Frozen Deep, about the search for the lost Franklin Expedition, it was her husband who had written and cast the romantic farce, after he had met Ellen Ternan. Not only does Uncle John fall in love with the young girl he should be protecting, but he showers her with, and I quote from the play’s stage directions, “wonderful presents—a pearl necklace, diamond ear-rings.” So it is little wonder that when the expensive bracelet, meant for Ellen, showed up at Tavistock House, Catherine, between pregnancies, roused herself from her vagueminded shuffling sluggishness and bellowed like a milk cow with a Welsh dairyman’s prod between her withers. Dickens responded as any guilty husband would. But only if that husband happened to be the most popular writer in all of England and the English-speaking world and perhaps

the greatest writer who ever lived. First, he insisted that Catherine make a social call on Ellen Ternan and Ellen’s mother, showing everyone that there could be no hint of suspicion or jealousy on his wife’s part. In essence, Dickens was demanding that his wife publicly apologise to his mistress—or at least to the woman he would soon choose to be his mistress when he worked up the courage to make the arrangements. Weeping, miserable, Catherine did as she was bid. She humiliated herself by making a social call on Ellen and Mrs Ternan. It was not enough to assuage Dickens’s fury. He cast the mother of his ten children out. He sent Charley, his eldest son, to live with Catherine. He kept the rest of the children to live with him at Tavistock House and eventually at Gad’s Hill Place. (It was always my observation that Dickens enjoyed his children until they began to think and act for themselves in any way… in other words, when they ceased behaving like Little Nell or Paul Dombey or one of his other fictional constructs… and then he quickly grew very bored with them.) There was more to this scandal, of course—protests by Catherine’s parents, public retractions of those protests forced by Dickens and his solicitors, bullying and misleading public statements by the author, legal manoeuvrings, much terrible publicity, and a final and irrevocable legal separation forced on his wife. He eventually refused to communicate with her at all, even about the well-being of their children. All this from the man who epitomised, not just for England but for the world, the image of “the happy home.” Of course Dickens still needed a woman in his house. He had many servants. He had nine children at home with whom he did not wish to be bothered except when he was in the mood to play with them or dangle them on his knee for photographs. He had social obligations. There were menus and shopping lists and florists’ orders to prepare. There was much cleaning and organising to oversee. Charles Dickens needed to be freed from all these details. He was, you must understand, the world’s greatest writer. Dickens did the obvious thing, although it might not have seemed so obvious to you or to me. (Perhaps in this distant twentieth or twenty-first century to which I consign this memoir, it is the obvious thing. Or perhaps you have, if you are smart, abandoned the quaint and idiotic institution of marriage altogether. As you will see, I avoided matrimony in my time, choosing to live with one woman while having children with another, and some in my time, to my great pleasure, called me a scoundrel and a cad. But I digress.) So Dickens did the obvious thing. He elevated Catherine’s spinster sister Georgina to the role of surrogate wife, mistress of his household, and discipline-mistress of his children, hostess at his many parties and dinners, not to mention Sergeant Major to the cook and servants. When the inevitable rumours began—centred on Georgina rather than on Ellen Ternan, who had receded, one might say, from the gaslights to the shadows—Dickens ordered a doctor to Tavistock House. The doctor was told to examine Georgina and then was ordered to publish a statement, which he did, declaring to all and sundry that Miss

Georgina Hogarth was virgo intacta. And that, Charles Dickens assumed, would be that. His younger daughter would later say to me, or at least say within my hearing, “My father was like a madman. This affair brought out all that was the worst—and all that was the weakest—in him. He did not care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home.” If Dickens was aware of their unhappiness, or if it mattered to him if he was indeed aware, he did not show it. Not to me, nor to his newer and ultimately closer friends. And he was correct in his assumption that the crisis would pass without his readers’ abandoning him. If they knew of his domestic irregularities at all, they had obviously forgiven him. He was, after all, the English prophet of the happy home and the world’s greatest writer. Allowances must be made. Our male literary peers and friends also forgave and forgot—with the exception of Thackeray, but that is another story—and I must admit that some of them, some of us, tacitly or privately, applauded Charles’s freeing himself of his domestic obligations to such an unattractive and perpetually dragging sea anchor. The break gave a glimmer of hope to the bleakest of married men and amused us bachelors with the thought that perhaps one could come back from that undiscovered matrimonial country from which it was said that no man could ever return. But, I pray you, Dear Reader, remember that we are speaking of the man who, sometime earlier, shortly before his acquaintance with Ellen Ternan, as he and I cruised the theatres for what we called “the special little periwinkles”—those very young and very pretty actresses we found to our mutual aesthetic satisfaction—had said to me, “Wilkie, if you can think of any tremendous way of passing the night, in the meantime, do. I don’t care what it is. I give, for this night only, restraint to the Winds! If the mind can devise anything sufficiently in the style of Sybarite Rome in the days of its culminating voluptuousness, I am your man.” And for such sport, I was his. I HAVE NOT forgotten 9 June, 1865, the true beginning of this cascade of incredible events. Dickens, explaining to friends that he was suffering from overwork and what he had been calling his “frost-bitten foot” since mid-winter, had taken a week off from his work of finishing Our Mutual Friend to enjoy a holiday in Paris. I do not know if Ellen Ternan and her mother went with him. I do know they returned with him. A lady whom I have never met nor much wish to, a certain Mrs William Clara Pitt Byrne (a friend, I am told, of Charles Waterton—the naturalist and explorer who reported his bold adventures all over the world but who had died from a silly fall at his estate of Walton Hall just eleven days before the Staplehurst accident, his ghost later reported to be haunting the place in the form of a great grey heron), loved to send little bits of malicious gossip to the Times. This malevolent morsel, reporting the sighting of our friend on the ferry from Boulogne to Folkestone that day of the ninth of June, appeared

some months after Dickens’s accident: Travelling with him was a lady not his wife, nor his sister-in-law, yet he strutted about the deck with the air of a man bristling with self-importance, every line of his face and every gesture of his limbs seemed haughtily to say—“Look at me; make the most of your chance. I am the great, I am the only Charles Dickens; whatever I may choose to do is justified by that fact.” I am told that Mrs Byrne is known primarily for a book she published some years ago titled Flemish Interiors. In my modest opinion, she should have reserved her vitriolic pen for scribbling about divans and wallpaper. Human beings are clearly beyond her narrow scope. After disembarking at Folkestone, Dickens, Ellen, and Mrs Ternan took the 2.38 tidal train to London. As they approached Staplehurst, they were the only passengers in their coach, one of seven first-class carriages in the tidal train that day. The engineer was going full speed—about fifty miles per hour—as they passed Headcorn at eleven minutes after three in the afternoon. They were now approaching the railroad viaduct near Staplehurst, although “viaduct”—the name given the structure in the official railways guide—may be too fancy a word for the web of girders supporting the heavy wood beams spanning the shallow river Beult. Labourers were carrying out a routine replacement of old timbers on that span. Later investigation—and I have read the reports—showed that the foreman had consulted the wrong timetable and did not expect the tidal train for another two hours. (It seems that we travellers are not the only ones to be confounded by British railway timetables with their infinite holiday and weekend and high-tide-time asterisks and confounding parentheses.) A flagman was required by railway policy and English law to be stationed 1,000 yards up the rails from such work—two of the rails had already been lifted off at the bridge and set alongside the track—but for some reason this man with his red flag was only 550 yards from the gap. This did not give a train travelling at the speed of the Folkestone– London tidal express any chance of stopping in time. The engineer, upon seeing the red flag so tardily waved and—a much more soul-riveting sight, I am sure—upon seeing the gap in rails and beams in the bridge ahead, did his best. Perhaps in your day, Dear Reader, all trains have brakes that can be applied by the engineer. Not so in our day of 1865. Each carriage must be braked individually and then only upon instructions from the engineer. He madly whistled for the guards along the length of the train to apply their brakes. It did little good. According to the report, the train was still doing almost thirty miles per hour when it reached the broken line. Incredibly, the engine jumped the forty-two-foot gap and leaped off the track on the other side of the chasm. Of the seven first-class carriages, all but one flew free and plummeted to their destruction in the swampy riverbed below. The surviving coach was the one carrying Dickens, his mistress, and her mother. The guards’ van immediately behind the engine was flung to the other track, dragging the next coach—a second-class carriage—with it. Immediately behind this second-class

carriage was Dickens’s coach and it jolted partially over the bridge as the other six firstclass carriages flew by and crashed below. Dickens’s carriage finally ended up dangling over the side of the bridge, now being kept from falling only by its single coupling to another second-class carriage. Only the very rear of the train remained on the rails. The other first-class carriages had plummeted and crashed and rolled and buckled and generally been smashed to matchwood and splinters on the marshy ground below. Dickens later wrote about these moments, in letters to friends, but always with discretion, taking care never to mention, except to a few intimates, the names or identities of his two fellow travellers. I am certain that I am the only person to whom he ever told the complete story. “Suddenly,” he wrote in his more widely disseminated epistolary version of events, “we were off the rail, and beating the ground as the car of a half-emptied balloon might do. The old lady…” [We must read “Mrs Ternan” here] “. . . cried out, ‘My God!’ The young lady travelling with her [this is Ellen Ternan, of course] screamed. “I caught hold of them both… and said: ‘We can’t help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed. Pray don’t cry out!’ “The old lady immediately answered: ‘Thank you. Rely on me. Upon my soul I will be quiet.’ We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped.” The carriage was indeed tilted steeply down and to the left. All baggage and loose objects had fallen down and to the left. For the rest of his life, Charles Dickens would suffer repeated spells of feeling as if “everything, all of my body, is tilted and falling down and to the left.” Dickens continues his narrative: “I said to the two women, ‘You may be sure that nothing worse can happen. Our danger must be over. Will you remain here, without stirring, while I get out the window?’ ” Dickens, still lithe enough then at the age of fifty-three, despite his “frost-bitten foot” (as a long-time sufferer of gout, which has required me to partake of laudanum for many years, I know gout when I hear its symptoms, and Dickens’s “frostbite” was almost certainly gout), then clambered out, made the tricky jump from the carriage step to the railbed above the bridge, and reported seeing two guards running up and down in apparent confusion. Dickens writes that he grabbed and stopped one of them, demanding of the man, “Look at me! Do stop an instant and look at me, and tell me whether you don’t know me.” “We know you very well, Mr Dickens,” he reports the guard replied at once. “Then, my good fellow,” cried Dickens, almost cheerily (at being recognised at such a time, a petty soul such as Clara Pitt Byrne might have interjected), “for God’s sake give me your key, and send one of those labourers here, and I’ll empty this carriage.” And then, in Dickens’s letters to his friends, the guards did as they were bid, labourers laying down planks to the carriage, and then the author clambered back into the tilted coach and crawled down its length to retrieve his top hat and his flask of brandy. I should interrupt our mutual friend’s description here just long enough to say that, using the names listed in the official railway report as my guide, I later tracked down the very

guard that Dickens reports stopping and galvanising into such useful action. The guard —a certain Lester Smyth—had a somewhat different recollection of those moments. “We were trying to get down to ’elp the injured and dying when this toff who’d climbed out of the teetering first-class coach runs up to Paddy Beale and me, all wild-eyed and pale, and keeps shouting at us, ‘Do you know me, man!? Do you know me!? Do you know who I am??’ “I admit that I replied, ‘I don’t care if you’re Prince Albert, mate. Get out of my bleedin’ way.’ It was not the usual way I’d speak to a gentleman, but that wasn’t no usual day.” At any rate, Dickens did commandeer the work of some labourers to help extricate Ellen and Mrs Ternan, he did crawl back into the carriage to retrieve his flask and top hat, he did fill his top hat with water before clambering down the steep bank, and all witnesses agree that Dickens went immediately to work down among the dying and the dead. IN HIS FIVE REMAINING YEARS after Staplehurst, Dickens would only say about what he saw in that riverbed—“It was unimaginable”—and of what he heard there —“Unintelligible.” This from the man generally agreed to have the greatest imagination, after Sir Walter Scott, of any English writer. And from a man whose stories were, if nothing else, always eminently intelligible. Perhaps the unimaginable began when he was clambering down the steep embankment. Suddenly appearing next to him was a tall, thin man wearing a heavy black cape far more appropriate for a night at the opera than an afternoon’s voyage to London on the tidal train. Both men were carrying their top hats in one hand while grabbing at the embankment for balance with their free hands. This figure, as Dickens later described to me in a throaty whisper during the days after the accident when his voice “was no longer my own,” was cadaverously thin, almost shockingly pale, and stared at the writer from dark-shadowed eyes set deep under a pale, high brow that melded into a pale, bald scalp. A few strands of greying hair leapt out from the sides of this skull-like visage. Dickens’s impression of a skull was reinforced, he said later, by the man’s foreshortened nose —“mere black slits opening into the grub-white face than a proper proboscis” was how Dickens described it—and by small, sharp, irregular teeth, spaced too far apart, set into gums so pale that they were whiter than the teeth themselves. The author also noticed that the man had two fingers missing—or almost missing—on his right hand, the little finger and the ring finger next to it, as well as a missing middle finger on his left hand. What especially caught Dickens’s attention was the fact that the fingers had not been cut off at the joint, as is so often the case in an accident to the hand or subsequent surgery, but appeared to have been severed halfway through the bone between the joints. “Like tapers of white wax that had been partially melted,” he told me later. Dickens was nonplussed as he and this strange black-caped figure slowly worked their way down the steep embankment, both using shrubs and rocks as handholds. “I am Charles Dickens,” gasped my friend. “Yesss,” said the pale face, the sibilants sliding out through the tiny teeth. “I know.”

This nonplussed Dickens all the more. “Your name, sir?” he asked as they slid down the embankment of loose stones together. “Drood,” said the man. At least Dickens thought this is what the man said. The pale figure’s voice was slurred and tinged with what may have been a foreign accent. The word came out sounding most like “Dread.” “You were on the train going to London?” asked Dickens as they approached the bottom of the steep hill. “To Limehousse,” hissed the ungainly form in the dark cape. “Whitechapel. Ratcliff Crossss. Gin Alley. Three Foxesss Court. Butcher Row and Commercial Road. The Mint and other rookeriessss.” Dickens glanced up sharply at this strange recital, since their train had been going to the station in central London, not to these dark alleys in East London. “Rookeries” was a slang term for the worst of the tenement slums in the city. But now they had reached the bottom of the hill, and without another word, this “Drood” turned away and seemed to glide into the shadows under the railway bridge. In a few seconds the man’s black cape blended with the darkness there. “You must understand,” Dickens was to whisper to me later, “I never for a second thought that this strange apparition was Death come to claim his own. Nor any other personification of the tragedy that was even then unfolding. This would have been too trite even for far lesser fiction than that which I create. But I do admit, Wilkie,” he said, “that I wondered at the time if Drood might have been an undertaker come from Staplehurst or some other nearby hamlet.” Alone now, Dickens turned his attention to the carnage. The train carriages in the riverbed and adjoining swampy banks were no longer recognisable as railway coaches. Except for iron axles and wheels protruding here and there at impossible angles from the water, it was as if a series of wooden bungalows had been flung out of the sky, perhaps dropped from some American cyclone and smashed to bits. And then the bits looked to have been dropped and smashed yet again. It seemed to Dickens as if no one could have survived such impact, such destruction, but screams of living sufferers—for in truth the injured far outnumbered the dead—began to fill the river valley. These were not, he thought at the time, human sounds. They were somehow infinitely worse than the moans and cries he had heard when touring overcrowded hospitals, such as the East London Children’s Hospital at Ratcliff Cross— which Drood had just mentioned—where the indigent and unclaimed went to die. No, these screams seemed more as if someone had opened a portal to the pit of Hell itself and allowed the damned there to cry out one last time to the mortal world. Dickens watched a man stagger towards him, arms outstretched as if for a welcoming hug. The top of the man’s skull had been torn off rather the way one would crack an eggshell with a spoon in preparation for breakfast. Dickens could clearly see the greyand-pink pulp glistening within the concave bowl of splintered skull. The fellow’s face was covered with blood, his eyes white orbs staring out through crimson rivulets. Dickens could think of nothing to do but offer the man some brandy from his flask. The

mouth of the flask came away red from the man’s lips. Dickens helped him lie on the grass and then used the water in his top hat to clean the man’s face. “What is your name, sir?” asked Dickens. The man said only, “I am gone,” and died, the white eyes continuing to stare up at the sky from their bloody pools. A shadow passed over them. Dickens whirled, sure—he told me later—that it would be Drood, the apparition’s black cape widening like a raven’s wings. But it was only a cloud passing between the sun and the river valley. Dickens refilled his top hat from the river and came upon a lady, who also had blood streaming down over her lead-coloured face. She was almost naked, her clothes reduced to a few token strips of bloody cloth dangling like old bandages from her torn flesh. Her left breast was missing. She refused to pause for the writer’s ministrations and did not seem to hear his urgings that she sit down and wait for help. She walked past Dickens in a brisk manner and disappeared into the few trees that grew along the bank. He helped two stunned guards extricate the crushed body of another woman from a flattened carriage and lay the body gently on the bank. A man was wading downstream, screaming, “My wife! My wife!” Dickens led him to the corpse. The man screamed, threw his arms above his head, and ran wildly into the swampy field near the river, crashing and thrashing about, all the while emitting sounds that Dickens later said “were like the hisses and death grunts of a boar pierced through the lungs by several large calibre bullets.” Then the man fainted, dropping into the marsh more like someone shot through the heart than through the lungs. Dickens went back towards the carriages and found a woman propped against a tree. Except for a little blood on her face, perhaps from a slight scalp wound, she seemed uninjured. “I shall bring you some water, madam,” he said. “That would be very kind of you, sir,” she replied. She smiled and Dickens flinched. She had lost all of her teeth. He went to the stream and looked back to see a figure he took to be Drood—presumably no one else was foolishly dressed in a heavy opera cape on that warm June day— solicitously bent over the woman. When Dickens returned a few seconds later with his top hat filled with river water, the man in black was gone and the woman was dead but still showing her ragged, bloodied gums in a parody of a final smile. He went back to the smashed carriages. Amidst the rubble of one coach, a young man moaned feebly. More rescuers were sliding down the slope. Dickens ran to get several strong guards to help extricate the fellow from the broken glass, torn red velvet, heavy iron, and collapsed wooden floor of the compartment. While the guards grunted and lifted the heavy window frames and shattered flooring that had now become a fallen roof, Dickens squeezed the young man’s hand and said, “I shall see you to safety, my son.” “Thank you,” gasped the injured young gentleman, obviously an occupant of one of the first-class carriages. “You are most kind.”

“What is your name?” asked our novelist as they carried the young man to the bank. “Dickenson,” said the young fellow. Charles Dickens made sure that Master Dickenson was carried up to the railway line where more rescuers had arrived, then he turned back to the carnage. He rushed from injured person to injured person, lifting, consoling, assuaging thirst, reassuring, sometimes covering their nakedness with any rag he could find, all while checking other scattered forms to confirm that they were no longer amongst the living. A few rescuers and fellow passengers seemed as focused as our author, but many— Dickens told me later—could only stand there in shock and stare. The two figures doing the most that terrible afternoon amidst the wreckage and groans were Dickens and the bizarre form who called himself Drood, although the black-caped man seemed always to be just out of earshot, always on the verge of vanishing from sight again, and always appearing to glide rather than walk from wrecked carriage to wrecked carriage. Dickens came upon a large woman, the peasant cloth and design of her dress showing that she had come from one of the lower-class carriages. She was face-down in the swamp, her arms under her body. He rolled her over to be certain that she was no longer among the living, when suddenly her eyes popped open in her mud-covered face. “I saved her!” she gasped. “I saved her from him!” It took a moment before Dickens noticed the infant clasped fiercely between the fat woman’s heavy arms, the small white face pressed deep against the woman’s pendulous bosoms. The baby was dead—either drowned in the shallow swamp or asphyxiated by its mother’s weight. Dickens heard a hissing call, saw Drood’s pale form waving to him from the web of shadows under the broken bridge and walked towards him, but came first to a collapsed, upside-down carriage where a young woman’s bare but shapely arm protruded from what was left of a window. Her fingers moved, seeming to beckon Dickens closer. Dickens crouched and took the soft fingers in his own two hands. “I am here, my dear,” he said to the darkness inside the small aperture that had been a window only fifteen minutes earlier. He squeezed her hand and she squeezed his back, as if in gratitude for her deliverance. Dickens crouched but could see nothing but torn upholstery, dark shapes, and deep shadows within the tiny, triangular cave of wreckage. There was not enough room for him to squeeze in even his shoulders. The top frame of the window was pressing down almost to the marshy ground. He could only just hear the rapid, terrified breathing of the injured woman above the gurgle of the river running by. Without thinking of the possible impropriety of it, he stroked her bare arm as far as he could reach it in the collapsed wreckage. There were very fine reddish hairs along her pale forearm and they glowed coppery in the afternoon light. “I see the guards and possibly a doctor coming,” Dickens said into the tiny aperture, squeezing her arm and hand all the while. He did not know for sure if the approaching gentleman in the brown suit who carried a leather bag was indeed a doctor, but he fervently hoped so. The four guards, carrying axes and iron pry rods, were jogging

ahead, the gentleman in the formal suit puffing to keep up. “Over here!” Dickens cried to them. He squeezed the woman’s hand. Her pale fingers squeezed back, the first finger closing, opening, and then curling and closing again around his first fingers much as a newborn baby would instinctively but tentatively grasp its father’s hand. She said nothing, but Dickens heard her sigh from the shadows. It seemed almost a contented sound. He held her hand in both of his and prayed that she was not seriously injured. “Here, for God’s sake, hurry!” cried Dickens. The men gathered around. The heavy, suited man introduced himself—he was a physician by the name of Morris—and Dickens refused to relinquish either his place by the wrecked window or the young lady’s hand as the four guards began levering the window frame and smashed wood and iron upward and to the side, enlarging the tiny space that had somehow been the woman’s shelter and salvation. “Careful now!” shouted Dickens to the guards. “With great care, by all means! Allow nothing to fall. Careful with the bars there!” Crouching lower to speak into the dark space, Dickens fiercely gripped her hand and whispered, “We almost have you, my dear. Another minute. Be brave!” There came a last, answering squeeze. Dickens could feel the gratitude in it. “You’ll have to get back a minute, sir,” said Dr Morris. “Back just a moment while the boys heave and lift here and I lean in to see if she is too injured to move yet or not. Just for a moment, sir. That’s a good gentleman.” Dickens patted the young lady’s palm, his fingers reluctant to release her, feeling the final, parting pressure from her thin, pale, perfectly manicured fingers in return. His mind pushed away the very real but totally inappropriate sense of there being something physically exciting in such intimate contact with a woman whose acquaintance he had not yet made and whose face he had not yet seen. He said, “You’ll be out of all of this and safe with us in a moment, my dear” and surrendered her hand. Then he crawled backwards on all fours, clearing the way for the workmen and feeling the marsh moistness seeping up through the knees of his trousers. “Now!” cried the doctor, kneeling where Dickens had been a moment before. “Put your backs into it, boys!” The four burly guards literally put their backs into it, first lifting with their pry bars and then setting their backs against the ragged wall of collapsed flooring that now became a heavy pyramid of wood. The cone of darkness widened a bit beneath them. Sunlight illuminated the wreckage. They gasped as they strained to hold the debris up and then one of the men gasped again. “Oh, Christ!” cried someone. The doctor seemed to leap back as if he had touched an electrified wire. Dickens crawled forward to offer his help and finally saw into the space. There was no woman, no girl. Only a bare arm severed just below the shoulder lay in the tiny open circle amidst the debris. The knob of bone looked very white in the filtered afternoon light.

Everyone shouted. More men arrived. Instructions were repeated. The guards used their axes and iron bars to pry open the wreckage, carefully at first and then with a terrible, almost wilfully destructive abandon. The rest of the young woman’s body simply was not there. There were no complete bodies anywhere in this pile of wreckage, only mismatched tatters of torn clothing and random bits of flesh and gouged bone. There was not so much as an identifiable scrap of her dress left behind. There was only the pale arm ending in the bloodless and tightly curled and now motionless fingers. Without another word, Dr Morris turned and walked away, joining other rescuers milling around other victims. Dickens got to his feet, blinked, licked his lips, and reached for his flask of brandy. It tasted of copper. He realised that it was empty and that he was tasting only the blood left on it from some of the victims to whom he had offered it. He looked around and around for his top hat and then saw that he was wearing it. River water from it had soaked his hair and dripped down his collar. More rescuers and onlookers were arriving. Dickens judged that he could be of little further help there. Slowly, awkwardly, he climbed the steep riverbank up to the railbed where the intact carriages now sat empty. Ellen and Mrs Ternan were sitting in the shade on some stacked rail ties, calmly drinking water from teacups someone had brought them. Dickens started to reach for Ellen’s gloved hand and then did not complete the motion. Instead, he said, “How are you, my dear?” Ellen smiled, but there were tears in her eyes. She touched her left arm and an area just below her shoulder and above her left breast. “A bit bruised, I believe, but otherwise well. Thank you, Mr Dickens.” The novelist nodded almost absently, his eyes focused elsewhere. Then he turned, walked to the edge of the broken bridge, jumped with the easy agility of the distracted to the step of the dangling first-class carriage, crawled through a shattered window as easily as if it were a doorway, and clambered down through rows of seats that had become rungs on the now-vertical wall of the coach floor. The entire carriage, still dangling precariously high above the valley floor and connected by only one coupling to the second-class carriage on the rails above, swayed slightly like a vibrating pendulum in a broken hallway clock. Earlier, even before rescuing Ellen and Mrs Ternan, he had carried out his leather bag carrying most of the manuscript of the sixteenth number of Our Mutual Friend, which he had been working on in France, but now he had remembered that the last two chapters were in his overcoat, which still lay folded in the overhead above their former seats. Standing on the backs of this last row of seats in the swaying, creaking coach, the river thirty feet below reflecting darts of dancing light through the shattered windows, he retrieved the overcoat, pulled the manuscript out to make sure that all the pages were there—it had been slightly soiled but was otherwise intact—and then, still balancing on the seats, he tucked the papers back into his overcoat. Dickens then happened to look straight down, down through the shattered glass of the

door at the end of the carriage. Far below, directly beneath the train car, some trick of the light making him appear to be standing on the river rather than in it, apparently totally unconcerned by so many tons of wood and iron swaying above him, the person who called himself Drood was tilting his head far back to stare straight up at Dickens. The man’s pale eyes in their sunken sockets seemed to have no eyelids. The figure’s lips parted, its mouth opened and moved, the fleshy tongue flickered out from behind and between the tiny teeth, and hissing sounds emerged, but Dickens could make out no distinct words over the metallic groaning of the dangling carriage and the continuous cries of the injured in the valley below. “Unintelligible,” murmured Dickens. “Unintelligible.” The first-class carriage suddenly swayed and sagged as if preparing to drop. Dickens casually caught the overhead with one hand to keep his balance. When the swaying ceased and he looked down again, Drood was gone. The writer tossed the coat with his manuscript in it over his shoulder and clambered up and out into the light.

CHAPTER TWO

Iwas out of town on the day of my friend’s disaster at Staplehurst, so it was a full three days after the accident that I received a message from my younger brother, Charles, who had married Dickens’s oldest daughter, Kate, telling me of the novelist’s brush with death. I immediately hurried down to Gad’s Hill Place. I would presume, my Dear Reader who resides in my impossibly distant and posthumous future, that you remember Gad’s Hill from Shakespeare’s Henry IV. You do remember Shakespeare even if all the rest of us scribblers have been lost to the fogs of history, do you not? Gad’s Hill is where Falstaff plans a robbery but is foiled by Prince Hal and a friend who disguise themselves as robbers wishing to rob the robber; after the fat Sir John flees in terror, his retelling of the story has Hal and his accomplice become four brigands, then eight, then sixteen, and so forth. There is a Falstaff Inn very close to Dickens’s home, and I believe that the author enjoyed his home’s connection to Shakespeare as much as he enjoyed the ale that the inn served him at the end of his long walks. As I approached the home in a carriage, I was reminded that Gad’s Hill Place had yet

another claim on Charles Dickens’s emotions, one that long predated his purchase of the place a decade earlier in 1855. Gad’s Hill was in Chatham, a village that blended into the cathedral town of Rochester about twenty-five miles from London, an area where the writer had spent the happiest years of his childhood and one to which he returned constantly as an adult, roaming there rather like some restless ghost searching for his final haunting ground. The house itself—Gad’s Hill Place—had been pointed out to the seven- or eight-year-old Charles Dickens by his father on one of their countless walks; John Dickens had said something to the effect that “If you work hard enough, my boy, and apply yourself, such a mansion might one day be yours.” Then, on that boy’s fortythird birthday in February of 1855, Dickens had taken some friends to Chatham on one of his regular sentimental hauntings and discovered, to his real shock, that the unobtainable mansion of his youth was for sale. Dickens was the first to admit that Gad’s Hill Place was not so much a mansion as it was a moderately comfortable country house—in truth, the author’s former home Tavistock House had been more imposing—although after purchasing Gad’s Hill Place, the writer did pour a small fortune into renovating, modernising, decorating, landscaping, and expanding it. At first he had planned to use his late father’s dream of opulence as a rental property, then began to think of it as a sometime country home, but after the bitter unpleasantness of his separation from Catherine, he first leased out Tavistock House and then put that city house up for sale, making Gad’s Hill Place his primary residence. (His habit, though, was to keep several places in London for occasional—and sometimes secret—residence, including quarters above his office at our magazine All the Year Round.) Dickens had told his friend Wills upon purchasing the place—“I used to look at it as a wonderful mansion (which God knows it is not) when I was a very odd little child with the first shadows of all my books in my head.” As my carriage turned off the Gravesend Road and rolled up the curved drive towards the three-storey redbrick home, I thought of how those shadows had taken on substance for hundreds of thousands of readers and how Dickens, in turn, now lived within those very substantial walls that his incorrigible father, a failure in the arenas of both family and finances, had once held up to his son as the highest possible reward of domestic and professional ambition. A MAID-SERVANT ADMITTED me and Georgina Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law and now the mistress of the home, greeted me. “How is the Inimitable?” I asked, using the author’s favourite sobriquet for himself. “Very shaken, Mr Collins, very shaken,” whispered Georgina and held one finger to her lips. Dickens’s study was off the entryway to the right. The doors were closed but I knew from my many visits and stays at Gad’s Hill that the master’s study doors were always closed, whether he was there working or not. “The accident upset him so much that he had to spend the first night at his apartment in London with Mr Wills sleeping outside the door,” she continued in her stage whisper. “In case Mr Wills might be

needed, you know.” I nodded. First hired as an assistant for Dickens’s magazine Household Words, the eminently practical and unimaginative William Henry Wills—in so many ways the opposite of the mercurial Dickens—had become one of the famous author’s closest friends and confidants, moving aside such older friends as John Forster. “He’s not working today,” whispered Georgina. “I’ll see if he wants to be disturbed.” She approached the study doors with some obvious trepidation. “Who is it?” came a voice from within the study when Georgina knocked lightly. I say “a voice” because it was not Charles Dickens’s voice. The novelist’s voice, as all who knew him long remembered, was low, quick, and burdened with a slight thickness which many mistook for a lisp and which had caused the writer, in recompense, to overenunciate his vowels and consonants so that the rapid but very careful and rolling elocution sometimes sounded pompous to those who did not know him. This voice was nothing like that. It was the reed-thin quaver of an old man. “It’s Mr Collins,” said Georgina to the oak of the doorway. “Tell him to go back to his sickroom,” rasped the old man’s voice from within. I blinked at this. Since my younger brother, Charles, had married Kate Dickens five years earlier, he had suffered bouts of serious indigestion and occasional ill health, but— I was certain at the time—it was nothing serious. Dickens thought otherwise. The writer had opposed the marriage, had felt that his favourite daughter had married Charles—a sometimes illustrator of Dickens’s books—just to spite him, and obviously had convinced himself that my brother was dying. I’d recently heard on good authority that Dickens had said to Wills that my dear brother’s health rendered him “totally unfit for any function of this life,” and even had it been true—which it absolutely was not—it was a remarkably callous thing to say. “No, Mr Wilkie,” Georgina said through the doors, glancing apprehensively over her shoulder as if in hopes that I had not heard. “Oh,” came some oldster’s quavering syllable. “Why the deuce didn’t you say so?” We heard vague scrambling and scrabbling sounds and then the turning of a key in the lock—which was extraordinary in itself, as Dickens had the odd habit of locking his study when he was not in it but never when he was—and then the doors were thrown open. “My dear Wilkie, my dear Wilkie,” said Dickens in that odd rasp, throwing his arms open wide, then clasping my right shoulder with his left hand briefly before removing it to join the other hand that was enthusiastically shaking mine. I noticed that he was glancing at his watch on its chain. “Thank you, Georgina,” he added absently as he closed the doors behind us, not locking them this time. He led the way into his dark study. Which was another oddity. As many times as I had visited Dickens in his sanctum sanctorum over the years, I had never seen the drapes drawn across the bow windows in the daytime. They were now. The only light came from the lamp on the table in the centre of the room; there was no lamp on the writing desk that faced those three

windows and which was set into the small bay they created. Only a few of us had been privileged to see Dickens actually in the act of creation in this study, but all of us who had must have noted the mild irony that Dickens invariably faced the windows looking out into his garden and towards Gravesend Road but never saw anything of the scene before him when he looked up from his quill and paper. The writer was lost in the worlds of his own imaginings and effectively blind while working, except when glancing into a nearby mirror to see his own expressions while acting out the grimaces, grins, frowns, expressions of shock, and other caricature-like responses of his characters. Dickens pulled me deeper into the dark room and waved me to a chair near his desk and sat in his cushioned work chair. Except for the closed drapes, the room looked as it always had—everything neat and orderly in an almost compulsive manner (and without a hint of dust, even though Dickens never allowed the servants to dust or clean in his study). There was the desk with its tilted writing surface, the little array of his carefully arranged tools, never out of order, arrayed like talismans on the flat part of the desk—a date calendar, ink-bottle, quills, a pencil with a nearby India rubber eraser that looked to have never been used, a pincushion, a small bronze statuette of two toads duelling, a paper-knife aligned just so, a gilded leaf with a stylised rabbit on it. These were his good-luck symbols—his “appurtenances,” Dickens called them, something, he once said to me, “for my eye to rest on during the intervals between writing”—and he could no more write at Gad’s Hill without them than he could without his goose quills. Much of the study was lined with books, including shelves of false books—most with ironic titles of Dickens’s own invention—that he’d had made for Tavistock House and which now were set into the back of the door, and the real built-in bookcases that circled the room were broken up only by the windows and a handsome blue-and-white fireplace decorated with twenty Delft tiles. Dickens himself looked almost shockingly aged this June-day afternoon, his encroaching baldness, deep-set eyes, and the wrinkles and lines in his face emphasised by the harsh light from the gas lamp on the table behind us. He kept glancing at his unopened watch. “So good of you to come, my dear Wilkie,” rasped Dickens. “Nonsense, nonsense,” I said. “I would have been here sooner had I not been out of town, as I trust my brother informed you. Your voice sounds strained, Charles.” “Strange?” said Dickens with a flash of a smile. “Strained.” He barked a laugh. Very few conversations with Charles Dickens did not include a laugh from him. I had never met a man so given to laughter. Almost no moment or context was too serious for this author not to find some levity in it, as some of us had discovered to our embarrassment at funerals. “Strange is more appropriate, I would venture,” said Dickens in that odd old-man’s rasp. “I most unaccountably brought someone else’s voice out of the terrible scene of the Staplehurst disaster. I do wish that person would return my voice and take back his own. … I find this ageing-Micawber tone not at all to my liking. It feels rather as if one is

applying sandpaper simultaneously to vocal cords and vowels.” “Are you otherwise uninjured, my friend?” I asked, leaning forward into the circle of lamplight. Dickens waved away the question and returned his attention to the gold watch now in his hands. “My dear Wilkie, I had the most astonishing dream last night.” “Oh?” I said sympathetically. I assumed I would be hearing his nightmares about the accident at Staplehurst. “It seemed almost as though I were reading a book that I had written in the future,” he said softly, still turning the watch over and over in his hands. The gold caught the light from the single lamp. “It was a terrible thing… all about a man who mesmerised himself so that he, or his other self created by these mesmeric suggestions, could carry out terrible deeds, unspeakable actions. Selfish, lustful, destructive things that the man—for some reason in the dream I wanted to call him Jasper—would never consciously do. And there was another… creature… involved somehow.” “Mesmerise himself,” I murmured. “That is not possible, is it? I defer to your longer involvement and training in the art of magnetic influence, my dear Charles.” “I have no idea. I have never heard of it being done, but that does not necessarily mean it is impossible.” He looked up. “Have you ever been mesmerised, Wilkie?” “No,” I said with a soft laugh. “Although a few have tried.” I did not feel it necessary to add that Professor John Elliotson, formerly of the University College Hospital and Dickens’s very own mentor and instructor in the art of mesmerism, had himself found it impossible to make me submit to the mesmeric influence. My will was simply too strong. “Let us try,” said Dickens, dangling the watch by its chain and beginning to swing it in a pendulum motion. “Charles,” I said, chuckling but not amused, “whatever on earth for? I came to hear the details of your terrible accident, not to play parlour games with a watch and…” “Humour me, my dear Wilkie,” Dickens said softly. “You know that I have had some success with mesmerising others—I have told you, I believe, of my long and rather successful mesmeric therapy with poor Madame de la Rue on the Continent.” I could only grunt noncommittally. Dickens had told all of his friends and acquaintances about his long and obsessive series of treatments with “poor” Madame de la Rue. What he did not share with us, but which was common knowledge among his intimates, was that his sessions with the married and obviously insane lady, which occurred at odd times of the night as well as day, had made Dickens’s wife, Catherine, so jealous that— for perhaps the first time in her married life—she had demanded Dickens stop them. “Please keep your eyes on the watch,” said Dickens as he swung the gold disk back and forth in the dim light. “This won’t work, my dear Charles.” “You are getting very drowsy, Wilkie… very drowsy.… It is difficult for you to keep your eyes open. You are as sleepy as if you had just taken several drops of laudanum.” I almost laughed aloud at this. I had taken several dozen drops of laudanum before

coming to Gad’s Hill, as I did every morning. And I was overdue in sipping more from my silver flask. “You are getting… very… sleepy…” droned Dickens. For a few seconds I tried to comply, just to humour the Inimitable. It was obvious that he was seeking distraction from the terrors of his recent accident. I focused on the swinging watch. I listened to Dickens’s droning voice. In truth, the heavy warmth of the closed room, the lowered lights, the single gleam of gold swinging back and forth, but mostly the amount of laudanum I had taken that morning, lured me—for the briefest of instants —into the briefest state of fuzzy-headedness. If I would have allowed myself to, I might have fallen asleep then, if not into the mesmeric trance that Dickens would have so loved to induce in me. Instead, I shook the fuzziness away before it took hold and said brusquely, “I am sorry, Charles. It simply does not work with me. My will is too strong.” Dickens sighed and put away the watch. Then he walked over and opened the drapes a bit. The sunlight made both of us blink. “It’s true,” said Dickens. “The wills of real writers are too strong to be subdued by the mesmeric arts.” I laughed. “Then make your character Jasper—if you ever write this novel based on your dream—something other than a writer.” Dickens smiled wanly. “So I shall, my dear Wilkie.” He returned to his chair. “How are Miss Ternan and her mother?” I asked. Dickens did not hide a frown. Even with me, any discussion of that most personal and secret aspect of his life, however properly circ*mscribed it was in conversation and however much he needed to speak of her to someone, made him uncomfortable. “Miss Ternan’s mother escaped any real injury other than the shock to the system of someone her age,” rasped Dickens, “but Miss Ternan herself did suffer some rather serious bruises and what her doctor suggests was a slight cervical fracture or dislocation in her lower neck. She finds it very difficult to turn her head without serious pain.” “I am very sorry to hear that,” I said. Dickens did not say more about this. He asked softly, “Do you wish to hear the details of the accident and its aftermath, my dear Wilkie?” “By all means, my dear Charles. By all means.” “You understand that you shall be the only person to whom I shall reveal all of the details of this event?” “I will be honoured to hear it,” I said. “And you can trust in my discretion until the grave and beyond.” Now Dickens did smile—that sudden, sure, mischievous, and somehow boyish show of stained teeth from within the cumulus of beard he’d grown for my play The Frozen Deep eight years earlier and never shaven off. “Your grave or mine, Wilkie?” he asked. I blinked in a second’s confusion or embarrassment. “Both, I assure you,” I said at last. Dickens nodded and began rasping out the story of the Staplehurst accident. DEAR GOD,” I whispered when Dickens was done some forty minutes later. And then

again, “Dear God.” “Exactly,” said the novelist. “Those poor people,” I said, my voice almost as strained as Dickens’s. “Those poor people.” “Unimaginable,” repeated Dickens. I had never heard him use this word before, but in this account he must have used it a dozen times. “Did I remember to tell you that the poor man whom we extricated from that truly extraordinary heap of dark ruins—he was jammed in upside down, you see—was bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth as we searched frantically for his wife? It seems that a few minutes before the crash, this man had changed places with a Frenchman who disliked having the window down. We found the Frenchman dead. The bleeding man’s wife also dead.” “Dear God,” I said yet again. Dickens ran his hand over his eyes as if shielding them from the light. When he looked up again there was that intensity in his eyes that I confess I have never seen in another human being. As we shall see in this true tale I share with you, Dear Reader, the will of Charles Dickens was not to be denied. “What did you think of my description of the figure that called itself Drood?” Dickens’s rasping query was soft but very intense. “Quite incredible,” I said. “Does that mean that you do not credit his existence or my description of him, my dear Wilkie?” “Not at all, not at all,” I said hurriedly. “I am sure his appearance and behaviour were exactly as you described, Charles.… There is no more talented observer of individual human features and foibles either living or interred with all literary honours in Westminster Abbey than you, my friend… but Mr Drood is… incredible.” “Precisely,” said Dickens. “And it is our duty now, my dear Wilkie—yours and mine— to find him.” “Find him?” I repeated stupidly. “Why in heaven’s name should we do that?” “There is a story in Mr Drood that must be unearthed,” whispered Dickens. “If you will pardon the grave overtones of that phrase. What was the man—if man he was—doing on the tidal train at this time? Why, when questioned by me, did he say that he was going to Whitechapel and the rookeries of the East End? What was his purpose among the dead and dying?” I did not understand. “What could his purpose have been, Charles?” I asked. “Other than the same as yours—to help and console the living and to locate the dead?” Dickens smiled again, but there was no warmth or boyishness in that smile. “There was something sinister afoot there, my dear Wilkie. I am sure of it. Several times, as I described to you, I saw this Drood… if that is the creature’s name… hovering near injured people, and when I later went to attend to those individuals, they were dead.” “But you described how several of the people to whom you attended, Charles, also died when you returned to help them.” “Yes,” rasped Dickens in that stranger’s voice, lowering his chin into his collars. “But I

did not help them over to the other side.” I sat back in shock. “Dear God. You’re suggesting that this operacaped, leprous-looking figure actually… murdered… some of the poor victims at Staplehurst?” “I’m suggesting that some sort of cannibalism went on there, my dear Wilkie.” “Cannibalism!” For the first time I wondered if the accident had mentally unhinged my famous friend. It was true that during his narration of the accident, I’d held serious doubts about the description and even the actual existence of this “Drood”—the man seemed more a character out of a sensationalist novel than any human reality that could be encountered on the tidal train from Folkestone—but I had ascribed that possibility of hallucination to the same sense of shock and disorientation that had robbed Dickens of his voice. But if Dickens were imagining cannibalism, it was quite possible that the accident had robbed him of his reason as well as his voice. He was smiling at me again and the intensity of his gaze was precisely the kind that made so many first-time interlocutors believe that Charles Dickens could read their minds. “No, my dear Wilkie, I am not deranged,” he said softly. “Mr Drood was as corporeal as you or I and even stranger—in some indefinable way—than I have described. Had I conceived of him as a character for one of my novels, I would not have described him as I met him in reality—too strange, too threatening, too physically grotesque for fiction, my dear Wilkie. But in reality, as you well know, such phantom figures do exist. One passes them on the street. One finds them during nocturnal walks through Whitechapel or other parts of London. And often their stories are stranger than anything a mere novelist could devise.” It was my turn to smile. Few had ever heard the Inimitable refer to himself as “a mere novelist” and I was quite sure that he had not done so now. He was speaking of other “mere novelists.” Myself, perhaps. I asked, “So what do you propose we do to find this Mr Drood, Charles? And what do we do with the gentleman once we’ve located him?” “Do you remember when we investigated that haunted house?” asked the writer. I did. Several years ago, Dickens—as head of his new magazine, All the Year Round, that had supplanted his former Household Words after a spat with his publishers—had become embroiled in debates with various spiritualists. The 1850s had been a mad time for table rapping, seances, mesmerism—some of which Dickens not only did believe in but in which he was an eager practitioner—and other such fascination with invisible energies. As much as Dickens believed in and relied upon mesmerism, sometimes called animal magnetism, and as superstitious as I knew him to be at heart (he truly believed that Friday was his lucky day, for instance), he had chosen (as editor of his new journal) to pick a quarrel with various spiritualists. When one of his adversaries in the debate, a spiritualist named William Howitt, was giving details of a haunted house in Cheshunt, near London, to prop up his arguments, Dickens immediately decided that we—the editors and managers of All the Year Round—should set up an expedition to investigate the hauntings. W. H. Wills and I had gone ahead in a brougham, but Dickens and one of our contributors, John Hollingshead, walked the sixteen miles to the village. After some

trouble finding the house in question (luckily Dickens had sent along a repast of fresh fish with Wills and me, since he would not trust the local fare), we finally found a villa that was said to be on the property of the so-called haunted house and spent the rest of our afternoon and evening questioning neighbours, nearby tradesmen, and even passersby, but in the end we decided that Howitt’s “ghosts” consisted of rats and a servant named Frank who enjoyed poaching rabbits in odd hours of the night. Dickens had been brave enough on that outing, in the daylight and in the company of three other men, but I’d heard that on another ghost expedition, this one at night and investigating a reputedly haunted monument near Gad’s Hill Place, the writer had brought his male servants and a loaded shotgun along. According to the author’s youngest son, called Plorn by the family, his father had been quite nervous and had announced, “. . . if anybody is playing tricks and has got a head, I’ll blow it off.” And they did hear an unearthly wailing, moaning, “terrific noise—human noise—and yet superhuman noise.” It turned out to be an asthmatic sheep. Dickens restrained himself from blowing its head off. He treated everyone—servants and children all—to rum-and-water when they returned to the house. “We knew where the haunted house was,” I pointed out to Dickens this June day in his dark study. “How do we find Mr Drood? Where do we look, Charles?” Suddenly Dickens’s expression and physical stance changed. His face seemed to lengthen and crease and grow even paler. His eyes widened until it seemed he had no eyelids and the whites of those eyes glowed in the lamplight. His posture became that of a crooked old man, or a lurking gravedigger, or a buzzard. His voice, still raspy, became high and reedy and afflicted with a hiss as his long, pale fingers stabbed at the air like a dark magician’s. “To Limehoussse,” he hissed, acting out the Drood in his former tale. “Whitechapel. Ratcliff Crossss. Gin Alley. Three Foxesss Court. Butcher Row and Commercial Road. The Mint and other rookeriessss.” I admit that the hair stood on the back of my neck. Charles Dickens was first, as a lad, even before he began to write, such a mimic that his father would take him to public houses to imitate locals they had encountered on their walks. At this moment I began to believe that there was such a creature as Drood. “When?” I asked. “Sssoooon,” hissed Dickens, but smiling now, himself again. “We’ve taken such excursions into Babylon before, my dear Wilkie. We have seen the Great Oven at night.” We had. He had always been fascinated with this underbelly of our city. And “Babylon” and “the Great Oven” were the author’s pet expressions for the worst slums in London. Some of my nocturnal ventures with Dickens into these dark lanes and tenement hovels in earlier years still bothered my dreams. “I am your man, my dear Dickens,” I said with enthusiasm. “I will report for duty tomorrow night, if that is your pleasure.” He shook his head. “I have to recover my voice, my dear Wilkie. I am behind schedule

on the last numbers of Our Mutual Friend. There are other things to be seen to in the coming days, including the recovery of the Patient. Are you spending the night, sir? Your room is ready, as always.” “Alas, I cannot,” I said. “I have to get back to the city this afternoon. There are business affairs there that must be attended.” I did not tell Dickens that those “business affairs” consisted primarily of buying more laudanum, a substance which I could not do without, even then in 1865, for so long as a day. “Very good,” he said, rising. “Could you do me a great favour, my dear Wilkie?” “Anything in the world, my dear Dickens,” I said. “Command me, my friend.” Dickens glanced at his watch. “It’s too late for you to catch the next train in from Gravesend, but if Charley gets the pony cart out, we can get you to Higham in time for the express to Charing Cross Station.” “I am going to Charing Cross?” “You are, my dear Wilkie,” he said, clasping me firmly on the shoulder as we came out of the gloom of his study into the brighter light of the entry hall. “I shall tell you why as I accompany you to the station.” GEORGINA DID NOT COME out of the house with us, but the Inimitable’s oldest son, Charley, had come down to spend a few days with his father and was sent round to hitch up the basket cart. The front yard at Gad’s Hill was as tidy as everything else under the man’s control: Dickens’s favourite flower, scarlet geraniums, planted in precise rows; the two large cedars of Lebanon just beyond the neatly trimmed lawn and now throwing their shadows to the east along the road. Something about the rows of geraniums we were walking between as we approached Charley and the basket cart bothered me. In fact, they made my heart pound faster and my skin go cold. I became aware that Dickens had been talking to me. “. . . I took him on the emergency train straight to Charing Cross Hotel immediately after the crash,” he was saying. “I have paid two nurses to be with him so that he is not alone night or day. I would very much appreciate if you could look in on him this evening, my dear Wilkie, to give him my compliments and let him know that as soon as I am able to come into town again—most probably tomorrow—I will look in on him myself. If the nurses tell you that his injuries have worsened in any way, I would take it as a personal favour if you would send a messenger out to Gad’s Hill with the information as soon as possible.” “Of course, Charles,” I said. I dimly realised that he must have been talking about the young man he had helped extricate from the wreckage at Staplehurst and then had personally put up in the hotel at Charing Cross. A young man named Dickenson. Edmond or Edward Dickenson, I seemed to recall. A rather extraordinary coincidence when one thinks about it. As we came down the drive and away from the scarlet geraniums, the sense of panic left me as quickly and curiously as it had arrived. The cart was small but Dickens insisted on squeezing into it with Charley and me as the

young man urged the pony out to Gravesend and then on to the Rochester Road towards Higham Station. We had enough time. At first Dickens was at ease, chatting with me about small publishing details at All the Year Round, but as the pony and cart picked up speed, moving along with carriages on the road—the Higham Station almost within sight—I saw the writer’s face, still sun darkened from his time in France, grow first paler and then the colour of lead. Beads of perspiration stood out on his temples and cheeks. “Please slow down a bit, Charley. And cease swaying the cart from side to side. It is very distracting.” “Yes, Father.” Charley pulled on the reins until the pony was no longer trotting. I saw Dickens’s lips become thinner and thinner until they were little more than a bloodless slash. “Slower, Charley. For heaven’s sake, less speed.” “Yes, Father.” Charley, in his twenties, looked as apprehensive as a boy when he glanced towards his father, who was now clutching the side of the basket cart with both hands and leaning unnecessarily to his right. “Slower, please!” cried Dickens. The cart was now moving at a slow walking pace, certainly not at the steady four-miles-per-hour stride that Dickens could—and did—keep up for twelve and sixteen and twenty miles per day. “We shall miss the train…” began Charley, glancing forward at the distant steeples and depot tower, then back to his watch. “Stop! Let me out,” commanded Dickens. His face was now as grey as the pony’s tail. He staggered out of the cart and quickly shook my hand. “I shall walk back. It is a nice day for walking. Have a safe trip and please do send a communication to me this evening if young Mr Dickenson needs anything at all.” “I shall, Charles. And I shall see you again soon.” My last sight of Dickens from the back seemed to be of a much older man, not striding with his usual confident and extraordinary pace at all, but almost feeling his way along the side of the road, leaning heavily on his walking cane as he headed back towards Gad’s Hill.

CHAPTER THREE

Cannibalism. As I rode the train to Charing Cross Station I thought about that odd, barbaric word and reality—cannibalism—and how it had already affected Charles Dickens’s life. (I had no idea at that time how terribly—and soon—it would affect mine.) There had always been something in Charles Dickens’s make-up that reacted especially strongly to the idea of cannibalism and of being consumed in any manner. During the time of his public separation from Catherine and the scandal that he had done the most to publicise and bring about—although he would never recognise that fact—the writer had said to me more than once, “They’re eating me alive, Wilkie. My enemies, the Hogarths, and the misinformed public who wish to believe the worst are devouring me a limb at a time.” Many had been the time in the past decade when Dickens would invite me to join him on a trip to London’s Zoological Gardens—a place in which he always took great delight —but as much as he loved the hippopotamus family and aviaries and lions’ den, it was the reptile house feeding time that was the central purpose and destination for his visit. Dickens would not miss it and hurried me so that we would never be late. They fed the reptiles, most specifically the snakes, a diet of mice and larger rats and the spectacle seemed to mesmerise Dickens (who, a mesmerist himself, absolutely refused to allow anyone to mesmerise him). He would stand transfixed. Several times—riding somewhere together, waiting for a play to begin, even when sitting in his parlour at home—Dickens would remind me of how, frequently, two snakes would begin devouring the same rat at exactly the same time until the head and tail and hindquarters of the rodent were invisible in the snakes’ gullets, while the struggling rat was still alive, hind and forelegs scrabbling in the air even as the powerful jaws advanced on them. Only a few months before the Staplehurst accident, Dickens had confided in me that he was seeing the legs of furniture in his house—his bathtub, the serpentine table and chair legs in various rooms, even the heavy cords for the drapes—as snakes slowly consuming the tabletops and draperies and tub. “When I am not looking, the house is devouring itself, my dear Wilkie,” he’d said to me over rum punch. He also told me that often at a banquet—most frequently a banquet in his honour—he would look down the long table and see his peers and friends and colleagues filling their faces with veal or mutton or chicken, and for a moment, just for a single, terrible second, he would imagine that the utensils lifted to those mouths were wriggling appendages. But not of mice or rats, he said—of men. He said that he found the frequent illusion… unsettling. But it was actual cannibalism—or at least the rumour of it—that had changed the course of Charles Dickens’s life eleven years ago. In October of 1854, all of England was shocked to read Dr John Rae’s report on what he had discovered during his search for the missing Franklin Expedition. If you have never heard of the Franklin Expedition, Dear Reader from my future century, I need to tell you only that it was an attempt by Sir John Franklin and 129 men in 1845 to explore the northern Arctic in two ships provided by the Royal Navy’s Discovery Service—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. They set sail in May of 1845. Their

primary orders were to force the North-West Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific north of our colony in Canada—England was always dreaming of new and shorter trade routes to the Far East—and Franklin, an older man, was a seasoned explorer. There was every possible expectation of success. The two ships were last seen in Baffin Bay in the late summer of 1845. After three or four years of no word from the expedition, even the Royal Navy became concerned and various rescue expeditions were organised. But the two ships, to this day, have not been found. Both Parliament and Lady Franklin offered huge rewards. Search parties, not just British but from America and other nations, criss-crossed the Arctic searching for Franklin and his men. Or at the very least for some sign of their fate. Lady Franklin was outspoken in her belief that her husband and the crews were still alive, and few in government or in the Navy wished to contradict her, even when so many Englishmen had given up all hope. Dr John Rae was an officer in the Hudson Bay Company who had gone north by land and spent several seasons exploring remote northern islands (consisting, it is said, of little more than frozen gravel and endless blowing snow) and the vast stretches of ocean ice into which Erebus and Terror had disappeared. Unlike the Royal Navy or the majority of searchers, Rae had lived with the various Esquimaux savages in the region, learned their crude languages, and—in his report—quoted testimony from many of them. He had also returned to England with various artefacts—brass buttons, caps, ships’ dishes bearing the crest of Sir John, writing instruments—that had belonged to Franklin or his men. Finally, Rae had discovered human remains, both in shallow graves and above ground, including two skeletons actually still seated in one of the ship’s boats tied to a sledge. What shocked England, beyond this terrible proof of Franklin’s probable fate, was that according to the Esquimaux that Rae had interviewed, Franklin and his men had not only died but had resorted to cannibalism in their final days. The savages told Rae of coming across white men’s camps where there were chewed bones, stacks of hacked-off limbs, and even tall boots with feet and leg bones still within. This horrified Lady Franklin, of course, and she rejected the report in its entirety (even going so far as to hire another ship, out of her own dwindling fortune, to resume the search for her husband). Dickens also was appalled—and fascinated—by the idea. He began publishing articles on the reported tragedy then in his journal, Household Words, as well as in other magazines. At first he was simply doubtful, stating that the report was “hasty… in the statement that they had eaten the dead bodies of their companions.” Dickens told us that he had consulted “a wilderness of books”—although he cited no specific sources—to prove that “the probabilities are all against poor Franklin’s people having dreamed of eating the bodies of their companions.” As the rest of the nation either began to believe in Rae’s report (he did claim the government’s reward for conclusive proof of Franklin’s fate) or to forget, Dickens’s denial turned to serious anger. In Household Words he launched a scathing attack on “the savage”—his phrase for all non-whites, but in this case the scheming, lying,

untrustworthy Esquimaux whom John Rae had lived with and interviewed. Dickens in our time was, of course, considered a radical liberal, but those credentials were not impeached when he spoke for the majority of Englishmen and wrote—“. . . we believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel.” It was simply impossible, he argued, that any of Sir John Franklin’s men had “prolonged their existence by the dreadful expedient of eating the bodies of their dead companions.” Then our friend did a very strange thing. From the “wilderness of books” he had consulted to support his opinion, he chose 1001Arabian Nights—one of the most important books from his childhood, as he had told me several times—to prove his point. He wrote in summary—“In the whole wide circle of the Arabian Nights, it is reserved for ghoules, gigantic blacks with one eye, monsters like towers of enormous bulk and dreadful aspect, and unclean animals lurking on the sea shore…” to resort to eating human flesh, or cannibalism. So there you have it. Quod erat demonstrandum. IT WAS IN 1856 that Dickens took his campaign against the possibility of cannibalism amongst Sir John Franklin’s noble men to a new level… and one which would intimately involve me. While we were sojourning together in France—Dickens called me his “vicious friend” on such voyages and the time in Paris “our dangerous expeditions” (although while he enjoyed the night life and occasional conversations with young actresses, the writer never availed himself of the women of the night as I did there)—he came up with the idea that I write a play, to be performed at Dickens’s home at Tavistock House. Specifically it was to be a play about a lost Arctic expedition such as Franklin’s in which the Englishmen showed courage and valour. It also, he explained, had to be a story about love and sacrifice. “Why don’t you write it, Charles?” was my obvious response. Well, he simply could not. He was beginning work on Little Dorrit, giving readings, putting out his magazine… I was to write it. He suggested the title The Frozen Deep, since the play would not only be about the northern wilderness, but about the secret depths of the human heart and soul. Dickens said that he would aid me with the scenario and “do the odd editorial chore,” which I immediately understood to mean that the play would be his and I would just be the mechanism to put words on paper. I agreed to do it. We began work on it in Paris—or rather I began work on it while Dickens flitted in and out between dinners with friends, banquets, and other social occasions—and by the end of that hot summer of 1856 we were both at his home in London. Our habits, writerly and otherwise, did not always mesh. In France, I enjoyed the Casino until the early morning hours and Dickens insisted on breakfast between eight and nine. There were more than a few occasions where I had to breakfast alone on pâté de foi gras around noontime. Also, in both Tavistock House and later at Gad’s Hill, Dickens’s work hours were between nine AM and either two or three PM, and everyone in the house, family

and guests alike, was expected to stay equally busy during that time. I have seen Dickens’s daughters or Georgina pretend to read proof sheets while Dickens was locked away in his study. At that time—it was before the second Wilkie Collins had begun to fight me for my writing desk and instruments—I preferred working late at night, so I often would have to find a nook in the library in Dickens’s home where I could smoke a cigar and nap in privacy during the day. And more than a few times Dickens would emerge unexpectedly from his study to roust me out of my hiding place and order me back to work. My work—our work—on the play continued through the autumn of that year. I had conceived of a main character (to be played by Dickens, of course) named Richard Wardour—a sort of combination of what was known about the indomitable Sir John Franklin and his second-in-command, a rather common Irish fellow named Francis Crozier—and my idea was that the Wardour character would be older, perhaps not very competent (after all, the men on Franklin’s Expedition had, apparently, all died), and a bit demented. Perhaps even somewhat of a villain. Dickens completely rewrote this idea, changing Richard Wardour into a young, intelligent, complex, angry, but—in the end—totally self-sacrificing character. “Perpetually seeking and never finding true affection” was the phrasing in Dickens’s voluminous notes on the re-creation of his character. He wrote many of the character’s monologues by himself and actually kept them to himself until our final rehearsals (yes, I was one of the primary actors in the amateur production). When visiting or staying at his home, I would see Dickens starting out or ending his twenty-mile walks through the country fields of Finchley and Neasden, rehearsing his Wardour monologues in a booming voice—“Young, with a fair sad face, with kind tender eyes, with a soft clear voice. Young and loving and merciful. I keep her face in my mind, though I can keep nothing else. I must wander, wander, wander—restless, sleepless, and homeless—till I find her!” With hindsight, it is easy to see the truth and depth of these sentiments in Charles Dickens that year when his marriage was ending (and ending by his own choice). The writer had spent his entire life waiting for and searching for that fair sad face with the kind tender eyes and soft clear voice. For Dickens, his imagination was always more real than the reality of daily life, and he had imagined this true, virginal, attentive, young, beautiful (and merciful) woman since his own youth. My play premiered at Dickens’s Tavistock House on 6 January, 1857—Twelfth Night, which Dickens always celebrated with some special programme, and his son Charley’s twentieth birthday. The author had gone to great lengths to make the experience as professional as possible: having carpenters turn the schoolroom at his home into a theatre that could hold more than fifty people comfortably, ripping out a small stage that was already there and replacing it with a full-size one in the bay windows; having a musical score composed for the play and hiring an orchestra to perform it; hiring professionals to design and paint the elaborate scenic backdrops; spending a small fortune on costumes—he later bragged that we “polar explorers” in the production could

walk straight from London to the North Pole in the authentic polar gear we were wearing; and, finally, supervising the theatrical gas lighting himself even while devising elaborate lighting effects that could simulate every hour of the odd polar day, evening, and sunlit Arctic night. Dickens himself brought a strange, intense, underplayed yet incredibly powerful realism to his essentially melodramatic role. In one scene, in which several of us attempt to restrain “Wardour” from running in anguish from the stage, the author warned us that he meant to “fight in earnest” and that we would have to use all our resources to stop him. This, as it turned out, was an understatement. Several of us were bruised and battered even before we had finished with rehearsals. His son Charley later wrote to my brother —“He went at it after a while with such a will that we really did have to fight, like prizefighters, and as for me, being the leader of the attacking party and bearing the brunt of the fray, I was tossed in all directions and have been black and blue two or three times before the first night of the performance arrived.” On opening night, our mutual friend John Forster read the prologue that Dickens had written at the last moment, attempting, as he so often did in his books, to be understood by all as he compared the hidden depths of the human heart to the terrible and frozen depths of the Arctic North— that the secrets of the vast Profound Within us, an exploring hand may sound, Testing the region of the ice-bound soul, Seeking the passage at its northern pole, Soft’ning the horrors of its wintry deep, Melting the surface of that “Frozen Deep” THE TRAIN HAD COME into London, but I did not go on to Charing Cross. Not yet. The bane of my life was—is, ever shall be—rheumatical gout. Sometimes it is in my leg. More often it moves to my head, frequently lodging like a hot iron spike behind my right eye. I deal with this constant pain (and it is constant) through strength of personality. And opium taken in the form of laudanum. This day, before continuing with the errand on which Dickens had sent me, I took a cab from the station—I was too uncomfortable to walk farther—to a small chemist’s shop around the corner from my home. The chemist there (as with certain others within the city and elsewhere) knew of my battle with this pain and sold me ameliorative medicine in quantities generally reserved for physicians, or—to be specific—laudanum by the jug. I would venture the guess, Dear Reader, that laudanum is still used in your future day (unless medical science has come up with a common remedy even more efficacious), but in case it is not, let me describe the drug to you. Laudanum is simply tincture of opium distilled in alcohol. Before I began buying it in large quantities, I would—following my physician and friend Frank Beard’s advice— simply apply four drops of opium into a half- or full glass of red wine. Then it became eight drops. Then eight or ten drops twice a day with wine. Finally, I discovered that pre-

mixed laudanum, as much opium as alcohol, it seems, was more effective on such unrelenting pain. In the past months I had begun what would become a lifelong habit of ingesting pure laudanum from a glass or from the jug itself. I confess that when I once drank such a full glass at home in front of the famous surgeon Sir William Fergusson—a person whom I certainly thought would understand the necessity for it—the doctor exclaimed that such an amount taken at once should have and could have killed everyone at the table. (I had eight male guests and one woman there that night.) After that incident, I have kept the amount of medicine of which I partake a secret, but not the fact of my general use of the blessed drug. Please understand, Dear Reader of my posthumous future, that everyone in my day uses laudanum. Or almost everyone. My father, who distrusted all medicines, in his last days consumed huge quantities of Battley’s Drops, a powerful form of opium. (And I am certain that the pain from my rheumatoid gout has been at least the equal, if not worse, than his deathbed pains.) I remember the poet Coleridge, a close friend of my parents, weeping at our home because of his dependency upon opium and I remember my mother’s warnings to him. But also, as I have reminded the few friends who had the bad manners to become censorious about my own dependency on this important medicine, Sir Walter Scott used great quantities of laudanum while writing The Bride of Lammermoor, while such contemporaries of Dickens’s and mine as our close friend Bulwer-Lytton and De Quincey used far greater quantities than I. That afternoon I returned to my home—one of my two homes—at 9 Melcombe Place, off Dorset Square, knowing that Caroline and her daughter, Harriet, would be out, and secreted the new jug of laudanum, but not before drinking two full glasses of it. Within minutes I was my real self again… or as close to my real self as I could be while such pain from rheumatoid gout still battered at the windows and scratched at the door of my corporeal self. At least the background noise of pain was diminished enough by the opiate so that I could concentrate again. I took a carriage to Charing Cross. THE FROZEN DEEP had been a great success. The first act was set in Devon, where beautiful Clara Burnham—played by Dickens’s more attractive daughter, Mary (known as Mamie)—is haunted by fears for her dashing fiancé, Frank Aldersley (played by me, in the earliest days of my current beard). Aldersley has been away on a polar expedition, sent, as Sir John Franklin’s real-life expedition had been, to force the North-West Passage, and both ships—the HMS Wanderer and HMS Sea-mew—have not been sighted for more than two years. Clara knows that Frank’s commander on the expedition is Captain Richard Wardour, whose proposal Clara has rejected. Wardour does not know the identity of the rival who succeeded him in Clara’s love, but has sworn to kill the man on sight. My character, Frank Aldersley, is, in turn, totally ignorant of Richard Wardour’s love for his fiancée. Knowing that the two ships are almost certainly frozen in together somewhere in the Arctic ice, Clara is agonised at the thought that some accident will reveal her two lovers’

identities to one another. So poor Clara is not only in terror of what the Arctic, its weather, beasts, and savages, may do to her beloved, but is in even greater terror of what Richard Wardour might do to her darling Frank should he discover the truth. Clara’s anxieties are not allayed when her nurse, Esther, who has the Second Sight, shares her bloody vision in the crimson Devon sunset. (As I mentioned earlier, Dickens went to great pains to create lighting effects in his little schoolroom theatre at Tavistock House that realistically depicted sunlight at all hours of the day.) “I see the lamb in the grasp of the Lion…” gasps Nurse Esther in the trance of her Second Sight. “Your bonnie bird alone with the hawk—I see you and all around you crying… Bluid! The stain is on you—Oh, my bairn, my bairn—the stain of that bluid is on you!” THE YOUNG MAN’S NAME was Edmond Dickenson. Dickens had said that he’d provided a room at Charing Cross Hotel for the injured man, but in truth it was a large suite. An older and not-very-attractive nurse had set up her station in the outer sitting room and showed me in to the invalid. From Dickens’s description of the difficult extrication of young Dickenson from the wreckage, not to mention the author’s melodramatic narration of blood, clothes torn away, and the young fellow’s need for medical assistance, I expected to find a nearcorpse swathed in bandages and rigidified with splints and casts elevated by cables and counterweights. But young Dickenson, although in pyjamas and a dressing-gown, was sitting up and reading in bed when I was shown in. The room’s dresser and bedside tables were bedecked with flowers, including a vase of crimson geraniums that brought back some of the sense of panic I had felt in the yard at Gad’s Hill Place. Dickenson was a soft young man, perhaps twenty or twenty-one, with a round face, pink cheeks, sparse sandy hair that was already receding from his pink forehead, blue eyes, and ears as delicate as tiny seashells. His pyjamas looked to be made of silk. I introduced myself, explained that I was Mr Dickens’s envoy sent to enquire into the young gentleman’s state of health, and was quite surprised when Dickenson blurted out, “Oh, Mr Collins! I am deeply honoured to have such a famous writer visit me! I so greatly enjoyed your The Woman in White that was serialised in All the Year Round immediately after Mr Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities ended.” “I thank you, sir,” I said, almost colouring at the compliment. It is true that The Woman in White had been a huge success, selling more copies of the magazine than most of Dickens’s serialised tales. “I am very pleased that you enjoyed my modest efforts,” I added. “Oh, yes, it was wonderful,” said young Dickenson. “You are so fortunate to have someone like Mr Dickens as your mentor and editor.” I stared at the young man for a long moment, but my stony silence went unnoticed as Dickenson babbled on about the Staplehurst crash, the awfulness of it all, and then about Charles Dickens’s incredible courage and generosity. “I would not, I am sure, be alive today if it had not been for Mr Dickens finding me in the wreckage—I was quite

hanging upside down and found it all but impossible to breathe, Mr Collins!—and he never left me until he’d summoned guards to help pull me from the terrible wreckage and supervised their carrying me up to the railbed where the injured were being prepared for evacuation. Mr Dickens stayed by my side during the ride to London on the emergency train that afternoon and—as you see!—insisted on putting me up in this wonderful room and providing nursing until I shall be fully recovered.” “You are not seriously injured?” I enquired in a perfectly flat tone. “Oh, no, not at all! Merely bruised all black and blue around the legs and hips and left arm and chest and back. I could not walk three days ago after the accident, but today the nurse helped me to the toilet and back and it was a completely successful expedition!” “I am so glad,” I said. “I expect to go home tomorrow,” burbled the young man. “I shall never be able to repay Mr Dickens for his generosity. He truly saved my life! And he has invited me to his home at Gad’s Hill for Christmas and New Year’s!” It was 12 June. “How wonderful,” I said. “I am sure that Charles appreciates the value of the life he helped save. You say you go home tomorrow, Mr Dickenson… may I enquire as to where that home is?” Dickenson babbled on. It seemed he was an orphan—Charles Dickens’s favourite sort of human being, if one is to believe Oliver Twist or David Copperfield or Bleak House or any of a dozen other of his tales—but had been left money in a Jarndyce-and-Jarndyce manner of labyrinthine inheritance, and had been appointed an elderly Guardian who lived in a Northamptonshire estate that might well have been the model for Chesney Wold. Young Dickenson, however, preferred to live in modest rented rooms in London, where he lived alone, had few (if any) friends, and studied the occasional instrument and apprenticed for the occasional profession, with no real intention of mastering or practising in any of them. The interest on his inheritance allowed him to purchase food and books and theatre tickets and the occasional holiday to the seashore—his time was his own. We discussed theatre and literature. It turned out that young Mr Dickenson, a subscriber to Dickens’s previous journal Household Words as well as to the current All the Year Round, had read and admired my story “A Terribly Strange Bed” that had appeared in the former magazine. “Good heavens, man,” I exclaimed. “That was published almost fifteen years ago! You must have been all of five years old!” Young Dickenson’s blush began in his shell-like ears, migrated quickly to his cheeks, and rose like pink climbing ivy through the vault of his temples to the long curve of his pale forehead. I could see the blush spreading even under his thinning, straw-coloured hair. “Seven years old, actually, sir,” said the orphan. “But my Guardian, Mr Watson—a very liberal M.P.—had leather-bound copies of both Punch and such journals as Household Words in his library. My current devotion to the written word was formed and confirmed in that room.” “Really,” I said. “How interesting.”

My joining the staff of Household Words years earlier had meant another five pounds a week to me. It seems to have meant the world to this orphan. He could almost recite my book After Dark from memory and was dutifully amazed when I told him that the separate tales which formed the volume had been based in large part upon my mother’s diaries and a more formal manuscript in which she had reminisced about being the wife of a famous painter. It turned out that the eleven-year-old Edmond Dickenson had travelled up to Manchester with his Guardian to see The Frozen Deep in the huge New Free Trade Hall there on 21 August, 1857. ACT II OFTHE FROZEN DEEP is set in the Arctic regions where Dickens-Wardour and Wardour’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Commander Crayford, are discussing their slim chances of survival in the face of cold and starvation. “Never give in to your stomach, and your stomach will end in giving in to you,” the veteran explorer advises Crayford. Such determination—a will that would accept no master—came not only from the pen of Charles Dickens, but from his very soul. Wardour goes on to explain that he loves the Arctic wastes precisely “because there are no women here.” In the same act he exclaims—“I would have accepted anything that set work and hardship and danger, like Ramparts, between my misery and me… Hard work, Crayford, that is the true Elixir of our life!” And finally, “. . . the hopeless wretchedness in this world, is the wretchedness that women cause.” It was, nominally, my play. My name was listed on the playbill as author (as well as my listing there as an actor), but almost all of Richard Wardour’s lines had been written or rewritten by Charles Dickens. These were not the words of a man happy in his marriage. At the end of Act II, two men are sent out across the ice as the trapped crews’ last chance for rescue. These men must cross a thousand miles of the frozen deep. The two men, of course, are Richard Wardour and his successful rival for Clara Burnham’s hand, Frank Aldersley. (Perhaps I have already mentioned that Dickens and I both grew beards for our roles.) The second act ends with Wardour discovering that the injured, starved, weakened Aldersley is his worst enemy, the man he swore to murder on sight. DID YOU HAPPEN TO SEE the gentleman named Drood at the accident site?” I asked Edmond Dickenson when the young fool finally stopped talking and the nurse was out of the room. “A gentleman named Drood, sir? In faith, I am not sure. There were so many gentlemen there helping me, and—other than our wonderful Mr Dickens—I learned so few of their names.” “It seems this gentleman has a rather memorable appearance,” I said and listed some specifics of Dickens’s description of our Phantom: the black silk cape and top hat, the missing fingers and eyelids and attenuated nose, the pallor and baldness and brittle fringe of hair, the terrible stare, his odd way of seeming to glide rather than walk, the

sibilant hiss and foreign accent in his speech. “Oh, good heavens, no,” cried young Dickenson. “I surely would have remembered seeing or hearing such a man.” Then his gaze seemed to turn inward, much as Dickens’s had several times in his darkened study. “Even in spite of the incredibly terrible sights and sounds everywhere around me that day,” he added. “Yes, I am sure,” I said, resisting the impulse to tap the bedclothes above his bruised leg in a minor show of sympathy. “So you’ve never heard the name Drood or heard others talking about him… on the train that day, perhaps?” “Not to my knowledge, Mr Collins,” said the young man. “Is it of some importance to Mr Dickens to find the man? I would do anything for Mr Dickens, if it were in my power.” “Yes, I am sure you would, Mr Dickenson,” I said. This time I did tap at his knee under the blankets. “Mr Dickens specifically charged me with asking you if there were any additional service that he might offer,” I said and checked my watch. “Any want or lack or pain that the nurses or our mutual friend might remedy?” “Nothing at all,” said Dickenson. “Tomorrow I should be able to walk well enough to leave this hotel and begin living on my own again. I do have a cat, you know.” He laughed softly. “Or rather, she has me. Although, as is the nature of so many of her species, she comes and goes at will, hunts for her own meals, and certainly will not be inconvenienced by my absence.” Again there came that sense of his gaze turning inward, staring at the death and dying at Staplehurst just three days earlier. “Actually, puss* would not be unduly inconvenienced had I died. No one would have missed me.” “Your guardian?” I prompted, not wishing to bring on a torrent of self-pity. Dickenson laughed easily. “My current Guardian, a gentleman of the law who had known my grandfather, would have mourned my passing, Mr Collins, but our… relationship… is more of a business nature. puss* is about the only friend I have in London. Or elsewhere.” I nodded briskly. “I shall check on you again in the morning, Mr Dickenson.” “Oh, but there is no need…” “Our mutual friend Charles Dickens feels otherwise,” I said quickly. “And, his health permitting, he may come tomorrow to see you and enquire in person about your recovery.” The boy blushed again. It was not unbecoming, although it did make him somehow appear all the softer and sillier in the late-afternoon June sunlight filtering in through the hotel drapes and curtains. Nodding and fetching my walking stick, I left young Edmond Dickenson and went out through the sitting room past the silent nurse. ACT III OFTHE FROZEN DEEP opens with Clara Burnham travelling to Newfoundland to search for news (much as the real Lady Franklin had hired her own ships and gone to the Far North with her niece Sophia Cracroft in search of her husband, Sir John). Into a remote ice cavern along that coast staggers a starved, exhausted man

just escaped from the frozen sea. Clara sees that it is Wardour, and there are hysterical accusations that he has murdered—and perhaps eaten? the audience wonders—her fiancé, Frank Aldersley. Wardour—Dickens—rushes out and returns with Aldersley— me, in ragged clothes that left me more naked than not—in his arms and alive. “Often,” gasps Wardour, “in supporting Aldersley through snow-drifts and ice-floes, have I been tempted to leave him sleeping.” Delivering that line, Dickens… Richard Wardour… collapses, his exertions, starvation, and exhaustion from keeping his rival alive on the ice for so long finally catching up to him. Wardour manages to say, “My sister, Clara!—Kiss me, sister, kiss me before I die!” He then dies in Clara’s arms with Clara’s kiss upon his cheek and Clara’s tears streaming down his face. At our dress rehearsal, I was tempted to vomit on stage. But during all four performances at Tavistock House, I found myself weeping and heard myself whispering, “This is an awful thing.” You may, Dear Reader, interpret that in any way you wish. Dickens’s performances were powerful and… strange. William Makepeace Thackeray, one of our attendees the night of the first performance, later remarked of Dickens—“If that man would now go upon the stage, he would make his £20,000 a year.” This was wild hyperbole in 1857, but by the time of the Staplehurst accident, Dickens was making almost that much through his “acting” in his reading tours in the United States and throughout England. The audiences blubbered like children during the four performances of The Frozen Deep at Tavistock House. Professional reviewers whom Dickens had invited to the opening nights professed to be deeply impressed by Dickens’s performance and his strange immersion in the role of Richard Wardour. Indeed, it was the author’s terrible intensity —a sort of dark energy which filled the room and swept all viewers and listeners into its vortex—that everyone remarked upon. Dickens was depressed after the last performance of The Frozen Deep. He wrote to me of the “sad sounds” of the workmen “battering and smashing down” his schoolroom theatre. There was a clamour for Dickens to stage more performances of my play; many urged him to do so for profit. It was rumoured, correctly it turned out, that the Queen herself wanted to attend a performance. But Dickens resisted all such suggestions. None of us in the amateur production wished to be mere performers for money. But in June of that year, 1857, that fateful year in which Dickens’s domestic life would change forever, the writer was shocked to hear of the death of our mutual friend Douglas Jerrold. Dickens told me that just a few nights before the other author’s death, the Inimitable had dreamt that Jerrold had given him copy to edit but Dickens could not make sense of the words. This is every writer’s nightmare—the sudden breakdown of meaning in the language that sustains and supports us—but Dickens found it interesting that he had dreamt it just as Jerrold was, unbeknownst to any of us, on his deathbed. Knowing that Jerrold’s family would be left in dire financial circ*mstances (Douglas was much more the reformer radical than Dickens, despite his posturing, would ever be),

Dickens came up with the idea for a series of benefit performances: T. P. Cooke in revivals of Jerrold’s two plays, Black Eyed Susan and Rent Day; Thackeray and the war correspondent William Howard Russell giving lectures; and Dickens himself doing afternoon and night readings. And, of course, a return of The Frozen Deep. Dickens’s goal was to raise £2,000 for Jerrold’s family. The Gallery of Illustration on Regent Street was rented for the series of performances. The Queen—always careful not to appear at a benefit for a single charity—not only gave her name in support of this effort, but sent word that she was intensely eager to see The Frozen Deep and suggested that Mr Dickens select a room in Buckingham Palace in which he could provide a private performance for Her Majesty and her guests. Dickens refused. His reasons were clear enough: his daughters, who appeared in the play, had never been introduced at Court and he did not want their first appearance before the Queen at the palace to be as actresses. He proposed that Her Majesty should come to a private performance at the Gallery of Illustration a week before subscription night and that she should bring her own gallery of guests. Faced with the iron will of the Indomitable, the Queen agreed. We performed before her on 4 July, 1857. Her Majesty’s guests included Prince Albert, the king of Belgium, and the prince of Prussia. It was especially in honour of Prince Albert that Dickens had directed the entrance and stairs to be decked with flowers. Some of us, I confess, were apprehensive that such a royal audience might not react with the passions of those who had been our audience at Tavistock House the previous winter, but Dickens assured us that the Queen and her guests would laugh at the funny parts, weep at the sad parts, blow their noses exactly when our more common audiences had, and that—during the farce called Uncle John presented after The Frozen Deep— some of the royalty would bray like donkeys. He was, as usual, correct on all counts. After our performance, the delighted Queen invited Dickens to come forth to accept her thanks. He refused. The reason he sent this time—“I could not appear before Her Majesty tired and hot, with the paint still upon my face.” Actually, of course, it was more than the actors’ paint that kept Dickens from allowing himself to be presented to Her Majesty and her guests. You see, our romantic farce of Uncle John had left Dickens in his Uncle John costume of a floppy dressing gown, a silly wig, and a red nose. There was no way on earth that Charles Dickens, one of the proudest and most self-conscious men who ever lived, was going to allow himself to be introduced to Queen Victoria in that regalia. Once again, the Queen politely gave way. We offered two more performances of The Frozen Deep at the Gallery of Illustration, but though the play once again met with wild enthusiasm and ecstatic reviews from everyone who attended and its receipts accounted for the vast majority of the money raised for the Jerrold family fund, we still fell short of the £2,000 goal.

John Dean, manager of the Great Manchester Art Exhibition, had been pressing Dickens to perform The Frozen Deep at that city’s New Free Trade Hall, and—unwilling to end up with anything less than the full £2,000 he had promised the Jerrolds—Dickens immediately went up to Manchester to do a reading of A Christmas Carol there and to inspect the hall, which could easily hold two thousand people. He decided at once that it would be a perfect venue for the play but that it was simply too large for the meagre acting skills of his daughters and sister-in-law Georgina, all of whom had central roles. (It never occurred to Charles Dickens that he might not be up to the professional requirements of such a huge hall and such large audiences. Dickens knew from experience that he could master crowds of three thousand and more with his magnetic influence.) He would need to hire and rehearse some professional actresses. (Mark Lemon, Dickens’s son Charley, and I were allowed to stay in the troupe, but the Inimitable began rehearsing us all as if we had never performed the play before.) Alfred Wigan, manager of the Olympic Theatre, suggested to Dickens two promising young actresses whom he had recently hired for his theatre—Fanny and Maria Ternan— and with Dickens’s rapid approval (he and I had already seen both of these Ternan girls, their younger sister, and veteran-actress mother perform in other plays), Wigan approached them to see if they would be interested in appearing in The Frozen Deep. They were eager to do so. Wigan then suggested to Dickens that he might also consider the young women’s mother, Frances Eleanor Ternan, as well as the youngest and least impressive member of the acting family—just eighteen—a certain Ellen Lawless Ternan. And thus Charles Dickens’s life changed forever. AFTER LEAVING THE CHARING CROSS HOTEL I took a hackney cab part of the way home and decided to walk the rest of the way, stopping for supper at a club to which I did not then belong but at which I had guest privileges. I was angry. That impertinent young Dickenson whelp with his “You are so fortunate to have someone like Mr Dickens as your mentor and editor…” had put me in a foul mood. When, five years earlier in late summer of 1860, my novel The Woman in White had begun appearing in All the Year Round the week that Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities concluded (and I should note to you, Dear Reader, that Dickens’s character of Sydney Carton had been taken most liberally from my selfless and self-sacrificing character of Richard Wardour in The Frozen Deep—why, Dickens even said as much, allowing that the Carton character and idea of Tale of Two Cities had come to him during the last performance of The Frozen Deep while he lay on the floorboards with Maria Ternan’s— the new Clara Burnham—real tears soaking his face and beard and ragged clothes, to the point that he had to whisper to her—“My dear child, it will be over in two minutes. Pray compose yourself!”)… Where was I? Oh, yes, when The Woman in White appeared in eight-months’ serialisation in Dickens’s

new weekly magazine—and appearing to tremendous interest and acclaim, I might modestly add—there was much idle chatter and some small written comment to the effect that I, Wilkie Collins, had learned my craft from Charles Dickens and honed my skills under the tutelage of Charles Dickens and had even borrowed my narrative styles from Charles Dickens. It was said that I lacked Dickens’s depths and whispered in certain quarters that I was “incapable of character-painting.” This, of course, was pure nonsense. Dickens himself had written me a note after first reading my manuscript in which he said that it was “a great advance on all your former writing, and most especially in respect of tenderness… in character it is excellent.… No one else could have done it half so well. I have stopped in every chapter to notice some instance of ingenuity, or some happy turn of writing.” But then, of course, Dickens… being Dickens… ruined the effect by adding that he must “always contest your disposition to give an audience credit for nothing, which necessarily involves the forcing of points on their attention.” One might have responded that Charles Dickens invariably gave his audiences credit for too much and, through his self-indulgent flights of impenetrable fantasy and unnecessary subtlety, left far too many ordinary readers lost in the thick forest of Dickensian prose. To be honest with you, Dear Reader who lives and breathes in such a remote branch of my future that no hint of my candour could possibly get back to anyone who loved Charles Dickens, I am… was… almost certainly always shall be… ten times the architect of plot that Charles Dickens ever was. For Dickens, plot was something that might incidentally grow from his marionette-machinations of bizarre characters; should his weekly sales begin slipping in one of his innumerable serialised tales, he would just march in more silly characters and have them strut and perform for the gullible reader, as easily as he banished poor Martin Chuzzlewit to the United States to pump up his (Dickens’s) readership. My plots are subtle in ways that Charles Dickens could never fully perceive, much less manage in his own obvious (to any discerning reader) meandering machinations of haphazard plotting and self-indulgent asides. Impudent and ignorant people, such as this orphan-whelp Edmond Dickenson, were always saying that I was constantly “learning from Charles Dickens,” but the truth is quite the opposite. Dickens himself admitted, as I have mentioned earlier, that his idea for self-sacrificing Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities had come from my character of Richard Wardour in The Frozen Deep. And what was his “old woman in white” in Great Expectations, the much-ballyhooed Miss Haversham, if not a direct steal from my central character in The Woman in White? I SETTLED DOWN to my solitary meal. I enjoyed coming to this club because of how the chef here prepared lark pudding, which I considered one of the four great works produced by my present age. Tonight I decided to dine relatively lightly and ordered two types of pâté, soup, some sweet lobsters, a bottle of dry champagne, a leg of mutton

stuffed with oysters and minced onions, two orders of asparagus, some braised beef, a bit of dressed crab, and a side of eggs. While enjoying this modest repast at my leisure, I recalled that one of the few things I had ever liked about Dickens’s wife was her cooking—or at least the cooking she oversaw at Tavistock House, since I had never seen the woman actually don an apron or lift a ladle. Years ago Catherine Dickens had (under the name Lady Maria Clutterbuck) brought out a volume of recipes, based on what she served regularly at their home at Devonshire Terrace, in a book called What Shall We Have for Dinner? Most of her choices were to my liking—and many were visible on my table here this evening, although not in such plentitude or with an equal glory of gravies (I consider most cooking as simply a prelude to gravies)—as her tastes had also run towards lobsters, large legs of mutton, heavy beefs, and elaborate desserts. There were so many variations of toasted cheese in Catherine’s volume of recipes that one reviewer commented—“No man could possibly survive the consumption of such frequent toasted cheese.” But Dickens had. And had never put on a pound over the years. Of course, it is possible that his habit of briskly walking twelve to twenty miles a day might have something to do with that. I am, myself, of a more sedentary nature. My inclinations, as well as my chronic illness, keep me close to my desk and couch and bed. I walk when I must but recline when I can. (It was a ritual of mine, when spending time at Tavistock House or Gad’s Hill Place, to hide in the library or some empty guest room until two PM or three PM—whenever Dickens finished his writing labours and came hunting for someone to go on one of his confounded forced marches with him. Of course, it was a ritual of Dickens’s to seek me out—often tracking me by the smell of my cigar smoke, I realise now—so I was often good for a mile or two of Dickens’s long walks, which would be less than twenty minutes or so at his impossible pace.) This night, I could not decide between two desserts, so—Solomon-like—I chose both the lark pudding and the well-cooked apple pudding. And a bottle of port. And coffees. While finishing my pudding I noticed a tall, aristocratic, but very old man rising from a chair across the room and for an instant thought it was Thackeray. Then I remembered that Thackeray had died on Christmas Eve of 1863, almost a year and a half ago. I had been in this very club, a guest of Dickens, when the older writer and the Inimitable had reconciled after several years of cold silence. That breach had begun during the height of the madness surrounding Dickens’s separation from Catherine, when he was most vulnerable. Someone at the Garrick Club had mentioned that Dickens was having an affair with his sister-in-law, and Thackeray, evidently without thinking, had said something to the effect—“No, it is with an actress.” Word got back to Dickens, of course. It always did. Then a young journalist friend of Dickens’s, part of his “squad” as it was said then, a certain Edmund Yates (who, like Iago, always had a lean and hungry look, I thought), had written a truly unpleasant and dismissive profile of Thackeray in Town Talk. Deeply stung, the old gentleman-writer noted that both he and Yates were members of the Garrick and asked the club to expel the younger man on the grounds that his conduct in writing such a piece had been

“intolerable in the society of gentlemen.” In an astounding act of insensitivity towards his old friend Thackeray, Dickens had taken the young man’s part in the dispute and then resigned from the Garrick himself when the membership committee had agreed with Thackeray and expelled the journalist. So it was here in the Athenaeum Club, years later, that the breach was finally healed. I had heard Dickens describe the reconciliation to Wills. “There I was hanging up my hat in the Athenaeum,” he said, “when I looked up and saw Thackeray’s haggard face. The man looked like a ghost, Wills. He looked as dead as Marley and lacked only the chains. So I said to him, ‘Thackeray, have you been ill?’ And we struck up a conversation after the years of silence and shook hands and all now is as it was before.” This is very touching. It is also very false. I happened to have been in the Athenaeum that night, and both Dickens and I saw Thackeray trying to struggle into his coat. The old gentleman was speaking to two other members. Dickens, coming in, passed close by the old writer without giving him a glance. I was putting away my stick and hat and Dickens had already passed Thackeray and had his foot on the stair when the older author chased after Dickens, catching him on the stairway. I heard Thackeray speak first and then hold out his hand to Dickens. They shook hands. Then Dickens went into the dining room and I watched Thackeray return to his interlocutor—I believe it was Sir Theodore Martin—and I heard him say, “I am glad I have done this.” Charles Dickens was a kind and frequently sentimental man, but he was never the first to mend a quarrel. A fact that I would be reminded of soon enough. AS I TOOK A CAB HOME, I thought about Dickens’s queer plan to seek out this phantom named Drood. As I was listening to Dickens tell his story of the Staplehurst disaster that morning, I had gone through shifting opinions on the veracity of the “Mr Drood” commentary. Charles Dickens was not a liar. But Charles Dickens was also always convinced of the veracity and truth of whatever position he took on any subject and—through his telling, but especially through his own writing—he would always convince himself that something was true, simply because he said it was, even when it was not. His various public letters blaming his wife, Catherine, for the separation eight years earlier, a separation that was obviously his idea, his need, and his instigation, is a perfect example of this phenomenon. But why invent this Drood character? Then again, why tell everyone that he, Dickens, had taken the initiative to settle his long breach with Thackeray when it had been the older writer’s move to do so? The difference is that Charles Dickens’s lies and exaggerations, while perhaps not told deliberately—speaking as a novelist myself, I know that members of our profession live in our imaginations as much or more as we inhabit what people call “the real world”— were almost always promulgated in order to make Charles Dickens look better. By all objective accounts, including that of the pudgy little homunculus Edmond

Dickenson—may his bruises fester and rot and turn to cankers—Dickens had been the hero of the Staplehurst railway disaster. Adding a phantasm such as Drood to the telling did nothing to increase the Inimitable’s heroism in the telling. Indeed, Dickens’s obvious anxiety in describing the odd, almost inhuman man detracted from the Dickensian aura of heroism. So what was all this about? I had to assume that there had been a very strange personage named Drood at the wreck site and that something very close to their brief conversation and bizarre interactions as Dickens had described them had occurred. But why try to find the man? Agreed, there was a certain mystery in such an odd figure, but London and England and even our railways were full of odd figures. (Even that impertinent mayfly young Mr Dickenson seemed a character out of a Dickens novel— orphaned, with his rich Guardian and Chancery-endowed fortune, listless, aimless, given only to reading and lazing about. What extra stretch was there to believe in a “Mr Drood” with his leprous appearance, missing fingers and eyelids, and lisping utterances?) But again, I wondered as I approached my street, why try to find this Drood? Charles Dickens was a man given to much planning and careful premeditation, but he was also a creature of impulses. During his first tour of the United States, he had alienated the majority of his audiences and almost all of the American newspapers and journals with his insistence on the creation of an International Copyright. The fact that Dickens’s fiction—and most English authors’ fiction—was being blatantly stolen and published in America with no recompense whatsoever to its author evidently seemed only right and fair to the upstart Americans, so Dickens’s anger was justified. But, shortly after the tour—after the damage was done between Dickens and his original adoring audiences there—Dickens simply lost interest in the Copyright. He was, in other words, a careful man with careless impulses. At Gad’s Hill Place or his earlier homes, or on any voyage or outing, it was invariably Charles Dickens who decided on the destinations for outings, who decided on the location of picnics, and who decided on the games to be played, who decided who the captains would be, and—most frequently—it was Dickens who kept score, announced the winners, and awarded the prizes. The occupants of the village nearest to Gad’s Hill Place even treated him rather like a squire, obviously honoured to have the famous author hand out awards at fairs and competitions. Dickens had always been the boy who led the other boys in play. He never doubted that this was his role in life and he never relinquished that role as an adult. But what game would we be pursuing if Dickens and I actually sought out this Mr Drood figure? What purpose would it serve other than to gratify yet another boyish impulse of Charles Dickens’s? And what dangers would be involved? The neighbourhoods that Drood had allegedly mentioned to Dickens as they descended the railway grade to the carnage below were anything but safe areas of London. They were indeed, as Dickens called them— the Great Oven.

I WAS IN great PAIN from the rheumatical gout as I arrived home. The light from the street gas lamps hurt my eyes. My own footfalls struck my brain like chisel blows. The rumble of a passing waggon made my entire body twitch with pain. I was trembling. A sudden, bitter taste of coffee filled my mouth—not an echo of the coffee I had enjoyed with dessert, but something far more vile. There was a confusion in my mind and a nauseating sickness permeating my body. Our new home was at Melcombe Place; we had moved from Harley Street a year earlier, partly because of the greater income and literary position that The Woman in White had afforded me. (For my next novel, No Name, I received more than £3,000 for book publication and a guaranteed £4,500 if British or American serialisation was included.) When I say “our” or “we” I refer to the woman I had been living with for some years, a certain Caroline G—— and her then fourteen-year-old daughter, Harriet, whom we often called Carrie. (There was a rumour that Caroline was my model for The Woman in White—and it is true that I had encountered her running away from a blackguard in the night outside a villa in Regents Park and, running after her, later rescued her from the streets much as was the case with the character in my novel—but I had conceived the idea for The Woman in White long before I met Caroline.) But Caroline and Harriet were away this week, visiting a cousin in Dover, and—with our two real servants also gone this night (I admit to listing Caroline’s daughter as a “maid-servant” on our annual tax role census at this time)—I had the house to myself. It was true that not too many miles from this home was another house with another woman in it—a certain Martha R——, a former hotel servant in Yarmouth, now visiting London for the first time and with whom I also hoped to live in a comfortable domestic circ*mstance in the future, but I had no intention of visiting Martha tonight or any time soon. I hurt too much. The house was dark. I found the jar of laudanum where I kept it in a locked cupboard and drank two glasses, then sat at the servants’ table in the kitchen for several minutes, waiting for the worst of the pain to pass. The physik soon did its work. I felt renewed, re-energised, and deciding that I would go up to my study on the first floor and write for an hour or two before turning in, I went up the closest stairway. The back stairway, the servants’ stairway, was very steep and the flickering gaslight at the first-storey landing worked poorly, casting but the smallest circle of doubtful light, leaving the rest of the stairs in deepest darkness. Something moved in that darkness above me. “Caroline?” I called, knowing that it would not be she. Nor would it be one of the servants. Our maid-servant’s father had come down with pneumonia and they were in Wales. “Caroline?” I called again, expecting—and receiving—no answer. The noise, obvious now as a silk dress rustling, descended the dark stairway from the attic above. I could hear the careful placement of small bare feet in the darkness there.

I fumbled with the light on the wall, but the uncertain jet only flared and faded again, returning to its low flickering. She stepped into the distant perimeter of ebbing and flowing light then, a mere three steps above me. She looked as she always did—wearing an aged green silk dress with a high bodice. On the dark green silk were tiny gold fleurs-de-lis that descended in constellations to her black-banded waist. Her hair was drawn up in a bun from a previous era. Her skin was green—the green of very old cheese or of a moderately decomposed corpse. Her eyes were solid pools of black ink that glistened moistly in the lamplight. Her teeth—when her mouth opened as it did now as if to greet me—were long and yellow and curved like tusks. I had no illusions as to her purpose on the stairs. She wished to grab me and fling me down the long flight of steps. She preferred this back stairway to the wider, brighter, less dangerous front steps. She took two more steps down towards me, her yellow smile widening. Moving quickly but not in fear or great haste, I flung open the servants’ door to the firststorey landing, stepped through, and closed and locked the door behind me. I heard no breathing through the door—she did not breathe—but there was the faintest of scramblings at the wood, and the porcelain knob turned slightly and then shifted back. I lighted all the lamps on the first storey. There was no one else here. Breathing deeply, I undid my pin and collar and went into my study to write.

CHAPTER FOUR

Three weeks passed and according to my brother, Charley (who, with his wife, Kate, Dickens’s daughter, was staying at Gad’s Hill Place), the author was slowly recovering from his terrible ordeal. He was working every day on Our Mutual Friend, meeting people for dinner, frequently disappearing—almost certainly to call on Ellen Ternan— and even performing readings for select groups. A reading by Charles Dickens was the most exhausting performance I have ever witnessed, and the fact that he was up to it, even if he collapsed afterwards, as Charley reported he frequently did, suggested the reservoirs of energy remaining in the man. It still bothered him to ride in a train but, Dickens being Dickens, he forced himself to travel into town by rail almost daily for

precisely that reason. Charley reported that when there was the slightest vibration in the carriage, Dickens’s face would turn grey as flannel and great beads of sweat would pop out on the writer’s forehead and furrowed cheeks and he would fiercely grip the seat ahead of him, but with a sip of brandy he soldiered on, refusing to show any other sign of his inner turmoil. I was sure that the Inimitable had forgotten all about Drood. But then, in July, the hunt for the phantom began in earnest. This was the hottest, most feverish time of the hot, feverish summer. The excrement of three million Londoners stank in open sewers, including that greatest of our open sewers (despite this year’s engineering attempt to open an elaborate system of underground sewers)—the Thames. Tens of thousands of Londoners slept on their porches or balconies just waiting for rain. But when the rain fell, it was like a hot shower bath, simply adding a layer of wetness to the heat. July lay over London this summer like a heavy, wet layer of decomposing flesh. Twenty thousand tons of horse manure per day were gathered from the reeking streets and dumped in what we politely and euphemistically called “dust heaps”—huge piles of feces that rose near the mouth of the Thames like an English Himalaya. The overcrowded cemeteries around London also stank to high heaven. Grave diggers had to leap up and down on new corpses, often sinking to their hips in rotting flesh, just to force the reluctant new residents down into their shallow graves, these new corpses joining the solid humus of festering and overcrowded layers of rotting bodies below. In July, one knew immediately when one was within six city blocks of a cemetery—the reeking miasma drove people out of surrounding homes and tenements—and there was always a cemetery nearby. The dead were always beneath our feet and in our nostrils. Many dead bodies lay uncollected in the poorest streets of this Great Oven, decomposing next to the rotting garbage that also was never picked up. Not just trickles and rivulets but actual rivers of raw sewage flowed down these streets past and through the garbage and dead bodies, sometimes finding a sewer opening but more often simply accumulating in puddles and ponds that mottled the cobblestones. This brown water flowed into basem*nts, accumulated in cellars, contaminated wells, and always ended up —sooner or later—in the Thames. Shops and industry shovelled out tons of hides, flesh, boiled bones, horse meat, catgut, cow hooves and heads and guts, and other organic detritus every day. It all went to the Thames or was stacked up in giant piles along the banks of the Thames, waiting to go into the water. Shops and homes along the river sealed their windows and soaked their blinds with chloride, and the city officials dumped ton after ton of lime into the Thames. Pedestrians walked with perfume-soaked handkerchiefs covering their mouths and noses. It did not help. Even carriage horses—many of which would soon die from the heat and add to the problem—vomited from the smell. The air this steaming July night was almost green with the heated effusions of three million human beings’ excrement and the effluvia of the urban and industrial slaughter that was the hallmark of our era. Dear Reader, perhaps it is worse in your day, but I confess I do not see how.

Dickens had sent a note for me to meet him at eight PM at the Blue Posts tavern on Cork Street, where he would host me to a meal. The note also told me to wear serious boots for a “late-night excursion related to our friend Mr D.” Even though I had been feeling indisposed earlier in the day—the gout often is aggravated by such heat—I arrived on time at the Blue Posts. Dickens threw his arms around me in the entrance to the tavern and cried out, “My dear Wilkie, I am so happy to see you! I have been terribly busy at Gad’s Hill these past weeks and have missed your company!” The meal itself was extensive, slow, and excellent, as were the ale and wine we enjoyed with it. The conversation was mostly from Dickens, of course, but was as animated and higgledy-piggledy as most conversations with the Inimitable. He said that he hoped to finish Our Mutual Friend by early September and that he had every confidence that the last numbers would boost sales of our All the Year Round. After dinner we took a cab to a police station house in Leman Street. “Do you remember Police Inspector Charles Frederick Field?” Dickens asked as our cab rumbled towards the police station. “Of course,” I said. “Field was in the Detective Department at Scotland Yard. You spent time with him when you were obtaining background material for Household Words years ago, and he escorted us that time we toured the… ah… less appealing areas of Whitechapel.” I did not mention that I’d always felt sure that Dickens had used Inspector Field as his template for “Inspector Bucket” in Bleak House. The overly assured voice, the sense of easy dominance over obvious criminals and brigands and women of the street who had crossed our path that long night in Whitechapel, not to mention the big man’s ability to take one’s elbow in an iron grip one could not escape and which would then move one in directions one had not planned on going… all of Inspector Bucket’s rough skills had described the real Inspector Field to a “T,” as they say. I said, “Inspector Field was our protective angel during our descent into Hades.” “Precisely, my dear Wilkie,” said Dickens as we exited the cab in front of the Leman Street police station. “And while Inspector Field has gone on to retirement and new endeavours, it is my sincerest pleasure to introduce you to our new protective angel.” The man waiting for us there under the gas lamp outside the police station seemed more wall than man. Despite the heat, he wore a full coat—rather like the loose, long sort that Australian or American cowboys are so often shown wearing in illustrations for pennydreadful novels—and his massive head was topped with a bowler hat set firmly on a mop of tight, curly hair. The man’s body was absurdly wide and stolidly square—a sort of granite pedestal to the square block of stone that was his head and face. His eyes were small, his nose a blunt rectangle seemingly carved out of the same stone as his face, and his mouth appeared to be little more than a thin sculpted line. His neck was as wide as the brim of his bowler. His hands were at least thrice the size of mine. Charles Dickens stood five foot nine inches tall. I was several inches shorter than Dickens. This square hulk of a man in the grey cowboy duster looked to be at least eight inches taller than Dickens.

“Wilkie, please meet former sergeant Hibbert Aloysius Hatchery,” said Dickens, grinning through his beard. “Detective Hatchery, I am pleased to introduce my most valued associate and talented fellow writer and fellow seeker of Mr Drood this night, Mr Wilkie Collins, Esquire.” “Pleasure, sir, indeed,” said the wall looming above us. “You may call me Hib if it pleases you, Mr Collins.” “Hib,” I repeated stupidly. Luckily, the giant had merely tipped his bowler hat in greeting. The thought of that huge hand enveloping my own and crushing all the bones of my hand made me feel weak about the knees. “My father, a wise man but not a learned one, if you follow my meaning, sir,” said Detective Hatchery, “was sure that the name Hibbert was in the Bible. But, alas, it weren’t. Not even as a resting place for the Hebrews in the wilderness.” “Detective Hatchery was a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police Force for several years but is currently on… ah… leave and is privately employed as an investigative detective,” said Dickens. “He may decide to rejoin Scotland Yard’s Detective Bureau in a year or so, but it appears that being privately employed pays more.” “A privately employed detective,” I muttered. The idea had wonderful possibilities. I filed it away at that moment and the result—as perhaps you know, Dear Reader from my future, if I might be so immodest—would later become my novel The Moonstone. I said, “Are you on holiday, Detective Hatchery? Some form of police sabbatical?” “In a way as you might say, sir,” rumbled the giant. “I was asked to take a year off because of irregularities in my treatment of a blackguard felonious sort in the pursuance of my duties, sir. The press made a row. My captain thought it might be better for the Bureau and myself if I went into private practice, a leave of absence as you might say, for a few months.” “Irregularities,” I said. Dickens patted me on the back. “Detective Hatchery, in arresting the aforementioned blackguard—a presumptuous daytime burglar who specialised in preying upon elderly ladies right here in Whitechapel— accidentally snapped the worthless thief’s neck. Strangely, the thief lived, but now has to be carried around in a basket by his family. No loss to the community and all a proper part of the job, as Inspector Field and others in the profession have assured me, but some of the oversensitive Punch group, not to mention the lesser newspapers, decided to make a fuss. So it is our great fortune that Detective Hatchery is free to escort us into the Great Oven tonight!” Hatchery removed a bullseye lantern from beneath his coat. The lantern seemed like a pocket watch in his huge hand. “I shall follow you, gentlemen, but will endeavour to remain silent and invisible unless called upon or needed.” IT HAD RAINED while Dickens and I were dining, but it only served to make the hot night air around us thicker. The Inimitable led the way, setting his usual absurd walking pace—never less than four miles per hour, which he could maintain hour after hour, I knew from painful experience—and once again I struggled to keep up. Detective

Hatchery flowed along ten paces behind us like a silent wall of solidified fog. We left the wider highways and streets, and with Dickens leading, we entered into a maze of increasingly dark and narrow byways and alleyways. Charles Dickens never hesitated; he knew these terrible streets by heart from his many midnight rambles. I knew only that we were somewhere east of Falcon Square. I retained vague memories of this area from my previous expeditions into the underbelly of London with Dickens— Whitechapel, Shadwell, Wapping, all parts of the city a gentleman would avoid unless looking for the lowest sort of woman—and we seemed to be headed towards the docks. The stench of the Thames grew worse for every gloomy, narrow block we advanced into this rats’ maze. The buildings here looked as if they went back to the medieval period, when London lay fat and dark and diseased within its high walls, and, indeed, the ancient structures on either side of the sidewalk-free streets here overhung us so as almost to shut out the night sky. “Do we have a destination?” I whispered to Dickens. This particular street was empty of people, but I could feel the eyes watching us from the shuttered windows and filthy alleys on either side. I did not want to be overheard, although I knew that even my whisper would carry like a shout through this thick, silent air. “Bluegate Fields,” said Dickens. The brass-shod tip of his heavy walking cane—one he carried only on such nocturnal descents into his Babylon, I had noticed—clacked on the broken pavement stones at every third step of his. “We sometimes calls it Tiger Bay, sir,” came a voice from the darkness behind us. I admit that I was startled. I had all but forgotten that Detective Hatchery was with us. We crossed a wider thoroughfare—Brunswick Street, I believe—but it was no cleaner or more illuminated than the rotting slums on either side. Then we were back in the narrow, overhanging labyrinth again. The tenements here crowded high and close except for the few that were total ruins, merely collapsed heaps of masonry and wood. Even there, in those tumbled or charred absences, I could sense dark shadows moving and stirring and watching us. Dickens led us over a narrow, rotted footbridge that crossed a reeking tributary to the Thames. (This was the year, I should point out to you, Dear Reader, that the Prince of Wales officially turned the wheel that opened the Main Drainage Works at Crossness, the first great step in chief engineer Joseph Bazalgette’s attempt to bring a modern sewage system to London. The cream of England’s nobility and high clergy attended that ceremony. But, setting all delicacy aside, I should also remind you that the Main Drainage Works—and all future sewer systems as well as the myriad of old tributaries and ancient sewers—still drained unfiltered sh*t into the Thames.) The more terrible the streets and neighbourhoods became, the more crowded they became. Groups of men—clusters of shadows, actually—were now visible on street corners, in doorways, in empty lots. Dickens strode on, keeping to the centre of the broken streets so that he could better see and avoid the holes and reeking pools of filthy water, his gentleman’s cane clicking on cobblestones. He seemed indifferent to the murmurings and angry imprecations from the men we were passing. Finally a group of such ragged shadows detached itself from the darkness of an

unlighted building and moved to block our way. Dickens did not hesitate but continued striding towards them as if they were children come to ask for his autograph. But I could see him change his grip upon his walking stick so that the heavy brass head of it—a bird’s beak, I believe—was aimed outwards. My heart was pounding and I almost faltered as Dickens led me towards that black wall of angry ruffians. Then another wall—a grey one with a bowler hat atop it—moved briskly past me, catching up to Dickens, and Hatchery’s voice said softly, “Move along now, boyos. Go back to your ’oles. Let these gentlemen pass without so much as another glance from you. Now.” There was just enough light from the private detective’s shaded bullseye lantern for me to be able to see that his right hand had disappeared within his loose coat. What did he carry there? A pistol? I thought not. Almost certainly a leaded club though. Perhaps handcuffs. The ruffians ahead of us and behind us and to the sides of us would know. The circle of men shuffled away as quickly as it had coalesced. I expected heavy stones or at least gobs of refuse to be thrown at us as we passed, but when we moved on, nothing stronger than a muffled curse was flung in our direction. Detective Hatchery faded into the darkness behind us and Dickens continued his rapid cane-tapping march to what I believed to be the south. Then we entered the area ruled by prostitutes and their owners. I seemed to remember having come here in my student days. The street was actually more respectable in appearance than most of those we had traversed in the past half hour or so. Dim lights shone through closed blinds on the upper windows. If one did not know better, it would be easy to think that these dwellings belonged to hard-working factory hands or mechanics. But the stillness was too oppressive. On the steps and balconies and on the cracked slabs of what passed for sidewalks gathered groups of young women—we could see them by the lamplight escaping from the unshuttered lower windows—most of them appearing no older than eighteen. Some looked to be fourteen or younger. Rather than scatter at the sight of Detective Hatchery, they called out to him in soft, mocking girl-voices—“Hey, ’Ibbert, bringing us some business, eh?” or “Come in and relax a bit, Hib old co*ck.” Or “No, no, the door’s not shut, Inspector H, no neither are our room doors neither.” Hatchery laughed easily. “Your doors are never shut, Mary, although well they should be. Watch your manners now, girls. These gentlemen don’t want none of your wares this ’ot evening.” That was not necessarily true. Dickens and I paused near one young woman, perhaps seventeen years of age, as she leaned over a railing and studied us in the dim light. I could see that her figure was full, her dark skirt high, and her bodice low. She noticed Dickens’s interest and gave him a wide smile that showed too many missing teeth. “Are you searching for bacca, dear-ie?” she asked the writer. “Bacca?” said Dickens and gave me a sideways glance filled with mirth. “Why no, my dear. What makes you think I have come in search of tobacco?”

“’Cause if you want it, I’ve got it,” said the girl. “Screws and arf ounces of it, an’ cigars and all other sorts what you may want and you may well have it of me if you wish. You only ’ave to come inside.” Dickens’s smile faded slightly. He set both his gloved hands on his cane. “Miss,” he said softly, “have you given thought to the very real possibility of changing your life? Of giving up…” His white glove was visible in the dark as he gestured to the silent buildings, silent gatherings of girls, shattered street, and even the distant line of rough men waiting like a pack of forest wolves beyond the circle of pale light. “Of giving up this life?” The girl laughed through her broken or rotted teeth, but it was not a girl’s laugh. It was a bitter presage of a diseased crone’s dry rattle. “Give up my life, sweetie? Why not give up yours then, eh? All you ’ave to do is walk back up there where Ronnie and the boys is waitin’.” “Yours has no future, no hope,” said Dickens. “There are homes for fallen women. Why, I myself have helped commission and administrate one in Broadstairs where…” “I ain’t about to fall,” she said. “Unless it’s on my back for the right bit o’ payment.” The girl turned to stare at me. “What about you, little man? You look like you ’ave some life left in you. You want to come inside for a screw of bacca before ol’ ’Atchery ’ere turns sour on us?” I cleared my throat. To be honest with you, Dear Reader, I found some allure hovering about the wench, despite the heat and stench of the night, my male companions’ gazes, and even her ruined smile and ignorant language. “Come,” said Dickens, turning and striding off into the night. “We are wasting our time here, Wilkie.” DICKENS,” I said as we crossed yet another creaking, narrow bridge over yet another reeking, foetid stream, the lanes ahead of us mere alleys, the dark buildings there more medieval than any we’d yet seen, “I have to ask, does this… excursion… really have anything to do with your mysterious Mr Drood?” He stopped and leaned on his stick. “Absolutely, my dear Wilkie. I should have told you at dinner. Mr Hatchery has done more for us in this regard than merely escort us through this… unseemly… neighbourhood. He has been in my employ for some time now and has put his detective abilities to good use.” He turned to the large shape that had come up behind us. “Detective Hatchery, would you be so kind as to inform Mr Collins of your discoveries to date?” “Certainly, sir,” said the huge detective. He took off his bowler, rubbed his scalp under the explosion of tight curls, and squeezed the hat into place again. “Sir,” he said, addressing me now, “in the past ten days I ’ave made enquiries of the various railway ticket takers at Folkestone and other possible stops along the way—although the tidal express did not make no stops along the way—as well as discreet enquiries of other passengers, the guards on the train that afternoon, the conductors, and others. And the fact is, Mr Collins, that nobody named Drood or resembling the very odd description Mr

Dickens gave me of this Mr Drood had a ticket to ride or was in one of the passenger carriages at the time of the accident.” I looked at Dickens in the dim light. “So either your Drood was a local there at Staplehurst,” I said, “or he didn’t exist.” Dickens only shook his head and gestured for Hatchery to continue. “But in the second mail carriage,” said the detective, “there was three coffins being transported to London. Two of them had been loaded at Folkestone and the third had come over on the same ferry what brought Mr Dickens and… his party. The railway papers showed that this third coffin, the one what had come from France that day—no record of from where in France—was to be released to a Mr Drood, no Christian name listed, upon arrival in London.” I had to think about this for a minute. There came muted shouts from the direction of the “dress lodgers’ ” houses far behind us. Finally, I said, “You think Drood was in one of those coffins?” I looked at Dickens as I posed the question. The author laughed, almost delightedly, I thought. “Of course, my dear Wilkie. As it turns out, that second mail carriage derailed, displacing all of the parcels and bags and… yes… coffins, but it was not thrown into the ravine below. That explains why Drood was descending the hillside with me a few minutes later.” I shook my head. “Why would he choose to travel by… my God… by coffin? It would cost more than a first-class ticket.” “A little less, sir, a little less,” interposed Hatchery. “I checked into that. Cargo rates for transporting the deceased is a little less than first class, sir. Not much, but a few shillings lighter.” I still could make no sense of it. “But certainly, Charles,” I said softly, “you’re not suggesting that your bizarre-looking Mr Drood was a… what? A ghost? A ghoul of some sort? The walking dead?” Dickens laughed again, even more boyishly this time. “My dear Wilkie. Really. If you were a criminal, Wilkie—known to the port police as well as to London police—what would be the easiest and most effective way that you could get from France back to London?” It was my turn to laugh, but not with any delight, I can assure you. “Not by coffin,” I said. “All the way from France? It’s… unthinkable.” “Hardly, my dear boy,” said Dickens. “Merely a few hours of discomfort. Hardly more uncomfortable than normal ferry and rail travel today, if one must be perfectly candid. And who bothers to inspect a coffin with a week-old corpse rotting in it?” “Was his corpse a week old?” I asked. Dickens only flicked the white fingers of his glove at me, as if I had made a jest. “So why are we going towards the docks tonight?” I asked. “Does Detective Hatchery have some information on where Mr Drood’s coffin has floated?” “Actually, sir,” said Hatchery, “my enquiries in this part of town has led us to some folks who say they know Drood. Or knew him. Or have done business with ’im, as it were. That’s where we’re ’eaded now.”

“Then let’s press on,” said Dickens. Hatchery held up a huge hand as if he were stopping carriage traffic on the Strand. “I feel it my duty to point out, gentlemen, that we are now entering Bluegate Fields proper, although there is precious little proper about it. It ain’t even on most city maps, officially speaking, nor New Court, where we’re ’eaded, neither. It’s a dangerous place for gentlemen, gentlemen. There’s men where we’re going as will kill you in a minute.” Dickens laughed. “As would those ruffians we encountered a while ago, I presume,” he said. “What is the difference with Bluegate Fields, my dear Hatchery?” “The difference is, gov’ner, that them what we met a while ago, they’d take you for your purse and leave you beat senseless by the road, p’hraps even to the point of death, aye. But them what’s up ahead… they’ll slit your throat, sir, just to see if their blade still ’as an edge.” I looked at Dickens. “Lascars and Hindoos and Bengalees particular and Chinamen by the gross,” continued Hatchery. “Also Irishmen and Germans and other such flotsam, not to mention the scum o’ the earth sailors ashore a’hunting for women and opium, but it’s the Englishmen ’ere in Bluegate Fields you have to fear most, gentlemen. The Chinee and other foreigners, they don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t talk mostly, just live for their opium… but the Englishmen ’ereabouts, they are an uncommonly rough crew, Mr Dickens. Uncommonly rough.” Dickens laughed again. He sounded as if he had been drinking heavily, but I know he only had some wine and port with dinner. It was more the carefree laugh of a child. “Then we will just have to entrust our safety to you once again, Inspector Hatchery.” I’d noticed that Dickens had just given the private detective a promotion in rank, and from the way the huge man shuffled modestly from foot to foot, it appeared that Hatchery had interpreted it that way as well. “Aye, sir,” said the detective. “With your pardon, I’ll take the lead now, sir. And it might be’oove you gentlemen to stay close for a while now.” MOST OF THE STREETS we had already passed through were not marked and the maze of Bluegate Fields was even less delineated, but Hatchery seemed to know exactly where he was going. Even Dickens, striding next to the huge detective, seemed to have a sense of his destination, but the detective answered my whispered question by listing, in his normal tone of voice, some of the places we had been or were soon to see: the church of St Georges-in-the-east (I had no memory of passing it), George Street, Rosemary Lane, Cable Street, Knock Fergus. Black Lane, New Road, and Royal Mint Street. I had noticed none of these names posted on signs. At New Court, we left the stinking street, passed into a dark courtyard—Hatchery’s bullseye lantern was our only illumination— and proceeded on through a gap that was more hole in the wall than formal gateway into a series of other dark courtyards. The buildings seemed abandoned, but my guess was that the windows were merely heavily shuttered. When we stepped off pavement, the ooze of the river or seeping sewage

squelched underfoot. Dickens paused by what had once been a broad window but which now, with all the glass gone, was merely a ledge and black hole in the blinded side of a black building. “Hatchery,” he cried, “your lamp.” The cone of light from the bullseye lantern illuminated three pale, whitish, indistinct lumps on the broken stone sill. For a moment I was sure that three skinned rabbits had been left there. I stepped closer and then stepped quickly back, raising my handkerchief to my nose and mouth. “Newborns,” said Hatchery. “The one in the middle was stillborn, is my guess. The two others died shortly after birth. Not triplets. Born and died different times from the look of the maggots and rat nibblings and other signs.” “Dear God,” I said through my handkerchief. Bile rose high in my throat. “But why… leave them here?” “’Ere’s as good a place as any,” said the detective. “Some of the mothers try to bury ’em. Dress ’em up in what rags they may have. Put little caps on ’em before dropping the wee things into the Thames or burying ’em in the courtyards ’ere. Most don’t bother. They ’ave to get back to work.” Dickens turned towards me. “Still tempted by the wench who wanted to take you inside for ‘bacca,’ Wilkie?” I did not answer. I took another step back and concentrated on not vomiting. “I’ve seen this before, Hatchery,” said Dickens, his voice strangely flat, calm, and conversational. “Not just here in the Great Oven during my walks, but as a young child.” “Have you indeed, sir?” said the detective. “Yes, many times. When I was very young, before we moved from Rochester to London, we had a servant girl named Mary Weller who would take me with her, my tiny hand trembling in her large calloused one, to countless lyings-in. So many that I have often wondered if my true profession should not have been that of midwife. More often than not, the babies died, Hatchery. I remember one terrible multiple birth—the mother did not survive either—where there were five dead infants—I believe it was five, as astounding as that sounds, although I was very young, it might have been four—all laid out side by side, on a clean cloth on a chest of drawers. You know what I thought of at my tender age of four or five, Hatchery?” “What, sir?” “I thought of pigs’ feet the way they are usually displayed at a neat tripe-shop,” said Charles Dickens. “It’s hard not to think of Thyestes’ feast when encountering such an image.” “Indeed, sir,” agreed Hatchery. I was sure the detective had no idea of the classical reference to which Dickens was referring. But I did. Again the bile and vomit rose in my throat and threatened to explode. “Wilkie,” Dickens said sharply. “Your handkerchief, if you please.” After a pause, I handed it over. Taking out his own larger, more expensive silk handkerchief, Dickens carefully laid both

cloths over the three rotting and partially eaten infant bodies, weighting down the ends with loose bricks from the broken sill. “Detective Hatchery,” he said, already turning away, his walking cane clicking on stone, “you shall see to the disposition?” “Before daybreak, sir. You may count on it.” “I am sure we can,” said Dickens, lowering his head and holding his top hat as we stepped through another aperture into yet an even darker, smaller, more pestilential courtyard. “Come, come, Wilkie. Keep up to the light.” The open doorway, when we finally reached it, was no more distinguished than the last three dozen shadowy doorways we had passed. Just inside, shielded from view from without, set into its own deep niche, was a small blue lantern. Detective Hatchery grunted and led the way up the narrow black stairs. The first-storey landing was dark. The next flight of stairs was narrower than the first, though not quite as dark, since there was the dim glow of a single fluttering candle above us on the next landing. The air was so thick here, the heat so intense, and the stench so overpowering that I wondered how the candle managed to continue burning. Hatchery opened a door without knocking and we all filed in. We were in the first and largest of several rooms, all visible through open doorways. In this room two Lascars and an old woman sprawled over a sprung bed that seemed heaped with discoloured rags. Some of the rags stirred and I realised that there were more people on the bed. The whole scene was lit by a few burned-down candles and one red-glassed lantern that cast a bloody hue over everything. Eyes peeped furtively at us from beneath rags in the adjoining rooms even as I realised that there were more bodies —Chinese, Occidental, Lascar—sprawled on the floors and in corners. Some tried to crawl away like roaches exposed to a sudden light. The ancient crone on the bed immediately before us, its four posts carved with years of idle knives, its draperies hanging down like rotted funeral cloths, was blowing at a kind of pipe made of an old penny ink-bottle. The thickness of smoke and harsh, aromatic stink in the room, blended with the sewer-Thames stench wafting in through the close-slatted blinds, caused my gout-hounded stomach to lurch again. I wished then that I had imbibed a second glass of my medicinal laudanum before joining Dickens this evening. Hatchery prodded the old woman with a wooden police club he had smoothly retrieved from his belt. “’Ere, ’ere, old Sal,” he said harshly. “Wake up and talk to us. These gentlemen have questions for you, and by my oath, you’re going to answer them to my satisfaction.” “Sal” was a wrinkled ancient, missing teeth, lacking colour in her cheeks and lips, and showing no light of character other than the debauchery visible in her weak, watery eyes. She squinted at Hatchery and then at us. “’Ib,” she said, recognising the giant through her daze, “are you back on the force? Do I need to pay thee?” “I’m here to ’ave some answers,” said Hatchery, prodding her again on the rags above her sunken chest. “And we’ll ’ave them before we leave.” “Ask away,” said the woman. “But give me leave first to refill old Yahee’s pipe, that’s a

good copper.” For the first time I noticed what appeared to be an ancient mummy reclining on pillows in the corner of the room behind the large bed. Old Sal reached to a tumbler in the centre of the room, on a japan tray, that appeared to be half-filled with something like treacle. Lifting some of the thick treacle with a pin, she carried it to the mummy in the corner. As he turned towards the light, I saw that old Yahee was attached to an opium pipe and had been since we had entered. Without fully opening his eyes, he took the bit of treacle in his yellowed, long-nailed fingers, rolled it and rolled it until it was a little ball hardly larger than a pea, and then set it into the bowl of his already smoking pipe. The old mummy’s eyes closed and he turned away from the light, his bare feet tucked under him. “There’s four pennies more to my own modest coffers,” said Sal as she returned to our small circle of red light near the lantern. “Yahee, you should well know, ’Ib, is more nor eighty years old and been a’smoking the opium through sixty nor more of those years. It’s true ’e don’t sleep, but ’e’s wonderfully ’ealthy and clean. In the morning, after a night o’ smoking, ’e buys his own rice and fish and vegetables, but only after a’scrubbin’ and a’cleanin’ ’is house out and own person off. Sixty years o’ opium, and never a sick day. Ol’ Yahee ’as smoked his way ’ealthy through the last four London Fevers while those arounst ’im were fallin’ like flies, and…” “Enough,” commanded Hatchery, silencing the crone. “The gentleman’s going to ask you a few questions now, Sal… and if you value this rat hole you call a ’ome and business and don’t want to see it shut down around your poxy ears, then by God you had better answer quick and honest.” She squinted at us. “Madam,” said Dickens, his tone as easy and cordial as if he were addressing a lady visitor to his parlour, “we are seeking out an individual named Drood. We know that he used to patronise your… ah… establishment. Could you tell us, please, where we might find him now?” I saw the shock and sobriety hit the opiated woman as surely as if Dickens had thrown a bucket of freezing water on her. Her eyes widened for a few seconds, then closed in an even more narrow and suspicious squint. “Drood? I don’t know no Drood.…” Hatchery smiled and prodded her harder with his stick. “That won’t wash, Sal. We know he was a customer ’ere.” “Who says?” hissed the crone. A dying candle on the floor extended her hiss. Hatchery smiled again but also prodded her again. The club pressed against her skeletal arm, harder this time. “Mother Abdallah and Booboo both told me that they’ve seen someone you called Drood ’ere in years past… a white man, missing fingers, strange accent. Said he used to be a regular of yours. He smells of rotting meat, Mother Abdallah told me,” said the detective. Sal attempted a laugh but it came out only as a wheezing rattle. “Mother Abdallah’s a crazy bitch. Booboo’s a lying Chinaman.”

“It may be.” Hatchery smiled. “But no more crazy nor lyin’ than you, my Puffer Princess. Somebody named Drood has been ’ere and you know it and you’ll tell us.” Still smiling, he brought the end of the weighted baton down on her long but arthritisgnarled fingers. Sal howled. Two heaps of rags in a corner began dragging themselves and their opium pipes into another room where the noise, should someone be murdered, would not disturb their dreams. Dickens removed several shillings from his purse and jingled them in his palm. “Telling us everything you know about Mr Drood shall be to your advantage, madam.” “And you’ll spend a few nights—maybe weeks—not just in my station cell but in the dankest pit in Newgate if you don’t tell us,” added Hatchery. The impact of that struck me on a level that could not affect Dickens. I tried to imagine a few nights, much less weeks, without my laudanum. This woman obviously ingested much more of the pure opium than I ever had. My own bones ached at the mere idea of being deprived of my medicine. There were real tears in the Puffer Princess’s watery eyes now. “All right, all right, leave off wi’ the bludgeonings and threatenings, ’Ib. I’ve always done right by you, ain’t I? I’ve always paid up when pay-up was due, ain’t I? ’Aven’t I always…” “Tell the gentlemen about this Drood and shut your gob about anything else,” Hatchery said in his most quiet and threatening voice. He laid the length of his club along her quivering forearm. “When did you know this Drood?” asked Dickens. “Up to about a year ago,” breathed the Puffer Princess. “’E don’t come around no more.” “Where does he live, madam?” “I don’t knows. I swears I don’t knows. Chow Chee John Potter brought this Drood bird in for the first time about eight… maybe nine years ago. They smoked prodigious amounts of the product, they did. Drood always paid in gold sovereigns, so ’is credit was pure gold and all paid up for the sweet future, as it were. He never sung or shouted like the others… there, you ’ear one now in t’other room… ’e just smoked and sat there and looked at me. And looked at the others. Sometimes ’e’d leave first, long before t’others, sometimes ’e’d be the last t’leave.” “Who is this Chow Chee John Potter?” asked Dickens. “Jack’s dead,” she said. “He was an ol’ Chinee ship’s cook who had the Christian name ’cause he’d been christened, but he was never right in ’is head, sir. ’E was like a sweet child, ’e was… only a mean, vicious child if he drank rum. But never mean just from smokin’. No.” “This Chow Chee was a friend of Drood’s?” asked Dickens. Old Sal rattled another laugh. It sounded as if her lungs were almost gone from the smoke or consumption or both. “Drood—if that was ’is name—didn’t have no friends, sir. Everyone was afraid of ’im. Even Chow Chee.”

“But the first time you saw him here—Drood—he came in with Chow Chee?” “Aye, sir, he come with ’im, but I suspect that ’e’d just run into old Jack and had the old pleasant idiot show ’im the way to the nearest opium house. Jack would’ve done that for a kind word, much less for a shillin’.” “Does Drood live around here?” asked Dickens. Sal started to laugh again but then started coughing. The terrible noise went on for what seemed like an endless amount of time. Finally she gasped and said, “Live ’round ’ere? ’Round New Court or Bluegate Fields or the docks or Whitechapel? Nossir. No chance of that, sir.” “Why not?” asked Dickens. “We would’ve known, gov’ner,” rasped the woman. “Someone like Drood would’ve scared every man, woman, and child in Whitechapel and London and Shadwell. We all would’ve left town.” “Why?” asked Dickens. “Because of his Story,” hissed the crone. “His true and awful Story.” “Tell us his story,” said Dickens. She hesitated. Hatchery ran the edge of his club up the outside of her arm and lightly rapped her on her bony elbow. After her howling stopped, she told the story as she had heard it from the late Chow Chee John Potter, another opium dealer named Yahee, and yet another user named Lascar Emma. “Drood’s not new to these ’ere parts; them what knows says ’e’s been a’haunting these neighbourhoods for forty years and more.…” I interrupted with “What is this Mr Drood’s Christian name, woman?” Hatchery and Dickens both scowled at me. I blinked and stepped back. It was the only question I was to ask the Puffer Princess that night. Sal scowled at me as well. “Christian name? Drood ain’t got no Christian name. He ain’t no Christian and never was. It’s just Drood. That’s part of his Story. Do you want me to tell it or don’t you?” I nodded, feeling the blush heat the skin between the lower rim of my spectacles and the beginnings of my beard. “Drood’s just Drood,” repeated Old Sal. “Word from Lascar Emma was that Drood was a sailor once. Yahee, who’s older than Mother Abdallah and dirt combined, says he wasn’t no sailor, just a passenger on a sailing ship that come here long ago. Maybe sixty years ago—maybe a hundred. But them all agreed that Drood come from Egypt.…” I saw Dickens and the huge detective exchange glances, as if the crone’s words were confirming something they already knew or suspected. “’E was an Egyptian, and dark-skinned as all of ’is damned-to-hell Mohammadan race,” continued Sal. “Word was that ’e had ’air then, too, black as pitch. Some says ’e was handsome. But ’e was always an opium man. As soon’s ’e set foot on English soil, they says, ’e was puffing at the blue bottle pipe.

“First ’e spent all the money ’e had on it—thousands of pounds, if the story is true. He must’ve come from royalty there in Mohammadan Egypt. At the very least, ’e come from money. Or come by it some’ow shady. Chin Chin the Chinaman, the old Chinee dealer in the West End, stole Drood blind, charging him ten, twenty, fifty times what ’e charged ’is reg’lar customers. Then, when ’is own money runned out, Drood tried to work for the money—sweepin’ at crossin’s and doin’ magic tricks for the gents and ladies up at Falcon Square—but ’onest-come-by money didn’t buy ’im enough. It never does. So the ’gyptian became a cut-purse and then a cut-throat, robbin’ and a’killin’ sailors near the docks. That kept ’im in Chin Chin’s good graces and guaranteed the ’ighest-quality smoke, bought by the Chinaman from Johnny Chang’s establishment up at the London and Saint Katharine Coffee-’ouse on Ratcliff ’ighway. “Drood gathered ’round him some others—most ’gyptians, some Malays, some Lascars, some free nigg*rs off the ships, some dirty Irish, some mean Germans—but mostly, as I say, other ’gyptians. They’ve themselves sort of a religion and they live and worship in the old Undertown.…” Not understanding but afraid of interrupting again, I looked first at Dickens and then at Hatchery. Both men shook their heads and shrugged. “One day, or night it were, maybe twenty year ago,” continued Sal, “Drood went to waylay and sap a sailor; some say ’is name was Finn, but this Finn waren’t as drunk as ’e seemed nor as easy a target as Drood thought. The ’gyptian Drood used a skinning knife for ’is dark work—or maybe it was one of them curvy bonin’ knives you see up at them Whitechapel butchers, what with their cry of ‘prime and nobby jintes for tomorrer’s dinner at nine-a-half, and no bone to speak of’… and it was true, gentlemen and Constable ’Ib, that when Drood was a’finished with ’em on the docks, there was money for smoke in ’is purse and no bone to speak of for the sailor whose ’ollowed-out corpse was then dumped like so many fish guts into the Thames.…” There came a low moaning from one of the adjoining rooms. I felt the hair on my neck rise, but this other-worldly moaning was no response to Old Sal’s story. Just a customer with a pipe in need of a refill. The crone ignored the moaning and so did her rapt audience of three. “Not this night twenty years ago,” she said. “Finn—if Finn was ’is name—wasn’t no regular customer for Drood’s blade; ’e got Drood’s arm before it done ’im harm and then he got the bonin’ knife, or skinnin’ knife, whichever, and cut off the ’gyptian’s nose. Then ’e cut ’is would-be murderer open from crotch to collarbone, ’e did. Oh, Finn knew ’ow to wield a knife from his years ’afore the mast, is how ol’ Lascar Emma tells it. Drood, all slashed but still alive, yells no, no, mercy, no, and Finn cuts the blackguard’s tongue out of his mouth. Then ’e cuts off the heathen’s privy parts and offers to place ’em where the missin’ tongue had been. And then ’e done what ’e offered.” I realised that I was blinking rapidly and breathing shallowly. I had never heard a woman talk this way. One glance towards Dickens told me that the Inimitable was equally enthralled by the tale and the teller.

“So finally,” continued Sal, “this Finn—this sailor by any other name who knew ’is knife-work—cuts Drood’s ’eart out of ’is chest and dumps the ’gyptian’s dead body into the river from a dock not a mile from this ’ouse. So ’elp me God, gentlemen.” “But wait,” interrupted Dickens. “This occurred more than twenty years ago? You said earlier that Drood was your customer here for seven or eight years, up until about a year ago. Are you so dazed with the drug that you are forgetting your own lies?” The Puffer Princess squinted evilly at Dickens and showed her clawed fingers and arched her bowed back while her wild hair seemed to stick out farther from her head and for a minute I was certain that she was transmogrifying into a cat and would begin spitting and clawing within another second or two. Instead, she hissed—“Drood’s dead is what I been tellin’ you. Been dead since ’e was carved and tossed into the Thames by the sailor nigh onto twenty year ago. But ’is band, ’is group, ’is followers, ’is co-religionists—them other ’gyptians, Malays, Lascars, Irishmen, Germans, Hindoos—they fished ’is rotting, bloated corpse out of the river some days after ’is murder and did their heathen ritules and brought Drood back to life again. Lascar Emma says it was down in Undertown, where ’e dwells to this day. Old Yahee, who knew Drood when ’e was alive, ’e says the restorrection was over across the river in the mountains o’ ’orse and ’uman sh*t what you gentlemen so politely call ‘dust ’eaps.’ But wherever they done it, ’owever they done it, they brought Drood back.” I glanced at Dickens. There was something both thrilled and mischievous in the author’s eye. I may have mentioned earlier that Charles Dickens was not the man one wants to stand next to at a funeral service—the boy in the man could not resist a smile at the least appropriate time, a meaningful glance, a wink. Sometimes I thought that Charles Dickens would laugh at anything, sacred or profane. I was afraid that he would start laughing now. I say I was afraid that he would start laughing, not just because of the embarrassment of the situation, but because I had the most uncanny certainty at that moment that the entire opium den around us, all the poor wretches buried in rags and secreted in corners and hidden under blankets and draped on pillows, in all three filthy, dark rooms there, were listening with all of the attention that their drug-addled minds could command. I was afraid that if Dickens started laughing, these creatures—Old Sal first among them, fully changed into a huge cat—would leap upon us and rend us limb from limb. Even huge Hatchery, I was sure in that instant of my fear, could not save us if it came to that. Instead of laughing, Dickens handed the crone three gold sovereigns, setting the coins gently in her filthy yellow palm and closing her curled and twisted fingers around them. He said softly, “Where can we find Drood now, my good woman?” “In the Undertown,” she whispered, clutching the coins with both hands. “Down in the deepest parts of Undertown. Down where the Chinee named King Lazaree provides Drood and t’others the purest pure opium in the world. Down in Undertown with the other dead things.” Dickens gestured and we followed him out of the smoke-filled room and onto the narrow, dark landing.

“Detective Hatchery,” said the writer, “have you heard of this subterranean Chinese opium dealer named King Lazaree?” “Yes, sir.” “And you know of this Undertown that Sal talks about with such trepidation?” “Yes, sir.” “Is it within walking distance?” “The entrance is, yes, sir.” “Will you take us there?” “To the entrance, yes, sir.” “Will you go with us into this… Undertown… and continue being Virgil to our questing Dantes?” “Are you asking if I’ll take you down into Undertown, Mr Dickens?” “That I am, Inspector,” Dickens said almost gleefully. “That I am. For twice the rate we agreed upon, of course, since this is twice the adventure.” “No, sir, I won’t.” I could see Dickens blinking in amazement. He raised his stick and tapped the giant gently on the chest with the brass bird’s beak. “Come, come now, Detective Hatchery. All joking aside. For three times our agreed-upon sum, will you show Mr Collins and me to this and into this tantalising Undertown? Lead us to Lazaree and Drood?” “No, sir, I won’t,” Hatchery said. His voice sounded ragged, as if the opium smoke had affected it. “I won’t go into Undertown under any circ*mstances. That’s my final word on that, sir. And I would beg you, if you value your souls and sanity, not to go down there yourselves.” Dickens nodded as if considering this advice. “But you will show us the… what did you call it?… the entrance to Undertown.” “Yes, sir,” said Hatchery. His low words came out like someone tearing thick paper. “I will show you… regretfully.” “That’s good enough, Detective,” said Dickens, taking the lead down the dark stairway. “That’s fair and more than good enough. It is past midnight, but the night is young. Wilkie and I will press on—and down—by ourselves.” The huge detective lumbered down the steps behind Dickens. It took me a minute to follow. The dense opium smoke in the closed room must have affected my nerves or muscles below the waist, because my legs felt heavy, leaden, unresponsive. In quite literal terms, I could not force my legs and feet to take the first step on the stairs. Then, tingling and hurting all over as a limb does after falling asleep unbeknownst to its owner, I was able to take that first clumsy step down. I had to rely on my walking stick to keep my balance. “Are you coming, Wilkie?” came Dickens’s accursedly excited voice up the black stairwell. “Yes!” I called down, adding a silent God d—— n your eyes. “I’m coming, Dickens.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Imust pause in my narrative here for a moment, Dear Reader, to explain how and why I had chosen to follow Charles Dickens into absurd and dangerous situations before this. There was the time, for instance, when I followed him up Mount Vesuvius. And the more serious incident in Cumberland, where he almost got me killed on Carrick Fell. Vesuvius was just one of the minor adventures of the 1853 trip around Europe which Dickens and I shared with Augustus Egg. Strictly speaking, there were only two bachelors in that three-man travelling party, and both were younger than the Inimitable, but Dickens certainly acted as carefree and boyish as any young bachelor with the majority of his life and career ahead of him as we gambolled about Europe that autumn and winter. Visiting most of Dickens’s old haunts on the Continent, we eventually headed for Lausanne, where the author’s eccentric old friend Reverend Chauncey Hare Town-shend lectured us on ghosts, jewelry, and—one of Dickens’s favourite topics— mesmerism, and then we were off to Chamonix and climbing the Mer de Glace, where we looked down into glacial crevasses a thousand feet deep. In Naples, which I had hoped would be a respite from all the adventure, Dickens immediately insisted that we climb Vesuvius. He was disappointed, deeply disappointed I would say, that there was no fire belching and blazing from the volcano. Evidently a major eruption in 1850 had taken some of the energy out of the mountain; there was much smoke while we were there, but no flames. To say that Dickens was crestfallen would be an understatement. Nonetheless, Dickens quickly put a climbing party together, including the archaeologist and diplomat Austen Henry Layard, and we promptly threw ourselves at the smoking mountain. Eight years before our climb, on the night of 21 January, 1845, Dickens had found all the Vesuvian fire and sulphur that someone as indifferent to danger as he might ask for. It was the Inimitable’s first trip to Naples and the volcano was very active indeed. With his wife, Catherine, and sister-in-law Georgina in tow, Dickens set off with six saddle horses, an armed soldier for a guard, and—because the weather was harsh and the volcano very treacherous then—no fewer than twenty-two guides. They began their ascent around four PM with the women being carried in litters while Dickens and the guides led the way. The walking stick that the author used that evening was taller and thicker than the bird-beaked cane he was clacking against cobblestones this night in the

slums of Shadwell. I am sure that his pace that first time on Vesuvius was no slower than it was tonight on such flat ground at sea level. Charles Dickens’s response to an intimidating slope—as I have witnessed to my chagrin and fatigue many times—was to double his already too-quick pace. Near the top of the cinder cone that is Vesuvius’s summit, no one would go on save for Dickens and a single guide. The mountain was in eruption. Flames shot hundreds of feet into the sky above them and sulphur, cinders, and smoke belched from every crevice in the snowfields and rockfields. The author’s friend Roche, who had climbed to within a few hundred feet of the crater but who could not go farther towards the fiery maelstrom, screamed that Dickens and his guide would be killed if they ventured closer. Dickens insisted on climbing right to the brink of this crater, on the windy and most dangerous side—the fumes alone have been known to kill people miles below this level —and looking, as he wrote his friends later, “down into the crater itself… into the flaming bowels of the mountain.… It was the finest sight conceivable, more terrible than Niagara.…” The American waterfalls had been his previous exemplar of transcendence and awe in Nature on this world. Equal, he wrote “. . . as fire and water are.” All the other members of the party that night, including the horrified and exhausted Catherine and Georgina (who had ridden up the mountainside), attested that Dickens came down the cinder cone “alight in half a dozen places and burnt from head to foot.” The author’s remaining rags of clothing smouldered during the long night’s descent— and the descent was also harrowing. On an endless and exposed ice slope where some of the party had to rope up for safety and guides had to chip footsteps in the ice, one guide slipped and fell screaming down into the darkness, followed a minute later by one of the Englishmen who had joined the party. Dickens and the others descended through the night without learning the fates of these men. The writer later told me that the Englishman had survived; he never learned the status of the guide. Twelve years before this Drood-quest in London, Dickens had dragged Egg and me up Vesuvius, but, thank God and the volcano’s relative quiet, it was a far less taxing and dangerous outing. Dickens and Layard pressed ahead at high speed, which allowed Egg and me to rest, discreetly, whenever we felt the need. In truth, it was beautiful as we watched the sun setting towards Sorrento and Capri from our vantage point near the mouth of the crater, the sphere of the sun growing huge and blood red through the pall of smoke and vapour from Vesuvius. We descended easily by torchlight with a new moon rising above us and all of us singing English and Italian songs. This was as to nothing compared to our near-fatal—to me—adventure on Carrick Fell shortly after our last performance of The Frozen Deep in Manchester in 1857. Dickens was filled then, as he was this night in the Shadwell slums, with a terrible and unquenchable energy, arising, it seemed, from a soul-deep dissatisfaction. He told me some weeks after the play closed that he was going mad, that—if I remember his words correctly—“the scaling of all the mountains in Switzerland, or the doing of any wild thing until I dropped, would be but a slight relief.” In a note he sent me one morning after we had been dining, drinking, and discussing things both solemnly and with wild

humour the night before, Dickens said, “I want to escape from myself. For when I do start up and stare myself seedily in the face, as happens to be my case at present, my blankness is inconceivable—indescribable—my misery amazing.” And I could tell that besides being amazing, his misery was very real and very deep. I thought at the time that it had only to do with his failing marriage to Catherine; I know now that it had even more to do with his new love for the eighteen-year-old child-woman named Ellen Ternan. In 1857, Dickens announced to me suddenly that we were leaving immediately for Cumberland to get inspiration for some jointly penned articles about the North of England for our magazine Household Words. He was to call the piece The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices. Even as co-author—in truth primary author, I may tell you, Dear Reader—I have to say that what resulted was an unoriginal and uninspired series of travel essays. It was only later that I realised that Dickens had little interest in Cumberland, other than climbing that damned Carrick Fell, and almost no interest at all in writing travel articles. Ellen Ternan and her sisters and mother were appearing on stage in Doncaster, and that, I know now, was the real purpose for our wild travels north. How ironic it would have been if I had died on Carrick Fell because of Charles Dickens’s covert passion for an eighteen-year-old actress who had absolutely no awareness of his feelings for her. We took the train from London to Carlisle and the next day we rode to the village of Heske, at the base of this “Carrock or Carrick Mountain or Carrock or Carrick Fell I have read about, my dear Wilkie. The spellings are unreliable.” So it was at Carrick Fell that I fell. Dickens’s burning frustration and energy demanded a mountain, and for some reason known to no one—not even to himself, I am sure—Carrick or Carrock Fell was to be the mountain we were to throw ourselves against. There were no guides in tiny Heske to lead us to or up this hill. The weather was terrible: cold, windy, rainy. Dickens finally convinced the landlord of the rather sad little inn where we were staying to be our guide, even though the older man confessed to “havin’ never bin oop or doon that partic’lar hill, sirrr.” We managed to find Carrick Fell, its summit disappearing in the lowering evening clouds. We began to climb. The innkeeper hesitated frequently but Dickens usually pushed on, guessing at our course. A bone-chilling wind rose up around nightfall—more a mere dimming of the twilight into deeper darkness as mist and fog rolled in—yet still we climbed. We soon were lost. The landlord confessed to having no idea even of which side of the mountain we were on. As dramatically as when he played the wandering Richard Wardour on stage, Dickens produced a compass from his pocket, pointed the way, and we pressed on into the gloom. Within thirty minutes, Dickens’s city-bought compass was broken. The rain poured harder and we were soon soaked through and shivering. Darker and darker came on the northern night while we wound our way round and round the rocky fell. We found what

could have been its summit—a slippery, rocky ridge set amidst a plethora of identical slippery, rocky ridges all disappearing into the fog and night—and we started down, having not the slightest sense of which way lay our village, our inn, our dinner, our fire, or our beds. For two hours we wandered so with the rain terrific, the fog thick, and the darkness now approaching some Stygian absolute. When we came to a roaring stream that blocked our path, Dickens greeted it as if it were a long-lost friend. “We follow it down to the river at the base of the peak,” Dickens explained to the shivering, miserable wretch of a landlord and to his equally miserable co-author. “The perfect guide!” This guide may have been perfect, but it was treacherous. The sides of the gully became steeper and steeper, the rocks along the sides ever more treacherous with rain and incipient ice, the torrent beneath us wilder. I fell behind. My foot slipped, I fell heavily, and I felt something twist terribly in my ankle. Lying half in the stream, hurting and shivering, starving and weak, I had to call into the darkness for help, hoping that Dickens and the trembling innkeeper had not descended beyond earshot. If they had, I knew I was a dead man. I could not even put weight on the ankle while using my walking stick. I would have had to crawl down the streambed itself some miles to the river, then—if I somehow guessed the proper direction to the village—crawl miles more along the river’s bank that night. I am a city man, Dear Reader. Such exertions are not in my physical vocabulary. Luckily, Dickens heard my calls. He came back and found me lying in the stream, my ankle already swollen to more than twice its normal size. At first he merely assisted me as I hopped down the treacherous slope with him, but eventually he actually carried me. I knew without any doubt that Dickens was imagining himself as the hero Richard Wardour carrying his rival, Frank Aldersley, across the Arctic wastes to safety. As long as he did not drop me, I did not care what fantasies he indulged in. Eventually, we found the inn. The landlord—shaking and muttering and cursing under his breath—woke his wife to cook us some late-night supper or early-morning breakfast. Servants stoked the fires in the public room and in our rooms. There was no doctor in Heske—there really was no Heske in Heske—so Dickens iced and bound my swollen ankle as best he could until we reached civilisation. We went on to Wigton and then to Allonby and then to Lancaster and then to Leeds— continuing the charade that we were gathering material for a travel tale, even though I could not walk without the aid of two sticks and spent all my time in the hotels—and then finally went on to Doncaster, which had been our true and secret (or rather, Charles Dickens’s secret) destination all along. There we saw several plays, including the one in which Ellen Ternan had a brief appearance. The next day, Dickens went on a picnic with the family and—I am certain now—also on a long, private walk with Ellen Ternan. Whatever transpired on that walk, whatever thoughts or feelings were expressed and rejected, remains a mystery to this day, but I know for a fact that the Inimitable returned from Doncaster in a foul and

murderous mood. When I tried to arrange times at the Household Words office for us to finish our writing and editing of the weak Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices essays, Dickens sent me an unusually personal reply in which he said, “. . . the Doncaster unhappiness remains so strong upon me that I can’t write and (waking) can’t rest, one minute.” As I said, I did not then know and do not now know the precise nature of that Doncaster unhappiness, but it was soon to change all of our lives. I share this, Dear Reader, because I suspected that night in July of 1865, and I suspect more firmly now as I write this some years later, that our search for the mysterious Drood that hot, reeking night was not so much for the resurrected phantom Drood as it was for whatever Charles Dickens sought out in Ellen Ternan in Doncaster in 1857—and in the eight mystery-filled years since then up until Staplehurst. But as was true of Carrick or Carrock Fell, such obsessions can have their terrible price for other people through no planning of the obsessor: other people can end up just as injured or dead as if it had all been premeditated. WE WALKED FOR about twenty minutes through even darker and more reeking slums. At times there were signs of crowded human habitation in the sagging tenements, whispers and catcalls rising out of the thick darkness on both sides of the narrow lanes, and at other times the only sound was that of our boots and Dickens’s cane tapping on the cobblestones of those few lanes that had cobblestones. I was reminded that night of a passage in Dickens’s most recent—and still uncompleted—book, Our Mutual Friend, one of the first numbers to be serialised in the past year, in which our author has two young men riding in a carriage down to the Thames to identify a body found drowned and dragged out of the river by a father and daughter who do that daily for a living— The wheels rolled on, and rolled down by the Monument, and by the Tower, and by the Docks; down by Ratcliffe, and by Rotherhithe; down by where accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage, and to be pausing until its own weight forced it over the bank and sunk it in the river. In truth, like the dissolute young characters in the coach in Dickens’s tale, I had been paying little attention to the direction we were going; I merely followed the large shadow of Detective Hatchery and the lithe shadow of Dickens. I was later to regret my inattention. Suddenly the constant background stench changed its flavour and grew in intensity. “Pfah!” I cried to my shadowy companions ahead. “Are we nearing the river again?” “Worse, sir,” said Hatchery over his wide shoulder. “It’s burial grounds, sir.” I looked around. For some time I had been under the general but contradictory impression that we were approaching either Church Street or the London Hospital area, but this dark avenue had opened instead on our right onto a sort of field encircled by walls and an iron fence and a gate. I saw no church nearby, so this was no churchyard cemetery, but rather a municipal cemetery of the kind that had become so common in the past fifteen years. You see, Dear Reader, in our time, the almost-three-million of us in London lived and

walked above the corpses of at least that many of our common dead, and almost certainly more. As London grew and devoured its surrounding suburbs and villages, those graveyards were also subsumed, and it was to them that the hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of rotting bodies of our beloved dead were consigned. St Martin-in-the-Fields churchyard, for instance, was only about two hundred feet square, but by 1840, some twenty-five years before this eventful night, it was estimated to contain the remains of between 60,000 and 70,000 of our London departed. There are many more there now. In the 1850s, about the time of the Great Stink and the worst of the terrible cholera epidemics, it was becoming apparent to all of us that these overcrowded churchyards were creating a health risk to those unlucky enough to live nearby. Every burial place in the city was—and remains—overcrowded to the point of overflow. Thousands of bodies were buried in shallow pits beneath chapels and schools and workplaces and in empty lots and even behind and beneath private homes. So the Burial Act of 1852—a piece of legislation which Dickens had spoken for—demanded that the General Board of Health establish some cemeteries open to all the dead regardless of their religion. Perhaps you also know, Dear Reader, that until recently in my lifetime, all those to be buried in England had to receive Christian burial in parish churchyards. There were few exceptions. It was as late as 1832 that an act of Parliament put an end to the common practice of my fellow Englishmen burying suicides in public highways with a stake driven through the dead sinner’s heart. The Act—a paragon of modern thought and philanthropy—allowed the corpses of suicides to be buried in churchyards with Christians, but only if the dead one was interred between the hours of nine PM and midnight, and always then without the rites of the Church. And I should mention that the compulsory dissection of murderers’ corpses was also abolished in 1832—that enlightened year!—and even murderers may be found in Christian cemeteries in this liberal era. Many—I should say most—of those graves remain unmarked. But not necessarily undiscovered. Those men digging new graves each day or night here in London invariably sink their spades into rotting flesh—layers of it, I am told—and then into unnamed skeletons beneath. Some churchyards hire men to check the grounds each morning for chunks of decaying parishioners that have risen to the surface—especially after heavy rains—in too-eager anticipation of the Final Trumpet Call. I have seen these workers carrying arms and hands and other, less distinguishable parts, in wheelbarrows while in the pursuit of their rounds, rather like a diligent gardener on an estate will carry off fallen limbs and branches after a storm. These new interment areas were called “burial grounds” as distinct from parish “churchyards” and they had been very popular. The first burial grounds were commercial ventures (and as was still the custom in so many places on the Continent, if the family fell behind on payment on their loved ones’ graves, the bodies were dug up and tossed aside, the beautiful headstones used to pave retaining walls or walkways, and the earth sold to a more reliable customer), but since the 1850s Acts enforcing the

closure of many overflowing London churchyards, most of our new cemeteries were of the municipal variety, with separate seating, as it were, for religious Conformists (complete with chapels and consecrated ground) and a different area for Dissenters. One wonders if they were uncomfortable spending Eternity within a cricket pitch’s distance of one another. The burial ground we were approaching now in the dark looked to have been an ancient churchyard at some point—until the church was abandoned as the neighbourhoods here got too dangerous for decent people, then its structure burned down in order to raise more tenements so that landlords could squeeze more money out of immigrants with nowhere else to light—but the churchyard itself had remained and been used… and used… and used… perhaps taken over by Dissenters a century or two ago, then converted to a bury-for-profit graveyard some time in the last twenty years. As we approached the sweating walls and black iron fence of the place, I wondered who would pay even a penny to be buried here. There had once been large trees within the churchyard, but these were only calcified skeletons now, dead for generations, with their amputated arms rising towards the black buildings leaning over the site on every side. The stench from within this walled and fenced space was so terrible that I reached for my handkerchief before remembering that Dickens had taken it earlier in the night to drape across the dead babies. I half expected to see an actual green cloud of miasma hanging over this place and—in truth—there was a sick glow to the mist that had arrived to serve as harbinger for the next warm-blanket of rain. Dickens reached the high, closed, black iron gate first and tried to open it, but it was locked with a massive padlock. Thank God, I thought. But Detective Hatchery reached under his coat and brought a heavy ring of keys from his impossibly burdened belt. He had Dickens hold the bullseye lantern while he fumbled through the clanking keys before finding the one he wanted. It fit in the lock. The huge gate, all black arches and scallops, opened slowly with such a creaking that it seemed as if it had been decades since anyone had paid to open it to rid themselves of a loved one’s corpse. We walked between the dark headstones and sagging sepulchres, passing under the dead trees and down uneven paving stones on narrow lanes between ancient vaults. I could tell by the spring in his step and the clack of his cane that Dickens was enjoying every second of this. I was concentrating on not retching from the stink and not stepping, in the darkness, on anything soft and yielding. “I know this place,” Dickens said suddenly. His voice in the darkness was loud enough to make me leap a small distance into the air. “I have seen it in daylight. I have written about it in The Uncommercial Traveller. But I was not within its gates before tonight. I called it the ‘City of the Absent’ and this particular place ‘Saint Ghastly Grim’s.’ ” “Aye, sir,” said Hatchery. “It once were exactly that.” “I did not see the skulls and crossbones decorating the iron spikes on the gate,” said Dickens, his voice still far too loud for the circ*mstances.

“They are still there, Mr Dickens,” attested Hatchery. “I did not feel it politick to shine my light up on ’em. ’Ere we are, sirs. Our entrance to Undertown.” We had stopped before a narrow, sealed crypt. “Is this a joke?” I asked. My voice may have sounded a bit brittle to my companions. I was overdue for an application of my medicinal laudanum; the gout was causing many parts of my body to hurt and I could feel a terrible headache tightening like a metal band around my temples. “No, Mr Collins, no joke, sir,” said Hatchery. He was fumbling at his key ring again and now he set yet another massive key into an ancient lock on the metal door of the crypt. The tall door groaned inward when he leaned his weight against it. The detective shone the light inside and waited for Dickens or me to enter. “This is absurd,” I said. “There can be no Undertown or underground anything here. Our boots have been squelching in the reeking muck of the Thames for hours. The water table here must be shallower than these graves around us.” “That does not prove to be the case, sir,” whispered Hatchery. “This part of the East End lies over rock, my dear Wilkie,” said Dickens. “Ten feet down and it is solid rock. Certainly you know the geology of your city! That is why they chose to build them here.” “Build what?” I asked, attempting, without total success, to keep the asperity I felt out of my voice. “The catacombs,” said Dickens. “The ancient underground spaces of a monastery crypt. The Roman loculi before that, even deeper here, almost certainly beneath the Christian catacombs.” I did not choose to ask what “loculi” meant. I had the sense that I would learn its dark etymology soon enough. Dickens entered the crypt, then did the detective, then I. The cone of light from the bullseye moved over and around the tiny interior. The pedestal bier in the centre of the small mausoleum, just long enough to hold a coffin or sarcophagus or shrouded body, was empty. There were no obvious niches or other places for bodies. “It’s empty,” I said. “Someone’s pilfered the corpse.” Hatchery laughed softly. “Bless me, sir. There was never a corpse ’ere. This partic’lar house o’ the dead is—’as always been—just an entrance to the land o’ the dead. If you’ll move aside, Mr Collins.” I stepped back against the sweating stone wall at the rear of the crypt as the detective bent low, set his shoulder to the cracked marble bier, and shoved. The sound of stone scraping across solid stone was extremely unpleasant. “I noticed the arcs gouged into the old pavers as we came in,” Dickens commented to the still-labouring detective. “As clear a clue as the grooves the post of a sagging gate makes in the mud.” “Aye, sir,” panted Hatchery, still shoving. “But usually leaves and dirt an’ such in ’ere hide that, even in direct lantern light. You’re very observant, Mr Dickens.” “Yes,” said Dickens.

I was sure that the screech and moans of the slowly shifting bier were loud enough to bring mobs of curious ruffians into the graveyard. Then I remembered that Hatchery had locked the cemetery gate behind us. We were locked in. And since the door of the crypt itself had taken much of Hatchery’s considerable bulk and strength to open—he had shouldered it shut after we entered—we might as well have been locked into this tomb as well. As steep stone stairs became visible in the black wedge beneath the floor now growing wider as the bier was moved, the sense of that weight being set back in place, essentially entombing us below the stone beneath the locked tomb within the locked cemetery, I felt cold shivers running down my back despite the thick heat of the night. Finally Hatchery stopped pushing and stood upright. The triangular wedge of the dark opening was not large, little more than two feet wide, but when Dickens shone the bullseye down into it, I could see very steep stone steps descending. Dickens’s face was lighted from below by the lantern as he looked at the detective and said, “You’re sure you will not come down with us, Hatchery?” “No, sir, thank you, sir,” said the big man. “I have agreed not to.” “Agreed not to?” Dickens’s tone was one of mild curiosity. “Aye, sir. An old arrangement that many of us former and current constables and inspectors ’ave with those in Undertown. We don’t go down to complicate their lives, sir; they don’t come up to complicate ours.” “Rather like the arrangement most of the living attempt to make with the dead,” Dickens said softly, his gaze returning to the dark hole and steep steps. “Exactly, sir,” said the detective. “I knew you would understand.” “Well, we should be going down,” said Dickens. “Will you be able to find your way home without a lantern, Detective? We’ll obviously need this one below.” “Oh, yes, sir,” said Hatchery. “I ’ave another one on my belt should I need it. But I won’t be going ’ome yet. I’ll wait here until dawn. If you’re not back by then, I’ll go straight to Leman Street Station and report two gentlemen missing.” “That’s very kind of you, Detective Hatchery,” said Dickens. He smiled. “But as you said, the constables and inspectors won’t go below to look for us.” “Oh, I don’t know, sir,” said the detective, shrugging. “What with you both being famous authors an’ fine gentlemen, perhaps they’d see fit to make an exception in this case. I just ’ope we don’t have to find out, sir.” Dickens laughed at this. “Come along, Wilkie.” “Mr Dickens,” said Hatchery, reaching under his coat and coming out with a huge pistol of the revolver variety. “Perhaps you should take this with you, sir. Even if just for the rats.” “Oh, posh,” said Dickens, waving the weapon away with his white gloves. (You need to remember, Dear Reader, that in our era—I have no idea of the custom in yours—none of our police carried firearms of any sort. Nor did our criminals, for the most part. Hatchery’s talk of “agreements” between the underworld and law enforcement was true in many unspoken ways.) “I will take it,” I said. “And gladly. I hate rats.”

The pistol was as heavy as it looked and it filled my right jacket pocket. I felt strangely off balance with the massive thing pulling me down on one side. I told myself that I might soon feel far more off balance should I need such a weapon and not have one. “Do you know how to fire a pistol, sir?” asked Hatchery. I shrugged. “I assume that the general idea is to aim the end with the opening at one’s target and to pull the trigger,” I said. I was hurting all over now. In my mind’s eye, I could see the jug of laudanum on my locked kitchen’s cupboard shelf. “Yes, sir,” said Hatchery. His bowler was pulled down so tight that it seemed to be compressing his skull. “That is the general idea. You may have noticed it ’as two barrels, Mr Collins. An upper one and a larger lower one.” I had not taken notice of this. I tried to pull the absurdly heavy weapon from my pocket, but it snagged on the lining, ripping the cloth of my expensive jacket. Cursing softly, I managed to extricate it and study it in the lamplight. “Ignore the lower one, sir,” said Hatchery. “It’s made for grapeshot. A form of shotgun. Nasty thing. You won’t be needin’ that, I ’ope, sir, and I have no ammunition for it anyway. My brother, who was in the army until recently, bought the gun from an American chap, although it was made in France… but not to worry, there are good English proof marks on it, sir, from our very own Birmingham Proof ’ouse. The cylinder for the smoothbore barrel is loaded, sir. There are nine shots in the cylinder.” “Nine?” I said, putting the huge, heavy thing back in my pocket while taking care not to rip the lining any worse than it had been. “Very good.” “Would you like more bullets, sir? I ’ave a bag of them an’ caps in my pocket. I’d ’ave to show you ’ow to use the ramrod, sir. But it’s fairly simple, as such skills go.” I almost laughed then, thinking of all the things that might be in Detective Hatchery’s pockets and on his belt. “No, thank you,” I said. “Nine balls should suffice.” “They’re forty-two calibre, sir,” continued the detective. “Nine should be more than sufficient for your average rat… four-legged or two-legged, as the case may be.” I shuddered at that. “We’ll see you before dawn, Hatchery,” said Dickens, tucking his watch into his waistcoat and leading the way down the very steep steps, the bullseye lantern held low. “Come, Wilkie. We have less than four hours before the sun rises.” WILKIE, DO YOU know Edgar Allan Poe?” “No,” I said. We were ten steps down with no end of the steep shaft in sight. The “steps” were more like pyramid blocks, at least three feet from one level down to the next, each step and slab slick with trickles of underground moisture, the shadows thrown by the small lantern ink black and deceptive, and if either of us stumbled here, it would certainly result in broken bones and most probably a broken neck. I half-stepped, halfjumped to the next step down, panting as I tried to keep up with the tiny cone of bobbing light emanating from Dickens’s hand. “A friend of yours, Charles?” I asked. “An expert on crypts and catacombs, perhaps?” Dickens laughed. The echo was wonderfully awful in the steep stone shaft. I hoped with

all my heart that he would not do it again. “A definitive ‘no’ to your first question, my dear Wilkie,” he said. “Quite possibly a ‘yes’ to the second surmise.” Dickens had stopped on a level area and now he turned the lantern to illuminate steep walls, a low ceiling ahead, and a corridor stretching off into the dark. Black rectangles on both sides of the corridor suggested open doorways. I jumped down onto the last step to join him. He turned to me and rested both hands and the bullseye on the brass beak of his stick. “I met Poe in Baltimore during the last weeks of my 1842 tour in America,” he said. “I must say that the fellow forced first his book, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, on me, and then his attention. Freely conversing as if we were equals or old friends, Poe kept us talking—or kept himself talking, I should say—for hours, about literature and his work and my work and again about his work. I never did get around to reading his stories while I was in America, but Catherine did. She was quite enthralled. Evidently this Poe loved to write about crypts, corpses, premature burials, and hearts ripped out of living breasts.” I kept peering into the darkness beyond the tiny circle of light from the bullseye. Straining so hard—my eyes are not strong—made the shadows everywhere coalesce and shift, like tall forms stirring. My headache grew worse. “I presume that all this has some relevance, Dickens,” I said sharply. “Only in the sense that I am receiving the distinct impression that Mr Edgar Allan Poe would be enjoying this outing more than you are at the moment, my dear Wilkie.” “Well then,” I said a bit sharply, “I wish your friend Poe were here now.” Dickens laughed again, the echo not so intense this time but even more unnerving as it bounced off unseen walls and niches in the dark. “Perhaps he is. Perhaps he is. I remember reading that Mr Poe died only six or seven years after I met him, quite young and under odd and perhaps unseemly circ*mstances. From our brief but intense acquaintanceship, this place seems to be exactly the kind of stone barrow his ghost would enjoy haunting.” “What is this place?” I asked. As if in answer, Dickens raised the lantern and led the way down the corridor. The doorways I had sensed on both sides were actually open niches. Dickens aimed the bullseye into the first niche on our right as we reached it. About six feet into this space, an elaborate iron grille rose from the stone floor to stone ceiling; the grille was massive, its cross-members solid, but had openings in the shape of florettes. The blood-red-and-orange iron looked so ancient and rusted that I felt that it would crumble away if I stepped in and struck it with my fist. But I had no intention of stepping into the niche. Behind the iron grille were rows and columns of stacked coffins so solid that I guessed them to be lined with lead. I counted about a dozen in the shifting light and shadows. “Can you read that plate, Wilkie?” Dickens was referring to a white stone plaque set high on the iron grille. Another plaque

had fallen into the accumulated dirt and heaps of rust on the floor of the niche and a third was lying on its side at the base of the grille. I adjusted my glasses and squinted. The stone was streaked and stained white by the rising damp and was pockmarked with dark red from the rusted grille beneath and around it. The letters appeared to be— E. I. THE CAYA[obscured]OMB OF [missing]HE REV[obscured]D L.L. B [stain obscured] I read this to Dickens, who had stepped inside for a closer look, and then I said, “Not Roman, then.” “These catacombs?” said Dickens in his distracted manner as he crouched to try to read the plate that had fallen into the dirt like a tumbled headstone. “No. They were built in the essential Roman manner—deep corridors lined on both sides with burial niches—but original Roman catacombs would be labyrinthine in layout. These were Christian, but very old, Wilkie, very old, and therefore designed, as some of our city is above, on the grid. In this case, it is laid out as a central cross surrounded by these burial niches and smaller passages. You notice the arched brick rather than stone above me here…” He aimed the lantern higher. I did notice the arched brick vault then. And for the first time I realised that the reddish “dirt” on the floor, several inches deep in places, was detritus from the crumbling bricks and mortar falling from that vaulted ceiling. “This was a Christian catacombs,” repeated Dickens. “Installed directly under the chapel above.” “But there is no chapel above,” I whispered. “Not for many years,” agreed Dickens, rising and trying to flick the dirt from his gloves while still holding the lantern and his stick. “But there was long ago. A monastery chapel would be my guess. Part of the Monastery of the Church of Saint Ghastly Grim’s.” “You made that up,” I said accusingly. Dickens looked at me oddly. “Of course I did,” he said. “Shall we move on?”

I hadn’t liked standing in the dark corridor with no light behind me, so I was grateful when Dickens emerged from the niche and prepared to press on. But first he shone the light back into the vault again, passing its beam over the rows and columns of coffins stacked behind the rusting grille. “I neglected to mention,” he said softly, “that as with their Roman originals, these burial niches are called loculi. Each loculus is reserved for a family or perhaps for members of a specific order of monks over many decades. The Romans tended to excavate their catacombs logically, all at one time, but these later Christian tunnels were dug out over a much longer period of time and tend to stray and wander. Do you know Garraway’s Coffee House?” “On Exchange Alley?” I said. “Cornhill? But of course. I’ve had coffee there many a time while waiting for a sale to begin in the adjoining auction house.” “There is a similar old monastery crypt under Garraway’s,” said Dickens, whispering now as if he were afraid some spectral form had joined us. “I have been in it, down there among the port wine. I have often wondered if Garraway’s is taking pity on the mouldy men who wait in its public-room all their lives by giving them that cool crypt down below to hold the rest of those gone missing from what fools call ‘real life’ up there on the surface.” He glanced at me. “Of course, my dear Wilkie, the catacombs of Paris— and you have been there, I know, since I took you there—the catacombs of Paris would not be large enough to hold the rest of the truly missing souls of London if we were all forced to go below, out of the light, down into the mouldy dark where we belong when we forget how to live well among upright men.” “Dickens, what in the deuce are you going on about…” I stopped. There had been a stirring or footstep down the dark corridor, out of the weak glow of our single small lamp. Dickens turned the bullseye but there was nothing in the cone of light but stone and shadows. The roof of the main passageway was flat stone, not arched brick. It went on for at least fifty yards. Dickens led the way down this corridor, pausing only to shine his beam in some of the niches that opened to the left and right of the passage. They were all loculi, niches holding stacks of massive coffins behind identical rusted-iron grilles. At the end of the passage Dickens passed his beam of light over the wall and even ran his free hand over the stone, pressing here and there as if searching for some springlever and secret passage. None opened to us. “So…” I began. What was I going to say? You see? There’s no Undertown after all. No Mr Drood down here. Are you satisfied? Let us go home, please, Dickens, I need to take my laudanum. I said, “This seems to be all there is.” “Not at all,” said Dickens. “Did you see that candle on the wall?” I had not. We walked back to the next-to-last loculus and Dickens aimed the bullseye higher. It was there in a niche, a thick tallow candle burned to a stub. “Left by the ancient Christians, perhaps?” I said. “I believe not,” Dickens said drily. “Light it, please, my dear Wilkie. And walk ahead of me back towards the entrance.”

“Why?” I asked, but when he did not answer, I reached for the candle, fumbled matches out of my left pocket—the absurdly heavy pistol still weighed down my jacket on the right—and lit the thing. Dickens nodded, rather brusquely I thought, and I held the stub of candle in front of me as I walked slowly back the way we had come. “There!” cried Dickens when we had covered about half the distance. “What?” “Didn’t you see the candle flame flicker, Wilkie?” If I had, it hadn’t registered, but I said, “Just a draught from the entrance stairs, no doubt.” “I think not,” said Dickens. His emphasis on the negative every time I spoke was beginning to annoy me. Using his lantern, Dickens peered into the loculus on our left and then into the one on our right. “Ahhh!” he said. Still holding the slightly flickering candle, I peered into the niche but saw nothing to evoke such an ejacul*tion of surprise and satisfaction. “On the floor,” said Dickens. I realised that the red dust there had been trod down into a sort of path that led to the iron grille and the coffins. “Some recent interment?” I said. “I seriously doubt it,” said Dickens, continuing his string of negative assessments of my contributions. He led the way into the arched vault, handed me the lantern, and shook the iron grille with both gloved hands. A section of the grille—its joints and edges and hinges invisible from even a few feet away—swung inward towards the stacks of coffins. Dickens went through without a pause. In a second his lantern seemed to sink into the red dust beneath him. It took me a minute to realise that there were steps back there and that Dickens was descending them. “Come along, Wilkie,” echoed the writer’s voice. I hesitated. I had the candle. I had the pistol. I could be back at the base of the steps in thirty seconds and up them and out into the crypt above—under Detective Hatchery’s protection again—thirty seconds after that. “Wilkie!” The lantern and the author were both out of sight now. I could see the brick ceiling still illuminated above the place where he had disappeared. I looked back towards the dark entrance to the loculus, then at the heavy coffins stacked atop their biers on either side of the path in the red dust, and then back towards the opening again. “Wilkie, please hurry now. And snuff the candle but do bring it along. This bullseye does not have unlimited fuel.” I walked through the open grille door and past the coffins and towards the still-notvisible stairs.

CHAPTER SIX

The stairway was of unsteady stone, the narrow vault ceiling of brick, and within a few minutes we had come out into another level of corridor and loculi. “More crypts,” I said. “Older here,” Dickens whispered. “Notice that this corridor curves, Wilkie. And the ceiling is much lower here. And the entrances to these loculi have been bricked up, which reminds me of a story by the late Mr Poe of whom I was speaking somewhat earlier.” I did not ask Dickens to share the story. I was about to ask him why he was whispering when he whispered over his shoulder, “Do you see the glow ahead?” At first I did not because of the bullseye lantern’s glare, but then I did. It was very dim and appeared to originate somewhere around the bend in the stone corridor. Dickens lowered the shield over most of the bullseye’s lens and gestured for me to follow him. The paving stones on this lower, older level of the catacombs were uneven, and several times I had to use my stick to brace myself from falling. Just around the bend in the corridor, more main passageways branched to the right and left. “Is this a Roman catacomb?” I whispered. Dickens shook his top-hatted head, but I felt it was more to quiet me than to answer me. He pointed to the passage on the right from which the glow seemed to be coming. It was the only loculus not bricked up. A dark and ragged curtain covered most of the arched opening, but not so completely as to hide the glow from within. I touched the pistol in my pocket as Dickens walked brazenly through the rotted gauze. This loculus was long and narrow and opened into other niches and vaults and loculi. And the corpses here were not in coffins. The bodies lay along wooden benches that ran from floor to ceiling for the entire length of the narrow passage. They were all corpses of men—and not Englishmen or Christians or Romans from the looks of them. They were skeletal, but not mere skeletons; the tanned skin and stringy flesh and glass marble–looking eyes appeared to have been mummified. Indeed, these might be Egyptian mummies we were walking past, lying there in their rotted robes and tatters, except for the Oriental cast to the mummified features and unblinking eyes. When Dickens paused for a moment, I leaned closer to inspect one of the mummies’ faces. It blinked. I let out a cry and leaped back, dropping the candle. Dickens picked it up and came

closer, holding the bullseye high to illuminate the shelf and the corpse on it. “Did you think them dead, Wilkie?” the author whispered. “Are they not?” “Did you not see the opium pipes?” he asked softly. I had not. I did now. These pipes—largely lost to sight where they were clutched against the mummies’ bodies, the bowls and mouthpieces in the mummies’ hands—were much more elaborately carved than the cheap pipes in Sal’s emporium in Shadwell above. “Did you not smell the opium?” whispered Dickens. I had not but I did now. It was a softer, sweeter, infinitely more subtle smell than the drug stench in Sal’s. I looked back the way we had come and realised that the dozens of dead men on these rotted shelves in this crypt were all ancient but still-breathing Asiatics lying there with their pipes. “Come,” said Dickens and led me into a side room from whence came the glow. There were more shelves and bunks there, some with cushions visible, and a heavier cloud of opium, but in the middle—sitting cross-legged in a Buddha posture atop a backless wooden couch set on a stone bier so that his Oriental eyes were at the same height as ours—was a Chinaman who looked as ancient and mummified as those forms on the shelves behind us and ahead of us. But his gown or robe or whatever it should be called, as well as his headpiece, were made of bright, clean silk, all reds and greens with gold and blue patterns sewn throughout, and his white moustache drooped down ten inches beneath his chin. Behind this figure were two huge men, also Chinamen but much younger, shirtless, standing against the empty stone wall with their hands folded over their crotches. Their muscles gleamed in the light from the two red candles that rose on either side of the thin Buddha-figure. “Mr Lazaree?” said Dickens, stepping closer to the cross-legged man. “Or should I say King Lazaree?” “Welcome, Mr Dickens,” said the figure. “And welcome to Mr Collins as well.” I took a step back at hearing my name spoken in such perfect and unaccented English from this pure stereotype of Yellow Peril. In truth, I realised later, his English had been lightly accented… but it was a Cambridge accent. Dickens laughed softly. “You knew we were coming.” “Of course,” said King Lazaree the Chinee. “Very little occurs in Bluegate Fields or Shadwell or Whitechapel or London itself, for that matter, that I do not hear about. News of a visit from someone of your fame and eminence… and I include both of you literary gentlemen, of course, in that phrase… is conveyed to me almost instantly.” Dickens made a slight but graceful bow. I could only stare. I realised that I was still holding the unlighted candle in my left hand. “Then you know why we have come down here,” said Dickens. King Lazaree nodded. “Will you help us find him?” continued Dickens. “Drood, I mean.” Lazaree held up one open hand. I was shocked to see that the fingernails on that hand must have been six inches long. And curved. The nail on the little finger of that hand

was at least twice that long. “The benefit of Undertown,” said King Lazaree, “is that those who wish not to be disturbed here are not disturbed. It is the one understanding that we share with the dead who surround us here.” Dickens nodded as if this made eminent sense. “Is this Undertown?” he asked. It was King Lazaree’s turn to laugh. Unlike Opium Sal’s dry rattle, the Chinaman’s laughter was easy and liquid and rich. “Mr Dickens, this is a simple opium den in a simple catacomb. Our customers once came from—and returned to—the world above, but now most prefer to stay here through the years and decades. But Undertown? No, this is not Undertown. One might say that this is the foyer to the antechamber of the porch of the vestibule of Undertown.” “Will you help us find it… and him?” asked Dickens. “I know you do not wish to disturb the other… ah… inhabitants of this world, but Drood let me know that he wanted me to find him.” “And how did he do that?” asked King Lazaree. I admit to being curious on that point myself. “By going out of his way to introduce himself to me,” said Dickens. “By telling me where in London he was going. By creating such a mystery around himself that he knew I would try to find him.” The Chinaman on the wooden couch did not nod or blink. I realised then that I could not remember seeing him blink during this entire interview. His dark eyes seemed as glassy and lifeless as those belonging to the mummified figures on the benches all around us. When Lazaree did finally speak, it was in a lower tone, as if he were debating with himself. “It would be very unfortunate if either of you gentlemen were to write and publish anything about our subterranean world here. You see how fragile it is… and how easily accessible.” I thought of Hatchery’s having to put his heavy shoulder so energetically to the crypt bier that hid the upper doorway, about the barely visible path in the red dust to the invisible door in the iron grate, about the narrowness and eeriness of the stairway descending to this level, and the labyrinth we had traversed just to find this second opium den.… All in all, I was not so sure I agreed with the Chinaman king about the accessibility of this place. Dickens appeared to, however. He nodded and said, “My interest is in finding Drood. Not in writing about this place.” He turned to me. “You feel the same, do you not, Mr Collins?” I was able to grunt and let the King of the Opium Living Dead take that as he wished. I was a novelist. Everything and everyone in my life was material. Certainly this writer whom I stood next to in the candlelight here had already proven that maxim more than had any other writer of our or any other age. How could he speak for me and say that I would never write about such an extraordinary place? How could he speak honestly for himself and say such a thing… this man who had turned his father, mother, sad figure of

a wife, former friends, and former lovers into mere grist for his fictional-character wheel? King Lazaree lowered his head and silken cap ever so slowly. “It would be very unfortunate if some harm were to come to you, Mr Dickens, or you, Mr Collins, while you were our guests here or explorers of Undertown beyond here.” “We feel precisely the same way!” said Dickens. He sounded almost merry. “Yet no guarantees for your safety can be made beyond this point,” continued the Chinaman. “You will understand when… if… you proceed.” “We ask for no guarantees,” said Dickens. “Only for advice on how and where to proceed.” “You do not fully understand,” said King Lazaree, his voice sounding harsh and Asiatic for the first time. “If something were to happen to one of you gentlemen, the other would not be allowed to return to the world above to write, tell, and testify about it.” Dickens looked at me again. He turned back to Lazaree. “We understand,” he said. “Not completely,” said the thin Buddha-figure. “If something were to happen to both of you down here—and if it were to happen to one, as you now understand, it must happen to both—your bodies will be found elsewhere. In the Thames, to be precise. Along with Detective Hatchery’s. The detective already understands this. It is imperative that you also do before you decide to proceed.” Dickens looked at me again but did not ask a question. To be honest, I would have preferred at that instant that we retire for a moment to discuss the matter and to take a vote. To be completely honest, I would have preferred at that moment that we simply bid the Opium Chinaman King a pleasant evening and have retired altogether—up out of that underground charnel house and back into the fresh night air, even if that fresh air carried the stinking miasma of the overcrowded burial ground that Dickens called St Ghastly Grim’s. “We understand,” Dickens was saying earnestly to the Chinaman. “We agree to the conditions. But we still wish to go on, down into Undertown, and to find Mr Drood. How do we do that, King Lazaree?” I was in such shock at Dickens having made this life-and-death decision for me without so much as a consultation or by-your-leave that I heard Lazaree’s response as if from a great, muffled distance. “Je suis un grand partisan de l’ordre,” the Chinaman was saying or reciting. “Mais je n’aime pas celui-ci. Il peint un éternel désordre, Et, quand il vous consigne ici, Dieu jamais n’en révoque l’ordre.” “Very good,” replied Dickens, although, in my shock at Dickens’s speaking for me, at Dickens’s having gambled my life along with his in such cavalier fashion, I had not understood a word of the French. “And how and where do we find this eternal disorder and order?” continued Dickens. “Understanding that even eternal disorder has a perfect order such as Wells, find the

apse and the altar and descend behind the rude screen,” said King Lazaree. “Yes,” said Dickens, nodding as if he understood and even glancing at me as if telling me to take notes. “All that they boast of Styx, of Acheron,” recited Lazaree, “Cocytus, Phlegethon, our have proved in one: The filth, stench, noise; save only what was there Subtly distinguished, was confusèd here. Their wherry had no sail, too; ours had none; And in it two more horrid knaves than Charon. Arses were heard to croak instead of frogs, And for one Cerberus, the whole coast was dogs. Furies there wanted not; each scold was ten; And for the cries of ghosts, women, and men Laden with plague-sores and their sins were heard, Lashed by their consciences; to die, afeard.” I tried to catch Dickens’s eye then, to tell him through sheer glare and intensity that it was time to leave, past time to leave, that our opium-lord host was insane, as were we for coming down here in the first place, but the Inimitable—d—— n his eyes!—was nodding again as if all this made sense and saying, “Very good, very good. Is there anything else we need to know to get us to Drood?” “Only to remember to pay the horrid knaves,” whispered King Lazaree. “Of course, of course,” said Dickens, sounding absolutely delighted with himself and the Chinaman. “We shall be going, then. Ah… I presume that the corrider we entered through and your… ah… establishment here are, in terms of, well, wells, part of the eternal disordered order?” Lazaree actually smiled. I saw the gleam of very small, very sharp teeth. They looked to have been filed to points. “Of course,” he said softly. “Consider the former the south aisle of the nave and the latter the Cloister Garth.” “Thank you very much indeed,” said Dickens. “Come, Wilkie,” he said to me as he led us back out of the opium den of mummies. “One last thing,” said King Lazaree as we were ready to go out through the doorway into the main hall of the mummies. Dickens paused and leaned on his stick. “Watch out for the boys,” said the Chinaman. “Some are cannibals.” WE HEADED BACK into and down the outer corridor the way we had come. The bullseye lantern seemed dimmer than before. “Are we leaving?” I asked hopefully. “Leaving? Of course not. You heard what King Lazaree said. We’re close to the entrance of the actual Undertown. With any luck at all, we shall meet with Drood and be back to take Detective Hatchery out to breakfast before the sun rises over Sain’t Ghastly Grim’s.”

“I heard that obscene Chinaman say that our bodies—and Hatchery’s—would be found floating in the Thames if we continued with this insane quest,” I said. My voice echoed from stone. It was not a completely steady sound. Dickens laughed softly. I believe I began hating him at that moment. “Nonsense, Wilkie, nonsense. You understand his point of view. Should something happen to us down here—and we are, after all, men of some public notice, my dear Wilkie—then the ensuing attention on their little sanctuary here would be devastating.” “So they will dump us in the Thames together,” I muttered. “What was all that French about?” “You did not understand?” asked Dickens as he led us back towards the first corridor. “I thought you spoke some French.” “I was distracted,” I said sulkily. I was tempted to add, And I have not been crossing the Channel to the little village of Condette to visit an actress in secret for the past five years, so I have had less opportunity to practise my French, but I restrained myself. “It was some small poem,” said the author. He paused in the darkness, cleared his throat, and recited… “I am a great partisan of order, But I do not like the one here. It depicts an eternal disorder, And, when he consigns you here, God never revokes the order.” I looked left and right at the walled-up entrances to the ancient loculi. The poem almost —not quite—made sense. “That and his mention of Wells made it all clear,” continued Dickens. “Mention of wells?” I said stupidly. “Wells Cathedral, certainly,” said Dickens, lifting the lamp and leading us on again. “You’ve been there, I assume.” “Well, yes, but…” “This lower level of the catacombs obviously is laid out in the design of a great cathedral… Wells, to be precise. What seems random is quite determined. Nave, chapter house, north and south transepts, altar, and apse. King Lazaree’s opium den, for instance, as he was kind enough to explain, would be where the Cloister Garth is in Wells Cathedral. Our entrance point from above would be at the western towers. We have just returned to the south aisle of the nave, you see, and have turned right towards the south transept. Notice how this corridor is wider than the one to the cloister?” I nodded but Dickens did not look back to see the motion as we pressed on. “I heard some mention of an altar and a rude curtain,” I said. “Ah, yes. But perhaps you did not follow that the word is ‘rood’— r-o-o-d—my dear Wilkie. As you must know, and certainly I must, since I grew up quite literally in the shadow of the great cathedral at Rochester, about which I hope to write someday, the apse is the semicircular recess at the altar end of the chancel. On one side of the high altar, to hide the work of the priests from the common eyes, is the altar screen. On the

other side, the transept side, the opposing screen is called the rood screen. Fascinating, is it not, how that word… ‘rood’… rhymes so charmingly with ‘Drood.’ ” “Fascinating,” I said drily. “And what was all that rot about Styx, of Acheron, more horrid knaves than Charon, and arses croaking instead of frogs?” “You did not recognise that?” cried Dickens. He actually stopped in his surprise and swung the lamp in my direction. “That was our own dear Ben Jonson and his ‘On the Famous Voyage,’ written somewhere around the Year of Our Lord 1610, if I am not mistaken.” “You rarely are,” I muttered. “Thank you,” said Dickens, completely missing my sarcasm. “But what did all that verse about Cocytus, Phlegethon, filth, stench, noise, and Charon and Cerebus have to do with Mr Drood?” “It tells me that a river voyage lies before one or both of us, my dear Wilkie.” The lantern showed the corridor—the “nave” as it were—narrowing ahead towards multiple openings. Transept and apse? Altar screen and rood screen? Shelves of opium-smoking Asian mummies? Or just more foul, bone-filled crypts? “A river voyage?” I repeated stupidly. I wanted very much to have my laudanum then. And I wished very much that I were at home to have it. THE “APSE” WAS a circular area of the catacomb set under a dome of stone rising about fifteen feet above the floor. We came to it from the side, as if stepping in from the choir aisle, should this be the layout of an actual cathedral. The “altar” was a massive stone bier much like the one that Hatchery had shifted so far above us now. “If we are meant to move that,” I said, pointing to the bier, “then our voyage ends here.” Dickens nodded. “We’re not” was all he said. There was a rotted curtain to the left— perhaps once a tapestry, although all patterns had faded to black and brown in the subterranean darkness over the centuries—partially shielding the bier-altar from the apse-area under the dome. Another, plainer, even more rotted curtain hung against the stone wall to the right of this rude presbytery. “The rood screen,” said Dickens, pointing with his stick at this second curtain. Still using his cane, he moved the rotted fabric aside to reveal a narrow gap in the wall. The descent here was much steeper and narrower than anything we had yet seen. The steps were of wood; the tunnel appeared to have been gouged out of soil and stone; there were crude wooden pilings shoring up the sides and ceiling. “Do you think this is older than the catacombs?” I whispered ahead to Dickens as we carefully descended the steep and winding staircase. “Earlier Christian? Roman? Some sort of Saxon Druidic passage?” “Hardly. I think this is quite recent, Wilkie. No more than a few years old. Notice that the steps appear to be made from railway timbers. They still show signs of pitch. It is my guess that whoever tunnelled this staircase out, tunnelled up to the catacombs above.” “Up?” I repeated. “Up from what?” A second later the stench hit me as surely as if I’d stepped into a rural privy and

answered my question. I reached for my handkerchief, only to be reminded once again that Dickens had taken it and used it for other purposes so many dark hours ago. We emerged into the sewer proper a few minutes later. It was a low, vaulted channel only seven or eight feet across and less than six feet high, the floor of it more oozing mud than flowing liquid, the walls and vaulted ceilings of brick. The stench brought so many tears to my eyes that I had to wipe them in order to be able to see what Dickens’s pale cone of bullseye light illuminated. I saw that Dickens held another silk handkerchief to his nose and mouth. He had brought two! Rather than use both of his, he had commandeered mine for the corpses of the babies, fully knowing, I was sure, that I would need it later. The anger in me deepened. “This is as far as I go,” I told him. Dickens’s large eyes seemed puzzled as he turned to me. “Why, for heaven’s sake, Wilkie? We have come so far.” “I’m not wading in that,” I said, gesturing angrily at the deep and putrid ooze of the channel. “Oh, we shan’t have to,” said Dickens. “Do you notice the brick walkway along each side? It’s several inches higher than the foul matter.” “Foul matter” is what we writers call the manuscripts and written-upon galley pages that the publishers return to us. I wondered if Dickens was making some weak joke. But the “walkways” were there on each side just as he said, curving out of sight in both directions along the narrow sewer tunnel. But they were hardly sidewalks; the one on our side could not have been more than ten inches wide. I shook my head, unsure. Handkerchief still held firmly over his lower face and walking stick now tucked under his arm, Dickens had retrieved a clasp knife from his pocket and quickly made three parallel marks on the crumbling brick where our crude staircase opened into the sewer. “What is that for?” I asked, knowing the answer as soon as I asked the question. Perhaps the vapours were affecting my higher ratiocinative abilities. “To find our way back,” he said. Folding the knife, he held it in the lamplight and said irrelevantly, “A gift from my American hosts in Massachusetts during my tour. I’ve found it very useful over the years. Come along; it’s getting late.” “Why do you think our goal lies in this direction?” I asked as I shuffled behind him to the right along the narrow strip of brick, lowering my head to keep the low arching wall there from knocking my top hat into the muck. “A guess,” said Dickens. Within minutes we had come to a three-tunnel branching of the sewer. Luckily the channel was narrower there and Dickens hopped across, using his stick to keep his balance. He cut three marks on the corner of the centre channel and made room for me to hop after him. “Why this channel?” I asked when we were twenty or thirty yards in. “It seemed wider,” said Dickens. We came to another parting of tunnels. He chose the one to the right and marked his three stripes on the brick. A hundred yards into this lesser channel and he stopped. I saw on the wall opposite—

there was no walkway on that side—a metal candle reflector held up on a spade, its handle buried in the muck, with some sort of round wood-and-wire screen propped against the wall beneath it. A quarter of an inch of tallow candle remained in the reflector. “What on earth could that be?” I whispered. “To what purpose here?” “The property of a sewer-hunter,” Dickens replied in conversational tones. “Haven’t you read your Mayhew?” I had not. Staring at the filth-rimmed pan obviously made for screening, I said, “What in Christ’s name could they be sifting and hunting for in this muck?” “All those things that we lose into the sewers sooner or later,” said Dickens. “Rings. Coins. Even bones can have their value to those who own nothing.” He poked at the spade and circular sieve with his stick. “Richard Beard illustrated just such an apparatus in Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor,” he said. “You really must read it, my dear Wilkie.” “As soon as we get out of here,” I whispered. It was a promise I planned to honour in the breach. We moved on, sometimes having to scuttle forward in an almost crouching position as the vaulted ceiling grew lower. For a moment I felt panic when I thought of Hatchery’s little bullseye running out of fuel, but then I remembered the heavy stub of catacomb candle in my left pocket. “Do you think these are part of Bazalgette’s new sewer system?” I asked sometime later. The only good news in our progress was that the overwhelming power of the stench had all but numbed my sense of smell. I realised that I would have to burn my clothes; a misfortune, since I particularly prized the jacket and waistcoat. I may have mentioned earlier that Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Board of Works, had proposed a complex system of new sewers to drain off sewage from the Thames and to embank the mudflats along its shores. The passage of the plan had been expedited by the Great Stink of June 1858, when the work of the House of Commons had been disrupted as the members fled the city. The Main Drainage Works at Crossness had been opened just the previous year, but dozens of miles of main and ancillary sewer projects were proceeding across and beneath the city. The Embankment part of the works was scheduled to be opened just five years hence. “New?” said Dickens. “I doubt it very much. There are hundreds of ancient attempts at sewers under our city, Wilkie… some going back to the Romans… many of the passages all but forgotten by the Board of Works.” “But remembered by the sewer-hunters,” I said. “Precisely.” Suddenly we emerged into a taller, wider, drier space. Dickens stood still and shone the bullseye in all directions. The walls were stone here and the vaulted brick roof was supported by multiple pillars. Along the drier sides of this bowl lay sleeping mats of every description, some of rough rope, others of expensive wool. Heavy lamps hung by chains and the ceiling was darkened by smoke. A square cast-iron stove stood at the

highest point on an island in the middle of this concavity and I could see a sort of stovepipe which—rather than rising through the stone ceiling—extended downward into one of four adjacent sewers that radiated from this place. Rough planks on boxes served as a table and I could see dishes and dirty utensils stowed in the boxes themselves, alongside smaller boxes that might hold provisions. “I don’t believe it,” gasped Dickens. He turned to me with eyes alight and a huge grin on his face. “Do you know what this reminds one of, Wilkie?” “The Wild Boys!” I cried. “I cannot believe that you are reading those particular advanced editions, Dickens!” “Of course,” laughed the most famous author of our day. “Everyone literary I know is reading it, Wilkie! And none of us admitting such to the others for fear of censure and ridicule.” He was talking about advanced copies of The Wild Boys of London; or, The Children of the Night—A Story of the Present Day. It was a dreadful series currently circulating in galley form but soon to be published for the general public, if the authorities did not suppress it completely on grounds of obscenity. I have to admit that there was little obscene about the turgid tale of wild boys living like pitiable animals in the sewers beneath the city, although I do remember a particularly gruesome and suggestive illustration of several of the boys finding a mostly nude body of a woman in their sewer searches. In another scene, mercifully not illustrated, a boy new to the Wild Boys group comes across the corpse of a man being consumed by rats. So perhaps it was obscene after all. But who was to imagine that such a fantastical tale, indifferently told, was based on the truth? Dickens laughed—the sound echoing down different dark channels—and said, “This place is not so different from my favourite London club, Wilkie.” “Except that King Lazaree warned us that some of these diners are cannibals,” I said. As if in response to our witticisms, there came the squeak and scuttle of rats from one of the openings, although it was impossible to tell which. Perhaps from all. “Do we turn back now?” I asked, perhaps a shade plaintively. “Now that we have discovered the heart of the mystery of Undertown?” Dickens looked sharply at me. “Oh, I doubt very much that this is the heart of the mystery. Nor even the liver or lights of same. Come, this channel looks the widest.” Fifteen minutes and five turnings and scratchings on the wall later, we emerged into a space that made the Wild Boys’ living area look like a minor loculus. This tunnel was a major thoroughfare compared to the low and mean sewers through which we had already passed: at least twenty-five feet across, fifteen feet high, the centre a river of quickly moving water—albeit a sludge-thick sorry excuse for water— rather than the mere oozes of mud and filth we had been scuttling past. The walls and brick path before us now, as well as the high vaulted arches, were built of gleaming new brick. “This must be part of Bazalgette’s new works,” said Dickens, his voice sounding awed

for the first time, the weakening beam of his bullseye playing across the wide thoroughfare and ceilings. “Although perhaps not officially opened yet.” I could only shake my head, as much in weariness as in astonishment. “Which way now, Dickens?” “No way from here, I believe,” he said softly. “Unless we swim.” I blinked and realised what he meant. This brick walkway was wide—five feet wide at least, as clean and spotless as a new city sidewalk above—but it only extended fifteen feet or so in each direction from our tunnel opening. “Do we retrace our steps?” I asked. The idea of entering one of those tiny pipes again made my skin crawl. Dickens turned his light on a post two yards or so to our left. It was made of wood and held a small ship’s bell on it. “I think not,” he said. Before I could protest, he had rung the bell four times. The brash sound echoed up and down the broad bricked thoroughfare above the quickly flowing waters. Dickens found an abandoned pole at the end of this strange brick dock we were on and he thrust it down into the current. “Seven feet deep at least,” he said. “Perhaps deeper. Did you know, Wilkie, that the French are preparing boat tours of their sewers? They are to be spotlit—women in the boats, men walking alongside for parts of the tour. A sort of bicycle apparatus will propel the flat-bottomed vessels while searchlights within the boat and others carried by égoutiers alongside will illuminate features of interest along the way.” “No,” I said dully. “I didn’t know that.” “There is talk of high society in Paris arranging rat-hunting tours.” I had had enough of this. I turned back towards the tunnel from which we had emerged. “Come along, Dickens. It’s almost dawn. If Detective Hatchery goes to Leman Street Station and announces that we are lost, half the constables in London will be down here searching for the most famous writer alive today. King Lazaree and his friends would not want that.” Before Dickens could reply, there was a sudden flurry and several clusters of rags floating around white, rodent-like faces exploded from the tunnel. I fumbled out the pistol. At the moment, I was convinced that we were being attacked by gigantic grub-faced rats. Dickens stepped between me and the surging, feinting forms. “They’re boys, Wilkie,” he cried. “Boys!” “Cannibal boys!” I cried back, raising the pistol. As if to confirm my statement, one of the pale faces—all tiny eyes and long nose and sharp teeth in the bullseye light—lunged at Dickens and snapped, as if he were attempting to bite off the author’s nose. Dickens swatted away the face with his stick and made to seize the child, but his hand came away with a wad of rags and the naked boy was gone along with his two or three cohorts, skittering down the low, dark passage from which they—and we before them— had emerged.

“Dear God,” I gasped, still holding the heavy pistol high. I heard a sound behind me, from the water, and turned slowly, the pistol still raised. “Dear God,” I whispered again. A long, narrow boat of no design I had ever seen before had glided up to our brick esplanade. There was a tall figure holding a pole in the bow and another at a sweep in the stern, although except for the high stern and bow and oarsmen and lanterns hanging fore and aft, the craft bore only a vague resemblance to an Italian gondola. The male figures were not quite men—the faces were absolutely pale and not yet shaped into manhood—but neither did they look still to be boys. They were very thin and dressed in tights and tunics that almost seemed to be uniforms. Their hands and glimpses of their chests and midriffs between the ill-fitting costumes showed flesh as ghastly pale as their faces. Most strangely in the dimness of the wide sewer, each boy-man was wearing a pair of square smoked glasses over domino masks, as if they had ventured out of a midnight masked ball into brilliant sunlight. “I believe that our ride has arrived, Wilkie,” whispered Dickens. Glancing apprehensively over my shoulder at the black opening from whence I expected the wild boys to emerge again at any second, I crowded close to Dickens as he prepared to board the little boat. He paid the silent form in the bow two sovereigns, then paid the man at the sweep in the stern the same amount. The two shook their heads and each handed one of the sovereigns back. They pointed at Dickens and nodded. Then they pointed at me and shook their heads again. Clearly I was not invited. “My friend must accompany me,” said Dickens to the silent pair. “I will not leave him.” He fumbled out more coins. The shadowy shape at the sweep and the one in the bow shook their heads almost in unison. “Are you from Mr Drood?” asked the author. He repeated the question in French. The silent pair did not respond to either language. Finally the one at the stern pointed to Dickens again and motioned for him to board. The one in the bow pointed to me and then to the brick walkway I was on, telling me to stay. I felt that they were commanding me as if I were a dog. “The blazes with this,” I said loudly. “Come back with me, Dickens. Now.” The author looked at me, looked at the tunnel behind me—from which there were renewed scuttling sounds—looked at the boat, and craned to see up and down the underground river. “Wilkie…” he said at last. “After coming so far… after learning so much… I can’t… just… turn back.” I could only stare. “Come back another night,” I said. “For now we must be away.” He shook his head and handed me the bullseye lantern. “You have the pistol and… how many shots did Hatchery say?” “Nine,” I said. Disbelief rose in me rather as one’s gorge might in a rough trailing sea. He was going to leave me behind. “Nine shots and the lantern and the way back is clearly marked with three stripes the whole distance,” said Dickens. I noticed the lisp in his voice that others often had commented upon. I thought that perhaps it became more noticeable when he was

carrying out an act of treachery. “And if there are more than nine wild cannibal boys?” I said softly. I was amazed to hear how reasonable my voice sounded, although the echo in the large bricked space distorted it some. “Or legions of rats that come to dine after you are gone?” “That boy was no cannibal,” said Dickens. “Only a lost child in rags so loose that they wouldn’t stay on his back. But if it comes to that, Wilkie… shoot one of them. The others will scatter.” I laughed then. I really had no choice. Dickens stepped aboard the little boat, bade the oarsman to wait a second, and consulted his watch by the lamp at the stern. “In another ninety minutes it will be too late to get back to Hatchery before the sun rises,” he said. “Wait for me here on this clean dock, Wilkie. Light the candle to give more light alongside the bullseye and wait for me. I shall insist that my interview with Mr Drood not exceed an hour. We shall go back up into the light together.” I started to speak or laugh again, but no sound emerged. I realised that I was still holding the huge, heavy, idiotic pistol… and that it was aimed in the general direction of Dickens and his two boatmen. I did not need the grapeshot-shotgun barrel to send all three of them falling lifeless into the surging current of London’s sewage. All I had to do was pull the trigger thrice. That would leave six cartridges and balls for the Wild Boys. As if reading my thoughts, Dickens said, “I would take you along if I could, Wilkie. But obviously Mr Drood has a private interview in mind. If you are here when I return—in less than ninety minutes, I assure you—we will go up and out together.” I lowered the pistol. “And if I leave before you return—if you return,” I said hoarsely, “you will have a hard time of it finding your way to the surface without the bullseye.” Dickens said nothing. I lit the candle and sat between it and the lantern, my face to the tunnel opening, my back to Charles Dickens. I set the co*cked pistol on my lap. I did not turn as the flatbottomed boat slipped away from my tiny dock. The sweep and bow pole made such little noise that the sound of them was lost under the echoing rush of the underground river. To this day, I do not know if Dickens was carried upstream or down.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The rest of that summer of 1865 remained hot. By early September the unusually warm and frequently stormy weather receded and London enjoyed clear skies, pleasant days, and cool nights. I rarely saw Dickens during those intervening two months. His children, during the summer and school holidays, put out their own little paper—the Gad’s Hill Gazette— and my brother, Charles, dropped off a packet of these in August. There were articles about picnics, outings to Rochester, cricket matches, and note of the first correspondence from Alfred, Dickens’s son who had left for Australia in May to become a sheep farmer. Mentions of the Inimitable, other than the expected observations that he had presided over the picnics, Rochester outings, and cricket matches, merely confirmed that he was working hard on Our Mutual Friend. From our common friend Percy Fitzgerald I learned that Dickens had taken a relatively large party of friends and family up to Bulwer-Lytton’s estate, Knebworth, in order to celebrate the opening of the first homes for indigent artists and writers established by the Guild of Literature and Art. Dickens was in charge of the gathering and—according to Fitzgerald—“seemed to be his old, merry self.” The Inimitable had made an energetic and upbeat speech, at one point in conversation privately compared his too-pompous friend John Forster to Malvolio (in the company of several writers, knowing therefore that the comparison would get back to Forster), led a large group to drop in on a nearby tavern named Our Mutual Friend, and even took part in the open-air dancing before decamping back to London with his friends and family. I was not invited. It was also from my brother that I learned that Dickens was still suffering the aftereffects of the Staplehurst disaster, including having to take the slow train whenever possible because rapid rail travel—and occasionally even travel by coach—would bring on the “shakes.” And Charles also informed me of the postscript that Dickens had added to Our Mutual Friend when he finished it in the first week of September—it was the first postscript that Dickens had ever added to one of his books—in which the author defended his rather unusual method of narration in the novel, then briefly described his experience at Staplehurst, expurgating the presence of the Ternans and Drood, of course, and ended with the mildly disturbing peroration—“I remember with devout thankfulness that I can never be much nearer parting company with my readers for ever, than I was then, until there shall be written against my life, the two words with which I have this day closed this book—THE END.” It is perhaps not telling you too much, Dear Reader, since you do reside in our future, that Charles Dickens would not live to ever again pen those two words—THE END—at the close of another novel. IT WAS ON A PLEASANT DAY in early September that Caroline came up to my study where I was working and presented me with the card of a gentleman waiting on the landing. The card read in its entirety—

INSPECTOR CHARLES FREDERICK FIELD Private Enquiry Bureau Caroline must have seen my reaction in my expression, for she said, “Is there anything wrong? Shall I tell him to go away?” “No, no… show him in. Be sure to close the door behind you after you do show him in, my dear.” A minute later and Field was in the study, bowing slightly, pumping my hand, and chatting away before I could say a word. As he spoke, I remembered an early description in one of Dickens’s essays in Household Words about the inspector—“. . . a middle-aged man of a portly presence, with a large, moist, knowing eye, a husky voice, and a habit of emphasising his conversation by the air of a corpulent fore-finger, which is constantly in juxta-position with his eyes or nose.” Field was beyond middle age now—I realised he must be about sixty years old—and only a fringe of grey hair remained where I remembered a lion’s mane of darker curls over his ears, but the husky voice, knowing eye, and corpulent forefinger remained accurate and operative. “Mr Collins, Mr Collins, it’s a pleasure to see you again, sir. And to see you prospering so obviously and delightfully, sir. What a lovely room this is, sir. So many books. And I believe that is a copy of your own The Woman in White there by the ivory tusk—yes, upon my soul, it is. A wonderful book, so I hear, although I’ve not yet found the time to read it, but my wife has. You may remember me, sir…” “Yes, of course, you accompanied Charles Dickens and me…” “On one of your expeditions into the darker parts of our fair city, indeed I did, Mr Collins. Indeed, I did. And perhaps you remember that I was present the first time you met Mr Dickens.” “I am not sure that I…” “No, no, sir, no reason for you to recall my presence there. It was 1851, sir. Mr Dickens had hired me, on a private basis you might say, to provide security for his performance of Lord Lytton’s play Not So Bad as We Seem at a benefit by the Duke of Devonshire. You were an aspiring actor then, I believe, sir, and Mr Dickens—on the advice of Mr Egg, I do seem to recall—invited you to play the part of Smart. ‘A small part,’ I remember Mr Dickens saying to you during that first rehearsal, ‘but what there is of it, decidedly good!’ As were you, Mr Collins. As were you. Decidedly good. And I saw several performances, sir.” “Why, thank you, Inspector. I…” “Yes—oh, may I be seated? Thank you very much. Beautiful stone egg here on your desk, Mr Collins. Is it onyx? Yes, I believe it is. Fascinating.” “Thank you, Inspector. To what do I owe…”

“You remember, I am sure, Mr Collins, that the Duke of Devonshire provided Devonshire House for that first performance of Lord Lytton’s play. It was all for the good of the Guild of Literature and Art, as I recall. Sir Edward was president of the Guild at that time. Mr Dickens was vice-president. You may recall that I—and a few carefully chosen associates of mine—were hired to be present in what we call plain clothes because Lord Lytton’s estranged wife, Rosina was her name, I believe, had threatened to disrupt the play. I saw the first note she sent Lord Lytton. She promised to pose as an orange-seller and to pelt the stage with fruit, as I recall.” Inspector Field chuckled and I worked to return a smile. “In another note,” he continued, “she promised to throw rotten eggs at the Queen, who did attend despite the threats, I am sure you recall, sir, you having the memory of a writer after all. Her Majesty the Queen was there with Prince Albert that evening of the first performance and witnessed your first public appearance anywhere with Mr Dickens. Sixteen May, 1851, that was—seems like just last week, does it not, sir?—and you had your own special guests that night, Mr Collins. Your brother Charles, I do believe, and your mother… Harriet, I believe her name is, and I hope her health is good, Mr Collins, I surely do, and I seem to remember that she lives with your brother Charles and his wife, Kate, Dickens’s eldest daughter, I do believe, when your mother is staying in town. At Clarence Terrace, I think the address is. A lovely neighbourhood. And a wonderful lady, she is. Oh, and you had other guests that night of the Command Performance fifteen years ago, I seem to recall. Edward and Henrietta Ward… a cigar? Why yes, sir. I don’t mind if I do.” The offer of a fine cigar had served to stem the verbal flow, and the silence continued as we each trimmed our cigars, lit them, and savoured the first minute of smoking them. Before the detective could get his second wind, I said, “Your memory does your profession and yourself credit, Inspector Field. But I should ask—to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?” He removed the cigar from his mouth with his left hand and allowed the corpulent forefinger on his right hand to touch first the side of his nose, as if he were sniffing something out, and then to tap his lips, as if the finger were helping to form his next words. “Mr Collins, you should know that the ‘Inspector’ before my name now is a pure honourific, as I am no longer employed by the Scotland Yard Bureau of Detectives. Haven’t been since the year after I protected the integrity of Not So Bad as We Seem, to be one-hundred-percent accurate.” “Well, I am sure the honourific is well deserved and should be and will be maintained by all who know you,” I said, not bothering to point out that the “Inspector” title was plainly there on his card. “Thank you, Mr Collins,” said the florid detective, exhaling a great cloud of smoke. With the doors to my study closed and the window open only a small bit, as was my habit due to the noise from the streets outside, the little room was quickly filling up with blue smoke. “Tell me, Inspector,” I said, “how can I be of assistance today? Are you writing your

memoirs? Is there some small gap in your otherwise voluminous and incredible memory which I could help fill in some way?” “Memoirs?” chuckled Inspector Field. “Now that is an idea… but bless you, no, sir. Others, such as your friend Mr Dickens, have written about my… well, exploits would not be too bold a word for them, would it, sir?… about my exploits before, and I suspect that more will write about them in the future, but no memoirs on my docket for now, sir.” “How can I help you, then, Inspector?” Cigar firmly clamped between his teeth, Field leaned forward, planted his elbows on my desk, and freed his corpulent forefinger to point first up, then down, then to prod the desk, and finally to point it at me. “It came to my attention, Mr Collins—came to my attention too late, I regret—that you and Mr Dickens were in Tiger Bay and the Undertown searching for a certain personage named Drood.” “Who told you that, Inspector?” My voice was cool. This former Scotland Yard detective had already exhibited too much curiosity and intrusion to suit me. “Oh, Hib Hatchery, of course. He works for me. Hatchery is an operative of my Private Enquiry Bureau. Did not Mr Dickens tell you that?” I remembered Dickens saying something about Inspector Field having moved on from police work and not being available for our outing, and of Field having recommended Hatchery, but I had not paid much attention to the comment. “No,” I said. “I don’t believe he did.” Field nodded and his finger seemed to move of its own volition to a place alongside his beak of a nose even as his other hand removed the cigar from his mouth. “He is, sir. Hatchery is a good man. Not imaginative, perhaps, as the great inspectors and detectives must be, but a good man. A dependable man. But when Dickens contacted me about finding someone to escort him into the… ah… difficult parts of the city again, I assumed that it was another little slum-jaunt of his, of the sort I escorted him and you on and him and the American visitors on, sir. I was out of London for a while, on Private Enquiry Bureau business, and did not hear until I returned recently that Drood was the object of Mr Dickens’s pursuit.” “I would hardly call it pursuit,” I said. “Search, then,” said Inspector Field, breathing blue smoke out. “Enquiry. Investigation.” “Is there something about Charles Dickens’s interests that concerns you?” I asked. My tone was not sharp, but it was meant to put a former policeman in his place when it came to the interests and actions of gentlemen. “Oh, yes, sir. Yes, Mr Collins. Indeed there is,” said the inspector, sitting back in the chair until it creaked. He was inspecting his still-burning cigar and frowning slightly. “Everything about this Drood person concerns and interests me, Mr Collins. Everything.” “Why is that, Inspector?” He leaned forward. “Drood—or the monster that calls itself Drood—appeared and began its depradations upon my watch, Mr Collins. Quite literally upon my watch. I had just

become Chief of the Detective Branch of Scotland Yard, taking over from Inspector Shackell… it was 1846, sir… when Drood’s reign of terror began.” “Reign of terror?” I repeated. “I do not remember reading in the newspapers about any such reign of terror.” “Oh, there’s lots of horrors that happen in those dark parts of town you and Mr Dickens went voyaging into in July that don’t end up in the newspapers, Mr Collins. You can be assured of that.” “I’m sure you’re right, Inspector,” I said softly. The cigars were close to being smoked in their entirety. When they were, I would claim the press of creative business and show the retired old policeman to the door. He leaned forward again and this time his active finger was pointed at me. “I need to know what you and Mr Dickens discovered about Drood that night, Mr Collins. I need to know everything.” “I do not see how that is your concern, Inspector.” Field smiled then and it was a broad enough smile to rearrange his ageing face into an entire new complexity of wrinkles, folds, and planes. It was not a warm smile. “It is my concern, Mr Collins, in ways that you cannot and could not ever comprehend. And I will have this information in all its details.” I sat straight in my chair, feeling the pain from my rheumatical gout fuel my displeasure and impatience. “That sounds like a threat, Inspector.” The smile grew wider. “Inspector Charles Frederick Field, either of the police Detective Bureau or of his own Private Enquiry Bureau, does not make threats, Mr Collins. But he will have the information he requires to carry on his battle with an old and implacable foe.” “If this… Drood… has been your foe, as you put it, for almost two decades, Inspector, you hardly need our help. You must know much more about… your foe… than Dickens or I ever will.” “Oh, yes, sir,” agreed Field. “I do. I would blush to say that I know more about the creature you call Drood than does any man now living. But Hatchery informs me that Mr Dickens has had recent contact with the entity. And out of Undertown. At the Staplehurst accident, to be precise. I need more information about that and about what the two of you saw in Undertown in July.” “I thought the arrangement, or at least Detective Hatchery explained it as such, was for you police and private detectives to leave the denizens of Undertown alone as long as they continue to leave us surface dwellers to our own devices,” I said drily. Field shook his head. “Drood don’t leave us alone,” he said softly. “I know for a fact that the creature has been responsible for more than three hundred murders in London alone since I first crossed his trail twenty years ago.” “Good God,” I said. The shock was real. I felt it coursing through me like a full glass of laudanum. The inspector nodded. “I need to have the information from your amateur search, Mr Collins.”

“You will have to ask Mr Dickens for any information,” I said stiffly. “It was his outing. Drood was of his interest. I assumed from the beginning that our ‘outing’— as you put it —with Detective Hatchery was part of some research that Dickens is doing for a future novel or story. I still assume that to be the case. But you will have to speak to him, Inspector.” “I went to speak to him as soon as I returned to London after my long absence and heard from Hatchery the reason for Dickens having hired him,” said Field. He rose and began pacing, walking back and forth in front of my desk. His corpulent finger was first at his mouth, then to his ear, then alongside his nose, then touching the stone egg on my desk or the ivory tusk on my bookshelf or the Persian dagger on the mantel. “Mr Dickens was in France and unavailable. He has just returned and I interviewed him yesterday. He gave me no information of any use.” “Well, Inspector…” I said, opening my hands. I set my cigar on the edge of the brass tray on my desk and rose. “You see then that there could be nothing I could add to help you. It was Mr Dickens’s research. It is Mr Dickens’s…” He pointed at me. “Did you see Drood? Were you in his presence?” I blinked. I remembered being awakened from my slumber on the subterranean brick wharf—my watch showed that it was twenty minutes after the sunrise above, after the time at which Hatchery had said he must leave—when Dickens returned in the flatbottomed boat with the two tall and silent oarsmen. He had been gone for more than three hours. Despite the real danger, despite the real risk of being attacked and eaten by the wild boys, I had dozed off while sitting cross-legged there on the damp bricks, the loaded and co*cked revolver still on my lap. “I saw no one of Mr Drood’s alleged description,” I said stiffly. “And that is all the information I intend to impart on this subject, Inspector Field. As I said and shall repeat to you for the last time, it was Mr Dickens’s outing, his research, and if he chooses not to share the details of the evening, then I am, as a gentleman, bound to a corresponding silence. I wish you good day, Inspector, and also wish you good luck on your…” I had come around the desk and opened the door for the ageing inspector, but Field had not budged from his place standing by my desk. He smoked the cigar, looked at it, and said quietly, “Do you know why Dickens was in France?” “What?” I was sure that I had heard wrong. “I said, Mr Collins, do you know why Charles Dickens was in France this week past?” “I have no idea,” I said, voice almost brittle with irritation. “Gentlemen do not pry into other gentlemen’s travel or business arrangements.” “No, indeed, they do not,” said Inspector Field and smiled again. “Dickens was in Boulogne for a few days. More specifically, he divided his time between Boulogne and the tiny village a few miles south of Boulogne, a place called Condette, where for some years, since 1860 to be precise, Mr Dickens has leased the former modest chalet and gardens of a certain Monsieur Beaucourt-Mutuel. This chalet in Condette has been the frequent residence of a certain actress, now twenty-five years of age, named Ellen Ternan, along with her mother. Charles Dickens has enjoyed their company at Condette

—some of the visits have been up to a week in length—more than fifty times since he purportedly leased, although in truth purchased, the chalet in 1860. You may want to close the door, Mr Collins.” I did so but remained standing by the closed door, thunderstruck. Counting Ellen Ternan, her mother, Dickens, and myself, there were no more than eight people in the world who had any hint of the chalet in Condette or the reason for Dickens’s many visits there. And were it not for my brother Charles’s being married into the Dickens household, I would never have learned about it myself. Inspector Field resumed his pacing, his finger by his ear as though he were hearing facts whispered to him from the digit. “Miss Ternan and her mother live full-time in England, now, of course, since the Staplehurst accident in June. We can assume that Mr Dickens was winding up their affairs—and his own—at the chalet in Condette during his recent four days in Boulogne. To do this, Mr Dickens had to retrace—precisely— the same route that he took when the Staplehurst accident occurred. We both know, Mr Collins, that this could not have been easy on Mr Dickens’s nerves… which have not been strong since the accident.” “No,” I said. What in the blazes did the man want? “After his time in Boulogne,” continued the apparently indefatigable old man, “Dickens went on to Paris for a day or two. A more suspicious mind than mine might suggest that the Paris trip was to cover his tracks, as some detectives like to say.” “Inspector Field, I do not believe that any of this is…” “Not to interrupt, sir, but you should know—for future reference as you talk to your friend in the immediate days to come—that it was while in Paris that Mr Dickens suffered a brain haemorrhage of some apparent severity.” “Dear God,” I said. “A brain haemorrhage. I’ve heard nothing about this. You are sure?” “One cannot be certain of such things, as you know, sir. But Mr Dickens was struck down in Paris, was carried to his hotel room, and for some hours was quite insensible— incapable of either responding to his interlocutors or of speaking any words that made sense. The French doctors wished to have him in hospital, but Mr Dickens put it down to ‘sunstroke’—his phrase, sir—and merely rested one day in his Paris hotel and another two in Boulogne before returning home.” I went back around the desk and collapsed into my chair. “What do you want, Inspector Field?” He looked at me and his eyes widened with innocence. “I told you what I not only want, but require, Mr Collins. Any and all information that you and Charles Dickens have on this personage called Drood.” I shook my head wearily. “You’ve come to the wrong man, Inspector. You shall have to return to Dickens to learn anything new about this phantom Drood. I know nothing at all that can help you.” Field was nodding slowly. “I will indeed return to talk to Mr Dickens again, Mr Collins. But I have not come to the wrong man. I look forward to great cooperation from you in my Droodian enquiries. I fully expect you to get the information I need from Charles

Dickens.” I laughed a trifle bitterly. “And why would I betray a friend and his trust to funnel information to you, Inspector—by honourific only—Charles Frederick Field?” He smiled at the thinly veiled insult. “The maid-servant who answered the door and showed me in, Mr Collins. She is very attractive, despite her age. Also a former actress, perhaps?” Still smiling myself, I shook my head. “As far as I know, Inspector, Mrs G—— has no history whatsoever upon the stage. If she had, it would be none of my business, sir. Just as it is none of yours now.” Field nodded and resumed his pacing, smoke trailing above and behind him, his finger back alongside his beak of a nose. “Absolutely true, sir. Absolutely true. But we can assume, nonetheless, that this is the same Mrs Caroline G—— whom you first started recording in your bank account as of 23 August, 1864—just a little more than a year ago, sir—as having received twenty pounds from you. Payments that you have made every month since then through your bank?” I was weary of this. If this despicable little man was truly attempting to blackmail me, he had chosen the wrong writer. “What of it, Inspector? Employers pay their servants.” “Indeed, sir. So I am told. And besides Mrs Caroline G——, her daughter, Harriet, I believe her name is—same name as your mother’s, sir, which is a pleasant coincidence —also receives payments from you through your bank, although in young Harriet’s case, and I believe you sometimes call her Carrie, and I believe she only recently turned fourteen years of age, sir, in young Harriet’s case the expenditures go towards her private education and music lessons.” “Is there a point to this, Inspector?” “Only that Mrs Caroline G—— and her daughter, Harriet G——, have been listed in city census and household tax records as having been both lodgers in your home and maid-servants in your employ for some years now.” I said nothing. Inspector Field quit pacing and looked at me. “All I am pointing out here, Mr Collins, is that few employers are so generous as to, first, employ former lodgers when times go hard for them and then to put one’s young maid-servant through a fine school, much less hire rather high-priced musicians to give them music lessons.” I shook my head wearily. “You may abandon this sad attempt at ungentlemanly leverage, Mr Field. My domestic arrangements are known to all of my friends, as is my resistance to marriage and towards the more unimaginative versions of middle-class life and morals. Mrs G—— and her daughter have been my guests here for some years, as you well know, and my friends accept it. Caroline has been at my table helping me entertain for years now. There is no hypocrisy here, nor anything to hide.” Field nodded, frowned, stubbed out what was left of his cigar, and said, “Your male friends, some of them, certainly do accept it, Mr Collins. Although you would agree that they do not bring their wives along when they dine at your table. And although there may not be any hypocrisy other than in your public records—in which you told city

census officials that Mrs G—— was your servant and a certain ‘Harriet Montague’ was your maid-servant, age sixteen (even though Mrs G——’s daughter, Harriet G—— , here in your home, was only ten at the time)—and other sworn statements relating to these two worthy ladies, it does explain why Mr Dickens has referred to the child Harriet as ‘the Butler’ and to her mother as ‘the Landlord’ for several years now.” This startled me. How could this man have known of Dickens’s small drolleries unless the retired inspector had men going through my most private correspondence? “Harriet is not my daughter, Inspector,” I said through gritted teeth. “Oh, no, of course not, Mr Collins,” said the old man, waving his finger and smiling. “I never meant to suggest such. Even the poorest detective would know that a certain Caroline Compton, daughter of the carpenter John Compton and his wife, Sarah, met and married a certain George Robert G——, an accountant’s clerk from Clerkenwell, and married him on… I do believe it was 30 March, 1850, sir. The young Caroline was just twenty years of age that year, George Robert G—— only a year older. Their daughter, Elizabeth Harriet, whom you prefer to call Harriet, sir, perhaps to honour your own mother, or Carrie, for reasons known only to yourself, was born in Somerset, on the outskirts of Bath, on 3 February, 1851. It’s sad that her father, George G——, came down with consumption the following year and died of it at the Moravian Cottages in Weston, near Bath, on 30 January, 1852, leaving his widow, Caroline, and twelvemonth-old baby daughter, Elizabeth Harriet. Poor Mrs G—— came to the attention of authorities a few years later, when she was running a junk shop in Charlton Street—near Fitzroy Square, I’m sure you know, sir—and ran into difficulties paying her debts. It could have been a tragic tale, possibly including a debtors prison, Mr Collins, had it not been for the intervention of a gentleman. Probably in May of 1856.” “Inspector Field,” I said, rising again, “our conversation here is over.” I moved towards the door again. “Not quite over, sir,” he said softly. I rounded on him, the fury obvious in my shaking voice and clenched fists. “I say to you, sir, do your worst. I challenge you. Your petty and dishonourable attempts to blackmail me into betraying the confidence and trust of one of my dearest friends will earn you nothing but the ridicule and disapprobation you so obviously deserve. I am a free man, sir. I have nothing to hide.” Field nodded. His forefinger, which I had already learned to despise, was tapping at his lower lip. “I am sure that is true, Mr Collins. Honest men have nothing to hide from others.” I opened the door. My hand was shaking on the brass of the handle. “Tell me before I go, sir,” said Field, picking up his top hat and moving closer, “just for my own edification… have you ever heard of a girl by the name of Martha R——?” “What?” I managed to say through a constricted throat. “Miss Martha R——,” he repeated. I closed the door so quickly that it slammed audibly. I had not seen Caroline lurking in the hallway, but she often stayed within earshot. I opened my mouth again but found no

words. That problem did not afflict the despicable Inspector Charles Frederick Field. “There’s no reason you should know Miss R——,” he said. “She’s a poor serving girl—domestic service and hostelry, to hear her poor parents tell of it, sir, and they are poor, both in finances and emotion these days. Both parents are illiterate. They’re from Winterton, sir. Her father’s male ancestors had served in the herring fleet out of Yarmouth for a century or more, but it seems that Martha’s father made do with other odd jobs around Winterton while Martha, who left home two years ago at the age of sixteen, worked in local hotels.” I could only stare at Field and force down nausea. “Do you know Winterton, sir?” asked the despicable man. “No,” I managed. “I don’t believe I do.” “Yet you took an extended holiday up Yarmouth’s way just a year ago this summer, is that not true, Mr Collins?” “Not a holiday,” I said. “What was that, sir? I could not quite understand you. The cigar smoke affecting your voice, perhaps?” “It was not a holiday, as such,” I said and walked back to my desk but did not sit. Using all ten splayed and quavering fingers, I leaned forward and supported my weight against the top of that ink-splattered desk. “It was research,” I added. “Research, sir? Oh… for one of your novels.” “Yes,” I said. For my current novel, Armadale, I needed to research some coastal waters and landscapes and such.” “Ah, yes… to be certain.” The despised man’s finger patted his own chest and then pointed towards mine. Patted, pointed. “I have read some of your book, this Armadale, which is currently being serialised in The Cornhill Magazine, if I am not mistaken. There is a fictional Hurle Mere in your tale that sounds very much like the real Horsey Mere, which can be reached by sea from Yarmouth or by taking a road north from Winterton, can it not, sir?” I said nothing for a minute. Then I said, “I enjoy sailing, Inspector. My research was part holiday, after all, to tell the full truth. I went north with two good friends of my brother, Charles.… They also enjoy sailing.” “I see.” The inspector nodded, his eyes moist and unreadable. “Telling the full truth is always a good idea, is my opinion. It avoids so many later problems if one starts with the full truth. Could those friends have been a Mr Edward Piggot and a Mr Charles Ward, sir?” I was beyond surprise. This creature with the moist eyes and corpulent forefinger appeared to be more omniscient than any narrator in any tale written by me, by Dickens, by Chaucer, by Shakespeare, or by any other mortal writer. And more evil than any villain created by any of us, Iago included. I continued to lean on my desk as my splayed fingers turned white with pressure and I continued to listen. “Miss Martha R—— turned eighteen last summer, Mr Collins. Her family believes that

she met a man last year, last July to be precise, either at the Fisherman’s Return in Winterton itself or in the hotel in Yarmouth where she was then working as a maid.” He stopped. His forefinger tapped at the dead cigar in the brass tray as if his finger alone could breathe its embers back to life. I was almost surprised that it did not succeed. I took a breath. “Are you telling me that this… this Miss R——… is missing, Inspector? Or murdered? Presumed dead by her family and the authorities in Winterton or Yarmouth?” The man laughed. “Oh, bless me, no, sir. Not at all. Nothing like that. They’ve all seen young Martha, on and off, since she reported meeting this ‘nice gentleman’ last summer. But she has gone missing in a way, sir.” “Oh?” “Yes. This summer, this June to be precise, when the ‘nice gentleman’ appears by all accounts to have made yet another short trip to Yarmouth, perhaps as part of his work, Martha R—— seems to have disappeared for a while from Winterton and Yarmouth but, if such unofficial reports are to be believed, to have made an appearance here in London.” “Really?” I said. I had never fired the huge two-barrelled pistol that Detective Hatchery had given me. After unco*cking the massive thing, I had carried it up and out of the levels of sewers and catacombs with me and—in our tremendous relief in finding Hatchery waiting for us despite the late hour and obvious sunshine outside the crypt—given it back to the hulking detective. I wished now that I had kept the weapon. “Yes,” said Inspector Field. “Rumour has it that the nineteen-year-old domestic servant from Winterton is currently staying in a rented room on Bolsover Street—the elderly landlady lives there as well, although I am told that lodgers have a separate entrance to their rooms. I think I am not mistaken in saying that Bolsover Street is not so great a walk from where we stand now, in Melcombe Place near Dorset Square.” “You are not mistaken,” I said. If voices could be said to have colours, mine was absolutely colourless. “And I believe I am not mistaken if I say that Mrs Caroline G——, with whom you have lived in a condition very similar to man and wife, if I may say so, although without society’s and God’s blessings as such, for a period of almost ten years now, nor her daughter, Miss Harriet G——, whom you treat very honourably and generously, as if she were your own child, know of the existence of Miss Martha R——, formerly a hotel maid-servant in Yarmouth and currently a lodger on Bolsover Street, much less the role Miss R—— currently plays in your life.” “Yes,” I said. “I mean, no.” “And I also believe I am not mistaken, Mr Collins, if I were to say that it would not be in your interest or in the interest of the two ladies who live under this roof with you were this knowledge to become known… to them or to anyone else.” “You are not mistaken.” “Good, good,” said Inspector Field. He picked up his top hat but made no move to leave. “I dislike being mistaken about things, Mr Collins.”

I nodded. My legs suddenly felt too weak to support me. “Would you by any chance be planning to go see Mr Dickens soon, sir?” asked the detective, spinning his top hat while tapping its brim with his accursed forefinger. “And, in the course of your visit, have an opportunity to speak with him about his possible meeting with the personage called Drood in the Undertown tunnels some two months ago?” “Yes,” I said and sat down. “And do we have an understanding, sir, that such information as you elicit from Mr Dickens will be shared with me as soon as is humanly possible?” I nodded again. “Very good, sir. There will be a boy waiting on your street, Mr Collins. Just a street urchin—a crossing sweeper named Gooseberry—although you needn’t hunt for him, sir. He has been directed to watch for you. If you tap the lamp post at the corner with your stick or an umbrella, the lad will make himself known to you. Day or night, sir. He will wait as long as needs be. The local constable has agreed not to ‘move him along,’ as we men on the beat tend to say. Send any message you might have for me, verbal or written, along with Gooseberry and I will be in touch with you immediately. I will consider such information a huge favour, Mr Collins. Ask anyone in London if Inspector Charles Frederick Field ever forgets a favour and you will hear that he does not. Is all that clear, sir?” “Yes.” When I looked up, Inspector Field was gone. I could hear Caroline closing the door behind him downstairs and I could hear her footsteps on the main stairs. Nothing of the inspector remained behind except for the pall of blue smoke near the ceiling in my study.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Gad’s Hill Place gave the strong impression of a gay, relaxed family retreat when I arrived there in mid-afternoon on the crisp early-autumn day after Inspector Field’s visit to my home. It was a Saturday, so the children and visitors were outside playing. I had to admit to myself that Gad’s Hill was the very model of a happy family’s beloved country

home. Of course, Charles Dickens wanted Gad’s Hill to be the very model of a happy family’s beloved country home. In fact, Charles Dickens insisted that everyone within his circle do his or her part to maintain the image, fiction, and—I am certain that he hoped, despite the absence of the family’s mother, now banished, and despite tensions from within and without the family—the reality of a happy family’s beloved country home: nothing more complicated than a gay early-autumn retreat for the hardworking author and his worshipful, loving, and appreciative family and their friends. At times, I confess, I felt like Candide to Charles Dickens’s Dr Pangloss. Dickens’s daughter Kate was in the yard and approached me as I walked up the lane, sweating and mopping my neck and forehead with my handkerchief. It was, as I said, a crisp autumn day, but I had walked from the train station and was not used to the exercise. Also, in preparation for the meeting with Dickens, I had taken two glasses of my laudanum medicine much earlier in the day than I was used to doing, and while there were no negative effects from the medicine, I admit that the yard, the grass, the trees, the playing children, and Kate Macready Dickens Collins herself appeared to have a corona of golden glow around them. “Hello, Wilkie,” cried Kate as she came closer and took my hand. “We have seen too little of you in recent days.” “Hello, Katey. Is my brother here with you this weekend?” “No, no. He was not feeling well and decided to stay at Clarence Terrace. I will rejoin him this evening.” I nodded. “The Inimitable?” “In his chalet, finishing up a bit of work on this year’s Christmas tale.” “I didn’t know the chalet was ready for habitation,” I said. “It is. All furnished as of last month. Father has been working there every day since then. He should be stopping any minute so that he can get his afternoon walk in. I’m sure he won’t mind if you interrupt him. It is a Saturday, after all. Shall I walk you through the tunnel?” “That is a lovely idea,” I said. We strolled across the lawn towards the road. The chalet to which Kate was referring had been a gift the previous Christmas from the actor Charles Fechter. According to my brother, who was one of the guests who stayed from Christmas Eve 1864 until the fifth of January, it wasn’t the happiest of Christmases, not the least reason being that Dickens somehow had convinced himself that my brother, Charles, was dying rather than merely indisposed due to his frequent digestive problems. Of course, this may have been more wish than honest diagnosis on Dickens’s part; Katey’s marriage to Charles in 1860 had upset the author beyond the point of tears and quite to the point of distraction. Dickens felt that he had been abandoned in his time of need by an impatient daughter, and—indeed—that was precisely the case. Even my brother understood that Kate was not in love with him. She simply needed to escape Charles Dickens’s household after the upset brought about by her father’s banishment of their mother.

Kate—“Katey,” as so many of us called her—was not a great beauty, but of all the Dickens children, she was the only one who had inherited her father’s quickness, his wit, a more sardonic version of his sense of humour, his impatience with others, his speech patterns, and even many of his mannerisms. She had let my brother know, even as she was more or less proposing to him, that it would be a marriage of escape and convenience for her rather than one of love. Charles agreed. So the cold, claustrophobically indoor Christmas of 1864 had been somewhat dour at the Dickens home at Gad’s Hill, certainly compared to the great family-and-guest festivals of previous years at Tavistock House, at least until Christmas Day morning, when Charles Fechter presented to the Inimitable… an entire Swiss chalet. Fechter, who was a strange man himself, brooding, sallow, given to explosions of temper towards his wife and others (but never towards Dickens), announced after breakfast that the mysterious crates and boxes he had brought with him were a disassembled “miniature chalet,” although—as the group soon discovered—not so miniature after all. It was an actual full-sized chalet, quite large enough to live in should one choose to do so. Energised, excited, Dickens immediately announced that all “strong and healthy bachelor guests”—by which he obviously meant to exclude my brother for more faults than not being a bachelor—should rush outside into the bitter cold to assemble his gift. But Dickens and his guests Marcus Stone (who was indeed a large and powerful man) and Henry Chorley and various male servants and gardeners and local handymen all summoned from their Christmas Days by the hearth found the fifty-eight boxes (there were ninety-four large, numbered pieces in all) more than they could manage. Fechter called for his French carpenter at the Lyceum to finish the job. The chalet—which turned out to be so much more than the oversized dollhouse Dickens had anticipated when looking at the packing crates—now stood on the author’s extra property on the other side of the Rochester High Road. Shaded by tall cedars, it was a lovely gingerbread chalet of two storeys with a large, single ground-floor room and a first-floor room with a fretted balcony which one reached by an outside staircase. Dickens took a great and boyish delight in his chalet, and when the ground thawed that spring, he had workmen dig a pedestrian tunnel under the road so that the author would be able to pass all the way from his house to the chalet without being observed, disturbed, or run down by some runaway pony cart. Kate had told me how Dickens had applauded like a child when the workmen broke through at the centre in their tunnel, and then brought everyone—guests, children, workmen, gawking neighbours, and idlers from the Sir John Falstaff Inn across the road—into the house for grog. As we reached the tunnel and began the cool stroll through it, Kate asked, “What are you and Father doing on all these long, secretive nights, Wilkie? Even Charles does not seem to know.” “What in heaven’s name are you talking about, Katey?” She looked at me in the dim light. She had taken my arm and now she squeezed it. “You know what I mean, Wilkie. Please don’t be coy. Even with the press of finishing Our

Mutual Friend and his other work, even with his current terror of rail travel, Father has been disappearing at least one night a week, sometimes twice a week, since that first secret adventure you and he shared in July. Georgina confirms this. He leaves in the evening, taking the slow train into London, and returns very, very late—as late as midmorning the next day—and won’t tell Georgina or any of us a word about the reasons for these nocturnal prowls. And now this most recent trip to France and him returning after a sunstroke. We’ve all assumed, even Charles, that you have introduced Father to some new form of debauchery in London and that he may have tried it on his own in Paris and found it too much for his constitution.” Beneath Kate’s bantering tone, I could hear the real concern. Patting her arm, I said, “Well, you know that we gentlemen are honour bound to protect each other’s secrets, Katey… such as they are. And you, of all women, know that male writers are a mysterious species—we’re always out doing some odd research about the world here or there, day or night.” She looked at me in the gloom of the tunnel and her eyes seemed luminous and dissatisfied. “And you also know,” I continued, my voice so soft that it was almost absorbed by the bricks overhead and under our feet, “that your father would never do anything to dishonour himself or your family. You must know that, Katey.” “Hmmm,” said Kate. Dishonouring himself and his family was precisely what Kate Macready Dickens Collins honestly believed her father had already done in the affair of the banishment of her mother and his pursuit of Ellen Ternan. “Here,” she said, freeing her arm. “The light at the end of the tunnel, Wilkie. I shall leave you to it. And to him.” MY DEAR WILKIE! Come in, come in! I was just thinking about you. Welcome to my eyrie. Step in, dear friend.” Dickens had jumped up from his small writing table and heartily shaken my hand as I’d stopped at the open door of his upstairs room. I confess that I had not been sure how he would greet me after the relative silence and separation of the past two months. His warmth surprised me and made me feel all that much more the traitor and spy. “I am just jotting down revisions to the last line or two of this year’s Christmas story,” he said with enthusiasm. “A thing called ‘Cheap Jack’ that I assure you, my dear Wilkie, will be a great hit with the readers. Very popular, is my prediction. Perhaps my best since ‘The Bells.’ The idea occurred to me in France. I shall finish in a minute and then I am yours for the afternoon and evening, my friend.” “By all means,” I said and stepped back as Dickens returned to his table and quill, striking out with great flourishes and writing between the lines and in the margins. He reminded me of an energetic conductor in front of an attentive and obedient orchestra of words. I could almost hear the notes as his quill rose, swung, dipped, scratched, lifted, and swept down again. I admired the view from Dickens’s “eyrie” and had to admit that it was wonderful. The chalet, standing between two tall, shading cedars that stirred now in the wind, had many

windows that looked out over fields of ripened corn, forests, and more fields, and even allowed glimpses of the Thames, with the white movement of sails there. From the roof of Gad’s Hill Place across the road, I knew, one could easily see London in the distance, but from the chalet the view was more bucolic, with the distant river, a glimpse of the spire of Rochester Cathedral, and the yellowing and rustling fields of corn. Traffic was light today on the Rochester Road. Dickens had outfitted his eyrie with a bright brass telescope on a wooden tripod, and I could imagine him pondering the moon at night and the ladies in their yachts on the Thames on warm summer days. Where there were no windows, there were mirrors. I counted five mirrors. Dickens loved mirrors. Every bedroom in his Tavistock House and now at Gad’s Hill Place had always sported multiple mirrors and there were mirrors in hallways and foyers and a large one in his study. The effect up here in his chalet was to make one feel rather as if he were standing on an open platform—a child’s house in a tall tree, minus all walls—with sunlight and blue sky and foliage and yellow fields and far views reflected everywhere. The breezes that passed freely through the open windows carried the scent of foliage and flowers, of the fields beyond, of the smoke from someone burning leaves or weeds from a field nearby, and even the salt tang smell of the sea. I could not help but think how totally opposite this world of Charles Dickens was from our night expedition to Opium Sal’s den and then the unmitigated nightmare of Undertown. All of that darkness seemed to be fading like the bad dream it had been. The daylight and clean scent of this world were real—as glowing and pulsing as it seemed through the pulse of my medicinal laudanum. I could not see how that reeking darkness of the catacombs and sewers, nor even the slums above, could co-exist with this clean reality. “There,” cried Dickens. “Done. For now.” He blotted his last page and set it with others in a leather portfolio. He rose and took his favourite blackthorn walking stick from its place in a corner. “I’ve not had my walk today. Shall we away, my dear Wilkie?” “By all means,” I said again, although with less conviction this time. He surveyed me with eyes at once analytical, amused, and mocking. “I thought perhaps a quick trek past Cobham Wood and then to Chalk and Gravesend and home again.” “Ah,” I said. That would be twelve hard miles. “Ah,” I said again and nodded. “But what about your guests? And children? Is this not the hour you usually play with them, amuse them, show the guests the stables?” Dickens’s smile was mischievous. “Is there another invalid in the family today, my dear Wilkie?” I knew that by “family” he meant the Collins family. It seemed he would never cease the harping on my younger brother’s presumed illness. “A minor disposition,” I said brusquely. “The rheumatical gout which pursues me from time to time, as you know, my dear Dickens. It chooses to be a bit difficult today. A shorter romp would suit me.” A slow walk next door to the Sir John Falstaff Inn would have suited me perfectly was the message I intended to send. “But your gout is not in your legs, is this not true, my dear Wilkie?”

“That is largely true,” I said, unwilling to tell him that this gout hurt every part of my person when it spread as it had threatened to that morning. Without the early double doses of laudanum, I would have been in bed. “It tends to afflict my eyes and head the most.” “Very well,” sighed Dickens. “I had hoped for a walking partner today—the Forsters are my guests this weekend and John has given up all exertion since coming into his wife’s fortune, as I am sure you know—but we shall make a short outing of it, you and I, just over to Chatham and Fort Pitt, through Cooling Marsh and home. I shall make up the difference this evening, alone.” I nodded, although still without enthusiasm. That would be six miles and more with Dickens’s unrelenting pace of four miles per hour exactly. My head and joints throbbed in anticipation. IT WAS NOT as bad as I had feared. The afternoon was so pleasant, the air so cool, the scents so invigorating, that I kept up with Dickens as he led the way down the road to a lane, from lane to path, from path to grassy ruts along a canal, from the canal tow path through autumn fields of grain—taking care never to tread on a farmer’s crop—and from the field to shady forest trail, then back to the roadside again and onward. During the first half hour of silent walking—or rather, my silent walking, since Dickens chatted amiably the whole way, discussing Forster’s increased Podsnapperies, the problems within the Guild, details of his son Alfred’s business ineptitude and his daughter Mary’s diminishing prospects for marriage, grousings about the Negro uprising in Jamaica that still rankled him, observations on his youngest son Plorn’s apparent laziness and lack of intellectual depth—I spent my time nodding and thinking of how to trick the information desired by Inspector Field out of Charles Dickens. Finally I surrendered that approach and said, “Inspector Field came to visit me yesterday.” “Oh, yes,” Dickens said casually, his blackthorn rising and falling with his stride. “I assumed that to be the case.” “You’re not surprised?” “Hardly, my dear Wilkie. The wretched man was here at Gad’s Hill on Thursday. I assumed that you would be his next victim. Did he threaten you?” “Yes,” I said. “With what, may I ask? He was quite clumsy and heavy-handed with his minor attempts to blackmail me.” “He threatened me with public exposure of… my domestic situation.” The only thing I was secure about at the moment was that Dickens did not know—could not have known —about the existence of Miss Martha R——. Inspector Field obviously knew, but it would not have been in his interest to tell the Inimitable. Dickens laughed easily. “Threatened to tell the world about your Landlord and Butler, eh? Much as I had guessed, Wilkie. Much as I had guessed. Mr Field is a bully but—as is true of so many bully boys—not the ripest grape on the vine. How little he knows of

your free spirit and disregard for society’s opinions if he thinks that such a revelation would cause you to turn traitor. All of your friends know that you have skeletons in your closet—two delightful and witty female skeletons, to be precise—and none of your friends gives a fig for the fact.” “Yes,” I said. “But why is he so eager to have this information on Drood? He acts as if his life depends upon it.” We passed from the road to a path that wound its way through and around Cooling Marsh. “In a very real sense, our Mr Field’s life does depend on discovering whether Mr Drood is real and where to find him if he is,” said Dickens. “And you notice that I refer to our blackmailing friend as Mr Field, not Inspector Field.” “Yes,” I said as we stepped gingerly from stone to stone in an especially swampy part of the path. “Field mentioned to me that his title was honourary now that he does his detective work in private life.” “A self-appointed honour that the Detective Bureau of Scotland Yard and of the Metropolitan Police do not appreciate, my dear Wilkie. I’ve kept some tabs on our Mr Field since I—if you forgive the immodesty—immortalised him as Inspector Bucket in Bleak House or even earlier, in my admiring little essay about him, “On Duty With Inspector Field,” in our Household Words in 1851. He left his official capacity shortly after that, you know… 1853, I do believe.” “But you admired him then,” I said. “At least enough to create a fascinating character out of him.” Dickens laughed again as we turned back around the marsh towards distant Gad’s Hill. “Oh, I admire many people for their potential as characters, my dear Wilkie, yourself not excluded. How else could I have suffered the Podsnapperies of Forster all these years? But there has always been the pungent scent of the schoolhouse bully hovering about our dear Mr Field, and bullies always tend to overreach and be called to task.” “You’re saying that he is out of favour with Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police,” I said. “Quite so, Wilkie. Did you happen to follow the notorious Palmer poisoning case some time ago… my, a decade ago now. How time, to coin a phrase, does fly. At any rate, did you follow that in the papers or at the Club?” “No. I can’t say that I did.” “No matter,” said Dickens. “Let us just say that our retired Inspector Field was involved with the sensational murder case, was quite popular with the press, and insisted on using the title Inspector Field. In truth, Wilkie, I believe our corpulently digited friend actively encouraged the press and populace to believe that he was still affiliated with the Metropolitan Police. And his successors there, the real police detectives and inspectors, did not appreciate it, Wilkie. Not one small smattering did they appreciate it. So they stopped his pension.” I stopped in my tracks. “His pension?” I cried. “His bloody pension? The man interrogates you and tries to blackmail me, all for a… bloody… pension?”

Dickens obviously was irked to be thrown off his walking rhythm, but he stopped, hacked at some weeds with his blackthorn, and actually smiled. “Yes, for his pension. Our fauxinspector acquaintance has his Private Enquiry Bureau and makes some money through it—indeed, I paid a pretty penny for our hulking friend Hatchery’s one night of effort on our behalf—but you may remember me once telling you, Wilkie, how… avaricious is not too strong a word, I think… avaricious this former policeman named Field was, is, and ever shall be. He cannot abide not receiving his pension. I do believe he would murder to get it back.” I blinked at that. “But why Drood?” I asked at last. “What will it gain him if he finds this phantom Drood?” “It may gain him his pension,” said Dickens as we resumed our walk. “Or so he thinks. At this very moment, Home Secretary Sir George Grey is reviewing Field’s suspension of payments, after the long growling from Field’s solicitor—not a cheap undertaking that, I can assure you!—and I am quite sure that Mr Field, in his aged delusions…” I did not interrupt here to remind him that Charles Frederick Field was only some seven years older than Dickens himself. “. . . has concocted a deus ex machina plot in his own mind in which, when he tracks down and captures this criminal mastermind Drood… a spectral figure who evaded Chief Inspector Field some twenty years ago… the Home Secretary and Scotland Yard Detective Bureau and all of his former friends and indifferent successors at the Metropolitan Police shall not only forgive him, and reinstate his pension, but be forced to crown him with laurel leaves and carry him to Waterloo Station on their burly shoulders.” “And is he a criminal mastermind?” I asked softly. “This Drood? Field told me last night that Drood murdered some three hundred persons over the years…” Dickens glanced at me again. I noticed that the wrinkles and furrows in his face had grown deeper over the summer. “Do you believe that figure to be reliable, my dear Wilkie?” “I… have no idea,” I said. “It does sound preposterous, I admit. I do not remember hearing of any three hundred unsolved murders, in Whitechapel or anywhere else. But that was an uncanny place we went to, Dickens. Uncanny. And you never told me what occurred after you left me in that absurd boat.” “No, I have not,” said Dickens. “And I promised you that night that I would tell you someday soon, my friend. And two months have passed. I am sorry for that delay.” “The delay is no matter,” I said. The headache was returning even as the laudanum glow around everything faded. “But I would like to know what occurred that night. I would like to know what you have learned about this Drood we spent the night chasing.” Dickens glanced at me again. “And I would have no concern about our mutual friend Field blackmailing this information out of you?” I stopped. “Dickens!” He did not stop with me, but he walked backwards, twirling his blackthorn and smiling. “I am joking, my dear Wilkie. Joking. Come… catch up to me; don’t falter our pace at

this advanced point. Catch up to me and walk alongside and pray quiet your wheezing to a mere bellows roar and I shall tell you all about that night after I left you on the brick quay in the sewers beneath the catacombs in Undertown.”

CHAPTER NINE

After I left you sitting there on the quay,” said Dickens, “I attempted to pay some attention to that rather absurd little boat I was in. “The craft rather reminded me of my character Hexam Gaffer’s miserable little boat from which he tows corpses and other found things from the Thames, but in this case as if some demented carpenter had decided to turn it into a parody of a Venetian gondola. As I studied the two tall, silent figures, one at the tiller or sweep in the stern, the other poling from the raised bow, they became less and less attractive to me, Wilkie. Their gold-dust-bedangled domino masks and smoked glasses disguised little more than their eyes, so I could tell they were male, but only nominally so. You know how angels portrayed in frescoes in the great Papist cathedrals on the Continent are disturbingly androgynous, my dear Wilkie? Well, my companions in this tiny boat were decidedly more so, and that androgyny was emphasised rather than diminished by the absurd medieval tights and tunics they were wearing. I decided to think of the castrato in the bow as Venus and the eunuch at the stern as Mercury. “We poled down the broad stream of sewage for some hundred yards or more. I glanced back, but I do not believe you ever looked my way before our gondola-scull went around a bend and we were lost to each other’s view, you and I. The small lanterns dangling from iron rods near the bow and stern did little to illuminate the rushing waterway. My primary impression was of lantern light reflected from the moist and dripping arch of bricks above us. “I dare say I do not have to remind you, Wilkie, of the terrible stench of that first tributary. I was not sure that I could tolerate it for long without becoming physically sick. But luckily, after a few hundred yards of that reeking Styx, the masked form at our tiller turned us into a side tunnel so narrow that I was sure it was nothing more than a sewer pipe. Both Mercury and Venus had to bow low—I did as well—as they moved us along by pressing their gloved palms to the bricks of the low ceiling and encroaching

sides. Then the way opened into a wider stream—and I say ‘stream’ advisedly, Wilkie, since this was less a sewer than a bricked and contained underground river, as wide as any aboveground tributary to the Thames. Did you know that some rivers have been partially or completely covered over in London… the Fleet, for instance? Of course you did. But one never thinks of their subterranean sections. “My androgynous escorts piloted our little craft downstream for a long while and here— I must warn you, my dear Wilkie—the narrative becomes fantastical. “Our first escort that night, Detective Hatchery, had called this subterranean world ‘Undertown,’ as had the Chinese opium apparition King Lazaree, but now I saw that this connected labyrinth of cellars, sub-cellars, sewers, caverns, side caverns, buried ditches, abandoned mines from some age before our city existed, forgotten catacombs, and partially constructed tunnels was quite literally a city beneath the city, a sort of terrible London beneath London. A true Undertown. “We rode the slow current for some time, and as my eyes adapted to the darkness along the sides of this wider stream, I realised that I was seeing people. People, my dear Wilkie. Not merely more of the Wild Boys, who were like the feral dogs or real wolves that once circled the outskirts of some medieval village, but actual people. Families. Children. Cooking fires. Crude hovels and stretched canvases and mattresses and even some stoves and discarded, sagging furniture set in amongst the niches in the brick walls and in the side caverns and on wide, muddy banks along this part of the tunnel. “Here and there blue flames rose from the mud and ooze itself, rather like the flames which flicker on a Christmas pudding, Wilkie, and some of these wretched human forms huddled near these gaseous eruptions for light and warmth. “And then, just as I thought Venus and Mercury were going to keep poling us down these dark, watery avenues forever, the way widened, and we came to an actual landing… broad stone steps carved into the rock wall of the tunnel with bright torches blazing on either side. Mercury tied us up. Venus helped me step out of the bobbing boat. Both of them stayed aboard the boat, motionless and silent, as I climbed those steps towards a brass door. “There were large Egyptian statues carved from the stone on both sides of this staircase, Wilkie, and more carvings above the door, the kinds of ancient forms one sees in the British Museum and perhaps feels uncomfortable about being amongst on a winter’s evening shortly before closing time. There were black bronze bodies of men with jackal heads or the heads of birds. There were forms holding staffs, sceptres, and curved crooks. The stone lintel above the broad doorway was carved with the sorts of picturewriting—hieroglyphics, they are called—one sees in illustrations of obelisks in books about Napoleon’s adventures along the Nile. It was like a child’s version of writing featuring carved wavy lines and birds and eyeballs… many bird-shapes. “Two large, silent, but living and breathing black men—the word ‘Nubians’ came to mind as I passed them—stood just outside these massive doors and opened them for me as I approached. They were dressed in black robes that left their huge arms and chests bare and they carried strange hooked staffs that looked to be made of iron.

“Based on the imposing entrance stairs from the subterranean river, making a guess based on the statuary and bas-reliefs outside, and judging from the men at the door, I expected that I was entering a temple, but although the echoing, lantern-lit interior did have something of the hushed air of a heathen temple about it, in truth it was more library than temple. Shelves in the first room I passed through and along the walls of rooms I glanced into held scrolls, tablets, and many much more mundane books. I glimpsed scholarly and reference titles such as one might find in any fine library. The rooms were sparsely furnished with a few tables illuminated by torches or hanging braziers and the occasional low, backless couch of the sort historians tell us were present in some patrician’s home in ancient Rome or Greece or Egypt. I could see various figures moving, sitting, or standing in these rooms, and most looked to be Lascar or Magyar or Hindoo or Chinese. But there were no ancient opium sleepers—no beds or bunks or opium pipes nor sign nor smell of the wretched drug. I noticed that most of the men in the various rooms, for whatever reason, had shaved their heads. “Drood was waiting for me in the second room, Wilkie. He sat at a small table near a hissing lantern. Various books and scrolls covered the table, but I noticed that he was drinking tea from Wedgwood china. He was dressed in a tan robe that made him look quite different than my impression of him as a poorly tailored undertaker at Staplehurst —much more dignified—but his deformities were even more apparent in the lantern light: his scarred head almost devoid of hair, the missing eyelids, a nose that looked to have been mostly amputated in some terrible surgery, the slight harelip, and ears that were little more than stubs. He rose and offered his hand as I approached. “ ‘Welcome, Mr Dickensss,’ he said with that hint of lisp and slide of sibilants which I have so unsuccesfully tried to reproduce for you. ‘I knew you would come,’ he said as he arranged the tea set. “ ‘How did you know that I would come, Mr Drood?’ I asked, accepting his handshake and forcing myself not to flinch at the touch of his cold, white flesh. “He smiled, Wilkie, and I was reminded that his teeth were small, oddly spaced, and very sharp, while his pink tongue seemed extraordinarily quick and busy behind them. ‘You are a man of great curiosity, Mr Dickensss,’ Drood said to me. ‘I know thiss from your many wonderful booksss and storiess. All of which I have admired very much indeed.’ “ ‘Thank you, sir, you are very kind’ was my reply. You can imagine the sense of oddness, my dear Wilkie, sitting in this underground Undertown temple-library with this odd man who already, since the Staplehurst terror, had become a fixture of my dreams, hearing him praise my books rather as if I had just completed a reading in Manchester. “Before I could think of anything else to say, Drood poured tea into the lovely cup set before me and said, ‘I am sure that you have questionsss for me.’ “ ‘I do, indeed, Mr Drood,” I said to him. ‘And I hope you will not consider them impertinent or overly personal. There is in me, I confess, a great curiosity as to your background, how you came to be here in this… place, why you were on the tidal train from Folkestone that terrible day at Staplehurst… everything.’

“ ‘Then I shall tell you everything, Mr Dickensss,’ said my strange interlocutor. “I spent the next half hour or so drinking tea and listening to his story, my dear Wilkie. Would you care to hear a summary of Drood’s biography now, or shall we save it for another day?” I LOOKED AROUND. We were within a mile of Gad’s Hill Place. I realised I was panting from the speed and distance of our walk, but my headache had been all but forgotten while I was listening to this fantastical tale. I said, “By all means, Dickens. Let us hear the end of this story.” “It is not the end, my dear Wilkie,” said Dickens, his blackthorn stick rising and falling with his every second stride. “More the beginning, if truth be told. But I shall tell you what Drood told me that night, albeit in summarised form, since I see our destination in sight.” THE MAN WE CALL DROOD is the son of an English father and an Egyptian mother. His father, a certain John Frederick Forsyte, was born in the last century, graduated from Cambridge, and trained as a civil engineer, although the man’s real passion was exploration, adventure, and literature. I have checked this out, Wilkie. Forsyte himself was a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, but is remembered today as a teller of traveller’s tales. Part of his training was in Paris—this was after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when Englishmen felt free to return to France, of course—and there Forsyte met numerous scientists who had gone to Egypt with Napoleon’s expedition to that country. The tales he heard made him eager to see such exotic sights—the Sphinx that the French artillery had taken potshots at, successfully shooting off its nose, the Pyramids, the people, the cities, and, yes, the women. Forsyte was young and single, and some of the Frenchmen’s tales of alluring Mohammadan women with their veils and kohl-enhanced eyes inflamed his desire for something more than travel. “Within the year, Forsyte had arranged to travel to Egypt with an English engineering company that had been contracted by a French company owned by someone John Frederick Forsyte had met socially in Paris, hired by Egypt’s young ruler, Mehemet Ali. It was Ali who first attempted to introduce Western knowledge and improvements into Egypt. “As an engineer, Forsyte was staggered by the knowledge of the Egyptian ancients as evidenced in their Pyramids, colossal ruins, and networks of canals along the Nile. As an adventurer, the young man was exhilarated by Cairo and the other Egyptian cities, and even more so by his expeditions out of these cities to more remote ruins and sites up the Nile. As a man, Forsyte found the Egyptian women just as alluring as the Frenchmen’s tales had promised. “It was during his first year in Cairo that Forsyte met the young Egyptian widow who would become Drood’s mother. She lived near the quarter where the English and French engineers and other contractors were essentially quarantined away from proper society —Forsyte’s lodgings were in a converted carpet warehouse—and the woman spoke

English, came from a wealthy and ancient Alexandrian family (her late husband had been a merchant in Cairo), and attended various dinners and gatherings arranged by the English engineering company. Her name was Amisi, meaning ‘flower,’ and many Englishmen and Frenchmen and Egyptian men told Forsyte that her quiet beauty earned her the right to the name. “Despite the Mohammadan prejudice against Franks and Christians, the courtship with the young widow was simple—several times Amisi had “accidentally” allowed Forsyte to see her face without a veil near the bathing place where the local women gathered, which was any Egyptian woman’s tacit acceptance of engagement—and they were married under Mohammadan law without elaborate ceremony. In truth, it took only a single sentence muttered by Drood’s future mother to seal the marriage. “The boy whom we now call Drood was born ten months later. His father named the boy Jasper, which meant nothing to the mother, neighbours, or the poor lad’s future playmates, who tended to beat the halfbreed lad like a rented mule. For almost four years, Forsyte raised the boy as a future English gentleman, demanded that only English be spoken in the home, tutored his son in his spare time, and announced that the boy’s future education would be at fine schools in England. Amisi had no say in the matter. But—luckily for young Jasper John Forsyte-Drood’s future survival—his father was gone more often than he was home, working on engineering projects that took him great distances from Cairo and his wife and child. On the street, young Jasper John Forsyte travelled in rags by his mother’s side—it was important, Amisi knew, that the other adults and children not know how well-off young Jasper truly was. His playmates, or even Egyptian adults, might have murdered the light-skinned boy had they known the extent of his infidel father’s wealth. “Then, as suddenly as whim had brought him to Egypt, John Frederick Forsyte’s Egyptian engineering work ended and he followed whim back to England and a new life. He left his Mohammadan wife and mixed-breed child behind without so much as a letter of regret. They never heard from him again. “Drood’s mother was now twice disgraced—firstly for marrying a Christian and secondly for being abandoned by him. Her friends, neighbours, and relatives blamed her for both tragedies. One day while with the other women bathing, Amisi was dragged away by several men whose faces were hidden behind scarves, made to stand trial before a court of other faceless men, sentenced to be paraded through the streets on a highsaddled ass surrounded by the local police and by howling mobs of men, and then stoned to death by yet another crowd of men while ululating women in their black robes and veils looked on with satisfaction from rooftops and doorways. “But when the police arrived to seize the dead woman’s child at Forsyte’s former home in the Old Quarter near the river warehouses, the boy was gone. Servants, neighbours, and relatives denied sheltering him. Homes were searched, but no trace of the child was found. Even his clothes and toys had been left behind, as if the boy had simply stepped out into the courtyard and been carried into the sky or dragged into the river by animals. It was assumed that upon hearing of Amisi’s execution for the crime of immorality,

some well-meaning neighbour or servant had told four-year-old Jasper to run and he had simply found his way to the desert and perished. “But this was obviously not the case. “You see, Wilkie, a wealthy and important uncle of Amisi’s, a rug merchant named Amun who lived in Alexandria—a man who had always doted on his niece and had been sad when her first marriage had taken her away to Cairo and even sadder when he had heard she had married an infidel—also had heard of the Englishman’s abandoning her and had made the trip to Cairo to urge Amisi to bring her child and to return to Alexandria with him. Amun, whose name meant “the hidden one,” was almost an old man, but he had young wives. Besides being a rug merchant by day, Amun was by night a priest from one of the secret temples celebrating the old religion—the ancient, pagan, pharaonic, pre-Mohammadan religion of Egyptians before they had all been converted under the scimitar to Mohammadanism—and had been determined to convince Amisi to join him. “He was only an hour late. Arriving in the neighbourhood just in time to see the execution of his niece but with no chance to stop it, he rushed to Amisi’s house—the servants were sleeping in the heat of the day; the neighbours were off enjoying the stoning—and he stole young Jasper John Forsyte out of his bed and left Cairo immediately with the tiny boy clinging frantically around his waist on horseback. Young Jasper would not have known that Amun was his great-uncle or that his mother was dead, imagining in his four-year-old child’s mind that he was being kidnapped by a desert bandit. Together, old man and young boy, they galloped Uncle Amun’s white stallion out through the gates of Cairo and down the desert road to Alexandria. “There in his home city, within the walls of his fortress of a compound guarded by his clan’s well-armed circle of guards, fellow priests, and loyal Alexandrian assassins, Uncle Amun took Jasper in as one of his own without ever revealing the boy’s identity to anyone. The morning after young Jasper John Forsyte awoke in his strange new surroundings, Uncle Amun took him out to a pen and told him to choose a goat. Young Drood took his time the way only a four-year-old boy can, Wilkie, and finally chose the largest and silkiest white goat, one with the Devil’s own vertically slitted eyes. Uncle Amun nodded and smiled, told the boy to take the goat from the pen, and led the bleating animal and the boy to a private courtyard deep within the sprawling compound. There Uncle Amun, no longer smiling, pulled a long, curved dagger from his belt, handed it to the boy, and said, ‘This goat is all that there remains of the boy once known as Jasper John Forsyte, son of the English infidel John Forsyte and the shamed woman called Amisi. Jasper John Forsyte dies here, now, this morning, and none of these names shall ever be mentioned again—not by you, upon pain of your death, not by anyone else, upon pain of death.’ “And then Uncle Amun put his powerful hand over little Jasper John’s hand on the hilt of the dagger and quickly slashed the goat’s throat. The still-thrashing animal bled to death in seconds. Droplets of blood spattered the four-year-old’s white trousers and shirt. “ ‘From this moment forward, your name is Drood,’ said Uncle Amun.

“Drood was not Amun’s family name, Wilkie. It was not even a common Egyptian name. Its meaning was, in fact, lost in the mists of time and secret religious rites. “In the years that followed, Uncle Amun introduced the boy to the secret world Amun and some of his acolytes inhabited. Mohammadans by day—little Drood learned to recite the Koran and say his prayers five times a day as any worthy believer in Islam must do—Amun and the other Alexandrians in Amun’s secret circle followed the Old Ways, the ancient religious ways and rites, at night. Drood followed his uncle and these other priests into Pyramids by torchlight, and into hidden rooms deep beneath other such sacred sites as the Sphinx. Before he reached his adolescent years, young Drood had travelled with his uncle and other secret priests to Cairo, to the isle called Philae and to ancient ruins of necropoli far up the Nile, including a valley where the long-dead Egyptian kings—pharaohs, I am sure you remember they were called, Wilkie—lay buried in elaborate tombs carved into cliffsides and hidden beneath the stone of the valley floors. “In these hidden places the ancient Egyptian religion and its thousands of years of arcane knowledge flourished. There the boy Drood was initiated into the mysteries of that religion and taught the same secret rituals that Moses had mastered. “Uncle Amun’s speciality turned out to be in sacred healing sciences. He was—and Drood was trained to be—a high priest in the Temples of Sleep dedicated to Isis, Osiris, and Serapis. This so-called healing sleep, my dear Wilkie, went back in Egyptian lore and practise for more than ten thousand years. The priests who had the power to induce such healing sleep also gained power and control over their patients. Today, of course, we call this practise by its scientific name of mesmerism and know its magical effects as the induction of magnetic sleep. “You are aware that I have an ability of my own—some say a rare talent—in this art, Wilkie. I have told you of my training with Professor John Elliotson at the University College Hospital in London, of my own private investigations into the power, and of my own use of Magnetic power to help poor, phantom-afflicted Madame de la Rue—at her husband’s insistence—over a period of many months in Italy and Switzerland some years ago. I would have completely cured her, I am certain of this, if Catherine had not intervened because of her insane and baseless jealousy. “Drood told me that he sensed my control of such Magnetic mesmeric power the moment he saw me on the hillside above the accident carnage at Staplehurst. Drood said that he recognised the gods-given ability in me instantly, the same way Uncle Amun had recognised the latent abilities in him when he was a boy of four so many decades earlier. “But I digress. “For the rest of his boyhood and young manhood in Egypt, Drood pursued mastery of his powers through the rituals and knowledge of the ancients. Did you know, for instance, my dear Wilkie, that no less an historian than Herodotus tells us that the great king Rameses, Pharaoh of all Egypt, once became so seriously ill that there was no hope for him and he, in Herodotus’ words but also the words of Drood’s uncle and teachers, ‘descended into the mansion of death’? But Rameses then returned to the light, cured.

This pharaoh’s return has been celebrated for thousands of years, and continues to be celebrated in Islam-dominated Egypt today. And Wilkie, do you know the mechanism for Rameses’ miraculous return from the dark mansion of death?” Here Dickens paused for dramatic effect until I was finally forced to ask, “What was it?” “That magical power was mesmeric magnetism,” he said. “Rameses had been mesmerised, according to ritual and method, at the Temple of Seag, was allowed to die as a man, but was brought back—cured of his fatal disease—as something more than a man. “Tacitus tells us of the celebrated Temple of Sleep in Alexandria. This is where young Drood did most of his midnight studies and where he emerged as a practitioner of this ancient art of Magnetic Influence. “That night in his temple-library in Undertown, Drood explained to me—actually showed me the parchments and books—that Plutarch reported that both the prophetic and curative sleep induced in the temples of Isis and Osiris utilised a mesmeric incense called Kyphi, which is used even today—Drood let me smell it from a vial, Wilkie—as well as the music of the lyre to bring on such mesmeric sleep. The Pythagoreans also used this Kyphi incense and the lyre in their secret cave and temple ceremonies, since they believed as the ancient Egyptians did that such Magnetic Influence, properly directed, can free the soul from its body and create a full rapport with the spiritual world. “Don’t look at me that way, my dear Wilkie. You know I am no believer in mere ghosts and spirit-rappings. How many have I exposed in my talks and essays? But I am an expert in Magnetic Influence, and I hope to become a greater expert in the science very soon. “According to Herodotus and Clemens Alexandrinus, this prayer and mesmeric control of a dying man have been used for ten thousand years at all important Egyptian funerals — “ ‘Deign, ye gods, who give life to men, to give a favourable judgement of the soul of the deceased, that it may pass to the eternal gods.’ “But you see that some souls they do not release, Wilkie. Some souls they hold under their Magnetic Influence and bring back. Such it was with the Pharaoh Rameses. Such it was with the man you and I know as Drood.” DICKENS STOPPED WALKING and I stopped next to him. We were less than half a mile from Gad’s Hill now, although we had been walking at something less than Dickens’s usual frenzied pace. I confess that I had been half-mesmerised by the sound and tone and drone of Charles Dickens’s voice for the past twenty minutes or so and had noticed almost nothing of our surroundings. “Have you found this boring, Wilkie?” he asked, his dark eyes sharp and challenging. “Don’t be absurd,” I said. “It’s fascinating. And fantastic. It’s not everyone who is permitted to, or every day that one is allowed to, hear an Arabian Nights tale from Charles Dickens.” “Fantastic,” repeated Dickens, smiling thinly. “Do you find it too fantastic to be true?”

“Charles, are you asking me whether I think Drood was telling you the truth with this story or whether you are telling me the truth?” “Either,” said Dickens. “Both.” His intense gaze never left my face. “I have no idea whether this Drood spoke a word of truth,” I said. “But I trust that you are telling me the truth in your narration of what he said.” I was lying, Dear Reader. The story was too absurd either for me to accept it or to believe that Dickens had accepted it. I remembered that Dickens had once told me that 1001 Arabian Nights had been his favourite book when he was a child. I wondered now if the accident at Staplehurst had released some childhood strain in his character. Dickens nodded as if I had answered the schoolmaster correctly. “I don’t need to remind you, my dear old friend, that all of this information is told in confidence.” “Of course not.” He smiled almost boyishly. “Even if our Inspector Field friend threatens to tell the world about the Landlady and the Butler?” I waved that away. “You did not tell the heart of Drood’s story,” I said. “I did not?” “No,” I said flatly. “You did not. Why was he there at Staplehurst? Where had he come from? What was he doing with the injured and dying?… I believe that you once said it looked as if the Drood creature were stealing the souls of the dying there. And what on earth is he doing in a cave beneath the catacombs beyond a river in a tunnel?” “Rather than continue the narration…” said Dickens even as he began walking again, “. . . since we are rather close to home, I shall just answer your questions, my dear Wilkie. But first of all, Hatchery was correct in his detective work and assumptions about Drood’s presence at Staplehurst. The man was in a coffin in the baggage car.” “Good God!” I said. “Why?” “For precisely the reasons we surmised, Wilkie. Drood has enemies in London and England who attempt to locate and harm him. Our Inspector Field is one of those enemies. Nor is Drood either a citizen of our nation or a welcome foreign visitor. In fact, in the eyes and files of all official sources, he has been dead for more than twenty years. So he was returning in a coffin from a trip to France… a trip in which he met others of his religion and expertise in the Magnetic Arts.” “Extraordinary,” I said. “But what about his odd behaviour at the accident site, lurking and leaning over victims who were dead when you visited them next? ‘Stealing souls,’ you said.” Dickens smiled and beheaded a weed, swinging his blackthorn stick like a broadsword. “It shows how mistaken even the trained and intelligent observer can be when deprived of all context, my dear Wilkie. Drood was not stealing the souls of those poor dying wretches. On the contrary, he was mesmerising them to ease the pain of their passage and saying the words of the ancient Egyptian funeral ceremony to help them on their journey, using some of the very words I quoted to you a few minutes ago. Rather as if he were a Catholic giving the Last Rites to the dying. Only with mesmeric Sleep Temple rites, he was certain he really was sending their souls on to their judgement by whatever

gods they worshipped.” “Extraordinary,” I said again. “And as for his history here in England and the reasons for his presence in Undertown,” continued Dickens, “Drood’s arrival in England and his altercation with a sailor, knife and all, are almost exactly as old Opium Sal related it. Except in reverse. Drood was sent to England more than twenty years ago to look up two cousins of his from Egypt— twins, a young man and young woman who had mastered another ancient Egyptian skill, the ability to read each other’s minds—and Drood arrived with thousands of pounds in English cash and more wealth in the form of gold in his luggage. “He was robbed the second night he was here. Robbed on the docks by British sailors and slashed viciously with a blade—it is there that he lost his eyelids, ears, nose, and part of his tongue and fingers—and thrown into the Thames like the corpse he almost was. It was some of the residents of Undertown who found him floating in the river and brought him below to die. But Drood did not die, Wilkie. Or if he did, he resurrected himself. Even as he was being robbed and slashed and beaten and stabbed by the unnamed English thugs in the night, Drood had deeply mesmerised himself, balancing his soul—or at least his mental being—between life and death. The scavengers from Undertown did find a lifeless body, but his Magnetic-induced slumber was broken by the sound of concerned human voices, just as he had commanded himself under mesmeric self-control. Drood lived again. To repay those wretched souls who had saved him, Drood built his library–cum–Temple of Sleep in their underground warren. There, to this day, he heals those he can heal, helps those he can help through his ancient rites, and eases the pain and passing of those he cannot save.” “You make him sound like a saint,” I said. “In some ways, I believe he is.” “Why did he not just go home to Egypt?” I asked. “Oh, he does, Wilkie. He does. From time to time. To visit his students and colleagues there. To help with certain ancient ceremonies.” “But he continues to return to England? After all these years?” “He still has not found his cousins,” said Dickens. “And yes, he feels England is as much his home now as Egypt ever was. After all, he is half English.” “Even after killing the goat that bore his English name?” I said. Dickens did not answer. I said, “Inspector Field tells me that your Mr Drood—healer, master of Magnetic science, Christ figure, and secret mystic—has killed more than three hundred people in the past twenty years.” I waited for the laughter. Dickens did not change expression. He was still studying me. He said, “Do you believe that the man I spoke to has killed three hundred people, Wilkie?” I held his gaze and returned its noncommital blankness. “Perhaps he mesmerises his minions and sends them out to do the dirty work, Charles.” Now he did smile. “I am certain that you are aware, my dear friend, through the

teachings of Professor John Elliotson if not through my own occasional writings on the topic, that a subject under the influence of mesmeric slumber or mesmeric trance can do nothing that would violate his or her morals or principles if that subject were fully conscious.” “Then perhaps Drood mesmerised killers and cutthroats to go out and do the killings that Inspector Field described,” I said. “If they were already killers and cutthroats, my dear Wilkie,” Dickens said softly, “he would not have had to mesmerise them, would he? He simply could have paid them in gold.” “Perhaps he did,” I said. The absurdity of our conversation had reached some point where it was now unsustainable. I looked around at the grassy field shimmering in the afternoon autumn light. I could actually see Dickens’s chalet and the mansard roof of his Gad’s Hill Place home through the trees. I put my hand on the Inimitable’s shoulder before he could begin walking again. “Is increasing your knowledge and skill in mesmerism the reason you disappear into London at least one night a week?” I asked. “Ah, so there is a spy in my family circle. One with frequent digestion problems, might I guess?” “No, it is not my brother, Charles,” I said a trifle sharply. “Charles Collins is a man who keeps confidences and is fiercely loyal to you, Dickens. And he will someday be the father of your grandchildren. You should hold him in higher esteem.” Something flickered across the writer’s face then. It was not quite a shadow—perhaps an instant of revulsion, although whether it was at the thought of my brother married to his daughter (a union of which he never approved) or another reminder of Dickens himself being old enough to be a grandfather, I will never know. “You are correct, Wilkie. I apologise for my jesting, although the jests have been made with familial affection. But some quiet voice tells me that there will be no grandchildren issued from the union of Katey Dickens and Charles Collins.” Now what the deuce did he mean by that? Before we came to blows or resumed walking in silence again, I said, “It was Katey who told me about your weekly trips to the city. She and Georgina and your son Charles are worried about you. They know that the accident still haunts and afflicts you. Now they fear that I have introduced you to some foul abomination in the fleshpots of London to which you are, if you will pardon the expression, magnetically drawn at least one full night a week.” Dickens threw his head back and laughed. “Come, Wilkie. If you cannot stay for the delectable dinner Georgina has planned, at least you must stay long enough to enjoy a cigar with me as we look in on the stables and watch the children and John Forster at play on the lawn. Then I’ll have little Plorn take you by cart to the station for the early-evening express.” THE DOGS RUSHED us as we came up the drive. Dickens almost always kept dogs chained near the gate, since too many surly vagabonds

and unkempt vagrants exercised the habit of wandering off Dover Road to ask for unmerited handouts at the back or front door of Gad’s Hill Place. First to welcome us this afternoon was Mrs Bouncer, Mary’s tiny little Pomeranian, for whom Dickens adopted a special, childish, almost squeaky voice for all his communications. A second later bounded up Linda, the ambling, bouncing, rolling Saint Bernard who always seemed to be in a perpetual tumbling match with the great mastiff named Turk. Now these three entered into an absolute ecstasy of leaping and licking and tail-wagging at the greeting of their master, who—I freely admit—did have an extraordinary way with animals. As with so many people, dogs and horses seemed to understand that Charles Dickens was the Inimitable and needed to be revered as such. As I was trying to pat the Saint Bernard and pet the frolicking mastiff and avoid the leaping little Pomeranian, all of whom kept abandoning me to return to Dickens in their transports of delight, a new dog—one unknown to me, a large Irish bloodhound—came broiling around the curve of the hedge and ran at me, growling and snarling as if it were going to rip my throat out. I confess that I raised my stick and took several steps backwards down the drive. “Stop, Sultan!” shouted Dickens, and the attacking dog first froze a mere six paces from me and then crouched in pure canine guilt and submission as his master chided him in his equally pure dog-chiding voice. Then Dickens scratched behind the miscreant’s ears. I stepped closer, and the bloodhound growled and showed his fangs again. Dickens ceased scratching. Sultan showed guilt, shrank lower into the drive’s gravel, and set his muzzle against Dickens’s boots. “I don’t know this dog,” I said. Dickens shook his head. “Percy Fitzgerald made a gift of Sultan to me only a few weeks ago. I confess that at times the dog reminds me of you, Wilkie.” “How is that?” “First of all, he is absolutely fearless,” said Dickens. “Secondly, he is absolutely loyal… he obeys only me but he obeys me completely. Thirdly, he is contemptuous of all public opinion as regards his behaviour; he hates soldiers and attacks them on sight; he hates policemen and has been known to chase them down the highway; and he hates all others of his kind.” “I do not hate all others of my kind,” I said softly. “And I have never attacked a soldier or chased a policeman.” Dickens did not appear to be listening as he knelt to pat Sultan’s neck, the other three dogs leaping and roiling around him in spasms of jealousy. “Sultan has swallowed Mary’s Mrs Bouncer Pomeranian only once and did have the good grace to spit her out when commanded to, but all of the kittens in the neighbourhood—especially the new batch born to the puss* who lives in the shed behind the Falstaff Inn—have mysteriously gone missing since Sultan arrived.” Sultan eyed me with an eager gaze clearly showing his willingness to eat me if the opportunity presented itself. “And despite his loyalty, companionship, courage, and amusing traits,” concluded

Dickens, “I fear that our friend Sultan may have to be put down someday and that I shall be the one who has to do it.” I TOOK THE train back to London, but rather than walk home to Melcombe Place, I took a cab to 33 Bolsover Street. There Miss Martha R——, who was registered with the landlord there as Mrs Martha Dawson, met me at the rear and separate door to her small apartment that consisted of a tiny sleeping room and a slightly larger sitting room with rudimentary cooking facilities. I was arriving hours later than I had promised, but she had been listening for my step on the stairs. “I made chops and kept the supper warm,” she said as she closed the door behind me. “If you want to eat now. Or I could re-warm them later.” “Yes,” I said. “Re-warm them later.” Now, Dear Reader from my distant future, I can almost—not quite, but almost—imagine a time such as yours when memoirists or even novelists do not draw a discreet curtain over the personal events that might follow here, the, let us say, intimate moments between a man and a woman. I hope your age is not so debauched that you speak and write without restraint about such totally private moments, but if you search for such shameless exposures here, you shall be disappointed. I can say that if you were to somehow see a photograph of Miss Martha R——, you might not be kind enough to see the beauty I find in her every time I am near her. To the mere eye, or camera lens (and Martha told me that she had a photograph taken of her, paid for by her parents, when she turned nineteen more than a year ago), Martha R—— is a short, somewhat stern-looking woman with a narrow face, almost Negroid lips, severely parted straight hair (to the point she seems bald along the crown of her head), deep-set eyes, and a nose and complexion that might have had her in the fields picking cotton in the American South. There is nothing in a photograph of Martha R—— that could show her energy and eagerness and sensuality and physical generosity and adventurousness. Many women—I live with one most of the time—can simulate and broadcast physical sensuality to men in public, can dress for it and paint themselves for it and bat their eyelashes for it, even while they feel little or none of it. I believe they do so out of sheer habit. A few women, such as young Martha R——, sincerely embody such a passionate nature. Finding a woman like that amidst the herd of half-feeling, half-caring, half-responding females in our society of 1860s England was not so much like finding a diamond in the rough as it was like finding a warm, responsive body amidst the cold, dead forms on slabs in the Paris Morgue that Dickens had so enjoyed taking me to. SOME HOURS LATER, at the little table she cleared off for our meals, by candlelight, we ate the dried chops—Martha was not yet a good cook and would never become one —and moved the cold and desiccated vegetables around with our forks. Martha had somehow chosen and paid for a bottle of wine. It was quite as terrible as the food. I took her hand.

“My dear,” I said, “tomorrow you must pack your clothes in the early morning and take the eleven fifteen train to Yarmouth. There you must get your old job at the hotel back or, failing that, obtain a similar one. No later than tomorrow night you must visit your parents and brother in Winterton and tell them you are well and happy—that you used your savings for a little holiday in Brighton.” To her credit, Martha did not whimper or simper. But she bit at her lip as she said, “Mr Collins, my love, have I done something to offend you? Is it the dinner?” I laughed despite my fatigue and pain from the rising rheumatical gout in my eyes and limbs. “No, no, my dear. It’s simply that there’s a detective sniffing around and we must not give him reason to blackmail me—or you or your family, my dear. We must part for a short time until he tires of this game.” “A policeman!” said Martha. She was imperturbable, but she was still a serving-class provincial. The police, especially London police, held terror for her kind. I smiled again to allay her fears. “Not at all. No longer a policeman, Martha my dear. Merely a self-employed detective of the sordid sort hired by ageing lords to follow their young wives when they go out to do charity work. Nothing to worry about.” “But must we part?” She looked around the room and I could tell that she was consigning the drab furniture and dreary prints on the walls to memory as surely as would some member of a royal family about to be banished from her ancestral castle. “Only for a short time,” I said again, patting her hand. “I will deal with this detective and then we will make our plans anew. In fact, this very suite of rooms shall continue being let in the name of Mrs Dawson, in the certainty of your returning soon. Would you like that?” “I should like that very much, Mr… Dawson. Can you spend the night tonight? This last night for a while?” “Not tonight, my dearest. The gout is heavy on me tonight. I need to get home to take my medicine.” “Oh, I wish you would leave a bottle of your medicine here, my love, so that it could alleviate your pain while I alleviate your other tensions and anxieties!” She squeezed my hand hard enough to send pain up my aching arm. There were tears in her eyes now, and I knew that they were for me and not due to her exile. Martha R—— had a sympathetic soul. “The eleven fifteen train,” I said, setting bills and coins totalling six pounds on the top of the dresser as I rose and pulled on my coat. “Make sure that you leave nothing behind here, my dearest. Travel safely and I shall be in contact with you soon.” FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD Harriet was asleep in her room, but Caroline was still awake when I arrived home at 9 Melcombe Place. “Are you hungry?” she asked. “We had veal and I kept some for you.” “No, only some wine, perhaps,” I said. “I’ve had the worst time with the gout today.” I went to the kitchen, unlocked my private cupboard with the key from my waistcoat, drank down three glasses of laudanum, and returned to Caroline in the dining room,

where she had filled two glasses with a good Madeira. The taste of Martha’s wretched wine was still on my mouth and I sought to banish it. “How was your day with Dickens?” she asked. “I did not expect you to stay so late.” “You know how insistent he can be when he invites one to dinner,” I said. “He will not take no as an answer.” “I do not really know that, actually,” said Caroline. “All of my meals with Mr Dickens have been with you and either at our home or in a private room at a restaurant. He has never insisted to me that I stay late at his table.” I did not dispute the fact. I could feel the laudanum beginning to work on the pulsating pain of my terrible headache. The medicine gave me the odd feeling of bobbing up and down, as if the dining room table and chair were a small boat caught in the wake of a larger ship. “Did you have a pleasant day of conversation with him?” pressed Caroline. She was wearing a red silk dressing gown a bit too flamboyant to be of the highest taste. The embroidered gold flowers on it seemed to throb and pulse in my vision. I said, “I believe that Dickens threatened to kill me this afternoon if I did not follow his commands. To put me down like a disobedient dog.” “Wilkie!” Her horror was real and her face went white in the low lamplight. I forced a laugh. “Never mind, my dearest. Nothing of the sort actually happened, of course. Just another example of Wilkie Collins’s penchant for hyperbole. We had a delightful walk and chat this afternoon and more enjoyable conversation over the long dinner and brandy and cigars afterwards. John Forster and his new bride were there.” “Oh, that bore.” “Yes.” I removed my glasses and rubbed my temples. “I should go to bed.” “Poor darling,” said Caroline. “Would it help to have your muscles rubbed?” “Yes,” I said. “I believe it would.” I do not know where Caroline G—— learned the art of muscular massage. I have never asked. As is true of so much of her life before I met her ten years earlier, that remains a mystery. But the pleasure and relaxation her hands gave me were no mystery. Some half an hour later in my bedroom, when she was finished, she whispered, “Shall I stay tonight, my darling?” “Not tonight, my love. The gout is still very much with me—as pleasure ebbs, the pain flows back in, as you know—and I have serious work to do early tomorrow.” Caroline nodded, kissed me on the cheek, took the candle lamp on the dresser, and went downstairs. I considered writing then, working through the night as I had so often done on The Woman in White and earlier books, but a subtle noise from the first-floor landing beyond my bedroom door convinced me to stay where I was. The woman with green skin and tusk-teeth was growing more bold. For months after we moved here she had contained her prowlings to the steep and dark servants’ stairway, but now I frequently heard her bare feet on the rug and wood of the landing after midnight.

Or the noise could have come from my study. That would be worse, to go in there in the dark and see him writing in my place in the moonlight. I stayed in my bedroom and crossed to the window, quietly parting the drapes. Near the lamp post on the corner loitered a boy in rags. He was sitting with his back against a dustbin, possibly sleeping. Or possibly looking up towards my window. His eyes were in shadow. I closed the drapes and went back to bed. Sometimes the laudanum keeps me awake all night; at other times, it carries me away to powerful dreams. I was drifting off to sleep, banishing Charles Dickens and his phantom Drood from my thoughts, when my nostrils were filled with a cloying, almost sickening scent—rotting meat, perhaps—and images of scarlet geraniums, bundles and heaps and funeral-thick towers of scarlet geraniums, pulsed behind my eyelids like spurtings of blood. “My God,” I said aloud, sitting up in the dark, filled with a certainty so absolute as to be a form of clairvoyance. “Charles Dickens is going to murder Edmond Dickenson.”

CHAPTER TEN

After making notes of my conversation with Dickens the next morning, I breakfasted late and alone at my club. I needed time to think. Dickens had pressed me several times the preceding day on whether I believed him, but the truth is, I did not. At least not fully. I was not certain that he ever met with anyone named Drood down there in the sewers and labyrinths under London. I had seen the rowboat-gondola and its two odd men, Venus and Mercury, Dickens had called them, so that was something certain to begin with. Or had I seen them? I remembered the boat arriving and Dickens boarding and disappearing around the bend with the masked figure poling near the bow and the other masked figure steering with the stern sweep… or did I? I had been exhausted and frightened and yet also sleepy. I had taken extra doses of my medicine before joining Dickens that night and then drunk more wine than I usually did at dinner. The entire experience of that evening, even before we went down through a crypt to find the Chinese Lazaree opium lord, all seemed dreamlike and unreal. But what about Dickens’s biographical tale of Mr Drood?

What about it? Charles Dickens’s imagination could furnish a thousand such tales with only seconds of notice. In fact, the story of Drood’s childhood, English father, murdered Mohammadan mother… it all sounded contrived to a level far below Charles Dickens’s creative powers. But, oddly enough, it was the part of the story concerning Drood’s abilities with mesmerism and Magnetic Influence that made me want to believe the bulk of the Inimitable’s tale. It also explained why Dickens, terrified now of riding in trains and even carriages, would come into London from Gad’s Hill at least once a week. He was a student… or perhaps “acolyte” was a better word… of the Master Mesmerist named Drood. AS I HAD KNOWN even before he had tried (and failed) to mesmerise me shortly after Staplehurst, Dickens’s fascination with mesmerism went back almost thirty years, to the time when the writer was known everywhere primarily by his early nom de plume of “Boz.” All of England was interested in mesmerism at that time: the phenomenon had been imported from France, where a “magnetic boy” seemed to be able to tell time on people’s watches and read cards in a mesmeric trance even while his head and eyes were heavily bandaged. I did not know Dickens then, of course, but he had described more than once how he had attended as many demonstrations of mesmerism as he could find in London. But it was the professor Dickens had mentioned, a certain John Elliotson from University College Hospital, who most impressed the young Boz. In 1838, Elliotson used his Magnetic Influence to place his subjects—some of them patients at his hospital in London—into a much deeper trance than most mesmerists could achieve. From the depths of those trances, his men and women, boys and girls, not only made strides towards cures of chronic conditions, but also could be induced into prophetic and even clairvoyant states. The Okey sisters, both epileptics, not only left their wheeled chairs to sing and dance while mesmerised by Professor Elliotson, but also showed strong evidence of second sight under what young Dickens had been convinced had been a controlled condition. Dickens was, in other words, a convert. For a man with no real religious convictions, Dickens became a true believer in animal magnetism and in the mesmeric powers that controlled this energy. You must remember, Dear Reader, the context of our times: science was making huge strides in understanding the underlying and interrelated energies and fluids such as magnetism and electricity. The flow and control of mesmeric fluid common to all living things, but especially to the human mind and body, seemed to Dickens to be as scientific and as demonstrable as breakthroughs shown by Faraday when he generated electricity with a magnet. The next year, 1839, when Elliotson resigned his position of Professor of Principles and Practices of Medicine at University College—due to pressure, everyone understood, because of the sensational nature of his mesmeric demonstrations—Dickens supported the doctor in public, loaned him money in private, arranged for Elliotson to attend to Dickens’s parents and other family members, and—some years later—attempted to help the distraught and despondent doctor when he became suicidal.

Dickens never allowed himself to be mesmerised, of course. Anyone who thought that Charles Dickens might surrender such control of himself to another person, even briefly, did not know Charles Dickens. It was the young Boz, soon to be the mature Inimitable, who invariably sought to control other people. Mesmerism became just one of the tools he used, but it was one he would be interested in for the rest of his life. It was not long, of course, before Dickens began attempting his own mesmeric experiments and therapies. By the time he was visiting America in 1842, Dickens told his friends there that he was regularly mesmerising Catherine to cure her of her headaches and insomnia. (Years later, he told me that he had been using animal magnetism to alleviate a much wider range of what he called “hysterical symptoms” exhibited by his hapless wife. He also confessed to me that his first mesmerism of his wife had been an accident; while discussing Magnetic Influence with some American friends he had been “holding forth upon the subject rather luminously,” making hand movements around his listeners’ heads and brushing their eyebrows simply to exhibit the proper procedures he himself had witnessed in demonstrations by experts, when he suddenly magnetised Catherine into hysterics. He had made more hand passes to bring her out of it, but that only succeeded in sending his wife into a deep mesmeric trance. The next night he again used Catherine as his subject in front of friends and shortly after that began his attempt to cure her of her “hysterical symptoms.”) From Catherine he moved on to applying his growing mesmeric abilities to a small circle of family and friends. But it was with Madame de la Rue that Dickens’s use of Magnetic Influence led to trouble. Madame Augusta de la Rue was the English wife of Swiss-born banker Emile de la Rue, director of the Genoese branch of the banking firm started by his grandfather. For a brief period starting in October of 1844, the year Dickens had brought Catherine to Genoa so that he could write there through the autumn and winter, the Dickenses and the de la Rues were neighbours and saw each other frequently in the small expatriate circle of Genoese society. Augusta de la Rue suffered from symptoms of overwhelming nervousness that included insomnia, nervous tics, facial spasms, and attacks of anxiety so severe that they literally tied the poor woman in knots. People of a less sophisticated age than ours might have thought the woman possessed by demons. Dickens proposed that he use his growing mesmeric abilities to help Madame de la Rue, and Emile, the lady’s husband, thought it a grand idea. “Happy and ready to come to you,” Dickens announced to her in one note, and for the next three months, through November and December of 1844 into January of 1845, the author was with her several times a day. Her husband was present for some of these sessions. (Emile valiantly attempted to learn the mesmeric arts from Dickens so that he could help his wife on his own, but, alas, Emile de la Rue had no talent for Magnetic Influence.) Central to the mystery of Madame de la Rue’s malady was the presence of a lurking Phantom who haunted her dreams and somehow was the source of her illness. “It is

absolutely essential,” Dickens instructed Emile de la Rue, “that this Phantom to which her incapacitating thoughts are directed and clustered around, should not regain its power.” To keep this from happening, Dickens began responding to summonses from the de la Rues at any time of the day or night. Sometimes Dickens would leave Catherine alone in their cold Genoese bed and rush to Madame de la Rue’s bedside at four AM in order to help his poor patient. Slowly Madame de la Rue’s spasms, tics, contortions, and sleepless nights began to ebb. Emile was delighted. Yet every day Dickens continued to magnetise her to ask more questions about the Phantom. To those who watched the mesmeric sessions in the parlour of the de la Rue mansion, it seemed very much like a séance, with Madame de la Rue—deep in her trance—reporting of dark and light spirit forms shifting around her in some distant location. And always with the Phantom trying to bring her under his or its control, while Charles Dickens valiantly attempted to free Madame de la Rue from the creature’s dark influence. When Dickens and Catherine left Genoa in late January to continue their travels to Rome and Naples, Emile kept sending the author daily updates and diary entries reporting on his wife’s condition. Dickens wrote back that it was essential that the de la Rues join him in Rome no later than late February, and Emile de la Rue and his wife arranged to travel there early. Catherine did not know that her husband was planning to reunite with Madame de la Rue. Nor did she know that Dickens had made a private arrangement with his “patient”: he would concentrate for one full hour on mesmerising her in his imagination starting at eleven AM each day. Madame de la Rue, far away, concentrated on receiving the radiation of Dickens’s Magnetic Influence as he turned his “Visual Ray” in her direction. They were travelling by carriage—Catherine riding atop the vehicle for air, Dickens within—when eleven AM arrived and Dickens began concentrating on his distant patient. He had no sooner begun visualising his mesmeric hand passes and directing the magnetic fluid when he heard Catherine’s muff fall from the box above. Catherine, having no idea that Dickens was sending magnetic influences into the air towards Genoa, nonetheless had gone into a violent mesmeric trance on the carriage box above him, her eyelids quivering in a convulsive manner. By the time the Dickenses had settled in Rome, the separation of the patient from her Magnetic Doctor had led to serious setbacks. Emile wrote that the Phantom showed signs of reappearing and taking control of Augusta. “I cannot beat it down, or keep it down, at a distance,” Dickens wrote back. “Pursuing that Magnetic power, and being near to her and with her, I believe that I can shiver it like Glass.” The de la Rues appeared in Rome soon after this—to Catherine’s great astonishment— and Dickens resumed the daily sessions, now magnetising her, he wrote, “under olive trees, sometimes in vineyards, sometimes in the travelling carriage, sometimes at wayside inns during the midday halt.” It was during this time that Dickens reported to Emile that Madame de la Rue was

showing disturbing symptoms. “She was rolled into an apparently impossible ball, by tic in the brain, and I only knew where her head was by following her long hair to its source.” It was at this point that Catherine (who had become pregnant again in late January, about the time she joined Dickens in climbing Mount Vesuvius as it was in full eruption) announced to her husband that she was distressed by the apparent impropriety of Charles’s relationship with Augusta. Dickens, as he always did when accused of something, became furious and railed at Catherine that her accusations were absurd, even obscene, and that it was obvious to everyone else involved and uninvolved that his motives were absolutely the pure concern of a doctor of mesmeric magnetism towards one of his most troubled patients. Dickens shouted, berated Catherine, and threatened to leave Rome without her. Nonetheless, a three-months-pregnant wife—especially one standing as firm in her position as the Great Wall of China—is hard to bully. For the first time, Catherine had spoken out against one of Dickens’s obsessions and flirtations, and for the first and only time, he had relented. He explained to the de la Rues that Catherine was upset at the amount of time he was spending with his patient, but he also apologised profusely for Catherine’s attitude, calling her oversensitive to her own needs and insensitive to others’. And Dickens never forgot or forgave this insult to his honour. Years later, shortly before he cast Catherine out of the house after the incident of the Ellen Ternan bracelet, he brought up what he called her irrational jealousy from fourteen years earlier and the effect such an insult had on him. “Whatever made you unhappy in that Genoa time had no other root, beginning, middle, or end, than whatever has made you proud and honoured in your married life, and given you station better than rank, and surrounded you with many enviable things,” he flung at her. She had seen his relationship with poor, bedevilled Madame de la Rue as something suspect. Dickens informed her years later that she should have known—had she been a good and true wife she would have known—that his helping the poor woman had been the purest expression of his own innate creativity and nobility. His ability to mesmerise others, much like his ability to write great novels, was part of the firmament of character that was his greatest gift. But now Dickens the minor master of Magnetic Influence had met the ultimate Master. As I finished my breakfast at the club and folded my newspapers and left my napkin on the chair and found my hat and cane and went to the door, I had no doubt whatsoever that Dickens had been travelling into London every week on the train that terrified him into sweats to learn more about mesmerism from someone. And it seemed to make sense that this someone was named Drood. WELL, MR COLLINS. What a pleasant coincidence,” said a brusque voice behind me as I walked up Chancery Lane towards Lincoln’s Inn Court. “Mr Field,” I said, half-turning and nodding but not stopping, omitting the “Inspector”

before his name by choice. He either did not notice the omission or pretended not to. “It is a lovely autumn day, is it not, Mr Collins?” “It is.” “It was a pleasant day yesterday as well. Did you enjoy your outing to Chatham and Gad’s Hill?” I double-tapped my stick on cobblestones. “Am I being followed, Mr Field? I thought you had a boy waiting on Melcombe Place and Dorset Square for any message I might want to send you.” “Oh, I do, Mr Collins,” said Field, responding only to my second question. “The lad Gooseberry is there now, waiting patiently. He can afford to be patient, since I pay him to wait. My own profession does not allow for such patience without severe penalties. Time, as they say, is money.” We passed through Lincoln’s Inn Fields. John Forster had lived here during his many years as a bachelor, and I always wondered if it was mere coincidence that Dickens had given the villainous lawyer Tulkinghorn in Bleak House Forster’s old address. When we passed through the Fields and reached Oxford Street, we both paused on the kerb as some dray waggons rumbled by. Then we had to wait for a line of carriages. Field removed his watch from his waistcoat and checked it. “Eleven twenty-five,” he said. “Miss R—— should be on the outskirts of London by now, on her way back to Yarmouth.” I gripped the cane as if it were a club. “So you have people following all of us,” I said through gritted teeth. “If you’re paying your operatives to do that, Inspector, then you are wasting both time and money.” “I agree,” said Field. “This is why your information will liberate both of us from wasted time, Mr Collins.” “If you had me followed yesterday,” I said, “then you know everything I know.” Field laughed. “I can tell you the route you and Mr Dickens took on your three-hour walk, Mr Collins. But I cannot report even the gist of your conversation, although I know that the two of you were talking—or rather, Mr Dickens was talking—for most of the way back from Cooling Marsh.” I admit that a flush of real anger crept up from my collar to my cheeks at hearing this. I did not remember seeing any other pedestrians during my walk with Dickens. Yet some blackguard had been hovering nearby the entire time. I felt guilty and exposed, even though Dickens and I had been doing nothing more sinister than taking an afternoon constitutional. And how did Field know that Martha had left on the 11:15 train, only ten minutes before the infernal inspector announced it to me? Had one of his operatives rushed pell-mell from Charing Cross Station to inform his meddling and blackmailing superior of this vital fact? Were his agents signalling to him even now from some alley in the direction of Gray’s Inn or Seven Dials? The anger continued to rise until I felt my heart pounding beneath my starched shirt. “Do you want to tell me where I am headed now, Inspector?” I demanded angrily as I

turned left and began striding briskly towards the west on Oxford Street. “I would imagine that you are headed to the British Museum, Mr Collins, there possibly spend time in the Reading Room, but more likely to peruse Layard’s and Rich’s Ninevite and the ethnographical collection from Egypt.” I stopped. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing. “The museum is closed today,” I said. “Yes,” said Inspector Field, “but your friend Mr Reed will be waiting to open the side door for you and to give you a Special Visitor’s ticket.” Taking a step towards the husky sixty year old, I said very softly but very firmly, “You are making a mistake, sir.” “Yes?” “Yes.” I squeezed the head of my cane until I imagined that I could feel the brass bending. “Your blackmail will not work with me, Mr Field. I am not a man who has much to hide. Either from my friends and family or my reading public.” Field raised both hands as if shocked by the suggestion. “Of course not, Mr Collins! Of course not! And that word… blackmail… is far from anything that can pass between two gentlemen such as ourselves. We are simply exploring areas of mutual concern. When it comes to helping you avoid potential difficulties, I am your obedient servant, sir. Indeed, that is my profession. A detective uses information to help men of parts, never to harm them.” “I doubt if you could convince Charles Dickens of that,” I said. “Especially if he were to discover that you are still having him followed.” Field shook his head almost sadly. “My aim is precisely to help and protect Mr Dickens. He has no idea of the danger he is in because of his intercourse with this fiend that calls himself Drood.” “From what Mr Dickens tells me,” I said, “the Drood he has met is more a misunderstood figure than a fiend.” “Indeed,” murmured Field. “Mr Collins, you are young. Relatively young, at least. Younger than Mr Dickens or myself. But do you remember the fate of Lord Lucan?” I stopped by a lamp post and tapped the paving stones with my stick. “Lord Lucan? The Radical M.P. who was found murdered years ago?” “Horribly murdered,” agreed Inspector Field. “His heart ripped out of his chest as he was staying alone at his estate—Wiseton, it was called—in Hertfordshire, near Stevenage. This was in 1846. Lord Lucan was a friend of your literary acquaintance and Mr Dickens’s old friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Lord Lytton, and Lord Lucan’s estate lay only three miles from Lord Lytton’s own Knebworth Castle.” “I’ve been there several times,” I said. “To Knebworth, I mean. But what can this ancient murder have to do with anything we are discussing, Inspector?” Field set his corpulent forefinger alongside his nose. “Lord Lucan, before he assumed his title after his older brother’s death, was a certain John Frederick Forsyte… rather the black sheep of his noble family, even though he had received a degree in engineering and privately published several books based on his travels. There were rumours that, in

his youth, Lord Lucan had married a Mohammadan woman during his extended stay in Egypt… and perhaps even fathered a child or two while he was there. Lord Lucan’s terrible murder occurred less than a year after the man calling himself Drood first arrived at our London docks in 1845.” I stared at the ageing detective. “So you see, Mr Collins,” Field said, “it is quite possible that you and I could be of great assistance to one another should we share all information we have. I believe your friend Mr Dickens is in great danger. Indeed, I know that Mr Dickens is in danger if he continues to meet with this fiend called Drood. I appeal to your responsibility as the great author’s friend to help me be his protector.” I caressed my beard for a moment. Finally, I said, “Inspector Field, what do you want of me?” “Only information that may better allow us to protect your friend and to apprehend the fiend,” he said. “In other words, you want me to continue to spy on Charles Dickens and to report to you on everything he tells me about this Drood.” The old detective continued staring at me with those penetrating eyes. If I had not been looking for his nod, I would not have noticed it, so imperceptible was it. “Is there anything else?” I asked. “If you could convince Mr Dickens that your company would be required on another nocturnal expedition into Undertown, all the way to Drood’s lair this time, that would be of great help,” said Field. “So that I could personally show you the way when it comes time to apprehend the man,” I said. “Yes.” It was my turn to nod. “It is a very hard thing, Inspector, to become an informant on one’s closest friend—especially when that friend is of the temperament and position of power of Mr Charles Dickens. He could destroy me, professionally and personally.” “But you are doing this in his own best interests…” began the inspector. “So we have ascertained,” I interrupted. “And perhaps someday Dickens might see it that way. But he is a man of strong emotions, Inspector. Even if my… spying… were to save his life, it is quite possible that he may never forgive me. Even try to ruin me.” The detective continued to watch me closely. “I simply want you to understand the risk I take,” I said. “And why such a risk requires me to request two things in return from you.” If there was a smile, it appeared and disappeared too quickly to be caught by the human eye. “Of course, Mr Collins,” he said smoothly. “This is, as I said, a transaction between two gentlemen. May I know the nature of your two requests?” I said, “Inspector, did you happen to read Dickens’s novel Bleak House?” The older man made a rough noise. For a second I thought he was going to spit on the sidewalk. “I… looked at it… Mr Collins. In a passing way.” “But you are aware, Inspector, that many people believe that you are the original for the

character named Inspector Bucket in that novel?” Field nodded grimly and said nothing. “You are not pleased with the depiction?” I asked. “I thought the character called Bucket was a caricature and a travesty of proper police behaviour, procedure, and decorum,” growled the old detective. “Nonetheless,” I said, “Dickens’s novel—which I thought rather dreary and stodgy to that point, especially in the person of the cloying and saccharine narratoress named Esther Summerson, did seem to come alive in the penultimate chapters as our Inspector Bucket took charge of the murder case regarding Lawyer Tulkinghorn, as well as in his fruitless but exciting pursuit of Lady Dedlock, Esther’s true mother, who was to die outside the city burial ground.” “Your point, sir?” asked Field. “My point, Inspector, is that as a professional novelist myself, I see the potential for real interest in a book which has, as its protagonist and central character, a Scotland Yard or private detective not so different from Inspector Bucket, except… of course… more intelligent, more insightful, more educated, more handsome, and more ethical. In other words, Inspector Field, a fictional character not so different from yourself.” The older man squinted at me. His corpulent forefinger was resting next to his ear as if he were again listening to its whispered advice. “You are too kind, Mr Collins,” he said at last. “Too kind altogether. And yet, perhaps, in some modest way, I could be of help for your research into such a character and such a novel? Offering advice, perhaps, on the proper investigatory methods and police procedures, so as to avoid the sort of travesty shown in Mr Dickens’s novel?” I smiled and adjusted my spectacles. “More than that, Inspector. I would benefit greatly from having access to your… what would you call them?… murder files. I presume you keep such things, as ghastly as they must be?” “Indeed we do, sir,” said Field. “And they would indeed be of inestimable benefit to a literary gentleman wishing to achieve, as they say, verisimilitude, in the writing of such a work. This is an honourable request and I agree to it without hesitation.” “Good,” I said. “My second condition also should not cause you any problems, since I am sure you will be carrying out the surveillance I wish access to whether or not I should be the one making the request for it.” “What surveillance is that, sir?” “I want to know everything that you and your operatives can learn about the actress Ellen Ternan. Her whereabouts. The location of her lodgings—hers and her mother’s— and whether Dickens is paying for them. The way she makes her money and whether those funds are sufficient to support her in the circ*mstances which she currently enjoys. Her comings and goings. Her relationship to Charles Dickens. Everything.” Inspector Field continued to bathe me in the blank, flat, mildly accusatory gaze which— I was sure—he had levelled at a thousand felons. But I was not a felon—not yet—and I did not wilt under its power. “An odd request, Mr Collins, if you do not mind me saying so, sir. Unless you were to

have your own personal interest in Miss Ternan.” “None whatsoever, Inspector. I can assure you of that. Rather, I am convinced that Miss Ternan connects to this… mystery… that you and I are attempting to unravel, even as I am convinced that the best interests of Charles Dickens may have been compromised by this woman. In order to protect my friend… and perhaps myself… I need to understand more about her life and their relationship.” Field rubbed his lower lip with that curved and corpulent finger. “You think, Mr Collins, that Miss Ternan might actually be a co-conspirator with the monster Drood? An agent of his?” I laughed. “Inspector, I don’t know enough about the woman even to speculate. Which is why further knowledge of her, her sisters, her mother, and her relationship with my friend Dickens is essential if we are to enter into this pact.” Field continued to pat and press his lip. “Then we understand each other, Inspector?” I said. “I believe we do, Mr Collins. I believe that we understand each other very well indeed. I agree to your conditions and hope to provide you with all of the information you need.” Field extended his calloused hand. I shook it. A minute later, resuming my walk towards the British Museum, Field hurrying alongside me, I told him everything that Charles Dickens had told me the day before on our walk to Cooling Marsh and back.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Winter came in hard, stripping the leaves from all the trees near Gad’s Hill Place by November, sending Dickens from his summer chalet into his front-of-the-house study with its green porcelain fireplace and crackling fire, killing the scarlet geraniums in his garden, and sending low grey clouds scudding over the low grey stone of the buildings and streets of London where I resided. With winter came deeper bouts of illness for both Dickens and myself. The more famous writer continued to wrestle with his terrors from the Staplehurst accident and with constant exhaustion, with kidney pain that had pursued him since childhood, and with

the deadness in his left side from his “sunstroke” in France in September. Clearly there was something more seriously wrong than the author would admit. Dickens and I shared a doctor—our mutual friend Frank Beard—and though Beard would rarely discuss his other patient, I sensed a deep concern. I had my own problems, which included the terrible rheumatical gout and its accompanying pain, fainting spells, aching joints, a growing obesity which left me disgusted with myself even as I failed to reduce the size of the meals I enjoyed, flatulence, cramps, an assortment of other digestive disorders, and terrible palpitations of the heart. No one seemed aware of Dickens’s physical disorders, but all the world seemed to know of mine. A Frenchman wrote me through my publisher to say that “he had betted ten bottles of champagne that I am alive, against everyone’s belief,” and if I were still breathing, he begged me to inform him of the fact. I wrote to my mother that autumn— Here is “forty” come upon me [I was, in truth, forty-one that previous January]—grey hairs shrinking fast… rheumatism and gout familiar enemies for some time past, my own horrid corpulence making me fat and unwieldy—all the worst signs of middle age sprouting out on me. And yet, I confided to her, I didn’t feel old. I had no regular habits, no respectable prejudices. Dear Reader, I have not yet told you anything about the most important woman in my life. My mother, Harriet Geddes Collins, had met my father, the artist William Collins, when they were both in their mid-twenties. My mother was also descended from a long line of artists; she and both her sisters drew constantly and one of my mother’s sisters had entered the school of the Royal Academy in London. Harriet Geddes and my father had first crossed paths at a ball given by some artist acquaintances of my father’s for their girlfriends, subsequently seen each other several times in the London of their day, confirmed in 1821 that neither had cultivated other attachments, and were married in Edinburgh in 1822. I was born a little less than eighteen months later, on 8 January, 1824. My brother, Charles, was born in January of 1828. One of my father’s friends was the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and I clearly remember the day when I was a young boy and the poet came to our home, found my father gone, and stayed to weep to my mother about his increasing dependence upon opium. It was the first time I had seen or heard a fully grown man weep—Coleridge was sobbing so hard he could not catch his breath—and I shall never forget my mother’s words to him that day: “Mr Coleridge, do not cry; if the opium really does you any good, and you must have it, why do you not go out and get it?” Many has been the time in recent years, as I wept my own bitter tears because of my growing need for the drug, that I have called back my mother’s voice on the subject. My father had come home just after this advice was given to Coleridge, and I remember the poet’s cracked voice as he said, “Collins, your wife is an exceedingly sensible woman!”

My mother was a sensible woman, but my father was a great artist and a great man. I was given my Christian middle name—Wilkie— due to his relationship with the honourable Sir David Wilkie, an old friend of my father’s from their school days, who lifted me up shortly after my birth, looked into my eyes, and pronounced, “He sees.” (This seemed to have laid the mantle of succession, in artistic terms, from my father’s shoulders to mine, but—as we shall see—that was not to be. My younger brother, Charley, was to inherit the stronger artistic ability and to be chosen for that role.) My father was a great man with great men as friends. When I was growing up—a wideeyed, rather gentle, bulbous-foreheaded child—I took it for granted that the Wordsworths, Coleridge, Robert Southey, and Sir Walter Scott would be familiar acquaintances of our family and visitors to our home. My father had not only received commissions from, but had spent much time with, such estimables as Sir Francis Chantrey, the Duke of Newcastle, Sir Robert Peel, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Thomas Heathcote, Sir Thomas Baring, Sir George Beaumont, and Lord Liverpool. Of course, it is true that the vast majority of my father’s time spent with greatness was spent out of the sight of our mother. I am sure that my father was not ashamed of my mother, nor certainly of Charles or me, but he did prefer to spend his time amongst great men far from our hearth. But he wrote home faithfully and, often after listing the exciting events and personal encounters of his days and weeks away, might add such a codicil as this I found when arranging my mother’s papers recently— I cannot help longing for home, although I am so pleasantly spending my time, as pleasantly as the kindest friends, sprightly young ladies, and all the gaieties of this life can make me. I flatter myself that the idle life I am leading will please you, and perhaps make me stronger and therefore, I am determined to make the most of it. He did make the most of it, I believe, although, despite the many commissions by such famous men, his income was rarely solid or consistent. But my mother lived frugally and made sure that Charley and I did as well, so money was set aside. My father was an extremely religious man. He had long since vowed to banish inclinations to indolence or impiety from his own life and would brook none in the lives of his wife or children. Some called him censorious, even priggish, but this was unfair. In another letter to my mother, sent from some Scottish castle when Charley and I were in short pants, my father wrote— Tell the dear children that the only way they can serve their parents is to obey them in all things; let Charley find out the passages in the Scripture where this duty is most strongly insisted on, and write them down for me. And in a separate letter to my brother and me, one still in my possession and reread frequently, William Collins showed the true spirit of his religious intensity— Your mother’s account, in her last letter about you both, pleased me very much. Go on praying to God, through Jesus Christ, to enable you, by his Holy Spirit, to be blessings to your parents; and then you must be happy. True to his beliefs, my father became known for his denunciations. His tolerance for tolerance was very low. Once when our close neighbour, the artist John Linnell (who had

painted several of our portraits), was seen working on Sunday—nailing his peach and nectarine trees to his northern wall—my father not only upbraided Linnell but denounced him to a visiting Congregational preacher. Father also believed and spread the rumour that Linnell had cheated one of his gardeners out of his wages, and when Linnell challenged him on the fact, Father cried, “Of what consequence is it, whether you cheated a man out of his wages or not, when you are constantly doing things ten times worse?” The things-ten-times-worse included working on Sunday and becoming a Dissenter. I was with my father when we met the poet William Blake in the Strand, and when Blake—an acquaintance—hailed my father and offered his hand, my father deliberately ignored him, turning his back on the poet and leading me away before I could speak. Blake, you see, was carrying a pot of porter in the hand he was not offering in friendship. Later, when I was in my early twenties and writing my father’s memoirs after his death, I realised how jealous of him many of the so-called great artists of the period were. John Constable, for instance, an acquaintance of many years, was receiving only a few hundred pounds for his cloudy, obscure paintings during years that my father earned over £1,000 a year on commissions for what Constable sneered at as “pretty landscapes” and “flat, soulless, fashionable portraits.” When Constable could find no patrons at all (due, largely, to his persisting in painting such unpopular works as his Corn-Field at the same time that my father had his finger on the pulse of patrons’ and the Academy’s desires for more decorative works), the frustrated landscape painter wrote the following in a letter that was made public, much to my father’s fury—“Turner exhibits a large picture of Dieppe… Calcotte nothing I hear… Collins, a coast scene with fish as usual and a landscape with a large cow turd at least as far as colour and shape is concerned.” I mentioned earlier that my father decided when we were still quite young that Charley, not I, would be the real inheritor of his artistic talents and career, despite the crib-side assurances of Sir David Wilkie, my namesake. Father enrolled Charley in a private art school, spent much extra time with my brother during our long trips to Europe— analysing paintings in cathedrals and museums (although my father loathed entering Papist churches)—and helped Charley gain acceptance into the prestigious Royal Academy. Father never really spoke to me about my future or how I would fill it, other than one suggestion, when I was thirteen, that I might consider going to Oxford with a view to entering the Church. It was when I was thirteen, in Rome during one of our long family stays in Europe, that I experienced my first full love adventure. I remember telling the details to Charles Dickens precisely seventeen years later, during my next visit to Rome and my first trip there with the famous author, and Dickens was so pleased with the amatory precociousness of the affair that he later told me he had informed his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, sparing her, he said, only the details of “how the affair had proceeded to the utmost extremities.” He chuckled when he described how Georgina had blushed

when Dickens had summarised my first complete physical encounter by saying, “Our young Willy came out quite a pagan Jupiter in the business.” At any rate, even at age thirteen I had no intention of entering Oxford with an eye on going into the Church. Artists are notoriously sensitive—at least to their own feelings—and young Charley was more sensitive than most. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was a doleful child, constantly brooding about this or that, and both of my parents—but especially my mother—took this incessant unhappiness (bordering on sullenness) as a sign of his artistic genius. He also disliked women and girls. I interrupt here, Dear Reader, to beg your indulgence on this point. Were this not a memoir consigned to the distant future, I would not mention it at all, but—as perhaps you have already detected in this memoir—there was a deep and constant tension between Charles Dickens and his son-in-law, Charles Collins, and I fear that this small matter of Charley’s aversion to women (if not outright misogyny) may have played a part in Dickens’s prejudice. You see, however such things have played out in your distant time, it was not uncommon in our era for young men to go through long periods where they much preferred the company of boys and men to that of women. Given the limitations to education of women in our time, much less the obvious difficulties of the fairer sex in acquiring and mastering more difficult aspects of learning throughout history, it was logical that thoughtful, sensitive men should focus their energies and intercourse on other men. I remember once when Charley was about fifteen and I came across some of his sketch diaries, left lying about in his room in an uncharacteristic manner (he was always secretive and neat), and I joked with him about the fact that all of the figure studies in his drawing book were of nude men. Charley had blushed crimson but said with real emotion, “I hate drawing women, Willy. Don’t you? I mean, they are all heavy and pendulous and baggy and bulbous where the human body should not be. How much more delight I take in firm, flat buttocks and muscular thighs and flat bellies and masculine chests, rather than those appalling feminine absences and fleshy protuberances and miserable saggings.” I was searching for some humourous comment worthy of a sophisticated nineteen-yearold gentleman such as myself when Charley went on, “I mean, Willy, Michelangelo’s female nudes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—even Eve—are actually all paintings of naked men. Even the great Michelangelo disdained nude women! What do you say to that, Brother?” I was tempted to say that I had been there in Rome that hot, muggy day years before when our father taught both of us that salient fact. But I resisted the temptation. All I said that afternoon in my brother’s room as he tidied up the sketch diaries and set them away in a locked drawer was—“Those are very good drawings, Charley. Very good indeed.” I did not comment at all upon the fact that not only had my brother violated the unwritten rule that an artist was not to show male genitalia in one’s figure drawings— leaving an absence of graphite if nothing else, drawing a modest loincloth the preferred

method—but Charley had drawn some of the male organs in an obvious state of excitement. It was not too many months after this encounter that some revelation of the sort— perhaps a similar indiscretion in Charles’s drawings, or in his comments—became apparent to my father. I remember Charley being called in to my father’s studio one morning and the door being closed and then repeated screams from my brother as my father whipped the sensitive lad with either a branch, cane, or T square. After my father died, I believe that Charley and I both would have enjoyed living with my mother in her wonderful home at Hanover Terrace for the rest of our lives. My liaison with Caroline G—— took me away from that safe haven. And yet, for months and even years after I moved in with Caroline and her daughter, Harriet—how I loved the coincidence of that name!—I would return to my mother’s home to write and address letters to our mutual friends (my mother’s and mine) from there even as I wrote to other friends from my new home. Mother did not know of Caroline’s existence, of course; or if she did know, she never let on that she did. It was true that I regaled her with many tales of my bachelor life apart from her, never mentioning any woman, much less the widowed Caroline, but it was also true that my mother never once suggested that she visit my various homes during all the years I shared them with Mrs G—— and Harriet. I was still living with Mother when I met Dickens in 1851. As a reporter later wrote of Dickens and me during that early period—“Both were lively men, passionate about the theatre, keen on drinks and company and excursions, on being intensely gay, relaxing strenuously, responding vehemently.” And after our excursions and strenuous relaxations and vehement responses, Dickens would return home to his increasingly bovine wife and I would return home to my mother. Charley would have lived with our mother until her death and perhaps remained in her home until his own death, I am quite sure, if it had not been for his marriage to Kate Dickens. None of us shall ever know all the reasons for Charley’s sudden proposal to Kate in the late spring of 1860. In truth, from what I can gather, it was Kate who proposed marriage to Charley that spring. It was certainly Kate who hurried their wedding along to midsummer—despite her father’s outspoken and vehement opposition, not only to the date of the wedding but to the fact of it. Charley had not had a long history of courtship and wooing. In fact, up to his thirtysecond year (which was to be the year of his marriage), he had continued to avoid women. Whispers abounded that spring and summer that Katey Dickens had fallen in love with and had been pursuing Edmund Yates, a younger friend of the Inimitable who had helped promote the falling-out between Dickens and Thackeray by writing a profoundly unflattering profile of the old writer. A contemporary had described Yates as “. . . very fascinating too. Superficially, mind you.” Superficially fascinating or not, Kate Dickens had fallen in love with him and when Yates refused to notice the infatuation, despite the young man’s frequent visits to

Tavistock House and then to Gad’s Hill Place and despite Katey’s obvious flirtations— obvious to everyone, including Charles Dickens and me—the headstrong young woman (she had just turned twenty) proposed to my Charley. A few months before the wedding, after a visit to Gad’s Hill, where Katey’s redirected matrimonial attentions were again obvious to everyone, I wrote to my mother, “. . . Charley is still trying hard to talk himself into believing he ought to be married.” Years later, after my younger brother’s death from the constant stomach ulcers that had proved cancerous, I did ask Kate why she had pulled him into marriage. “I had to get away from that house,” she replied. “I had to get away from my father.” Dickens did not hide his disapproval of the match. Despite that, Katey was his favourite child and he could not deny her anything, even this folly of a marriage. On 17 July, 1860, St Mary’s Church in Higham—the church’s steeple would be visible from the writing room in Dickens’s chalet when the latter structure was assembled five years later—was almost buried in white flowers. The lower-class neighbours had created floral arches that showed the way to the church. The night before, the villagers had fired off guns in honour of the nuptials, but a cranky and concerned Charles Dickens had come out onto the lawn of Gad’s Hill in his nightshirt, shotgun in his hands, and said only, “What the devil is all that about?” A special train had been laid on to bring wedding guests down from London. I remember chatting with Thomas Beard, the understated gentleman who had served as Charles Dickens’s best man two decades earlier. Beard had the odd distinction of being the only person at Kate’s wedding who had also been at the wedding of the bride’s father, although in one brief, ad hoc toast, Dickens himself spoke ironically—almost bitterly, I thought—of “a similar ceremony performed in a metropolitan edifice some four and twenty years ago.” Kate’s mother, Catherine, was not in attendance, of course. Nor was Elizabeth Dickens, the Inimitable’s elderly but still-surviving mother. Georgina Hogarth was the only member of the bride’s mother’s side of the family present. Few seemed to notice the absences. After the wedding ceremony, the mob of guests returned to Gad’s Hill for a huge wedding breakfast. Again, everything on and around the table was decorated with white flowers. The wedding breakfast, while sumptuous, took only an hour. The host had promised everyone that there would be no speeches and there were none. I noticed that the bride and groom sat down at the table for a moment, then disappeared while the guests played games on the lawn. My mother, who sanctioned the match no more than did Charles Dickens, needed constant attendance that morning. When Charley and Kate reappeared, dressed for travel, the bride wore black. Katey broke down and cried bitterly on her father’s shoulder. Charley’s face grew more and more pale until I was afraid he was going to faint. Mother and I gathered with the other thirty or so guests on the gravel path to kiss the newlyweds, shake hands all around, and to throw old shoes. After the carriage had departed, Mother announced that she was not feeling well. I left her seated in the shade

just long enough to go inform Dickens of our departure, but could find him nowhere on the lawn amidst the young people playing nor in the parlour downstairs nor in the billiards room or study. I saw Mamie coming downstairs, went up to Katey’s bedroom— what had been Katey’s bedroom until that morning—and found Dickens on his knees on the floor, his face buried in his daughter’s wedding gown. The Inimitable was sobbing like a child. He looked up at me, his face streaming with tears, perhaps seeing only my silhouette in the doorway and perhaps thinking me still to be his daughter Mamie, and he cried out in a broken voice—“But for me, Katey would not have left home!” I said nothing. I turned, went downstairs and out onto the lawn, fetched my mother, and called for the carriage to take us back to the station and thence to London. CHARLES AND KATEY were to have no children. The rumour spread—perhaps started by Dickens, but also perchance from Katey herself—that the marriage had never been consummated. It certainly was true that by the summer of Dickens’s railway accident in 1865, Katey was an unhappy and flirtatious woman, obviously searching for a lover. There were many men around who would not have shown scruples at making love to a married woman, had it not been for the ferocity and constant vigilance of her father. Charley’s chronic illnesses and stomach aches also became a problem within the Dickens household. I was sure they were only ulcers, and when my brother, Charles, finally died of stomach cancer in 1873, it was only slight consolation that Charles Dickens had preceded him in death. Dickens said sharply to me that odd autumn of 1865—“Your brother brings a death’s head to my table every breakfast here, Wilkie.” It was obvious to all that Dickens was certain that Charley was dying and that he—the Inimitable, never acknowledging his own illnesses nor allowing for even the possibility of his own death—thought that Charley should get it over with sooner rather than later. AND SO WE RETURN, Dear Reader, to the dismal state of my own health that winter of 1865–66. My father had suffered from rheumatism that had concentrated itself behind his left eye, making it all but impossible for him to paint in his final years. My rheumatical gout inevitably migrated to my right eye, all but blinding me and causing me to squint out of my left eye as I wrote. The pain moved into my arm and hand to the point that I had to shift the quill from my right hand to my left to get a dip of ink. Eventually I would be unable to write at all and would dictate some of my future books from the couch where I lay, but only after training my young secretary—first Harriet but then someone infinitely more ominous—to ignore my screams of pain and to listen only for the dictated sentences between the cries of agony. I have mentioned that laudanum was my one relief from the pain. I may also have mentioned that it was traditional to take three to five drops of the liquid opium in a glass

of wine, but by this time—the winter of 1865–66—I required two to three glasses of the medicine to allow me to work or sleep. There were the drawbacks I mentioned. The feelings of always being followed and persecuted. The hallucinations. (At first I had assumed the woman with the green skin and tusks for teeth was such an hallucination; but then, after she assaulted me on the stairs in the dark, I awoke several times with deep scratches on my neck.) One night I was working in my study—writing my novel Armadale—when I realised that a man was sitting in a chair only inches to my left. He was also writing. The man was my Doppelgänger. Or rather, he was I—wearing the same clothes, holding the same pen, turning towards me with the same dull but shocked expression which I must have been presenting to him. He reached for my blank page. I could not let him write my book. I could not let that page, my page, become his. We scuffled. Chairs were knocked over. A lamp was dashed out. In the darkness, I pushed him away and stumbled out into the hall and off to my bedroom. In the morning I went into my study and found the wall, sections of the window and sill, one corner of the expensive Persian carpet, my chair, its cushion, and two shelves of books absolutely dalmatianed with spattered ink. Six more pages of my novel had been written in a hand that was almost, but not quite, my own. I burned them in the fireplace.

CHAPTER TWELVE

In December of 1865, Inspector Field reported to me, using hulking Detective Hatchery as his messenger, that Dickens’s “patient,” Ellen Ternan, felt well enough not only to attend a Christmas ball hosted by the brother of her sister’s soon-to-be husband, Anthony Trollope, but was sufficiently recovered from her June injuries at Staplehurst to dance at this party. With scarlet geraniums in her hair. By Christmas of that year, Inspector Field was actively complaining to me that he was providing me far more information than I was giving him. It was true. Although Dickens had invited me out to Gad’s Hill several times in the autumn and although he and I had

dined in the city and attended various functions together all through that season of his slow recovery from the Staplehurst disaster, we never truly discussed the topic of Drood. It was as if Dickens were somehow aware that I had entered into a covenant of betrayal with the scheming Inspector Field. And yet, if that were true, why would the Inimitable continue to invite me to his home, write me newsy letters, and meet me for dinner at some of our favourite London haunts? At any rate, Inspector Field had informed me only the week after I had repeated Dickens’s tale of his meeting with Drood, almost word for word, that the writer had lied to me. If this was true, I realised, then there was no tributary to the buried river of the sort Dickens had described to me. No tunnel leading to another river, no underground rookeries filled with hundreds of the poor driven underground, no Egyptian temple along the banks of this unfound subterranean Nile. Either Dickens had lied to me to protect the real route to Drood’s lair or he had made up the entire encounter. Inspector Field was not pleased. Obviously he and his men had spent hours or entire nights and days exploring the catacombs and caverns and sewers down there… all to no avail. At this rate, he let me know during our infrequent and sullen meetings, he would never apprehend Drood and would die of old age before pleasing his former superiors at the Metropolitan Police headquarters to the degree that they would reinstate his pension and rehabilitate his good name. Nonetheless, Field continued to share information with me through the winter. During those autumn months after finishing work on Our Mutual Friend and presumably while having the pleasure of watching its final instalments appear in All the Year Round, Dickens had leased a house for himself in London at 6 Southwick Place, near Hyde Park. There was little mystery in this; he had rented a similar house just around the corner from this one two years before so as to have a convenient place in Tyburnia for his London social engagements, and this new place near Hyde Park was meant to allow his daughter Mamie to come into town whenever she wished for her own society needs (such as they were, since Society seemed to be shunning both Katey and Mamie to a great degree at that time). So there was no mystery to the lease of a house near Hyde Park. But—as Inspector Field would indicate some weeks later with a wink and a touch of his nose with his corpulent finger—there was significantly more mystery involved in Dickens’s lease of two small homes in the village of Slough: one called Elizabeth Cottage in the High Street, and another one on Church Street only a quarter of a mile away. Although this revelation still lay in the future as the Christmas holiday arrived, I would later learn through Inspector Field that Dickens leased both of these properties under the name of Tringham—Charles Tringham for the Elizabeth Cottage and John Tringham for the house on Church Street. For a while, Inspector Field would later inform me, the Church Street home lay empty, but then it was occupied by a certain Mrs Ternan and her daughter Ellen. “We don’t know why Mr Dickens used the name of Tringham,” Inspector Field would say after the New Year as we walked around Dorset Square near my home. “It doesn’t

seem important, on the surface, you see, but in our business it always helps if we understand why someone chooses certain aliases under which to do his dirty work.” Ignoring the “dirty work” allusion, I said, “There’s a tobacconist’s shop on Wellington Street near the offices where Dickens and I work on All the Year Round. The owner, well known to both Dickens and me, is a certain Mary Tringham.” “Ahh,” said Inspector Field. “But I do not believe that is the source of the name,” I added. “No?” “No,” I said. “Do you happen to know, Inspector, a certain story published in 1839 by Thomas Hood?” “I don’t believe I do,” the inspector said sourly. “It’s about village gossip,” I said. “And there’s a bit of a poem in it… “. . . learning whatever there was to learn In the prattling, tattling village of Tringham.” “Ahhh,” said Inspector Field again, but with more conviction this time. “Well, Mr Dickens… or Mr Tringham, if he prefers… goes to great lengths to hide his presence in Slough.” “How is that?” I said. “He dates his letters from Eton, telling his friends that he was merely walking in the Park there,” said Inspector Field. “And he walks miles across back fields from Slough to the Eton railway station, as if he chose to be noticed—if he were noticed at all—waiting for the train to London there rather than in Slough.” I stopped on our walk and asked, “How do you know what Mr Dickens tells his friends in his private letters, Inspector? Have you been steaming open his mail or interrogating his friends?” Inspector Field only smiled. But all of these revelations, Dear Reader, would come about by the spring of 1866, and I must return us now to that bizarrely memorable Christmas of 1865. WHEN DICKENS INVITED ME up to Gad’s Hill Place for Christmas Day, suggesting in his note that I stay through New Year’s, I accepted at once. “The Butler and the Butler’s Mother shall understand,” he wrote in the same note, referring to Harriet (whom we called Carrie ever more frequently as she matured) and her mother, Caroline, in his usual bantering way. I am not sure Caroline and Carrie did fully understand or appreciate my absence that week, but that was of little concern to me. As I took the short train ride to Chatham, I held the Christmas Issue of All the Year Round in my hands—the one I’d just contributed to and helped put out and the one that held Dickens’s Christmas story “Cheap Jack” in it—and I thought about the warp and woof of the Inimitable’s fiction these days. Perhaps it takes a novelist (or some Future Literary Critic such as yourself, Dear Reader) to see what lies behind the words of another novelist’s fiction. I shall start with Dickens’s most recent Christmas tale:

Cheap Jack, the eponymous hero of the Inimitable’s little fable and a common name in our time for the travelling salesman who moved from village to village with his inexpensive wares, was written about a man whose wife was no longer with him, whose child was dead, and who—for professional reasons—must hide his feelings from the world. Dickens’s character was “King of the Cheap Jacks” and happened to be taking a paternal interest in a young girl with “a pretty face and bright, dark hair.” Was this a twisted self-portrait by the author? Was the young girl Ellen Ternan? Dickens being Dickens, of course, the girl with the pretty face and bright, dark hair also happens to be deaf and dumb. What would a Dickens Christmas tale be without pathos and bathos? “See us on the footboard,” Cheap Jack tells us of his time in front of audiences, “and you’d give pretty well anything you possess to be us. See us off the footboard, and you’d add a trifle to be off your bargain.” Is Charles Dickens telling us here about the great abyss between his gay public life and persona and his private sadnesses and bone-deep loneliness away from the public eye? And then there was his huge novel Our Mutual Friend, completed (as was “Cheap Jack”) the previous September and which had just ended its full run of nineteen installments in our All the Year Round. It might truly take another professional author to see just how complex and dangerous a book Our Mutual Friend actually was. I had read it in instalments in our magazine over the past year and a half; I had heard Dickens read parts of it aloud to small groups; I had read some of the book in manuscript form; and after the final instalment was published, I had read it all again. It was incredible. For the first time in my life, I believe I hated Charles Dickens out of sheer jealousy. I cannot speak for your age, Dear Reader, but already in our nineteenth century just approaching the two-thirds mark, tragedy was replacing comedy in the eyes and hearts and analytical minds of “serious readers.” Shakespeare’s tragedies were to be found on the stage more frequently than his brilliant comedies and they received more serious reviews and discussions. The sustained and profound humour of, say, a Chaucer or Cervantes was being replaced in the short list of masterpieces by the more serious tragedies and histories of both the classics and our contemporaries. If this trend continues, Dear Reader, then by the time you read this manuscript a century and more hence, the art and appreciation of comedies will be all but lost. But this was a matter of taste. For years—decades now—the fiction of Charles Dickens had grown darker and more serious, allowing themes to dictate the structure of his novels and causing his characters to fit neatly (too neatly) into the pigeonholes of the overall thematic structure much like library cards might be shuffled into the proper drawer. (This is not to say that even the most serious Dickens novels of recent years had been without humour; I do not believe that Dickens could write something totally devoid of humour, any more than he could be trusted to stay completely serious at a funeral. He was truly irrepressible in that regard. But his topics had been increasingly serious as he abandoned the largely unstructured Pickwickian celebrations of life that had made him

the Inimitable Boz and as social critique and social satire—all-important to him personally—had moved more towards the centre of his work. But in Our Mutual Friend, Dickens had created a sustained comedic novel of more than eight hundred cramped pages without striking—as far as I could tell—a single false note. This was incredible. It made my joints ache and my eyes burn with pain. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens had abandoned the grand motifs of Little Dorrit and Bleak House and Great Expectations and almost completely subordinated his personal and social opinions into a masterful display of language and nuance that came very close to perfection. Very close. The complexity of his characters in this book far surpassed anything he had done before; indeed, Dickens seemed to have resurrected many of his earlier characters and reimagined them with the focus of a newly gained maturity and a newly found sense of forgiveness. Thus the evil lawyer Tulkinghorn from Bleak House reappears as the young lawyer Mortimer Lightwood, but redeems himself as Tulkinghorn never could have. The vile Ralphy Nickleby is reborn as the bounder Fledgeby, but does not escape punishment as had Nickleby. (Indeed, the severe caning of Fledgeby by the other bounder, Alfred Lammle, is one of the high points in all of Charles Dickens’s long list of fictions.) Similarly, Noddy Boffin turns into a Scrooge who avoids becoming a miser; the old Jew Mr Riah atones for the sins of Dickens’s sometimes-criticised (especially by Jews) fa*gin by not being a heartless money-lender but only the conscience-stricken employee of a Christian heartless money-lender; and Podsnap is—besides being a devastating portrait of John Forster (devastating and so subtle that Forster never recognised himself in the character, although everyone else did) —Podsnap is… Podsnap. The quintessence of Podsnappery. Which may well be the quintessence of our age. Yet even while the tone and structure of Our Mutual Friend is one of flawless satiric comedy that would have honoured Cervantes, the underlying chiaroscuric background of the novel is dark to the point of despair. London has become a barren and stony desert, “cheaper as it quadrupled in wealth; less imperial as its empire widened.” It is “a hopeless city, with no rent in the leaden canopy of its sky.” The tones are sombre to the point of funereal, with even the sky being darkened by the inescapable fog from yellow and brown to an underlying creeping blackness—“a heap of vapour charged with muffled sounds of wheels and enfolding a muffled catarrh.” The city so beloved by Dickens is portrayed as either grey or dusty or dark or muddy or cold or windy or rainswept or drowned in its own refuse and filth. Most commonly in Our Mutual Friend, it is revealed to be all these things at once. But within this horror of a landscape—and within great surges of distrust, vicious scheming, incipient dishonesty, ubiquitous greed, and murderous jealousy—the characters manage to find love and support not within families, as had been the example so used by Dickens and other writers of our era before this, but within small circles of friends and beloved, trusted individuals that make up ad hoc families which shield those characters we care about from the storm of poverty and social injustice. And it is these

same circles of love which punish those whom we despise. Dickens had created a masterpiece. The public did not recognise this. The first number in All the Year Round had sold very well (it was, after all, the first new Dickens novel in two and a half years), but sales quickly fell off and the last number sold only 19,000 copies. I knew that this was a bitter disappointment to Dickens, and although he had personally profited (I learned from Katey’s comments to my brother, Charley) to the tune of about £7,000, the publishers Chapman and Hall actually lost money on the book. The critics either loved or hated the book without reservation and laboured over either verdict with their usual co*ck-sure hyperbole, but the general critical trend was one of disappointment. Those in the intellectual sphere had expected another thematic novel with social criticism front and centre, again in the mould of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations, but all they received was a… mere comedy. But, as I say, it took another professional author such as myself to see that Dickens had achieved the nearly impossible in sustaining such a gentle satirical tone at such length, and with such perfection, to see that the satire never slipped into cynicism, that the comic vision did not slide into mere caricature, nor the relentless critique of society devolve into mere rant. It took me, in other words, to see that Our Mutual Friend was a masterpiece. I hated him. As a competing writer, I wished at that moment—as the train left London for his home in Gad’s Hill—that Charles Dickens had died in the Staplehurst accident. Why had he not? So many others had. As he so insufferably wrote and bragged to me and to so many other of his friends, his was the only first-class carriage that had not been thrown to the riverbed below and smashed to flinders. But all that aside, it was the personal revelation in Our Mutual Friend that I found most revealing and relevant to the current situation we all found ourselves in. To my trained writer’s eye and experienced reader’s ear, signs and echoes of Dickens’s disastrous culmination of his long relationship with his wife and the commencement of his dangerous liaison with Ellen Ternan were to be found everywhere in this book. Most novelists create the occasional character—often a villain—who leads a double life, but Dickens’s fiction now seemed saturated with such dualities. In Our Mutual Friend the hero, young John Harmon (heir to the Harmon dust heap fortunes), who appears to be drowned under suspicious circ*mstances while returning to London after many years at sea, immediately visits the decomposing body (dressed in his clothes and thus presumed to be him) at the police station. Harmon then changes his identity to Julius Handford and then later to John Rokesmith so that he can act as secretary to the Boffins, lowly servants who have, by default, inherited the fortune and dust heaps that should have been John Harmon’s. The villains in Our Mutual Friend—Gaffer Hexam, Rogue Riderhood, Mr and Mrs Alfred Lammle (grifters who have deceived each other into a loveless and moneyless marriage and who join hands now only in deceiving and using others), peg-legged Silas Wegg, and especially the murderous headmaster Bradley Headstone—may pretend to be

someone or something else, but are allowed to remain their sincere selves at heart. Only the positive protagonists in the novel suffer from dual or multiple identities amounting to an actual confusion of self. And that tragic confusion is inevitably brought about by one form of energy—love. Misplaced, displaced, lost, or concealed romantic love is the engine that drives all the secrecy, machinations, and violence in Dickens’s single most energetic (and terrible) comedy. Our Mutual Friend, I realised to my own pain and horror, was a title and tale worthy of Shakespeare. John Rokesmith/Harmon hides his identity from his beloved, Bella, until long after they are married and even after they have a child, all the better to manipulate and test and educate her—away from love of money towards love for love’s sake. Mr Boffin becomes an ill-tempered miser to all appearances, driving the Boffins’ ward, Bella, out of the house and back to her impoverished roots, but it is all a charade—another means of testing the true mettle of Bella Wilfer. Even the wastrel lawyer Eugene Wrayburn— one of the strongest (if most confused) personalities in all of Dickens’s fiction—reaches, because of his illogical love for low-born Lizzie Hexam, a point where he taps his head and breast in confusion, speaks his own name, and cries out—“. . . perhaps you can’t tell me what this may be?—No, upon my life I can’t. I give it up!” John Harmon, lost amidst all his disguises and manipulative strategies, reaches a similar loss of identity and cries, “But it was not I. There was no such thing as I, within my knowledge.” The weak and jealous headmaster Bradley Headstone seems to confess to all of Charles Dickens’s own hidden passions and jealousies when he tells the much-in-demand Lizzie Hexam— “You draw me to you. If I were shut up in a strong prison, you would draw me out. I should break through the wall to come to you. If I were lying on a sick bed, you would draw me up—to stagger to your feet and fall there.” And later—“You are the ruin of me… Yes! You are the ruin—the ruin—the ruin—of me. I have no resources in myself, I have no confidence in myself, I have no government of myself when you are near me or in my thoughts. And you are always in my thoughts now. I have never been quit of you since I first saw you.” Compare this to what Charles Dickens had written in a private letter not so long after he had met Ellen Ternan for the first time—“I have never known a moment’s peace or content, since the last night of The Frozen Deep. I do suppose that there never was a man so seized and rended by one Spirit.” And—“Oh, that was a wretched day for me! That was a wretched, miserable day!” Charles Dickens’s passion for Ellen Ternan, much less the destruction to his sense of self, family, and sanity that this passion was causing, cried out to me from behind the mask of every character and violent event in Our Mutual Friend. In the terrifying scene where Bradley Headstone confronts the cowering Lizzie Hexam with his passion—set, I thought, quite appropriately in a foggy burial ground, since the schoolmaster’s love is doomed and one-sided and short-lived even before it dies from

jealousy and resurrects itself as murder—the deranged schoolmaster seems to cry out in a voice echoing Charles Dickens’s silent screams of agony that year— No man knows until the time comes, what depths are within him. To some men it never comes; let them rest and be thankful! To me, you brought it; on me, you forced it; and the bottom of this raging sea has been heaved up ever since.… I love you. What other men may mean when they use that expression, I cannot tell; what I mean is, that I am under the influence of some tremendous attraction which I have resisted in vain, and which overmasters me. You could draw me to fire, you could draw me to water, you could draw me to the gallows, you could draw me to any death, you could draw me to anything I have most avoided, you could draw me to any exposure and disgrace. This, and the confusion of my thoughts, so that I am fit for nothing, is what I mean by your being the ruin of me. And all the time Bradley Headstone is shouting these things, he is wrenching at the stone of the graveyard wall until powdered mortar spills and dribbles onto pavement and until, finally, “bringing his clenched hand down upon the stone with a force that laid the knuckles raw and bleeding.” Charles Dickens had never before written so clearly and painfully and forcefully about the terrible twinned power of love and jealousy. He was never to do so again. As with Bradley Headstone, could the confusion of identities and loss of control over his own life, casualties of erotic and romantic obsession, lead Charles Dickens to madness in daylight and murder in the night? It sounded absurd, but it sounded possible. I set aside the magazine as the train rolled into the station and shifted in my seat to look out into the cold, grey, shadowless Christmas Day. This promised to be an interesting visit. A YEAR EARLIER—before Staplehurst—Dickens’s comparatively desultory Christmas gathering for 1864 had been composed of my brother, Charley, and his wife, Katey, the artist Fechter and his wife (and Fechter’s amazing gift of the Swiss chalet), Marcus Stone, and Henry Chorley. This year I was mildly surprised to find another bachelor, Percy Fitzgerald, a guest for several days, not surprised at all to see Charley and Katey back at the Dickens hearth, pleased to find the other Gad’s Hill residents Mamie and Georgina in relatively good spirits, and totally surprised—despite the fact that the young Staplehurst survivor had mentioned Dickens’s invitation to me the previous summer—to find young Edmond Dickenson installed at Gad’s Hill for the week. That made three bachelors at the table, if one did not count Dickens himself as such. And that morning, Dickens promised me another gratifying surprise by dinnertime. “My dear Wilkie, you shall love our surprise guests tonight. I promise you that. They shall be a delight to us, as always.” If it had not been for the plural, I might have mockingly asked the Inimitable if Mr Drood were making an appearance at our Christmas table. Or perhaps I might not have; despite his enthusiasm about the mystery guests, Charles Dickens seemed very tired and haggard this Christmas Day. I enquired about his health and he admitted to having been

plagued with pains and mysterious weaknesses during the late autumn and early winter. Evidently our mutual friend and physician, Frank Beard, had been consulted frequently, although Dickens rarely followed Beard’s advice. It seems that Beard had diagnosed “a want of muscular powers in the heart,” but Dickens seemed certain that the injured heart in question lay more in the realm of emotions than in his chest cavity. “It’s these accursed muggy days this winter which prey upon the mind, Wilkie,” said Dickens. “Then, after three or four days of unusually warm humidity, these constant cold snaps batter one’s morale like a mace. But—have you noticed?—it never snows. I would give anything for the simple, cold, snowy Christmases of my childhood.” It was true that there was no snow on the ground in London or at Gad’s Hill this particular Christmas. But we were in one of the cold snaps he had described and our afternoon walk that Christmas Day—Percy Fitzgerald came along, as did young Dickenson and Dickens’s real son Charley, but my brother Charles stayed in the house— resembled more a waddling procession of insensate and multiple-layered bundles of wool than it did a gentlemen’s outing. Even Dickens, who usually seemed oblivious to the rain or heat or cold, had added a thicker topcoat than he usually wore on walks and a second wool muffler, red, wound about his collar and lower face. Besides the five of us men, there were five dogs with us on that outing: Linda, the lumbering Saint Bernard; Mary’s little Pomeranian, living up to her name of Mrs Bouncer; Don, the black Newfoundland; the great mastiff named Turk; and Sultan. Dickens had to restrain Sultan on a thick leash. The dog also required a leather muzzle. Percy Fitzgerald, who’d given Dickens the Irish bloodhound as a puppy the previous September, was happy to see Sultan almost grown and obviously healthy, but when Percy approached to pet the hound, Sultan growled ferociously and snapped within the constraints of his muzzle as if he were determined to bite Fitzgerald’s hand off at the wrist. Percy drew back, frightened and mortified. Dickens seemed strangely pleased. “Sultan continues to be gentle and obedient with me,” he told us. “But he is a monster with most other living creatures. He has chewed through five muzzles and often comes home with blood on his snout. We know for certain that he bolted a certain blue-eyed kitten whole, but Sultan did show agonies of remorse for that dastardly deed… or at least agonies of indigestion.” As young Edmond Dickenson laughed, Dickens added, “But notice that Sultan has growled and snarled at all of you… except for Wilkie here. While Sultan is loyal only to me, there is some strange affinity between that dog and Wilkie Collins, I tell you.” I frowned over the rim of my wool scarf. “Why do you say that, Dickens? Because we both come from Irish stock?” “No, my dear Wilkie,” said Dickens from behind his own red scarf. “Because you both can be dangerous unless properly restrained and treated with a strong hand.” The idiot Dickenson laughed again. Charley Dickens and Percy merely looked puzzled at the comment. Because of the cold, or because of Dickens’s pity on his guests, or perhaps because of Dickens’s own health problems, the afternoon walk was more of a leisurely stroll around

the property than the usual Dickensian marathon. We ambled to the barn and looked in on the horses, including Mary’s riding horse, Boy; the older Trotty Veck; and the always serious-demeanoured Norwegian pony named Newman Noggs. As we were standing in the clouds of warm exhalations of the horses’ breath, feeding carrots to them, I remembered my summer visit here to see Dickens right after the Staplehurst accident and how the Inimitable’s nerves could not bear even the slow trot of Newman Noggs pulling the basket cart. That cart and Noggs’s harness, which was hanging on the wall of the stable, were decked out today as they usually were with a lovely-sounding set of Norwegian musical bells, but it was too cold to go for a ride. We left the stables, and Dickens—with Sultan straining at the leash ahead of him—led us through the tunnel to the chalet. The green summer cornfields beyond had died into jagged expanses of frozen brown stubble. The Dover Road was all but empty this grey Christmas Day—a single, tilted hayrick waggon could be seen moving slowly far down its frozen-mud expanse. Brittle grass crackled and split asunder under our boots. After leaving the empty chalet, our procession followed Dickens to and through the field behind his house. Here the writer paused and looked at me and for a second I flattered myself that I knew exactly what he was thinking. Here on this very spot, a mere five years earlier, on a lovely day in the first week of September, Charles Dickens had burned every bit of correspondence he had received in the past three decades. With his sons Henry and Plorn hauling basket after basket of letters and files out from his study, and with his daughter Mamie begging him not to destroy such priceless literary and personal artefacts, Dickens burned every letter he had ever received from me, from John Forster and Leigh Hunt, from Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray, from William Harrison Ainsworth and Thomas Carlyle, from his American friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Washington Irving and James T. and Annie Fields, and from his wife, Catherine. And from Ellen Ternan. Later, Katey told me that she had argued with her father as she held the letters in her hands, argued as she recognised the handwriting and signatures of Thackeray and Tennyson and so many others, and had begged him to think of posterity. But Katey, for whatever reason, was lying to me when she told that story. Kate was actually on her honeymoon in France with my brother, Charles, on 3 September, the day Dickens suddenly decided to burn all of his correspondence. She had not even learned of it until many months later. Her sister Mamie was there—here, on this very spot where I now stood in Dickens’s back yard overlooking the frozen fields and bare, distant forests of Kent—and Mamie did implore her father not to destroy the letters. Dickens’s response was—“Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.” When the files and drawers of Dickens’s study were empty that day, his sons Henry and Plorn had roasted onions on the ashes of the great bonfire until a sudden afternoon rainstorm drove everyone inside. Dickens later wrote me—“It then rained very heavily… I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens.”

Why had Dickens burned his legacy of correspondence? Just the previous year, in 1864, Dickens had told me that he’d written to his old friend the actor William Charles Macready— Daily seeing improper uses made of confidential letters in the addressing of them to a public audience that have no business with them, I made not long ago a great fire in my field at Gad’s Hill, and burnt every letter I possessed. And now I always destroy every letter I receive not on absolute business, and my mind is so far at ease. What improper uses? Some friends whom Dickens and I had in common—of the few who had learned of the mass burning— speculated that the Inimitable’s difficult and public separation from Catherine (made public mostly through his own poor judgement, we should remember) had terrified him into imagining would-be literary biographers and other literary ghouls in the days and months after his demise poring over his confidential correspondence of so many years. For decades, these mutual friends speculated, Charles Dickens’s life and work had been public property. He would be damned, they believed, if reactions from friends to his most private thoughts should also be gawped and gaped at by the curious public. I had a slightly different theory about why Dickens burned the letters. I believe that I put the idea of burning the letters into Dickens’s head. In the Christmas 1854 edition of Household Words, in my story “The Fourth Poor Traveller,” the narrator, a lawyer, says, “My experience in the law, Mr Frank, has convinced me that if everybody burnt everybody else’s letters, half the Courts of Justice in this country might shut up shop.” The courts of justice, such as they were, were very much on Charles Dickens’s mind in those days as he wrote Bleak House and then again in 1858 when his wife’s family threatened to drag him into court for various injustices to Catherine, including, one presumes, adultery. And just a few months before Dickens had committed his letters to the bonfire, I had written of burning a letter in my novel The Woman in White, which was then being serialised in Household Words, carefully edited by Dickens. In my tale, Marian Halcombe has received a letter from a certain Walter Hartright. Marian’s half-sister, Laura, is in love with Hartright but has agreed to fulfil her promise to her dying father to marry someone else. Hartright is ready to sail away to South America. Marian decides not to tell Laura about the contents of the letter. I almost doubt whether I ought not to go a step farther, and burn the letter at once, for fear of it one day falling into wrong hands. It not only refers to Laura in terms which ought to remain a secret forever between the writer and me; but it reiterates his suspicion —so obstinate, so unaccountable, and so alarming—that he has been secretly watched. … But there is a danger in my keeping the letter. The merest accident might place it at the mercy of strangers. I may fall ill; I may die—better to burn it at once, and have one anxiety the less. It is burnt! The ashes of his farewell letter—the last he may ever write to me—lie in a few black fragments in the hearth. My theory, such as it is, is that this scene from The Woman in White made a profound

impression upon Dickens at the time that he was working so very, very hard to create a second and secret life with Ellen Ternan, but also that—for whatever reason—it was his daughter Kate’s marriage to my brother in July of 1860 that finally forced him to burn his correspondence and, I am almost certain, to convince Ellen Ternan to burn all letters he had sent her in the past three years. I am certain that Dickens saw Katey’s marriage to Charles Collins as a form of betrayal from within his family, and it is not too much to speculate that he could then imagine his daughters and sons, but especially his daughter Kate, she who everyone agreed was so much like him, betraying him yet again by selling or publishing his correspondence when he was dead. Dickens had aged terribly in the years between 1857 and 1860—some say that he went from being a youth to an old man with almost no pause for middle age along the way— and it could very well have been his brush with illness and the spectre of death at that time which reminded him of my letter-burning scene and prompted him to get on with destroying all evidence of his inner thoughts. “I know what you’re thinking, my dear Wilkie,” Dickens said suddenly. The other men looked startled. Swathed in their layers of wool, they had been watching the weak sun set beneath the layer of clouds to the west across the rolling, frozen Kentish fields. “What am I thinking, my dear Dickens?” I said. “You’re thinking that a great bonfire here would warm us wonderfully,” said Dickens. I blinked at this, feeling the stiffness of my frozen lashes against my icy cheeks. “A bonfire!” cried the young Dickenson. “What a capital idea!” “It would be if we weren’t needed inside to join the women and children in their Christmas Day games,” said Dickens, clapping his heavy gloves together with a sound like a rifle shot. Sultan shied suddenly, leaping sideways against the leash and cowering as if a real rifle had been fired at him. “Warm punch for everyone!” cried the Inimitable, and our procession of woollen spheroids with bright scarves waddled into the house behind him. I ABSENTED MYSELF from the felicity of playing games with the children and women and sought the refuge of my room. I always stayed in the same guest room at Gad’s Hill Place and I was quietly relieved to discover that it was still mine, that I had not been demoted in recent months. (Because of the crowding with family staying over the holidays and the Mysterious Guests still to arrive that evening, Percy Fitzgerald had been relegated to a room in the Falstaff Inn across the street. I found this odd, since Percy was an old friend and certainly deserved a room in Dickens’s home much more than did the Dickenson orphan, who was staying in the house. But I had long ago given up trying to understand or predict Charles Dickens’s whims.) I should note here, Dear Reader, that I had never shared my late-night laudanum insight that Dickens was planning to kill young rich-orphan Edmond Dickenson (all having something to do with scarlet geraniums spilled about the landscape and hotel room like blood) with Inspector Field or with anyone else. The reason is obvious—it was a late-

night laudanum revelation, and although some of those have proven priceless to me as a novelist, it would be hard to describe to the squinting Inspector Field the chain of hidden logic and drug-induced intuition that had led to the insight. But back to my room at Gad’s Hill Place. Although I told Caroline otherwise after long stays with Dickens, his home was a comfortable refuge for guests. Every guest room had a marvellously comfortable bed in which to sleep, several expensive and equally comfortable items of furniture, and—always, in every guest room and in some hallways and public rooms—a table covered with writing materials, including headed notepaper, envelopes, cut quill pens, wax, matches, and sealing-wax. All this was arranged in a room that was invariably clean, scrupulously neat, and impeccably comfortable. Each guest at Gad’s Hill would also find himself with a veritable library to choose from in his room, with several volumes set out on the bedside table. These books would have been chosen specifically by Dickens for that particular guest. On my bedside table were a copy of my own The Woman in White—not the inscribed one I had personally given to Dickens but a newly purchased one with the pages not yet cut—as well as Spectator essays, a copy of 1001 Arabian Nights, and a volume of Herodotus with a leather bookmark set in a chapter on the ancient historian’s Egyptian travels, which opened to a discussion of Sleep Temples. Above a dressing room mirror in my room was a card which read—“Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!” I knew something about that extended visit. One night over wine, Dickens had described the friendly Dane (who spoke very little English, which must have made his long stay with the Dickens family even more stressful) as “a cross between my character Pecksniff and the Ugly Duckling, Wilkie. A very heavy Scandinavian cross to bear for a week, much less for two fortnights and more.” But when I frequently told Caroline or Harriet, after several days or even weeks as a guest at Gad’s Hill, that the stay had been “a trial,” I meant it in a more literal sense. Despite Dickens’s very real good humour and very real efforts always to set his guests at ease, seeing to their every comfort, catering to them in conversation at all meals and gatherings, there was also a very real sense of being judged by the Inimitable when one was a guest in his home. At least I felt that. (My guess is that poor Hans Christian Andersen—who had commented, without complaining, on the brusqueness of Katey and Mamie and the boys during his long stay here—had not noticed the impatience and occasional censure from his host.) In the quiet of my room—although I could hear squeals of delight from the children and Charles Dickens downstairs in the parlour as they played their games—I removed the jug of laudanum from its well-protected place in my valise and filled the clean glass that sat next to the constantly replenished jug of cool water by the hand basin. The evening, I was sure, would be a trial for me—physically as well as emotionally. I downed the first glass of medicine and filled the next. You may be wondering, Dear Reader from my possibly judgemental future, why I had agreed to inform on Dickens to the inquisitive former policeman. I hope you have not

thought less of me during the pages of memoir that have intervened here since I related consummating that conspiratorial deal. The reasons I agreed to that Faustian bargain were threefold— First, I believe that Dickens wanted me to tell former inspector Charles Frederick Field both everything that had happened that night we searched for Drood and everything the Inimitable had told me about Drood since that night. Why would Dickens want me to inform on him? you ask. I am not certain of all the reasons, but I am quite certain that the author wanted me to do so without actually requesting me to do so. Dickens knew that the private detective was querying me. He certainly knew that a man like Field would attempt to blackmail me beyond a mere threat to expose the very public nature of my relationship with Caroline. More to the point, Dickens would never have told me the story of Drood’s background or admitted to the fact of his—the writer’s—trips to London’s Undertown if Dickens had not anticipated, even wanted, me to forward the information to the bullying inspector. What Dickens’s game was, I did not know. But the sense of silent collusion was thicker between the Inimitable and me than it was between the scheming Inspector Field and myself. Second, I had my own strong reasons for using the inspector as my means to gather information about Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan. There, I knew, in that aspect of his life, Dickens would never share information with me. His relationship with the actress, long before the expository intervention of the Staplehurst disaster, had changed every aspect of the Inimitable’s life and every relationship—including his with me—in that life. Yet the details and extent of that secret relationship and busy Second Life would, if Dickens were to have his way (and when did he not?), remain a mystery until and after the end of his life. I had reasons, which I may reveal to you later, Dear Reader, for needing to know those details. Inspector Field, with his proclivity for prying and his complete lack of a gentleman’s moral perspective and with the help of his far-flung group of busy detectives, was the perfect source of this information. Third, I entered into the apparent conspiracy with Inspector Field out of my own need to rearrange elements of an intimate relationship with Charles Dickens that I had seen deteriorate over the past year, long before Staplehurst. In a real sense, I was transmitting the Drood information to the detective in order to help protect Charles Dickens at one of his most vulnerable times. I felt that a renewal of our endangered friendship—and the reassertion of my own eroded equality in it—was important if my friend Charles Dickens was to be helped and protected. Twenty minutes had passed since I had drunk the laudanum, and I could feel the encroaching pain from rheumatical gout begin to release its vice around my aching head and bowels and extremities. A sense of deep equilibrium and mental alertness spread through my system. Whatever the surprises Charles Dickens had for us at this Christmas Dinner, I now felt ready to face them with my usual and expected Wilkie Collins brand of poise and good humour.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

No—er—Dickens! I swear! Not this—er—er—not this, this Our Mutual Friend nonsense! No! It is—er—it is—Copperfield, by God! I swear to Heaven that, as a piece of passion and playfulness—er, ah—indescribably mixed up together, it does—No, really, Dickens!—Copperfield!—amaze me as profoundly as it—er—as it moves me. But as a piece of Art—and you know—er—that I—No, Dickens! By God!—have seen the best Art in a great time—it is incomprehensible to me. How it is got at—er—how it is done—er—how one man can—well! It lays me on my—er—back, and it is of no use talking about it.” This was our Surprise Guest speaking and mopping at his huge, pale, perspiring forehead with his paisely silk handkerchief. Then the old man began mopping his rheumy eyes as they began leaking tears. Our Mystery Guests were, of course, William Charles Macready, the Eminent Tragedian, and his new wife, Cecile. I hope and pray that I do not sense a silence on your distant end of this memoir through time, Dear Reader, for if your era has forgotten William Charles Macready, what hope do I have that the name or work of little Wilkie Collins has survived? William Charles Macready was the Eminent Tragedian of our age, inheriting Kean’s mantle and—according to many—surpassing that earlier giant of Shakespearean Theatre in both subtlety of interpretation and refinement of sensibility. Macready’s most memorable roles in his many decades of dominating the English stage were as Macbeth in that unnameable production and as King Lear. Born in 1793, if my arithmetic is correct, Macready was already a mature and recognised star of the stage and famous public man when young Dickens—the Inimitable Boz, as he was known in his first flush of success after The Pickwick Papers—was just a stagestruck lad. Macready’s unique mastery of pathos and remorse on stage, often at the expense of any sense of the nobility or greatness so often worn by Shakespearean actors, resonated strongly with the young writer’s own abilities in those areas. Macready also was, as was Dickens, a complex, sensitive, and paradoxical man. As outwardly certain of everything as the Inimitable himself, Macready was—according to

those who knew him best—also privately in doubt much of the time. Proud of his profession in the same way that Dickens was of his, he also was insecure (just as Dickens sometimes was) that such a profession could allow him to be a true gentleman. But from the late 1830s on, the rising star Dickens and his friends Macready, Forster, Maclise, Ainsworth, Beard, and Mitton composed an inner circle of talent and ambition rarely equalled in our little island’s history. Of all these men, William Charles Macready was—until Dickens’s ultimate ascendency —by far the most famous. For many years (decades actually), the Inimitable Boz wrote admiring reviews from the sidelines, especially cheering on (along with his co-writer and editor John Forster) such theatrical innovations as Macready’s production of Lear—which restored Shakespeare’s true and tragic vision after more than a century and a half in which audiences had no choice but to suffer through Nahum Tate’s abysmal “happy ending” adaptation. Macready had also reintroduced the Fool to the cast of Lear, an act of inspired salvage to which Charles Dickens’s sensibilities had resonated as if he had been a bell struck by a hammer. I once looked up Dickens’s writing on this particular matter, and beyond Dickens’s referring to the renewed presence of the Fool as “singular and masterly relief” to the overwhelming presence of the Lear character, the ecstatic Boz had called Macready’s production “magnificent” and had elaborated— The heart, soul, and brain of the ruined piece of nature, in all the stages of its ruining, were laid bare before us.… The tenderness, the rage, the madness, the remorse, and sorrow, all come of one another, and are linked together in one chain. In 1849, the upstart American Shakespearean actor named Edwin Forrest—who had once been good friends with Macready and who had benefitted from his largesse— visited England and insulted Macready’s interpretation of Hamlet, going so far as to say that our great English Tragedian minced his way across the stage and delivered his lines like an effeminate fop. Forrest was not treated well by the entirety of English audiences during the remainder of his tour here. Englishmen laughed at his Macbeth delivering the Bard’s immortal lines in that atrocious American accent. Then, in May of that same year, Macready did his own tour of America—he had been there before and been welcomed warmly for the most part—and the gangs of Boston and New York, serious Shakespeare aficionados, theatre-goers, and vicious hooligans all, had pelted Macready, during his performances, with rotten eggs, chairs, dead cats, and even more disgusting items. Many American theatre-goers attempted to defend our Eminent Tragedian. More of the hooligan gang members organised to strike a blow against Macready and the English ascendancy and hegemony in all things Shakespearean. The result, on 10 May, 1849, had been one of the bloodiest riots in the history of New York City. Before it was over, fifteen thousand people had turned into either a pro- or anti-Macready mob near the theatre called Astor Place, the mayor and governor panicked and called out a militia which the Americans called the National Guard, the crowd was fired into, and somewhere between twenty and thirty citizens lay dead on the street. Through this all, Dickens had sent encouraging and congratulatory telegrams to

Macready, as if he were the manager with the towel and smelling salts in a pugilist’s corner. Over the years, Dickens had quietly written and shyly submitted many short plays and theatre comedies to the great actor, but Macready had tactfully rejected all of them (although Dickens was involved in mounting such memorable performances for Macready as his 1838 presentation of Henry V). Somehow these rejections had not antagonised or alienated the Inimitable, who—in my experience—could tolerate no such rejection from anyone else, including the Queen. So their friendship had endured and matured for three decades now. But as friends in common had fallen by the wayside—either falling out of Dickens’s favour or dying—I had sensed from the Inimitable’s comments in recent years that his prominent reaction to Macready was now one of sadness. Life had not treated the Eminent Tragedian gently. The Astor Place riot had convinced the ageing actor to retire, but even as he hit the road for his farewell tour, his beloved oldest child, nineteen-year-old Nina, died. Macready, always a soul-searching man of faith, literally locked himself away to confront his newly powerful doubts about both the universe and himself. His wife, Catherine, was in confinement at the time with their tenth child. (The parallels between the Dickenses and the Macreadys were more than superficial—the couples were so close that when Charles Dickens took his own Catherine on his first American tour in the early 1840s, it was the Macreadys to whom he entrusted their own children at the time—but William Charles Macready never fell out of love with his Catherine.) Macready’s last performance was at Drury Lane on 26 February, 1851. Macbeth—the role he had been most identified with and the play he had been booed and attacked during in New York two years before—was, of course, his choice for his farewell. There was the inevitable grand banquet as a footnote to this farewell, this one so large that it had to be held in the echoing old Hall of Commerce. Bulwer-Lytton lisped his way through a sincere speech. John Forster read an abysmally bad verse written for the occasion by Tennyson. Thackeray, whose only task was to toast the health of the ladies in attendance, almost passed out from nerves. Dickens, of course, who had organised the entire night and who was wearing a bright blue coat with astounding brass buttons and shiny black satin waistcoat, gave a moving and sad and humourous and heartfelt speech that was truly memorable. Catherine Macready died in 1852. As had been the case with their daughter Nina, Macready’s wife succumbed after a long, terrible battle with tuberculosis. Dickens had told me about his last visit to her bedside and how he had written a friend shortly after that—“The tremendous sickle certainly does cut deep into the surrounding corn, when one’s own small blade has ripened.” The next year, both of Macready’s sons, Walter and Henry, also died, followed immediately after by their sister Lydia. None of his children had gotten out of their teens. After eight years of mourning in seclusion in his gloomy Sherbourne retreat, in 1860, at the age of sixty-seven, Macready had remarried—the twenty-three-year-old Cecile

Louise Frederica Spencer became the second Mrs Macready—and moved to a handsome new home in Cheltenham, only four or five hours from London. Soon after that they had a son. Dickens was delighted. The Inimitable loathed, feared, and despised the idea of getting older (it was the reason that Mary Angela, his oldest grandchild, Charley and Bess’s daughter, this very evening was calling Dickens “Venerables,” as the writer had insisted —he would not allow the word “grandfather” to be used around him) and he did not wish to see or acknowledge signs of age or decay in those closest to him. But the William Charles Macready at our table this Christmas Day night of 1865, at age seventy-two, showed every possible sign of age and decay. The same features that so many had found interesting in an actor—the powerful chin, massive forehead, large nose, sunken eyes, pursed and budlike lips—now conveyed the sense of some once-proud bird of prey collapsed into itself. As an actor, Macready had developed a technique, still taught at theatrical schools, called “the Macready pause.” I had heard it on stage myself. Essentially it was nothing more than a hesitation, an odd pause or ellipsis put into a line of dialogue where no punctuation existed, and it’s true that it could add impact or emphasis to a line, to the point of changing the meaning of the words on either side of the pause. Macready had incorporated this pause into his regular speech decades ago and his dictatorial ways as a director of plays had been parodied by many—“Stand—er—er—still, damn your eyes!” or “Keep your—er—er—eye on me, sir!” But now the Macready pause had devoured most of the Macready meaning. “I can’t—er—er—can’t tell you—er—er—Dickens, how… What is that preposterous and—er—er—horrible hubbub from the other… Children? Your children, Charley? What cat is that? Do—do—do—a—a—a—a—damn it! Cecile! What was I about to say before… Collins! No, you, the other one—with the spectacles! I read your—er—er— saw your—you—you—you—cannot possibly have meant that she… Do, fair Georgina, pray unburden us all of this—er—er—relieve us of this—a—a—banging of pewter pots from the kitchen, no? Yes! By God! Someone should tell the stage manager that these children should… Oh, A Woman Is White is what I meant to—er—er—capital turkey, my dear! Capital!” THE TURKEY WAS good. Some people have written that no one in England had been more responsible in the past decades for turning English families gathering around their tables on Christmas away from the bony and greasy goose and towards the rich, plump turkey than had Charles Dickens. His ending to A Christmas Carol alone seems to have pushed thousands of our previously goosified countrymen over the poultry bodice brink onto the white breast of true turkey feasts. At any rate, the turkey was good this day, as were all the steaming side dishes. Even the white wine was better than that which Dickens usually served. This was a small Christmas gathering by Dickens’s standards, but the long table was still more crowded than any Caroline had ever hosted for a Christmas dinner. At the far end

was Charles Dickens, of course, the carved carcass of the larger of the two depleted turkeys still in front of him like a trophy of war. To his immediate right was Macready, and across the table from the Eminent Tragedian was his young wife, Cecile. (I am sure that there is some ironclad social rule against seating spouses across from one another— almost as bad as next to each other, I would think—but Charles Dickens was never one to pay much attention to Society’s dictates. Mere Podsnappery, he would say.) Next to Macready was his god-daughter and namesake, Kate Macready Dickens Collins, but she did not look pleased to be seated next to her god-father—or pleased to be at the table with us, for that matter. After darting venomous glances at her father and wincing at Macready’s endlessly elliptical and indecipherable pronouncements, she would look down the table towards her sister Mamie and roll her eyes. Mamie—Mary—who was seated on my left (since, for some unknown reason, Dickens had bestowed upon me the honour of sitting at the opposite end of the table from him), had put on even more weight in the few weeks since I had last seen her and was looking more and more like her matronly mother. Across from Katey was my brother, Charles, who did indeed look ill this evening. As much as I hated to agree with Dickens on this particular matter, Charley’s pale countenance did look like a death’s head. To Katey Dickens’s right sat the Young Orphan, our very own Staplehurst survivor, Edmond Dickenson, who spent the evening grinning and gazing and beaming at everyone like the fool he was. Across from Dickenson was another young bachelor, twenty-six-year-old Percy Fitzgerald, who managed to be just as jovial and enthusiastic as Dickenson, sans the idiocy. Sitting between Dickenson and Mamie Dickens was Charley Dickens. The Inimitable’s oldest child seemed the happiest of any of us there that night, and the reason may have been sitting across the table from him. I confess that young Bessie Dickens, his wife, may have been the loveliest woman there that night—or at least a close second to Cecile Macready. Dickens had been furious at Charley for falling in love with Bessie Evans— her father, Frederick Evans, had been a long-time friend of the Inimitable’s, but Dickens had never forgiven Evans for representing Catherine during the ugly separation negotiations—nor for being her trustee afterwards—even though Dickens himself had asked Evans to take on those roles. Luckily for Charley Dickens’s happiness and future, he had ignored his father’s blusterings and ultimatums and married Bessie. She was quiet and contained this night —she rarely spoke in the presence of her father-in-law—but the candlelight on her lovely neck was statement enough. On Bessie’s left sat Georgina Hogarth, who did her best to preside over the table and cluck about each dish and entrée in the author’s wife’s very palpable absence. To Georgina’s left and to my immediate right sat young Henry Fielding Dickens. As far as I could recall, this was the first time that the sixteen-year-old had eaten at the grownups’ table on Christmas Day. The boy looked proud of that fact in his shiny new satin waistcoat with buttons far too visible. Less visible were the long side-whiskers the boy

was attempting—none too successfully—to wish into existence along his downy cheeks. He kept touching, not consciously, I believe, his smooth cheeks and upper lip as if to see if the desired whiskers might have grown in during dinner. To my immediate left, sitting between Mamie Dickens and me, was the true (for me) “Surprise Guest” of the evening—a very tall, very thickset, very ruddy-complexioned, very bald man with the kind of luxurious moustache and side-whiskers that poor young Henry D. could only dream of. The man’s name was George Dolby and I had actually met him at the Household Words office once or twice, although my recollection was that his background was in theatrical or business management, not publishing. During the evening’s introductions before dinner, it became obvious that Dickens had known Dolby slightly, had some business to discuss with him, and—since Dolby was at loose ends this Christmas—had invited him to Gad’s Hill on the spur of the moment. Dolby was an energetic and skilful talker, despite a stammer that disappeared only when he was imitating other people (which he did frequently). His stories centred on theatrical gossip and, except for the slight stammer when he was speaking as himself, were told with almost perfect theatrical emphasis and timing—but he also knew how to listen. And to laugh. Several times this evening he had given forth with a noisy, jolly, reverberating, unselfconscious laugh that may have made Katey Dickens and Mamie roll their eyes but which, I noticed, always brought a smile to the Inimitable’s face. Dolby seemed especially amused by Macready’s nearly impenetrable tales and waited patiently through the “— er—er—er” for the “by God!” final lines before erupting in mirth. The communal part of the evening was almost over, the children and grandchildren had come in to wish “Venerables” and their parents good night, the conversation had reached a pause where even Dolby seemed thoughtful and a little sad, Katey and Mamie had quit rolling their eyes and looking displeased with us all, but obviously the women were ready to retire to wherever they retire when the men move to the library or billiards room for brandy and a cigar, when young Dickenson said, “Excuse me, Mr Dickens, but if I may be so forward, what are you writing now, sir? Have you embarked upon another novel?” Instead of frowning at the upstart, Dickens smiled as if he had been looking forward to this question all evening. “Actually,” he said, “I have put aside my writing for the time being. I don’t know when I shall pick it up again.” “Father!” cried Mamie in mock alarm. “You not writing? You not in your study writing every day? Shall the next announcement be that the sun no longer shall rise in the east?” Dickens smiled again. “In truth, I have decided to embark upon a more rewarding endeavour over the coming months—perhaps years. A creative undertaking that shall be more rewarding to me in both artistic and financial terms.” Katey showed her own version of the Inimitable’s smile. “You’re becoming an artist, Father? An illustrator, perhaps?” She looked at her quiet husband, my brother, across the ruins of the turkey. “You had best watch out, Charles. You have yet another competitor.” “Nothing like that,” said Dickens. Kate often irritated her father, but his response to her

taunt tonight was filled with equanimity. “I have decided to create a new art form altogether. Something the world has never experienced—has never imagined!—before this.” “Another—eh—eh—a new—eh—eh, that is to say—by God, Dickens!” offered Macready. The author leaned to his left and said softly to Cecile, “My dear, of all men at this table, your husband knows best the beauty and power of the new endeavour I shall be embarking upon in a very few weeks.” “You’re going to become a full-time actor, Father?” chirped up Henry, who had seen his father on the amateur stage his entire life and who had been tossed around by him on that same stage during the early performances of my The Frozen Deep. “Not at all, my boy,” said Dickens, still smiling. “I daresay that our friend Wilkie at the other end of the table here might have a glimmer of what I have in mind.” “I have no clue whatsoever,” I said truthfully. Dickens set both hands on the table and spread his arms in a way that reminded me of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. That thought had hardly entered my mind before another followed fast on its heels—If this is the Last Supper, which amongst us here is Judas? “I have authorised Wills to negotiate on my behalf with Messrs Chappell of New Bond Street for an engagement consisting of at least thirty readings,” continued Dickens. “While the negotiations have only yet begun, I am quite confident that this shall happen and that it shall herald a new era of my career and of public entertainment and education.” “But Father,” cried Mamie, obviously shocked, “you know what Dr Beard has said to you during your recent illnesses—degenerations of some functions of the heart, the need for more rest—your previous reading tours have so exhausted you…” “Oh, nonsense,” cried Dickens but with even a broader smile. “We are considering appointing Mr Dolby there…” The huge man blushed and bowed his head. “. . . as my business manager and companion on these trips. Chappell would organise all business and administrative arrangements, as well as pay for my own and Mr Dolby’s and probably Mr Wills’s personal and travelling expenses. All I shall have to do is to take my book and read at the appointed place and hour.” “But reading from your books is hardly… what did you call it, Father?… a new art form,” said Katey. “You’ve done it many times.” “So I have, my dear,” agreed Dickens. “But never the way I shall on this and future tours. As you know, I never simply… read from my books, although sometimes I feign to. All of my performances are done from memory and I reserve the right to edit, conflate, alter, and rewrite scenes to a great extent… even improvise completely upon occasion, just as the Eminent Tragedian here has done count-less times to the betterment even of Shakespeare.” He patted Macready’s arm. “Ah—yes—I, of course—but, Bulwer-Lytton, yes, I would gag away at will,” said Macready, reddening under his pale skin and wrinkles, “but the—er—er—the Bard. By

God… never!” Dickens laughed. “Well, my prose is not the Bard’s. It is not inscribed in stone anywhere like Moses’ Commandments.” “But still,” said my brother, “a new art form? Can any reading be such?” “Mine shall be from this tour forward,” snapped Dickens. His smile had faded. “Your readings are already unique in their tone and brilliance, sir,” said young Dickenson. “Thank you, Edmond. Your generous spirit is appreciated. But in my future readings, beginning on this tour and continuing… as I said… perhaps for many years, I plan to bring to the proceedings a totally unprecedented level of theatricality combined with a true understanding of the manipulation of animal magnetism.” “Magnetism, by Jove!” exploded Dolby. “Sir, do you propose to mesmerise the audience as well as to entertain them?” Dickens smiled again and stroked his whiskers. “Mr Dolby, I shall assume that you read. Novels, I mean.” “Indeed I do, sir!” laughed Dolby. “I have enjoyed all of yours and also Mr Collins’s here… Mr Collins at the end of the table to my right, I mean to say.” He turned to me. “That book Armadale that Mr Dickens’s press published for you, Mr Collins. Wonderful stuff, sir. That heroine—Lydia Gwilt, I believe her name was. What a woman! Wonderful!” “We did not have the pleasure of publishing that book of Mr Collins’s in serial form,” Dickens said formally. “Nor shall we have the honour of publishing it in book form. It shall appear in May of the coming year from another publisher. Although I am delighted to be able to say that we are in the process of wooing our dear Wilkie back to publish his next novel in All the Year Round.” “Ah, wonderful, wonderful!” said Dolby, all hearty good cheer. He had no idea of the faux pas he had committed with his praise. Indeed, my most recent novel, Armadale, riding on the success of The Woman in White that had appeared in Dickens’s Household Words, had been serialised—with a much higher payment for me—in The Cornhill Magazine. And it was to come out in full book form from Smith, Elder & Company, who also published The Cornhill. But this was not the full faux pas, nor the reason that Dickens’s face—beaming and relaxed and eager just a moment earlier—now looked pinched and old. The reason for his change of mood was, I am certain, precisely the heroine Lydia Gwilt whom Dolby had been so inopportune to mention. At one point I had had Lydia, who was no stranger to pain, hers and that of those mortals close to her, say in the novel— Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart, whoever he was. If all the miserable wretches in pain of body and mind, whose comforter he has been, could meet together to sing his praises, what a chorus it would be! I have had six delicious hours of oblivion; I have woke up with my mind composed. I had heard through numerous intermediaries, my brother and Katey included, that

Dickens had not been pleased with those words… nor with the general tolerant tone towards laudanum and other opiates shown throughout the novel. “But you were going to tell us how our act of reading novels relates to the new art form of your proposed readings,” I said to Dickens down the length of the cluttered table. “Yes,” said the Inimitable, smiling towards Cecile Macready as if in apology for the interruption of his narration. “You know the incomparable and—I would dare say— unique feeling one has when reading. The focus of attention to the exclusion of all sensory input, other than the eyes taking in the words, one has when entering into a good book?” “Oh, rather!” cried Dickenson. “The world just fades away. All other thoughts just fade away! All that remains are the sights and sounds and characters and world created for us by the author! One might as well be anaesthetised to the mundane world around us. All readers have had that experience.” “Precisely,” said Dickens, his smile back in place and his eyes bright. “This happens to be precisely the receptive state a person must be in for a mesmeric therapist to be able to do his work. It is, through the judicious use of language, phrases, descriptions, and dialogue, a form of lowering the reader into the same sort of receptive state of mind that a patient under Magnetic Influence must feel.” “By God!” cried Macready. “The—er—the audience at the theatre enters into just such an—a—a—sort of receptive trance. I have always said that the—er—er—audiences are the third point of the collaborative—ah—collaborative triangle with the playwright and the actor.” “Exactly,” said Dickens. “And this is the crux of my new performing art as opposed to mere readings. Building upon the receptive state of the audiences—so much more intense even than that of readers alone at home or in a railway carriage or even sitting in their gardens—I intend to use the incipient magnetism, combined with my voice and words, to put them into an even deeper receptive and appreciative and collaborative state than either literature or theatre alone could produce.” “Through mere words?” asked my brother. “And the judicious and carefully honed gesture,” said Dickens. “In the proper setting.” “That setting being the st… st… stage,” said Dolby. “Yes, by Jove. That should be extraordinary!” “Not merely the stage,” said Dickens, nodding slightly as if he were already prepared to take his bows. “But the darkened room. The precise and scientific use of gas lighting to illuminate my face and hands above all else, the careful seating of the audience so that no one is out of direct line of sight with my eyes…” “We shall be bringing our own gas and lighting experts on the tour,” interrupted Dolby. “Wills has made it a central item to our negotiations.” Macready pounded the table and laughed. “Little do audiences know that the—er—er— the—er—er—gaslights are a form of—er—intoxication. Intoxication, by God! They deprive the room, the theatre, the space, of oxygen!” “Indeed they do,” said Dickens with a mischievous smile. “And we shall be using that to

our advantage in putting these—I should modestly hope—very large audiences at the readings into the properly receptive state.” “Into the properly receptive state for what?” I asked flatly. Dickens pinned me upon the point of his mesmeric stare. His voice was soft. “That is what these readings—this new art form—shall determine.” AFTER DINNER, WE men decamped with brandy and cigars to the billiards room behind Dickens’s study. This was a pleasant space, well-lighted, with one wall half-tiled to prevent any damage from our flailing cue-sticks, and I had spent many a pleasant hour in it. Dickens took his game of billiards seriously—he liked to say that billiards “brings out the mettle in a man” and then, often, glancing at my brother, would add, “or the lack of.” In either case I shall always remember the Inimitable leaning long over the greenbaized table, his coat off and wearing those large double-glasses which gave him an odd, Pickwickian, earlier-era old-mannish look. One of the reasons that Dickens enjoyed Percy Fitzgerald was that the younger man was serious about the game of billiards and quite good at it—at least good enough to give Dickens and me a game. I could more than hold my own at the game, as befits any serious bachelor, but I was surprised this night to find that our Resident Orphan, young Edmond Dickenson, played rather like someone who earned his living on the winnings. (And perhaps he did, for all I knew and for all of Dickens’s talk of the boy’s being independently wealthy.) Macready played for a loud while before his wife trundled him off to bed after a glass of warm milk. But it was George Dolby—Dickens’s future business manager and readingtour companion—who brought that night’s games to life: roaring with laughter, telling truly amusing stories with no hint of his earlier stammer, his great bald scalp and forehead gleaming with perspiration in the light from the overhead lamps, Dolby repeatedly dispatched Percy, then me, then Dickens, and finally the stubborn and oddly skilled young Dickenson, whose play showed both an appreciation of ballistics and a deviousness which one would never credit by looking at him. Dickens, as was his usual habit, retired at midnight but urged us all to continue playing. Usually I did when there were interesting male guests still awake, often playing and enjoying our host’s brandy until dawn, but when Dolby set down his cue and retired soon after Dickens said his goodnights—perhaps not yet certain of his prerogatives as a guest at Gad’s Hill—the game broke up, Percy set off for the Falstaff Inn with a servant holding a lantern for him, and Dickenson and I went upstairs to our respective rooms. Despite my earlier ministrations of my medicine, the rheumatical gout was racking me as I got ready for bed. Measuring the amount of laudanum remaining in my travel jug, I took two more glasses of the restorative and soporific. I say “restorative and soporific” because laudanum, as you almost certainly know in your more medicinally enlightened future, Dear Reader, serves to quiet the nerves and allow sleep or to awaken the sensibilities and allow long bouts of hard work and provide a higher than usual level of attention. I did not know—perhaps no one knew—how the

same drug served both opposing needs, but I knew beyond doubt that it did. This night I needed its ministrations as soporific. My busy mind wanted to dwell on Dickens’s bizarre plans for a reading tour to serve as “an entirely new art form” and to connect the strands of nonsense he’d spoken about mesmerism and magnetism to the visits he purported to have been making to see the cellar-dweller named Drood, but the blessed laudanum relieved me of those turgid questionings. My last thoughts before going to sleep that night were about a piece of information that Inspector Field had given me some weeks earlier. It seemed that Ellen Ternan had been followed to this area and even to Gad’s Hill several times since autumn. Of course, reported Field, the former actress had relatives in Rochester which brought her to the area separate from any collusion with Dickens, but it was certain that she also came to visit at Gad’s Hill repeatedly and appeared to have spent at least five nights here since September. How, I wondered, did Mamie and Katey react to this usurpation of their mother’s place? I could easily imagine Mamie following Georgina Hogarth’s lead in welcoming the intruder into their home, knowing—as they must have—that Charles Dickens was a man racked by loneliness and a need for the illusions of youth that only romance can bring to the ageing male mind and soul. But Katey? Kate Macready Dickens, as lonely as she appeared to be in her own right—her father had mentioned to me in October that my brother’s wife “was so discontented… so intensely eager to find other lovers, that she is burning away both character and health slowly but steadily, Wilkie”—still seemed to be loyal to the memory of her exiled mother. I could not imagine Katey, who was the same age as Ellen Ternan, opening her heart to her father’s probable mistress. It is a hard thing to tell the brother of your daughter’s husband that she is so discontented with her husband that she is eagerly searching for other lovers, and I suspect that Dickens said those words so that I might repeat them to Charley. But, of course, I did not. Yet Katey must not have vocally opposed Ellen’s visits or the former actress would not have kept returning to Gad’s Hill. With these thoughts still in mind, I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep. SOMEONE WAS SHAKING me violently and whispering my name. I rolled over groggily. The room was dark except for a strange light that seemed to be coming from the floor at the side of the bed. A fire? There was a dark form looming over me, shaking me. “Get up, Wilkie.” I focused on that shape. Charles Dickens in a nightshirt with a woollen coat thrown over his shoulders, carrying a two-barrelled shotgun in one hand and a crumpled shroud in the other. The time has come, I thought. “Get up, Wilkie,” he whispered again. “Quickly. Just put your shoes on. I brought your

coat.” The shape dropped the shroud on my legs and I realised it was my overcoat. “What…” “Sshhh. You’ll wake the others. Get up. Quickly. Before he gets away. We have no time to waste. Just the coat and shoes. That’s a good man.…” We went down the back stairs, Dickens with his gun and lantern ahead of me, both of us trying to make as little noise as possible. Sultan, the ferocious Irish bloodhound, was tied up in the back hall, muzzled and leashed but straining to get out the door. “What is this?” I whispered to Dickens. “What’s wrong?” The Inimitable’s wisps of hair atop his head and long whiskers were curled this way and that in the tangle of sleep, some standing straight up, all of which would have been very amusing under different circ*mstances. But not tonight. There was something like real fear in Charles Dickens’s eyes—something I don’t believe I had ever seen before. “It was Drood,” he whispered. “I could not sleep. I kept thinking of something I should have noted for Wills. So I rose from my bed, intending to go down to the study to make a note, and I saw it, Wilkie.…” “Saw what, man?” “Drood’s face. That pale, tortured face. Floating at the window. Pressed against the cold panes.” “Of your study?” I said. “No,” said Dickens, his eyes as wild as a runaway horse’s, “at the windows of my bedroom.” “But, Dickens,” I whispered back, “that is impossible. Your bedroom is up on the first floor, with the guest rooms. Drood would have to be standing on an eight- or ten-foot ladder to peer into those windows.” “I saw him, Wilkie,” rasped Dickens. He flung the door open and with the lantern and leash in one hand and his two-barrelled gun in the other, was pulled out into the night after his straining dog. IT WAS VERY COLD and very dark in Dickens’s back yard. There was no moon, no stars, no light from the house. The cold wind cut through my loosely donned coat in a second and I shivered under my fluttering nightshirt. My legs and ankles were bare between the coat and my shoes, and the night air was so frigid against my flesh there that I felt as if the frozen grass were slashing at me with tiny razors. Sultan snarled and surged. Dickens let the dog lead us as if we were outraged villagers on the trail of a murderer in a second-rate sensationalist novel. And perhaps we were. We hurried around the side of the house in the dark and stood in the garden beneath Dickens’s bedroom windows. Sultan pulled and snarled and tugged to continue, but Dickens paused long enough to unshutter the small lantern and focus its beam on the frozen soil in the flower bed. There were no incriminating footprints and no signs that a ladder had been set there. We both glanced up towards his dark bedroom window. A few

stars appeared between rapidly moving clouds and were then erased. If Drood had stared into that window without a tall ladder beneath him, he must have been floating ten feet off the ground. Sultan growled and tugged and we followed. We returned to the back of the house and paused in the small field where Dickens had burned all of his letters in 1860. The cold wind moved bare branches with skeletal clicks. I whispered to Dickens, “How could it be Drood? How could he be here? Why would he be here?” “He followed me from London one morning,” Dickens whispered back, slowly turning in a full circle, the long double-barrelled weapon in the crook of his right arm. “I am sure of it. I have seen a shadowy figure on the other side of the road, by the chalet, many nights now. The dogs bark. When I emerge, the form is gone.” More likely to be the agents of Inspector Field, I thought and was tempted to say aloud. Instead, I said again, “Why would Drood come out here to stare in your window on Christmas Day night?” “Shhhh,” said Dickens, waving me into silence and clamping his free hand around Sultan’s jaws to silence the bloodhound’s growling. For a second I thought that a sleigh was approaching, even though there was not a hint of snow on the ground, but then I realised that the faint jingling of bells was coming from the dark stables. The pony Newman Noggs’s Norwegian bells were hanging on the wall there. “Come,” said Dickens and hurried towards the barn. The stable doors were open—a blacker rectangle in the near-black night. “Did you…” I started to whisper. “They are always closed,” Dickens hissed back. “I checked them at sunset tonight.” He handed me the suddenly silent dog’s leash, set the lantern down, and lifted the shotgun. From inside the stables there came a final faint jingle of bells then sudden silence, as if a hand were muffling the harness. “Unclip Sultan’s muzzle and then release his leash,” Dickens whispered very softly, still aiming his weapon at the open doors. “He’ll tear whoever it is apart,” I whispered back. “Unclip the muzzle and release him,” hissed Dickens. I went to one knee, heart pounding, shivering in the cold, and fumbled with the clasps on the muzzle. I was half-certain that the straining, wild-eyed Irish bloodhound—he weighed almost as much as I—would rip me limb from limb the second I removed the muzzle. He did not. Sultan ceased growling and straining as I dropped the muzzle to the ground and fumbled off the clip of the leash. “Go!” Dickens said aloud to the dog. Sultan went, exploding into a run as if he were made of metal springs rather than mere muscles. But he did not run into the darkness of the barn. Instead, the bloodhound veered to the left, leaped a hedge in a single bound, and disappeared out into the fields,

heading towards the forest and distant sea. “D—— n that dog,” said Dickens. I realised how few times I had heard the Inimitable curse. “Come, Wilkie,” he said peremptorily, as if I were a second hound he had kept in reserve. Handing me the shielded lantern, Dickens ran towards the open door of the stable. I hurried to keep up, almost slipping on the frozen grass even as Dickens reached the doorway and entered without waiting for light. I came into the gloom feeling rather than seeing Dickens’s presence a few feet to my left, knowing—perhaps clairvoyantly—that he stood there with his shotgun raised and aimed towards the long avenue within the barn, even as I sensed rather than saw the stir and breath of the horses and ponies standing here. “Light!” cried Dickens. I fumbled open the shutter on the lantern. A vague blur in the stalls where the horses—all awake but silent—shifted uneasily, a glimpse of their breath like fog in the cold air, and then a blur of white motion at the far end of the dark space, beyond where the bells and harness and tack hung. Dickens lifted the weapon higher and I could see his eyes white in the lantern light as he prepared to pull both triggers. “Wait!” I shouted, the volume of my voice causing the horses to shy. “For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” I ran towards the white blur. I believe Dickens would have fired despite my cries if I had not thrown my body between him and his target. The white blur at the closed end of the darkness revealed itself in the circle of light from my lantern. Edmond Dickenson stood there, his eyes wide but staring blankly, not seeing us, not hearing us. He was in his nightshirt. His feet were bare and pale against the cold black cobbles of the livery stable floor. His hands hung like small white stars at the end of his limp arms. Dickens came up and began laughing. The loud laughter further alarmed the horses but did not seem to register with Dickenson. “A somnambulist!” cried Dickens. “By God, a somnambulist. The orphan walks abroad at night.” I held the lantern closer to the young man’s pale face. The flame reflected brightly in the boy’s eyes, but he did not blink or acknowledge my presence. We were indeed in the presence of a sleepwalker. “You must have seen him in the garden below your window,” I said softly. Dickens scowled at me so fiercely that I expected him to curse me just as he had cursed his failure of a dog, but his voice was soft when he spoke. “Not at all, my dear Wilkie. I did not see anyone in the garden. I arose from my bed, looked at my windows, and clearly saw Drood’s face there—his foreshortened nose against the glass, his lidless eyes staring at me. Pressed against the window, Wilkie. My high, first-storey window. Not in the garden below.” I nodded as if in agreement but knew that the Inimitable had to have been dreaming. Perhaps he had taken some laudanum to help him sleep—I knew that Frank Beard the

physician had urged the drug on Dickens when the writer had been unable to sleep in the autumn. I could still feel the pulse and ebb of the medicine in my own system, despite the cold that caused my arm holding the lantern to shake as if I were palsied. “What do we do with him?” I asked, nodding towards Dickenson this time. “What one must do with all serious somnambulists, my dear Wilkie. We shall lead him tenderly back to the house and you shall take him into his room to his bed.” I looked in the direction of the slightly lighter rectangle that was the open stable door. “And Drood?” I asked. Dickens shook his head. “Sultan often returns the day after his nighttime hunts with blood on his muzzle. We can only hope that he does so again in the morning.” I was tempted to ask Dickens what he meant by this. (Inspector Field would value the information.) Had he and his Egyptian mesmerism mentor had a falling-out? Did he wish the phantom dead? Killed by Dickens’s own killer dog? Was he no longer a student of the underground mastermind who—according to the former head of the Scotland Yard Detective Bureau—had sent out his agents to kill more than three hundred men and women? I said nothing. It was too cold to start a conversation. My gout was returning, sending tendrils of agony through my eyes and into my brain the way it was wont to do before a serious episode. We took Mr Dickenson by his limp arms and led him slowly out of the stable and across the wide yard to the back door. I realised that I would have to towel off the sleepwalking idiot’s feet before I tucked him beneath his bedcovers. As we reached the door, I looked back over the dark yard, half-expecting Sultan to come running into the circle of lantern light with a pale arm or albino ankle or dismembered head in his mouth. But nothing moved other than the cold wind. “And so ends another Christmas Day at Gad’s Hill Place,” I said softly. My glasses fogged slightly as we stepped into the relative warmth of the house. I let go of Mr Dickenson long enough to remove and polish them on my coat sleeve. When I had tucked the ends of the metal frames behind my ears and could see again, I noted that Dickens’s mouth had turned up in that boyish smile with which he had favoured me so many times in the past fourteen years of our acquaintance. “God bless us, every one,” he said in a childish falsetto and we both laughed loud enough to wake the entire household.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

There was the glowing sphere… no, not quite a sphere, an elongated glowing blue-white oval… and there was the black streak against the dark background. The streak was on the ceiling and was the result of so many years of smoke rising. The glowing blue-white oval was in front of me, closer, a part of me, an extension of my thoughts. It was also a moon, a pale satellite in thrall to me. I turned to my left, rolled slightly to my left, and beheld the sun—a sun, orange and white rather than blue and white, flickering out rays into the black cosmos. As the glowing blue-white oval was moon to me, so was I satellite to this burning sun in the darkness of space and time. Something eclipsed my sun. I felt rather than saw the blue-white oval and long pipe connecting it to me snatched away. “Here, Hatchery, pluck him out of there. Get him on his feet and support him.” “ ’Ere, ’ere, ’ere,” shrieked an utterly alien and totally familiar voice. “The gen’lmum paid for ’is night and product, all undisturbed-like-to-be. Don’t be presumin’ to…” “Shut up, Sal,” bellowed another familiar voice. A lost giant’s voice. “One more peep out of you and the inspector here will have you in the blackest hole in Newgate before the sun comes up.” There were no more peeps. I had been floating above the cloud tops of shifting colours even as I wheeled in space around the spitting, hissing star-sun, my blue-white satellite —now gone—wheeling about me in turn, but now I felt strong hands pulling me down from the cosmic aether to lumpy, muddy, straw-strewn earth. “Keep him on his feet,” rasped the voice I associated with imperious forefingers. “Lift him when you have to.” I was floating again, between dark cribs set into dark walls, the hissing sun receding behind me. A thin colossus rose before me. “Sal, get Yahee out of the way or I’ll snap his smoke-clotted bones clean out of his rotted old flesh and sell them as three’a-penny flutes to the Wild Boys.” “ ’Ere, ’ere,” I heard again. Shadows merged. One was laid back in his coffin. “That’s a good, Yahee. Rest easy. ’Ib, Your ’Ighness, this ’ere gen’lmum hasn’t paid in full yet. You’re pickin’ my pocket if you ’aul ’im out o’ ’ere.” “You lie, crone,” said the dominant of the two men’s voices. “You just said he’d paid for the night and drug in full. There was enough in his pipe to keep him addled ’til dawn. But give her another two coins, Detective Hatchery. Anything small.” Then we were out into the night. I noted on the coldness of the air—it smelt of snow not yet fallen—and I noted the absence of my topcoat and my missing top hat and cane and the small miracle of the fact that my feet did not touch the cobblestones as I floated above them towards a distant, rocking streetlamp. Then I realised that the larger of the two shapes still escorting me was carrying me under his arm as if I were a prize pig won

at a country fair. I was recovering from the pipe fumes sufficiently to protest, but the dark form leading the way—I never doubted for a second that it was my nemesis Inspector Field—said, “Hush, now, Mr Collins, there’s a public house nearby that will open for us despite the hour and we’ll order something for you that will set you right.” A public house that would be open at this hour? As foggy as my sight might have been (and, I realised, as foggy as the cold air itself was this night), no such place could be open in this terrible hour just before dawn on such a harsh, wintry, early-spring morning. I heard and half-saw Field pounding on a door under a dangling sign: Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters. I knew now, however much my middle hurt from being carried like a country fair pig by Detective Hatchery, that I was not really out here in the cold and dark with these two men at all. I had to be back in my crib-bunk at Opium Sal’s, enjoying the last of my blue-bottle smoke. “Hold your horses!” came a female voice barely audible over the throwing open of various bolts and the creak of an ancient door. “Oh, it’s you, Inspector! And you, Detective Hatchery. Both out on so terrible a night? And is that a drowned man you have there, Hib?” “No, Miss Abbey,” said the giant carrying me. “Just a gentleman in need of restoration.” I was carried into the red-curtained tavern and appreciated the warmth—there were still embers in the fire here in the public space—even as I knew this was all a dream. The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters and its proprietress, Miss Abbey Potterson, were fictions from Dickens’s d—— ned Our Mutual Friend. No public house with that name existed down here near the docks, although there were many that Dickens could have used for reference. “They burn sherry very well here,” said Inspector Field as Miss Abbey lighted various lamps and had a sleepy-eyed boy add more fuel to the small fire. “Perhaps the gentleman might like a bottle?” I was sure that this dialogue was also straight from Our Mutual Friend. Who had said it that my opiated mind might structure this fantasy so? The “Mr Inspector,” I realised, was yet another Dickens interpretation of this very same Inspector Field who took his place in a cosy booth. “The gentleman would like to be turned upright and put down,” I said in the dream. The blood was rushing to my head now and it was not a totally pleasant sensation. Hatchery lifted me, righted me, and placed me gently on a bench opposite the inspector. I looked around as if fully expecting to see Mr Eugene Wrayburn and his friend Mortimer Lightwood, but with the exception of the seated inspector, the standing Hatchery, the hustling boy, and the hovering Miss Abbey, the public house was empty. “Yes, the special sherry, please,” said Field. “For the three of us. To take away the chill and the fogs.” Miss Abbey and the boy hurried into the back room. “It won’t do,” I said to the inspector. “I know this is all a dream.” “Now, now, Mr Collins,” said Field, pinching the back of my hand until I yelped, “Opium Sal’s is no place for a gentleman such as yourself, sir. If Hatchery and I had not

escalpated you when we did, they would’ve had your wallet and gold teeth in another ten minutes, sir.” “I have no gold teeth,” I said, taking care to enunciate each word correctly. “A figure of speech, sir.” “My topcoat,” I said. “My hat. My cane.” Hatchery magically produced all three items and set them in the empty booth across from us. “No, Mr Collins,” continued Inspector Field, “a gentleman such as yourself should contain your opium usage to laudanum as what is sold legally by such upstanding corner apothecaries as Mr Cowper. And leave the opium dens down along the dark docks to the heathen Chinee and the dusky Lascar.” I was not surprised that he knew the name of my principal supplier. This was, after all, a dream. “It has been some weeks since I have heard from you, sir,” continued Field. I leaned my aching head on my hands. “I’ve had nothing to say,” I said. “That is a problem, Mr Collins,” sighed the inspector. “In that it violates both the spirit and specific wording of our agreement.” “Bugger our agreement,” I muttered. “Now, sir,” said Field. “We’ll get some burned sherry into you so you remember your duties and behaviour as a gentleman.” The boy, whose name, I was certain, was Bob, returned with a huge sweet-smelling jug. In his left hand, Bob carried an iron model of a sugar-loaf hat—Dickens had described this, I remember, and I had paid attention to the written description just as if he and I had not shared a thousand such specialities—into which he emptied the contents of the jug. He then thrust the pointed end of the brimming “hat” deep into the embers and renewed fire, leaving it there while he disappeared, only to reappear again with three clean drinking glasses and the proprietress. “Thank you, Miss Darby,” said Inspector Field as the boy set the glasses in place and plucked the iron vessel from the fire. He gave it a delicate twirl—the thing hissed and steamed—and then poured the heated contents into the original jug. The penultimate part of this small sacrament was when Bob held each of our bright glasses up over the steaming jug, opaquing them to some degree of foggy perfection known only to the boy, and then filled them all to the applause of the inspector and his detective-henchman. “Thank you, William,” said Field. “William?” I said, confused, even as I put my face forward the better to inhale the warm effulgence emanating from my glass. “Miss Darby? Don’t you mean Bob and Miss Abbey? Miss Abbey Potterson?” “I certainly do not,” said Field. “I mean William—as in the good boy Billy Lamper you saw before you just a second ago—and his mistress, Miss Elisabeth Darby, who has owned and run this establishment for twenty-eight years.” “Is this not the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters?” I asked, taking a careful sip of my drink. My entire body seemed to be tingling as if it were a leg or an arm I had allowed to fall

asleep. Except for my head, which was aching. “I know of no such establishment by that name in London,” laughed Inspector Field. “This is the Globe and Pigeon, and has been for years and years. Christopher Marlowe probably dipped his learned wick in a back room here, if not across the street in the riskier White Swann. But the White Swann is not a gentleman’s inn, Mr Collins, not even for a gentleman so adventurous as yourself, sir. Nor would the proprietor have opened the door for us and heated our sherry as my lovely Liza has. Drink up, sir, but pray tell me why you’ve had aught to report as you do so.” The heated drink was slowly clearing my clouded mind. “I tell you again that there’s nothing to tell you, Inspector,” I said a trifle sharply. “Charles Dickens is preparing for his triumphant tour of the provinces and—the few times I’ve seen him—there’s been no mention of your shared phantom Drood. Not since Christmas Day night.” Inspector Field leaned closer. “When you say Drood levitated outside Mr Dickens’s first-floor window.” It was my turn to laugh. I regretted it at once. Stroking my aching forehead with one hand, I lifted the glass with the other. “No,” I said, “when Mr Dickens said that he saw Drood’s face levitating outside his window.” “You do not believe in levitation, Mr Collins?” “I find it very… unlikely,” I said sullenly. “Yet it seems you express a quite different view on the subject in your papers,” said Inspector Field. He made a move of his corpulent forefinger, and the lad Billy hurried to refill both of our still-steamed glasses. “What papers?” I said. “I believe they were gathered under the title ‘Magnetic Evenings at Home’ and were each clearly signed ‘W.W.C.’—William Wilkie Collins.” “Dear God!” I cried too loudly. “Those things must have appeared… what?—fifteen years ago.” The series of papers he was referring to had been written for the sceptic G. H. Lewes’s Leader sometime in the early fifties. I had simply reported on various drawing-room experiments that had been much in vogue then: men and women being magnetised, inanimate objects such as glasses of water being magnetised by a mesmerist, “sensitives” reading minds and foretelling the future, attempts to communicate with the dead, and… yes, I remembered now through the opium and alcohol and headache… one woman who had levitated herself and the high-backed chair upon which she sat. “Have you had reason to change your opinion since you observed these things, Mr Collins?” I found Field’s soft but somehow peremptory and insinuating voice as irritating as I always did. “They were not my opinions, Inspector. Simply my professional observations at the time.” “But you no longer believe that a man or woman—say, someone trained in ancient arts of a long-forgotten society—could levitate ten feet in the air to peer in Charles Dickens’s window?”

Enough. I had had enough of this. “I never believed in such a thing,” I said harshly, my voice rising. “Fourteen or fifteen years ago, as a much younger man, I reported on the… events… of certain drawingroom mystics and on the credulity of those gathered to watch such things. I am a modern man, Inspector Field, which in my generation translates to ‘a man of little belief.’ For instance, I no longer believe that your mysterious Mr Drood even exists. Or, rather, to state it more positively and in the affirmative, I believe that both you and Charles Dickens have used the legend of such a figure for your own different and disparate purposes, even while you have each endeavoured to use me as some sort of pawn in your game… whatever that game may be.” It was too long a speech for a man in my condition, at this hour of the morning, and I buried my face in the glass of steaming sherry. I looked up as Inspector Field touched my arm. His florid, veined face was set in a serious expression. “Oh, there’s a game all right, Mr Collins, but it’s not being played at your expense. And there are pawns—and more important pieces—being put into play, but you ain’t a pawn, sir. Although it’s almost certain that your Mr Dickens is.” I withdrew my sleeve from his grasp. “What are you talking about?” “Have you wondered, Mr Collins, exactly why I have placed so much importance on finding this Drood?” I could not resist a smirk. “You want your pension back,” I said. I thought this would anger the inspector and therefore was surprised by his quick, easy laugh. “Bless you, Mr Collins, that’s true. I do. But that’s the least of my goals in this particular chess match. Your Mr Drood and I are on the verge of becoming old men and we’ve each decided to put an end to this cat-and-mouse game what we’ve been playing these twenty years and more. Each of us has enough pieces left on the board to make our final move, it’s true, but what I believe you do not appreciate, sir, is that the end of this game must… must… result in the death of one or t’other of us. Either Drood dead or Inspector Field dead. There’s no other way for it, sir.” I blinked several times. Finally I said, “Why?” Inspector Field leaned closer again and I could smell the warm sherry on his breath. “You may have thought I was exaggerating, sir, when I said that Drood has been responsible, personally and through those mesmerised minions he sends out, for the deaths of three hundred people since he come here from Egypt more than two decades ago. Well, I was not exaggerating, Mr Collins. The actual count is three hundred and twenty-eight. This has to end, sir. This Drood has to be put a stop to. So far, all these years, in my service to the Metropolitan Police and out of it, I’ve been skirmishing with the Devil—we’ve each sacrificed pawns and rooks and better in this long game—but this is the true End Game, Mr Collins. Either the Devil checkmates my king or I check his. There’s no other way for it, sir.” I stared at the inspector. For some time I had been doubting Charles Dickens’s sanity; now I knew for certain that there was another insane man affecting my life. “I know that I’ve asked for your help with no other offer in recompense than my

assistance in keeping the knowledge of Miss Martha R—— from your lady Caroline, sir,” said Inspector Field. I thought that was a very polite way to describe his blackmailing of me. “But there are other things that I can offer in exchange for your help, sir. Substantial things.” “What?” I said. “What is your biggest problem in life at the moment, Mr Collins?” I was tempted to say “You” and have done with it, but I surprised myself by uttering another syllable. “Pain.” “Aye, sir… you’ve mentioned the rheumatical gout you’re suffering from. And it’s visible in your eyes, if I may be so bold as to mention it, Mr Collins. Constant pain is no trifling thing for any man, but especially for an artist such as yourself. Detectives depend on deduction, as you well know, sir, and my deduction is that you’ve come this awful March night to Opium Sal’s and this filthy neighbourhood just in some hope of further assuaging your pain. Is that not so, Mr Collins?” “Yes,” I said. I did not bother telling Field that Frank Beard, my doctor, had recently suggested to me that the “rheumatical gout” I’d long suffered from might very well be a virulent form of a venereal disease. “It bothers you even as we speak, Mr Collins?” “My eyes feel like bags of blood,” I said truthfully. “I feel that every time I open them, I run the risk of haemorrhaging pints of blood down my face and into my beard.” “Terrible, sir, terrible,” said Inspector Field, shaking his head. “I don’t blame you for a moment for seeking some relief from your laudanum or the opium pipe. But if you don’t mind me telling you so, sir, the grade of product at Opium Sal’s simply will not do the trick.” “What do you mean, Inspector?” “I mean that she dilutes the opium far too much for someone who is in your level of discomfort, Mr Collins. And it is not a pure product to begin with. It is true that a judicious combination of your laudanum and the opium pipe might have salutary— perhaps even miraculous—effects on your affliction, but these Bluegate Fields and Cheapside opium dens simply don’t have the quality of drug to help you, sir.” “Where, then?” I asked, but even as I spoke, I knew what he would say. “King Lazaree,” said Inspector Field. “The Chinaman’s secret den down in Undertown.” “Down in the crypts and catacombs,” I said dully. “Yes, sir.” “You simply want me to go back to Undertown,” I said, meeting the older man’s gaze. There was a dim, cold light filtering through the red-curtained windows of the Globe and Pigeon. “You want me to try again to lead you to Drood.” Inspector Field shook his balding and grey-cheekwhiskered head. “No, we’ll not find Drood that way, Mr Collins. Mr Dickens undoubtedly told you the truth last autumn when he said that he’s been returning regular to Drood’s lair, but he’s not gone back through the nearby cemetery. We’ve had men posted there for months. Drood has told him of some other route to his underground world. Either that or the Egyptian Devil is

living aboveground all this time and has revealed one of his locations to your Mr Dickens. So your writer friend don’t need to enter Undertown by that route any longer, Mr Collins, but you can if you wish the relief of King Lazaree’s pure opium.” My glass was empty. I looked up at the inspector through eyes suddenly grown watery. “I cannot,” I said. “I’ve tried. I cannot move the heavy bier in the crypt in order to gain access to the stairs.” “I know, sir,” said Inspector Field, his voice as professionally smooth and sad as an undertaker’s. “But Hatchery will be most glad to help you whenever you wish to go down there, day or night. Won’t you, Hib?” “Most glad, sir,” said Hatchery from where he stood nearby. I confess that I had almost forgotten that the other man was present. “How would I get word to him?” I asked. “The boy is still waiting on your street, Mr Collins. Send word through my Gooseberry, and Detective Hatchery will be there within the hour to escort you through the dangerous neighbourhoods, open the way to the staircase for you, and wait upon your return.” The infernal inspector smiled. “He will even loan you his revolver again, Mr Collins. But you should have nothing to fear from King Lazaree and his patrons. Unlike Opium Sal’s shifty clientele, Lazaree and his living mummies down there know that they are allowed to exist only upon my sufferance.” I hesitated. “Is there something else we can help you with in exchange for your help in finding Drood through your Mr Dickens?” asked Field. “Some problem at home, perhaps?” I glanced askance at the old man. What would he know of my problems at home? How could he know that my daily and nightly fights with Caroline had sent me to Sal’s as surely as my need to lessen the pain from my gout? “I’ve been married for more than thirty years, Mr Collins,” he said softly, as if having read my mind. “My speculation is that your lady is, even after all this time, demanding marriage… even as your other lady in Yarmouth is demanding to return to London to be near you.” “D—— n you, Field,” I cried, banging my fist down on the heavy, worn planks of the table. “None of this is any of your business.” “Of course not, sir. Of course not,” said the inspector in his oiliest voice. “But such problems can be a distraction to your work as well as to our common goals. I am trying to see how I could be of help… as a friend would.” “There’s no help for this,” I growled. “And you are no friend.” Inspector Field nodded his understanding. “Still, sir, if you don’t mind advice from an old married man, sometimes a change of place buys a period of peace and quiet in such domestic disagreements.” “Move, you mean? We’ve talked about it, Caroline and I.” “I believe, Mr Collins, that you and the lady have several times walked to look at a fine home on Gloucester Place.” I was no longer surprised or shocked to hear that Field’s men had followed us. I would

not be surprised to learn that he had secreted a dwarf into the walls of our home on Melcombe Place in order to take notes on our quarrels. “It is a fine home,” I said. “But the current resident, a Mrs Shernwold, does not wish to sell. And I’d be strapped to find the funds for it at this time anyway.” “Both of these impediments could be eliminated, Mr Collins,” purred Inspector Field. “If we were working together again, I could all but guarantee that you and your lady and her daughter could be moved into that fine residence on Gloucester Place within a year or two, even while your Miss R—— could be reinstated on Bolsover Street, if you wish, with our help in meeting her travel and other immediate expenses.” I squinted at the old man. My head hurt. I wanted to go home to breakfast and then bed. I wanted to pull the bedcovers over my head and to sleep for a week. We had moved from blackmailing to bribery. On the whole, I believe I had been more comfortable with the blackmail. “What do I have to do, Inspector?” “Nothing more than we have already discussed, Mr Collins. Use your good offices with Charles Dickens to find out where Drood is and what he is up to.” I shook my head. “Dickens is completely absorbed in his preparations for his imminent reading tour. I am sure he’s had no contact with Drood since Christmas. Besides being frightened by what he thought he saw outside his window that night, Dickens is buried now in details. You have no idea the amount of preparation such a tour involves.” “I am sure I do not, Mr Collins,” said Inspector Field. “But I do know that your friend will begin his tour with an opening night reading in a week, on the twenty-third of March, at the Assembly Rooms in Cheltenham. Then, on the tenth of April, he will appear at St James’s Hall here in London, followed immediately by readings in Liverpool, then Manchester, then Glasgow, then Edinburgh.…” “Do you have the entire itinerary?” I interrupted. “Of course.” “Then you would know how impossible it would be for me to get Charles Dickens’s attention during the tour. All authors’ public readings are exhausting for the author. A Dickens reading is exhausting for the author and for everyone around him. There is simply nothing in the world like a Charles Dickens reading, and he promises this tour to be even more intense.” “So I have heard,” Inspector Field said softly. “Somehow, Drood is involved in this reading tour of your friend’s.” I laughed. “How could he be? How could a man of such appearance travel with Dickens or be seen at his readings without comment?” “Drood is a man of infinite guises,” Field said. His voice was hushed, as if Hatchery or Miss Darby or the boy Billy could be the Egyptian criminal in disguise. “I guarantee that your friend Dickens is—consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or as an instrument of Drood—carrying out that Devil’s purposes on this tour.” “How could he…” I began and stopped, remembering Dickens’s odd insistence that he would be magnetising the entire audience during each reading. Mesmerising them. But

to what dark purpose? This was all absurd. “Still,” I said wearily, “you know Dickens’s schedule. And you know he has only a small entourage travelling with him.” “Mr Dolby,” said Inspector Field. “His agent Mr Wills.” Field went on to name the gas man and lighting expert and even those agents sent in advance to inspect the theatres and arrange for ticketing prices, advertising, and such. “But surely, Mr Collins, Dickens would enjoy seeing his dear friend during such an exhausting tour. I know that he plans to see Macready at the Cheltenham opening. Could you not arrange to spend a few days of travel with your famous friend, attend one or two of his readings?” “That’s all you want of me?” “Your help in these small things—a simple matter of observing and chatting and reporting—could be invaluable,” purred Inspector Field. “How on earth do you plan to make ninety Gloucester Place available to us, even by next year, if Mrs Shernwold is reserving it for her missionary son and absolutely refuses to sell?” I asked. The inspector smiled. I half-expected to see canary feathers protruding from between those liver-coloured lips. “That will be my problem, sir, although I expect no problems at all. It is a privilege to help someone aiding us in the public service of ridding London of its least notorious but most successful serial murderer.” I sighed and nodded. If Inspector Field had extended his hand then to seal our dark deal, I’m not sure if I could have touched him. Perhaps he sensed as much, for he merely nodded—the deal was set—and looked around. “Would you like Miss Darby and the boy to burn us some more sherry, sir? It’s a wonderful preparation for sleep.” “No,” I said, trying to get to my feet and suddenly feeling Hatchery’s huge hand on my arm, effortlessly lifting me out of the booth. “I want to go home.”

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Ichose to join Dickens for a few days well into his tour. Inspector Field had been correct in saying that Dickens would welcome the idea of my

joining him for a bit of time on the road. I sent a note to Wills, who—exhausted as he must have been from travelling every day with the Inimitable—flitted back to London every few days from the tour to carry on his own and Dickens’s business affairs at the magazine with Forster (who disapproved of the entire idea of the reading tour), and within a day I received back that rarest of things for me—a telegram—which read, MY DEAR WILKIE THE TOUR IS SUCH FUN! OUR DOLBY HAS TURNED OUT TO BE THE PERFECT TRAVEL COMPANION AND MANAGER. YOU WILL ENJOY HIS ANTICS. I CERTAINLY DO. JOIN US AT ANY TIME AND TRAVEL WITH US AS LONG AS YOU WISH. AT YOUR OWN EXPENSE, OF COURSE. LOOKING FORWARD TO YOUR COMPANY! C. DICKENS I had wondered how the Staplehurst accident was affecting the Inimitable’s almost daily railway journeys, and I discovered this a few minutes after we had departed the station in Bristol on our way to Birmingham. I was sitting directly across from Dickens in the compartment. He was sitting alone on his bench. George Dolby and Wills occupied the seat beside me but they were chatting, and perhaps I alone could see that the author was becoming more agitated as our carriage got up to speed. Dickens’s hands fiercely gripped first the head of his walking stick and then the sill of the window. He would glance out the window as the vibrations increased, then look away quickly, then glance out again. His face, usually darker than most Englishmen’s due to the effects of the sun during his daily walks, grew paler and was moist with perspiration. Then Dickens removed his travelling flask from his pocket, took a long pull of brandy, breathed more deeply, took a second pull, and put the flask away. Then he lit a cigar and turned to chat with Dolby, Wills, and me. The Inimitable preferred an interesting—even eccentric, possibly even dashing— wardrobe for his travel: a pea jacket over which he tossed an expensive Count D’Orsay cloak; his grizzled and weary visage, his lined skin bronzed by sun (the pallor had faded with the brandy and was now almost gone), peeking out from beneath a felt hat worn rather jauntily to one side. I’d overheard the bearlike Dolby tell the scarecrow-thin Wills at the Bristol station that the hat “makes the chief look like a modernised gentlemanly pirate with eyes in which lurk the iron will of a demon and the tender pity of an angel.” I think Dolby had also been partaking of some brandy that morning. The conversation was lively—we were the only passengers in this first-class compartment, the rest of the small entourage having gone on to Birmingham before us. I had heard from Dickens that during the first days of the tour, Wills had put Dolby through very thorough cross-examinations on how the business manager would handle his work. During those first city readings, Dolby had gone ahead with the gas and lighting men and only Wills had travelled each day with Dickens. Now, with Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Bristol behind them—and no major problems in any of those cities, so thorough was Dolby’s work—the big business manager was travelling with Dickens, much to the Inimitable’s obvious delight. The rest of the tour consisted of Birmingham, Aberdeen, Portsmouth, and then home to the final performances in London.

Dolby, whom a later client—an American writer named Mark Twain—would describe as “a gladsome gorilla,” reached into the large wicker basket he had brought aboard, set linen on the tiny folding table he had thought to provide for the centre of our compartment, and proceeded to present a buffet luncheon of hard-boiled-egg sandwiches with anchovy, salmon mayonnaise, cold fowl and tongue, and pressed beef, with Roquefort cheese and cherry tart for our dessert. He also set out a rather good red wine and kept a gin punch chilled by filling the compartment’s washstand with ice. As the rest of us finished this repast, Dolby warmed coffee over a spirit lamp. Whatever else the huge, whiskered man with his infectious laugh and rather endearing stammer might be, he was certainly efficient. After a second bottle of wine was opened and the chilled gin punch was finished, the group began to sing travelling songs—some of which I’d sung with Dickens when it had been just the two of us wandering around the country or in Europe the previous decade. This day, as we approached Birmingham, Dickens was moved to dance a sailor’s hornpipe for us as we all whistled accompaniment. When he was finished and out of breath, Dolby gave him the last glass of punch and Dickens began teaching us the drinking song from Der Freischütz. Suddenly an express roared past us going the opposite way on the adjoining track and Dickens’s lovely felt hat was whisked right off his balding head by the vacuum. Wills, who seemed more the consumptive type than an athlete, launched his long arm out the window and caught the hat just before it disappeared forever into the countryside. We all applauded and Dickens pounded the frail man heartily on the back. “I lost a sealskin cap earlier on this tour under almost exactly the same circ*mstances,” Dickens said to me as he took the felt hat from Wills and tugged it back on. “I would have hated parting ways with this chapeau. Thank God Wills is famous for his defensive fielding. I can’t remember whether he was famous for playing at Deep fine leg or Backward short leg, but his fielding abilities are legendary. His shelves groan with silver cups.” “I have never played the game of…” began Wills. “Never mind, never mind,” laughed Dickens, clapping his companion on the back again. George Dolby boomed out laughter that must have been heard from one end of our express to the other. IN BIRMINGHAM, I got a taste of the texture and timing of the tour. I had certainly stayed in my share of hotels, and while such travel was usually enjoyable, I was very aware of Dickens’s ill health the previous winter and spring and also knew from personal experience that constant travel and the vagaries of hotel life do little to allow recovery from ill health. He had confided in me that his left eye continued to blur and ache fiercely, that his belly constantly felt distended, that flatulence was a problem all during the tour, and that the vibration of the trains gave him a sort of nausea and vertigo from which he never had time to recover during his short stays in the cities in which he performed. Balancing near-daily travel and exhausting nights of reading was

obviously pushing Dickens to and beyond the limits of his endurance. Upon arriving in Birmingham, before resting or unpacking his valise, Dickens hurried over to the theatre. Wills was preoccupied with other duties, but Dolby and I followed the Inimitable. Touring the hall with the theatre owner, Dickens immediately ordered changes. As per his instructions, seats on either side of the stage and certain box seats had been either removed or roped off, but now he stood at his customised reading lectern and ordered even more seats on either side of the large theatre to be eliminated. Everyone attending his reading had to be within direct and unoccluded line of sight. Not only to see him clearly, I understood, but so that he could make eye contact with them. His advance workers had already erected a large maroon screen that would be behind him as he spoke; the screen was seven feet high and fifteen feet wide and there was a carpet of the same colour between the screen and his lectern. The unique gas lighting was also in place. Here Dickens’s gas man and lighting expert had set two upright pipes rising about twelve feet on either side of his reading lectern. Connecting the two pipes but hidden from the sight of the audience by a maroon board was a horizontal row of gaslights in tin reflectors. In addition to this bright lighting, there was a gaslight on each pipe that was protected by a green shade and which was aimed directly at the reader’s face. I stood in the glow of this clever lighting rig and the two targeted lamps for only a minute but the glare was intimidating. I would have found it very difficult, if not impossible, to read from any book with those lights shining in my face, but I knew that Dickens rarely if ever read from his prompt books doing these ostensible readings. He had memorised all the hundreds of pages of text he would be performing—read and memorised and altered and improved and rehearsed each story at least two hundred times—and would either close the book he had in his hand after beginning his performance or merely turn the pages, absentmindedly and symbolically, as he went along. Most of the time his eyes would be staring through the blazing rectangle of gas lighting towards the audience. Yet for all that ferocious gaslit glow, Dickens could still see the faces of all those in his audience. He deliberately left the house lighting high enough for that. Before relinquishing my spot at Charles Dickens’s reading desk, I studied the desk itself. Propped on four slender and elegant legs, the table rose to about the height of the Inimitable’s inimitable navel. Flat-topped, the desk was covered by a crimson piece of cloth this afternoon. On either side of the table were small ledges, the one on the right designed to hold a carafe of water, the one on the left meant for Dickens’s expensive kid gloves and a pocket handkerchief. Also on the left side of the desktop was a rectangular block of wood on which Dickens could—and frequently did—rest either his left or right elbow when he leaned forward. (He often read from just to the left of the desk itself and, I knew from seeing him at previous readings in London, might suddenly lean forward almost boyishly with his right elbow on that raised block and his expressive hands in motion. The effect was to make the audience feel an even more personal and intimate

bond with him.) Now Dickens cleared his throat and I moved away from the desk and down off the stage as the author stood at his reading desk and tested the acoustics of the hall with various snippets from the readings he would do that night. I joined George Dolby in the last row of the balcony. “The Chief began the tour by reading from his Christmas story ‘Doctor Marigold,’ ” whispered Dolby although we were far away from Dickens. “But it didn’t quite work, at least not to the Chief’s satisfaction—and I do not have to tell you that he is the ultimate perfectionist—so he improves it while leaning towards more of the old favourites: the death scene of Paul from Dombey and Son, the Mr, Mrs, and Miss Squeers scene from Nicholas Nickleby, the trial from Pickwick, the storm scene of David Copperfield, and, of course, A Christmas Carol. The audiences can never get enough of A Christmas Carol.” “I am sure they cannot,” I said drily. I was on record for noting my disdain for the “Cant and Christmas season.” I also noticed that Dolby’s stammer was not present when he whispered. How very strange such afflictions are. Having been reminded of afflictions, I removed the small travelling flask that now held my laudanum and took several swallows of it. “I am sorry I cannot offer you some of this,” I said to Dolby in a conversational tone, unintimidated by Dickens’s still reciting snippets of this and that from his distant stage. “Medicine.” “I understand perfectly,” whispered Dolby. “I am surprised that ‘Doctor Marigold’ did not please the masses,” I said. “Our Christmas Issue with that story sold more than two hundred and fifty thousand copies.” Dolby shrugged. “The Chief got laughs and tears with it,” he said softly. “But not enough laughs and tears, he said. And not at precisely the right times. So he set it aside.” “Pity,” I said, feeling the careless warmth of the drug enter my system. “Dickens rehearsed it for more than three months.” “The Chief rehearses everything,” whispered Dolby. I did not know how I felt about this absurd appellation of “Chief” that Dolby had assigned to Dickens, but the Inimitable himself seemed to enjoy the title. From everything I could perceive, Dickens enjoyed almost everything about the big, burly, stammering bear of a manager. I had no doubt that this common theatrical tradesman was usurping the position of close friend and occasional confidant that I had held with Dickens for more than a decade now. Not for the first time—and not for the first time under the clarity of laudanum—I saw precisely how Forster, Wills, Macready, Dolby, Fitzgerald—all of us—were mere planets vying and contesting to see who could circle the closest revolutions around the grizzled, flatulent, lined, and greying Sun that was Charles Dickens. Without another word I rose and left the theatre. I HAD INTENDED to return to the hotel—Dickens would go there to rest the few hours before his performance, I knew, but would withdraw into himself, not engaging in

conversation until after the long night of readings was over—but found myself wandering the dark and sooty streets of Birmingham, wondering why I was there. Eight years earlier, in the autumn of 1858—after I had accompanied Dickens on that fool’s errand of a trip north pursuing Ellen Ternan (being convinced by Dickens that we were travelling as research for our collaboration on Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices) and after I had almost died on Carrick Fell—I returned to London with my eye firmly fixed on the theatre. Immediately after the success of The Frozen Deep the previous year, the famous actor Frederick “Frank” Robson had purchased my earlier melodrama The Lighthouse—which Dickens had starred in just as he had in The Frozen Deep—and on 10 August, 1857, my dream of becoming a professional dramatist came true. Dickens sat with me in the author’s box and applauded as others did (I confess to standing and taking a bow during the ovation) but “ovation” may be too strong a word; the applause sounded rather more respectful than enthusiastic. Reviews of The Lighthouse were equally respectful and tepid. Even gentle John Oxenford of the Times wrote—“We cannot avoid the conclusion that The Lighthouse, with all its merits, is rather a dramatic anecdote than an actual drama.” Despite this effluvium of tepidity, for months in 1858 I had—to use a phrase I shared with Dickens then—exhausted my brains in the service of more theatrical composition. It was Dickens’s son Charley, just back from Germany and sharing impressions of a grisly place there in Frankfurt called the Dead House, who gave me my inspiration. I immediately put pen to paper and dashed off a play called The Red Vial. My two lead characters were a lunatic and a lady poisoner (I have always had a fascination with poison and those who poison). I set the main scene of The Red Vial in the Dead House. I confess, Dear Reader, that I thought the set and setting wonderful—a room full of corpses all laid out on cold slabs under sheets, each with a finger wrapped in a string that led upward to a dangling alarm bell, should one of the “dead” not be dead at all. The entire macabre setting reached into the deepest areas of our fears of premature burial and the walking dead. Dickens himself said little when I proposed the idea and later when I read him the actual sections of the play as I finished them, but he did visit London’s asylum in quest of small details that would add more believability to my lead lunatic. Robson, who had done such a fine job in The Lighthouse, accepted the play for the Olympic Theatre and took the role of the lunatic. I enjoyed the rehearsals immensely, and all of the actors involved assured me that the play was wonderful. They agreed with my premise that although London theatre-goers had become a lumpen lot with dulled minds, a sufficiently strong stimulation might awaken them. On 11 October, 1858, Dickens accompanied me to The Red Vial’s premiere performance and arranged an after-theatre supper party for me and my friends at his now wifeless home at Tavistock House. A group of at least twenty of us sat together during the performance. It was a disaster. While my friends shuddered at the delightfully morbid and melodramatic parts, the rest of the audience snickered. The loudest snickers came at the

climax of my Dead House scene where—too obviously, according to critics after the fact —one of the corpses rang the bell. There was no second performance. Dickens tried to be upbeat during all the rest of that endless night, telling jokes at the expense of London audiences, but the supper at Tavistock House was very trying for me. As I later overheard that brat Percy Fitzgerald say—it was a real case of funeral baked meats. But the disaster of The Red Vial did nothing to dissuade me from my decided course of simultaneously disturbing, fascinating, and repelling my fellow countrymen. Shortly after the wild success of The Woman in White, I was asked the secret of my success and I modestly told my interlocutor— 1. Find a central idea 2. Find the characters 3. Let the characters develop the incidents 4. Begin the story at the beginning Compare, if you will, this almost scientific artistic principle with the haphazard way that Charles Dickens had thrown his novels together over the decades: pulling characters out of the air (often based willy-nilly on people in his own life) without a thought as to how they might serve the central purpose, mixing in a plethora of random ideas, having characters wander off into incidental occurrences and unimportant side-plots having nothing to do with the overriding idea, and often beginning his story in mid-flight, as it were, violating the important Collins principle of first-things-first. It was a miracle that we had been able to collaborate the number of times we had. I prided myself not a small bit on bringing some coherence to the plays, stories, travel accounts, and longer works we had outlined or worked on together. So why, I wondered on this unseasonably cool and rainy May evening in Birmingham, was I here watching Dickens as he was entering the last legs of what sounded to be an amazingly successful reading tour of England and Scotland? Critics incessantly criticised my flair for what they called “melodrama,” but what on earth should one call this new and bizarre combination of literature and rampant theatricals that Dickens was pursuing on the stage this very night? No one in our profession had ever seen anything like it before. No one in the world had ever seen or heard anything like it before. It demeaned the role of author and turned literature into a half-shilling carnival. Dickens was pandering to the masses like an onstage clown with a dog. These were the thoughts that were in my mind at the time I walked down a dismal, windowless street—more alley than lane if truth be told—as I turned back towards my hotel, only to find two men barring my path. “Excuse me, please,” I said brusquely, waving my gold-headed cane to get them out of the way. They did not budge. I walked to the right in the narrow lane, but they moved to their left. I stopped and began walking to my left, and they shifted to their right. “What is this?” I demanded. Their only answer was to begin moving towards me. Both

men put their hands in their tattered jacket pockets and when those calloused, filthy hands emerged, it was with short knives. I turned quickly and began hurrying towards the main thoroughfare, only to see a third man step into the lane and block it, his bulky form a threatening silhouette against the brighter evening light beyond him. He also held something in his right hand. Something that glinted in that failing light. I confess here, Dear Reader, that my heart began to pound wildly and I felt an urgent liquidity in the region of my bowels. I do not like to think of myself as a coward—what man does?—but I am a small man, and a peaceful one, and though I might write fiction from time to time about violence, fisticuffs, mayhem, and murder, these are not things that I had then personally experienced, nor wanted to. At that moment I wanted to run. I had the absurd but real compulsion to call out for my mother, although Harriet was hundreds of miles away. Even though none of the three men said a word, I reached into my jacket and removed my long wallet. Many of my friends and acquain-tances—certainly Dickens—thought me a shade too reluctant to part with money. Actually, Dickens and his friends, all having been gifted with money for many years, ignored my need for pecuniary discipline and thought me cheap, a penny-pinching miser in the mode of pre-revelation Ebenezer Scrooge. But at that moment I would have given up every pound and shilling I had on me—and even my not-gold but quite serviceable watch—if these ruffians would only let me pass. As I said, they did not demand money. Perhaps that is what frightened me most. Or perhaps it was the terribly serious and inhuman looks on their bewhiskered faces— especially the alert deadness combined with something like anticipatory joy in the grey eyes of the largest man, who approached me now with knife raised. “Wait!” I said weakly. And again, “Wait… wait…” The big man in the shabby clothes raised the knife until it was almost touching my chest and neck. “Wait!” shouted a much louder and much more commanding voice from behind the four of us, towards the thoroughfare, where there was still light and hope. My assailants and I all turned to look. A small man in a brown suit was standing there. Despite the commanding voice, the figure was no taller than I. He was hatless, and I could see short, curly grey hair plastered to his head by the light rain that was falling. “Go away, friend,” growled the man holding the knife to my throat. “You don’t want no part of this.” “Oh, but I do,” said the short man and ran towards us. All three of my assailants turned in his direction, but my legs felt too unsteady to allow me to bolt. I was sure that within seconds both I and my would-be rescuer would be lying dead on the filthy paving stones in that unnamed, lightless lane. The brown-suited man, whom I had first thought to be as portly as I but who I now saw to be compact but as muscled as a diminutive acrobat, reached into his tweedy suit

jacket and quickly brought out a short, obviously weighted piece of wood that looked like a cross between a sailor’s marlin spike and a policeman’s club. This club had a dull, heavy head and appeared to be cored with lead or something as heavy. Two of my assailants leaped at him. The brown-suited stranger broke the wrist and ribs of the first thug with two quick swings and then cracked the second one over the head with a sound such as I had never heard before. The burliest of my attackers—the whiskered and deadly-eyed man who had, only a second before, been holding the knife to my throat—extended the blade with his thumb atop it and feinted and whirled and lunged and swung at my rescuer from a poised, catlike crouch, all dance-like motions which, I am sure, had been honed in a thousand back-alley knife fights. The brown-suited man jumped back as his attacker’s blade swung first right and then back left in vicious arcs that would have disemboweled him if not for his agility. Then— much more quickly than one could ever imagine judging from his stolid appearance— my saviour leaped in, broke our mutual assailant’s right forearm with a downward swing of his small cudgel, broke the thug’s jaw with the backhand return of the same swing, and—as the big man fell—struck him a third time in the groin with such violence that I winced and cried out myself, and then hit him a final time in the back of the head as the thug went first to his knees and then to his face in the mud. Only the first assailant, the one with the broken ribs and wrist, remained conscious. He was staggering towards the darkness deeper in the alley. The brown-suited man ran him down, spun him, struck him twice in the face with the short but deadly weapon, kicked his legs out from under him, and then struck him a final savage blow to the head as he lay there moaning. Then there were no more moans. The compact man in brown turned towards me. I admit that I backed away with my hands up, palms open imploringly towards the short, deadly figure that approached. I had come very, very close to soiling my linen. Only the incredible—I would say impossible—speed of the violence I had just witnessed had prevented my full and total reaction of fear. I had written about violent altercations many times, but the physical events were all recorded as if choreographed and carried out in slow, deliberate motions. All of the real violence I had just witnessed—certainly the worst I had ever witnessed, and the most savage—had happened in seven or eight seconds. There was, I realised, a very real chance that I might vomit if the brown-suited terror did not kill me first. I held my hands up and tried to speak. “It’s all right, Mr Collins,” said the man, tucking his cudgel into his jacket pocket and firmly taking me by the arm and leading me back the way I had come, out into the thoroughfare light. Broughams and cabs passed as if nothing extraordinary had just happened. “Who… who… are you?” I managed. His grip was as relentless as one imagines a smithy vice’s steel grip might be. “Mr Barris, sir. At your service. We need to get you back to the hotel, sir.” “Barris?” I was ashamed to hear the quaver and stammer in my voice. I have always

prided myself on being cool in difficult situations, at sea or on the land (although in recent months and years, I admit, that equanimity had been in small part due to the laudanum). “Yes, sir. Reginald Barris. Detective Reginald Barris. Reggie to my friends, Mr Collins.” “You’re Birmingham police?” I said as we turned east and began walking quickly, his hand still on my arm. Barris laughed. “Oh, no, sir. I work for Inspector Field. Came up from London by way of Bristol, just as you did, sir.” One uses the word “wobbly” in relation to “legs” often enough in fiction; it is a cliché. To actually feel legs so unsteady and wobbly that it is difficult to walk is an absurd situation, especially to someone like me, who loves to sail and who has not the slightest problem peramubulating on a pitching deck in the high seas of the Channel. I managed to say, “Should we not go back? Those three men might be injured.” Barris, if that was his true name, chuckled. “Oh, I guarantee that they are injured, Mr Collins. One is dead, I believe. But we are not going back. Leave them lie.” “Dead?” I repeated stupidly. I could not believe that. I would not believe that. “We must inform the police.” “The police?” said Barris. “Oh, no, sir. I think not. Inspector Field would sack me if I got my name and our Private Enquiries firm’s name in the Birmingham and London papers. And you might be delayed here for days, Mr Collins. And called back to testify in an endless series of inquests and hearings. And all for three street thugs who were ready to cut your throat to steal your purse? Please, sir, put such thoughts out of your mind.” “I don’t understand,” I said as we turned east on an even wider street. I recognised the way back to the hotel now. The lamps were being lit all along this busy boulevard. “Did Field send you to… watch over me? Protect me?” “Yes, sir,” said Barris, releasing my arm at last. I could feel the blood rush in where he had cut off circulation. “That is, sir, there are two of us… ah… accompanying you and Mr Dickens on this tour. In case Mr Drood should make an appearance, sir. Or his agents.” “Drood?” I said. “Agents? Do you believe that those three men were sent by Drood to kill me?” For some reason, this thought caused my bowels to go loose again. This Drood fantasy had all been a clever if somewhat tiring game up to this point. “Them, sir? Oh, no, sir. I’m quite sure that those blackguards had nothing to do with this Drood the inspector is hunting for. Nothing at all, sir. You can be confident of that.” “How?” I said as the hotel came into sight. “Why?” Barris smiled thinly. “They were white, sir. Drood almost never uses white men in his service, although the occasional German or Irishman has been known. No, he would’ve sent Chinamen or Lascars or Hindoos or even some black just off a ship if he’d wanted you dead here or in Bristol, sir. Well, here is your and Mr Dickens’s hotel, Mr Collins. One of my colleagues is there and will look after your well-being once you’ve entered the lobby. I’ll stand here and watch until you reach the doors, sir.”

“Colleague?” I repeated. But Barris had stepped back into the shadows of an alley and now raised his hand to his forehead as if tipping an invisible bowler. I turned and wobbled towards the lighted doorway of the hotel. I HAD NO intention of attending Dickens’s performance after such a terrible experience, but after a warm bath and at least four cups of laudanum—I drained my flask and refilled it from the carefully wrapped bottle I’d brought in my luggage—I decided to dress approriately for the evening and go to the reading. This was, after all, the reason I had come to Birmingham. I knew from Wills and Dolby that Dickens was all but unapproachable in the last hour or two before his nightly performance. He and his manager walked to the theatre and I took a cab over a bit later. I had no intention of walking alone, in the dark, on Birmingham streets again. (If Detective Barris or his colleagues were out there watching me, I did not see them as the hansom cab dropped me at the side door of the theatre.) It was quarter to eight and the audience was just arriving. I stood at the back of the hall and watched as Dickens’s gas and lighting experts appeared, appraised the structure of dark pipes and unlit lamps from positions on both sides of the theatre, and then withdrew. A moment later the gas man appeared alone, made some adjustment to the overhead lamps hidden behind the maroon cloth–covered board, and withdrew again. Several minutes later the gas man appeared a third time and turned on the gas. The effect of the lighting against the dark background, dim at this point but clearly illuminating Dickens’s reading table, was quite striking. There were hundreds of people in their seats by this time, and all became quiet and strained to watch with a focused interest that was almost palpable. George Dolby ambled onto the stage and peered up at the low lighting, down at the table, and out at the congregating audience with an air of self-importance. Dolby slightly repositioned the carafe of water on Dickens’s table, nodded as if satisfied by this important and essential adjustment, and slowly disappeared behind the high screen that extended from the curtained side of the stage to the central reading area. As I walked up the side of the platform to go backstage myself, Dolby coming in just behind me, I thought of Shakespeare’s most famous of stage instructions, from A Winter’s Tale —“Exit, pursued by a bear.” In his dressing room, Dickens was in formal evening clothes. I was glad that I had decided to wear mine, although everyone who knew me also knew how little I cared for formal clothing or the proper appearance. But this night the white tie and tails seemed appropriate… perhaps even necessary. “Ah, my dear Wilkie,” said the Inimitable as I entered. “It is so kind of you to attend the proceedings this night.” He appeared completely calm, but it was as if he had forgotten that I had spent the day travelling to Birmingham with him. There was a bouquet of scarlet geraniums on his dressing table, and he now cut one for his buttonhole, adjusted it, and then cut another and set it in my lapel. “Come,” he said as he adjusted his gold watch-chain and made a final check of buttons

and beard and oiled curls in the mirror. “We shall peek out at the natives in the hope that they are becoming restless.” We went out onto the stage itself, behind the shielding screen where Dolby was still hovering. Dickens showed me a small chink in the screen where—once a flap of fabric had been moved aside—we could look out at the now completely assembled and mildly fidgeting audience. He allowed me a glimpse. I felt anxious at that moment and wondered, for all my theatrical experience as an actor, if I should ever be able to carry out a reading without succumbing to nervousness, but Dickens himself showed no anxiety whatsoever. The gas man came up to him, Dickens nodded, leaned closer to the hole in the screen, and—as the gas man calmly walked out onto the stage to make the final adjustment to the lamps—the Inimitable whispered to me, “This is my favourite part of the evening, Wilkie.” I leaned so close that I could smell the pomade on the author’s side curls as we both watched through the chink. Suddenly the lights went up dramatically and some two thousand faces were illuminated in reflected light as an “Aaahhhhh…” of expectation rose from the audience. “You’d best take your seat, my friend,” whispered Dickens. “I wait another minute or so to whet their anticipation, then we shall begin.” I had started to leave when he waved me back. Putting his mouth close to my ear, he whispered, “Keep your eye out for Drood. He might be anywhere.” I could not tell if he was serious, so I nodded and moved away in the dark and then out, finding my way to the side stairs, then up against the flow of late arrivers to the rear of the hall, and then down towards the stage again to my reserved seat along the aisle about two-thirds of the way back. I had asked Wills to set aside this seat for me so that I might slip out to join Dickens in the dressing room more easily at the break about ninety minutes into the two-hour reading. The maroon carpet on the stage, simple table, and even the carafe of water—illuminated as they were by the bright lights—seemed pregnant with potential in that last minute before Dickens appeared. Suddenly there erupted an explosion of applause as Dickens’s slim figure walked to his reading desk. The applause rose and continued at a deafening level, but Dickens ignored it completely, pouring some water for himself from the carafe and waiting silently for the ovation to abate much as one might wait for carriages to pass before crossing a street. Then, when silence finally descended, Dickens… did nothing. He merely stood there looking out at the audience, occasionally turning his head slightly so as to see everyone. It was as if he were meeting the gaze of every single man and woman there that night… and there now must have been more than two thousand of us crowded into the hall. A few stragglers were finding their seats near the rear of the theatre and Dickens waited with that total and somehow unsettling calm until they did so. Then he seemed to fix them for a few seconds with his cool, serious, intense, yet mildly questioning gaze. Then he began. Several years after this night in Birmingham, Dolby was to say to me—“Watching the

Chief read during those last years was not like attending a performance; it was more like being part of a spectacle. It was not at all a matter of being entertained; it was a case of being haunted.” Haunted. Yes, perhaps. Or possessed, as the spirit rappers so in vogue in my day, Dear Reader, were supposedly possessed by their spirit guides to the Other Side. But it was not only Charles Dickens who seemed possessed during these readings; the entire audience joined him. As you will see, it was hard not to join him. It saddens me, Dear Reader, that no one in your future generation will have heard or seen Charles Dickens read. There are experiments in my time as I write this with recording voices on various cylinders almost as photographers capture images of a person on film plates. But all this has come after Charles Dickens’s death. No one in your day will ever hear his thin, slightly lisping voice or—since to my knowledge none of his talks were ever captured on daguerreotype or other photographic devices (and since such forms of photography available in Dickens’s day were too slow to record any person in even the slightest motion anyway, and Dickens was always in motion)—see the strange change that came over the Inimitable and his audiences during these performances. His readings were unique in our day and—I would venture the opinion— will never be equalled or adequately imitated in yours (if authors still write books at all in this future you inhabit). Even in the glare of those brilliant gaslights, a strange, iridescent cloud seemed to hover around Charles Dickens as he read from his most recent Christmas tale. That cloud, I believe, was the ectoplasmic manifestation of the many characters whom Dickens had created and whom he now summoned—one at a time—to speak and act before us. As these ghosts entered him, Dickens’s posture would change. He would jerk alert or slump in despondency or laziness as the character’s spirit dictated. The author’s face would change immediately and totally—some facial muscles used so frequently by Charles Dickens going lax, others coming into play. Smiles, leers, frowns, and conspiratorial glances never used by the man who lived at Gad’s Hill flitted across the face of this spirit-possessed receptacle in front of us. His voice changed from second to second, and even in rapid-fire exchanges of dialogue Dickens seemed to be inhabited by two or more possessing demons at once. In other readings, I had heard his tone shift instantly from the hoarse, rasping, lisping, urgent, whispered croak of fa*gin—“Aha! I like that thellow’th lookth. He’d be of use to uth; he knows how to train the girl already. Don’t make ath much noise as a mouthe, my dear, and let me hear ’em talk—let me hear ’em”—to the sombre tenor of Mr Dombey to the silly, mincing tones of Miss Squeers, and then to a co*ckney so perfect that no actor then on the English stage could rival his accent. But it was more than voice and language that drew us all in that night. Everything about Dickens would change in the instant when he slipped from one character to the next (or in that instant when one character departed his body and another entered). When he became the Jew fa*gin, Dickens’s eternally upright, almost martial posture would melt into the rounded, hunched-shouldered stoop of that evil man. The author’s brow seemed

to rise and elongate, his eyebrows grew bushier, as his eyes receded into two dark wells and seemed to gleam of their own accord in the bright gaslight. Dickens’s hands, so composed and assured when he was reading descriptive passages, would quiver, clutch one another, rub themselves fitfully, twitch with money hunger, and try to hide themselves in sleeves when they belonged to fa*gin. While reading, Dickens would pace several steps to this side of his customised desk, then several steps the other way, and though the motion was smooth and confident when it was Dickens standing there, it became lithe, shifty, and almost snakelike when he was possessed by the spirit of fa*gin. “These characters and changes are as real for me as they are for the audience,” Dickens had told me before this particular reading tour began. “So real are my fictions to myself that I do not recall them but see them done again before my very eyes, for it all happens before me. And the audience sees this reality.” I certainly did that night. Whether it was because of the consumption of oxygen by the gas flames or because of the literally mesmeric quality of Dickens’s face and hands illuminated so starkly against the dark maroon background due to the unique lighting, I constantly felt the author’s eyes on me—even when those eyes belonged to one of his characters—and, with that audience, I entered into a kind of trance. When he was Dickens again, reading narration and description rather than characterinhabited dialogue, I could hear the unfaltering certainty in his voice, sense the enjoyment revealed in the gleam of his eye, and perceive a real hint of aggression— masked as confidence to the majority of the crowd, I was sure—coming from his own knowledge that he could mesmerise so many for so long. Then the Christmas tale and bit of Oliver Twist were finished, the longer, ninety-minute segment of the evening finished, the interval in the evening’s performance arrived at, and Dickens turned and left the platform, as seemingly oblivious of the crowd’s wild applause as he had been when first coming on stage. I shook my head as if awakening from a dream and went backstage. Dickens was sprawled on a couch and appeared to be too exhausted to rise or move. Dolby bustled in and out, supervising a waiter who was setting out a glass of iced champagne and a plate with a dozen oysters. Dickens stirred himself to sip the champagne and suck down the oysters. “It’s the only thing the Chief can eat in the evening,” Dolby whispered to me. Hearing the whisper, Dickens looked up and said, “My dear Wilkie… how splendid of you to pop in during the interval. Did you enjoy the first part of the evening’s fare?” “I did,” I said. “It was… extraordinary… as always.” “I believe I told you that we shall be replacing the ‘Doctor Marigold’ parts should I accept more such engagements in the autumn or winter,” said Dickens. “But the audience loved it,” I said. Dickens shrugged. “Not as much as they love Dombey or Scrooge or Nickleby, which I shall read in a few minutes.” I was sure that the programme had listed the Trial from The Pickwick Papers as the thirty-minute reading scheduled for after the interval—Dickens always preferred to end

the evenings with sentiment and laughter—but I was not about to correct him. The ten minutes were almost up. Dickens rose with some effort, cast his heat-wilted scarlet geranium into the trash, and set a new one in his buttonhole. “I shall see you after the reading,” I said and went back out to join the eager multitudes. AS THE APPLAUSE DIED, Dickens took up his book and pretended to read aloud, “Nicholas Nickleby at Mr Squeers’s School… Chapter the First.” So it was to be Nickleby. None of the exhaustion I had glimpsed backstage was evident now. Dickens seemed even more energetic and animated than he had been during the first ninety minutes. The power of his reading once again reached out like a magnetic current to fix and align the audience’s attention as if their eyes and minds were so many needles on a compass. Once again, the Inimitable’s gaze seemed to settle on each and every one of us. Despite that powerful magnetic attraction, my mind began to wander. I began to think of other things—the publication of my novel Armadale in two volumes would be a fact within the week—and it occurred to me that I had to settle on a plot and theme for my next book. Perhaps something shorter and even more sensationalist, although with a simpler plot than the labyrinthine Armadale… Suddenly I snapped back to attention. Everything had changed in the huge hall. The light seemed thicker, slower, darker, almost gelatinous. It was silent. Not the attention-silence of more than two thousand people that had existed an instant earlier—with coughs being stifled, laughter punctuating the silence, the stirrings of so many after more than two hours of listening—but now it was an absolute silence. It was as if twenty-one hundred people had suddenly died. There was not the slightest hint of breathing or movement. I realised that I could not hear or feel my own breathing, nor sense my own heartbeat. The Birmingham hall had turned into a giant crypt and was just that silent. At the same moment, I realised that up through the darkness rose hundreds of slender, white, barely perceptible cords, their ends tied to the middle finger on the right hand of every member of the audience. The air was so dark that I could not make out the point at which these twenty-one hundred cords converged above us, but I knew that they must be connected to a massive bell up there. We were, all of us, in the Dead House. The cords— silken ropes, I realised—were tied to us in case one of us might still be alive. The bell, whose tone and toll, I knew instinctively, would be too terrible to hear, was there to alert —someone, something—if any one of us stirred. Knowing that I and that I alone was still alive out of these twenty-one hundred dead, I tried not to stir, and focused all of my attention on not tugging at the cord tied to the middle finger of my right hand. Looking up, I realised that it was no longer Charles Dickens whose face and hands and fingers glowed in the thick, slow light of the gas lamps in the darkness on the stage. Drood looked out at us.

I recognised at once the pale white skin, the brittle tufts of hair over the ravaged ears, the lidless eyes, the nose that was little more than two nictitating membranes above a hole in the skull, the long, twitching fingers, and the pale, constantly turning pupils. My hands shook. A hundred feet above the heads of all the corpses in the audience, the bell vibrated audibly. Drood’s head snapped around. His pale eyes locked with mine. I began shaking all over. The bell rumbled, then rang. No other corpse there breathed or stirred. Drood came out from behind Dickens’s reading table and then out from the rectangle of turgid light. He leaped down from the stage and began gliding up the aisle. My arms and legs shook now as if agued, but I could move no other part of my body—not even my head. I could smell Drood as he approached. He smelled like the Thames near Tiger Bay where Opium Sal’s opium den rotted away in the general effluvium when the tide was out and the sewage high. There was something in Drood’s hand. By the time he was twenty paces from me up the steep aisle, I could see that it was a knife, but unlike any knife I had ever held or used or seen. The blade was a dark steel crescent on which hieroglyphs were visible. The handle was mostly hidden behind the Egyptian’s pale and bony knuckles; the thin handle of the razor-crescent disappeared between Drood’s fingers so the curved blade, at least eight inches across in its thinly gleaming arc of edge, extended from his fist like a lady’s fan. Run! I ordered myself. Escape! Scream! I could not move a muscle. Drood paused above me, at the farthest limit of my peripheral vision, and when he opened his mouth, a miasma of Thames-mud stench enveloped me. I could see his pale pink tongue dancing behind those tiny teeth. “You ssseee,” he hissed at me, his right arm and the blade pulling back for the decapitation’s swing, “how easssssy it issss?” He swung the blade in a flat, vicious arc. The razor-sharp edge of the crescent-blade sliced through my beard and cut through my cravat, collar, skin, throat, trachea, gullet, and spinal cord as if they were made of butter. The audience began applauding wildly. The gelatin-thick air had lightened to normal. The silken cords were gone. Dickens turned to leave the stage without acknowledging the applause, but George Dolby was standing at the edge of the curtain. A moment later, with applause still echoing, Dickens stepped back into the glow of the gaslights. “My dear friends,” he said after his raised hands had silenced the huge hall, “it appears as if there has been an error. Actually, it appears that I have made an error. Our programme had called for the Trial from Pickwick to be read after the interval, but I mistakenly carried Nickleby out to the podium and went on to read it. You were most gracious in your acceptance of that error and more than generous in your applause. The hour is late—I see by my watch that it is just ten, the precise time scheduled for the

conclusion of our evening together—but the Trial was promised and if the majority of you would like, and you can show by your hands or applause if you would so like, to hear the Trial read, I shall happily add it to the unscheduled reading you have just enjoyed.” The audience did like. They applauded and cheered and shouted encouragement. No one left. “Call Sam Weller!” bellowed Dickens in his judicial voice, and the crowd roared louder in its applause and cheers. As each classic character appeared—Mrs Gamp, Miss Squeers, Boots—the audience roared even louder. I put my hand to my temple and found my brow cold and covered with perspiration. As Dickens read on, I staggered out. I went alone to the hotel and drank another cup of laudanum while waiting for the Inimitable and his entourage to arrive. My heart was pounding wildly. I was ravenous and shaken and would have welcomed a large meal sent up to the privacy of my own room, but although Dickens would eat nothing more this evening, he invited Wills, Dolby, and me to dine in his suite as he unwound. There he paced back and forth and talked about the next few days of the tour and about the offer he had received for another tour beginning about Christmastime. I ordered pheasant, fish, caviar, pâté, asparagus, eggs, and dry champagne, but just before the waiter came in bringing this and Wills’s tiny meal and Dolby’s beef and mutton, Dickens turned from the fireplace where he had been standing and said, “My dear Wilkie! What on earth is that on your collar?” “What?” I confess that I blushed. I had hurriedly carried out my ablutions before drinking my laudanum and coming up to Dickens’s suite. “What?” My hands rose beneath my bearded chin and touched something thick and crusted above the silk of my cravat. “Here now, move your hands,” said Wills. He held the lamp closer. “Good God,” said Dolby. “Good heavens, Wilkie,” said Dickens in a voice that sounded more amused than alarmed. “There is dried blood all over your collar and neck. You look like Nancy after Bill Sikes has done with her.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The summer of 1866 was tiring. My novel Armadale was released on schedule in June and the reviews were much as I expected from the usual hide-bound and tiresome critics. In the Athenaeum, their ancient music-critic and reviewer H. F. Chorley opined—“It is not pleasant to speak as we must of this powerful story; but in the interest of everything that is to be cherished in life, in poetry, in art, it is impossible to be over-explicit in the expression of judgement.” His judgement was that the book was immoral. The reviewer of The Spectator came to the same conclusion in terms that bypassed the mere strident in favour of the near-hysterical: The fact that there are such characters as he has drawn, and actions such as he has described, does not warrant his over-stepping the limits of decency, and revolting every human sentiment. This is what Armadale does. It gives us for its heroine a woman fouler than the refuse of the streets, who has lived to the ripe age of 35, and through the horrors of forgery, murder, theft, bigamy, gaol and attempted suicide, without any trace being left on her beauty.… This is frankly told in a diary which, but for its unreality, would be simply loathesome, and which needs all the veneer of Mr Wilkie Collins’s easy style and allusive sparkle to disguise its actual meaning. This kind of critical attack meant nothing to me. I knew that the book would sell well. And perhaps I have told you, Dear Reader, that the publisher had paid me five thousand pounds—a record at the time and for many years after that—and paid it before a single word of the story had been written. I had serialised it in America in their magazine called Harper’s Monthly and not only had Armadale been wildly popular there, but the editor had written me that my tale had single-handedly saved their magazine from extinction. Its serialisation in England through The Cornhill Magazine had also been wildly popular, certainly causing some of the jealousy we had heard from Dickens the previous Christmas. I was certain that I could adapt Armadale to the stage and that this might well be a greater source of income than the book itself. It is true that the great sum paid in advance by George Smith at Smith, Elder & Company had all but bankrupted the publisher despite the brisk sales of the two volumes, but that was little concern of mine. It did frustrate me somewhat, however, in the sense that for my next novel—whatever its contents—I would almost certainly have to return to Dickens’s magazine, All the Year Round, just as the author-editor had predicted during our Christmas dinner. The frustration was not merely because the monies in advance of publication would be less—Dickens, John Forster, and Wills were miserly when it came to paying writers other than Dickens—but rather the fact that Dickens would again be my editor. Yet I remained serenely confident that the hostile reviews of the day meant nothing. Critics and bourgeois reviewers simply were not ready for the heroine of Armadale, my femme fatale Lydia Gwilt. Not only did Lydia dominate the book in a way that no female literary protagonist in my era had done, but she stood out from the pages in a way that no woman in all of Dickens’s fiction ever had or ever would. The full, three-

dimensional portrait of this woman, as scheming and vicious as Lydia Gwilt may have seemed to the careless reader or clueless reviewer, was a tour de force. And yes, speaking of occasionally vicious women, Caroline G—— chose this hot summer to upbraid me on a wide front of issues. “Why will you not consider marriage, Wilkie? You present me as a wife—almost—to your friends who visit here. I am your hostess and proofreader and housekeeper and lover. Everyone who knows you knows that we live as man and wife. It is past time that we make that perception reality.” I said, “If you know anything about me at all, my dear Caroline, you must know that I do not care a fig for perceptions or other people’s opinions.” “But I do,” cried the woman with whom I’d spent the past ten years. “And Harriet is now fifteen. She needs a father.” “She had a father,” I replied placidly. “He died.” “When she was one year old!” cried Caroline. She appeared to be teetering on that thin ledge between anger and tears, reason and hysteria, upon which women so frequently find themselves. Or deliberately find themselves. “She is becoming a young woman. She will enter into society soon. She needs your name.” “Nonsense,” I chuckled. “She has a perfectly good name and a perfectly good home. She shall always have my support and our love. What more could any intelligent young woman wish to have?” “You promised that we would buy or lease the nicer home on Gloucester Place by this year or next,” whined Caroline. I hate and despise it when women whine. All men, Dear Reader, hate and despise it when women whine. It has always been thus. The only difference in men’s reactions to whining is that a very few, like me, refuse to give in to this auditory and emotional blackmail. I looked over the top of my glasses at her. “I said that we should have the place sooner or later, my pet. And so we shall.” “How?” demanded Caroline. “I spoke to Mrs Shernwold while you were having fun with Dickens in Birmingham. She says that she would consider leasing or selling ninety Gloucester to us except for the fact that her unmarried son is returning from Africa in a year or so and she has promised it to him.” “Trust me on this, Caroline my dear,” I said. “I have promised you this home someday and you and Harriet shall have it. Have I ever failed you, my sausage?” She glared at me. Caroline G—— was a handsome woman—some would say beautiful —despite her advancing years (although she would never tell me her age, Inspector Field had told me that in all likelihood Caroline had been born thirty-six years earlier, in 1830)—but she was neither handsome nor beautiful when she glared. Despite the tons of romantic literary twaddle to the contrary, trust me, Dear Reader, when I assure you that no woman can be attractive when she whines and glares. “You fail me by not marrying me and giving Harriet a proper father,” she all but shrieked at me. “Do not think that I am not capable of finding and marrying another man, Wilkie Collins. Do not think that for a second!”

“I do not think that for a second, my sausage,” I said and turned back to the newspaper. CHARLES DICKENS, DESPITE his continuing illnesses and growing anxieties when travelling by rail, seemed to be having a relaxed summer. I overheard Wills telling Forster at the offices of All the Year Round that the total receipts for Dickens’s spring tour had earned the writer £4,672. The Chappells—whom Dickens had once described to me as “speculators, Wilkie, pure speculators, though, of course, of the worthiest and most honourable kind”—were so delighted with their share of the profits that no sooner had Dickens completed his last London reading on 12 June and returned to Gad’s Hill “. . . to rest and hear the birds sing,” than they proposed to Dickens another tour for the next winter, consisting of fifty nights on the road. Wills told Forster that Dickens had considered asking for £70 a night—he was sure that the ticket sales would support that —but instead offered the Chappells forty-two readings for £2,500. They accepted at once. The days at Gad’s Hill through June and July were busy with guests, local fairs at which Dickens judged everything from pie contests to cricket matches, and—of course—more business. The Inimitable was not working on a novel at the moment, but he had begun work on a projected new edition of his works, the so-called Charles Dickens Edition, that would have each of his novels, freshly set, appearing once a month for 3/6. Naturally he could not leave such well-enough alone, so he offered in his prospectus to write a new preface for each volume. As it turned out, this would be not only the most popular of all the many editions of Dickens’s work, but would be—for him—his last edition. I saw Dickens frequently that summer, both at Gad’s Hill (where he never seemed to be entertaining fewer than half a dozen guests) and in London (he came up to his offices at All the Year Round at least twice a week, and we would often meet for lunch or dinner). Besides already planning his next Christmas story for our magazine, rehearsing new material for his winter tour, and writing the prefaces for his new editions, Dickens told me that he had some ideas for a new novel that he hoped to serialise in the spring of 1867. He asked me what I was working on. “I have a few ideas,” I said. “A thread or two and a few beads to string on them.” “Anything that we might serialise?” “Quite possibly. I’ve been thinking of a tale involving a detective.” “One from Scotland Yard Detectives Bureau?” “Or one working for a private detection bureau.” “Ah,” said Dickens and smiled. “Something along the lines of the further adventures of Inspector Bucket.” I shook my head. “I was thinking that the name Cuff might work,” I said. “Sergeant Cuff.” Dickens’s smile widened. “Sergeant Cuff. Very good, my dear Wilkie. Very good indeed.”

I TOLD THE boy waiting on my corner to tell the inspector that we should meet. The time and place had long since been prearranged, and the next day at two PM, I saw his short, squat figure hurrying towards me at Waterloo Bridge. “Mr Collins.” “Inspector.” I nodded towards the shadows under the bridge. “ ‘Unfurnished lodging for a fortnight.’ ” “I beg your pardon, sir?” “Sam Weller to Pickwick.” “Ah, yes, sir. Of course. Mr Dickens has always been an admirer of this bridge. I helped him with his piece ‘Down with the Tide’ by introducing him to the night toll-taker here some years ago. The literary gentleman was quite interested in the suicides and bodies floating in on the tides, I was told.” “Thirteen,” I said. “Pardon me, sir?” “Thirteen years ago,” I said. “Dickens published ‘Down with the Tide’ in Household Words in February of 1853. I edited it.” “Ah, of course,” said Inspector Field. He brushed his chin with his thumb. “Is there a reason you suggested we meet, Mr Collins? News of any kind?” “Rather an absence of news,” I said. “You never responded to my written report or query.” “I apologise,” said the inspector, but there was no real tone of apology in his husky voice. “It has been very busy, Mr Collins. Very busy indeed. I very much appreciated your report on Mr Dickens’s reading in Birmingham, even though our friend Drood did not appear. Was there a specific query I could answer?” “You could tell me if any of those three men died,” I said. “Three men?” The inspector’s flushed, chapped, and heavily veined visage was the picture of innocent ignorance. “The three men in the alley, Inspector. The three men who assaulted me and whom your Detective Reginald Call-Me-Reggie Barris clubbed down. Barris said that one or more of them might be dead from the blow. I went back to that alley the next morning before leaving Birmingham, but there was no sign of them.” Inspector Field was smiling and nodding now, his forefinger along the side of his nose. “Yes, yes, of course. Barris did report to me about the incident in the alley. I’m sure that all of those ruffians suffered no more than a headache and an insult to their thieves’ pride, Mr Collins. You have to forgive Barris. He has a penchant for melodrama. Sometimes I believe he would have preferred a career on the stage to the life of private investigative enquiries.” “Why did you have him follow me, Inspector? I thought that the idea was to observe Charles Dickens in the hope that Drood might contact him… not follow me around.” Field’s bushy eyebrows lifted towards what remained of his hairline. “Surely Detective Barris must have explained that to you, sir. We have concerns that this Drood might make an attempt on your life.”

“Barris said that the three men in the alley were most likely simple thieves,” I said. “Aye,” agreed Inspector Field, nodding again. “Them being white men and all, that is almost certainly the case. But you must admit that it was fortuitous that Barris was there. You might have been severely injured, Mr Collins, and you certainly would have been robbed.” We had walked across the Waterloo Bridge twice by now and this time continued walking north towards the Strand. Somewhere to the west along the river here was the Warren’s Blacking Factory, where Katey Dickens had once told me her father had been sent to labour as a child. He had mentioned it to her in an almost joking manner, but Katey confided in me that she felt it may have been the most upsetting and formative event of his life. “I know where your Drood is, Inspector,” I said as we turned right on the Strand towards Somerset House and Drury Lane. Field stopped. “You do, sir?” “I do, sir.” I let the silence between us fill the air under the rumble and roar of passing traffic. “Dickens is Drood,” I said at last. “I beg your pardon?” said the inspector. “Dickens is Drood,” I said again. “There is no Drood.” “That seems highly unlikely, Mr Collins.” I smiled almost patronisingly. “I’ve said before that Drood appears to be a figment of the writer’s imagination, Inspector. Now I know that the phantom is no more than that. Dickens has created Drood to suit his own purposes.” “And what might those purposes be, sir?” “Power,” I said. “A mischievous sense of power over others. For many years, as I’ve told you, Dickens has played with magnetic influence and mesmerism. Now he invents this Master of Mesmerism as his alter ego, as it were.” We had resumed walking east and now Inspector Field tapped the pavement with his heavy stick. “He could hardly have invented Drood, Mr Collins, seeing as I have been pursuing the blackguard for twenty years come this August.” “Have you ever seen him, Inspector?” I said. “Drood, I mean.” “Seen him?” repeated the older man. “Why no, sir. I believe I’ve told you that I have never personally laid eyes on the murderer. But I have apprehended some of his agents and I have certainly seen the results of his work. More than three hundred murders in those twenty years, not the least terrible of which was the grisly death of Lord Lucan in 1846. You yourself told me the story that Dickens reported Drood telling him—and the identity of Lord Lucan, who was long rumoured to have had a son in Egypt, fits perfectly.” “Too perfectly,” I said smugly. “Pardon me, sir?” “You may be a detective, Inspector Field,” I said, “but you have never plotted and written a story with detective work in it. I have.” Inspector Field continued striding and tapping, but he looked my way and listened.

“Certainly there has been a legend of a murderous Egyptian named Drood for these two decades or so,” I explained. “The shadowy dockside murderer. The phantom Oriental mesmeriser, sending his agents out to rob and kill. The unreal occupant of the very real Undertown. But he is only a legend, with no more real history to him than there is actual physicality. Charles Dickens has walked these riverside and dockside slums for years and years. He certainly has heard of this Drood—perhaps before you did twenty years ago, Inspector—and for his own purposes, he has incorporated actual events such as the murder of Lord Lucan (with its delicious element of the man’s heart being ripped from his chest) into his biography of the unreal personage.” “What would those purposes be, Mr Collins?” asked Inspector Field. We had just passed Somerset House. Once a royal residence, the newer structure had housed government offices for the past thirty years. I knew that Dickens’s father and uncle had been employed there. We crossed the Strand and took a narrow lane as a shortcut in the direction of Drury Lane, where the fictional David Copperfield had ordered beef in a restaurant and where a very real Wilkie Collins hoped to have a successful staging of Armadale before too much more time passed. “To what purpose, sir?” repeated the inspector when we were alone in the lane. “To what purpose would Mr Dickens lie to you about the existence of Drood?” I smiled and swung my own walking stick. “Let me tell you a little story from Dickens’s reading tour, Inspector. I heard it last week from George Dolby.” “As you wish, sir.” “The travel part of the tour ended in Portsmouth at the end of May,” I said. “Dickens had a little time that was his own so he led Wills and Dolby on one of his walking expeditions and they found themselves in Landport Terrace. ‘By Jove!’ exclaimed Dickens. ‘Here is the place where I was born! One of these houses must be the one.’ And so he led Wills and Dolby from house to house, explaining that one must be it because it ‘looked so like my father.’ Then, no, another must be the correct one ‘because it looked like the birthplace of a man who had deserted it.’ But no again, a third must be it because it was ‘most definitely like the cradle of a puny, weak youngster . . .’ and so on through the row of homes. “Then, Inspector, in an open square in the town, all lined with redbrick houses dotted by white window frames, Dickens decided to imitate the clowning of Grimaldi.” “Grimaldi?” said Inspector Field. “A pantomimist whom Dickens adored,” I said. “So, with Wills and Dolby watching, the famous writer Charles Dickens mounted the steps to one of these houses, gave three raps to the brass-plated green door, and lay down on the top step. A moment later when a stout woman opened the door, Dickens leapt up and took off running, with Dolby and Wills beating a hasty retreat behind him. Dickens would point behind them at an imaginary policeman pursuing and all three distinguished gentlemen would pick up their pace. When the wind blew off Dickens’s hat and scuttled it ahead of them, the pursuit became real enough as all three chased the hat in comic pantomime.”

Inspector Field stoppped. I stopped. After a moment, he said, “Your point, Mr Collins?” “My point, Inspector, is that Charles Dickens, although chronologically fifty-four years of age, is a child. A mischievous child. He manufactures and plays the games he enjoys and—through his fame and force of personality—bullies those around him to play the game as well. We are now involved, you and I, in Charles Dickens’s Game of Drood.” Field stood there, scratching the side of his nose while seemingly lost in thought. He suddenly looked very old to me. And not at all well. Finally he said, “Where were you on nine June, Mr Collins?” I blinked at this. Then I smiled and said, “Didn’t your agents inform you, Inspector?” “Yes, sir. In truth, they did. You went to your publisher’s offices in the late morning. Your new book was released that day. Then you went to several bookshops from Pall Mall along the Strand to Fleet Street, where you signed several copies of the volumes for certain friends and admirers. That evening you dined… there…” Field was pointing his cane at the Albion, opposite Drury Lane Theatre. “. . . with several artists, including one older gentleman who was a friend of your father’s,” continued the inspector. “You returned home a little after midnight.” He had managed to wipe the smile off my face and it irked me that he had. “The point of this intrusive and unwarranted recitation, Inspector?” I asked coldly. “The point is that both you and I know where you were on the ninth of June, Mr Collins. But neither of us knows where Mr Dickens was on that important anniversary.” “Important anniversary?” I said and then remembered. It was the first anniversary of Dickens’s near thing in the railway accident at Staplehurst. How could I have forgotten? “Mr Dickens was at Gad’s Hill Place that day,” said Inspector Field without looking at any notes, “but took the four thirty-six PM express to London. Once here he began one of his long walks, this one in the general vicinity of Bluegate Fields.” “Opium Sal’s,” I ventured. “The entrance to Undertown through the crypt in the cemetery he called Saint Ghastly Grim’s.” “Not this time, sir,” said Inspector Field. “I had seven of my best agents following Mr Dickens. We felt that the odds were great that the author would contact Drood on this first anniversary of their meeting. But your friend gave my men and myself—I was involved in the tailing that night—quite a merry chase. Just when we were sure that Dickens had gone to ground, he would pop out of some ruin or slum, hail a cab, and be off. Eventually he left Bluegate Fields and the dock areas there and came quite close to where we stand at this moment.… To Saint Enon Chapel north of the Strand near the eastern entrance to Clement’s Inn, to be precise.” “Saint Enon Chapel,” I repeated. The name rang a faint bell. Then I remembered. “The Modern Golgotha!” “Exactly, sir. A charnel house. The vaults under Saint Enon had so filled with unclaimed corpses that in 1844, after I had begun work in the Police Bureau but before I became Chief of Detectives, the commissioner of sewers sealed it off while creating a drainage tunnel beneath the building. Still the bodies festered there for years, until the premises were purchased by a surgeon in 1847 with the purpose of removing the remains to—I

believe he called it—‘a more appropriate place.’ The exhumation continued there for almost a year, Mr Collins, with two giant heaps accumulating in the alleys above those vaults—one heap a pile of human bones, the other a mountain of decaying coffin wood.” “I went to view that as a young man,” I said, turning slightly to look off in the direction of St Enon. I remembered the stench then on that cool February day I had viewed the awful spectacle. I could not imagine what the smell would be like on a hot and humid summer day such as this one. “You and some six thousand other Londoners came to stare,” said Inspector Field. “What does Saint Enon Chapel have to do with Dickens and June nine?” “He managed to vanish from our view near there, Mr Collins,” said Field, tapping angrily at the cobblestones with his heavy brass-headed stick. “Seven of my best agents and myself, perhaps the finest detective London has ever known, in pursuit, and your writer gave us the slip.” I had to smile again. “He is enjoying this, Inspector. As I said, Dickens is a child at heart. He loves mysteries and ghost stories. And upon occasion he has a cruel sense of humour.” “Indeed, sir. But more to the point, somehow your friend knew about a secret entrance to that very drainage tunnel dug in 1844 when all the thousands of leaking and rotting corpses were still there. We found the tunnel eventually—it opens into scores of leaking, stinking holes where hundreds of squatters are living beneath the streets of London— and that in turn opens to another labyrinth of tunnels, sewers, and caverns.” “But you couldn’t find Dickens?” “We did, sir. We saw his lantern in the maze ahead of us. But at that point, we came under attack—hand-thrown and slingshotted stones, many as big as your fist, sir.” “The Wild Boys,” I said. “Precisely, sir. Detective Hatchery actually had to fire his weapon before the attackers— mere shadows, emerging from side tunnels and flinging at us, then retreating into deeper shadows—fled and we could continue our pursuit of your friend. But by then it was too late. He gave us the slip in the flooded labyrinth.” “It sounds to be very frustrating, Inspector,” I said. “And exciting. But what, exactly, is your point?” “My point, Mr Collins, is that it seems rather doubtful that Charles Dickens—the Charles Dickens—should go to such absurd lengths to lose us while traipsing through the Undertown of London all night… unless there is a man named Drood waiting for him.” I was able to laugh. I was unable not to laugh. “I would suggest just the contrary, Inspector. It is the fun of the pursuit and the fiction of the mystery he has created that brings Dickens to waste so much time leading you on this wild goose chase through the tunnels under London. Had he not been aware that your men would be following him, I assure you that he would not have come to London that night. There is no Drood.” Inspector Field shrugged. “Have it as you wish, sir, but we appreciate your continued cooperation in helping us track down the murderer and mastermind whom you do not

believe exists. Those of us in police work who have come up against Drood and his agents know him to be a real and frightening force.” There was nothing to be said to that. “Was your query about the brigands in Birmingham the only reason you asked for this meeting, Mr Collins?” “No, actually,” I said, shuffling unconsciously in my embarrassment. “I wished to take you up on an offer you made to me.” “Ninety Gloucester Square and Mrs Shernwold?” said Field. “I am working on that, sir. I remain confident that you and your… Mrs G——… shall have the place by this time next year.” “No,” I said. “The other offer. When you said that I might borrow the good services of Detective Hatchery should I wish to go back to Saint Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery, move the slab in the crypt, and find my own way down to King Lazaree and his opium den in the catacombs there. The rheumatical gout has been all but intolerable in recent weeks… the laudanum helps almost not at all anymore.” “Detective Hatchery will be at your service whenever you wish,” the inspector replied crisply with no discernible tone of censure or victory in his voice. “When would you like him to report for duty, Mr Collins?” “Tonight,” I said. I could feel my pulse accelerate. “Tonight at midnight.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

October of 1866 turned especially cool and rainy. I split my days and nights between my club, my home, and King Lazaree’s underground den, with many weekends given over to being a guest at Gad’s Hill Place. One rainy Saturday afternoon there, while under the mellowing influence of my laudanum, I told Dickens about various ideas I had concerning my next book. “I am thinking of something in the line of the supernatural,” I said. “Do you mean a ghost story?” asked Dickens. We were in his study, enjoying the warmth of the fire. The Inimitable had finished his day’s work on his annual Christmas story and been persuaded by me that the rain was too cold for his usual afternoon walk. Wind whipped raindrops against the bow windows beyond his desk. “Something

involving spirit rapping?” he continued, frowning slightly. “Not in the least,” I said. “I was thinking rather of some adroit mixture of the themes I mentioned to you some time ago—detection, theft, mystery—along with some item that has a curse on it. The reality of that curse would, of course, be decided by the reader.” “What kind of item?” asked Dickens. I could tell that I had piqued his interest. “A gem, I believe. A ruby or sapphire. Or even a diamond. I can see the plotting arising from the effects of the cursèd stone on each person who acquires it by fair means or foul.” “Interesting, my dear Wilkie. Very interesting. The gem or diamond would be carrying some ancient family curse?” “Or a religious one,” I said, warming under the influence of the mid-day laudanum and Dickens’s interest. “Perhaps if the stone had been stolen from some ancient and superstitious culture…” “India!” cried Dickens. “I had been thinking Egypt,” I said, “but India would serve. Might serve very nicely, I think. As for a title, I’ve jotted down The Serpent’s Eye or The Eye of the Serpent.” “A bit sensational,” said Dickens, steepling his fingers and extending his legs towards the fire. “But intriguing as well. Would you work your idea of a ‘Sergeant Cuff’ into this tale?” I blushed and only managed a shrug. “And would opium figure in this book as well?” he asked. “It might,” I said defiantly, all warmth at his earlier interest now fled. I had heard through several mutual friends of Dickens’s absolute disapproval of my Lydia Gwilt’s praise of the drug in Armadale. Dickens changed the subject. “I presume you are using as a model here the Koh-i-noor diamond that was exhibited in the Crystal Palace here at the Great Exhibition and presented to the Queen in June of 1850.” “I have made some rough notes about that artefact,” I said stiffly. “Well, my dear Wilkie, there were certainly rumours that the Koh-i-noor was indeed cursed after it was exacted as tribute to the crown by the ‘Lion of the Punjab,’ that heathen Maharaja Dhulip Singh. Just the true story of how that diamond was smuggled from Lahore to Bombay by Governer General Lord Dalhousie himself, even while the Mutiny was still active, should give enough material for two or three exciting novels. It’s said that Lady Dalhousie herself sewed the diamond into a belt which Lord Dalhousie wore for weeks until he handed the Koh-i-noor over to the captain of a British warship in Bombay Harbour. They say that he chained two fierce guard-dogs to his camp bed each night to wake him if thieves or Thugees entered his tent.” “I’d not heard this,” I confessed. My thought had been to write about a ruby or sapphire sacred to an ancient Egyptian cult, but Dickens’s true tale of the Koh-i-noor made my hands twitch in anticipation of taking notes. We were interrupted then by an urgent pounding on the door to Dickens’s study. It was Georgina, in tears and almost beside herself with agitation. When Dickens calmed

her, she explained that the Irish bloodhound—Sultan—had attacked yet another innocent victim, this time a little girl who was the sister of one of the servants. Dickens sent her out to soothe the victim. Then he sighed, opened a cupboard door, and removed the two-barrelled shotgun I had last seen ten months earlier on Christmas night. He then went to his desk and pulled several large shells from a lower-right-hand drawer. Outside, the rain had ceased pelting the window glass, but I could see dark, fast clouds moving low above black branches that were quickly losing their leaves. “I’m afraid that I have shown too much tolerance with this dog,” he said softly. “Sultan has a good heart—and he is totally loyal to me—but his aggressive spirit was forged in the fires of hell. He refuses to learn. I can tolerate anything—in dog or man—save for the refusal or inability to learn.” “No more warnings?” I asked, rising to follow him away from the fire and out of the room. “No more warnings, my dear Wilkie,” said Dickens. “This hound’s inevitable death sentence was pronounced by a power much higher than ours when Sultan was only a pup at his mother’s teat. Now there remains only the execution of that sentence.” THE EXECUTION PARTY was, fittingly, all male: besides Sultan, Dickens, and myself, the fourteen-year-old Plorn had been summoned from his room. My brother, Charles, and his wife, Katey, had just arrived for the weekend, and Charley was invited along but declined. A weather-faced old blacksmith from across the road had been reshoeing two horses in Dickens’s stable and joined the procession. (It turned out that the blacksmith was an old friend of the condemned—he had enjoyed the killer’s antics from the time Sultan was a puppy—and the old man was honking into his handkerchief even before the execution party set out.) Finally there were Dickens’s oldest son, Charley, just up for the day, and two male servants, one the husband of the female servant whose sister had been attacked. One servant trundled the empty wheelbarrow that would bear Sultan’s carcass back from the killing grounds and the other gingerly carried a burlap bag that would be the condemned’s shroud in a few minutes. The women of the household and other servants watched from the windows as we walked out through the backyard, past the stables, and into the field where Dickens had burned his correspondence six years earlier. At first Sultan bounded around with enthusiasm and excitement, unbridled by the new muzzle he was wearing. He obviously thought that he was on a hunting expedition. Something was going to die! Sultan leaped around from one trudging, high-booted, waxed-cotton-coated man to the next, his paws sending out ripples in the puddles and kicking up mud. But when the humans would not meet his gaze, the dog stood at the end of his leash—held by Charley Dickens—and cast an observing eye on the open shotgun under his master’s arm and upon the empty wheelbarrow that had never been a part of any other grouse-hunting trek. As the group stopped a hundred yards or so from the stable, Sultan’s gaze became meditative, even gloomy, and he fixed the gun bearer—his lord and master—with a

questioning look that soon became an imploring one. Charley slipped the leash and stepped back. We had all stepped back behind Dickens, who continued standing there and returning Sultan’s gaze. The big Irish bloodhound co*cked his head to add a question mark to the end of his unspoken query. Dickens set the two shells in place and clicked the heavy gun shut. Sultan co*cked his head farther to the left, his gaze never leaving his master’s eyes. “John,” Dickens said softly to the blacksmith, who stood at the far left of our crescent of execution-witnesses, “I want him turned. Would you please peg a stone behind him?” John the blacksmith grunted, blew his nose a final time, tucked away the kerchief in the coat pocket of his rain jacket, leaned over, lifted the kind of flat stone one would choose to skip across a pond, and tossed it just behind Sultan’s tail. The dog’s head turned. Before Sultan could look back at him, Dickens had smoothly raised the shotgun and fired both barrels. Even though we were all expecting it, the double explosion seemed especially loud in the damp, cold, thick air. Sultan’s ribcage exploded in a blur of red-shredded hair and striated flesh and shattered bone. I am certain that his heart was pulverised so quickly that no message from nerve-endings had time to reach the animal’s brain. He did not whimper or cry out as the impact knocked him several feet across the wet grass in the opposite direction from us, and I was all but certain that Sultan was dead before he hit the ground. The servants had the heavy carcass in the bag and then in the wheelbarrow in an instant. They trundled the corpse back towards the house as the rest of us gathered around Dickens, who broke the smoking gun, removed the spent shells, and set the empty cartridges carefully in his overcoat pocket. He looked up at me as he did this and our gazes seemed to lock much as his and Sultan’s had only a moment earlier. I fully expected the Inimitable to say to me, perhaps in Latin, “And thus death to those who betray me”— but he remained silent. A second later, young Plorn, seemingly excited by the smell of blood and gunpowder in the air—the very boy whom Dickens had recently described to me as “wanting application and continuity of purpose” due to some “impracticable torpor in his natural character”—cried out, “That was smashing, Father! Absolutely smashing!” Dickens did not reply. None of the men said a word as we walked slowly back to the warm house. The rain and wind came up again before we reached the back door. Once inside, I started to head up to my room to change into dry clothes and take an additional brace of laudanum, but Dickens called out to me and I stopped on the stairs. “Be of good cheer, Wilkie. Even so will I comfort dear Percy Fitzgerald, who gave me the doomed dog in the first place. Two of Sultan’s children are rolling in the straw of the barn even as we speak. Blood inheritance being the iron master that it is, one of those two will almost assuredly inherit Sultan’s ferocity. He will also almost certainly inherit the gun.” I could think of nothing to say to this, so I nodded and went upstairs for my anodyne. KING LAZAREE, THE Chinaman King of the Opium Living Dead, seemed to have

been expecting me when I had first returned to his kingdom almost two months before Sultan’s execution, in late August of that summer of 1866. “Welcome, Mr Collins,” the ancient Chinee had whispered when I parted the curtains to his hidden realm in the loculus beneath the catacombs beneath the cemetery. “Your bed and pipe are ready for you.” Detective Hatchery had led me safely to the cemetery late that August night, had unlocked gates and crypt doors and moved the heavy bier again, and had once again loaned me his absurdly heavy pistol. Handing me a bullseye lantern, he promised to stay in the crypt until I returned. I confess here that it was more difficult going down through the tombs and hidden passage to the lower level this second time than it had been when I followed Dickens. King Lazaree’s robe and headpiece were of different colours this visit, but the silk was as clean, bright, and perfectly pressed as the time I’d first come here with Dickens. “You knew I would be back?” I asked as I followed the ancient figure to the farthest, darkest reaches of the long burial loculus. King Lazaree only smiled and beckoned me farther into the burrow. The silent forms on the three-tiered wooden beds set against the cavern walls appeared to be the same Oriental mummies that we had glimpsed during that first visit. But each mummy held an ornate opium pipe, and the smoky exhalations which filled the narrow, lamp-lit passage were the only indication that they were breathing. All the other beds were occupied, but this three-level wooden bunk at the back of the room, separated by its own dark red curtain, was empty. “You shall be our honoured guest,” Lazaree said softly in his oddly lilted Cambridge accent. “And as such, you shall have your privacy. Khan?” He gestured, and another figure in a dark robe handed me a long pipe with a beautiful glass-and-ceramic bowl at the end. “The pipe has never been used,” said King Lazaree. “It is for you and your use alone. This bed also is for your use and your use alone. No one else shall ever lie in it. And the drug you will experience tonight is of the quality reserved for kings, pharaohs, emperors, and those holy men wishing to become gods.” I tried to speak, found my mouth too dry, licked my lips, and tried again. “How much…” I began. King Lazaree silenced me with a touch of his long yellowed fingers and longer yellow nails. “Gentlemen do not discuss price, Mr Collins. First, experience this night—then you can tell me if such quality and uniqueness is worth the coin these other gentlemen…” He moved those long, curving fingernails in a sweep that included the rows of silent cots. “. . . have decided to pay for it. If not, there will be, of course, no charge.” King Lazaree glided into the dark and the robed figure named Khan helped me up into my bunk, set a notched wooden block under my head—it was strangely comfortable— and lit the pipe for me. Then Khan was gone and I lay on my side, inhaling the fragrant smoke and allowing my anxieties and worries to flow out of me.

Do you wish, Dear Reader, to know the effects of this ultimate opium? Perhaps in your day everyone avails himself of this amazing drug. But even so, I doubt if the efficacy of your opium could equal or come close to the perfection of King Lazaree’s secret recipe. If it is the effect of mere opium that piques your curiosity, I can quote to you here from the first paragraph of the last book ever written by Charles Dickens—a book he would not live long enough to finish: An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive grey square tower of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of rusty iron in the 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 is set up by the Sultan’s orders for the impaling of a horde of Turkish robbers, one by one. It is so, for cymbals clash, and the Sultan goes by to his palace in long procession. Ten thousand scimitars flash in the sunlight, and thrice ten thousand dancing-girls strew flowers. Then, follow white elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours, and infinite in number and attendants. Still the Cathedral Tower rises in the background, where it cannot be, and still no writhing figure is on the grim spike. Stay! Is the spike so low a thing as the rusty spike on the top of a post of an old bedstead that has tumbled all awry? Some vague period of drowsy laughter must be devoted to the consideration of this possibility. There you have it. An opium addict struggling to consciousness in a run-down tumbled opium den at dawn. Ten thousand scimitars flashing in the sunlight. Thrice ten thousand dancing girls. White elephants caparisoned in countless gorgeous colours. What poetry! What insight! What rubbish. Charles Dickens had not the slightest idea of the power or effect of opium. He once bragged to me that during his second reading tour—still in our future that summer and autumn of 1866—when he was racked by pain and unable to sleep, he granted himself the “Morpheus of laudanum.” But when I enquired further—of Dolby rather than of the Inimitable, since I wanted the truth—I found that the wings of Morpheus to which he had abandoned himself consisted of two tiny drops of opium in a very large glass of port. By this time, I was drinking several port-glasses full of pure laudanum with not even a chaser of wine. Dickens had no idea of the effects of laudanum, much less of rich opium. Let me tell you, Dear Reader of my posthumous future, just what the effect of King Lazaree’s opium was like— _it was a warmth that began in your belly and veins, a little like a good whiskey, but which, unlike whiskey, never stopped expanding and growing. _it was an elixir that transformed small, cherubic, usually pleasant, rarely-takenseriously William Wilkie Collins, he of the absurdly large forehead, poor eyesight, and comically voluminous beard, he who was “always good for a laugh” and usually good to serve as what Americans call a “sidekick”—into the self-confident colossus that he knew in his heart of hearts he always was and always had been.

_it was a transformative agent that eliminated the soul-sickening anxiety that had haunted and weakened me since I was a child, that deepened perception, and which bestowed an insight into people, one’s self, and relationships that illuminated even the most mundane object or situation in a brilliant, golden light that must be something like the vision of a divinity. This is an inadequate description, I fear, but I hesitate before penning a complete description of the unique and beneficial effects of this ancient Chinaman’s opium. (Too many others, those without my innate resistance to the oft-cited negative aspects of the drug, might rush to try it—not realising that opium of King Lazaree’s quality of essence may never again be found in London or anywhere else.) Suffice it to say that the drug was worth every shilling the ancient Chinaman asked for it—asked for it many hours later, when I was helped from my couch and escorted, by the shadow called Khan, all the way back to the steep staircase above which waited the faithful Hatchery—and it remained worth the thousands upon thousands of pounds I would continue paying for it in the months and years to come. Thank God for my huge payment from Cornhill’s George Smith in advance of my writing Armadale. I would not say that every cent of that windfall went for opium—I remember spending some £300 for wine and investing at least £1,500 in Funds (and, of course, there were gifts to Caroline and Carrie, as we called her daughter, Harriet, at home, as well as money sent to Martha R—— )—but the majority of the astounding £5,000 I received from Smith did end up in the long-nailed yellow hands of the subterranean Mandarin. Hatchery—huge, hulking, derby-topped—was always waiting for me in the crypt far above, no matter how overdue into the morning (or even afternoon) my return was. Each time he would take back the huge pistol (I always set it next to me in my cot in King Lazaree’s Den, even though I felt safer there than anywhere else in the world) and each time he would escort me out of the crypt, cemetery, and slums back to the world of the sad, shuffling, unseeing mortals who knew nothing of the glories of Lazaree’s premium opium. I WISHED ALMOST as much as my constantly whining Caroline did that the house on Gloucester Place would open up for us. Our current home at 9 Melcombe Place, Dorset Square, had always been comfortable enough for me, but it seemed smaller now between Caroline’s constant complaining and Carrie’s coming into womanhood. Mostly, though, it was the uninvited inhabitants that made the old place too small. The woman with the green skin and tusk teeth still haunted the stairways when they were not well lighted, but it was the Other Wilkie who caused me the most consternation. The Other Wilkie never spoke; he simply watched and waited. No matter how I was dressed when I encountered him, he was always in collar and shirtsleeves and waistcoat, cravat in place. I knew that if I were suddenly to shave off my full beard—which was so much a part of me now that I never really noticed it in the mirror except when trimming

it—the Other Wilkie would retain his. If I were to remove my spectacles, he would retain his. He never ventured out of my study and was there only at night, but on those nights I encountered him there, his presence was increasingly irritating. Sensing someone else in the room with me, I would look up and see the Other Wilkie sitting silently in the yellow-upholstered spiderweb-backed chair in the far corner. Sometimes the chair would be reversed (his doing, I am certain), and he would be sitting spraddle-legged with his shirtsleeved arms on the back, head down and gaze intense, the lamplight glinting off his tiny spectacles. I would go back to work, but when I looked up again, the Other Wilkie would have somehow silently advanced until he was sitting in the curved-back wooden chair I keep near my desk for guests. His small eyes would be fixed intently—hungrily, I thought—upon the manuscript I was working on, and he never blinked. Eventually I would look up with a start to see and feel the Other Wilkie standing or sitting so close to me that our arms were almost touching. These moments of pure fright and terror were made worse when the Other Wilkie lunged for my pen. He wanted to continue and to finish the work on his own—I had no doubt of that—and I have related to you how violent and ink-spattering these tussles for possession of pen, inkwell, and manuscripts had become before I abandoned the study at night and began to work there only during the day, at times when he would not make an appearance. But in that autumn of 1866, I could hear the Other Wilkie breathing and occasionally shuffling his feet outside my closed study doors even in daylight. I would tip-toe to those doors—hoping that it might be a servant, or Caroline or Carrie playing a prank on me—and throw open a door, only—and always—to see nothing in the hallway. But— always—I could hear the echo of shoes my own size thudding down the dark servants’ stairway on which also waited the Woman with Green Skin. I knew then that it would be just a matter of time before the Other Wilkie would appear in the study with me during the daytime. Thus I began carrying my notes and writing material to the Athenaeum Club, where I would find a comfortable leather chair and table near a tall window and work in peace. The problem was, I had little to work on. For the first time in some years at least, since Charles Dickens had first hired me on the staff to write for Household Words ten years earlier (some five years after I had met him), ideas were not coalescing into plots. I had jotted down notes after my rambling discussion with Dickens about the supernaturaladventure novel I was thinking of calling The Serpent’s Eye, but except for copying out some relevant entries on jewels from India from my club’s library edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica—the eighth edition, 1855—I had made no progress. I went back to my earlier idea of writing about a former police detective now given to private enquiries—Inspector Field in the form of my detective Sergeant Cuff—but my understandable reluctance to spend more time with Field than I had to, combined with an aversion to the entire insidious idea of a detective’s intrusive investigations, retarded that research as well. Part of me simply was in no mood to write. I much preferred Thursday nights, with the

escorted trip to St Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery and the hours upon hours of ecstasy and soaring insight that followed. The great frustration was that this godlike insight could never be put down on paper—by anyone, no matter how gifted the wordwright, not even, I was certain during my Thursday-night / Friday-morning flights, by Shakespeare or Keats, should either genius reincarnate in a London opium den without warning. Certainly not by so timid a man and unimaginative a writer as Charles Dickens. Each week I could see in King Lazaree’s dark-eyed look his absolute knowledge of both my growing divinity and growing frustration at not being able to share my new knowledge via the dead bulk of inert letters being set down and pushed around on a white page like so many inky-carapaced and quill-prodded beetles. These clumsy written symbols were merely shorthand, I now understood, for the plaintive sounds that lonely apes make and have been making since the Earth and her sister Moon were young. Everything else whirling around me that late autumn of 1866 seemed too absurd to be of consequence: the ongoing nonsense of Drood or not-Drood; the endless chess game for power between Inspector Field, the Inimitable, and me; the sweet allurings and caterwaulings of the women in my life; my inability to find an entrance into the cave under the paper for my next book; my unspoken and definitely unsettled competition with Charles Dickens… But all that was to change when, one Friday morning in late November, after a long, sweet night in King Lazaree’s tomb, I returned home with my suit still reeking of opium to find Dickens in the sitting room with Caroline. Her eyes were closed, her head was tilted back, and there was a look of something like uncommonly rare rapture on her face. Dickens was making mesmeric passes around and above her head, pausing only to touch her temples and to whisper to her. Before I could speak, both heads turned in my direction, Caroline opened her eyes, and Dickens leapt to his feet and cried, “My dear Wilkie! Just the man I came to fetch. We must leave for the railway station this very minute. There is something astounding I have to show you in Rochester and someone there I want you to meet.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Ineed to murder someone,” said Dickens.

I nodded but said nothing. The train to Rochester had passed Gad’s Hill already. “I am quite sure I need to murder someone,” said Dickens. “It is the one thing missing from the readings. Every other emotion is included in the greater list of excerpts I have prepared for this upcoming tour. All but… murder.” He leaned on his stick and looked at me. “What do you think, my dear Wilkie? A modified and intensified version of Bill Sikes murdering Nancy perhaps?” “Why not?” I said. “Why not indeed,” chuckled Dickens, patting his jacket. “It is only a human life.” He was garrulous in part because he had thrice imbibed of brandy during the ride. Each time the carriage shook or jolted, Dickens would either grasp the seat ahead of him with a death-grip or feel in the pocket of his coat for the small flask. When I had confronted Dickens about the scene I had come upon of him mesmerising Caroline, he’d laughed and explained that my dearest had been upset and telling him of my pain from rheumatical gout, my increasing difficulty in getting to sleep, and what she saw as my growing dependency upon laudanum. Dickens had assured her that magnetic influence would whisk me off to slumber without any of the harmful sideeffects of laudanum, and he had been in the process of teaching her the art when I’d entered. “She was an adept pupil,” he said now as the train rumbled and jolted on towards Rochester, passing the marshes around which Dickens and I had walked more than a few times. “You must allow her to attempt the mesmeric influence tonight. I guarantee it will allow you to sleep without opiate dreams or morning fatigue.” I made a noncommittal noise. In truth, I was close to falling asleep to the rocking of the railway carriage and the metronomic sound of its wheels on rails. It had been a long night in King Lazaree’s den and I could not say that I had actually slept. Luckily, although the November day was unusually pleasant, there had been a brisk wind and most of the telltale scent of the pipe had been removed from my clothing during our fast walk to the station. “You say we’re meeting someone in Rochester?” I asked. “Precisely,” said Dickens, clasping both hands on the brass head of his cane. “Two ladies. An old friend for me and a lady companion for you, my dear Wilkie. We are having a luncheon there in a splendid place. I understand that the service is exemplary.” The splendid place with exemplary service, as it turned out, was the graveyard behind the huge old heap of grey stone that was Rochester Cathedral. The two ladies were Dickens’s not-very-secret love, Ellen Ternan, and Miss Ternan’s mother. Logic dictated that Mrs Ternan was to be my “lady companion” for this outing. As I stood there amidst the headstones while nodding, bowing, and making small talk with the two women in the weak November afternoon sunlight, I seriously considered the possibility that Dickens had lost his mind. But no, the answer to Charles Dickens’s behaviour was never that simple. I realised as the four of us strolled into the graveyard—Mrs Ternan and Ellen had explained that they were visiting Ellen’s uncle in Rochester and could only stay a short while—that this

meeting made sense from Dickens’s tortured, twisted, self-exculpating way of looking at the world. His liaison with Ellen Ternan was something he was hiding from almost everyone in the world—my brother, Charles, had told me that Dickens had brought his daughters and Georgina somewhat further into the conspiracy after Mamie had stumbled across her father walking with Miss Ternan in London one Sunday, and Inspector Field had informed me that Ellen had visited Gad’s Hill Place on several occasions—but Dickens obviously felt that I was harmless to his intrigues. Whom would I tell? Not only did Dickens know from experience that I would keep the confidence, but he also knew that because of my own domestic arrangement (which had become even more complicated in the past week as Martha R—— had returned to London for an extended visit), I was such a social outcast that I could never publicly look down on Dickens’s own arrangements, in print or through gossip. Perhaps Mrs Ternan knew of my situation with Caroline G——, for the old lady seemed very cool during our picnic. The former actress (I understood that both she and Ellen were now giving elocution lessons from their new home in Slough that Dickens paid for) obviously had accumulated more pretensions of gentility since I had gotten to know the two women during and after the performances of The Frozen Deep. Mrs Ternan carried her acquired gentility with her like an ageing sloop with a hull heavy with barnacles. The four of us walked slowly through the graveyard until Dickens had found a flat gravestone to his liking. This long marble block was surrounded on either side by lower flat stones. Dickens disappeared behind a nearby stone wall—one that was about five feet high and beyond which stood the rented carriage (with a liveried servant on the box) — we could see only the Inimitable’s head as he conferred with the driver and as both then repaired to the boot of the carriage. Then Dickens returned with four cushions, set them on the flat gravestones on either side of the longest one, and bade us to sit. We did so. Ellen and Mrs Ternan were obviously disconcerted by this unusual—not to say ghoulish—introduction of cushioned comfort to such surroundings. A tall tree to the west of us drew the ink-scrabble shadows of its bare branches across us and our chosen gravestones. None of us could manage any small talk as Dickens hurried to the gate and trotted around behind the wall to confer with his servant again. In a flash, Dickens was back, carrying one long chequered cloth— which he proceeded to drape across the longest gravestone, transforming it into a caricature of a domestic dinner table—and with another white napkin draped over his free arm in the manner of self-important waiters since Adam’s day. A few seconds later he was out of sight and— with little help from his man—had laid a row of plates atop the wall. I must say that it all felt very familiar—rather as if we were at a Parisian sidewalk dining establishment. Then Dickens bustled back into sight, napkin still in place, the very image of a first-class headwaiter, and one by one he served each of us, beginning, of course, with the ladies. Out of a large hamper set atop the wall, Dickens magically produced fried sole and whiting with shrimp sauce, crackers and pâté, a brace of well-grilled birds which I first thought were squab but which I soon realised were delightful little pheasants (to which Waiter Dickens applied the sauce with a flourish), then ladles full of roast haunch of

mutton with stewed onions and browned potatoes, all followed by pound puddings. Along with the food came a chilled white wine—which Dickens, now turned sommelier, uncorked and poured with much ado while awaiting our judgement with batting eyes and pursed lips—and then a large bottle of champagne still in its bucket of ice. Dickens was having such fun playing waiter and wine steward that he had little time to eat. By the time he had produced the pound puddings—offering a rich sauce, which the ladies declined but which I accepted at once—his face was flushed and he was perspiring despite the November afternoon’s slow cooling into evening. At rare times in one’s life, Dear Reader, even the most gentle person is given a tool—a weapon, actually—without wishing it, sometimes having it thrust into his hand, by which he can bring down an entire edifice with a single sentence. Such was my situation during our strange repast in the Rochester graveyard, for I had recognised much of the luncheon’s menu from a book popular some fifteen years earlier. The book was titled What Shall We Have for Dinner? and the recipes therein had been accumulated, according to the publishers, by a certain pseudonymous Lady Maria Clutterbuck. Oh, how the Ternan ladies, miss and missus, now gay from the wine and champagne, would have sobered instantly to learn that their delightful (if ghoulish) graveyard luncheon menu had been planned by none other than Catherine Dickens, the rejected and exiled wife. Although Catherine had been completely abandoned (my brother, Charley, told me that she had written Dickens an imploring letter about their son only a month earlier, requesting a conversation in person about Plorn’s problems, to which Dickens refused even to pen a reply, instructing Georgina to send a cold, curt note in his stead), but quite obviously her incarnation as Lady Clutterbuck (Catherine had not yet become so heavy when she’d collected and published the menus in 1851) was still very welcome at Gad’s Hill. Or at least her recipes were. During the meal and the inconsequential conversation, I studied Ellen Ternan even as she ignored me. It had been eight years since I had spent any time in her presence. The years had not enhanced her beauty. She had been youthfully attractive as an eighteenyear-old ingenue but now qualified only as “handsome.” She was the kind of woman with sad, soulful eyes (which did little for me, since such sad eyes usually hinted at a poetic character given to melancholy and a rigidly defended virginity), descending brows, a long nose, and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. (I prefer just the opposite in my young women—tiny noses and full lips, the latter preferably curved upward in an inviting smile.) Ellen had a strong chin, but where that edifice had suggested a certain perky strength in her youth, it now implied only the prideful stubbornness of a woman beyond her mid-twenties who had not yet married. Her hair was attractive, not terribly long and receding in artfully sculpted waves from a high, clear forehead, but the hairdo exposed ears that were much too large for my taste. Her earrings, which hung down like three bullseye lanterns, hinted of the underlying vulgarity of her former profession. Her carefully elocuted but somehow terminally empty sentences suggested stilted conversation arising from a simple lack of education. Her lovely vowels and precise, theatrically honed cadences could not conceal an underlying ignorance that should have

instantly disqualified this ageing ingenue from being the consort of England’s most honoured writer. Nor did I perceive from her the slightest hint of a hidden passionate nature that could have made up for her obvious shortcomings… and my Wilkie-antennae were highly sensitive to any such subtle sub-rosa erotic transmissions from even the most proper and upstanding ladies. Ellen Ternan was simply a bore. She was as dull as the proverbial ditch water and soon would be a matronly bore to boot. We finished dining as the shadows of the afternoon were falling across us and as the chill from our gravestone chairs had begun to creep up through the cushions into our posterior regions. Tired of playing waiter, Dickens wolfed the last of his pudding, gulped the last of his champagne, and summoned his servant to tidy up. Plates, glasses, utensils, serving dishes, and finally the table cloth, napkins, and cushions all disappeared into hampers and then into the back of the carriage in a blur of liveried efficiency. Only crumbs remained as evidence of our graveyard feast. We walked the Ternans to the carriage. “Thank you for a lovely—if unusual—afternoon,” said Ellen Ternan, taking Dickens’s cold hand in her gloved one. “It was a great pleasure seeing you again, Mr Collins,” she said to me, her cool tone and curt nod belying the warm words. Mrs Ternan clucked similar sentiments while exerting even less effort to make them sound convincing. Then the servant was up on the box again, the whip was out, and the carriage clattered away into Rochester, presumably towards Ellen Ternan’s waiting uncle. I could tell by the concupiscent gleam in Charles Dickens’s eyes that he knew he would be seeing Ellen that very evening, most probably in the privacy of his or her secret house in Slough. “Well, my dear Wilkie,” he said in a tone of pure satisfaction, tugging his gloves back on, “what did you think of our luncheon?” “I thought it delightful, in a terrifically morbid way,” I said. “Mere prelude, my friend,” chuckled Dickens. “Mere prelude. Fortifying ourselves for the serious purpose of our day… or evening. Ah, here’s our man!” THE MAN APPROACHING US there in the gathering gloom with his shapeless hat in hand was ragged, short, dirty, and drunk. He was clothed head to foot in layers of grimy grey flannel that seemed to have been liberally dusted with flakes of stone and a frosting of lime. At his feet he had dropped a heavy bundle tied in a grimy canvas cloth. I could smell the rum fumes flowing from him—from his pores, from his clothes, most probably from his very bones. At the same time I was sniffing him, he seemed to be sniffing me; perhaps he could smell the opium on me through his own reek. We stood and stared and sniffed each other like two dogs in an alley. “Wilkie,” said Dickens, “I would like to introduce Mr Dradles, who goes by just Dradles, although I have heard folks in Rochester say that his first name is Granite, which I have to assume is a nickname. Dradles is a stonemason—chiefly in a gravestone, tomb, and monument way—but he is also hired by the Cathedral for rough

repairs and thus is the holder of all the keys for the Cathedral tower, crypt, side doors, and other such obvious and forgotten entrances. Mr Dradles, it is my honour to introduce you in turn to Mr Wilkie Collins.” The stooped, bewhiskered figure in the rough flannel and chipped horn buttons grunted something that might have been a greeting. I bowed and offered a more polite salutation in return. “Dradles,” I then said brightly. “What a marvellous name! Is it real or a by-product of your profession in some way?” “Dradles is Dradles’s name,” growled the little man. “And Dradles wonders—is Collins your real name or made up some way? And Dradles don’t remember Wilkie as being no Christian name.” I blinked and straightened, gripping my walking stick more tightly in pure manly reflex to this hint of an insult. “I am named after Sir David Wilkie, the famous Scottish painter,” I said stiffly. “If you say so, gov’ner,” grunted Dradles. “Although I never heard of a Scotsman who could paint a stables right, much less a church or house.” “Wilkie’s given first name is actually William,” said Dickens. He was smiling as if amused. “Billy Collins,” grunted Dradles. “Dradles knew a Billy Collins when Dradles was a lad. A troublesome Irish boy with no more brains nor common sense than a sheep.” I gripped my stick harder and looked at Dickens, sending the clear message—Must I stay here and suffer this from the local village drunkard? Before Dickens—who was still smiling—could answer, we were both distracted by a missile that flew between us, barely missing Dickens’s shoulder and my ear, and which then bounced off the russet-coloured cap that Dradles was holding in his filthy right hand. A second small stone zipped by my left shoulder and hit the stonemason squarely in the chest. Dradles grunted again but seemed neither surprised nor injured. Dickens and I turned in time to see a young boy, no more than seven or eight and all unkempt hair, ragged clothes, and untied bootlaces, hide behind a headstone near the wall that separated this graveyard from the road. “It ain’t time! It ain’t time!” shouted Dradles. “Yer lie!” shouted the ragged youth and pitched another stone at the mason. Dickens and I took a step away from the boy’s sturdy target. “D—— n your blasted eyes!” shouted Dradles. “If Dradles says it ain’t time, it ain’t time. No tea today! Get yourself off to the Thatched and Twopenny and leave off on the pitching or there’ll be no ’apenny from Dradles to you today!” “Yer lie!” returned the Young Devil and pitched another rock, a larger one this time, which caught the stonemason just above the knee. Dirt, tiny chips of stone, clumps of old mortar, and lime dust flew from the man’s trousers as his tormentor screamed, “Widdy widdy wee! I—ket—ches—’im—out—ar—ter—tea!” Dradles sighed and said, “Dradles sometimes pays the lad a ’apenny to pelt him

homewards should Dradles forget to head home for tea or t’ the house after ten. This is my usual tea time and I forgot to turn the reminding apparatus off, as it were.” Dickens howled and slapped his thigh with delight at this information. Another small stone flew by us and just missed the stonemason’s cheek. “Hold your hand!” bellowed Dradles to the tiny loose-laced phantom flitting from headstone to headstone. “Or there’ll be no ’apenny for you this fortnight and more! Dradles has business with these here gentlemen and they don’t ’preciate the pelting.” “Yer lie!” shouted the boy from the gloom behind some shrubbery between ancient headstones. “He’ll not bother us more ’til our business is done,” said Dradles. He squinted at me and then squinted less malevolently at Dickens. “What is it you wanted Dradles to show you this evening, Mr D.?” “Mr Wilkie Collins and I would like to see if there’s anything new down in your place of business,” said Dickens. Dradles grunted rum fumes at us. “Anything old is more what you mean,” he growled. “The crypts ain’t much for novelty. Not in these days, at least.” “We shall be delighted to see what is old, then,” said Dickens. “Lead the way, sir. Mr Collins and I shall offer our willing, if not broad, backs as a shield between you and your quick-armed tormentor.” “Bother the Deputy,” Dradles grunted cryptically. “Stones is Dradles’s work and life and only love, other ’n drink, and a few more pebbles won’t bother him none.” And thus, with Dradles striding ahead and Dickens and me muddling along shoulder to shoulder behind him, we proceeded towards the great cathedral whose cold shadow had now enveloped the entire graveyard. BEYOND THE EDGE of the graveyard there was a high-mounded pit with fumes rising from it. Dradles, clutching his heavy bundle to his chest, walked past it without comment, but Dickens paused and said, “This is lime, is it not?” “Aye,” said Dradles. “What you call quick-lime?” I asked. The old man squinted over his shoulder at me. “Aye, quick enough to eat your suit and buttons and boots without any help, Mr Billy Wilkie Collins. And with a little stirrin’, quick enough to eat most of your spectacles, watch, teeth, an’ bones as well.” Dickens pointed to the fuming pit and smiled enigmatically. I removed my spectacles, rubbed my watering eyes, and followed them. I had assumed we were going up into the tower. Dickens often brought guests to Rochester—it was a short enough ride from Gad’s Hill—and he almost always arranged to have them go up into the tower to take in the view of the old city, all grey blocks and shadowed streets, and of the sea beyond to one side and the forests and roads stretching back to Gad’s Hill and beyond to the other horizon. Not this day. After much clanking of key rings (the old man seemed to have keys in every oversized

pocket of his flannel trousers, jacket, and waistcoat), Dradles opened a heavy side door and we followed him down narrow stone stairs into the crypt. I do not mind telling you, Dear Reader, that I was terribly weary of crypts. I do not blame you if you are as well. I had spent the previous night in an opium-scented space that resembled nothing so much as a crypt, and too much of my following Charles Dickens the past year and more had led into dank places like this. Dradles had brought no lantern and we did not need one: the dying November light came down from above in dim shafts through groined windows that had long been devoid of glass. We walked between massive pillars that rose above us up into the cathedral proper like great roots or tree trunks of stone, and in their shadows the darkness was almost absolute, but we kept to the narrow lanes of fading light. Dradles set his lumpy bundle on a stone ledge, untied laces at the top, and fumbled in the bag. I expected him to disinter a bottle—I could hear it sloshing—but instead he came out with a small hammer. “Watch this, Wilkie!” whispered Dickens. “And listen! And learn.” I thought I had learned quite enough for one day, but I followed as Dradles re-lashed his bundle and led the way down an even narrower corridor between even thicker columns and darker pools of shadow. Suddenly he began tapping the inner walls. “Hear that?” the old mason asked—absurdly, I thought, since the taps echoed and rebounded everywhere in the crypt. “Tap and solid,” he whispered. “Now I go on tapping… solid still. And more. Solid still. And more… halloa! Hollow! We keep going around the corner here—mind your step; there’s some stairs there in the dark—we keep going and keep tapping and Dradles’s ear keeps hearing what your ear and others’ don’t and can’t hear and… ahah! Solid in hollow there! And inside solid, hollow again!” We all stopped. It was very dark here around the corner, where more steps presumably led down to deeper vaults. “What does it mean?” I asked. “Inside solid, hollow again?” “Why, it means that there’s an old ’un tumbled and crumbled in there, Mr Billy Wilkie Collins!” growled Dradles. “An old ’un in a stone coffin, and the stone coffin in a vault!” I could feel Dickens’s gaze upon me as if this Dradles-person’s deduction were a significant feat, but I reserved the right to remain something less than overwhelmed. This was not a case of that French phenomenon in which I had some interest— clairvoyance, or “bright seeing.” I mean, it was, after all, a church crypt. It did not take a rude, drunken man playing with a mason’s hammer to tell us that there were bones behind the walls. Dradles led us deeper into the crypt vault. We needed a lantern now and we did not have one. I used my walking stick to sound out the irregular stone stairs beneath my feet as they spiralled down around one of the great stone trusses that housed the crypts and held up the cathedral. I had dressed for the unusually warm and sunny afternoon, and this subterranean cold made me shiver and wish for home and a fire. “Aye,” said Dradles as if I had spoken aloud, “the cold here is worse ’n cold. It’s the

damp. The rising damp. It’s the cold breath of the dead old ’uns on either side of us and beneath us and, in a minute, above us. The dead ’uns’ breath reaches to the cathedral up ’bove and stains the stone and discolours them pretty frescoes and rots the wood and causes the choir to shiver in their robes. Dradles can hear the rising damp seeping out of the chinks and crevices of these older coffins as surely as Dradles can hear the dead old ’uns echo back their answer to his taps.” I started to give a sarcastic retort, but before I could speak there came the startling TAP, TAP, TAP of his hammer again. This time I imagined that I could hear something of the complex echoes myself. Dradles’s voice seemed extraordinarily loud in the winding stone chamber. “There’s two of them about seven feet in, both of them old ’uns with a crook—I fancy they must’ve crook-hitched one another good when they met promiscuous-like, the way it must’ve been in the dark when candles were the thing—and they’re laid out in what was an underground chapel here long time ago, closed up back when all the heads was rolling and everyone was lifting toasts to Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that.” Dickens and I stood in the dark where we were while Dradles descended another dozen steps. The chill touch of rising damp moving past our ankles and necks made my hackles rise. TAP, TAP, TAP… TAP, TAP… TAP, TAP, TAP, TAP. “There!” cried Dradles, his voice echoing terribly. “Hear that?” “What do we hear, Mr Dradles?” asked Dickens. There came a scraping and slithering sound. “Just my foot rule,” said Dradles. “Dradles measuring in the dark. Measuring in the dark is what Dradles is doing. Wall’s thicker here… two foot of stone, then four of space beyond. Dradles hears the tap-back of some rubble and rubbish that the careless ones who interred this old ’un left between the stone coffin and the stone wall. Six feet in there an old ’un is waiting amidst the fall-down and left-behind—just lying and waiting, no top to his box. If I were to break through with my larger hammer and pick, this old ’un, bishop-hatted crook-type or no, would sit up and open his eyes and say, ‘Why, Dradles, my man, I’ve been waiting for you a devil of a time!’ And then he’d turn to powder sure as not.” “Let us get out of this place,” I said. I meant to whisper it, but my voice sounded very loud in the winding dark and rising damp. OUTSIDE IN THE LAST OF THE NOVEMBER evening light, Dickens paid the insolent man some coins and waved him off with thank-yous and what I heard as conspiratorial laughter. Dradles slumped away, still clutching his bundle. He’d not got twenty feet when there was a cry of “Widdy widdy wive! I—ket—ches—’im—out—ar —ter—five… Widdy widdy wy! Then—E—don’t—go—then—I—shy!” and there came an absolute hailstorm of small stones pelting around and against the grey-flannelled figure. “What a character!” cried Dickens when Dradles and the insane child finally

disappeared from sight. “What a wonderful character! Do you know, my dear Wilkie, that when I first met Mr Dradles he was busy tap-tapping away at an inscription on some headstone soon to be set in place—it was for a recently deceased pastry-cook and muffin-maker, I believe—and when I introduced myself, he immediately said, ‘Here in my world I’m a bit like you, Mr Dickens.’ And then Dradles gestured to all the tombs and headstones and headstones in the making around him and added, ‘Surrounded by my works and words like a popular author, I mean.’ ” Dickens laughed again, but I remained uncharmed and unmoved. Inside the now-lighted cathedral, a choir was singing, “Tell me shep-herds, te-e-ell me.…” “You know, Wilkie,” said Dickens, still in good humour despite the late hour and growing chill as a breeze came up around us, stirring the brittle leaves across the flat headstone we had dined on only hours earlier, “I believe I know the name of that choirmaster.” “Yes?” I said, allowing my tone to convey my total lack of interest in this fact. “Yes. I do believe his name is Jasper. Jacob Jasper, I believe. No, John Jasper. That is it. Jack to his beloved and loving nephew.” It was not like Dickens to babble on like this, at least not with such banal content. “You don’t say?” I said, using the tone I used with Caroline when she prattled at me while I was reading a newspaper. “I do say,” said Dickens. “And do you know Mr Jasper’s secret, my dear Wilkie?” “How could I?” I said with some small asperity. “I did not even know of the choirmaster’s existence until a second ago.” “Indeed,” said Dickens, rubbing his hands together. “Mr John Jasper’s secret is that he is an opium addict.” The skin on my face prickled and I found myself standing very straight. I do not believe I breathed for half a minute or so. “The worst kind of opium addict,” continued the Inimitable. “No laudanum or tincture of opium for Mr John Jasper, the way a civilised white man uses the drug for medicinal purposes. Oh, no! Mr John Jasper takes himself to the worst parts of London, then to the worst slums in those worst parts, and seeks out the worst—that is, to him, the best— opium den.” “Does he?” I managed. I could feel the rising damp stealing up through my bones to my brain and tongue. “And our choirmaster Jasper is also a murderer,” said Dickens. “A cold-blooded, calculating murderer, who, even in his opium dreams, plans to take the life of someone who loves and trusts him.” “Dickens,” I said at last, “what in the blazes are you talking about?” He clapped me on the back as we began walking across the graveyard towards the road where his carriage had just returned. “A fiction, of course,” he said with a laugh. “That ghost of a glimmer of a shade of an idea—a character, a hint of a story. You know how such things happen, my dear Wilkie.” I managed to swallow. “Of course. Is that what this afternoon and evening have been

about then, my dear Dickens? Preparation for one of your books? Something for All the Year Round, perhaps?” “Not preparation for my book!” cried Dickens. “For your book, my dear Wilkie! For your Serpent’s Tooth.” “The Eye of the Serpent,” I corrected. “Or perhaps, The Serpent’s Eye.” Dickens waved away the difference. It was becoming difficult to see him in the growing darkness. The lamps on the carriage were lit. “No matter,” he said. “The idea is the tale, my friend. You have your wonderful Sergeant Cuff. But even the best detective requires a mystery to solve if he is to be of any use or interest to your readers. That is what I hoped would come of our luncheon and Dradles outing today.” “A mystery?” I said stupidly. “What mystery was there today?” Dickens opened his hands and arms to take in the dark cathedral, the darker graveyard, and the many tombs and headstones. “Imagine a villain so devilish and clever, my dear Wilkie, that he murders someone simply to have had the experience of murder. Not murder a family member, as was the way of it in the Road Case in which you and I were both so interested—no, but to murder a stranger, or near-stranger. A murder with no motive whatsoever.” “Why on earth would any human being do that?” I asked. Dickens was making no sense to me whatsoever. “I just explained,” he said with perhaps some small exasperation. “To have the experience of having murdered someone. Imagine what a boon that would be to an author such as yourself—or to me. To any writer of imaginative prose, much less the sensationalist imaginative prose for which you are known, my dear Wilkie.” “Are you talking about preparation for reading a Murder in your upcoming tour?” I asked. “Good heavens, no. I have my poor Nancy waiting to be done in by that ultimate villain, Bill Sikes, someday. Not now. Already I have jotted down improvements on the method and description of that bloody massacre. I am talking about your tale, my friend.” “But my tale is about a diamond that brings bad luck to the family that…” “Oh, bother the diamond!” cried Dickens. “That was just an early draft of an idea. The Koh-i-noor diamond was a disappointment to everyone who went out of their way to see it at the Great Exhibition. Its color was a sickly, urine yellow—no real diamond to the English eye. Toss away your worthless gem, Wilkie, and follow the path of this new tale!” “What tale?” Dickens sighed. He ticked off the elements on the fingers of his gloved hand. “Element the first—the idea of someone murdering a near-stranger simply for the experience of having murdered. Element the second—the perfect way to dispose of a body. Your Sergeant Cuff will have a devil of a time figuring that out!” “What are we speaking of?” I said. “I encountered no sure-fire way of disposing of a body in our bizarre luncheon or more-bizarre tour with the drunken Dradles.”

“But of course you did!” cried Dickens. “First there is the quick-lime. Certainly you have not forgotten that Pit!” “My eyes and nose have not.” “Nor should they, my dear Wilkie! Imagine your readers in terror as they come to understand that your murderer—your casual, random murderer, like Iago, moved by a motiveless malignancy—has dissolved the body of some poor chap in a pit of quicklime. Everything down to the last few bones and pearl buttons and perhaps a watch. Or a skull.” “There would still be those remaining last bones. And the watch and skull,” I said sullenly. “And the pit would be right there in the open for Sergeant Cuff and the police to discover.” “Not for a minute!” cried Dickens. “Did you not understand the gift I gave you in Dradles? Your villain shall enlist—knowingly or unknowingly shall be up to your novelistic judgement, of course—just such a character as Dradles to help him inter the poor, pitiful remnants of his murder victim in just such a tomb or vault as we saw, or heard, rather, this evening. The last bits of the murdered man—or woman, if you truly want a sensational novel, my friend—shall be interred alongside the old ’uns, and that will be an end to him—until your clever Sergeant Cuff works it all out through a series of clues that only Wilkie Collins could provide.” We stood there for a moment in a silence broken only by the shifting of the two carriage horses and the more furtive shifting of the cold servant on the driver’s box. Finally I said, “All very wonderful… very Dickens-like, I am sure… but I believe I prefer my original idea of a fabled gem sacred to the Hindoos or other heathens, bringing bad luck to some illustrious English family.” Dickens sighed. “Oh, very well. Have it the way you insist. Look a gift horse in the withers, if you must.” But I heard him say much more softly, “Even though the gem and the Hindoos were my idea, which I have now seen to be too weak to bear the tale.” More loudly, he said, “May I drop you at the station?” Dickens’s uncharacteristic omission of an invitation to Gad’s Hill for supper told me what I already knew—that he would be dining with Ellen Ternan and that he had no intention of returning to Gad’s Hill Place that night. “That would be fine,” I said. “Caroline will be waiting for me.” As he held the carriage door for me, Dickens said softly, presumably so the coachman would not hear, “Before you dine with the lovely Landlady or the delightful Butler tonight, my dear Wilkie, I would advise a change of raiments and perhaps a warm bath.” I paused with one foot on the step, but before I could say something related to opium or to anything else, Dickens added innocently, “The crypts do leave an echo of the rising damp on one, you know… as our friend Dradles illustrated so wonderfully this evening.”

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Charles Dickens is going to murder Edmond Dickenson.” It was the second time in eighteen months that I had sat straight up in bed out of a deep laudanum sleep and shouted those words. “No,” I said into the dark, still half-claimed by dream but also imbued with the complete deductive certainty of my yet-to-be created Detective Sergeant Cuff, “Charles Dickens has already murdered Edmond Dickenson.” “Wilkie, darling,” said Caroline, sitting up next to me and seizing my arm, “what are you going on about? You’ve been talking in your sleep, my dearest.” “Leave me alone,” I said groggily, shaking off her hand. I rose, pulled on my dressing gown, and went to the window. “Wilkie, my dear…” “Silence!” My heart was pounding. I was trying not to lose the clarity of my dreamrevelation. I found my watch on the bureau and looked at it. It was a little before three in the morning. Outside, the paving stones were slick with a light sleet falling. I looked at the streetlamp and then searched the small porch on the abandoned house on the corner opposite that lamp until I saw the shadow huddled there. Inspector Field’s messenger—a boy with strange eyes whom the inspector called Gooseberry—was still there, more than a year after I had first spied him waiting. I left the bedroom and started for my study but paused on the landing. It was night. The Other Wilkie would be in there, waiting, most probably sitting at my desk and watching the door with unblinking eyes. I went downstairs instead to the small secretary in the parlour, where Caroline and Carrie kept their writing materials. Setting my glasses firmly in place, I wrote— Inspector Field: I have good reason to believe that Charles Dickens has murdered a young man who survived the Staplehurst train wreck, a Mr Edmond Dickenson. Please meet me at ten AM at Waterloo Bridge so that we can discuss the evidence and prepare a way of trapping Dickens into admitting to the murder of young Dickenson. Yr. Obedient Servant, William Wilkie Collins I looked at the missive for a long moment, nodded, folded it, set it in a thick envelope,

used my father’s stamp to seal it, and placed it in an inner pocket of my dressing gown. Then I took some coins from my purse, found my overcoat in the hall closet, pulled on rubbers over my slippers, and went out into the night. I had just reached the streetlamp on my side of the street when a shadow on the porch opposite separated itself from the deeper shadow of the porch overhang. In an instant the boy had crossed the street to meet me. He had no coat on and was shivering violently in the rain and cold. “You are Gooseberry?” I asked. “Yessir.” I put my hand on the letter but for some reason did not draw it out. “Is Gooseberry your last name?” I asked. “No, sir. Inspector Field calls me that, sir. Because of my eyes, you see.” I did see. The boy’s eyes were distinguished not only by their absurd prominence but by the fact that they rolled to and fro like two bullets in an egg cup. My fingers tightened on the letter to his master, but still I hesitated. “You’re a crossing sweeper, Gooseberry?” “I was a crossing sweeper, sir. No longer.” “What are you now, lad?” “I’m in training with the great Inspector Field to be a detective, is what,” said Gooseberry with pride, but with no hint of boasting. Between shivers he coughed. It was a deep cough—the kind that had given my mother the horrors whenever any similar sound emerged from Charles or me when we were young—but the urchin had the manners to cover his mouth when he coughed. “What is your real name, boy?” I asked. “Guy Septimus Cecil,” said the boy through slightly chattering teeth. I let go of the letter and brought five shillings out, dropping them into Guy Septimus Cecil’s hurriedly raised palm. I am not sure that I have ever seen another person quite so surprised, with the probable exception of the thugs Mr Reginald Barris had clubbed down in the alley in Birmingham. “There’ll be no message from me to your master tonight or for the next three days and nights, Master Guy Septimus Cecil,” I said softly. “Go get a hot breakfast. Rent a room —a heated room. And with whatever you have left over, buy a coat… something made of good English wool to go over those rags. You’ll be no good to either Inspector Field or to me if you catch your death of cold out here.” The boy’s gooseberry eyes wandered, although they never seemed to fix on me. “Go on, now!” I said sternly. “Don’t let me see you back here until Tuesday next!” “Yessir,” Gooseberry said dubiously. But he turned and trotted back across the street, hesitated by the porch, and ran on down the street towards the promise of warmth and food. HAVING DECIDED TO DO the hard detective work related to the murder of Edmond Dickenson myself, I set about it with a will the next morning. Fortifying myself with

two-and-a-half cups of laudanum (about two hundred minims, if one were applying the medicine drop-by-drop), I took the mid-day train to Chatham and hired a cart to whisk me—although “plod me” would be a better choice of verb given the age and indifference of both the horse and cart-driver—to Gad’s Hill Place. As I approached the important interview with Dickens, I began to see more clearly the to-this-point-amorphous idea of my fictional detective in The Eye of the Serpent (or perhaps The Serpent’s Eye), Sergeant Cuff. Rather than the brusque, stolid, and gruff Inspector Bucket of Dickens’s Bleak House—an unimaginative character in the most literal sense, I thought, since he was based so clearly on the younger version of the actual Inspector Field—my Sergeant Cuff would be tall, thin, older, ascetic, and rational. More than anything else, rational, as if addicted to ratiocination. I also imagined my ascetic, grey-haired, hatchet-faced, ratiocinated, pale-eyed and clear-eyed Sergeant Cuff as nearing retirement. He would be looking forward, I realised, to devoting his postdetective life to beekeeping. No, not beekeeping—too odd, too eccentric, and too difficult for me to research. Perhaps— growing roses. That was the ticket… roses. I knew something about roses and their care and breeding. Sergeant Cuff would know… everything about roses. Most detectives begin with the murder and spend ages following roundabout clues to the murderer, but Sergeant Cuff and I would invert the process by starting with the murderer and then seeking out the corpse. “My dear Wilkie, what a pleasant surprise! The pleasure of your company two days in a row!” cried Dickens as I approached the house and he came out, tugging on a wool cape-coat against the chill wind. “You’re staying for the rest of the weekend, I trust.” “No, just stopping by for a quick word with you, Charles,” I said. His welcoming smile was so obviously sincere in his childlike way—a little boy whose playmate has shown up unexpectedly—that I had to return the smile, even though inside I was holding fast to the cool, neutral expression of Sergeant Cuff. “Wonderful! I’ve just finished my morning’s work on the last of the introductions and my Christmas story and was about to set out on my walk. Join me, dear friend!” The thought of a twelve- or twenty-mile hike at Charles Dickens’s pace on this windy, snow-threatening November day caused a headache to start its throbbing behind my right eye. “I wish I could, my dear Dickens. But as you mentioned Christmas… well, that was one of the things that I wished to talk to you about.” “Really?” He paused. “You—the original ‘Bah! Humbug!’ Wilkie Collins—interested in Christmas?” he said and threw back his head for a true Dickens laugh. “Well, now I can say that I have lived long enough to see all improbabilities come to pass.” I forced another smile. “I was just wondering if you were having one of your usual galas this year. The day is not too far distant, you know.” “No, no, no, it isn’t,” said Dickens. Suddenly he was calmly and coolly appraising me. “And no, no gala this year, I fear. The new round of readings begins in early December, you may recall.” “Ah, yes.”

“I shall be home for a day or two for Christmas itself,” said Dickens, “and of course you shall be invited. But it shall be a modest affair this year, I’m sorry to tell you, my dear Wilkie.” “No worry, no worry,” I said hurriedly, improvising my little scene in a way that I felt would do justice to the yet-to-be-created Sergeant Cuff. “I was just curious… will you be inviting Macready this year?” “Macready? No, I think not. I believe his wife is indisposed this season anyway. And Macready travels less and less these days, you remember, Wilkie.” “Of course. And Dickenson?” “Who?” Aha! I thought. Charles Dickens, the Inimitable, the novelist, the man with the iron memory, would not, could not, ever forget the name of the young man whom he’d saved at Staplehurst. This was a murderer’s—or soon-to-be-murderer’s—dissembling! “Dickenson,” I said. “Edmond. Surely you remember last Christmas, Charles! The somnambulist!” “Oh, of course, of course,” said Dickens even while he waved away the name and the memory. “No. We shan’t be inviting young Edmond this Christmas. Just family this year. And the closest friends.” “Really?” I feigned surprise. “I thought that you and young Dickenson were rather close.” “Not at all,” said Dickens while he pulled on his expensive and far-too-thin-for-such-aday kid gloves. “I merely looked in on the young man from time to time during his first months of recovery. He was, you remember, Wilkie, an orphan.” “Ah, yes,” I said, as if I could have forgotten this essential clue as to why Dickens had chosen him as his murder victim. “Actually, I had rather looked forward to chatting with young Dickenson on a couple of topics we were discussing last Christmas. Do you remember his address by any chance, Charles?” Now he was looking at me most queerly. “You wish to pick up a conversation you were having with Edmond Dickenson almost a year ago?” “Yes,” I said in what I hoped was my most authoritative Sergeant Cuff manner. Dickens shrugged. “I’m quite sure I don’t remember his address, if I ever knew it. Actually, I believe he moved around quite a bit… restless young bachelor, always changing quarters and so forth.” “Hmmm,” I said. I was squinting against the cold wind out of the north that was rustling Dickens’s winter-pruned hedges and driving the last of the sere leaves from the trees in his front yard, but I might as well have been squinting through the suspicion I felt. “In fact,” Dickens said brightly, “I believe I remember young Dickenson left England last summer or autumn. To go make his fortune in southern France. Or South Africa. Or Australia. Some promising place like that.” He’s playing with me, I thought with an electric surge of Sergeant Cuff–ish certainty. But he does not know that I am playing with him. “Too bad,” I said. “I would have enjoyed seeing young Edmond again. But there’s

nothing for it.” “There isn’t,” agreed Dickens, his voice muffled by the thick red scarf he’d pulled up over his lower face. “Are you sure you won’t join me for the walk? It’s a perfect day for it.” “Another day,” I said and shook his hand. “My cart and driver are waiting.” But I waited until the writer was out of sight and the tap of his stick out of earshot and then I rapped at the door, handed my hat and scarf to the servant who answered, and went quickly to the kitchen, where Georgina Hogarth was seated at the servants’ table going over menus. “Mr Wilkie, what a pleasant surprise!” “Halloo, Georgina, halloo,” I said affably. I wondered if I should have wore a disguise. Detectives often wore disguises. I’m sure that Sergeant Cuff did upon occasion, despite his uniquely tall and ascetic appearance. Sergeant Cuff was almost certainly a master of disguises. But then, that ageing Scotland Yard detective did not suffer the handicaps of my disguise-proof shortness, full beard, receding hairline, weak eyes that demanded spectacles, and oversized, bulbous forehead. “Georgina,” I said easily, “I just ran into Charles on his way off to his walk and popped in because my friends and I are planning a small dinner party—a few artists and literary people—and I thought that young Dickenson might enjoy such an evening. But we don’t have his address.” “Young Dickenson?” Her expression was blank. Was she an accomplice? “Oh,” she said, “you mean that boring young gentleman who sleepwalked here Christmas Day night last.” “Precisely.” “Oh, he was terribly boring,” said Georgina. “Hardly worth inviting to your wonderful party.” “Possibly not,” I agreed, “but we thought he might enjoy it.” “Well, I do remember sending out the Christmas invitations last year, so please follow me into the drawing room to the secretary where I keep my files.…” Ahah! cried the successful ghost of the unborn Sergeant Cuff. GEORGINA HOGARTH’S FEW NOTES from Dickens to Edmond Dickenson had all been mailed to (and presumably then fowarded by) a barrister by the name of Matthew B. Roffe of Gray’s Inn Square. I knew this area well, of course, since I had also studied for the law—indeed, I once described myself as “a barrister of some fifteen years’ standing, without ever having had a brief, or ever having even so much as donned a wig and gown.” My own studies had taken place at the nearby Lincoln’s Inn, although I confess that my “study” there consisted much more of attending to meals provided than to studying, although I do remember reading seriously for the Bar for six weeks or so. After that, my interest in law books waned even as my interest in the meals persisted. At that time, my friends were mostly painters and my own efforts mostly literary. But the Bar was more generous to gentlemen with vague legal aspirations then, and somehow,

despite my lack of attendant effort, I became licensed as a barrister in 1851. I had never heard of Mr Matthew B. Roffe and—based upon the dinginess of his small, cluttered, dusty, and remote third-storey office near Gray’s Inn—neither had any clients. There was no clerk present in the low-ceilinged little closet of an outer office and no bell to announce me. I could see an old man wearing clothing twenty years out of date, eating a chop at his desk piled high with folders, testaments, volumes, and bric-a-brac, and I cleared my throat loudly to gain his attention. He pressed a pair of pince-nez into place on his hook of a nose and stared out of that papered cavern with much blinking of his small and watery eyes. “Eh? What’s that? Who’s there? Enter, sir! Advance and be recognised!” I advanced, but when I was not recognised, I gave my name. Mr Roffe had been smiling through the encounter so far, but his expression showed no further recognition upon hearing my name. “I received your name and business address through my friend Charles Dickens,” I said softly. It was not the full truth, but it certainly was not an outright lie. “Charles Dickens the novelist,” I added. The wizened marionette of a man was galvanised into a response consisting mostly of twitches and jerks. “Oh, my, good heavens, oh, yes, I mean… how wonderful, yes, of course… The Charles Dickens gave me your, I mean, gave you my name.… Oh, where are my manners?… Do sit down, please, be seated please, Mr… ah?” “Collins,” I said. The chair he had waved me towards probably had not been unburdened of its stack of opened volumes and scrolled documents in years, if not decades. I leaned back against a high stool instead. “This is quite comfortable,” I said, and, in a flourish perhaps not unworthy of Sergeant Cuff, added, “and better for my back.” “Oh, yes… well, yes… Would you like some tea, Mr… ah… Mr… oh, dear.” “Collins. And yes, I would love some tea.” “Smalley!” cried Mr Roffe towards the empty outer office. “Smalley, I say!” “I believe your clerk is absent, Mr Roffe.” “Oh, yes… no, I mean…” The old man fumbled at his waistcoat, removed a watch, frowned at it, shook it next to his ear, and said, “Mr Collins, I trust it is not a little after nine in the morning or evening?” “Indeed not,” I said, referring to my own watch. “It is a bit after four in the afternoon, Mr Roffe.” “Ah, that explains Smalley’s absence!” cried the old man as if we had solved a great mystery. “He always goes home for his tea at around three, not returning until after five.” “Your profession demands long hours of you,” I said drily. I would have liked to have had that promised tea. “Oh, yes, yes… to serve the law is more like a… like a… well, perhaps ‘marriage’ is the term I am looking for. Are you married, Mr Collins?” “No, sir. That happy domestic state has eluded me, Mr Roffe.” “Myself as well, Mr Collins!” cried the old man, slapping the leather binding of a

volume on his desk. “Myself as well. We are two fugitives from bliss, you and I, Mr Collins. But the law keeps me here from before the lamps are lighted in the morning— although, of course, that is Smalley’s job, the lighting of the lamps—until they are extinguished late in the night.” I slowly withdrew from my jacket pocket a new leatherbound notebook which I had purchased precisely for this purpose—detective work. I then drew out a sharpened pencil and opened my notebook to the first blank page. As if a gavel had been pounded, Mr Roffe sat more upright, clasped his hands together in front of him—thus quieting his long, twitching fingers for the first time—and generally looked as attentive as a man of his advanced years and character and obvious failing senses could look under the circ*mstances. “Yes, indeed,” he said. “Now to our business, Mr Collins. What is our business, Mr Collins?” “Master Edmond Dickenson,” I said firmly, hearing the flinty yet sensitive Cuff overtones in the syllables as I spoke. I knew precisely how my creation would carry out such an interview. “Ah, yes, of course… Do you bring word from Master Edmond, Mr Collins?” “No, Mr Roffe, although I am acquainted with the young gentleman. I came to ask you about him, sir.” “Me? Well… yes, of course… delighted to be of help, Mr Collins, and, through you, of course, of help to Mr Dickens, if Mr Dickens is desirous of my help.” “I am sure he would be, Mr Roffe, but it is I who am interested in the present whereabouts of Mr Dickenson. Could you give me his address, sir?” The old man’s face fell. “Alas, I cannot, Mr Collins.” “It is confidential?” “No, no, nothing of the sort. Young Master Edmond has always been as open and transparent as a… a… well, a summer shower, sir, if you do not mind me trespassing in Mr Dickens’s literary realm with the simile. Master Edmond would not mind my passing on to you his current address.” I licked the carefully sharpened tip of the pencil and waited. “But, alas,” said old Mr Roffe, “I cannot. I do not know where Master Edmond is living at present. He used to keep a suite of rooms here in London—a short walk only from Gray’s Inn Square here, to be precise—but I know he gave those up during the past year. I have no idea where Master Edmond resides now.” “With his guardian, perhaps?” I prompted. Sergeant Cuff would never be stopped by an old man’s faulty memory. “His guardian?” repeated Roffe. The old gentleman seemed slightly startled. “Well, that is… could be, I mean… might be… a possibility.” I had searched my own memory and notes of my discussion with young Dickenson eighteen months earlier in his sick-room at the Charing Cross Hotel before beginning this investigation. “That would be a Mr Watson in Northamptonshire, Mr Roffe? A onetime liberal M.P., I believe?” “Well, yes,” said Roffe, obviously impressed with my knowledge. “But, alas, no! Dear

Mr Roland Everett Watson passed away some fourteen years ago. Young Master Edmond moved from place to place after that at the whim of the Court’s appointments of guardianship… you understand… an aunt in Kent, a travelling uncle with a town home in London—Mr Spicehead was in India most of the time Master Edmond was in his titular care… his grandmother’s failing cousin for a year or so after that. Edmond was raised mostly by servants, you understand.” I waited as patiently as I could given the painfully impatient promptings of my rheumatical gout. “And then, when Master Edmond turned eighteen years of age,” continued old Roffe, “I was appointed his guardian, although of course it was a purely financial formality. Master Edmond had long since taken rooms in the City by then and because the stipulations of the will were very generous and elastic, Master Edmond, from a very young age, could… and did… gain access to his funds almost without adult supervision. … But since I had administered those funds for the years before that… I handled the legal work of Master Edmond’s grandfather, long ago, you see, and his late parents’ will stipulated that I should keep the books for the inheritance and…” “How did Mr Dickenson’s parents die?” I asked. It was not so much of an interruption as it appears here on the page, since Mr Roffe had paused to wheeze for breath. “Die? Why, in a railway accident, of course!” he said when he could. Ahah! I heard Sergeant Cuff cry in my ear. Dickenson comes to Charles Dickens’s attention in a serious railway accident, and the boy’s own parents died in a similar circ*mstance. Surely the odds of such a coincidence must have been remote. But what did it mean? “Where was that accident?” I asked, making careful notes in my little book. “Not at Staplehurst, I trust?” “Staplehurst! Good heavens, no! That was where young Master Edmond himself sustained injuries and was saved by your very own employer, Mr Charles Dickens!” “Charles Dickens is not my…” I began but stopped. It did not matter if this old fool laboured under the delusion that I worked for Dickens. It might even loosen his tongue, although that tongue certainly seemed loose enough as it was. “Back to the issue of guardianship,” I said, lifting my little notebook. “You are Edmond Dickenson’s current guardian and financial advisor?” “Oh, my, no,” said Roffe. “Besides the fact that the role of guardian passed from me almost a year ago to another more suited to the task, Master Dickenson came into his majority this very year. His twenty-first birthday came on September the fourteenth. I had Smalley send him our cordial congratulations every year. Every year but this one.” “And why no note this year, Mr Roffe?” “Neither Smalley nor I had any idea where to contact him, Mr Collins.” The old man looked woeful at this last revelation. I realised with a strangely sad certainty that young Dickenson was almost certainly this old man’s only client—the only client of this dedicated husband to the law who worked in this tiny room from the time the lamps were lit before sunrise until long after that unseen sun had set.

“Could you tell me who Mr Dickenson’s final guardian was… until he came of age two months ago?” I asked. Mr Roffe actually laughed. “You’re jesting with me, Mr Collins.” I gave him Sergeant Cuff’s flintiest stare. “I assure you that I am not, Mr Roffe.” Confusion passed across the old man’s features like cloud shadows across an eroded field in winter. “But surely you must be, Mr Collins. If you come on the behalf of Mr Charles Dickens, as you say you do, then you surely must know that—upon the request of Master Edmond himself—legal guardianship and all control of Master Edmond’s financial affairs passed from me to Mr Charles Dickens in early January of the present year. It is, I assumed, why you are here and why I could speak so freely of a former client’s… Mr Collins, why are you here?” I HARDLY NOTICED the traffic or streets I was passing as I walked towards Dorset Square and home. Nor did I notice the squat, stolid presence that had fallen into step alongside me until he spoke. “Just what exactly do you think you are doing, Mr Collins?” It was Field, of course—the accursed inspector!—with his face looking redder than ever, whether from the cold wind or from advancing age and drink, I neither knew nor cared. He had a small bundle tucked under his left arm, but because of the wind, his left hand still had a firm grip on the brim of his silk top hat. I stopped amidst the flow of other men holding fixedly to their hats, but Inspector Field released his hat brim and gripped my arm to move me along as if I were one of the countless tramps he’d found on his night-watch. “What business is it of yours?” I demanded. My mind was still spinning from the revelation in the old barrister’s office. “Drood is my business,” growled the inspector. “And he should be yours. What is the import of your seeing Dickens two days in a row and then running back to London to speak to an octogenarian lawyer?” I wanted to blurt it all out—Charles Dickens insinuated himself into the position of becoming Edmond Dickenson’s legal guardian before he murdered the boy! He had to murder him before September because . . .—but managed to remain silent and glowering at this real detective. Both of us had death-grips on our hats as the winter wind howled up the Thames at us. None of this made real sense to me. My certainty—whether from laudanum or not—had been that Dickens had murdered young Dickenson for the sheer sake of the experience of murder, not for any pecuniary motive. Had Dickens been hurting for funds? He had earned almost five thousand pounds during his spring reading tour and certainly had received a healthy advance against sales for the special Charles Dickens Edition for which he was currently finishing his forewords. But if he had not murdered young Dickenson for money, why become the boy’s guardian and draw suspicion to himself? It went against Dickens’s own lecture in the graveyard at Rochester Cathedral, which I now understood to have been a form of

bragging after the fact, a lecture about murdering almost at random, of one’s never falling under suspicion because one would have had no motive. “Well?” demanded Inspector Field. “Well what, Inspector?” I snapped back. The beneficial effects of the morning’s laudanum had long since worn off, and the rheumatical gout was hurting my every joint and sinew. My eyes were watering from both the rising pain and rising cold wind. I was in no mood for criticism, but most especially not from some mere… retired policeman. “What are you playing at, Mr Collins? Why did you send my boy off to a warm bed and overpriced breakfast this morning in the wee hours? What were you and Dickens and the man named Dradles doing in the crypts at Rochester Cathedral yesterday?” I decided to let Sergeant Cuff answer. One old detective refusing another. “We all have our little secrets, Inspector. Even those of us under twenty-four-hour watch.” Field’s already reddened face grew even more crimson, turning into an ancient vellum map of tiny burst veins. “Bugger your ‘little secrets,’ Mr Collins. There’s no d—— ned time for them!” I stopped in the middle of the pavement. I would not, under any circ*mstances, allow myself to be spoken to this way. Our working relationship was at an end. I clenched my hand on my stick to allay its shaking and had opened my mouth to say this, when suddenly the inspector thrust an unsealed envelope at me. “Read it,” he said gruffly. “I don’t care to…” I began. “Read it, Mr Collins.” It was more growled command than gentleman’s request. It left absolutely no room for debate. I removed the single sheet of thick paper from the envelope. The handwriting was bold, almost as if it had been produced with a brush rather than a pen, and the letters were more printed than written. It read, in its entirety— MY DEAR INSPECTOR— TO THIS POINT, WE HAVE GAINED AND SACRIFICED ONLY PAWNS IN OUR ENJOYABLE LONG GAME. NOW BEGINS THE END GAME. PREPARE YOURSELF FOR THE IMMINENT LOSS OF MUCH MORE IMPORTANT AND PRECIOUS PIECES. YOUR FAITHFUL OPPONENT, D “What on earth can it mean?” I asked. “It means precisely what it says,” Inspector Field said through gritted teeth. “And you interpret the signature ‘D’ as ‘Drood’?” I said. “It can be no one else,” hissed the inspector. “It could stand for ‘Dickens,’ ” I said lightly, even as I thought, Or for “Dickenson” or “Dradles.” “It stands for Drood,” the older man said. “How can one be sure? Has the phantom ever written you a direct note in this fashion?” “Never,” said Inspector Field. “Then it could be from anyone or…” The inspector had been carrying a rolled-up canvas-and-leather bundle, rather like a

countryman’s portmanteau, under his left arm, and now he unrolled it and removed what looked to be a torn and befouled dark cloth. He handed the cloth to me as he said, “The note came wrapped in this.” Holding the strips of cloth gingerly—the rags were not only begrimed, I realised, but absolutely soaked through with what appeared to be newly dried blood, and the already ragged material had been serrated into strips as with a razor—I began to ask him what the importance of a few foul rags might be, but stopped myself. I suddenly recognised the bloody cloth. The last time I had seen these rags, more than twelve hours earlier, they had been on the back of the boy named Gooseberry.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Iwent to stay at my mother’s home near Tunbridge Wells for most of December of 1866. I decided to remain there with her until I celebrated my forty-third birthday on 8 January. It is fine to spend time with one’s mistresses, but—please trust me on this fact, since almost all men feel this way but few are courageous or honest enough to admit it— at very difficult times or on one’s birthday, there is no place more welcome and comforting than at one’s mother’s side. I recognise that I have said little to you about my mother in this document, Dear Reader, and I must confess to you that this was a deliberate omission. In this winter of 1866–67 and through most of the coming year, my beloved mother was quite well—indeed, most of her contemporaries and most of mine found her more active, energetic, and engaged with the world than many women of half her age—but as my story must soon relate, her health was to deteriorate quickly before the end of 1867, and she would greet the end in March of 1868, my own annus horribilus. It is still difficult for me to think about that time, much less write about it. The death of one’s mother must be the single most terrible day in the life of any man. But, as I mentioned, her health was still good this winter of 1866–67, so I can write about this period with something less than full pain. As I have also previously mentioned, my mother’s Christian name was Harriet and she had long been a favourite among my father’s circles of famous painters, poets, and up-

and-coming artists. After my father’s death in February of 1847, my mother had truly come into her own as one of the preeminent hostesses among the higher circles of artistic and poetic society in London. Indeed, our home at Hanover Terrace (looking out at Regents Park) during the years my mother was hostess there is acknowledged as one of the centres of what some are now calling the Pre-Raphaelite movement. At the time of my extended visit with her beginning in December of 1866, Mother had realised her long ambition of moving to the countryside and was dividing her time among various cottages she leased in Kent: her Bentham Hill Cottage near Tunbridge Wells, Elm Lodge in the town itself, and her most recent cottage at Prospect Hill, Southborough. I went down to Tunbridge Wells to spend some weeks with her, returning to London each Thursday in order to keep my late-night appointment with King Lazaree and my pipe. Then I would take the train back to Tunbridge Wells on Friday evening, in time to play a game of cribbage with Mother and her friends. Caroline was not happy with my decision to be gone during all of what some were now calling “the holiday season,” but I reminded her that we never celebrated Christmas to any extent anyway—a man and his mistress obviously were not invited to his married male friends’ homes at any time of the year, but at Christmas-time these male friends accepted even fewer invitations to our home, so it was always the social low-point of our year—but, showing a woman’s resistance to simple reason, Caroline remained vexed that I would be gone all during December and into January. Martha R——, on the other hand, accepting with perfectly good grace my explanation that I wished to get away from London to spend a month and more with my mother, temporarily gave up the room rented to “Mrs Dawson” and returned to Yarmouth and Winterton and her own family. More and more, I was finding life with Caroline G—— tiresome and complicated and my time with Martha R—— simple and satisfying. But my time with Mother that Christmas was the most satisfying of all. Mother’s cook, who travelled with her everywhere, knew all of my favourite foods from childhood, and often Mother would come into my room in the morning or evening when the tray was delivered and I would enjoy my repast in bed while we carried on our conversations. When I had fled London I was filled with a terrible sense of guilt and foreboding concerning the presumed death of the boy named Gooseberry, but after a few days at Mother’s cottage, that dark cloud had moved away. What had the child’s unusual real name been? Guy Septimus Cecil. Well, what nonsense to think that young Guy Septimus Cecil had actually been murdered by the dark forces of Undertown as represented by the foreign sorcerer Drood! This was an elaborate game, I reminded myself, with Charles Dickens playing one game on his side, the elderly Inspector Field playing his corresponding but not identical game on the other side, and poor William Wilkie Collins caught in the middle. Gooseberry murdered, indeed! The Inspector shows me a few tattered cloths sprinkled with dried blood—dog’s blood for all I knew, or the vital fluid from one of the thousands of feral cats that roamed the slums from whence Gooseberry sprang—and now I was

expected to fly all to pieces and to do Inspector Field’s bidding even more assiduously than I had to date. Drood had moved beyond being a phantasm and had become more of a shuttleco*ck in this insane game of badminton between a disturbed author with an obsession for playacting and an evil old gnome of an ex-policeman with too many secret motives to count. Well, let them play their game without me for a while. The hospitality of Tunbridge Wells and my mother’s cottage served me well for December and early January. Along with recovering some of my health—my rheumatical gout was strangely better there in Kent, although I continued administering doses of the laudanum, albeit in lower quantities—my sleep came easier, my dreams grew less clouded, and I began to think more earnestly about the elegant plot and fascinating characters of The Serpent’s Eye (or possibly The Eye of the Serpent). Although the serious research would have to wait until I returned full-time to London and the library at my club, I could—and did—jot down preliminary notes and a rough outline, often writing from my bed. Occasionally I thought of my duties as detective in discerning whether young Edmond Dickenson had been murdered by Charles Dickens, but my interview with Dickenson’s solicitor had been singularly unenlightening—except for the shock of learning that Charles Dickens himself had been appointed the youth’s guardian-executor in the last months of the young man’s need for such care—and even my keen novelist’s mind could find no next step to take in the investigation. I decided that when I returned to London life, I should discreetly ask around my club if anyone had heard of the comings and goings of a certain squire named Dickenson, but other than that, I could see no obvious direction to take in the investigation. By the second week of December, the only thing that was disturbing my peace of mind was the lack of an invitation to Gad’s Hill Place for Christmas. I was not sure that I would have accepted the invitation that year (there had been subtle but obvious tensions between the Inimitable and myself in the preceding months, my suspicion of the author’s being a murderer among them), but I certainly expected to be invited. After all, Dickens had more or less said the last time I saw him that I would be receiving the usual invitation to be a houseguest. But no invitation arrived at my mother’s cottage. Each Thursday afternoon or Friday mid-day, before or after my visit to King Lazaree’s den, I would drop in on Caroline to pick up my mail and to make sure that she and Carrie had enough money to meet all accounts, but still there arrived no invitation from Dickens. Then, on the sixteenth of December, my younger brother, Charles, came down to Southborough to spend the day and brought with him an envelope addressed to me in Georgina’s distinctive hand. “Has Dickens said anything to you about Christmas?” I asked my brother as I searched for my knife to open the invitation. “He has said nothing to me,” Charley said sourly. I could tell that his ulcers—or what I then thought were his ulcers—were hurting him. My talented brother was listless and downcast. “Dickens told Katey that there would be the usual houseful of guests.… I know the Chappells are coming down to Gad’s Hill for a few days, and Percy Fitzgerald

for the New Year.” “Hmm, the Chappells,” I said while unfolding the letter. These were Dickens’s new business partners in the reading tours and, I thought, interminable boors. I decided that I would definitely not stay at Gad’s Hill for the full week that I usually tarried if the Chappells were going to be there for any extended length of time. Imagine my surprise when I read the letter, which I reproduce here in its entirety— My Dear Wilkie— This is a pretty state of things!—That I should be in Christmas Labour while you are cruising about the world, a compound of Hayward and Captain Cook! But I am so undoubtedly one of the sons of Toil—and fathers of children—that I expect to be presently presented with a smock frock, a pair of leather breeches, and a pewter watch, for having brought up the largest family ever known with the smallest disposition to do anything for themselves. But as some of us must labour while others adventure onward and outward, we still extend to you the heartiest of Christmas greetings—should these greetings catch up to you during your farflung peregrinations—and wish you the most prosperous of new years. Yr. Most Obedient Servant and Former Fellow Traveller, Chls. Dickens I fairly dropped the letter in my amazement. Thrusting it at Charley, who read it with a quick glance, I spluttered, “What does this mean? Does Dickens somehow believe I have gone sailing somewhere?” “You were in Rome in the autumn,” said my brother. “Perhaps Dickens believes you are still there.” “I returned quickly to try to save the doomed production of The Frozen Deep at the Olympic Theatre,” I said with some asperity. “I saw Dickens after I got back. There is no possibility that he does not know I am in England.” “He may believe you returned to Rome or Paris,” said Charley. “For there was some speculation about that in the clubs, after you had told acquaintances that you had some business to settle in Paris. Or perhaps Dickens is preoccupied, thinking mostly of his children. Katey, as you know, is despondent much of the time. Mamie has fallen out of favour in London society. And his youngest son has been a great disappointment. Dickens recently told Katey that he had decided that Plorn should be sent to Australia to become a farmer.” “What the deuce does that have to do with my invitation to Christmas?” I cried. Charley only shook his head. It was obvious that I had deliberately been left off Dickens’s Christmas guest-list this year. “Wait here,” I said to my brother, who needed to catch the early train back to London. I went into Mother’s sewing room, found her stationery with the address of the Tunbridge Wells cottage on it, and began a quick missive— My Dear Charles: I am neither touring the world like Captain Cook nor visiting Rome or Paris. As you

must already know, I am visiting my mother near Tunbridge Wells and I would be available for . . . I stopped, crumpled the sheet, threw it in the fire, and found a blank sheet of stationery in my mother’s secretary. My Dear Dickens, I return your Christmas greetings—in my absence this Holiday, please give the ladies a bow from me, and the children sweets in my name—and regret that I shall not be able to see you until sometime in the New Year. Rather than cruising the world like Captain Cook or touring Scotland and Ireland like an itinerant juggler, I am—as you may know —deeply involved in an investigation into a Missing Person or Persons that may have the most profound consequences. I look forward to surprising you with the imminent results of this investigation. All of my love and Christmas cheer to Georgina, Mamie, Katey, Plorn, the Family, and your Christmas guests. Yr. Most Obedient Detective, Wm. Wilkie Collins I sealed and addressed the note and—when giving it to Charley, who was pulling on his travelling cloak—said with the utmost seriousness, “This must be delivered into Charles Dickens’s hands and his alone.” CHRISTMAS AND MY BIRTHDAY were most happy occasions for me in Mother’s presence—and in the snug warmth of the Tunbridge Wells cottage, with its constant cooking smells and undemanding female company—but because both of those holidays fell on a Tuesday, I did not see Caroline until the Thursday of each of those weeks. (It was on Thursday the tenth of January that I returned to London with all of my luggage, work, and research materials, but since that was my night for King Lazaree and my pipe, I did not actually move back to the house on Dorset Square until the afternoon of Friday, 11 January.) Caroline was not pleased with me and found innumerable small ways to show me her displeasure, but in my time away at Tunbridge Wells I had learned how to place less stock in Mrs G——’s pleasure or displeasure. During the weeks that followed in early 1867, I spent more and more of my time at my club, using the Athenaeum’s wonderful library as my primary research centre, taking my meals there, frequently sleeping there, and generally spending less and less time at my Melcombe Place address, where Caroline and Carrie still resided full-time. (Martha R —— remained in Yarmouth during this period.) Since my business often brought me to the offices of All the Year Round (where, indeed, I still had an office of my own, albeit shared with other staff members and regular contributors from time to time), I heard much from Wills and others about Dickens’s new tour. Thick envelopes of galley proofs and other magazine materials were constantly being mailed out, chasing Dickens from Leicester to Manchester to Glasgow to Leeds to Dublin to Preston. Amazingly, Dickens managed to get back to London at

least once a week to give a reading at St James’s Hall in Piccadilly and to come to the offices to deliver his own manuscripts, to check up on the books, and to work at editing the writing of others. He rarely got back to Gad’s Hill on these flying visits but would sleep in his rooms above the office here or, frequently, at his private address in Slough (near Ellen Ternan). I did not happen to cross paths with Dickens during this time. Various stories of woe, hardship, and Dickens’s amazing courage (or good luck) filtered back to the office and were repeated to me by Wills or Percy Fitzgerald or others. It seemed that Dickens was still recovering from the discovery— this had been in the autumn, while I was briefly in Rome—that his personal servant and valet of the past twenty-four years, a dour and dyspeptic (I thought) but discreet shade of a man named John Thompson, had been regularly stealing from his master. Eight sovereigns had disappeared from these very offices at Wellington Street North, and when the theft was discovered, the sovereigns had quickly reappeared. But too late for Thompson, whose years of petty thefts from his employer had now come to light. Dickens sacked the man, of course, but could not bear to give the thief a “bad recommendation.” He sent Thompson off to future employment with a vague but not clearly negative letter. According to Percy Fitzgerald, Dickens had been almost distraught at this betrayal, although all the Inimitable had said to Percy about his emotions was “I have had to walk more than usual before I could walk myself into composure again.” That composure seemed more and more rare if recent reports from Dolby to Wills were to be believed. Dickens was suffering more than ever from “nervous exhaustion,” brought on, no doubt, by the rail travel—his reaction to the Staplehurst accident seemed to grow more, rather than less, pronounced as the months went by—and early in the tour, on only his second night in Liverpool, Dickens became so faint by the end of the first part of his performance that he had to be physically helped to a sofa backstage, where he lay prostrate until it was time for him to put on a fresh boutonnière and go out for the final part of the strenuous reading. During his reading in Wolverhampton (the first reports had this incident occurring in Birmingham proper rather than its smaller neighbour, so I had first pictured the old theatre there as I had seen it the night the illusion of Drood had threatened me), a wire holding one of the reflectors above Dickens’s head began to burn red-hot. The heavy bulb of this reflector projected out over the stalls and was suspended by a single, strong copper wire, but a new gas man only recently having joined the tour had mistakenly placed an open gas-jet beneath this supporting wire. Dolby had seen the wire turning first red and then white and, shifting from foot to foot in his anxiety, had stage-whispered out to the reading Dickens, “How long shall you be?” while gesturing wildly at the heated wire. Dickens must have appreciated the danger: when the wire burned through, the heavy reflector would come crashing down to the stage, but not before careering through the maroon-cloth stalls and screens erected around the Inimitable. The result would be instant conflagration. The flammable screens themselves ran almost to the ancient cloth curtains above. Once the overheated wire

parted, there was little doubt that the stage—and almost certainly the theatre—would go up in flames within minutes, if not seconds. Dickens, still reading without missing a word or gesture, calmly showed Dolby two fingers behind his back. The distraught stage manager did not know what this meant. Was the Chief telling him that he would be finished in two minutes or that the wire would be parting in two seconds? Dolby and Barton, the gas man, could do nothing but shuttle back and forth offstage, bringing sand and buckets of water and preparing for the worst. Dickens, it turned out, had seen the wire heating in the middle of his reading and had coolly calculated how long it would take for the copper to burn through. Working from those quick mental calculations, the Inimitable had improvised instant alterations to the rest of his reading—editing and conflating as he went—and reached the end only seconds before the wire would have melted and parted. (Dickens had figured when Dolby signalled him that he had two minutes left before the reflector would have come crashing down.) The curtain closed, Barton ran out and turned off the misplaced flame, and Dolby—according to his later testimony to Wills—came close to fainting as Dickens patted him on his wide back, whispered, “There was never any real danger,” and calmly went out to take his curtain call. All these breathless reports from Dickens’s tour were of little interest to me. None mentioned Drood, and I had my own literary work to do (more important, in my humble opinion, than reading one’s old work to audiences of bumpkins in the provinces). As I’ve mentioned, I settled into doing my preliminary reading and researching at my club, the Athenaeum. The club was most helpful—moving my favourite wing chair to a place by the window where the weak winter and spring light would be at its best, providing a small table for my materials, and appointing several of the servants to seek out the volumes I needed from the club’s expansive libraries. I also appropriated Athenaeum stationery for my notes and kept these in a series of large white letter envelopes. My first job was to gather information, and here my years as a journalist served me well (even as that profession had equally served Dickens, although I might remind you, Dear Reader, that I had been a true journalist and Dickens had written primarily as a mere court reporter). For weeks I copied out pertinent entries on India, on various Hindoo cults, and on gems from Encyclopaedia Britannica, the eighth edition, copyright 1855. I also found a new book by a certain C. W. King, The Natural History of Gems, published in 1865, very helpful. For my specific India backgrounds that I thought might open The Serpent’s Eye (or possibly The Eye of the Serpent), I consulted J. Talboys Wheeler’s newly published The History of India from the Earliest Ages and both 1832 volumes of Theodore Hook’s The Life of General Sir David Baird. The diligent servants at the club also sought out and provided relevant articles in recent issues of Notes and Queries. And thus the early outlines of my magnum opus began to take shape. I had known for some time that the plot would revolve around the mysterious

disappearance, in England, of a beautiful but cursed diamond brought from India—a diamond sacred to some Hindoo thuggee sort of cult—and that the mystery would unfold in a series of accounts from various viewpoints (rather as Dickens had done in Bleak House, but, more pertinently, as I had done to better effect in The Woman in White). Because of my preoccupation—“distraction” might be the better word—with the whole Drood issue at this time, the story would hinge upon such themes as Eastern mysticism, mesmerism, the power of mesmeric suggestion, and opium addiction. The solution to the theft (as I knew from an early point in my envisioning of the tale) would be so shocking, so unexpected, so clever, and so unprecedented in the nascent field of detection fiction that it would astonish all English and American readers, including such supposed practitioners of such sensationalist serial authorship as Charles Dickens himself. As is true of all writers of Dickens’s and my level of accomplishment, I was never free to pursue just one writing project. (Dickens, while he prepared for and then travelled on tour, had written his usual Christmas novella, was editing All the Year Round, was completing elaborate forewords for the special edition of his works, and was generating ideas for novels even while writing actual stories such as his strange “George Silverman’s Explanations,” kindled, he told me later, by Dolby’s and his coming across the ruins of Hoghton Towers between Preston and Blackburn. That ruined old manse happened to crystallise all the disparate, floating fragments of ideas Dickens had been playing with for some time, but rather than support a novel—which he needed in order to offer something for serialisation in All the Year Round—it provoked this strange story of a neglected childhood so very similar to Dickens’s own. [Or at least to what he thought of as his childhood of neglect and want.] So it was with my own multiple and often overlapping literary and dramatic efforts that spring of 1867. My rewritten The Frozen Deep had failed the previous autumn at the Olympic Theatre, this despite the fact that my revised version was, I believe, much improved, after I had rewritten the character and passions of Richard Wardour, the character Dickens had—I was about to write “played” but “occupied” might be a more precise word—making the man both more adult and believable, freeing the character from Dickens’s pathos and overly sentimental gestures.) But my hopes for a theatrical breakthrough remained high, and that spring—when my health and research commitments allowed—I travelled back and forth to Paris to consult with FrançoisJoseph Régnier (whom I’d met through Dickens more than a decade earlier) of the Comédie-Française, who was eager to adapt The Woman in White to the stage there. (It was already the rage in Berlin.) My own goal was to sell Régnier and the French theatre-goers (and thence English theatre-goers) on an adaptation of Armadale, which I was certain would be warmly and enthusiastically received, despite what Dickens had considered its controversial aspects. Caroline, who loved Paris beyond her limited means of expressing such emotion, all but begged to go with me, but I was firm: it was a business trip and there would be no time for shopping, explorations, or any social engagements outside the strict regimen of

theatre business. That month I wrote to Mother from my hotel in Paris—“I have breakfasted this morning on eggs and black butter, and pig’s feet à la Sainte Mènéhould! Digestion perfect. St Mènéhould lived to extreme old age on nothing but pig’s trotters.” Régnier and I attended a new opera at which the theatre was packed, the intensity was astounding, and the experience was electrifying. Also electrifying were those “very special little periwinkles”—as Dickens and I used to call the attractive young actresses and demimondaines so available in a culture where the night life was as rich and varied as the food—and with a bit of guidance from Régnier and his friends, I blush to say that I did not have to spend an evening or night alone (or even with the same periwinkle) the whole time I was in Paris. Before returning to London I remembered to pick up a handpainted card of the city for Martha—she loved such trifles—and a lovely chiffon robe for Carrie. I also purchased some spices and sauces for Caroline’s kitchen. My second night back at Melcombe Place after my return from Paris, I may have taken too much (or too little) laudanum, for I found it difficult to sleep. I was tempted to go to my study to work, but the inevitable confrontation with the Other Wilkie (even though he had shown no recent signs of violence in his attempts to seize my papers or pens) dissuaded me. Instead, I was standing at the window of my bedroom (Caroline had found reasons to sleep in her own room) when I saw a familiar shadow near the lamp post at the end of the street near the square. I immediately pulled on a long wool coat over my dressing gown—it was a bitter night —and hurried to the corner. The boy extracted himself from the shadows and came towards me in the dark without so much as a summoning gesture on my part. “Gooseberry?” I said. It pleased me that my speculations on Inspector Field’s contrivances had proved correct. “No, sir,” said the boy. As he came into the light, I saw my error. This lad was shorter, younger, a bit less ragged, and his eyes—although too small and too close together in his narrow face for good looks, even for someone poor—were not the bulging, wandering, nicknameearning disasters that Gooseberry’s had been. “You’re from the Inspector?” I said gruffly. “Yes, sir.” I sighed and rubbed my cheeks above my beard. “Can you remember a message well enough to deliver it verbally, boy?” “Yes, sir.” “Very well. Tell the Inspector that Mr Collins wishes to meet him tomorrow at noon— no, make that two PM—at Waterloo Bridge. Can you remember that? Two PM, Waterloo Bridge.” “Yes, sir.” “Deliver the message tonight. Off with you, then.” As the boy ran away, the loose sole of one ill-fitting boot slapping against the

cobblestones, I realised that I had not thought to—had not wished to—ask his name. THE INSPECTOR WALKED briskly to the middle of Waterloo Bridge at precisely two in the afternoon. It was a raw, cold, windy day and neither one of us wanted to conduct the conversation out in the elements. “I’ve not had time for my luncheon,” rasped Inspector Field. “I know an inn nearby with excellent roast beef served all through the afternoon. Will you join me, Mr Collins?” “An excellent idea, Inspector,” I said. I had partaken of brunch at my club two hours earlier, but I was still quite hungry. Sitting across the table from the inspector in our booth, staring at him in the wan light as he sipped eagerly from his first mug of ale, I found him looking older and rougher than I remembered from our last visit. His eyes seemed weary. His dress was a trifle in disarray. His cheeks showed more tiny rosettes of burst veins, and there was a line of grey stubble along the wild profusion of his whiskers that suggested a man of lesser circ*mstances or less prominence than a former Chief of the Scotland Yard Bureau of Detectives. “Is there any news?” I asked when our food had come and after an interval of intense attention to our beef and gravy and vegetables. “News?” said the inspector, taking a bite from his bread and a sip from the wine we had ordered to follow the ale. “What news do you await, Mr Collins?” “Why, of the boy called Gooseberry, of course. Has he got back in touch with you?” Inspector Field only stared at me, and his grey eyes were cold within their nest of wrinkles. Finally he said softly, “We shall not hear again from or of our young friend Gooseberry. His flayed body is in the Thames or… worse.” I paused in my dining. “You seem very sure of this, Inspector.” “I am, Mr Collins.” I sighed—not believing for a second this fantasy of young Master Guy Septimus Cecil being murdered—and applied myself to the roast beef and vegetables. Inspector Field seemed to sense my silent disbelief. Setting down his fork and still sipping his wine, he said in a hoarse whisper, “Mr Collins, you remember the connection I told you about concerning the relationship between our subterranean Egyptian friend Drood and the late Lord Lucan?” “Of course, Inspector. You said that Lord Lucan was the absentee English father of the Mohammadan boy who later became our Drood.” Inspector Field held one fat finger up to his lips. “Not quite so loud, Mr Collins. Our ‘subterranean friend,’ as I so affectionately call him, has ears everywhere. Do you recall the manner of Forsyte’s—that is, Lord Lucan’s—murder?” I admit that I shuddered. “How could I forget? Chest torn open. Heart missing…” The inspector nodded, motioning me to quiet again. “In those days, Mr Collins—1846— even the new Chief of Detectives could, and regularly did, accept positions as ‘confidential agent’ for people of importance. Such was my situation late in 1845 and throughout much of 1846. I spent much time at Lord Lucan’s Wiseton estate in

Hertfordshire.” I struggled to understand. “You were called in by Lord Lucan’s family to solve the murder. But you were already attending to the case in your role as Chief of…” Inspector Field had been watching my face and nodded. “I see that you now understand the chronology, Mr Collins. Lord Lucan—John Frederick Forsyte, father of the bastard who became the occultic shaman Drood—had hired me nine months before his murder. His need was security. Using private agents of my hire at the time, I attempted to provide it. Since the Wiseton estate already had adequate walls, fences, dogs, doors, latches, servants, and experienced gamekeepers wise to the ways of poachers and wouldbe trespassers, I thought the security was adequate.” “But it was not,” I said. “Obviously,” grunted Inspector Field. “Three of my best men were in Wiseton Hall at the time of the… atrocity. I had been there myself until nine o’clock that night, at which time my duties brought me back to London.” “Incredible,” I said. I had no idea what point the old inspector was attempting to make. “I did not advertise the fact that I had been working in a private, confidential capacity for Lord Lucan at the time of his murder,” whispered Inspector Field, “but detection is a small professional field, and word leaked back to both my superiors and the detectives who served under me on the Force. It was an unpleasant period for me… at a time that should have been the apex of my professional career.” “I see,” I said, although in truth I saw nothing but a man admitting to his own incompetence. “Not quite,” whispered the Inspector. “It was a full month after the murder of Lord Lucan, the official investigation still under way, of course—Her Majesty herself had expressed interest in the outcome—when I received a small package at my office in the Metropolitan Police Detective Bureau at Scotland Yard.” I nodded and sliced off a large shred of beef. It was a bit chewy, but otherwise quite good. “In the package was Lord Lucan’s heart,” rasped Inspector Field. “Treated somehow— by some lost Egyptian art—so as not to decay, but most assuredly a human heart and, according to several forensic physicians with whom I consulted, most assuredly that of John Frederick Forsyte, Lord Lucan.” I set my knife and fork down and stared. Eventually I managed to swallow the suddenly tasteless wad of beef. The old inspector leaned closer across the table. His breath was strong with ale and beef. “I did not tell you, Mr Collins, what arrived with Gooseberry’s bloody shirt and the note from Drood. I sought to spare your sensibilities.” “His… eyes?” I whispered. Inspector Field nodded and sat back in the booth. THIS EXCHANGE KILLED both appetite and conversation, at least for me. Inspector Field lingered for coffee and dessert. I drank the last of my wine and waited, lost in my

thoughts. It was a relief when we stepped outside into the cold wind. I welcomed the fresh air. I was not certain that I had believed Inspector Field’s horror story about either Lord Lucan’s wandering heart or Gooseberry’s packaged eyes—a writer of sensationalist fiction knows another possible piece of sensationalist fiction when he hears it—but the topic had upset me and brought on a rheumatical gout headache behind my eyes. We did not part immediately upon leaving the inn but walked back towards Waterloo Bridge together. “Mr Collins,” said the inspector after honking into a handkerchief, “my guess is that you wanted to meet with me for some reason other than to enquire into the fate of my unlucky young associate. What is it, sir?” I cleared my throat. “Inspector, you know that I am embarked upon a new novel that requires research of the most unusual kind.…” “Of course,” interrupted the private policeman. “That is why I pay one of my most useful operatives—the esteemed Detective Hatchery—to spend every Thursday night in a crypt awaiting your return sometime the next morning. You assured me that your trips to King Lazaree’s opium den were for relief from pain, not research. And I must say, Mr Collins, that my paying Detective Hatchery’s hourly wage for that service, not to mention his unavailability for a full night and day in terms of my own service (for even detectives have to sleep, sir), has not been… balanced, shall we say… in terms of your promise to report on the whereabouts and activities of Mr Charles Dickens.” I stopped and clutched my stick with both hands. “Inspector Field, you certainly cannot be suggesting that it is my fault that Dickens is on yet another reading tour in the provinces and thus is out of my effective radius of investigation!” “I suggest nothing,” said the inspector. “But the truth of the matter is that the esteemed author returns to London for at least one day and night a week.” “To read at Saint James’s Hall!” I said in some heat. “And occasionally to do some work at his office at Wellington Street North!” “And to visit his mistress in Slough,” Inspector Field said drily, “although my operatives tell me that he is now looking for another house for Miss Ternan—and possibly her mother—in the suburb of Peckham.” “This has nothing to do with me,” I said coldly. “I am neither a gossip nor keeper of my fellow gentleman’s affairs.” I regretted that last choice of word as soon as it was out of my mouth. Pedestrians were beginning to stare at us as they passed, so I began walking again and Inspector Field briskly joined me. “Our arrangement was for you to see Dickens as frequently as possible, Mr Collins, and thus to accumulate—and to convey to us—any and all information you received on the murderer who calls himself Drood.” “And so I have done, Inspector.” “And so you have done, Mr Collins… to a very meagre degree. You did not even spend Christmas with Mr Dickens, although he was at home in Gad’s Hill for the better part of two weeks and came into the city repeatedly.”

“I was not invited,” I said. I meant my tone to be chilly, but it emerged as almost plaintive. “Which you cannot help,” said Inspector Field in a tone of sympathy that made me want to break my cane over the crown of his balding old head. “But you also have not availed yourself of obvious opportunities to join Mr Dickens either on his tour or during his London sojourns. It may interest you to know, sir, that Dickens continues to elude my operatives at least once every two weeks and disappear into slum basem*nts and old church crypts, not to reappear until he takes the train to Gad’s Hill the next day.” “You need better operatives, Inspector,” I said. The old man chuckled at this and blew his prodigious nose again. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps. But in the meantime, I wish not to chastise you, Mr Collins, nor to complain of an… imbalance… in the performance of our contractual agreements, but merely to remind you that our common interests lie in running this monster Drood to ground—or to above ground—before more innocents have to die by the creature’s hand.” We had reached the bridge. I stopped at the railing and looked at the line of wharves, hovels, derricks, and low-masted rivercraft running in both directions. Rain squalls whipped the surface of the Thames to rows of white crowns. The inspector pulled the plush collar of his out-of-date jacket up over the back of his neck. “Now please tell me the reason for this meeting, Mr Collins, and I will do my utmost to accede to your requests for further… ah… research assistance.” “I admit that my purpose was not merely to pursue research,” I said, “but to offer you a suggestion that may be of inestimable assistance in your efforts to find this Drood.” “Really?” said Inspector Field, the bushy eyebrows rising under the brim of his top hat. “Please go on, Mr Collins.” “In the novel I have almost finished outlining,” I said, “there is a section that shall require a detective—one of great intelligence and experience, I might add—who knows all the techniques employed to track down a missing person.” “Yes? These are common procedures in both my former and current aspects of police work, Mr Collins, and I will be pleased to offer professional insights.” “But I did not wish this assistance to benefit me alone,” I said, looking at the grey waves rather than at the grey inspector. “It occurred to me that a London man who has gone missing might be your missing link in tracing the chain of contacts and circ*mstances back to Dickens and Drood’s contacts since the Staplehurst accident… if such contact actually exists.” “Really? Who might this missing man be, Mr Collins?” “Edmond Dickenson.” The old man scratched his cheeks, tugged at his side-whiskers, and, inevitably, set that plump forefinger alongside his ear as if awaiting further information from it. Finally he said, “That would be the young gentleman whom Mr Dickens helped save at Staplehurst. And the same young man whom you reported as having sleepwalked at Gad’s Hill Place a year ago this past Christmas.” “Exactly the same man,” I said.

“How has he disappeared?” “That is precisely what I would like to know,” I said. “And it might be precisely what you need to know in order to close the connection to Drood.” I handed him a folder of notes I had taken on my conversation with the solicitor Mr Matthew B. Roffe of Gray’s Inn Square, the address of Dickenson’s last known London dwelling place, and the approximate date when the young man had ordered Mr Roffe to transfer the duties of guardian-executor, for the last few months such a role was required, to none other than Charles Dickens. “Fascinating,” Inspector Field said at last. “May I keep these, sir?” “You may. They are copies.” “This may indeed be of some service to our common cause, Mr Collins, and I thank you for bringing this man—missing or not—to my attention. But why do you think that Mr Dickenson might be important in this investigation?” I opened my gloved hands above the railing. “Is it not obvious, even to a non-detective such as myself? Young Dickenson was perhaps the only other living person who we know—through Dickens’s own testimony—was in the immediate area with Drood at the Staplehurst site. Indeed, it was Drood, according to Dickens, who led my friend to the young man, who was trapped in the wreckage and who would have died had it not been for Dickens’s—and Drood’s!—intervention. There is also, I would suggest, the inexplicable interest that Dickens took in the orphan in the months after the accident.” Inspector Field rubbed his cheeks again. “Mr Dickens is widely known to be a public altruist.” I smiled at this. “Of course. But his interest in young Dickenson bordered on the… shall I say… obsessive?” “Or self-interested?” asked Field. The wind had arrived from the west, and we were both now holding our hats with our free hands. “How do you mean, sir?” “How much money,” asked the old man, “was under trust to whomever the guardian of Edmond Dickenson was until the young man reached his majority last year? Did your investigations, Mr Collins, happen to extend to visiting young Dickenson’s bank and having a chat with the manager?” “Of course not!” I said, voice cold again. Such an idea was totally outside the scope of a gentleman’s behaviour. One might as well open another gentleman’s mail. “Well, that will be easy enough to find out,” muttered Inspector Field as he tucked my papers away into his jacket. “What did you wish in return for this possible help in our search for Drood, Mr Collins?” “Nothing in exchange,” I said. “I am neither a tradesman nor peddler. After you look into the disappearance of this man who, despite his claims to the contrary, actually may have seen Drood at Staplehurst—indeed, his having seen Drood may be the reason for his disappearance, who knows?—all I wish to hear are the details of your investigation… so as to add verisimilitude to my own writings about the investigation into a missing person, you understand.”

“I understand perfectly.” The old inspector stepped back and extended his hand. “I am delighted that we are working on the same side again, Mr Collins.” I looked at the extended hand for several long seconds before finally shaking it. It made a difference that we were both wearing gloves.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

It was May and we were in Dickens’s alpine chalet. It was a pleasant place to be. After a wet, cold, slow-to-waken spring, late May had suddenly erupted in sunlight, flowers, blossoms, green lawns, warm days, long evenings, soft scents, and gentle nights perfect for sleeping. My rheumatical gout had improved to the point that I was using the least laudanum in two years. I had even considered discontinuing my Thursday-night trips into King Lazaree’s world. It was a beautiful day and I was on the upper level of the chalet enjoying the breeze through open windows and telling the partial story of my book to Charles Dickens. I wrote “telling” advisedly because although I had forty pages of my written outline and synopsis on my lap, Dickens could not read my handwriting. That has always been a problem with my manuscripts. I have been told that printers scream aloud and threaten to resign when confronted with the manuscripts of my novels—especially the first half of the book, where I admit that I have a tendency to rush, to scratch out, to write in all available margins and open spaces, and to substitute until the cramped words and letters become a blur of ink and a riot of lines, arrows, indicating marks, and violent scratches. The laudanum, I admit, does not increase the legibility. I also wrote “partial story of my book” advisedly, since Dickens wanted to hear my general outline of two-thirds of the novel even though I had not decided the particulars of the specific ending. That longer reading-aloud, we had decided, would happen in June, when Dickens would make the final decision on whether my Eye of the Serpent (or perhaps The Serpent’s Eye) would appear in his magazine All the Year Round. So on this beautiful late-May day in 1867, I spent an hour reading and telling the story of my novel to Charles Dickens, who—to his credit—was fully attentive, not even interrupting to ask questions. Other than my voice, the only sounds were the occasional waggon going by on the road below, the soft wind rustling leaves and branches in the

trees on either side of the chalet, and the occasional humming of bees. When I was finished I set the manuscript notes aside and took a long drink of water from the chilled carafe that Dickens kept in his writing space. After a few seconds of silence, Dickens literally leaped out of his chair and cried, “My dear Wilkie! That is a wonderful tale! Wild and yet domestic! Filled with excellent characters and carrying a great mystery! And the surprise near the part where you leave off—well, it was an absolute surprise to me, my dear Wilkie, and it is hard to surprise an old writer warhorse such as myself!” “Indeed,” I murmured shyly. I always craved praise from Charles Dickens, and now the pleasure from his words spread through me rather like the warm glow from my daily medicine. “We shall definitely want this book for the magazine!” continued Dickens. “My prediction is that it shall outshine anything we have serialised to date, including your marvellous Woman in White!” “We can hope,” I said modestly. “But would you not prefer to hear the outline of the last fourth of the book—when I decide how to tie up the obvious loose ends, such as the reenactment of the crime—rather than commit to purchasing it now?” “Not in the least!” said Dickens. “However much I look forward to hearing you tell me the true ending in a week or two, I have heard enough to know what a splendid story it is. And that plot surprise! To have the very narrator not know of his own culpability! Wonderful, my dear Wilkie, absolutely wonderful. As I say, I have rarely been so taken by surprise by another writer’s dexterous plotting!” “Thank you, Charles,” I said. “May I pose a few questions or make a few minor suggestions?” asked Dickens as he paced back and forth in front of the open windows. “Of course! Of course!” I said. “Besides being my editor at All the Year Round, you have been my collaborator and fellow-plotter for too many years for me to not benefit from the sagacity of your advice at this stage, Charles.” “Well then,” he said, “about the crucial plot twist. Is it at all possible that having our hero, Franklin Blake, perform the robbery of the diamond under the influence both of laudanum—however surreptitiously administered—and the mesmeric control of the Hindoo jugglers, too much of a coincidence? What I mean is, the Hindoos he encountered on the lawn could not have known that our Mr… what was his name?” “Who?” I asked. I had taken out my pencil and was hurrying to make notes on the back of my manuscript page. “The medic who died with a scrambled memory.” “Mr Candy,” I said. “Of course!” said Dickens. “Well, my only point is that the Hindoos encountered randomly on the estate’s grounds that night could hardly have known that Mr Candy would have put opium in Franklin Blake’s wine as a sort of prank. Could they?” “No…” I said. “I suppose not. No, they could not have.” “So, in truth, the dual revelations of secretly administered laudanum and the mesmeric

magnetism of the Hindoo mystics on the lawn may be redundant, no?” “Redundant?” “I mean, my dear Wilkie, it would only take the coincidence of one or the other to allow Franklin Blake to carry out his somnambulistic thievery, isn’t that so?” “I think… yes… it is,” I said, making a few notes. “And how richer it is for the reader’s imagination that poor Mr Franklin Blake steals the diamond from his beloved’s bureau drawer in an attempt to protect it, not under the evil influence of the Hindoos, don’t you think?” “Hmmm,” I said. This reduced my Huge Surprise to a sort of odd coincidence. But it might work. Before I could comment, Dickens had gone on. “And the odd, lame servant—I apologise; what was her name?” “Rosanna Spearman.” “Yes, lovely name for that odd and disturbed character— Rosanna Spearman. You say, early on, that she is a product of— that is, that Lady Verinder had hired her from, I believe—a Reformatory?” “Precisely,” I said. “I rather imagined that Rosanna had come from some institution very similar to your Urania Cottage.” “Ahh, which I set up some twenty years ago with Miss Burdett-Coutts’s help,” said Dickens, still smiling and pacing. “So I thought, my dear Wilkie. But I’ve taken you to Urania Cottage. You’re quite aware that all of the women there are Fallen Women, being given another chance.” “As was Rosanna Spearman,” I said. “Indeed. But it’s simply unthinkable that Lady Verinder or anyone of her obvious calibre would hire Rosanna if the lady knew that she had been a… a woman of the streets.” “Hmmm,” I said. Having Rosanna being a reformed woman of the streets had been, precisely, my goal. It explained both her doomed infatuation with Mr Franklin Blake and the erotic subtext to that infatuation. But it was difficult to argue that anyone so refined as my fictional—and equally as doomed as Rosanna Spearman—Lady Verinder would have hired a prostitute, however reformed. I made a note on my page. “A thief,” Dickens said with that ring of certainty that was so common to him. “You can make the poor Rosanna a former thief—then Sergeant Cuff shall still be able to recognise her, but as someone who came through his jail rather than a woman on the street.” “Is thievery so much less evil than being a woman of the street?” I asked. “It is, Wilkie, it is indeed. Make her a woman of the streets, no matter how well reformed, and Lady Verinder’s home has been contaminated. Make her a former thief, and the reader shall see the magnanimity of Lady Verinder’s spirit in her attempt to help her through honest employment.” “A point,” I said. “A palpable point. I shall make a note to review Rosanna’s background.” “And then there is the problem of Reverend Godfrey Ablewhite,” went on Dickens.

“I wasn’t aware that there was a problem with Reverend Ablewhite, Charles. During the reading you laughed and interjected that you loved the exposure of such a hypocrite.” “And so I do, Wilkie! So I do! And so shall your readers. The problem is not with the character—whom you have admirably drawn as the hypocrite, social climber, and would-be pilferer of a lady’s fortune—but with his title.” “Reverend?” “Precisely. I am pleased that you see the problem, my dear Wilkie.” “I am not sure that I do, Charles. Certainly the accusations of hypocrite and liar are all the more meaningful if it’s a man of the cloth who…” “Of course you are right!” said Dickens. “We have all known such sanctimonious men of the clergy—men who wish all to see them as doing good, even while they are secretly striving mightily to be doing well—but the charge is no less effective if we soften the indictment to a Mr Godfrey Ablewhite.” I started jotting the note but then stopped and rubbed my head. “It seems so… lessened, diluted, pared down. How is it that Reverend Godfrey is the chairman of so many Ladies Charities if he is not clergy? And what would such a change do to the wonderful line I had already set in my outline—‘He was a clergyman by profession; a ladies’ man by temperament; and a good Samaritan by choice.’ You yourself laughed aloud when I recited that to you not an hour ago.” “So I did, Wilkie. But it shall work just as well if you substitute… say… ‘barrister’ for clergyman. And we shall have saved the sensibilities of many, perhaps many thousands, of our readers from offence when none need be given in service of your admirable plot.” “I am not sure…” I began. “Make a note, Wilkie. And merely promise me that you will consider this change during the composition. It is, of course, the kind of thing that any diligent editor of any general magazine such as ours would be remiss not to bring up with the author. Indeed, if you were editing another’s manuscript, I am sure you would have raised the issue of demoting Reverend Godfrey Ablewhite to Mr Godfrey Ablewhite.…” “I am not sure…” I began again. “And finally, my dear Wilkie, there is the matter of the title.…” continued Dickens. “Ahh,” I said, with some eagerness this time. “Which do you prefer, Charles? The Eye of the Serpent or The Serpent’s Eye?” “Neither, actually,” said Dickens. “I have been giving the titles some thought, my dear friend, and I confess that I find both a bit diabolical and perhaps a trifle wanting from the commercial point of view.” “Diabolical?” “Well, the eye of the serpent. It does have Biblical connotations, Wilkie.” “It has heathen Hindoo connotations as well, my dear Dickens. I have done a tremendous amount of research into various cults in India.…” “And do any of them worship a serpent?” “Not that I have discovered to date, but Hindoos worship… everything. They have monkey gods, rat gods, cow gods.…”

“And undoubtedly serpent gods as well, I agree,” Dickens said soothingly. “But the title still hints of the Garden and the serpent therein… that is to say, the Devil. And the obvious connection with the Koh-i-noor diamond makes any such connection absolutely unacceptable.” I was totally at a loss. I had no idea what Dickens was talking about. Rather than splutter, however, I carefully poured myself more water, sipped it, and eventually said, “Unacceptable in what way, my dear Dickens?” “Your gem, diamond, whatever you end up calling it, is so very obviously connected with the Koh-i-noor.…” “Yes?” I said. “Perhaps. So?” “You remember certainly, my dear Wilkie, or I am certain that your research has reminded you, that the original Koh-i-noor came from the region of India called, I believe, the Mountains of Light, and there was a persistent rumour, even before the diamond arrived on these shores, that the Mountains of Light had bad luck attached to every artefact from that area.” “Yes?” I said again. “Such a deeply buried mental association will be perfect for The Eye of the Serpent… or perhaps The Serpent’s Eye.” Dickens stopped pacing and slowly shook his head. “Not if our readers associate such bad luck with the Royal Family,” he said softly. “Ahhh,” I said. I had meant the syllable to be mildly and noncommittally ruminative, but it sounded, even to me, as if there were a chicken bone stuck in my throat. “And I am sure you remember, Wilkie, what happened two days after that stone arrived in England and six days before it was to be presented to Her Majesty.” “Not precisely.” “Well, you were young at the time,” said Dickens. “A fellow named Robert Pate, a retired lieutenant in the hussars, physically attacked the Queen.” “Good heavens.” “Precisely. Her Majesty was not harmed, but the public immediately connected the neartragedy to the gift of the stone to the Royal Family. The Governer General of India himself felt he had to write an open letter to the Times explaining that such superstitions were absurd.” “Yes,” I said, still jotting notes, “I have been researching Lord Dalhousie quite a bit in the Athenaeum library.” “I am sure you have,” said Dickens in what I might have interpreted as an especially dry tone if I had been more critical. “And then there was the other terrible event associated with the Koh-i-noor… the death of Prince Albert.” I quit writing notes. “What? That was just six years ago, more than eleven years after the stone arrived in England and was displayed at the Great Exhibition. The Koh-i-noor had been broken up into smaller stones in Amsterdam long before Albert died. What possible connection could there be between the two events?” “You forget, my dear Wilkie, that the consort had been the designer and chief sponsor of the Great Exhibition. It was he who suggested putting the Koh-i-noor in the odd place of

honour it held in the Great Hall. Her Majesty, of course, is still in mourning black, and some close to her say that at times, in the depths of her mourning, she blames the Indian stone for her beloved’s death. So you see, we must be careful in any names we give the book and any subtle references that might connect the Koh-i-noor and its effect on the beloved Royal Family with our fictional tale.” I had not missed the use of “we” and “our tale.” Keeping my own tone dry, I said, “If not The Eye of the Serpent… or The Serpent’s Eye… what title do you imagine might apply to the tale of a diamond that had been set in the eye of a Hindoo statue to a serpent god?” “Oh,” Dickens said airily, perching on the edge of his writing desk and grinning his editor’s grin, “I think we can dispense with the serpent god and the eye altogether. What about a title that avoids the sensational and invites the young female readers into the novel a bit more enthusiastically?” “My books do wonderfully well with women readers,” I said stiffly. “And so they do, my dear Wilkie!” cried Dickens, clapping his hands. “No one knows that more than I after your absolute triumph with The Woman in White. Why, there were a hundred eager readers for each instalment of that for every one reader who looked forward to my much more modestly selling Our Mutual Friend.” “Oh, I would hardly say that…” “What about… The Moonstone?” interrupted Dickens. “Moonstone?” I said stupidly. “Do you suggest I have the stone brought back from the moon rather than from India?” Dickens laughed easily in that loud, boyish laugh of his. “A marvellous jest, my dear Wilkie. But seriously… something like The Moonstone would interest the potential lady readers—or certainly not alienate them—and it has an aura of mystery and romance about it, without any hint of the profane or diabolical.” “The Moonstone,” I muttered, just to hear the sound of it from my own lips. It sounded terribly flat and colourless after The Serpent’s Eye (or possibly The Eye of the Serpent). “Wonderful,” cried Dickens, rising again. “We shall have Wills draw up a draft of the agreement with that as the proposed title. I tell you again that your outline was as exciting as reading the finished—or almost-finished—work itself will surely be. A marvellous tale filled with marvellous and delightful surprises. Your twist of the opiuminduced sleepwalking where the hero himself steals the stone without remembering he did so is a stroke of genius, Wilkie, sheer genius.” “Thank you, Charles,” I said again, rising and putting away my pencil. My tone held a tad less enthusiasm than it had earlier. “It’s time to walk, my dear Wilkie,” cried Dickens, going to the corner to take up his stick and to pull down his hat from a peg. “I thought perhaps all the way to Rochester and back this beautiful May day. You are looking fit and ruddy these days, my friend. Are you game?” “I am game for the first half to Rochester, where I shall catch the afternoon train back to London,” I said. “Caroline and Carrie expect me home for dinner this night.”

This last was a tiny fib; Carrie was visiting relatives in the country and Caroline thought I was spending the night at Gad’s Hill. But someone expected me for dinner that night. “A half walk with a full friend is better than none,” said Dickens, setting his own manuscripts away in a valise and striding quickly to the door. “Let us away before the roads and pathways get dusty and the day gets a minute older.” IT WAS THE EVENING OF THURSDAY the sixth of June, and I was indulging in a minor pleasure I had cultivated since the early spring—that is, taking the mountainous mass of Detective Inspector Hibbert Aloysius Hatchery out for a pint and a snack at a local public house before turning myself over to his guardianship and then descending into the dockside slums and the even darker world beneath Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery in order to partake of what I had come to think of as King Lazaree’s Emporium of Subterranean Delights. As I’d gotten to know Detective Hatchery better during our Thursday-night public-house stops, I had been surprised by some of the revelations from this huge man whom I had considered from our first meeting to be little more than a comic figure. It seemed he lived in a decent Dorset Square neighbourhood near my own home at Melcombe Place, and although his wife had died some years earlier, he had three grown daughters whom he doted on and a son who had just entered Cambridge. Most surprising, Hatchery himself read widely, and some of his favourite books, it turned out, were of my creation. The Woman in White was foremost amongst these, although he had only been able to afford reading it during its serialisation in All the Year Round some years before. I had brought a copy of the bound book this very night and was in the process of autographing it for my sometimes guardian when someone stopped at our table. I recognised the brown tweed suit first, then the compact but heavy body poured into it. The man had removed his hat, and I noticed that his curly grey hair seemed longer than it had in Birmingham—but it had been wet then. “Mr Collins,” he said, two fingers flicking towards his brow as if touching the brim of a hat that was no longer there, “Reginald Barris at your service, sir.” I grunted a reply. I did not wish to see Detective Reginald Barris. Not that night, not any night. The memory of those terrible few seconds of violence in that Birmingham alley was just beginning to fade. But Barris greeted Hatchery, who nodded back even as he was accepting the gift of my autographed The Woman in White—a conjunction of events that I found, unreasonably perhaps, treacherous—and Barris joined us at the table without even asking permission, boldly pulling up a chair and seating himself backwards on it, straddling it, his powerful forearms set atop the chair’s back. Aghast at his bad manners, I wondered for a moment if Barris—despite his Cambridge accent—was an American. “A fortunate coincidence, Mr Collins, running into you like this,” said Barris. I did not honour that nonsense with a reply, but looked at Hatchery in a way that showed cool disapproval of his being so free with the details of our habits. Then I remembered wryly that the huge man worked for Inspector Field—and almost certainly reported to

this insufferable Barris as well, since the younger man seemed to be a lieutenant of the tiresome inspector—and reminded myself that there had been no real friendship between Hatchery and me, despite my generosity towards him in recent weeks. Barris leaned forward over his forearms and lowered his voice. “Inspector Field was hoping for a report, sir. I volunteered that if I were to run into you, I would mention it. Time is getting short.” “I gave Inspector Field a report less than a fortnight ago,” I said. “And time is getting short for what?” Barris smiled but set a quick finger to his lips, his eyes darting left and right in a melodramatic reminder that we must be discreet. I always forgot that Field and his men presumed agents of the phantasm Drood to be lurking everywhere. “Until the ninth of June,” Barris whispered. “Ah,” I said and took a drink. “The ninth of June. The sacred anniversary of Staplehurst and…” “Shhh,” said Mr Reginald Barris. I shrugged. “I’ve not forgotten.” “Your report was a little less than clear, Mr Collins, on…” “Less than clear?” I interrupted, my voice loud enough to be heard throughout the public house if anyone had been interested in eavesdropping—which certainly none of the few inhabitants seemed to be. “Mr Barris, I am a writer. A journalist for several years, a novelist now by vocation. I hardly think that my report could have been less than clear.” “No, no, no,” agreed the young detective, smiling in his embarrassment. “I mean, yes. That is, no—I chose the wrong words, Mr Collins. Never less than clear, but… perhaps… perfectly clear but a trifle sketchy?” “Sketchy?” I repeated, giving the word the disdain it deserved. “As in perfectly captured in a few strokes,” purred the young detective, leaning even lower over his massive forearms, “but not fully filled in with details. For instance, you reported that Mr Dickens continues to say that he has no knowledge of Mr Edmond Dickenson’s current whereabouts, but did you… as we liked to say in school and the regiment… drop the bombshell on him?” I had to smile at this. “Mr… Detective… Barris,” I said softly, noticing Hibbert Hatchery’s apparent lack of concern with everything his superior and I were saying, “I not only dropped the bombshell, as you put it, on Mr Dickens—I dropped the entire mortar.” BARRIS WAS TALKING about Dickenson’s money as a motive in the boy’s disappearance. I was feeling so well that beautiful May day that I actually had been enjoying the long walk to Rochester from Gad’s Hill Place, despite having to keep up with Dickens’s killing pace, and we were about two-thirds of the way to our urban destination when I dropped the shell, mortar, and caisson on the Inimitable. “Oh, I say,” I said as we followed the walking path along the north side of the highway

towards the distant church spires, “I happened to run into a friend of young Edmond Dickenson the other day.” If I had expected shock or surprise from Dickens, I received only the mildest twitch of one magisterial eyebrow. “Really? I would have guessed that young Dickenson had no friends.” “Evidently he had,” I lied. “An old school chum by the name of Barnaby or Benedict or Bertram or somesuch.” “Are those the friend’s last name or Christian name?” asked Dickens, clicking along with his walking stick touching the ground at its usual precise and rapid intervals. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, wishing that I had taken greater care in constructing this part of the introductory fiction I’d set to trap Dickens. “Just someone I met at my club.” “It might matter in the sense that the chap you met may have been a liar,” Dickens said lightly enough. “A liar? How is this, Charles?” “I am quite sure that young Dickenson informed me that he never went to university— even to drop out—nor had ever darkened the door of any school,” said Dickens. “It seems the poor orphan had a succession of tutors, each less imposing than the last.” “Well…” I said and hurried to catch up to Dickens. “Perhaps they weren’t school chums, but this Barnaby…” “Or Bertram,” offered Dickens. “Yes, well, it seems that this chap…” “Or Benedict,” said Dickens. “Yes. May I tell this, Charles?” “By all means, my dear Wilkie,” said Dickens, smiling and extending his open hand. Some small grey birds—doves or partridges—exploded from the hedges we were approaching and flew into the blue sky. Without breaking pace, Dickens raised his walking stick to his shoulder like a shotgun and pantomimed pulling a trigger. “It seems that this chap, a former friend of young Dickenson from somewhere,” I said, “was told by Dickenson himself last year that he—Dickenson—had legally changed guardians during the last months before he reached his majority.” “Oh?” was all that Dickens said in response. It was a polite syllable only. “Yes,” I said, waiting. We walked a hundred yards or so in silence. Finally I dropped my bombshell. “This same chap…” “Mr Barnaby.” “This same chap,” I persisted, “happened to be involved with some transactions at his friend Dickenson’s bank and happened to overhear…” “Which bank is that?” asked Dickens. “Pardon?” “To which bank are you referring, my dear Wilkie? Or rather, to which bank was your friend of young Dickenson referring?” “Tillson’s Bank,” I said, feeling the power in the two words. It was as if I were moving a

knight into place before pronouncing checkmate. I believe it was Sir Francis Bacon who said, “Knowledge is power”—and the power I now held over Charles Dickens’s head had come through the knowledge obtained by Inspector Charles Frederick Field. “Ah, yes,” said Dickens. He hopped slightly to clear a branch that had fallen in the gravel path. “I know that bank, my dear Wilkie… an old-fashioned, boastful, small, dark, and ugly place with a musty odour.” By this point I had almost, but not quite, lost the thread of the interrogation by which I’d hoped to catch the conscience of this king. “A sound enough bank, it seems, to have transferred some twenty thousand pounds to the account of Edmond Dickenson’s new guardian,” I said and wondered if my Sergeant Cuff would have added an “Ah-hah!” “I should have added ‘indiscreet’ to old-fashioned, boastful, small, dark, and ugly with a musty odour,” chuckled Dickens. “I shall do no more business with Tillson’s.” I had to stop. Dickens took a few final steps and then—frowning slightly at the interruption of our pace—also stopped. My heart was pounding in my chest. “You do not deny receiving such monies then, Charles?” “Deny it? Why would I deny it, my dear Wilkie? What on earth are you going on about?” “You do not deny having become Edmond Dickenson’s guardian and having transferred some twenty thousand pounds—his entire inheritance—from Tillson’s Bank to your own bank and chequing account?” “Not for a second could I or would I deny it!” laughed Dickens. “Both statements of fact are statements of fact, and therefore true. Come now, let’s walk.” “But…” I said, catching up to him and trying to match him stride for stride. “But… when I asked some short time ago whether you knew where young Dickenson was, you said you had heard he’d gone to South Africa or somesuch place but otherwise had no idea.” “Which is, of course, the absolute truth,” said Dickens. “But you were his guardian!” “In name only,” said Dickens. “And only for a few weeks before the poor boy came into his majority and his full inheritance. He thought he was doing me an honour by naming me such, and I allowed him to think so. It certainly was no one’s business other than Dickenson and myself.” “But the money…” I began. “Withdrawn, on Dickenson’s request, the day after he turned twenty-one and could do anything he wished with it, my dear Wilkie. I had the pleasure of writing him a cheque for the full amount that same day.” “Yes, but… why through your account, Charles? It makes no sense.” “Of course it does not,” agreed Dickens, chuckling again. “The boy—still thinking I had saved his life at Staplehurst—wanted to see my signature on the draught that would start his life anew as an adult. All nonsense, of course, but it cost me nothing other than the energy of receiving the payment and writing my own cheque to the lad. His former

barrister and advisor—a Mr Roffe, I believe—made all the arrangements with both banks.” “But you say that you have no idea where Dickenson went…” “And so I do not,” he said. “He talked of visiting France and then truly beginning his life anew… South Africa, perhaps, or even Australia. But I received no letters from him.” I started to speak again and realised that I had nothing to say. When I had rehearsed this confrontation in my mind, I had imagined Sergeant Cuff surprising the culprit into an admission of murder. Dickens seemed to be inspecting my face as we walked. He was clearly amused. “When you heard all this from this amazingly ubiquitous Mr Barnaby or Benedict or Bertrand, my dear Wilkie, did you imagine that I had insinuated myself into the position of guardian for poor young Dickenson and then murdered him for his money?” “What!? I… Of course I did not… Ridiculous… How could you…” “Because that would be what I would have made from all these otherwise circ*mstantial clues,” Dickens said brightly. “An ageing writer, perhaps suffering from money problems, happens to save this rich orphan’s life and soon realises that the boy has no friends, no family, no close acquaintances to speak of—only a doddering old barrister who tends to forget whether he has had lunch that day or not—and the writer then arranges to have the trusting boy appoint him, the avaricious writer with money problems, to a position as guardian.…” “Are you having money problems, Charles?” Dickens laughed so loudly and easily that I almost laughed with him. “How would I have killed him, do you think, Wilkie? And where? Gad’s Hill Place? Frightfully public with so many visitors coming and going all the hours of the day and night.” “Rochester Cathedral,” I said dully. Dickens glanced up over the green trees. “Yes, so it is. We are almost there. Oh-hoh! No, wait, you mean… I would have killed Dickenson at Rochester Cathedral. Yes, of course. It all fits in. You are a genius of deduction, my dear Wilkie.” “You like to show it to people at night, in the moonlight,” I said, not believing that I was saying these words aloud. “Indeed I do,” laughed Dickens. “And Mr Dradles and the cathedral’s cleric, whom I shall call Septimus Crisparkle in my novel, have given me keys to gain access to the tower at all hours when I bring guests there.…” “And the crypts,” I muttered. “What’s that? Oh, yes! Very good. The same keys would give me access to the crypts. So all I would have to do would be to invite young Dickenson on a private outing with me—showing off Rochester from its cathedral tower in the moonlight; why, I took you and Longfellow’s brother-in-law and his daughters up there in the moonlight just last year—and, at the appropriate second, as I urged the boy to lean over better to see the moonlight on the sea around the base of the tower… just give him the slightest shove.” “Let us stop this, Charles,” I said raggedly. I felt the rheumatical gout creeping behind

my right eye like a geyser of pent-up blood and pain. “No, no, it is too wonderful,” cried Dickens, twirling his walking stick as if he were leading a parade. “No pistol needed—nor hammer, nor shovel, nor any grimy, heavy instrument needed to do the deed and then to be cleaned or disposed of—only gravity. A brief cry in the night. And then… what then? Say the boy had impaled himself on one of the black iron spikes rising from the fence surrounding the sacristy, or dashed out what few brains he had on one of the ancient headstones… what then, Sergeant Cuff?” “Then the lime pit,” I said. Dickens actually stopped and seized his forehead with his free hand. His eyes were wide, his smile broad and beatific. “The lime pit!” he exclaimed. A rider trotting past on a bay mare looked over from the road. “Of course! How could I have forgotten the lime pit? And then, perhaps in a few days’ time… the crypts?” I shook my head, looked away, and bit my lip until I could taste blood. We resumed walking. “Of course,” said Dickens, swinging his stick absently at a weed, “I would then need old Dradles as an accomplice, to take down and put back up the crypt walls, I mean. This is how murder plots are found out, you know, Wilkie—taking an accomplice is too often a step towards the gallows.” “Not at all,” I said, my voice still flat and lifeless. “You will have used your power of magnetic influence on poor Dradles. He will have no memory of his aiding and abetting of your disposal of Dickenson’s corpse… skeleton… watch, glasses, and other metal effects.” “Mesmerism!” cried Dickens. “Wonderful! Shall we add laudanum to the mixture here, my dear friend?” “I don’t believe that is required, Charles. Mesmeric control alone will account for the accomplice’s unwitting help.” “Poor old Dradles!” cried Dickens. He was almost skipping in his delight. “Poor young Dickenson! Those few people in this world who even knew he had ever lived believe him—on the word of his murderer!—to be off to France or South Africa or Australia. No one to mourn him. No one to bring a single flower to his sealed and shared crypt. And the killer solves his… money problems… and goes on as if nothing has happened. This is too wonderful, my dear Wilkie.” My heart pounding wildly again, I decided to explode the bombshell I had dropped perhaps so prematurely. “Yes, Charles, but this is all predicated on the murderer in question knowing that he is the murderer… knowing that he has done murder.” “But how can he not know…” began Dickens, and then ran his hand furiously through his scraggly beard. “Of course! The murderer, the same man who has mesmerised his crypt-keeper accomplice into compliance, has been acting under the control of magnetic influence himself!” I said nothing but watched Dickens’s face as we walked. He shook his head. “I fear it breaks down here, Wilkie.”

“How so, Charles?” “Professor John Elliotson, my first instructor in the magnetic arts—you quoted him yourself, Wilkie!—and all other experts I have read and conferred with, insist that someone under the magnetic influence of another, stronger will, still cannot commit any deed which he would not perform or agree to when not under mesmeric control.” “But you had old Dradles help you dispose of the body,” I said. “Yes, yes,” said Dickens, walking more quickly even as he ran his hands through his hair and beard, lost in deep contemplation of the plot elements here. “But burying the newly dead in graves and the crypts—transporting them when necessary—then walling up the corpses, is Dradles’s job. The controlling mesmeriser would simply construct a waking dream of a story around him. But to command murder… No, I think that will not work in our story, Wilkie. Not if the murderer is a sane man.” “Even sane men have dark thoughts,” I said softly as we came into the very shadow of Rochester Cathedral. “Even sane men—eminently sane men, public men—have dark sides which they show to no one.” “True, true,” said Dickens. “But to the point of being able to do murder?” “But what if the real puppet master behind this crime were to be a Master Mesmeriser and mass killer himself?” I said. “He might have many covert ways of convincing the men and women under his control to do his bidding, no matter how horrible. Perhaps they are made to think that they are players in some theatrical experience and that their murdered victims will hop up and take a curtain call bow at the end.” Dickens looked at me very sharply. “You are more of a sensationalist than I gave you credit for, Wilkie Collins. This new book of yours—The Moonstone—will do very well indeed, given the public’s literally insatiable appetite for slaughter, gore, and the unwholesome aspects that stir to life in the darkest folds of the human mind.” “One can only hope,” I said softly. We had come into the town and were less than a block from Rochester Cathedral. The great tower threw its shadow over us and over the whole cluster of low, grey houses on either side of the road. “Would you care to go up and look around?” asked Dickens, gesturing towards the tall stone spire. “I happen to have the key with me.” “Not today,” I said. “But thank you all the same, Charles.” “Some other time, then,” said the Inimitable. SO HE SHOWED no visible guilt or remorse about the twenty thousand pounds,” said Reginald Barris. “But what about the anniversary?” “I beg your pardon?” I said. I had been thinking of other things. “The anniversary of Staplehurst,” whispered the young detective. “Inspector Field asked you to do your utmost to accompany Dickens when he comes into town on that date, and the ninth is only three days away. You said nothing in your report on whether he had accepted or rejected your offer of spending the day and night with him at Gad’s Hill Place or during his inevitable return to the city and Undertown London on that night.”

I finished my ale and smiled at Hibbert Hatchery as the huge man, in his attempt not to overhear us, was respectfully browsing through the copy of The Woman in White that I had just signed for him. “Does the book meet with your approval, Detective Hatchery?” “It is a gift beyond measure, Mr Collins,” rumbled the giant. “The anniversary, Mr Collins?” prompted the insufferable Barris. “Mr Dickens did not invite me to stay at Gad’s Hill or to wander the city with him on Sunday night—the ninth—in search of his phantom Drood,” I said, still not turning to look at Barris. “Then, sir,” said the detective, “it is imperative that we arrange a time for you to meet with Inspector Field. He has laid on twenty-three operatives for Sunday night’s watch and…” “Instead,” I continued, smoothly interrupting the upstart, “Mr Dickens has agreed to come to dinner at my house at Melcombe Place on Sunday and…” I paused just an instant for full effect. “. . . to spend the night there in my home.” Barris blinked. “Dickens will be at your house on the night of the Staplehurst anniversary?” I nodded, feeling some well-earned condescension in the slow motion of my head. Barris jumped to his feet and turned the chair around with a clatter. “I must deliver this information to the inspector at once. Thank you, Mr Collins. This is an… extraordinary… development.” He touched his invisible hat brim and, to Hatchery, said, “Stay safe there, Hibbert.” And then Barris was out of the public house, and Hatchery and I walked the mile and a half or so to St Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery. There he set out his few things for his long vigil—a small lantern, a greasy sack with his three AM dinner inside it (packed, no doubt, by one of his daughters), a small flask of water, and his pristine copy of The Woman in White. Descending the stairs into the ancient catacombs, I reflected—not for the first time—on the human creature’s infinite ability to adapt to circ*mstances. Two years ago, this descent as I followed Dickens down to the catacombs had been strange and not a little terrifying for me. Now it was as nothing—as commonplace as walking to my corner chemist’s to renew my weekly jug of laudanum. King Lazaree the Chinee and his two bodyguards met me at the tattered curtain to their alcove. My pipe was filled and ready for me. Eight hours later, when I ascended the stairs to a new day, Detective Hatchery had tidily tucked everything away except the novel, which he was reading in a thin strip of morning light coming in through the partially opened crypt door. “Everything all right, sir?” he asked as he slipped the book into one of his many voluminous pockets. “Everything is very much all right, Detective Hatchery. Very much so. It appears to be a beautiful day.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

On Sunday, 9 June, 1867, I returned home later than I had planned. I had told Caroline that morning that I would be at my club working on my book until evening but that I would be home before Dickens arrived for dinner. As you may have guessed, Dear Reader, I actually spent most of the day with Martha R—— in her rooms on Bolsover Street, had lost track of the time, and hurried home feeling slightly dishevelled and a bit knackered. I came into the downstairs parlour to find Charles Dickens again making mesmeric passes over an apparently somnolent Caroline G——. Dickens was the first to notice me. “Ah, my dear Wilkie,” he cried jovially. “Just in time!” Caroline opened her eyes and said, “Mr Dickens was mesmerising me.” “So it appears,” I said coolly. “Showing me how to apply the procedure to you!” she said. “To help you get to sleep on those nights when… you know.” “I know that I’ve been sleeping quite well of recent,” I lied. Dickens smiled. “But if Caroline can use the magnetic influence to help you drift off of an evening,” he said, “you could cut back or eliminate your dependence on laudanum at night.” “I need hardly use any as it is,” I said. “Oh, Wilkie, you know that’s not true!” cried Caroline. “Just two nights ago you were…” She broke off when she saw my cold stare. “I shall go talk to Cook,” she said, “and see if dinner is ready.” Dinner was ready soon and it was a success, not only in taste and quality (a surprise, since our “Cook,” Besse, was also our parlourmaid and one of only three servants we kept, the others being her husband, George, and their daughter, Agnes, who was Carrie’s age) but also in terms of conversation and merriment. Carrie, who always seemed to delight something in Charles Dickens (even as his own daughters did so less and less frequently those days), was at her blushing, school-girl best—young Harriet, like her mother, was intelligent enough and had already learned the subtle arts of being beguiling with older men without being coquettish—and even Caroline carried her own in our conversations. Dickens himself was relaxed and affable.

I do not know if I’ve described it accurately or sufficiently in this poor memoir, Dear Reader from my posthumous future, but Charles Dickens, while quite possibly a villain and even a murderer, was almost always a most pleasant man to be around. His conversation was easy, agreeable, almost never self-centred, and totally free of any effort or humbug. He held the unique position of being, at least among my circle of famous English friends and acquaintances, never boring and a capable and sympathetic conversationalist.… He never reached after aphorisms or heavy wit… and one aspect of his active listening was that he laughed a lot. And infectiously. Dickens laughed much this ninth of June in the Year of Our Lord 1867. It seemed at that dinner that he had no concerns and nothing on his mind. After dinner, we went up to my study for brandy and cigars. I admit to being a bit concerned about going into the study so close to dark—the evenings were long in this time in June, and though the weather had turned and it was cool and pouring rain outside, dim light still came in through the drapes—but I comforted myself with the knowledge that I rarely saw the Other Wilkie this early at night. Nor had I ever seen the Other Wilkie when anyone else was around, even though—and perhaps I should have told you before this, Dear Reader—I have been haunted, in one way or the other, by the sensed and then-visible presence of the Other Wilkie since I was a small boy. But not this night. Dickens excused himself to visit the water closet, and I took my brandy and went over to part the drapes and look out into the darkness. The rain still poured down. I smiled slightly, thinking of Inspector Field and his twentythree operatives—most of them hired on just for tonight, I’d learned this week, since, surprisingly, Field’s own private investigations agency had only seven men working fulltime—out there now somewhere, unseen but also certainly uncomfortable in the rain and unseasonable cold. Carrie and our girl Agnes had got a fire going strong in my study and it felt quite cosy. It had amused me, only the day before, when I had been required to get Caroline, Carrie, and the three servants all out of the house on various ruses so that Field, Barris, and several of his men could go through our Melcombe Place home from cellar to attic. Inspector Field had insisted on this and I could do nothing but walk behind him as they inspected all doors and windows—estimating aloud how impossible a jump would be from the nearby roofs to these upstairs windows and deciding upon various vantage points in the neighbourhood from which to watch the alley, back yard, and nearby sidestreets. Finally they had gone through the cellar with a sort of fanatical intensity, even going so far as to move half a ton or so of coal in my coal-cellar. There, where the coal was always piled several feet high near the back wall, they had discovered a hole in the stone wall… a hole not ten inches wide. The detectives shined their bullseye lanterns down the hole, but the corrugated tunnel so revealed simply curved down out of sight into stone and soil. “Where does that go?” demanded Inspector Field. “How could I know?” I said. “I have never seen it before.”

Field then called for Barris and his men, who—unbelievably!—had brought bricks, mortar, and the tools with which they could close up such an innocuous aperture. They did so in less than ten minutes, with Barris himself laying the bricks and applying the trowel. I noticed the easy expertise with which he worked and could imagine the reasons for those massive forearms. However much Mr Reginald Barris might sport an Oxford or Cambridge accent, his background was decidedly that of a lower-class craftsman. “Are you protecting Dickens and me from rats?” I asked with a smile. The inspector aimed that corpulent and strangely ominous finger at me. “Mark my words, Mr Collins. Either Mr Dickens will strive to see Drood tomorrow, this important anniversary of their meeting at Staplehurst, or Drood will find a way to see Dickens. Either way, sir, you are in danger if that meeting takes place here.” I’d laughed and pointed to the tiny hole, now fully and redundantly bricked over. “You expect Drood to somehow slide his way through that?” I showed with my hands how narrow the aperture had been; a child oiled with grease could not have slithered through. Field did not smile in return. “The thing that you call Drood can enter in through smaller apertures than that, alas, Mr Collins. If once invited, that is.” “Well, there you have it, Inspector,” I said, still laughing softly. “I have never invited Mr Drood into my home.” “No, but perhaps Mr Dickens has,” said Inspector Field. Then the men went on to inspect every square inch of the rest of my cellar. I AM GOING to America,” said Dickens. We were relaxing with the last of our brandy and cigars, the fire hissing and spitting at our feet and the rain pounding at the windows. Dickens was as quiet and sombre in my study now as he had been jovial and talkative at our dinner table an hour earlier. “You can’t be serious,” I said. “I am.” “But…” I began and had to pause. I was about to say, But surely your health will not allow this, but discretion caught me in time. I had heard the serious state of Dickens’s health from several sources, including Frank Beard, my brother, Charley, and Dickens’s daughter Kate (often through Charley), as well as through other mutual friends, but it would only infuriate Dickens if I brought up my awareness of his several serious infirmities: among which were an increasing fatigue that had caused him to collapse between performances during his spring tour of Scotland and England, increasing trouble with his left leg and left kidney, difficulties with digestion, flatulence, and accompanying headaches, and—perhaps most visible to all of us—his rapid ageing. I said aloud, “But surely your dislike of America and the Americans would preclude you from returning there. You certainly made your disdain clear in American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit.” “Pfah,” said Dickens with a wave of his hand. “I visited America twenty-five years ago, my dear Wilkie. Even such a backward place has had to reform in twenty-five years. They certainly have in terms of respect of copyright and payment to English authors for

serialised works—as you must know, to your great benefit.” This last was true. I had made an excellent deal with the Americans for Armadale and had almost completed negotiations for an even better arrangement for The Moonstone, which I had just begun writing. “Besides,” continued Dickens, “I have many friends there, some of whom are too old or timid to make the Crossing. I should like to see them a final time before they or I die.” Dickens’s talk of death made me anxious. I sipped the last of my brandy and stared into the fire, again imagining foolish Inspector Field and his small legion of men huddling out there in the rain somewhere. If Dickens was going to do what Field had insisted he might—plead some forgotten meeting somewhere and slip out of my house rather than spend the night—he had better hurry. It was getting late. “At any rate,” said Dickens, settling deeper into the leather cushions of his wing chair, “I’ve decided to send Dolby over in early August to investigate the lay of the land, as the Americans like to say. He’ll be carrying my two new stories, ‘George Silverman’s Explanation’ and ‘A Holiday Romance.’ They were commissioned by American publishers, and I believe the latter is appearing there in a children’s magazine called Our Young Folks or something similar.” “Yes,” I said. “You showed me ‘A Holiday Romance’ at Gad’s Hill a few weekends ago, you might remember… told me that the tales in it were written by children, as was their whimsical conceit. And I believed you.” “I was not sure whether to be flattered or insulted, my dear Wilkie.” “Neither, of course, Charles,” I said. “A mere statement of fact. As always, when you set out to do a thing with words, it is done in its convincing entirety. But I do remember you telling me that your strength was almost broken twenty-five years ago under the travel and labour of your first American tour. And Forster says to this day that the Americans were unworthy of a man of genius such as yourself. Are you certain, Charles, that you wish to put yourself under such a strain once again?” Dickens had accepted my invitation to smoke a cigar and now blew smoke towards my ceiling. “It is true that I was younger then, Wilkie, but I was also worn out from writing Master Humphrey’s Clock and—only days before departing—I had undergone a rather serious surgical operation. Also, the speechmaking I was required to carry out once in America would have exhausted an M.P. with nothing else to do. I was also—I admit it— less patient and much more irritable then than I am now in the serenity of my middle life.” I thought about the so-called serenity of this author’s middle life. Inspector Field had informed me that Ellen Ternan had been ill throughout much of April and May, requiring that Charles Dickens—perhaps our nation’s most public man—disappear for long days on end so that he could be by his ailing mistress’s bedside. Dickens’s habit of secrecy did not extend just to his alleged meetings with the creature named Drood; dissembling had become second nature to the writer. On at least two recent occasions I knew of for certain, Dickens had sent me letters purportedly written from Gad’s Hill Place when, in actuality, he was with Ellen Ternan or staying at his secret home nearby.

“There are other reasons why I must leave the country,” Dickens said softly. “And it has come time to speak to you of them.” I raised my eyebrows slightly, smoked, and waited. I expected some new fabulation, so Dickens’s actual words were a surprise. “You remember the personage I have referred to as Drood,” said Dickens. “Of course,” I said. “How could I forget either your telling of the creature’s purported story or our expedition two summers ago into the tunnels under the city?” “Indeed,” Dickens said drily. “I think that you do not believe me when I speak of Drood, my dear Wilkie.…” He waved away my hurried objections. “No, now listen a moment, my friend. Please. “There are many things I have not told you, Wilkie… many things I could not tell you… many things you would not have believed if I had told you. But the existence of Drood is real enough, as you almost discovered in Birmingham.” Again I opened my mouth, but found I could not speak. What did he mean? I had long since convinced myself that my waking nightmare-vision during Dickens’s reading more than a year earlier in Birmingham had been a laudanum-dream brought on by the terrible confrontation with the thugs in the alley in that same city. The blood I had later found on my shirt collar and cravat had, of course, come from a reopening of the slight wound inflicted when one of the thugs had laid his knife to my neck that very afternoon. But how could Dickens know about my drug-induced dream? I had told no one, not even Caroline or Martha. Before I could formulate a question, Dickens was speaking again. “Instead of wondering about the reality or non-reality of Drood, my dear Wilkie, have you ever wondered about your friend Inspector Field’s true motivations in his obsession with capturing or killing the man?” I blushed at the “your friend Inspector Field.” I always assumed that Dickens knew little or nothing about my continued contact with the ageing detective—how could he know? —but I was often surprised by what Dickens actually seemed to know or had somehow managed to surmise. Then again, if Drood were real—which I was not for a second ready to concede—it was possible that Dickens came by his information through that phantom and his agents, much as I was now doing through Inspector Field and his agents. Not for the first time in the past two years, I felt like a pawn in some terrible chess game being played in the dark of night. “You’ve told me your thoughts about Inspector Field’s so-called obsession,” I said. “You said that he thought such a coup would result in his pension being reinstated.” “That hardly seems adequate motive for the inspector’s recent draconian… one might say desperate… measures, does it?” asked Dickens. I thought about that. Or at least I frowned, squinted, and projected an image of thinking. In truth, I was most aware at that moment of the rheumatical gout gathering in a sphere of spreading pain behind my right eye, creeping around behind my right ear, embedding tendrils of itself deeper into my skull with each passing moment. “No,” I said at last. “I

guess it does not.” “I know Field,” said Dickens. The fire crackled and coal embers collapsed in upon themselves. The study suddenly felt appallingly warm. “I’ve known Field for almost two decades, Wilkie, and his ambition surpasseth all understanding.” You are speaking of yourself, I thought, but said nothing. “Inspector Charles Frederick Field wants to be Chief of Detectives again,” said Dickens. “He fully plans on being head of Scotland Yard Detective Bureau.” I laughed despite my growing pain. “Surely this cannot be the case, Charles. The man is ancient… in his mid-sixties.” Dickens scowled at me. “We have admirals in the Royal Navy in their eighties, Wilkie. No, it’s not Field’s age that is laughable, nor even his ambition. Merely his means of reaching his goal.” “But,” I said quickly, realising that I had offended Dickens with talk of old age, “you yourself told me that Inspector Field was out of favour with all of the Metropolitan Police for irregularities he committed as a private enquiries man. They denied him his pension, for heaven’s sake! Certainly he could never reclaim his former position in the newer, larger, more modern London police force!” “He might, my dear Wilkie. He might… if he were to bring to justice the purported mastermind of a nest of murderers whose crimes ran to the hundreds of victims. Field learned years ago how to use the city newspapers and he would certainly do so now.” “So you agree with the inspector, Charles, that Drood is a murderer and a mastermind of other murderers?” “I agree with nothing that Inspector Field has said or imagined,” said Dickens. “I am trying to explain something to you. Tell me, my dear Wilkie, do you enjoy Plato’s Socrates?” I blinked through my growing headache at this dizzying change of subject. Charles Dickens was, as everyone knew, a self-educated man and somewhat sensitive about the fact, despite his rigorous attempts at self-education throughout his lifetime. I had never heard him bring up Plato or Socrates before and could not guess at any connection these philosophers might have to the topics of our conversation. “Plato?” I said. “Socrates? Yes, of course. Marvellous.” “Then you will forgive me if I put to you a few Socratic questions in our mutual quest of discovering and bringing out an innate—but perhaps not obvious—truth.” I nodded. “Assuming that the man we are referring to as Drood is more than an hallucination or cynically created illusion,” Dickens said softly, setting down his brandy glass and steepling his fingers, “have you wondered, my dear Wilkie, why I have continued seeing him over the past two years?” “I had no idea you had continued seeing him, Charles,” I lied. Dickens smiled sceptically at me from behind the pyramid of his long fingers. “But if you had continued his acquaintance… for argument’s sake,” I went on, “then I would assume your earlier explanation to me would be the reason.”

“Learning the finer and higher arts of mesmerism,” said Dickens. “Yes,” I said. “And details of his ancient religion.” “All worthy goals,” said Dickens, “but do you think such minor curiosity would justify the very real risks one would have to take? The hounding by Inspector Field’s zealous agents? The repeated descents into Undertown? The mere proximity to a madman who —according to our esteemed inspector—has killed hundreds?” I had no idea what Dickens was asking me now. After a laudanum-fuzzy moment of what I hoped was taken as deep contemplation, I said, “No… no, I think not.” “Of course not,” said Dickens. He was using his schoolmaster voice. “Have you ever considered, my dear Wilkie, that I might be defending London from the monster’s wrath?” “Defending?” I repeated. The rheumatical gout had now encircled my head and enveloped both eyes and my cranium with pain. “You have read my books, my friend. You have heard me speak. You have visited the homes for the poor and for the lost women that I have helped start and have funded. You know my views on social issues.” “Yes,” I said. “Yes, of course, Charles.” “Then do you have any idea of the anger seething and fomenting there in Undertown?” “Anger?” I said. “Drood’s anger, you mean?” “I mean the anger of the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of men, women, and children driven into those subterranean vaults, sewers, basem*nts, and slums,” said Dickens, his voice rising to the point that Caroline might have heard it from downstairs. “I mean, my dear Wilkie, the anger of those thousands in London who cannot eke out a daily living even in the worst slums of the surface and who are driven down into the darkness and stench like rats. Like rats, Wilkie.” “Rats,” I repeated. “What are we speaking of, Charles? Surely you are not saying that this… Drood… represents the tens of thousands of London’s poorest residents. I mean, you yourself said that the man is grotesque… a foreigner.” Dickens chuckled and tapped the ends of his fingers together in a manic rhythm. “If Drood is an illusion, my dear Wilkie, he is an illusion in the form of upper London’s worst nightmare. He is a darkness in the heart of the soul’s deepest darkness. He is the personified wrath of those who have lost the last meagre rays of hope in our modern city and our modern world.” I had to shake my head. “You have lost me, Charles.” “Let me begin again. It is growing late. Why would such a creature as Drood seek me out and select me in the fields of death that were the Staplehurst accident, Wilkie?” “I wasn’t aware that he had sought you out, Charles.” Dickens flicked his right hand in a quick gesture of impatience and raised his cigar again. Through the blue smoke he said, “Of course he sought me out. You need to listen, my dear Wilkie. As both novelist and dear friend, it is the one area in which your sensitivities should seek improvement. You are the only person on earth to whom I have revealed the existence of Drood and my relationship to him. You must listen if you are to

understand the dire importance of this… drama. This drama that Inspector Field insists on treating as if it were a game and a farce.” “I am listening,” I said coolly. I did not care for Dickens—a mere author whom I had outsold in numbers of recent books published and a man who had never received an advanced payment from a publisher on the level I had—when he chose to criticise me. “Why would Drood choose me? Of all the survivors at Staplehurst, why would the awakened-from-his-coffin Drood choose me?” I thought about this while I covertly massaged my throbbing right temple. “I am not sure, Charles. You were certainly the most famous man on the train that day.” With your mistress and her mother, I silently appended. Dickens shook his head. “It is not my fame that drew Drood to me and which now holds him in check,” he said softly between long exhalations of blue smoke. “It is my ability.” “Your ability.” “As a writer,” Dickens said almost impatiently. “As… you will pardon my immodesty due to the centrality of this point… as perhaps the most important writer in England.” “I see,” I lied. Then, perhaps, I did finally see. At least a glimmer. “Drood wants you to write something for him.” Dickens laughed. It was not a cynical or derisive laugh—I might have taken my headache and gone off to bed at that moment if it had been—but rather Dickens’s usual boyish, deep, head-back, sincere laugh. “I would say, yes,” he said, tapping ashes into the onyx ashtray at his chairside. “He insists that I write something. Nothing less than his biography, my dear Wilkie. Certainly an effort that would require five long volumes, perhaps more.” “His biography,” I said. If Dickens was weary of my repeating his statements, he was not as weary of it as I was. The evening that had started with a fine meal and laughter had now risen—or descended—into the realm of pure insanity. “It is the only reason that Drood has not unleashed the full extent of his wrath upon me, upon my family, upon the accursed Inspector Field, upon you, upon all of London,” Dickens said wearily. “Upon me?” I said. It was as if Dickens had not heard me. “Almost every week I descend into the Hades that is London Undertown,” he went on. “Every week I take out my notebook and I listen. And I write notes. And I nod. And I ask questions. Anything to draw out the interviews. Anything to postpone the inevitable.” “The inevitable?” “The inevitable explosion of this monster’s anger when he discovers that, in truth, I have written not a word of his execrable ‘biography,’ my dear Wilkie. But I have heard much… too much. I have heard of ancient rituals disgusting beyond all abilities of a sane Englishman to comprehend them. I have heard of mesmeric magnetic influence turned to outrageous and unspeakable ends—seduction, rape, sedition, the use of others in revenge, terror, murder. I have heard… too much.” “You must cease going down into that world,” I said, thinking of King Lazaree’s quiet

and pleasurable alcove deep beneath St Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery. Dickens laughed again, but more raggedly this time. “If I do not go to him, he comes to me, Wilkie. On my reading tour. At railway stations. In hotels in Scotland and Wales and Birmingham. At Gad’s Hill Place. In the night. It was Drood’s face floating outside my first-storey window that night Dickenson went sleepwalking.” “And did Drood kill young Dickenson?” I asked, seeing my chance to pounce. Dickens blinked at me several times before he said slowly, wearily, perhaps guiltily, “I have no idea, Wilkie. The boy asked me to be his guardian for a few weeks, in name only. He had his inheritance paid through my bank and my cheque. Then he… went away. That is all I can tell you.” “But certainly,” I said, pressing my advantage, “Drood would have liked to have the boy’s money as well as a biography written. Could he have used his evil mesmeric influence to have someone kill the lad and steal his gold to be used in his—Drood’s— service?” Dickens looked at me so steadily and so coldly that I flinched back in my chair. “Yes,” said the Inimitable. “With Drood, anything is possible. The monster could have had me kill young Dickenson and bring his money to the Undertown temple and I would not remember it. I would have thought it a dream, a half-memory of some stage drama from long ago.” My heart pounded and my breathing all but stopped at this confession. “Or,” continued Dickens, “he could have had you do that deed, my dear Wilkie. Drood knows of you, of course. Drood has plans for you.” I exhaled, coughed, and tried to slow the pounding of my heart. “Nonsense,” I said. “I have never met the man, if man he is.” “Are you sure?” asked Dickens. The wicked smile was there again beneath his whiskers. I thought of Dickens’s earlier, inexplicable mention of my experience in Birmingham. This was the right time to ask him about it—the only time, perhaps—but the pounding of my headache was now as rapid and insistent as the pounding of my heart there in that small, overheated room. Instead, I said, “You say he comes to your home, Charles.” “Yesss.” Dickens sighed back into his chair. He stubbed out the short remnant of his cigar. “It has worn on me, Wilkie. The secrecy. The constant sense of terror. The dissembling and playacting in his presence. The trips into London and the effect of the descents into Undertown and its horrors. The constant sense of threat to Georgina, Katey, the children… Ellen. It has worn on me.” “Of course,” I murmured. I thought of Inspector Field and the others out in the rain. Waiting. “So you see, I must go to America,” whispered Dickens. “Drood will not follow me there. He cannot follow me there.” “Why not?” Dickens sat bolt upright and stared at me with wide eyes and, for the first time in our long association, I saw pure terror on my friend’s countenance. “He cannot!” he cried. “No, of course not,” I said hurriedly.

“But while I am gone,” whispered Dickens, “you will be in great danger, my friend.” “Danger? Me? Why on earth should I be in danger, Charles? I have nothing to do with Drood or this dreadful game you and Field are playing with him.” Dickens shook his head but for a moment did not bother to speak or even look at me. Finally he said, “You shall be in great danger, Wilkie. Drood has already passed the black wings of his control over you at least once—almost certainly more than once. He knows where you live. He knows your weaknesses. And—most terribly for you—he knows that you are a writer and that you are now widely read both here in England and in America.” “What does that have to do with anything…” I began. When I stopped in mid-sentence, Dickens nodded again. “Yes,” he whispered. “I am his biographer of choice, but he knows he can find another should I die… or should he discover the extent of my desperate game and decide to dispose of me. I shall not depart for America until November at the earliest—I have much to do and much convincing of Drood that I go to the United States only to prepare the way for the publication of his biography—and you and I shall talk again many times and of many things before I sail, Wilkie, but promise me now that you will be very careful.” “I promise,” I said. I knew at that moment that my friend Charles Dickens had gone mad. We spoke of other things, but I ached abominably and Dickens was obviously exhausted. It was not even eleven PM when we said our goodnights and Dickens went off to his guest room and I to my bedroom. I let the girl douse all the lamps in the house. CAROLINE WAS WAITING in my bed, sleeping, but I woke her and sent her downstairs to her own room. This was no night for her to be up on the first floor where Dickens and I slept. I got into my night gown and drank down three tall glasses of laudanum. The usually competent medicine did little to allay either my pain or my anxiety this June night. After lying in bed in the dark for an undetermined period, feeling my heart pound in my chest like the pendulum of some thudding but silent clock, I rose and went to the window. The rain had stopped, but a summer fog had risen and was now creeping through the hedges and shrubs in the small park across the way. The moon had not worked free of the low overcast, but the clouds hurrying above the rooftops were limned with an almost liquid grey-white light. Puddles threw back a multitude of yellowed reflections from the corner streetlamp. There was no one out this night, not even the boy who had replaced Gooseberry. I tried to imagine where Field and his many operatives had positioned themselves. In that empty house near the corner? In the darkness of the alley to the east? A real clock—the one in our downstairs hallway—slowly struck twelve. I went back to bed, closed my eyes, and tried to slow my mind. From somewhere far below, borne up by the medium of the hollow walls and occasional

grates, there came a subtle rustling. A scuttling. A door opening? No, I thought not. A window, then? No. A cellar-dark slow shifting of bricks, perhaps, or some slow but minded movement amidst heaps of black coal. But definitely a scuttling. I sat up in bed and clutched my bedclothes to my chest. My accursed novelist’s imagination, perhaps aided by the laudanum, offered up clear visions of a rat the size of a small dog pressing its way through the renewed hole in the coal cellar wall. But this oversized rat had a human face. The face of Drood. A door creaked. Floor boards moaned ever so softly. Dickens sneaking out into the night, as Inspector Field had so confidently predicted? I slipped out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown, and went to one knee, opening the lowest drawer of my dresser with exaggerated care so as not to make a sound. The huge pistol given to me by Detective Hatchery was there where I had left it under my folded summer linens. It felt absurdly heavy and bulky in my hand as I tip-toed to my door and opened it with a wince-producing protest of hinges. The hallway was empty, but now I could hear voices. Whispering voices. Men’s voices, I thought but could not be certain. Glad that I had left my stockings on, I moved out into the hall and stood at the head of the dark staircase. Other than the pendulum thud and inner ticking of the hallway clock downstairs, there was no noise coming up from the ground floor. The whispers rose again. They came from just down the hall. Could Caroline—angry at me for sending her away—have come up to talk to Dickens? Or Carrie, who had always considered Charles Dickens her favourite visitor to our house? No, the whispers were not coming from Dickens’s guest room. I saw a vertical slice of soft light coming through the partially opened study door and moved carefully down the hall, the heavy pistol pointing towards the floor. There was a single lighted candle in there. By pressing my face against the door, I could make out the three chairs and three figures sitting near the cold fireplace. Dickens in a red Moroccan robe was sitting in the wing chair he had occupied earlier. He leaned forward above the only candle, his expression lost to shadows, but his hands busy working the air as he whispered urgently. Listening from the desk chair was the Other Wilkie. His beard was slightly shorter than mine, as if he had trimmed it recently, and he wore my spare set of spectacles. The two circles of glass reflected the candle and made his eyes look demonic. In the tall chair I had occupied an hour earlier, the back of the chair now towards me, I could make out only a black arm, long pale fingers, and a hint of bare scalp rising above the dark leather. I knew who it was, of course, even before the form leaned forward into the candlelight to hiss-whisper some response to Dickens. Drood was in my house. I remembered the image of the rat in the coal cellar, then saw instead a curling tendril of smoke or fog creeping between the bricks down there, coalescing into this simulacrum of a man. I felt very dizzy. I leaned back against the doorjamb to steady myself, realising as I did

so that I could open the door, stride in, kill Drood with two shots, and then turn the pistol on the Other Wilkie. And then, perhaps… upon Dickens himself. No… I could shoot Drood, but could I kill him? And as for shooting the Other Wilkie, would that not be tantamount to shooting myself? Would the Metropolitan Police come at Caroline’s hysterical behest in the grey light of morning to find three dead bodies on the floor of Wilkie Collins’s study, one of them being the cold corpse of Wilkie Collins? I leaned forward to hear what they were saying, but the whispering stopped. First Dickens raised his head to look at me. Then the Other Wilkie, his round face bunched up like a rabbit’s above his beard and below that endless forehead, turned his pale face to stare at me. Then Drood turned… slowly, terribly. His lidless eyes gleamed as red as embers from Hell. Forgetting that I still held the pistol, I pushed the door shut with a hollow thud and went back to my bedroom. Behind me, just audible through the closed study doors, the talk began again, but not in whispers now. Did I hear soft laughter before I closed and locked my bedroom door? I shall never be sure.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

That same summer of 1867 came close to seeing Caroline, Carrie, our three servants (George, Besse, and Agnes), and me without a home. We were almost turned out onto the street. We had known that the lease on 9 Melcombe Place was expiring, of course, but I had been confident that the terms of the lease could be and would be renewed for another year or two, at the very least, despite my frequent quarrels with the landlord there. My confidence turned out to have been misplaced. So July was given to much rushing around London trying to find a place to live. It hardly bears saying that I was so busy with The Moonstone up through June—I had the first three numbers written to show Dickens by then—and so busy after June with another project that Dickens had brought to me, that it was Caroline who had to do the rushing about. While she rushed, I retired to the peace of my club to complete work on the first three

numbers of The Moonstone. On the last two days of June, I spent the weekend at Gad’s Hill and read the completed chapters to Dickens, who was so delighted with what he heard that he agreed on the spot to pay about £750 so that All the Year Round would have the rights, with publication of the first number slated for 15 December. I immediately used this news to get the Harper brothers in the United States to match that amount for serial rights there. When I returned to London on 1 July, Caroline was buzzing around my head like a hungry fly, asking me to go see various possible homes that she had found for lease or sale. I did so and all were obviously a waste of my time except for the possibility of one place on Cornwall Terrace. I chastised Caroline for looking at places outside of Marylebone, since I had grown fond of that neighbourhood. (Also, of course, I needed any new residence with Caroline and Carrie to remain within easy distance of Bolsover Street, where “Mrs Dawson” had all but taken up permanent residence.) My quarrelsome landlord at Melcombe Place now insisted that we have the house there vacated by the first of August—a demand that I met with equanimity and was willing to ignore when the time came, but one which gave Caroline severe headaches and provoked days of even more frenzied searching and long evenings of voluble complaining. In May, Dickens had invited me to collaborate with him on a long tale for the Christmas 1867 issue of All the Year Round and I had agreed, but only after long and sometimes almost comically bitter negotiations on payment with Wills at the magazine (Dickens, prudently, avoided all financial negotiations with me). I had demanded the very high rate of £400 for my half of the tale, although I confess to you, Dear Reader, that this sum had come to mind only because it was precisely ten times what I had been paid for my first successful submission to Dickens’s magazine—a story called “Sister Rose”—in 1855. I finally agreed to £300 not out of weakness or failure of nerve, but because I wanted to associate myself publicly with Dickens again and, in private, bind up any minor wounds that might have been inflicted over the Drood affair that month. Dickens was, throughout that summer, in the best of spirits. I was ready to return to work on The Moonstone for the rest of July, but during my weekend at Gad’s Hill Dickens convinced me that we should begin the collaboration on the Christmas tale immediately. He had suggested a story based upon our journey across the Alps in 1853 —happier times for both of us in many ways—and had contributed the title, No Thoroughfare. Caroline was delighted to hear that I was putting The Moonstone on the shelf for a while; she was furious to hear that I would be spending much of the next several months at Gad’s Hill. That same Monday upon my return from Gad’s Hill—with Caroline locked in her room crying and snivelling accusations about my abandoning her to find a home for us with no help from me—I received a note from Dickens, who had come into town to work at his offices at the magazine: This is to certify that I, the undersigned, was (for the time being) a drivelling ass when I

declared the Christmas Number to be composed of Thirty-two pages. And I do hereby declare that the said Christmas Number is composed of Forty-eight pages, and long and heavy pages too, as I have heretofore proved and demonstrated with the sweat of my brow. This then was the bantering mood that Charles Dickens was in that July of 1867. Martha R—— was in a much better mood than Caroline G—— that summer, and most days, after I finished my work at the Athenaeum Club, I found myself heading to Bolsover Street to dinner and to spend the night. Since I did keep a room at my club from time to time and since I was also frequently taking the train out to Gad’s Hill to confer with Dickens on No Thoroughfare and would sometimes spend the night there as well, Caroline asked no questions. Then one evening, just as I was finishing an early dinner at my club, I looked up to see Inspector Charles Frederick Field striding across the dining room. Without asking permission, he pulled a chair up to my solitary table and sat down. My first temptation was to say, “Only gentlemen are allowed in this club, I fear, Inspector,” but seeing his visage creased by a very uncommon smile, I merely dabbed a napkin at my lips, raised an eyebrow in interrogation, and waited. “Good news, my dear Mr Collins, and I wanted to be the first to tell you.” “You caught…” I looked around at the few other diners in the large room. “. . . the subterranean gentleman?” “Not yet, sir. Not yet. But soon enough! No, this concerns your current problem of acquiring new lodgings.” I had not told Inspector Field about our losing our lease, but I was far beyond being surprised at any information the man might have in his possession. I continued waiting. “You remember the obstacle that Mrs Shernwold was presenting,” he said softly, glancing around as if we were two conspirators. “Of course.” “Well, sir, the obstacle is no more.” I was truly surprised at this. “The lady has changed her mind?” I said. “The lady,” said Inspector Field, “is dead.” I blinked several times and leaned forward myself, whispering even more conspiratorially than had the inspector. “How?” Mrs Shernwold was one of those skinny, crotchety crones in her sixties who showed every sign of living into her skinnier, even more crotchety nineties. “She had the good grace to fall down a flight of stairs and break her neck, Mr Collins.” “Shocking!” I said. “Where?” “Well, in the house at Number Ninety Gloucester Place, it is true, but on the servants’ stairway. No place you would have to be reminded of her misfortune should you move there.” “The servants’ stairway,” I repeated, thinking of my lady of the green skin and ivory tusks. “What on earth was Mrs Shernwold doing on the servants’ stairs?” “We shall never know,” cackled the inspector. “But the timing could not be more

fortuitous, could it, Mr Collins? Nothing stands in the way of you making an offer for the house now.” “The missionary son,” I said. “Surely he will return from Africa or wherever he is and…” Inspector Field waved this consideration away with one calloused hand. “It turns out that the mortgage on Number Ninety Gloucester Place was never paid off by poor Mrs Shernwold. The house was never hers to give away, sir.” “Who has the paper on it, then?” “Lord Portman. It turns out that the house was always under the control of Lord Portman.” “I have met Lord Portman!” I cried, loudly enough that several of the diners turned to stare. In a much lower voice, I said, “I know him, Inspector. A reasonable man. I believe that he owns much of the property there around Portman Square… on Baker Street as well as Gloucester Place.” “I believe that you are correct, Mr Collins,” said Field with that satisfied and strangely evil grin. “Do you have any idea what he is asking for the place?” I said. “I did take the liberty of enquiring,” said Inspector Field. “Lord Portman says that he would agree to a twenty-year lease on the property for eight hundred pounds. That includes those lovely stables in the mews, of course. One could sublet those to offset the rent.” My mouth went dry and I sipped some port. £800 was a fortune—more than I had free at the time—but I also knew that upon the event of my mother’s death, Charley and I would inherit, in equal shares, some £5,000 left to her by her aunt, even though—due to the terms of our father’s will—the rest of the capital in his estate and hers would remain tied up. And the inspector was undoubtedly right about the prospect of subletting the rather handsome stables. Inspector Field had removed two suspiciously dark cigars from his jacket pocket. “I presume your club’s policies allow smoking in the dining hall,” he said. “Of course.” He clipped off the ends of both cigars, handed me one, lit his, puffed happily, and held the match out to light mine. I bent forward and allowed him to do so. Inspector Field waved over Bartles, the oldest and most dignified of the club’s waiters, and said, “My good man, be so kind as to bring me a glass of what Mr Collins is drinking. Thank you.” As Bartles hurried away—frowning slightly at this indifferently dressed stranger’s peremptory tone—I marvelled, not for the first time, at how my destinies had become so intertwined with this strange, imperious policeman’s. “Good cigar, don’t you think, Mr Collins?” It tasted like something grown and harvested in a mouldering boot in a forgotten cellar. “First-rate,” I said. The inspector’s wine arrived and the always-aware and always-conservative

parsimonious part of my mind added it, reluctantly, to my already significant tab here at the club. “To your very good turn of fortune, sir,” said Inspector Field, lifting his glass. I lifted mine and touched crystal to crystal, thinking as I did so that perhaps Caroline would now—finally—quit complaining and caterwauling. I confess that not once then or in the coming days did I think of poor Mrs Shernwold and her ironic fate, except when I lied to Caroline about where and how the old lady had met her demise. I BELIEVE THAT this is time, Dear Reader from my posthumous future, for me to tell you a little bit about the Other Wilkie. I have to presume that until now you have believed this Other Wilkie to be either a figment of my imagination or a function of the laudanum I am forced to take. He is neither. All my life I have been haunted by a second self. As a very young child I was sure that I had a twin as a playmate and often told my mother about him. As a boy, I would hear my father speak of giving drawing lessons “to Wilkie” and know that I had not been in the house at the time. It was my Doppelgänger who had benefited from those lessons. As a very young man of fifteen, encountering my first experience of physical love with an older woman, I was not surprised to look over into the shadowed corner and see the Other Wilkie—as young and bright-eyed and unbearded as myself—watching with great interest. In my early adulthood, this second self seemed to recede into the grey realm from which he had come. For several years, I was sure that I had left him behind. But a few years before the period I write of in this memoir, when the rheumatoid gout became too persistently painful to endure without the help of tincture of opium, the Other Wilkie returned. While my personality had become softer, more convivial, friendly to all, that of the Other Wilkie seemed to have grown harsher and more aggressive during our absence from one another. Years earlier, when I had first met Percy Fitzgerald (before Fitzgerald had become such a favourite of Dickens), I confided to the younger man how I “was subject to a curious ghostly influence, having often the idea that ‘someone is standing behind me.’ ” I was never dismissive of the effect that the laudanum had on summoning this Other Wilkie. As Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater and a friend to both my parents, once wrote—“If a man ‘whose talk is full of oxen,’ should become an Opium-eater, the probability is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all)—he will dream about oxen.” My obsession, in both my writing and my life, has been about double identity—of a Doppelgänger hovering just beyond the hazy boundaries of dayto-day reality—so there is little wonder that the opium I consumed daily, a drug so frequently and effectively used to open doors to other realities, should have summoned the Other Wilkie who had been my nursery-room playmate. Should you know my writings, Dear Reader, you would be aware that this question of identity has permeated most of my stories and all of my novels, beginning with Antonina, which I began when I was only twenty-two years of age. Doubles, often

representing good and evil, wander the pages of my tales. Frequently my characters (I think of Laura Fairlie in my Woman in White and Magdalen Vanstone in my more recent No Name) have their identities cruelly and violently taken from them so that they must go inhabit the hollow husks of other names, other minds, other skins. Even when my characters are permitted to retain their own identities, more often than not in my novels they must conceal those identities, assume the identities of others, or face the loss of that identity through injury to their sight, hearing, speech, or because of loss of limbs. New personalities are constantly surfacing within my characters, a transformation brought about more and more frequently by the use of drugs. Charles Dickens despised this aspect to my writing, but my readers apparently loved it. And I should mention that I was not the only writer to be obsessed with the questions of “the other self” and of dual, twin, or confused identities: a certain scribbler with the name of William Shakespeare had included such themes and conventions in his work far more frequently than I. I often wondered—even before the nightmare period of Drood began—if I was a lesser man because of the traits missing in me but presumably present in the Other Wilkie. There is, for instance, the matter of my name. Or, rather, other people’s use of my name. I seemed to be “Wilkie” to everyone: not “Mr Collins” (although Inspector Field and his operatives had gone out of their way to use the honourific) nor even “Collins” (as in the way I might call Charles Dickens “my dear Dickens” to his face)… merely “Wilkie.” It was as if I had always remained a child to others, even to children. Carrie grew up calling me Wilkie. Dickens’s many children, during all the years of their growth, called me Wilkie unless ordered otherwise by Dickens or Catherine or Georgina. Men at my club, who would never address their peers with their Christian names, even though they may have known these others for decades, felt free to call me Wilkie almost immediately after our introductions. It was a curious thing. The morning after I peered in on Dickens speaking with Drood and the Other Wilkie in my study—and then hastily retreated—I confessed to the Inimitable over breakfast that I had had a strange dream about such a meeting. “But it was real!” cried Dickens. “You were there, my dear Wilkie! We spoke for hours.” “I remember none of the content of the discussion,” I said, feeling my skin prickle with icy needles. “That is perhaps for the best,” said Dickens. “Drood sometimes uses his magnetic influence to erase some or all memory of a meeting, should he think that such a memory would put him or his interlocutor in danger. Such mesmeric erasure does not work with me, of course, since I am a co-practitioner of the mesmeric arts.” Are you indeed? I thought sarcastically. Aloud, I said, “If my dream was real, if the meeting was real, how did Drood get into the house? I happen to know that the building was securely locked.” Dickens smiled as he applied marmalade to a second piece of toast. “He did not enlighten me on that topic, my dear Wilkie. My impression over the past two years has

been that there are few places that Drood cannot go if he wishes to go there.” “You’re saying that he is some kind of ghost.” “Not at all, my dear Wilkie. Not at all.” “Will you tell me, then,” I said with some asperity, “the content of our ‘hours’ of discussion… a content that this phantom has ordered me to forget?” Dickens hesitated. “I shall,” he said at last. “But I believe it might be best if I wait to do so. There are imminent events that may not be in your interest to know about at the present time, my dear Wilkie. And other facts that it is in your interest not to be aware of in terms of your own honour… so, for instance, you can be truthful when you tell Inspector Charles Frederick Field that you did not meet with Drood and have no knowledge of the phantom’s plans.” “Then why did he—or you—tell me about them last night?” I pressed. I had not taken my morning laudanum yet and my body and brain ached for it. “To receive your permission,” said Dickens. “Permission for what?” I was close to becoming angry. Dickens smiled again and patted my arm in an insufferable way. “You shall see soon enough, my friend. And when these things come to pass, I shall tell you all the details of our long conversation last night. You have my word on this.” I had to settle for this, even though I was far less than convinced that there had been any meeting of Drood, Dickens, and the Other Wilkie. It seemed far more likely that Dickens was taking advantage of my laudanum dream for his own inscrutable purposes. Or that the Other Wilkie had his own secret purposes and plans. This possibility made my skin grow even colder. WE MOVED TO Number 90 Gloucester Place in early September of 1867. I had been forced to raise a loan through my solicitors for the £800 purchase of the lease, but Inspector Field had been correct about the prospect of renting the stables on the mews behind the house; I sublet them to a woman with four horses for £40 a year, although I was to have a devil of a time getting her to pay on time. The house on Gloucester Place was much larger and grander than the home we had leased at Melcombe Place. This house was set back from the street and terraced, five storeys high, with ample room for a family much larger than ours and for servants far more numerous and well-trained and better turned-out than our three poor waifs. We now had enough guest rooms to accommodate a small army of visitors. The dining room on the ground floor was thrice the size of that in Melcombe Place, and we used a comfortable room behind it as our family sitting room. I immediately took possession of the huge L-shaped double drawing room on the ground floor as my study, although it was directly in the path of visitors passing by in the hall, servants cleaning, Caroline working in the nearby sitting room, and all the other intrusion and traffic of daily life. But with its huge fireplace, high windows, central location in the home, and airy feeling, it had none of the closed-off darkness of my Melcombe Place study. I could only hope that the Other Wilkie would not make the move with us.

When remodelling work on the house was finally completed in the late autumn, it was much to my liking. I had books and pictures everywhere, of course, and the panelled walls of Gloucester Place lent themselves to displaying my art much better than had the dark, wallpapered walls at our previous residences. I had a portrait of my mother as a young girl in a white dress— painted by Margaret Carpenter—that I hung in my study. My mother never saw it there (since it would have been inappropriate for her to visit the house with Caroline G—— in it), but I reported to her in a letter that it was “still like you after all these years.” (This was not quite true, since my mother was now in her seventies and age had taken its toll.) Also in my study were a portrait of my father and a painting of Sorrento by him, large paintings that flanked my massive writing table, which had also been my father’s. On another panelled wall in that room hung a portrait of me as a young man done by my brother, Charley, and another portrait of me by Millais. The only work of my own in the house was my Academy painting The Smuggler’s Retreat, which I hung in the dining room. I did not trust the novelty of gas lighting—although Dickens and others doted on it—so my rooms, books, drapes, writing table, and paintings in Number 90 Gloucester Place continued to be lighted by wax candles and kerosene lamps just as in my previous homes. I loved the soft light that candles and fireplaces imparted to everything—not the least to people’s faces when gathered around a hearth or dining table—and would never have supplanted it with the harsh, inhuman glare of gas lighting, even though working by candlelight or lantern glow often gave me severe headaches which required the administration of more laudanum. It was worth the price for the ambience. The house, however grand-looking from the outside, had fallen into some disrepair under the regime of the late Mrs Shernwold, and it took a small army of workmen more than a month to paint, repair or install plumbing, knock down partitions, repanel, retile, and generally bring the house up to the standards one would expect of a famous author’s home. My first step in dealing with this chaos was to end all social visitations, either coming or going. My second was to absent myself from the potential felicity of Number 90 Gloucester Place—sleeping and working for weeks exclusively at my mother’s cottage at Southborough or at Gad’s Hill Place—and to leave the dusty, dirty supervision to Caroline. As I wrote to my friend Frederick Lehman on 10 September, the day after we moved in—“I had an old house to leave—a new house to find—that new house to bargain for and take—lawyers and supervisors to consult—British workmen to employ —and through it all, to keep my literary business going without so much as a day’s stoppage.” That autumn was a warm one, and Dickens and I carried out our collaboration on No Thoroughfare primarily in his lovely little Swiss chalet. Dickens had turned his long writing table up on the first floor there into a sort of partners desk—with two leg wells— and we put in long hours of scribbling together with only the hum of bees and the corresponding hum of the occasional comment or question passing between us to disturb

the comfortable autumn silence. Back near the end of August, Dickens had sent me a note that typified the easy give-andtake of ideas and narrative that would mark our work on this project: I have a general idea which I hope will supply the kind of interest we want. Let us arrange to culminate in a wintry flight and pursuit across the Alps, under lonely circ*mstances, and against warnings. Let us get into all the horrors and dangers of such an adventure under the most terrific circ*mstances, either escaping from or trying to overtake (the latter I think) some one, on escaping from or overtaking whom the love, prosperity, and Nemesis of the story depend. There we can get ghostly interest, picturesque interest, breathless interest of time and circ*mstance, and force the design up to any powerful climax we please. If you will keep this in your mind, as I will in mine, urging the story towards it as we go along, we shall get a very Avalanche of power out of it, and thunder it down on the readers’ heads. Even by late September we had no Avalanche yet and Dickens could only report that “I am jogging at the pace of a wheelbarrow propelled by a Greenwich Pensioner” and “Like you I am working with a snail-like slowness . . .,” but the work together at Gad’s Hill accelerated both the pace of our separate and co-mingled narratives and raised our levels of enthusiasm. By 5 October I was back at my mother’s cottage, enjoying good meals and a feeling that the end of our joint endeavour was in sight, while Dickens was sending the following note: I have brought on Marguerite to the rescue, and I have so left it as that Vendale—to spare her—says it was an accident in the storm, and nothing more. By the way, Obenreizer has received a cut from Vendale, made with his own dagger. This in case you want him with a scar. If you don’t, no matter. I have no doubt my Proof of the Mountain adventure will be full of mistakes, as my MS. is not very legible. But you will see what it means. The Dénouement I see pretty much as you see it—without further glimpses as yet. The Obenreizer question I will consider (q’ry Suicide?). I have made Marguerite wholly devoted to her lover. Whenever you may give me notice of your being ready, we will appoint to meet here to wind up. I wonder, Dear Reader, what importance these working notes between two such professional authors might have a century and more hence? Very little, I would suppose, but given Dickens’s fame, even in my lifetime, perhaps even these hastily scribbled and cryptic missives might be of some interest to some minor scholar one day. Could we say the same of the notes I sent Dickens? Alas, we shall never know, since Dickens still regularly burned all correspondence sent to him, continuing—as it were—the ongoing conflagration that he first began in the autumn of 1860. It was that same 5 October, the first Saturday of the new month, that I returned home to Number 90 Gloucester Place—having not written or cabled Caroline ahead of time that I would be returning—only to arrive late, to find most of the new home’s rooms unlit, and to discover Caroline having dinner with a strange man in the kitchen. I confess to being startled, if not angered. Caroline smiled at me from her place at the

table—the servants were gone that night—although I saw the blush begin at her neckline and work its way up behind her ears and then around to her cheeks. “What is this?” I asked the man. “Who are you?” He was a thin, sallow, short, unimpressive little weasel of a man, his jacket of the most common moleskin. Everything about him was common. He rose and began to answer me, but before he could speak, I said, “Wait, I know you.… I hired you a month ago. Clow, isn’t it? Or something like that. You’re the plumber.” “Joseph Clow, sir,” he said, his voice all whine and adenoids. “And yes you did, sir. We’ve just finished the last of the upstairs plumbing today, and your housekeeper, Mrs G ——, graciously extended me an invitation to take dinner here, sir.” I gave my “housekeeper” a withering look, but she merely smiled back at me. Such insolence! I had just borrowed and spent a staggering £800 to buy this insolent baggage one of the finest mansions near Portman Square, and here she was arranging an assignation with a common workman behind my back in my own home! “Very good,” I said, giving a smile that communicated I shall deal with you later to Caroline. “I just dropped by to pick up some fresh linen. I shall be off to my club.” “Your housekeeper prepares an excellent spotted dick,” said this person. Had I detected any insolence or sarcasm, I believe I would have struck him, but his comment seemed innocent. “Mr Clow’s father is a distiller and he has part-interest in the business,” said Caroline, brazen to the end. “He brought a very fine sherry to help celebrate the completion.” I nodded and went upstairs. I did not lack for linen in my portmanteau. I had come back to renew the laudanum from my large jug. Filling my travel flask and drinking down two large glassfuls, I went to my dresser, felt around in the lower drawer beneath my linens, and found the loaded pistol that Hatchery had given me so long ago. Who would blame me if I shot both Caroline and her skinny, moustached, grimy plumber of a lover? The man had probably been in my bed in my new home even before I had—or at least it was certain he had hoped to. Then again, I realised, to the world at large, Caroline G—— was indeed my housekeeper, not my wife. I was certainly justified in shooting Joseph Clow as an intruder, but few juries or judges would see the justification of my shooting a gentleman caller who had agreed to have dinner in the servants’ kitchen with my housekeeper. Even the accursed sherry might be put into evidence by an eager prosecutor. Smiling grimly, I set the pistol away, gathered up a valise of clothing merely for the show of it, made sure my flask was topped off, and went out the front way to spend the night at my club. I did not go to the back of the house to look in again at Caroline—who had looked flushed and lovely in the candlelight, despite her advanced age of being in her thirties—or at her weasel-plumber of a prospective lover and husband. By the time I reached my club, I was whistling and in a good mood. I could see even then how I could use Mr Joseph Clow to my own advantage. DICKENS AND I completed No Thoroughfare in late October, weeks later than we had

anticipated. I was in charge of reprint rights and dealt with Frederick Chapman in the negotiations, but in the end George Smith of Smith and Elder made a better offer and I immediately transferred the rights to him. Dickens and I both saw the theatrical potential in No Thoroughfare and because, in those days, any thief with a stage and a few actors could steal literary material simply by adapting it first, we decided to steal a march on any potential thieves and adapt it ourselves. Dickens—in a hurry to wind up his affairs so that he could depart for America —rattled off a rough scenario to our actor-impresario mutual friend Fechter and gave me the responsibility of doing the hard work of adaptation after he, Dickens, had left the country. At the end of October, the tall house at Number 90 Gloucester Place was finished to my satisfaction—even the plumbing—and Caroline and I gave a house-warming dinner that also served as a farewell party for Dickens, who was scheduled to sail for America on 9 November. I hired an excellent French cook for the affair—she was to work for us on a semi-permanent basis in the coming years, although she did not live in the house—and took an active part in preparing the menu and overseeing the preparation. The party was a great success and the first of many at the Gloucester Place home. A few days later, on 2 November, I was one of the stewards at a huge and much more formal farewell banquet for Dickens that we held at the Freemasons’ Hall. There were 450 invited guests, the crème of London’s art, literary, and dramatic universe—all male of course—crowding the main body of the hall, while some 100 women (including the duplicitous but lovely Caroline G—— as well as Dickens’s sister-in-law Georgina and daughter Mary) sat sequestered up in the Ladies Gallery, though the women were allowed to join the men for coffee afterwards. Caroline’s daughter, Carrie, now almost seventeen, was also there that night. In my nervousness, I had written the organisers twice to make sure that my request for tickets for the two ladies had been honoured. The Grenadier Guards’ band played from another balcony that night. One surprise guest was Dickens’s son Sydney, a sailor whose ship had just docked in Portsmouth two nights before. British and American flags bedecked the main dining hall, and panels above twenty arches honoured with golden laurels each bore the title of one of Charles Dickens’s works. Lord Lytton, now sixty-four years of age but looking twice that, was the chairman for the evening and hovered over the proceedings like a gimlet-eyed bird of prey in all-black formal dress. When Dickens finally rose to speak after a series of increasingly hyperbolic speeches of praise, my collaborator at first faltered and then began to weep. When he finally could speak, his words were eloquent but not, many agreed afterwards, as eloquent as his tears. I confess to sitting at the main table that night, my head spinning with wine and an extra fortifying round of laudanum, and wondering what all these famous guests—Lord Chief Justice co*ckburn, Sir Charles Russell, Lord Houghton, a veritable gaggle of Royal Academicians, the Lord Mayor of London—might say if they could have seen Dickens descending into the sewers of Undertown as I had. Or if they had any suspicion of the probable fate of a lonely young man named Edmond Dickenson.

Perhaps it would not have mattered to them. On 9 November, I went up to Liverpool with Caroline and Carrie to see Dickens off as he departed for America. The author had been given the Second Officer’s spacious cabin on the deck of the Cuba. (Carrie later asked me where the Second Officer might be sleeping during the crossing, and I had to admit that I had no idea.) Unlike most accommodations on the ship, the cabin had both a door and a window that could be opened to take advantage of the fresh sea air. Dickens was fretful and distracted during our short visit and only I knew why. And I knew why only because of my continued association with Inspector Field. Despite his first-hand knowledge of the Puritanical conservative nature of Americans from a quarter of a century earlier, Dickens somehow had not yet surrendered his plan to bring Ellen Ternan to America so that she could share the tour with him, perhaps in the disguise of an assistant to Dolby. This would never come to pass, of course, but Dickens was truly a hopeless romantic when it came to such fantasies. I was not supposed to know about it, but the Inimitable had arranged with Wills at the magazine office to forward a coded telegram to the young actress in which she would be instructed on what to do once Dickens arrived in the New World. A message of “All well” would have her speeding on the next ship to America, all expenses paid through an account Dickens had left under Wills’s supervision. A reluctant code of “Safe and well” would mean that she would remain on the Continent, where she and her mother were currently vacationing while she waited word on her fate. In his heart—or perhaps “in his rational mind” would be more appropriate—Dickens must have known that fair day of 9 November, as I had known when I first heard of the foolish scheme through Inspector Field, that the message “Safe and well,” meaning “Lonely but very, very much in the scowling, prying, judging, public American eye,” would be the one sent to Ellen via Wills. Our own goodbyes were emotional. Dickens was aware of how much work he had left for me to finish—the proofings and revisions of No Thoroughfare as well as the scripting and staging with Fechter—but there was more to the emotion than that. After Carrie, Caroline, and I had descended the gangplank, I returned to the airy Second Officer’s cabin under the pretext of having forgotten one of my gloves. Dickens was expecting me. “I pray God that Drood will not follow me to America,” he whispered as we again clasped hands in farewell. “He will not,” I said with a certainty I did not feel. As I turned to leave, thinking that it was possible—even probable—that I would never see my friend Charles Dickens again, he stopped me. “Wilkie… in the conversation with Drood in your study on nine June, the discussion you do not remember… I feel it necessary to warn you…” I could not move. I felt as if my blood had turned to ice and that the ice had invaded my very cells.

“You agreed to be Drood’s biographer if something happened to me,” said Dickens. He looked seasick even though the Cuba was still firmly tied to the wharf in Liverpool Harbour and was not rocking in the least. “Drood threatened to kill you and all of your family if you reneged on this promise… just as he has threatened, repeatedly, to kill me and mine. If he finds out that I went to America to escape him rather than to speak to publishers there about his biography…” After a minute I found that I could blink. In another minute I could speak. “Think nothing of it, Charles,” I said. “Have a good reading tour in America. Return to us safe and healthy.” I went out of the cabin and down the gangplank to a waiting Carrie and a sulking, worried Caroline.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

In the month after Dickens left for America I felt rather as if my father had died again. It was not an altogether unpleasant sensation. I had never been busier. Dickens had not only left me the revisions and proofs of No Thoroughfare, but had also put me in charge of editing the entire Christmas Issue of All the Year Round. This nonplussed our friend William Henry Wills—the Inimitable’s second-in-command at the magazine, who had been unalterably opposed to Dickens’s going to America in the first place—but Wills, always the obedient soldier, soon settled into his position of second-in-command to me. I spent more and more time at the magazine’s offices as November went on and—since Dickens had also requested that I check regularly on Georgina, Mary, and Katey at Gad’s Hill (and since I found it easier to edit and work on The Moonstone there and since my brother, Charley, was also there much of the time), I was soon living more in Charles Dickens’s life than in Wilkie Collins’s. Caroline tended to agree with that assessment, although not with the good grace and humour I had anticipated, and tended to begin arguments with me whenever I did spend a few days at Number 90 Gloucester Place. As we moved towards December, I spent fewer and fewer days at my new London house and more time at Gad’s Hill or eating in Dickens’s sparse rooms and sleeping in his comfortable bed above the magazine offices.

I happened to be there when the telegram “Safe and well” arrived for Wills and was duly sent on to Ellen Ternan in Florence, where she was staying with her mother and family. How Dickens had ever imagined that Ellen might travel alone from Italy across the Atlantic to America I cannot imagine. The fantasy was simply another sign of how lost in his romantic dreams Dickens was at this time. I did learn later from Wills, almost by accident, that Dickens had known before he set sail that Americans would not have countenanced the presence of this single woman in Dickens’s small entourage. Dolby had sounded things out after his arrival and sent his verdict on the propriety of Ellen’s presence in a single telegraphed syllable—“No.” Dickens and I had agreed that the stage adaptation of No Thoroughfare should be produced at the Adelphi Theatre as close to Christmas Day as possible and that our mutual friend Charles Fechter should play the villain, Obenreizer. I had first been impressed with Fechter’s performances almost fifteen years earlier and had met him in 1860 when he was in London to play in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. By common impulse, immediately upon that meeting, Fechter and I had dispensed with the tentative formalities of acquaintance and had become fast friends. Born in London of an English mother and a German father, raised in France but having now chosen London as his home again, Fechter was a man of incredible charm and loyalty—the gift of the complete Swiss chalet to Dickens two Christmases ago had been typical of his generosity and impetuousness—but he had no more business sense than a child. Fechter’s home in London may have been the only salon less formal than my own. Whereas I had the habit of leaving guests in Caroline’s care at the table if I had to rush off for a theatre engagement or somesuch, Fechter had been known to greet guests in his dressing gown and slippers and to allow them to choose which bottle of wine they preferred and take it with them to their place at the table. He and I adored French cookery and twice we put the inexhaustible resources of gastronomic France to the test by dining on one article of food only, presented under many different forms. I remember that we once had a potato dinner in six courses and another time an egg dinner in eight courses. Fechter’s one flaw as an actor was terrible stage fright, and his dresser was known to follow him around with a basin backstage before the curtain went up. This November into December I was hurriedly writing the script for the stage version of No Thoroughfare and sent proofs straight to Fechter, who reported that he had “fallen madly in love with the subject” and immediately collaborated on the dramatic scenario. I was not surprised that the actor loved the villainous lead character of Obenreizer, since Dickens and I had held Fechter in mind as we’d created him. On the days when I rode the train out towards Rochester to Gad’s Hill Place, it was easy to think that Charles Dickens was gone for good—I still felt it quite probable that he would be, given the sad (if hidden from most) state of his health and the rigours of the American reading tour—and that I not only could someday but already was filling his place in the world.

By early December No Thoroughfare would be out in All the Year Round and I had no doubt it would be a great success. Certainly Dickens’s name had something to do with that—his Christmas stories had brought the public flocking to buy the Christmas Issue of his two different magazines for twenty years now—but it was also true that my Woman in White had sold better than some serialised Dickens tales and I was confident that The Moonstone would do even better in 1868. Sitting at the dinner table at Gad’s Hill Place with Georgina on my left, my brother, Charley, on my right, Kate down the table, and some of the other Dickens children there as well, it felt as if I had replaced the Inimitable as surely and easily and completely as Georgina Hogarth had replaced Catherine Dickens. As for my ongoing research for The Moonstone, after contacting many people in my quest for first-hand knowledge about India (as well as in my search for details on Hindoo and Mohammadan religious practices), I was put in touch with a certain John Wyllie, who had served in the Indian province of Kathiawar during his time in the Indian Civil Service. “There is no part of India… so fanatically Hindoo in religious and so startlingly barbarous in primitive ethics,” Wyllie said to me between great drams of brandy. He directed me to “a collection of Wheeler’s letters or articles in the Englishman… Eleusinian mysteries are a joke to the abominations there revealed.” When I explained that my small group of Hindoos in The Moonstone would indeed be villainous but would also have a certain noble martyrdom about them, since they would have to spend decades propitiating their gods for violating their caste rule of never travelling across the “Dark Water,” Wyllie just scoffed and stated flatly that their reinstatement in caste would be more a question of bribes paid to the right Brahman parties rather than the lifelong quest for purification my tale required. So I threw away most of the comments and advice from Mr John Wyllie, formerly of the Indian Civil Service, and went with the dictates of my Muse. For the English setting of my novel I simply reached into my memory of the Yorkshire coast. For the historical events—since the main part of the novel was to begin in 1848—I continued to rely upon the excellent library at the Athenaeum. The only thing I carried over from Mr Wyllie’s recommendations was the wild Indian province of Kathiawar; so few white men had been there and lived to tell about it that I decided I could make up its geography, topography, and particular brands and cults of Hindoo belief. I continued working on the novel every day, even amidst the unimaginable demands of preparing No Thoroughfare for the stage. News of our play had somehow arrived in the United States before the co-author of the tale upon which it was based. I received a letter from Dickens in which he announced that he had been met by theatrical managers immediately upon his arrival in New York; the men seemed to be under the impression that the script for No Thoroughfare was in the novelist’s pocket. Dickens asked me to send copies of each act as I finished it and added, “I have little doubt, my dear Wilkie, of being able to make a good thing of the Drama.”

There followed a flurry of correspondence back and forth in which Dickens announced that he was hurrying to find an American citizen to whom we could consign the MS, thus assuring the right of playing it in America while equally assuring that we would gain some profit from such a production. By Christmas Eve, Dickens had received my final copy of the play, prompting this reply from Boston: “The play is done with great pains and skill, but I fear it is too long. Its fate will have been decided before you get this letter, but I greatly doubt its success.…” The rest of the note was all about Dickens’s fear of the inevitable American pirating of some version of our story, but, in truth, I had lost real interest after the words “. . . but I greatly doubt its success.” DESPITE ALL OF THE OBLIGATIONS upon my time and energy, I had honoured, in mid-December, a written request from Inspector Field to meet him at Waterloo Bridge. I anticipated the substance of what he had to say to me and I have to say that my prediction was not in error. The old detective looked insufferably pleased with himself, which at first seemed odd, since after my telling him that nothing untowards had happened in my home the previous 9 of June, the trail of Drood had gone very cold indeed. But one of the first things that the inspector told me as we walked over Waterloo Bridge into a breeze carrying light snow, our collars turned high and Field’s heavy wool cape flapping about his shoulders like the wings of a bat, was that the Metropolitan Police had captured a Malay suspected of murder. The Malay, it turned out, was one of Drood’s lieutenants and was being interrogated “briskly” in a deep cell even as we walked. Early information from the interrogation suggested that Drood may have moved from Undertown and was hiding in the surface slums of London. It was only a matter of time, Inspector Field informed me confidently, before they would have the best lead on the Egyptian murderer that they had obtained in decades of ceaseless effort. “So the police are sharing the information with you,” I said. Inspector Field showed his large, yellow teeth in a smile. “My own men and I are carrying out the interrogation, Mr Collins. I still have many close friends on the force, you see, even if the commissioner and those higher up continue to treat me with less than the respect I have earned.” “Does the current chief of detectives know that one of Drood’s top lieutenants has been captured?” I asked. “Not yet,” said Field and set that corpulent forefinger of his alongside his nose. “Now, you may be wondering why I have called you for this meeting on such a bitter cold day, Mr Collins.” “Yes,” I lied. “Well, sir, it is with some regret that I have to declare that our long working relationship is at an end, Mr Collins. It grieves me to do so, but my resources are limited—as you might imagine, sir—and from this point on, I shall have to focus those resources on the End Game with the monster Drood.” “I am… surprised, Inspector,” I said while wrapping my red scarf higher around my face

in order to hide a smile. This was precisely what I had expected. “Does this mean that there will be no boy waiting near Number Ninety Gloucester Place to carry messages back and forth between us?” “It does, alas, Mr Collins. Which makes me remember the sad fate of poor young Gooseberry.” Here the old man amazed me by removing a huge handkerchief from his coat pocket and blowing his glowing red nose repeatedly. “Well, if our working relationship must end…” I said as if filled with reluctant sadness. “I am afraid it must, Mr Collins. And it is my opinion, sir, that Drood no longer has use for our mutual friend Mr Charles Dickens.” “Really?” I said. “How have you deduced that, Inspector?” “Well, first of all, there is the fact of last June’s anniversary of the Staplehurst meeting passing without Drood making any effort to contact Mr Dickens, or vice versa, sir.” “Certainly your cordon of trained operatives made such a rendezvous impossible for Drood,” I said as we turned our backs to the wind and began our walk back over the bridge. Inspector Field coughed a laugh. “No chance of that, sir. Where Drood wants to go, he goes. Five hundred of the Metropolitan force’s finest would not have prevented him from meeting with Dickens that night—in your very house, sir, if necessary—if he had wanted to be there. Such is the diabolical nature of the foreign monster. But the final and absolutely convincing factor in deducing that Mr Dickens is no longer of service to Drood is the simple fact that the writer is in North America now.” “How is that a convincing factor, Inspector?” “Drood would never have let Mr Dickens go so far if he still had use for him,” said the old detective. “Fascinating,” I murmured. “And do you know what that use was, Mr Collins? We have never spoken of it.” “I had never considered the matter, Inspector,” I said, happy that the frigid air on my exposed cheeks would hide the blush of a liar. “Drood was considering having Mr Dickens write something for him, sir,” announced Inspector Field in a tone of revelation. “Under coercion, if necessary. I would not be surprised if Drood caused the entire tragedy of the train wreck at Staplehurst precisely to put England’s most famous novelist under his thrall.” This was nonsense of course. How could even the “foreign monster” of the old detective’s imagination have known that Dickens would not be killed in the terrible plummet of first-class carriages from the incomplete trestle? But all I said was “Fascinating.” “And can you guess, Mr Collins, what it is that Drood would have had Mr Dickens pen and publish for him?” “His biography?” I ventured, if only to show the old man that I was not a complete dunce. “No, sir,” said Inspector Field. “Rather, a compilation of the ancient pagan Egyptian religion with all of its wicked rites and rituals and secrets of magick.”

Now I was surprised. I stopped and Inspector Field stopped next to me. Closed carriages passing had their side lamps lit, even though it was only mid-afternoon. The taller buildings along the river here were mere blue-black shadows with lamps burning in them as well. “Why would Drood have a novelist write up the details of a dead religion?” I asked. Inspector Field smiled broadly and tapped his nose again. “It ain’t dead to Drood, Mr Collins. It ain’t dead to Drood’s legion of London Undertown followers, if you take my meaning, sir. You see that, sir?” I looked towards where the inspector was pointing, northwest along the river’s edge. “The Adelphi Theatre?” I asked. “Or the site of the old Warren’s Blacking Factory beyond? Or do you mean Scotland Yard itself?” “I mean all of it, Mr Collins. And more—stretching down to Saint James Palace and back up Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square and beyond, including Charing Cross and Leicester Square back along the Strand to Covent Garden.” “What of it, Inspector?” “Imagine a huge glass pyramid there, Mr Collins. Imagine all of London from Billingsgate to Bloomsbury to Regent’s Park being huge glass pyramids and bronze sphinxes.… Imagine it if you can, sir. For Drood certainly does.” “That’s mad,” I said. “Aye, Mr Collins, it’s as mad as a hatter’s Sunday, sir,” laughed Inspector Field. “But that’s what Drood and his crypt-crawling worshippers of the old Egyptian gods want, sir. And it’s what they mean to get, if not in this century then the next. Imagine those glass pyramids—and the temples, sir, and the secret rites in those temples, with mesmeric magic and slaves to their mental influence—rising everywhere you look in that direction come the twentieth century.” “Madness,” I said. “Yes, sir,” said Inspector Field. “But Drood’s madness makes him no less dangerous. More so, I would say.” “Well then,” I said as we reached the end of the bridge again, “I am well out of it. Thank you for all your care and protection, Inspector Field.” The old man nodded but coughed into his hand. “There is one last detail, sir. One unfortunate by-product of the end of our working relationship, as it were.” “What is that, Inspector?” “Your… ah… research, sir.” “I don’t quite understand,” I said, although I understood perfectly well. “Your research into the Undertown opium dens, sir. Your Thursday trips to King Lazaree’s den, to be precise. I am sorry to tell you that I can no longer offer Detective Hatchery as your personal guide and bodyguard.” “Ahhh,” I said. “I see. Well, Inspector, think nothing of that. I was ready to terminate that aspect of my research at any rate. You see, what with the play I am putting on and the novel I am more than half done with, I simply do not have time or further need for that research.”

“Really, sir? Well… I admit that I am relieved to hear it. I was worried that Detective Hatchery’s reassignment would be an inconvenience for you.” “Not at all,” I said. In truth, my weekly public house meetings with Hatchery before my descent to King Lazaree had long since turned into weekly dinings out. At one of these in November, Hatchery—my spy now—had warned me that Inspector Field soon would be relieving him of his duty of being my bodyguard during my weekly outings. I had been prepared for this and had asked him—quite diplomatically—if he, Hatchery, were free to do detective duties outside Inspector Field’s investigative agency. He was, he said. Indeed he was. And, in fact, he had made sure that his renewed duties with Inspector Field would not include Thursday nights. “For my daughters, I told him,” said Hatchery to me over our cigars and coffee. I had offered him a generous sum for continuing his protective duties without telling his superiors. Hatchery had accepted at once and our handshake had sealed the deal, his gigantic hand enveloping mine. So it was on this mid-December day in 1867 that Inspector Field and I also shook hands and walked in opposite directions on Waterloo Bridge, assuming—at least on my part— that we should never see each other again. THAT SAME WEEK that I swept Inspector Field out of my life, I honoured another appointment, this time one that I had set, by going to the co*ck and Cheshire Cheese in Fleet Street to dine. Deliberately arriving late, I found Joseph Clow already seated and, though dressed in an ill-fitting serge suit, looking decidedly ill at ease in the surroundings that must have been far more refined—and expensive—than those he was used to as a plumber and distiller’s son. I called the wine steward over and ordered, but before I could say anything to Clow, the thin, furtive little man said, “Sir… Mr Collins… if this is about my staying for dinner that evening in October, I apologise, sir, and can only say that your housekeeper, Mrs G ——, had invited me as a reward for my finishing the upstairs plumbing ahead of schedule, sir. If it wasn’t proper for me to do so, and I see now it mightn’t have been, I just want to say that I am very sorry and…” “No apologies, no apologies,” I interrupted. Setting my hand on his rough-weave sleeve, I set the tone immediately. “I invited you here, Mr Clow… may I call you Joseph?… to apologise to you. I am sure that my look of surprise that night two months ago could have been… must have been… mistaken as one of disapproval, and I hope that my entertaining you to a fine meal here at the co*ck and Cheshire Cheese will go some small distance towards making amends for that.” “No need, sir, no need…” Clow began again, but again I interrupted. “You see, Mr Clow… Joseph… it is as Mrs G——’s employer of long standing that I speak to you now. Perhaps she told you that she has been in my employ for many years now.” “Yes,” said Clow. We were interrupted by the arrival of the waiter, who recognised me and greeted me

effusively. Realising that Clow was at a loss to choose from the menu items, I ordered for both of us. “Yes,” I continued, “even though Mrs G—— is still quite young, she and her daughter have been in my employ for many years. In truth, ever since Harriet—that is her daughter—was a small child. How old are you, Mr Clow?” “Twenty-six, sir.” “Please do me the honour of calling me Wilkie,” I said expansively. “And you shall be Joseph.” The thin-faced young man blinked rapidly at this. He was obviously not accustomed to crossing class barriers. “You realise, Joseph, that I have nothing but the highest regard for Mrs G——, and nothing but absolute respect for my obligation to look out for her and her delightful daughter.” “Yes, sir.” The wine arrived, was approved, and I made sure that Clow’s glass was filled to the brim. “When she told me of her affection for you, Joseph, I was surprised.… I admit to being surprised, since Caroline… Mrs G——… has not spoken so highly of any gentleman during all the years she has been in my employ. But her feelings and amibitions are of the highest priority to me, Joseph. Of this you can be sure.” “Yes, sir,” Clow said again. He looked like a man who had been struck on the head by one of his heavier plumber’s instruments. “Mrs G—— is a young woman, Joseph,” I went on. “She was little more than a girl when she came into my service. Despite her many duties and responsibilities in my household, she is a young woman still, of an age very similar to your own.” In truth, Caroline would be thirty-eight on her next birthday on 3 February, less than two months away. “Of course her father’s dowry is considerable, and I would be more than pleased to add to it,” I said. “This is in addition to her modest inheritance, of course.” Her father had died in Bath in January of 1852 and there was no dowry, no inheritance, and I had no intention of adding a ha’penny to those cumulative zed sums. “Well, sir… Wilkie, sir… it was only a late dinner because Mrs G—— said I’d worked so hard to get the plumbing done, sir,” said Clow. Then the food began arriving, his eyes widened at the quality and quantity of it, and our conversation grew even more onesided as I continued filling his glass and pressing my strange, subtle, seemingly selfless, and totally insincere point. MY MOTHER WAS ALSO COMPLAINING and making demands on my time at this point. She had begun suffering, she said, from various indeterminate but excruciating pains. One resisted the urge to tell her that at age seventy-seven, indeterminate (and perhaps even occasionally excruciating) pains were part of the price of longevity. My mother had always complained and my mother had always been healthy: healthier

than her husband, who had died young; healthier than her son Charles, who was racked for years with stomach pains that would turn out to be cancer; healthier, certainly, than her poor son Wilkie, who suffered from a rheumatical gout that periodically blinded him with pain. But Mother was complaining and asking—almost demanding— that I spend several days around Christmas with her down in Tunbridge Wells. This was impossible, of course, and not for the least reason that Caroline was also demanding that I spend Christmas or several days around Christmas at home with her and Carrie. This was also impossible. The premiere of No Thoroughfare had been set for Boxing Day—the day after Christmas. On 20 December I wrote to my mother: My dear Mother, I scratch one line—in the midst of the turmoil of the play—to say that you may rely on my coming to you on Christmas Day—if not before. The delays and difficulties of this dramatic work have been dreadful. I have had to write a new 5th Act—which has been completed to-day—and the play must be performed on Thursday next, with a Sunday and Christmas Day between! If I can write again, I will. If not, let us leave it that I certainly will come on Christmas Day. And, if I am not wanted on the next Monday’s or Tuesday’s Rehearsal that I come before. Your much-bothered son has hardly got a minute he can call his own. But the writing of the play is at last complete—so my principal worry is at an end. How I shall enjoy a little quiet with you! Send me a line between this and Christmas Day. I have got your heart-burn lozenges— and some chocolate for you which Charley brought from Paris. Can I bring anything else which will go into my hand-bag? Yours ever afftly WC Charley proposes crossing to you from Gadshill on Friday in Christmas week. As it was, I spent part of Christmas Day afternoon and evening with Mother in her cottage in Tunbridge Wells—she spent most of our time together complaining of her nerves and her heartburn, and also of ominous strangers in the neighbourhood—and then I returned to London on the earliest possible train the next morning. Fechter was his usual first-night ruin in the hours before the curtain opened. His vomiting due to stage fright was almost continuous in the last two hours, so that his poor dresser was absolutely worn out from running to and fro with his basin. Finally I suggested a few drops of laudanum to calm the anxious actor. Unable to speak, Fechter answered by putting out his tongue. The colour of it had turned, under the nervous terror that possessed him, to the metallic blackness of the tongue of a parrot. Once the curtain went up, however, Fechter found his voice and stride as the unspeakable villain Obenreizer. I should report that I felt no anxiety whatsoever. I knew that the play was to be a

triumph, and it was. On 27 December I wrote—from the offices of All the Year Round at No. 26 Wellington Street: My dear Mother, I have a moment to tell you that the Play last night was an immense success. The audience were delighted—and the actors were excellent. I have got the proofs which you sent me back quite safe. Charley is, I suppose, with you today. If you can write, tell me how you are, and what day next week I may come back to you? I sincerely hope and trust you are not suffering so much as when I was with you. Love to Charley. Ever yours affly WC The night of the play was the only Thursday of 1867 on which I had been forced to miss my weekly excursion to King Lazaree’s subterranean den. But I had made prior arrangements to make up for it on that Friday, 27 December—which is one reason I wrote to Mother from Dickens’s rooms at the magazine, since I had told Caroline and Martha both that I would be spending the night there—and Detective Hatchery had been kind enough to shift his night of work for me from Boxing Day to the Friday following. CAROLINE G—— WANTED marriage. This I would not consider. Martha R——, on the other hand, wanted only a baby. (Or babies, plural.) She made no demands for marriage, since the fiction of “Mr and Mrs Dawson”—her world-travelling merchant of a husband who rarely spent time at his home on Bolsover Street—was sufficient for her. It was about this time, during the success of No Thoroughfare and near my completion of The Moonstone, and especially after a second secret meeting with Mr Joseph Clow at a slightly less expensive London restaurant, that I began considering the possibility of agreeing to Martha’s wishes. The first two weeks of 1868 were quite frenetic for me and I suspect that I was happier then than at any time in my life. My letters to Mother (and scores of other friends and associates) were not exaggerations; No Thoroughfare was indeed—despite Charles Dickens’s long-distance dismissal of it—a bona fide success. I continued making at least bi-weekly visits to Gad’s Hill Place, enjoying the meals with Georgina, Charley and Katey (when Charley was there), Dickens’s son Charley and his wife, Bessie (who were there often), Dickens’s daughter Mamie (who was always there), as well as such occasional visitors as Percy Fitzgerald or William Macready and his lovely second wife. I invited all of them to come to London to see No Thoroughfare. Through my many letters, I invited others such as William Holman Hunt, T. H. Hills, Nina Lehmann, Sir Edward Landseer, and John Forster. I invited all of these people and more to dine with me at Number 90 Gloucester Place on Saturday, 18 January—not in evening costume, I emphasised—and to go from there to the theatre and to sit in the spacious author’s box with me to enjoy the play. Caroline

was delighted and began setting the three servants to with a metaphorical whip getting the huge house ready. She also spent hours conversing with the French cook. Mother wrote—actually, she had dictated the letter to Charley, who had stopped in at Tunbridge Wells for the day—to say that she had been visited by a certain Dr Ramseys, a physician visiting a family in the village who had heard of Mother’s problems and who, after a thorough examination, diagnosed her symptoms as heart congestion, gave her three medicines for the problem (which, she said, did seem to help), and recommended that she move out of the cottage in the village because of all the hammering going on there during renovations. When she told him about her beloved Bentham Hill Cottage nearby in the country outside the village, Dr Ramseys urged her to move there immediately. Charley added a note telling me that Mother had also invited her former housekeeper and cook and sometime neighbor, Mrs Wells, to join her at Bentham Hill Cottage, which was a relief to both Charley and me, since someone would then always be there to watch over her while she recovered from these minor problems. Mother added that Dr Ramseys said that she required absolute rest and that—in both his medications and future ministrations—he would do everything in his power to provide it for her. In a postscript she added that poor Dr Ramseys himself had suffered terrible burns in a fire many years before, that the pains and scars were ever with him, and thus had dedicated his life to alleviating the pain of others. OUR HOPES OF A GLORIOUS SALE of theatrical rights for No Thoroughfare to an American producer were dashed forever when a letter arrived from Dickens: “Pirates are producing their own wretched versions in all directions.” Dickens insisted that he had done everything in his power to place my script, or at least the rights to our collaboration, in honest hands—to the point that he registered No Thoroughfare as the property of Ticknor and Fields, his Boston publishers, but I had my doubts about the sincerity (or at least urgency) of his efforts. His earlier letters had, after all, condemned my final script as “far too long” and, even more irritating, as “perhaps crossing the line into mere melodrama,” so I half-suspected Dickens of waiting until he himself could revise the play… or create a new adaptation from scratch. (This suspicion was borne out the following June when Dickens did precisely that, writing a new version of the play with Fechter’s help for a premiere in Paris. It failed.) At any rate, Dickens went on to say in his letter that the Museum Theatre in Boston had rushed a theatrical adaptation of our story onto the stage an astonishing ten days after the original tale arrived in the United States. This was pure piracy, of course—and Dickens insisted that he had prodded Ticknor and Fields into threatening an injunction—but the pirates, knowing that, given Americans’ easy acceptance of such piracy, there would be an outcry against Dickens if he persisted, called the publisher’s bluff and went on with their abominably bad version. “Then,” continued Dickens in his letter, “the noble host of pirates rushed in, and it is being done, in some mangled form or other, everywhere.” Ah, well. I paid little heed to this distant disaster. As I had written to Mother on 30 December—“The play is bringing money. It is a real success—we shall all be rich.”

When I had visited her on the second of January, I brought legal papers for her to sign so that Charley and I might get our fair share of the £5,000 from Aunt Davis that was the source of her annual income— or be able to assign it to someone we chose—should Mother die before we did. Everything proceeded at breakneck speed towards the gala dinner at Gloucester Place and theatre party immediately afterward. Caroline and Carrie had decorated the huge house as if there were to be a royal coronation there, and our food bill that week equalled six months of our regular purchases. No matter. It was a time to celebrate. On a Thursday, I wrote: 90Gloucester Place Portman Square W. Jan 17th, 1868 My dear Mother, It was a great relief to me and to Charley to hear that you had made the move, and established yourself again under Mrs Wells’s care. I am not surprised to hear that you are terribly fatigued by the exertion. But when you have rested I hope and trust you will begin to feel the benefit of this change. Let me hear—in two lines—how you go on— and how soon you will let me come (or let Charley come) and see you in the new place. Remember that the quiet and the freedom from London interruptions are sure to help me to get on with my work. Also—when you can write without too much trouble—let me hear when it will be convenient for me to send a small supply of brandy and wine to Bentham Hill Cottage. The play goes on wonderfully. Every night the Theatre is crammed. This speculation on the public taste is paying, and promises long to pay me, from fifty to fifty-five pounds a week. So make yourself easy about money matters. I am getting to nearly halfway through The Moonstone. No more news at present. Goodbye. Yours ever afftly WC LITTLE DID I KNOW that this would be the last letter I should ever write to my dear mother. That second week of the new year had been so congested with work on The Moonstone and theatrical-related labours that once again I had to move my night at King Lazaree’s from Thursday to Friday. Detective Hatchery did not seem to mind—he said it was easier to find the night away from his regular duties for Inspector Field on Friday than on Thursday—so once again I treated my huge bodyguard to an excellent dinner (this one at the Blue Posts tavern on Cork Street) before he led me into the darkness of the dockside slums and escorted me safely to that terrible place of cold granite and graves that Dickens had long since christened St Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery. Hatchery had a new book to read through that night of vigil—Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, I noticed. Dickens had once mentioned to me that he liked the way Thackeray had arbitrarily divided the large novel into three “Books” and had borrowed

the idea for all of his own subsequent books. But I did not mention that small professional item to Hatchery, since I was in a hurry to get below. King Lazaree greeted me as warmly as always. (I had mentioned to him the week before that I might be coming on Friday rather than Thursday, and he had assured me in his perfect English that I would be welcome and expected any time.) Lazaree and his large Chinese guard showed me to my cot and handed me my opium pipe, prepared and lighted, as always. Filled with good feeling about the day and my life—knowing that this pleasurable sense of satisfaction would be enlarged a hundredfold during my hours under the pipe—I closed my eyes and allowed myself, for the hundredth time in the safety of that deep-sheltered cot, to drift up and away on the rising, curling smoke of amplified sensation. That moment was the end of my life as I had known it.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

You may wake now,” says Drood. I open my eyes. No, that is not correct. My eyes were already open. Now, with his permission, I can see through them. I cannot lift my head nor move it from side to side, but from where I lie supine on a cold surface, I can see enough to know that I am not in King Lazaree’s opium den. I am naked—that much I am able to see without moving my head and can tell from the press of cold marble on my back and buttocks that I am lying on what might be a block of stone or a low altar. I feel the movement of cold air across my belly and chest and genitals. Above me on the right, a giant black onyx statue, at least twelve feet tall, shows a man’s body naked to the waist with a short gold skirt wrapped around his middle, and his powerful arms ending in huge, muscled hands hold a golden spear or pike. The man’s body stops at the neck, and the head of a jackal completes the terrible black form. To my left, a similar lance-holding statue rises to the same height, but instead of a jackal’s visage, this one sports the head of some great curved-beaked bird. Both heads stare down at me. Drood steps into my field of vision and also looks down on me in silence. The creature is as pale and loathsome as I had dreamt of him in Birmingham and as I

had glimpsed him in my home in June of the previous year, but otherwise he looks very little the same. He is naked from the waist up, except for a wide, heavy collar that appears to be made of hammered gold with inset rubies and strips of lapus. On his naked, grub-white chest hangs a heavy gold figure that at first I take to be a Christian cross, but then notice the elongated loop at the top. I have seen similar items behind glass in the London Museum and even know it is called an ankh, but I have no idea of its significance. Drood’s nose is still no more than two slits in a living skull’s face, his eyelids are still missing, but around his deep-set eyes he has painted whorls of dark blue—so dark as to appear almost black—that come to points like cat’s eyes at the sides of his temples. A stripe of blood-crimson rises from between where his eyebrows should be and then up over his forehead to bisect his bald, white, and seemingly skinless scalp. He is carrying a jewel-encrusted dagger. Its tip has been freshly dipped into red paint or blood. I try to speak but find I cannot. I am not able even to open my mouth or to move my tongue. I can feel my arms, legs, fingers, and toes, but cannot will them to move. Only my eyes and eyelids are mine to control. He faces to my right, with the dagger in his hand. “Un re-a an Ptah, uau netu, uau netu, aru re-a an neter nut-a. I arefm Djewhty, meh aper em heka, uau netu, uau netu, en Suti sau re-a. Khesef-tu Tem uten-nef senef sai set. Un re-a, apu re-a an Shu em nut-ef tui ent baat en pet enti ap-nef re en neteru am-es. Nuk Sekhet! Hems-a her kes amt urt aat ent pet. Nuk Sakhu! Urt her-ab baiu Annu. Ar heka neb t’etet neb t’etu er-a sut, aha neteru er-sen paut neteru temtiu. May Ptah give me voice, remove the wrappings! Remove the wrappings which the lesser gods have placed over my mouth. Come unto me Djewhty, bearer of Heka, full of Heka, remove the wrappings! Remove the wrappings of Suti which fetter my mouth. May Tem turn back those who would restrain me. Give me voice! May my mouth be opened by Shu with that divine instrument of iron with which the gods were given voice. I am Sekhet! I watch over the heaven of the west. I am Sakhu! I watch over the souls of Annu. May the gods and their children hear my voice, and resist those who would silence me.” He takes the dagger and traces a vertical line in the air to my right, cutting downward in a smooth down deadly motion. “Qebhsennuf!” What sound like a hundred other voices—all belonging to forms out of my line of sight —cry out in unison: “Qebhsennuf!” He turns to the direction my feet are pointing and traces a vertical line in the air.

“Amset!” The choir of bodiless voices answers him: “Amset!” Drood turns to my left and draws a vertical line in the air with the dagger. “Tuamutef!” “Tuamutef!” cries the choir. Drood raises the dagger towards my face and traces another vertical line in air that I now realise is thick with smoke and incense. “Hapi! I am the flame which shines upon the Opener of Eternity!” The invisible chorus cries out in a single, sustained note that sounds like the baying of jackals along the Nile at midnight. “Hapi!” Drood smiles at me and says very softly, “Misster Wilkie Collinss, you may move your head, but only your head.” Suddenly I am free to move. I cannot lift my shoulders but I throw my head from side to side. My glasses are gone. Everything more than ten feet away is cloaked in blur: marble columns rising into darkness, hissing braziers breathing smoke, robed figures by the score. I do not like this opium dream. I do not think that I’ve said this aloud, but Drood throws back his head and laughs. Candlelight glints on the gold and lapis collar around his thin neck. I try to move my body until I weep from frustration, but only my head obeys my commands. I thrash my face back and forth, tears spilling onto the white altar. “Misster Wilkie Collinsss,” purrs Drood. “Praise to the lord of truth, whose shrine is hidden, from whose eyesss mankind issued, and from whose mouth the godsss came into being. As high as isss the heaven, as broad as isss the earth, as deep as isss the sea.” I try to scream but my jaw and lips and tongue still will not obey me. “You may speak, Misster Wilkie Collinsss,” says the pale face. He has moved around to my right side now, the red-tipped dagger held in both hands against his chest. The circle of hooded forms has pressed closer. “You filthy bugger!” I cry. “You wog bastard! You stinking foreign piece of dung! This is my opium dream, damn your eyes! You are not welcome in it!” Drood smiles again. “Misster Wilkie Collinsss,” he whispers, the smoke from the braziers and incense burners swirling around his face, “above me stretchesss Nuit, the Lady of Heaven. Beneath me liesss Geb, the Lord of the Earth. At my right hand Ast, Lady of Life. At my left hand Asar, the Lord of Eternity. Before me—before you—risesss Heru, the beloved Child and the Hidden Light. Behind me and above us all shines Ra, whose namesss even the godsss do not know. You may be silent now.” I try to scream but once again I cannot. “From this day forward, you shall be our scribe,” says Drood. “In the yearsss remaining

to your mortal life, you shall come to uss to learn of our faith’s old daysss, old waysss, and eternal truthsss. You shall write of them in your own language so that generationsss yet unborn shall know of usss.” I flail my head from side to side but cannot will my muscles or voice to work. “You may speak if you wish,” says Drood. “Dickens is your scribe!” I cry. “Not I! Dickens is your scribe!” “He isss one of many,” says Drood. “But he… resistsss. Misster Charlesss Dickensss believesss that he iss the equal of a priest or priestessss of the Temple of Sleep. He believesss that his force of will isss equal to our own. He hasss taken instead the ancient challenge that would exempt him from being our full-time scribe.” “What is that exemption?” I cry out. “To kill an innocent human being in full sight of othersss,” hisses Drood with a return of that small-toothed smile. “He hopesss that his imagination shall provide the equal service, that the gods will be fooled, but so far he… and hisss much-vaunted imagination… have failed.” “No!” I cry. “Dickens killed young Dickenson. Young Edmond Dickenson. I am sure of that!” I understand the motive for the murder now. Some sort of ancient, pagan, spiritual escape clause that allowed Dickens to avoid complete control by this foul magus. He traded the life of that orphaned young man for his freedom from Drood’s total domination. Drood shakes his head and beckons a robed and hooded follower forward from the blurred circle of forms I sense all around me. The man pulls his dark hood back and down. It is young Dickenson. He has shaved his head and his eyes have that same heathenish blue shadow on them, but it is young Dickenson. “Missster Dickensss was kind enough to suggest this soul for our small fold and our small fold to this soul,” says Drood. “Both Brother Dickenson’sss money and hisss faith are welcome here. The offer of thisss convert to our Family has brought Missster Charlesss Dickensss a… small dispensation.” “Wake up!” I cry to myself. “For God’s sake, wake up, Wilkie! Enough is enough! Wilkie, wake up!” Dickenson and the circle of robed figures take several steps back into the gloom. Drood says, “You may be silent again, Misster Wilkie Collinssss.” He reaches down at the side of the slab, below the level I can turn my head to see, and when he straightens up, there is something black in his right hand. It is large and fills almost all of his pale palm with an even larger crescent on one end of the thing running almost the length of his absurdly long white fingers. As I stare, the black thing stirs and moves. “Yesss,” says Drood. “It isss a beetle. My people call representationsss of thisss a scarab and venerate it in our religion and ritualssss.…” The huge black beetle flails six long legs and tries to crawl off Drood’s hand. He cups his fingers and the huge bug falls back into his palm.

“Our usual scarab wasss modelled after several speciesss in the Family Scarabaeidae,” says Drood, “but most were based upon the common dung beetle.” I try to writhe, kick out with my legs, stir my untied arms, but can move only my head. A great nausea fills me and I have to relax on the cold stone, focusing on not vomiting. If I were to vomit now, without the ability to open my mouth, I would surely asphyxiate. “My ancestorsss thought that all beetless were malesss,” hisses Drood, raising his palm so that he can study the loathsome insect more closely. “They thought that the little ball that the dung beetle ceaselessly rolls wasss the male beetle’sss seed substance—its sperm. They were wrong.…” I am blinking madly, since that is one of the few actions I can take. Perhaps if I blink rapidly enough, this dream will fade into another one or I will wake and find myself back on my familiar cot in the warm rear alcove of King Lazaree’s den, not far from the small coal stove he keeps stoked there. “In truth, as your British science hass shown us, it isss the female who, after dropping her fertilized eggsss on the ground, covers them in excrement on which the larvae feed and rolls thisss soft dung ball across the ground. The ball of dung grows larger and larger as it accumulates more dust and sand, you see, Missster Wilkie Collinssss, which is why my great-great-grandfathers’ great-great-great-grandfathers associated thisss beetle with the daily appearance and movement of the sun… and the rising of the great sun-god, the god of the rising sun rather than the setting sun, Khepri.” Wake up, Wilkie! Wake up, Wilkie! Wake! I scream silently to myself. “Our Egyptian name for the common dung beetle was hprr,” drones on Drood, “which means ‘rising from, or coming into being itself.’ It issss very close to our word ‘hpr,’ which means ‘to become, to change.’ You can see how this made the small change to ‘hpri,’ the divine name ‘Khepri,’ standing for the young rising son—our god of Creation.” Shut up, God d—— n you! I mentally scream at Drood. As if he hears, he pauses and smiles. “This scarab shall represent unalterable change for you, Misster Wilkie Collinsss,” he says softly. The hooded figures around us begin to chant again. I strain and lift my head as Drood holds his palm over my bare belly. “Thisss is not the common dung beetle,” whispers Drood. “Thisss is your Europeanvariety stag beetle—thusss the huge… what do you call them in English, Misster Collinsss? Mandibles? Pincers? They are the largest and most ferocious in all the beetle family. But this hprr—this holy scarab—has been consecrated to its purpose.…” He drops the palm-sized black insect onto my straining bare belly. “Un re-a an Ptah, uau netu, uau netu, aru re-a an neter nut- a. I arefm Djewhty, meh aper em heka, uau netu, uau netu, en Suti sau re-a. Khesef-tu Tem uten-nef senef sai set,” chants the invisible crowd. The scarab’s six barbed legs scrabble at my cringing skin and it begins to crawl upward towards my ribcage. I raise my head until my neck comes close to snapping, my eyes

bulging as I watch the black object with pincers longer than my own fingers climbing towards my chest and head. I have to scream—I must scream—but I cannot. The chorus of voices rises in the incensed gloom: “Un re-a, apu re-a an Shu em nut-ef tui ent baat en pet enti ap-nef re en neteru am-es. Nuk Sekhet! Hems-a her kes amt urt aat ent pet. Nuk Sakhu! Urt her-ab baiu Annu.” The stag beetle’s gigantic pincers pierce my flesh just below the sternum. The pain is beyond anything I have ever experienced. The tendons of my neck audibly creak as I strain to lift my head further to watch. The scarab’s six legs flail at my flesh, the barbs finding purchase to push first the black crescent pincers and then the head of the beetle into the soft flesh of my upper belly. In five seconds the huge beetle is gone—completely submerged—and the flesh and skin close over its entry point like water sealing itself after being pierced by a black stone. Jesus! God! No! Dear Christ! God! I scream in the silence of my mind. “No, no, no,” says Drood, reading my thoughts. “ ‘For the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beetle out of the timber shall answer it.’ But the scarab, not your man-god Christ, is the ‘only begotten,’ Misster Wilkie Collinsss, sir, even though your people’s pretender god once cried out, ‘But I am a scarab, and no man,’ in envy of the true Khepri.” I can feel the huge beetle inside me. The choir of black-robed forms chants: “Ar heka neb t’etet neb t’etu er-a sut, aha neteru er-sen paut neteru temtiu.” Drood turns his empty palms upward and closes his eyes as he recites: “Come, Ast! Lifetruth comes to this stranger as it has come to our parents. Accept this soul as your own, O Opener of Eternity. Cleanse his former soul in the rising flame which is Nebt-Het. Sustain this instrument as you nourished and sustained Heru in the hidden place among the reeds, O Ast, You, whose breath is life, whose voice is death.” I can feel the thing move inside me! I cannot scream. My mouth will not open. My eyes shed tears of blood in my agony. Drood lifts a long metal rod with a sort of bowl on the end. “May this scribe’s mouth be opened by Shu with that divine instrument of iron with which the godsss were first given voice,” chants Drood. My mouth opens—stretches wider, continues to open until my jaw cracks and groans— but still I cannot scream. Inside my belly, the scarab’s insect legs scrabble along my intestines. I can feel the barbs finding purchase. I can feel the chitinous hardness of its shell in my guts. “We are Sekhet!” cries Drood. “We watch over the heaven of the west. We are Sakhu! We watch over the soulsss of Annu. May the godsss and the children hear our voice and hear our voice in the wordsss of this scribe, and death to all those who would silence usss.” Drood forces the ladle end of the long iron rod into my open, gaping mouth. There is

something round and soft and covered with hair in the sharp bowl at the end. Drood tips the rod and the haired mass falls to the back of my throat. “Qebhsennuf!” cries Drood. “Qebhsennuf!” shouts the invisible chorus. I cannot breathe. My throat is completely blocked by the furry glob filling it. I am dying. I feel the beetle stop in my lower abdomen. The sharp legs scrabble against my intestines, rip at the outer walls of my stomach, climb higher under my ribs, towards my heart. I will myself to vomit the hairy mass out of my throat but cannot do even that. My eyes have bulged until I am sure that they will explode out of my head. I think—This is the way that famous novelist Wilkie Collins dies. No one will ever know. Then all thought abandons me as my vision begins to narrow down black tunnels as the last breath in my lungs is trapped and useless. I feel the scarab’s legs flailing at my right lung. I feel the scarab’s pincers dragging across the outside surface of my heart. I feel the scarab crawling up my throat, feel my neck bulging as it rises higher. The insect seizes the hairy mass in my throat and drags it down deeper with it, back into my gullet and upper belly. I can breathe! I cough, gasp, gasp more, try to retch, remember how to breathe. Drood is passing a lighted candle over my chest and face in circular motions. Hot wax dribbles onto my bare flesh, but the pain of that is nothing compared to the pain of the scarab moving within me. It is climbing again. “I fly up asss a bird and alight asss a beetle,” chants Drood, deliberately dripping more hot wax across my chest and throat. “I fly up assss a bird and alight asss a beetle on the empty throne which isss on your bark, O Ra!” The huge insect has filled my throat with its impossible, chitinous hardness and burrowed into my soft palate as easily as it would have burrowed into sand. I can feel it now filling the sinuses behind my nose, behind my eyes. Its barbed legs flail at the backs of my eyeballs as it forces itself higher. I can hear the huge pincers scraping bone as it burrows through the soft matter opening into my skull. The pain is terrible—indescribable, unsupportable—but I can breathe! Still unable to focus on anything beyond Drood—the jackal’s-head and great-bird’s-head statues mere blurs, the dark-robed figures melded together as blurs—I realise that I am looking out through a film of the blood I have wept. I feel the huge stag beetle burrow into the soft surface of my brain—deeper, deeper. If this continues another second, I know I shall go mad. The scarab stops moving near the centre of my brain. It begins to feed. “You may shut your eyessss,” says Drood. I squeeze them shut, feeling the tears of blood and terror streaking my wax-spotted cheeks. “You are our scribe now,” says Drood. “You alwaysss will be. You will work when bidden. You will come when summoned. You belong to usss, Misster Wilkie Collinsss.”

I can hear the scarab’s pincers and jaws clicking and moving as it eats. I can visualise the insect rolling my half-digested brain matter into a grey and bloody ball and pushing it ahead of itself. But it does not move forward again. Not yet. It has made a nest for itself in the lowercentral base of my brain. When the scarab’s six legs twitch, it tickles and I again have to fight the absolute need to vomit. “All praise to the lord of truth,” says Drood. “Whose shrine is hidden,” chants the chorus. “From whose eyesss mankind issues,” says Drood. “And from whose mouth the gods came into being,” chants the choir. “We send forth this scribe now to do the bidding of the beloved Child and the Hidden Light,” calls Drood. “Behind him shines Ra, whose names the gods do not know,” chants the crowd. I try to open my eyes but cannot. Nor can I hear or feel. The only sound or sensation in my universe now is the ticking and scrabbling as the scarab twists, turns, burrows slightly deeper, and eats again.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

Iawoke from my opium nightmare to find that I had gone blind. It was absolute darkness. King Lazaree always had diffused lights in each room of his den, light from the main room always filtered through the red curtain, and the coal stove near the entrance to my niche of the opium den always gave off a warm orange glow. Now there was only absolute darkness. I raised my hands to my eyes to make sure they were open and my fingertips touched the surface of my eyeballs. Wincing away, I could not see my fingers. I cried out in the darkness and—unlike my dream—I could hear my screams very well indeed. They echoed off stone. I cried for help. I cried for King Lazaree and his assistant. No one answered. Only slowly did I realise that I was not lying on my high cushioned bunk as I always did at King Lazaree’s. I was lying on a cold floor of stone or hard-packed dirt. And I was naked.

Just as in my dream. Or just as in my real abduction by Drood. I was shivering violently. It was the cold that had awakened me. But I could move, and within a minute I was on all fours and feeling around in my blindness, trying to touch the edge of one of the wooden bunks, or even the stove or the edge of the doorway. My fingers met rough stone and wood instead. I ran my hands over the shape, wondering if it was the wall and then the corner to one of the stacked bunks. It was not. The stone and wood were ancient—they smelled ancient—and the stone had partially fallen through in places. I could touch cold wood within. Everything smelled of age and corruption. I am in one of the loculi—one of the countless burial chambers in the multi-levelled catacombs. These are the stone or cement sarcophagi with the wood coffins within. And inside those wood coffins are lead liners. I am down with the dead. They had moved me. Of course they moved me. They carried me down through the circular apse, through the rood screen, into Undertown proper. They carried me down the river to Drood’s Temple. I may be miles from King Lazaree’s den, a mile deep under the city. Without a lantern I shall never find my way to the surface. I screamed again then and began flailing along the line of stacked coffins and biers, rising to my feet only to drop to all fours again and flail again with my out-thrust hands, seeking the bullseye lantern that I always brought down to King Lazaree’s and always used to find my way back to the upper level and out. There was no lantern. Finally I quit flailing and simply crouched there in the dark, more panicked beast than man. There were a dozen levels to these catacombs before one found a tunnel leading to a sewer or the underground river. There were hundreds of burial loculi running off these countless straight and curved corridors on these dozen levels. The stairs from the highest level of burial chambers, the corridor just below St Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery where Sergeant Hatchery presumably waited for me even now—How long have I been down here!?—was just ten yards to the left along the curving corridor from King Lazaree’s den, then up those stairs, ducking one’s head through the broken rear wall of a loculus, past the last stack of coffins, right then once in that last corridor, and up the ten steps to the crypt and—presumably, possibly—daylight. I had made that walk back a hundred times after my night of opium. I reached for my waistcoat as if to pull my watch from its pocket and check the time. There was no watch, no waistcoat. No clothing at all. I realised that I was freezing—my teeth were chattering violently, the sound echoing back from unseen stone walls. I was shivering so hard that my elbows and forearms were beating a tattoo on the not-quite-hollow stone sarcophagus that I had fallen against. I had lost any sense of direction in my blind stumbling about; even if I were in the niche that once held King Lazaree’s den, I no longer knew the way forward or back in it. Still shaking wildly, my arms stretched straight out ahead of me and my fingers stiff and

splayed, I began stumbling along the line of biers, sarcophagi, and coffins. Even with my arms out ahead of me, I managed to run into something with my head that knocked me back on my arse. I felt blood running from the wound in my temple and immediately sent my fingers searching my forehead, uselessly holding my hands in front of my eyes as if I could suddenly see. I could not. I touched again. The cut was shallow; the bleeding was slight. Rising carefully to my feet again, I waved my arms until I found the obstruction that had almost knocked me out. Cold metal, so rusted that the empty-space triangles of the open grid were almost closed in. The iron grille!! Each loculus along the catacomb corridors had been enclosed within an ancient iron grille. If I had found the grille, I had found the corridor—or a corridor— there were scores on different levels down here, most of which I had never seen or explored. What if the grille is closed and locked? I would never get to the corridor. Someone would find my skeleton in amongst the sarcophagi and coffins in twenty or fifty or a hundred years and merely think that I was another of what the crypt man at Rochester Cathedral, Dradles, had called “the old ’uns.” Panicked again, I pounded my palms and forearms and knees along the metal grille, feeling the rusted edges scrape skin away, but finally there was—an emptiness. An opening! At the very least, a fissure caused by a vertical segment of the grille rusting away. It was only ten inches or so wide, and irregular, but I squeezed through, sharp edges of the grille scraping at my ribs and backside and shrunken genitals. Then I was in a corridor. I was sure of it! Unless you’ve passed through a grille behind the coffins, in which case you’re more lost than before on some unfathomable deep level of an endless labyrinth. I dropped to all fours and felt the stone under my palms and knees. No, this was one of the main corridors. All I had to do was follow it to one of the nearly hidden stairways to a higher level, then up the final steps to the crypt where Hatchery was waiting for me. Which way?? How could I find the stairs in the absolute darkness? Which way?? I crawled to my left, found the grille I had just squeezed through, and rose carefully, not even sure how high the corridor ceiling might be down here. When I had followed Dickens to the river that night two years ago, some of the corridors had been ten feet high—others had been mere tunnels where one had to crouch to avoid bashing one’s brains out. It had all been so simple with a lantern. Which way??? I turned my face but could sense no movement of air. If I had a candle, perhaps I could sense the draft.… If I had a God-d—— ned candle, I could easily find my way out without sniffing for drafts!! I screamed at myself. I realised that I had screamed it aloud. Echoes died away in both directions. Dear God,

any more of this and I would surely lose my mind. I decided that I would follow my old instincts and walk just as if I were leaving King Lazaree’s den. My body remembered that return walk I had made so many times, even if my brain—without vision to help—kept insisting that it did not. Using my left hand as my guide, I began walking along the corridor. I came to other grates, other openings, although none of them had the tattered curtain that separated Lazaree’s den from the corridor. At each opening that was not protected by a grille, I got down on my knees and felt for stairs or another corridor, but there were only collapsed grilles, more coffins, or empty niches in the walls. I moved on, panting, shivering, my teeth still chattering audibly. My conscious mind told me that I would not freeze to death down here—did not caves stay at some constant temperature, in the fifties? It did not matter. My torn, gouged, shivering body was freezing. Was the corridor curving slightly to the left? The way to Lazaree’s den had curved slightly to the right as one approached it from the hidden stairs down from the first level of catacombs. If I was on that level and to the right of the stairs, the walls here would have to be curving slightly to my left. I had no idea. It was impossible to tell. But I knew without doubt that I had gone at least twice as far as it took to walk from the entrance to the second and lower level to the curtained alcove that was King Lazaree’s den. I continued forward anyway. Twice there were cold draughts from my right. The touch of the colder air on my flesh caused my skin to ripple with revulsion—as if something dead and eyeless were caressing me with long, grub-white, boneless fingers. I shivered and moved on. There had been two corridors to the left—my right now—as Dickens and I had first found King Lazaree’s den. I had walked past them without a glance or turn of my lantern so many times since. Down one of them had been the corridor leading past even more loculi to the circular room with the altar and rood screen and hidden stairs down to the deeper levels of Undertown. Where Drood waited. But I could already be on one of those lower levels. Twice I had to stop to vomit. My stomach was already empty—I seemed to remember getting sick in the first loculus, where I had wakened—but still the retching bent me double and made me lean against cold stone until the spasms passed. I passed another ungrilled opening—nothing but rubble within the niche—and staggered on another twenty paces or so before crashing into a solid wall. The corridor ended. The wall was solid; behind me, the corridor stretched backward the way I had come. I screamed then. And kept screaming. The echoes were all behind me. They had bricked up the corridor they had left me in. Closed it so that no one would even find my bones. I clawed at the wall, feeling ancient mortar, stones, and bricks fall away, feeling my

fingernails tear off and the ends of my flailing fingers rip and shred. It was no use. Behind the bricks were more bricks. Behind those bricks was heavier stone. I dropped, gasping and retching, to my knees, then began crawling back the way I had come. The last opening was on my right now—the rubble-tumbled niche—but this time I crawled into it, lacerating my already-lacerated knees and palms on the jumble of stones. They were not just stones. They were steps set into cold, loose dirt. I scrambled up them, heedless of any obstacle that might be waiting to strike me in the face. I crashed into a wall, almost fell back down the unseen stairs, but grasped at the edge of an opening. There was an opening. I could almost see the jagged masonry on either side. I tumbled through and scraped my right cheek and temple against rough stone. Another bier. Getting to my feet, I realised there were more coffins stacked on the carved stone or shaped cement. I was in another loculus. Teeth chattering, I looked to my left and seemed to sense a lightening in my vision in that direction. I crashed into another metal grate, smeared unseen blood on it from my torn fingers as I flailed until I found the opening to it, and staggered out into an emptiness that must have been another corridor. There was definitely light—a thin, grey ghost of a glow—to my right, not twenty yards away. My bare feet slapping on the stone or brick floor of this wider corridor, I fairly ran towards the light. Yes. I could suddenly see my hands and arms in front of me. My fingers were crimson. There was a stairway, huge stone steps rising up and curving out of sight. I knew this stairway. Weeping, crying out for Detective Hatchery’s help, slipping, falling, rising, and clawing upward again, I went up the steps and squeezed through the familiar wedge of opening. The light in the crypt, I would realise later, was only the dimmest of January predawn glows—certainly not enough to read by—but it blinded me with its brightness. Staggering to the stone bier that overhung the secret entrance to Undertown—an entrance I swore then and there that I would never use again—I had to sag against the empty bier or collapse. “Hatchery! For God’s sake, help! Hatchery!” My own voice startled me so badly that I almost urinated without volition. I did look down then, at my naked white body. I found that I was staring at my belly, just below the sternum. There was a red wound or scrape there. Where the scarab entered. I shook my head to rid myself of the opium nightmare’s image. I had scrapes and gouges all over my body. My feet and knees and fingers were by far the worse. My head ached abominably.

From the huge beetle moving… burrowing. “Stop it!” I screamed aloud. Why was Hatchery not here? Why had he abandoned me this one time I needed him most? You may have been down there for days, Wilkie Collins. I heard Missster Wilkie Collinssss echoing in my aching skull. I laughed then. It did not matter. They had tried to kill me—whoever “they” were— certainly King Lazaree and his heathen, foreign-bastard friends and fellow opium addicts—but they had failed. I was free. I was out. I was alive. Looking up, I was startled to see that someone had decorated the interior high spaces of the small crypt with some sort of glistening garlands. The gleaming grey strips had not been there when Hatchery and I had entered hours—days? weeks?—ago, I was certain of that. Christmas was more than two weeks past. And why decorate an empty crypt in the first place? It did not matter. Nothing mattered—not even my aching, shivering body, raging headache, terrible thirst, and surging hunger—except to get out of this place forever. Avoiding the cold black hole-in-the-floor entrance to Undertown, I stepped around the bier—quickly, since my writer’s imagination then gave me the vision of a long grey arm with long white boneless fingers suddenly sliding out of that hole like a snake and pulling me, screaming, back down into the darkness—but then I had to stop immediately. I had no choice. My way was blocked by the body on the floor of the crypt. It was Detective Sergeant Hibbert Hatchery, his white face distorted into a huge, silent scream, his all-white eyes staring sightlessly towards the garland-festooned bas-relief carvings and tiny gargoyles set along the corners of the small crypt’s ceiling. Scattered on the stone floor around his body were the remains of his three AM lunch, a small flask, his bowler hat, and the copy of Thackeray’s novel. Rising from his gaping belly were the stretched and glistening grey garlands that were not garlands at all. Unable even to scream, I leaped the body, ducked the taut grey strands, and ran naked into the predawn burial ground of St Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Two hours later and I was back in another opium den. Waiting. I was lucky to be alive. After all, I had been running, naked and screaming, through the worst slums of Bluegate Fields behind the docks, not even aware of which way I was running. Only the odd hour (even the thugs were inside and asleep at dawn on a cold, snowy January dawn) and the fact that even thugs might have been afraid of a screaming crazy man with bloody hands explained how the first person I encountered in my panicked flight was a police constable walking his patrol through the tenements. The policeman himself had been frightened by my aspect and manner. He had removed a small weighted cosh from his belt, and I am sure that if I had babbled at him another minute without saying words that made sense, he would have clubbed me unconscious and dragged me by the hair to the nearest station. As it was, he said, “What did you just say? Did you say—‘Hatchery’s body’? As in Hibbert Hatchery?” “Former sergeant Hibbert Hatchery, now private detective Hibbert Hatchery, yes, Constable. They removed his insides and draped them around the crypt—oh, Christ! oh, God!—and he was working for me, privately, not for Inspector Field, for whom he worked privately publicly.” The policeman shook me. “What’s that about Inspector Field? Do you know Inspector Field?” “Oh, yes. Oh, yes,” I said and laughed. And wept. “Who are you?” demanded the heavily moustachioed police officer. Snow had coated his dark helmet-cap white. “William Wilkie Collins,” I said through chattering teeth. “Wilkie Collins to millions of my readers. Wilkie to my friends and almost everyone else.” I giggled again. “Never heard of you,” said the constable. “I am a personal friend of and collaborator with Mr Charles Dickens,” I said. My jaw had been quivering so violently that I could only barely get out the word “collaborator.” The policeman allowed me to stand there naked in the snow and wind while he slapped his open palm with his heavy cosh and regarded me with a furrowed brow beneath the brim of his cap. “All right, come along, then,” he’d said, taking me by my pale, scratched upper arm and leading me deeper into the tenements. “A coat,” I said through chattering teeth. “A blanket. Anything.” “Soon enough,” said the policeman. “Soon enough. Hurry on, now. Keep up.” I imagined the police station to which he was leading me as being dominated by a large stove so hot that it was glowing red. My upper arm shook in the policeman’s grasp. I was weeping again. But he did not lead me to a police station. I half-recognised the rotting stairway and darkened hallway up which he led and pushed me. Then we were inside and I recognised

the wizened woman who was swooping around me, her beak of a nose extruding from her rotting black hood of a shawl. “Sal,” said the policeman, “put this… gentleman… somewhere warm and get him some clothes. The fewer lice the better, although it don’t really matter that much. Make sure he don’t leave. Use your Malay to make sure he don’t leave.” Opium Sal had nodded and danced around me, prodding my naked flanks and aching belly with her long-nailed finger. “I seen ’ere this ’un before, Constable Joe. ’E used to be a cust’mer an’ smoked ’is pipe right hup on that cot, ’e did. The Inspector Field tuk ’im away one night. Before that I first seen ’im with ol’ Hib Hatchery and some gemmun they tol’ me was tip-toff important. All ’igh ’n mighty this ’un was then; ’e was, scowlin’ and looking down ’is plump l’il nose at me through them spectacles what he ha’n’t got on now.” “Who was this someone important?” demanded the policeman. “Dickens, the Pickwick man, was who,” cried Sal triumphantly, as if it had taken all her resources to dredge the name up from the depths of her opium confusion. “Watch him,” growled the policeman. “Get him some clothes even if you have to send the idiot out to find some. Keep the Malay on watch so he don’t go nowhere. And put him near that puny stove you keep one lump o’ coal burning in so he don’t die on us before I get back. You hear me, Sal?” The old crone had grunted and then cackled. “I never seen a man wi’ such a shrivelled li’l John Thomas an’ company, ’ave you, Joe?” “Do what I say,” said the policeman and left with a blast of cold air roiling in over us like the breath of Death. DO THOSE FIT ye, darlin’?” asked Opium Sal as I sat in an otherwise empty room at the back of her opium parlour. A huge Malay with ritual scars on his cheeks sat guard just outside the door. The window here was shuttered and nailed tight. The stench of the Thames came up through it with the freezing draught even on this January day. “No,” I said. The shirt was too small, too dirty, and stank. The heavy workingman’s trousers and jacket smelled just as bad and itched much more. I was sure that I could feel small things moving in both. There were no underlinens, nor socks. The ancient, worn boots she had brought me were half again too large for my feet. “Well, ye should be thankful for what’s given ye,” cackled the crazy woman. “Ye would’na had them weren’t it for the fac’ that Ol’ Yahee died ’ere sudden-like two nights ago and no one’s come to fetch away ’is things.” I sat there as the cold light of Saturday morning slipped through the shutters with the stink and… Wait. Was it Saturday morning, the morning after I had descended into King Lazaree’s world, or was it days later? It felt as if days, or weeks, had passed. I thought of calling out to Old Opium Sally, but realised that odds were great that the old crone would not know. I could have asked the scar-faced Malay outside my door, but he had shown no sign of understanding English or being able to speak.

I laughed softly, then stifled a sob. It didn’t matter what day it was. My head hurt so terribly that I feared I might faint from the pain. I could feel the locus of the pain deep, far behind my eyes, not at all like a mere rheumatical gout headache that I had once found so fierce. The stag beetle scarab is excavating a wider hole for itself. Rolling a glistening grey globe ahead of it as it moves down its entrance tunnel towards . . . I sat on the edge of a filthy cot and lowered my head to my knees, trying to hold in the nausea. I knew I had nothing more to vomit up, and the dry retching had turned my guts to bands of cramped pain. The grey, glistening garlands rising to the ceiling. I shook away the image, but the motion made my headache worse and brought on the nausea again. The air reeked of opium smoke—cheap, rotten, diluted, and polluted opium. I could not believe that for weeks I had come here for Opium Sal’s terrible product—sleeping the sleep of the drugged in these same filthy cots, all crawling with lice and vermin. What had I been thinking? What had I been thinking last night—or however many nights ago it was—when I had descended beneath the crypt to join the Chinese mummies in that other opium den? It had been Inspector Field who came with Hatchery to take me out of here so many months ago. It had been Inspector Field who suggested I go to King Lazaree’s den under Hatchery’s protection. Could it have been a plot all along? Could Field have murdered Hatchery—perhaps out of anger that the huge detective was working for me on the side? I shook my aching head again. None of that made any sense at all. Deep inside my skull, I could feel something move with six sharp legs and stag beetle pincers. I could not help it—I screamed in terror as much as in pain. Inspector Charles Frederick Field and Detective Reginald Barris burst in. “Hatchery’s dead,” I said through teeth that were chattering again. “I know,” barked Inspector Field. He seized me by the upper arm in the same knowing grip that the other policeman had used that morning. “Come along. We’re going back there now.” “Nothing can make me go back!” I was wrong. Inspector Field’s powerful hand found a nerve in my arm that I did not know I had. I cried out in pain, rose, and stumbled along between Barris and the heavier, older man as I clattered—half-pushed, half-supported—down the stairs into a group of other men waiting in the street. Altogether, counting the inspector and Barris, there were seven of the quiet, tough men, and although none were dressed in police uniform, I knew immediately that all had been policemen for the better part of their lives. Three of the men carried shotguns of some sort. One openly held a huge cavalry pistol at his side. Having never had any interest in things or people military, I was shocked at the sight of all this weaponry on a London city street. But it was not really London, of course. It was Bluegate Fields. As we left New Court and passed a litany of dingy streets I had seen in all seasons for at least two years now—

George Street, Rosemary Lane, Cable Street, Knock Fergus, Black Lane, New Road, and Royal Mint Street included—I noticed that the rag-wrapped bundles of misery in the courts and tenement doors, both male and female, shrank back into shadows or disappeared into darker doorways as we passed. They also recognised the seven deadlyserious men with firearms as policemen when they saw the grim knot stride past their awful hollows. “What happened?” demanded Inspector Field. His iron grip was still hard on my quaking arm. I had brought a blanket with me to act as a sort of shawl over the filthy workman’s jacket, but the wool was cheap and the cold wind cut through it at once. It was snowing again. “What happened?” prompted Field again, shaking me slightly. “Tell me everything.” At that second I made one of the most fateful decisions of my life. “I remember nothing,” I said. “You’re lying,” snapped Inspector Field and shook me again. All pretext of his workingman detective status showing deference to my gentleman status was now gone. I might as well have been one of the Smithfield or Limehouse felons whom he had handled with such a similar iron grip over the decades. “I remember nothing at all,” I lied again. “Nothing after taking my pipe last night in King Lazaree’s den at about midnight, as always. Then awakening in the dark some hours ago and finding my way out. And discovering… poor Hatchery.” “You’re lying,” the inspector said again. “They drugged me,” I said tonelessly as we entered the last of the alleys before reaching the cemetery. “Lazaree or someone put some drug in my opium pipe.” Detective Barris barked a laugh at this, but Inspector Field silenced him with a glance. There was another tall man wearing a topcoat and carrying a shotgun standing guard at the entrance to Ghastly Grim’s. He touched his cap as we approached. I pulled back as we came to the gate, but Inspector Field propelled me forward as if I were a child. The snow had covered the headstones and statues and outlined the flat roofs and ledges on the crypts. The dead tree that brooded over the last crypt rose against the cloudy sky like a spill of black ink rimned with white chalk. Three more men waited inside the crypt, their breath hovering over them like trapped souls in the cold. I looked away but not before seeing that they had covered Hatchery’s eviscerated body with some sort of canvas tarpaulin. The grey, glistening garlands were gone, but I noticed a second, smaller tarpaulin in the corner covering something other than Hatchery’s corpse. Even in the cold air, the small space smelled like an abattoir. Most of the men who had accompanied us through the streets peered in at the crypt door and waited just outside. The crypt was small and seemed absurdly crowded now with six of us in it, since everyone avoided standing too near to Hatchery’s covered corpse. I realised with a start that one of the three men waiting in the crypt was not a policeman or detective but was a giant Malay, his black hair hanging long, dirty, and lank down his neck, his arms behind his back and his wrists cruelly cuffed by iron manacles. For a confused second I thought him to be the Malay we had just left behind at Opium Sal’s,

but I saw this man was older and his cheeks were unscarred. He stared at me without curiosity or passion, his eyes dulled in the way I had seen in condemned men before or after their hangings. Inspector Field moved me towards the narrow entrance in the floor, but I pulled back with all of my will and energy. “I cannot go down there,” I gasped. “I shall not.” “You shall,” said Inspector Field and shoved me forward. One of the detectives guarding the tall Malay handed a bullseye lantern to the inspector; another was given to Barris. With the younger detective leading and Inspector Field holding me tight by the arm as he shoved me ahead of him, the three of us descended the narrow stairway. Only one other man—a detective who was a stranger to me and who carried a heavy shotgun—went down with us. I CONFESS, DEAR Reader, that many elements of the next half-hour or so are lost to me still. My terror, fatigue, and pain were such that my state of consciousness was rather like that which we experience when hovering near the threshold of sleep—now aware of our surroundings, now dropping off to dreams, now jerked back to reality by some sound, sensation, or other stimulus. The stimulus I remember most was Inspector Field’s insistent, incessant iron-grip on my arm pulling and pushing me this way and that in the lantern-lit darkness of the pit. In the lantern light, the short descent and walk to King Lazaree’s den was as familiar as a recurring dream, holding nothing of the nightmare of my panicked flight in the darkness. “Is this the opium den?” asked Inspector Field. “Yes,” I said. “I mean, no. Yes. I don’t know.” Instead of the red curtain hanging, there was a rusted grate just as on all the other loculi. The bullseye lanterns showed piles of coffins within rather than rows of three-tiered bunks and the bier with the ever-present Buddha figure of King Lazaree. “This grate isn’t set in the wall like the others,” grunted Barris, grasping the rusty iron and shoving it in. It clanged like the bell of doom as it hit the stone floor. We entered the narrow space. “No dust from the ceiling here,” said Barris, moving the beam of his bullseye back and forth. “It’s been swept clear.” The fourth man in our party remained in the corridor with his shotgun. “Yes, this is King Lazaree’s den,” I said as the lanterns illuminated more of the familiar corridor and alcove. But nothing remained, not even marks on the stone where the heavy bunks and small iron stove had rested. The bier in the centre where King Lazaree had sat in his bright robes now held only an ancient and empty stone sarcophagus. My private alcove at the back was just another niche filled with more stacked coffins. “But you did not wake in the dark here,” said Inspector Field. “No. Farther down the corridor, I think.” “We’ll look there,” said the inspector and waved Barris out ahead of him. The man with the shotgun lifted his own lantern and followed us.

I was thinking about Dickens. Where was he in his American tour now? The last letter I had received from him, written from New York just before the New Year, reported him sick with what he called “low action of the heart” and so unhappy where he was that he was staying in bed each day until three PM and only with great difficulty rousing himself for the inevitable evening performances. Did Dickens have a scarab in him? Did it crawl from his brain to his heart and sink its huge pincers in when he did anything that would release him from Drood? I knew from the original itinerary and from telegrams to Wills at the magazine office that in this January, Dickens was to have read in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Brooklyn—and that each hall was selling out to the tune of six- to eightthousand tickets—but where was he now amidst that list of odd-sounding cities? I knew Dickens well enough to know that he would have recovered from his illness and moral swoon and be capering around between readings, amusing children and onlookers on his trains connecting the cities, putting every ounce of energy and fibre of his being into the afternoon and nightly readings, but I also knew that he would be miserable at the same time, counting down the days until his ship sailed for England and home in April. Would he live that long? Would the scarab allow him to live if it detected his betrayal? “Is this the place where you woke?” demanded Inspector Field. He had to shake me to bring me back from my revery. I looked into a loculus identical to most of the others except that in the dust in this narrow niche there were footprints—of small, bare, naked, vulnerable feet—in the thick dust. There was also blood on the ragged grate where I had blindly squeezed through the break. I touched the clothing above the fresh wounds on my ribs and hips. “Yes,” I said dully. “I think so.” “It’s a wonder you made it out of here in the dark,” said Barris. I had nothing to say to that. I was shaking as with the ague and wanted to leave this pit more than anything else in the world. But Inspector Field was not finished with me. We walked back towards the entrance, light from the three bullseye lanterns dancing on the walls and loculi entrances in such a way as to make me feel faint. It was as if reality and fiction, life and death, light and its absolute absence, were whirling in a frenzied danse macabre. “Is this the corridor leading to the rood screen and lower levels?” asked Inspector Field. “Yes,” I said, not having any idea at that moment of what he was talking about. We followed the narrow corridor past black loculi to the circular subterranean room underneath the former Cathedral of St Ghastly Grim’s apse. This was where Dickens had found the narrow stairway down to the real Undertown. “I’m not going down there,” I said, pulling myself free from Inspector Field’s supporting grasp and almost falling. “I cannot go down there.” “You do not have to,” said Inspector Field, and the words made me almost weep. “Today,” he added. To the man with the shotgun, he said, “Bring the Malay down.” I stood there dully, outside of time, feeling movement deep in my head as the scarab

stirred. I tried not to be sick again, but the air down there stank of rank soil and decay and the grave. When the detective with the shotgun returned, he had another detective with him—this man in a tan overcoat and carrying a rifle—and between them was the handcuffed Malay. The Oriental stared at me when he entered the subterranean apse; his narrow black eyes on either side of that flat blade of a nose were almost as dull with pain or despair as mine but more accusatory. He never looked at Field or Barris, only at me, as if I were his persecutor. Inspector Field nodded, the two men with guns led the captive through the tattered rood screen and down the narrow passage, and Barris and the inspector brought me back into the corridor and then up into the light. “I don’t understand,” I managed to gasp as we came out of the crypt into the freezing January air. The snow had stopped but the air was thick with winter fog. “Have you informed the police? Why are all these private detectives here? Certainly you must have informed the police. Where are the police?” Inspector Field led me to the street where a black closed carriage waited. It reminded me of a hearse. The horses’ exhalations added more fog to the air. “The police will be informed soon enough,” he said. His tone seemed soft, but beneath that softness I could sense a fury and resolve as powerful as his grip on my arm. “These men knew Hibbert Hatchery. Many worked with him. Some loved him.” Barris and the inspector pushed me up into the carriage. Barris went around to get in the other side. Inspector Field, his hand still on my arm, stood in the open door. “Drood expects us to rush down into Undertown today—a dozen of us perhaps, or twenty. He wants us to. But by tomorrow there will be a hundred private men here, all who knew Hatchery or who hate Drood. Tomorrow we will go down. Tomorrow we will find Drood and smoke him out of his hole.” He shut the door with a muffled slam. “Be available tomorrow, Mr Collins. You will be needed.” “I cannot…” I began but then saw the two men with guns emerge from the crypt. The Malay was no longer with them. I stared in horror at the right sleeve of the taller man. His expensive tan coat was crimson from the cuff upward, as if blood had wicked up the wool halfway to the elbow. “The Malay…” I managed. “He must have been the one in police custody. The one the Metropolitan Detectives Bureau turned over to you for interrogation.” Inspector Field said nothing. “Where is he?” I whispered. “We sent the Malay down as a message,” said Inspector Field. “As a messenger, you mean.” “We sent the Malay down as a message,” repeated Inspector Field tonelessly. He rapped on the side of the carriage and Barris and I rolled away through the narrow streets of Bluegate Fields. BARRIS DROPPED ME off outside my home at 90 Gloucester Place without a word.

Before I entered my own door, I stood shivering in the fog and watched the dark carriage roll out of sight around the corner. Another dark carriage came past, its side lamps lit. It also turned right at the corner. I could not hear if they both stopped—the fog and snow muffled even hoofbeats and axle rumbles—but my guess was that they had. Barris would be appointing lookouts, giving instructions. Inspector Field’s men would be watching the front and back of the house, I felt sure, although not in the high numbers of the previous 9 June. Somewhere out there in the fog were my new Gooseberries. But all I had to do to outsmart them was go down into my own coal cellar, knock down a few bricks, and crawl through the narrow hole into the upper levels of Undertown. The city would then be mine to travel in… or at least under. I giggled at the thought but stopped when the hysterical giggle turned to nausea. The scarab shifted in my skull. WHEN I STEPPED into the foyer of my home, I opened my mouth to scream in horror. Detective Hatchery’s intestines were strewn from cornice to chandelier, from chandelier to stairway, from stairway to candle sconces. They hung there just as in the crypt, grey and wet and glistening. I did not scream. And after a moment in which I shook like a child, I realised that the “intestines” were simply garlands, grey and silver silk and ribboned garlands, left over from some inane party we had thrown at the old house ages ago. The house smelled of cooking—pot roast and other beefs simmering, some sort of rich bouillabaisse getting started—and the urge to vomit rose in me again. Caroline swept out of the dining room. “Wilkie! Where on earth have you been? Do you think you can just disappear every night and not… Good Lord—where did you get those atrocious rags? Where are your real clothes? What is that smell?” I ignored her and bellowed for our parlourmaid. When she rushed in, face flushed from the kitchen steams, I said brusquely, “Draw a hot bath for me—immediately. Very hot. Hurry on, now.” “Wilkie,” huffed Caroline, “are you going to answer my questions and explain?” “You explain,” I growled, waving at the draped ribbons everywhere. “What is all this trash? What’s going on?” Caroline blinked as if slapped. “What is going on? In a few hours is your very important pre-theatre dinner party. Everyone is coming. We have to dine early, of course, as you specified, since we all must leave for the theatre by…” She paused and lowered her voice so the servants would not hear. What emerged was a steam kettle hiss. “Are you drunk, Wilkie? Are you addled by your laudanum?” “Shut up,” I said. This time her head snapped back and colour rose to her cheeks as if she had been slapped. “Call it off,” I said. “Send the boy… send messengers… tell everyone the party is off.”

She laughed almost hysterically. “That is quite impossible, as you well know. The cook has begun dinner. People have arranged transportation. The table is already set with the complimentary theatre tickets at each place. It would be quite impossible to…” “Call it off,” I said and brushed past her to go upstairs and take five glasses of laudanum, give the wretched clothes to our servant Agnes to burn, and bathe. I SHOULD HAVE slept in the steaming water had it not been for the crawling in my skull. The pressure from the scarab was so great that three times I leapt from the bath to stand in front of the looking glass. Adjusting the candles for maximum light, I opened my mouth wider than I thought possible—my jaw muscles actually groaned in protest—and the third time I did it I was sure that I saw light gleam on a black carapace as the huge insect scuttled back out of sight, away from the light. I turned and vomited into the basin, but there was nothing left in my stomach to bring up, and the beetle was back in my skull by then. I got back into the bath, but each time I approached sleep I relived the inside of the crypt, the grey gleaming, the abattoir stink of the place, and over that I smelled incense and heard the chanting and saw the huge black bug burrowing into my belly as if flesh were sand.… There came a rap on the door. “Go away!” “There is a telegram come for you,” said Caroline through the door. “The boy said it was important.” Cursing, I rose dripping from the bath—which was growing cold at any rate—pulled on my robe, and opened the door long enough to grab the flimsy from Mrs G——’s thin white fingers. I assumed the note was from Fechter or someone else at the theatre—they had the profligate habit of sending telegrams as if a simple messenger-borne note might not suffice. Or perhaps it was from Dickens. In a flash of revelation, I imagined him confessing to his own scarab and acknowledging that he somehow knew that I had gained mine. I had to read the actual six words and signature four times over before the meaning sank into my exhausted, inhabited brain. MOTHER IS DYING. COME AT ONCE. CHARLEY

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

My mother’s face made me think of a newly dead corpse from which the silent soul was still trying frantically to escape. Her eyes, showing mostly whites with only a hint of dark iris under the heavy and reddened lids, strained and bulged as if from some terrible internal pressure. Her mouth was open wide but her lips, tongue, and palate looked as pale and dry as old leather. She could not speak. She made no sounds except for a strange rasping, hissing sound emanating from her chest. I do not think she could see us. Charley and I embraced in horror in full view of her sightless gaze and I gasped, “Dear God, how did this come to be?” My beloved brother could only shake his head. Mrs Wells hovered nearby, her arthritic hands flapping from the folds of her black lace shawl, and somewhere in the far corner of the room waited Mother’s long-time elderly physician from Tunbridge Wells, Dr Eichenbach. “Mrs Wells said that she was well—no, not well, hurting, coughing some, but well enough to eat with an appetite and enjoy her tea of an afternoon and to be read to and to chat with Mrs Wells—yesterday evening,” managed Charley. “And this morning… I came from London to surprise her… and discovered this.” “This is oft the case with the old waiting and willing and wanting to depart this world,” muttered Dr Eichenbach. “No warning. No warning.” As Eichenbach, who was more deaf than not, was chatting in the corner with Mrs Wells, I whispered urgently to Charley, “I want my doctor to see her. Frank Beard will come at once.” “I have been trying to get in touch with her most recent physician, Dr Ramseys,” Charley said softly. “What was that?” called Dr Eichenbach from his corner near the fire. “You’re calling Dr… who?” “Ramseys,” said Charley with a sigh. “Evidently a new local physician who took it upon himself to call on Mother in the past few weeks. I am quite sure that Mother had no reason to go to him… that is, to go outside your circle of excellent advice and care.” Eichenbach was frowning. “Dr Ramsey?” “Ramseys,” said Charley with the loud over-articulation so preferred by the frustrated speaking to the near-deaf. Eichenbach shook his head. “No Ramsey or Ramseys practising around Tunbridge Wells,” he said. “Nor in London, as far as I know, except for old Charles Bierbont

Ramsey, and his practice now is restricted to Lord Leighton’s family. Besides, his speciality is venereal diseases—it’s all he’s interested in—and I hardly doubt that Mrs Collins called him out here for that sort of consultation. And what kind of name is Ramseys? He sounds like a committee.” Charley sighed again. “I believe that Dr Ramseys was visiting family in Tunbridge Wells when he heard of Mother’s illness. Isn’t that right, Mrs Wells?” The old woman looked flustered and her gnarled hands flapped again from her shawl. “Truly, I do not know, Master Charles. I only heard about Dr Ramseys from your dear, dear mother. I never spoke to him.” “But you saw him?” I asked. The scarab stirred in my skull at the same instant a cold hand closed around my heart. “Only once,” said the sincere old woman. “And from a distance. He was leaving one afternoon last week while I came down the path across the meadow.” “What did he look like?” I asked. “Oh… I certainly could not say, Master Wilkie. I just glimpsed a tall, thin man walking away from me down the lane. He dressed very formally but rather—I should be one to speak!—rather in an old-fashioned manner, as the young people would say. He wore a black cut-away and had a top hat on of the older sort, if you understand what I mean.” “I am not certain I follow your meaning, Mrs Wells,” I said in what I hoped was a steady voice. “How was the top hat old-fashioned?” “Oh, you know what I mean, Master Wilkie. The sort with a slightly wider brim, a lower crown—more of the kind of riding hat one saw on gentlemen when I was a girl. And quite obviously made of beaver, not silk.” “Thank you, Mrs Wells,” said Charley. “Oh… and his veil, of course,” added Mrs Wells. “Even from a distance, I could see the veil. Your mother mentioned it later.” “Actually, she did not mention it to me,” said Charles. “Why was Dr Ramseys wearing a veil?” “Because of the burns, of course. Terrible burns, said Harriet… that is, Mrs Collins. Your dear mother. Dr Ramseys did not want to frighten people on the street.” I turned my head and closed my eyes for a minute. When I opened them, I could see only Mother’s straining face and the gaping, moistureless mouth in which her dry tongue lolled like a misplaced bit of rope. Her bulging white eyes looked like two eggs pressed beneath human eyelids by some terrible exertion of force. “Mrs Wells,” Charley said softly, “would you be so kind as to go fetch the neighbour boy who sometimes runs errands for Mother? We need to send a telegram to Dr Frank Beard in London. Wilkie shall write it out here and the boy will carrry it.” “This late, Master Charles? The telegraph office will close in less than an hour.” “Then we need to hurry, don’t we, Mrs Wells? Thank you for your help. Mother would thank you if she could.” CAROLINE AND I had parted with harsh words.

Inexplicably, unbelievably, she had asked questions, demanded answers, and created obstacles to my going out the door even after I had shown her the telegram from my brother. “Where were you last night?” she persisted. “Where did you get those terrible clothes that Agnes burned? What was that awful smell on them? When will you be back from Tunbridge Wells? What shall we do about the dinner party this evening? The theatre tickets? Everyone was counting on…” “First, take down and throw away these damned garlands,” I snarled. “And have your dinner party. Go to the theatre with all my male friends. It certainly won’t be the first time you’ve entertained and been entertained at my expense when I could not be a part of it.” “What does that mean, Wilkie? Do you not want me to honour our dinner obligations with your friends? Do you not want me to use those tickets to your play, after you have promised a dozen people that they would see it tonight from the author’s box? What would you have me do?” “I would have you,” I growled, “go to the Devil.” Caroline froze in place. “My mother is dying,” I said flatly and harshly and finally. “And as far as the question of with whom you choose to dine and go to the theatre, you can go with the Devil as far as I am concerned.” I turned the full rage of my countenance on her. “Or with your plumber.” Still frozen, Caroline G—— blushed from her hairline to her bodice. “What… do you mean, Wilkie?” I threw open the door to the fog and cold and laughed in her face. “You know d—— ned well what I mean, my dearest. I mean Mr Joseph Charles Clow, son of the distiller on Avenue Road, one plumber by trade, seducer—or seducee—by avocation. The same Mr Clow whom you secretly fed at my table and with whom you’ve clandestinely met five times since Christmas Day.” And I went out and slammed the door in her flushed and terrified face. TUNBRIDGE WELLS HAD BEEN EERILY SILENT and snow covered and filled with disturbingly white, thick fog when Charley arrived in a sleigh to pick me up at the station that afternoon, and it was even more oppressively silent and foggy at ten o’clock that night when a heavily bundled Frank Beard materialised out of the freezing mist from the same sleigh, handled yet again by the always-ill but seemingly indefatigable Charley. I had stayed with Mother and the sleeping Mrs Wells as my brother went to pick up our friend and physician. Dr Eichenbach had long since gone home. Frank Beard clasped my hand a moment in silent commiseration and proceeded to examine Mother while Charley and I waited in the other room. The fireplace had burned low and we decided not to light other candles or lamps. Mrs Wells slept on the divan in the far corner. Charley and I spoke in whispers. “She wasn’t like this last week when you saw her last?” I asked.

Charley shook his head. “She complained of aches and pains and her breathing problems.… You know how she goes on, Wilkie… went on… but no, there was no hint of this terrible… whatever it is.” Beard came out after a while and we woke Mrs Wells for what he had to say. “Harriet appears to have had a very serious brain haemorrhage,” he said softly. “As you can see, she has lost her ability to speak, her control of voluntary muscles, and—quite possibly—her reason. Her heart also sounds compromised. Physically, she otherwise seems…” Frank Beard paused and turned towards Mrs Wells. “Has Mrs Collins fallen recently? Injured herself with scissors or a kitchen knife or perhaps even a knitting needle?” “Absolutely not!” cried the old woman. “Mrs Collins was not so active that any of those things could have happened, Doctor. Nor would I have allowed them to happen. And she would have told me if… No, no, no such injury could have occurred.” Beard nodded. “Why do you ask, Frank?” said Charley. “Your mother has a recent cut here.…” said Beard, touching his diaphragm just beneath the sternum. “It is about two inches wide. Not serious and it is healing, but unusual for a person who has not been…” He shook his head. “But it does not matter. I am certain it has nothing to do with the brain haemorrhage and internal neuralgia that must have afflicted her sometime last night.” I had been standing, but now my legs went so weak that I had to sit. “The… prognosis?” asked Charley. “There is no hope,” Beard said flatly. “The internal neuralgia and obstruction to the brain are too severe. She may regain consciousness—she may even become more clear in her mind before the end—but I am certain that there is no hope. It is just a matter of days or weeks now.” Mrs Wells made as if to faint, and Charley and Frank helped her back to the divan. I sat and stared at the fire. It was early afternoon in America. Somewhere comfortable and bright and clean, Charles Dickens was being treated like a king and was preparing for another evening of public adoration. In a recent note that Wills had shared with me, Dickens had written—“People will turn back, turn again and face me, and have a look at me… or will say to one another, ‘Look here! Dickens is coming!’ ” and talked about being recognised every time he rode in a carriage—“. . . in the railway cars, if I see anybody who clearly wants to speak to me, I usually anticipate the wish by speaking myself.” What noblesse oblige! How unspeakably generous of my erstwhile collaborator and eternal competitor! There he was, condescending to speak to tens of thousands of adoring (if wilfully ignorant and terminally illiterate) Americans who worshipped the very ground he walked on, while I sat here in pain and misery and hopelessness, my mother dying horribly, a… scaraby thing… scrabbling in my skull like a… “I’ll be leaving now. I’ll stay with friends in the village here and check on Harriet before taking the train back to London in the morning.” Frank Beard had been speaking. Some

time had passed. Evidently Charley had shown the weeping Mrs Wells to her room and was now in his topcoat and heavy artist’s cap and waiting by the door to take Beard away. I jumped to my feet and shook my physician’s hand with both of mine and thanked him profusely. “I will stay with Mother,” I told Charley. “I shall sit up with her through the night when I return,” said my brother. “You look exhausted, Wilkie. Build up the fire so you can sleep on the long couch when I get back.” I shook my head then, although whether to say that I would stay up with Mother through the night or that I was not exhausted or that I did not need a fire, I do not know. Then Charley and Frank Beard were gone, and I could hear the treacherously false happy winter sounds of the bells on the horses’ harnesses as they drove back into the village. I went into Mother’s room and sat on the hard chair pulled up next to her bed. Her eyes were still open but apparently sightless, the lids fluttering from time to time. Her arms and wrists were bent like a small bird’s broken wings. “Mother,” I said softly to her, “I am sorry that…” I had to stop. I was sorry that… what? That I had killed her through my association with Drood. Had I killed her? “Mother…” I began again and stopped again. For months I had written and spoken to her of little save for my own success. I had been too busy in writing of the play and rehearsals for the play and attending early presentations of the play to spend any time with her—even Christmas had been a grudging few hours before I’d rushed for the train back to the city. It seemed that every note I had written to her since last summer had been either about myself (although she dearly loved hearing about my successes) or about adjusting the terms of the inheritance that would come to Charley and me if she should die before us. “Mother…” Her eyelids fluttered wildly again. Was she trying to communicate? My mother always had been a busy, articulate, confident, capable, and socially secure person. For years, even after my father’s death, she had presided over a salon of artists and intellectuals. I had always associated her with competence, dignity, an almost regal self-possession. And now this… I do not, Dear Reader, know how long I sat there by Mother’s bedside. I do know that at some point I began sobbing. Then, finally, I had to know. I set the candle closer. I bent over her insensate form and drew the bedclothes down. Mother was in her nightgown, but there were only a few buttons at the neck—not enough for my purpose. Still weeping, wiping my streaming nose on my sleeve, I pulled the top sheet down to Mother’s pale, blue-veined, and swollen ankles, and—sobbing more loudly while holding the candle in one hand—slowly pulled up her flannel sleeping gown. I covered my eyes with my left forearm, the candle singeing my brow and hair, so that I

—her loving son—would not see her ultimate nakedness. But I confess that I had rolled the sweat-clammy nightgown too high before looking, still shielding my range of vision, so that her wrinkled and sagging breasts were visible. And below them, below the sharp chevrons of her ribs pressing against the pale flesh, there was the red mark beneath her sternum. It seemed the same width, the same lividity, the same shape. Half-mad with fatigue and terror, I ripped my shirt open, the buttons popping and rolling on the wooden floor out of sight beneath the bed. I had to bend almost double to see the red mark there on my upper belly and was moving the candle quickly back and forth to compare my scarab wound to the mark beneath Mother’s chest. They were the same. There was a creak of boards and then a gasp behind me and I wheeled—my shirttails out and buttons open, Mother’s nightgown still pulled up to her collar—to find Mrs Wells staring at me with an expression of absolute wide-eyed horror. I opened my mouth to explain but found no words. I pulled Mother’s nightgown down, threw the covers over her, set the candle on her bedside table, and turned back to the elderly housekeeper, who shrank away from me. Suddenly there came a terrible pounding at the door. “Stay here,” I said to Mrs Wells, but she only shrank back farther from me and bit her knuckles as I hurried past her. I rushed to the door—in my confusion, I was thinking that Frank Beard had returned with some miraculously revised and hopeful prognosis—but as I reached it, I glanced back towards Mother’s room. Mrs Wells was not visible. The pounding continued, grew more violent. I flung the door open. Four large men, strangers all, dressed almost identically in thick black overcoats and workmen’s caps, stood there in the post-midnight snow. A hearselike carriage waited, its lamps throwing wan light. “Mr Wilkie Collins?” demanded the closest and largest of the men. I nodded dumbly. “It is time,” said the man. “The inspector awaits. By the time we get back to London, all will be in readiness. Come at once.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

Undertown was burning. Inspector Field had said that within twenty-four hours he would turn out a hundred men —ex-detectives, off-duty policemen, others—who would be eager to descend beneath the city to avenge the murdered Detective Hibbert Hatchery. I had to think that he had understated the case. Even in the fragmentary glimpses I had over these ensuing hours, it was obvious that there were more than a hundred men involved. There were more than a dozen men in the wide, flat-bottomed scow that Field had ordered me into. A bright lantern hung on a slanted pole rising over and beyond the long tiller at the stern. Near the bow, two men controlled a blinding carbide spotlight of the sort they used outside and within Welsh mines during emergencies such as cave-ins; that spotlight was on a pivot and now stabbed its bright white cone-circle of illumination ahead onto the broad, black waters of the Fleet Street Ditch subterranean river, now onto the arched brick ceiling, now against and across the curving walls and narrow walkways on either side. Another scow followed us. I had heard that there were two working their way north from the Thames-end of this effluent. Ahead of us and behind us, a dozen small, narrow punts flitted along with our strange fleet, men at the bows and sterns with poles in their hands, men amidships with rifles and shotguns and pistols. There were rifles and shotguns and pistols in hand here in the lead scow as well. I understood that many of the silent men in their dark workingmen’s clothes were former sharpshooters from the Army or Metropolitan Police. Not being a fancier of things military, I had never seen so many firearms in one place before. I would not have guessed that London had so many private men with arms. The long river-sewer tunnel was black and foetid, but at the moment it was filled with beams and spheres of light as men in the scows and on the punts added their shifting bullseye lantern shafts to the cyclopean glare of the massive carbide searchlights. Shouts echoed back and forth through the stench. Along with the dozens of men in the various boats, more dozens were striding along the narrow stone or brick walkways on each side of the curving waterway and they also carried lanterns and weapons. We had not been required to return to St Ghastly Grim’s Cemetery for our descent into this part of Undertown (and, in truth, Dear Reader, I do not believe I would have been capable of doing so). There were new corridors and stairways—part of a future underground railroad complex, I understood—that connected to the ancient catacombs that had been part of the Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington and we simply had to clatter down well-lighted stairs, through less-lighted tunnels, down more stairs, through a brief but confusing labyrinth of still-reeking catacombs, then down ladders to the new sewers that were to connect the Main Drainage Works at Crossness to the stillincomplete Embankment Works, and then lower again down narrow shafts and ancient

tunnels to true Undertown. I have no idea how they got the scows and punts and searchlights down. Our advance was anything but silent. Besides the echoing shouts and footfalls and occasional gunshot explosions as someone picked off an aggressive rat—the vermin swam and swarmed in front of our scow and the accompanying punts like a rippling river of brown backs—there were also frequent explosions from ahead of us that were so painfully loud I had to cover my ears. Small sewer outlets, some no more than three feet across, some much larger—all tributaries to or from our primary Fleet Ditch river channel here—branched off at irregular intervals from both sides of the curving brick vault. Most were covered with corroded and slime-covered grates and grilles. Inspector Field brusquely ordered those grilles blown off with applications of gunpowder that had been brought down and sent along with the advance parties on foot and in punts. The terrible booms—amplified beyond endurance by the vaulted brick sewer architecture—crashed every few minutes, making me think of some terrible Crimean battlefield with artillery to the left of us, artillery to the right of us, artillery straight ahead of us, and so forth. It was intolerable, especially to nerve-ends that had been denied sleep for at least three days and nights, muscles and bones which had been drugged and left for dead in the dark, and senses which were even now screaming in pain and protest. I reached into my valise that I had brought along from Tunbridge Wells and drank four more doses of laudanum. Suddenly the stench became worse. I set my handkerchief over my mouth and nose, but it did little to filter the eye-watering stink. Inspector Field carried no visible weapon, but he was swathed in a black winter capecoat, had a wide-brimmed countryman’s hat pulled low, and showed a blood-red scarf wrapped several times around his neck. The red scarf also covered the lower half of his face. Any weapon might have been hidden in a pocket beneath the folds of that cape. He had not said a single word to me when the four black-coated wraiths and then Reggie Barris delivered me to Undertown and then to the scow, but now Inspector Field— between distant explosions—recited: “How dare Your dainty nostrils (in so hot a season When every clerk eats artichokes and peason, Laxative lettuce, and such windy meat) ’Tempt such a passage? When each privy’s seat Is filled with buttock, and the walls do sweat Urine and plasters?” Barris and Field’s other underlings stared at him as if he had gone mad, but I laughed. “You and Charles Dickens have something in common, Inspector.” “Yes?” The old man’s dark, bushy eyebrow arched above the red slash of scarf. “You both seem to know Ben Jonson’s ‘On the Famous Voyage’ by heart,” I said.

“What learnèd man would not?” said Inspector Field. “Indeed,” I said, feeling the magical laudanum somewhat reviving my all-butextinguished spirits, “there seems to be an entire genre of sewer writing, sewer poetry.” “A synecdoche for the filth of the city squatting above us in all its cloacal corruption,” said Inspector Field. The old man was showing me a rough alliterative eloquence that I never would have expected from our earlier encounters and conversations. Or, far more likely, he was very drunk. “Would you care to hear some of Swift’s ‘Description of a City Shower’?” he continued. “I trust that you, a writer, Master Wilkie Collins, know that Swift did not mean a rain shower. Or, more appropriate to our reeking Fleet Ditch sewer odyssey, perchance you would care to hear a recitation of Book Two of Pope’s scatological Dunciad?” “Perhaps another time,” I said. THE FLEET DITCH widened until it became a true underground river, wide enough for eight or nine of our scows and punts to advance together. The brick roof of the sewer also disappeared as we entered a quarter mile or more of actual cavern—the ragged roof here rising high and unseen above layers of fog or steam or smoke. To the right of the river’s course here a dozen grated sewer pipes, some ten or more feet in diameter, spilled their steaming effluent into the main current, but on the left side there came into sight low, broad shelves of mud and rubble—a sort of riverbank or shore. Rising above these rubbled dikes to a height of a hundred feet or more were ledges, openings, niches, and glimpses of tunnel-intersected crypts, ancient caverns, and deep cellars beneath cellars arrayed high on this cavern’s pockmarked wall like multi-storeyed buildings on the Strand. As we drifted closer to the rubbled shore, I looked up and saw movement—people in rags peering over low walls, campfires flickering, miserable rags hung out on washlines over the abyss, ladders and crude bridgings connecting the subterranean tenements. Charles Dickens had always imagined that he had plumbed the depths of London’s slums, learned the pathetic ways of the poorest of the poor in our capital, but here—far beneath the surface—was evidence that there were those poorer than the poorest of the poor in the rotting, typhus-lashed slums above. I could see families in the hovels and on the high ledges now, what I took to be children dressed in a mere motley of filthy rags, all peering out at us or down at us in alarm, as if we were Vikings raiding some history-forgotten, God-forsaken Saxon settlement. The niches in the high wall, each holding hovels made of canvas and broken brick and mud bricks and old tin, reminded me of illustrations I had seen of abandoned Red Indian cliff dwellings in canyons somewhere in the American West or Southwest. Only these cliff dwellings were anything but abandoned; I estimated that hundreds of people were living in these high holes in the rock here far beneath the city. More of Inspector Field’s men arrived by foot from unseen caverns or stairways or along sewer-side paths from the south. The scows and punts ran up on the shore with a bonemulch crunch, and our dark men with torches, lanterns, and rifles spilled out in all

directions. “Burn it all,” said Inspector Field. Barris and other lieutenants turned the old man’s soft command into a series of echoing cries. The Fleet Ditch cavern echoed with shouts and screams. I could see Field’s men climbing ladders and stone steps, running along the tunnelled terraces, and herding the rag-bundled figures away from the huts and hovels. There was no resistance that I could see. I wondered why anyone would come down here to this cavern beneath the old crypts, then realised that it was cave temperature here—mid-fifties at least—while it was below freezing on the hard-cobbled streets and in the sagging, unheated slums above. When the first flames shot up from the warren of huts a great gasp went up, echoing through the space like a single breath exhaled by a hundred or two hundred separate forms. The dry rags and driftwood and old mattresses and occasional cast-off sofas burned like tinder, and in two minutes, despite the fact that most of the smoke was carried up and out the various shafts and stairways and corridors in the rock, there was a heavy black cloud under the ceiling of the cavern above us. New flames burned orange through that cloud and a series of explosions from Inspector Field’s men blowing the grilles and grates off the sewer entrances on the opposite side of the river gave the whole scene an impression of a violent summer storm. Suddenly a bundle of rags came flying from one of the higher terraces, flapped on the way down, and struck the underground river with a hiss before sinking. I hoped to God it was only a bundle of rags. I hoped to God it was only rags flapping, not arms and legs kicking during the fall. I went up to Inspector Field where he stood against the bow of the beached scow and I said, “Was it absolutely necessary to burn these people out?” “Yes.” He had not turned his head from the spectacle. Occasionally he would gesture, and Barris or one of his other favoured subalterns would send men to round up running forms or to set the torch to some hovel that had escaped the first flames. “Why?” I persisted. “They’re just poor beggars unable to compete even on the street. They do no harm down here.” Field turned towards me. “Down here,” he said softly, “these miserable excuses for men and women and their offspring are not Her Royal Majesty’s subjects. There are no Englishmen here, Mr Wilkie Collins. This is the kingdom of Drood and these are the minions of Drood. They give him their loyalty and—one way or the other—they offer up to him their service and succour.” I began laughing then and found it very difficult to stop. Inspector Field raised a bushy eyebrow. “Did I say something humorous, sir?” “The Kingdom of Drood,” I managed at last. “The loyal minions of… Drood.” I began laughing again. Inspector Field turned away from me. Above us, the rag bundles of all sizes were being marched up out of the smoke-filled cliff dwellings and Fleet Ditch cavern to whatever or whoever waited above.

PLEASE BE SO KIND as to go with Mr Barris,” the inspector said to me sometime later. I was paying little attention to the proceedings. I remember that we had left the half mile or so of cavern and burning cliff dwellings behind and followed the river into a more contained Fleet Ditch tunnel once again. Ahead of us, the brick-arched way diverged into two major channels and on the left a sort of low dam or spillway required hoisting the chosen scow down with various bits of block and tackle; the punts had already gone ahead there. Inspector Field’s scow had taken the right-hand channel, but there was a major sewer outlet ahead and evidently they wanted me to explore it in a punt with Reginald Barris. “You’ve seen Drood’s temple,” explained the inspector. “We believe that access to it may be through a false wall or hidden channel.” “I haven’t seen Drood’s temple,” I said wearily. “You described it, sir. You said that there were steps leading up from the river, high bronze doors, and statues on either side—Egyptian reliquary, human forms with the heads of jackals or birds.” A chill ran up my spine as this brought back my beetle dream of less than thirty-six hours earlier—could that time span be correct? Could this actually be only the night after my awakening in the dark crypts above here?—but I said, “That was Charles Dickens’s description, Inspector. I’ve never purported to have seen Drood’s mythical temple… nor even Drood, for that matter.” “You were there yesterday, Mr Wilkie Collins, we both know that,” said Inspector Field. “But we shan’t argue it here. Please go with Detective Barris.” Before crawling to the punt, I asked, “Is your search down here almost finished, Inspector?” The old man barked a laugh. “We’ve hardly begun, sir. Another eight hours, at least, until we meet up with my men coming from the Thames.” I felt dizzy and nauseated again at hearing this. How long had it been since I had truly slept—not lost consciousness due to King Lazaree’s or Drood’s drugs, but slept? Fortyeight hours? Seventy-two? I clumsily climbed down to where Barris and two other men waited in the wobbling punt, and with one of those men poling gondolier-fashion at the front and the other steering with a sweep from the stern, we left the river and moved slowly up a brick side tunnel. I sat on a thwart near the centre of the sixteen-foot craft while Barris stood nearby, using a second pole to balance himself. The moss-covered brick roof was so low here that Barris could reach up and help push the punt along; I could see the green stain on his expensive tan gloves. I was half-dozing when the narrow sewer channel opened to a stream twenty feet wide. “Sir!” said the detective in the bow and aimed his bullseye lantern forward. Four feral Wild Boys were in water up to their waists, wrestling with something heavy and soggy that looked to have just tumbled out of a smaller pipe high on this larger sewer’s curved wall.

We slid closer and I realised that the “something soggy” was a man’s corpse. The boys had been going through the green thing’s disintegrating jacket and pockets. The four boys froze in our projected lantern light, their eyes reflecting back wide and white and inhuman. An almost vertiginous sense of déjà vu rolled over me until I realised that I was seeing a scene straight out of the serialised sensationalist tale The Wild Boys of London; or, The Children of the Night—A Story of the Present Day that both Dickens and I had mentioned—each embarrassed that he had read it—when we had first come down here almost two years ago. The dead man’s face seemed to be moving, shimmering, as we approached, almost as if the grub-white and decaying features were covered with a very fine, translucent silken cloth. His eyes appeared to be blinking open, then closing; his mouth muscles seemed to be twitching as if he were attempting a smile, perhaps a rueful one at being part of a tableau out of such a poorly written and sensationalist tale. Then I saw that it was not the facial muscles of the corpse moving. The man’s face, hands, every exposed part, were totally covered with a thin film of constantly shifting maggots. “Stop!” cried Barris as the Wild Boys dropped their soggy burden back into the thick sludge of the stream and turned to run. Our man in the bow kept the bullseye’s beam on the scattering pack while his compatriot gave our skiff or punt a powerful shove with his pole sunk deep into the sludge at the bottom of this pipe. Except for the distasteful addition of the maggots, I was enjoying the unreal, sensationalist absurdity of all this. “Stop!” Barris cried again. Suddenly the detective had a small silver revolver in his hand. I had no idea then—nor to this day—why he would want to detain these feral creatures. Two of the boys had pulled themselves up into a high drain that seemed too small to allow access even to these improbably thin and starving wraiths, but with a burst of wriggling, they disappeared. One almost expected the pop of a champagne cork as the second boy’s pale, bare soles wriggled and thrashed out of sight. The third boy crouched low and slithered headfirst into yet another pipe on the opposite side. The fourth boy reached elbow-deep into the stream he stood in and hurled two handfuls of muck at our approaching boat. The detective with the bullseye ducked and shouted an oath. I heard filth splatter across the thwart where I sat and saw some strike Reginald Barris on the lapels of his heavy wool coat. I laughed. Barris fired the pistol twice. The report in the narrow brick tunnel was so loud and startling that I threw my hands over my ears. The Wild Boy pitched face forward into the water. The punt floated past the man’s maggot-writhed corpse until we reached the boy. The detective with the pole reached down and turned the boy over, pulled him half into the boat. Filthy, reeking water dripped from the boy’s rags and open mouth into our punt.

He was no older than ten or eleven. One of Barris’s bullets had gone through his throat, severing the jugular. Blood still pumped from that wound, although very weakly. The other bullet had entered his cheek just below the boy’s eye, which remained wide open and staring, as if in reproof. His eyes were blue. Our man with the pole let the corpse slide back into the black water. I got to my feet and grabbed Barris by his broad shoulders. “You’ve killed a child!” “There are no children in Undertown,” was Barris’s cool, unconcerned reply. “Only vermin.” I remember attacking him then. Only profound exertions by the detective with the pole and by the one in the stern using the tiller as a balancing staff kept the wobbling punt from turning over, adding our four bodies to the stream holding the maggot-ridden man and the murdered boy. I remember making sounds as I attacked Barris, but not forming words—mere grunts and half-stifled screams, garbled syllables without meaning. I did not attack the detective with my fists, as a man might, but with fingers raking like claws and fingernails clawing for his eyes, the way a madwoman might. I half-remember Barris holding me off with one hand until it became apparent that I would not desist and was going to knock us all into the black water. I half-remember my screaming becoming more intense and my saliva spattering the young detective’s handsome face and him saying something to the man in the stern behind me and then the silver pistol coming up, its barrel short but heavy and flashing in the bobbing bullseye lantern light. And then—blessedly—I remember nothing but darkness with no dreams.

CHAPTER THIRTY

Iawoke to find myself in my own bed in daylight, in my own nightshirt, in great pain and with Caroline hovering—and frowning—over me. My skull was pounding in a greater agony than I had hitherto experienced and every muscle, sinew, bone, and cell in my body was grinding against its neighbour in an off-key chorus of pain-filled physical despair. I felt as if days or weeks had passed since I had taken any of my medicinal laudanum.

“Who is Martha?” demanded Caroline. “What?” I could barely speak. My lips were dried and cracked, my tongue swollen. “Who is Martha?” repeated Caroline. Her voice was as flat and unsympathetic as a pistol shot. Of all the various sorts of panic I had experienced during the past two years, including awakening blind in an underground crypt, none was as terrible as this. I felt like a man sitting fat and secure in his comfortable carriage only to feel it suddenly lurch off a cliff. “Martha?” I managed to say. “Caroline… my dear… what are you talking about?” “You’ve been saying… repeating… ‘Martha’ in your sleep for two days and nights,” said Caroline, neither her expression nor her tone softening. “Who is Martha?” “Two days and nights! How long have I been unconscious? How did I get here? Why is this bandage on my head?” “Who is Martha?” repeated Caroline. “Martha… is Dickens’s character from David Copperfield,” I said, touching the thick bandage wrapped around my skull and feigning disinterest in the conversation. “You know… the girl of the streets who walks by the filthy, corrupted Thames. I think I was dreaming about the river.” Caroline crossed her arms over her chest and blinked. Never underestimate, Dear Reader, the resourcefulness of a novelist in an untenable situation, even when he is in such a dire condition as I was that day. “How long have I been sleeping?” I asked again. “It’s Wednesday afternoon,” Caroline said at last. “We heard knocking at the door on Sunday mid-day and found you unconscious on the stoop. Where had you been, Wilkie? Charley—he and Kate have been here twice; he reports your mother is about the same— said Mrs Wells reported that you left your mother’s without a word of explanation late on Saturday night. Where did you go? Why did your clothes—we had to burn them— stink of smoke and… of something worse? What happened to your head? Frank Beard has been here three times to look at you and was quite worried about the gash on your temple and the possible concussion to your brain. He was afraid you were in a coma. He was afraid that you might never awaken. Where have you been? Why in God’s name are you dreaming about a Dickens character named Martha?” “In a minute,” I said, leaning over the side of the bed but deciding that I would not be able to stand, or, if I did manage to stand, be capable of walking. “I shall answer your questions in a minute, but first have the girl bring in a basin. Quickly. I am going to be sick.” DEAR READER FROM my distant future, it seems quite possible—even probable— that in your Far Country a hundred years and more hence, all disease has been conquered, all pain banished, all the mortal afflictions so common to men of my time become no more than a distant hint of an echo of history’s rumour. But in my century, Dear Reader, despite our inevitable hubris as we compared ourselves to more primitive cultures, in truth we had little knowledge with which to battle disease or injury and few

effective chemists’ potions to utilise in our pathetic attempts to ameliorate mankind’s oldest enemy—pain. My friend Frank Beard was better than most practitioners of his dubious trade. He did not bleed me. He did not apply leeches to my belly or bring out his arsenal of ugly steel instruments with which to trepan or trephine me (that nineteenth-century surgeon’s habit of casually and obscenely boring a hole in the patient’s aching skull as if coring an apple with a carpenter’s bit-and-brace, popping the circle of white bone out as easy as popping the cork on a bottle of wine, all the while acting as though it were the most normal thing in the world to do). No, Frank Beard visited frequently, fretted and brooded honestly, checked the gash and bruise at my hairline, changed dressings, queried me anxiously about my ongoing and worsening pain, advised rest and a milk diet, gave quiet instructions to Caroline, tut-tutted to me about my laudanum intake but did not order me to stop it, and—in the end—honoured the true spirit of Hippocrates by first doing no harm. Just as with his more famous patient and friend—Charles Dickens—Frank Beard the physician worried about me without being able to help me. So I remained in agony. I had regained consciousness—such as it was—in my own bed on 22 January, five days after my final descent to King Lazaree’s den. For the rest of that week I was too ill to get out of bed, even though my need to visit Mother was almost absolute. In all my years of pain from rheumatical gout, I had never experienced anything like this. Beyond the usual aches of muscles and joints and bowels, it was as if some great, throbbing, burning source of pain had embedded itself deep behind my right eye. Or as if some huge insect had burrowed into my brain. It was during this time that I remembered something odd that Dickens had said to me years earlier. We had been discussing modern surgery in general terms, and Dickens mentioned in passing “a certain simple medical procedure I had undergone years ago, not long before my trip to America…” Dickens did not elaborate, but I knew through Katey Dickens and others what that surgery—hardly a “simple procedure”—had been. Dickens, while then working on Barnaby Rudge, had begun experiencing ever more severe rectal pains. (How these would have compared to my present excruciating headache, I cannot say.) The doctors diagnosed a “fistula”—literally a gap in the rectal wall through which tissue was being forced. Dickens had no choice but to undergo immediate surgery and chose Dr Frederick Salmon—the author thirteen years before of A Practical Essay on the Structure of the Rectum—to perform it. The procedure consisted of the rectum being widened by a blade, then opened up by a series of clamps, then held even wider apart by some vicious surgical appliance, while the intruding tissue was slowly and carefully cut away and then the loose ends pressed back out of the rectal cavity, and finally the rectal wall sewn together. And Dickens had undergone this with no morphia, no opium, nor any sort of what some

are now calling “anaesthetic.” Katey reported (all this learned from her mother, of course) that her father had remained cheerful during the surgery and was active shortly afterwards. Within days he was writing Barnaby Rudge again, but, one must add, while lying on a sofa with extra cushions available. And his huge and exhausting First American Tour was looming. But I digress from my point. Dickens’s comments about this “certain simple medical procedure” were about our fortunately fallible human memory in regards to pain. “It’s often struck me, my dear Wilkie,” he said that day as we were riding somewhere through Kent in a brougham, “that in a real sense, we have no true memory of pain. Oh, yes—we can recall we had it and remember quite vividly how terrible it was and how we wish never to experience it again—but we cannot truly recall it, can we? We remember the state, but not the true particulars the way one might remember… say… a fine meal. I suspect that this is the reason that women agree to go through the agonies of childbirth more than once—they have simply forgotten the specifics of their earlier agonies. And that, my dear Wilkie, is my point.” “What is?” I had asked. “Childbirth?” “Not at all,” Dickens said. “Rather, the contrast between pain and luxury. Pain we remember in a general (yet terrible) way but cannot really recall; luxury we recall in every detail. Ask yourself if this is not true! Once one has tasted the finest of wines, smoked the best cigars, dined in the most wonderful restaurants… even ridden in such luxury as this brougham in which we ride today… much less gained an acquaintance of a truly beautiful woman, all lesser experiences in each category continue to pale for years, decades… a lifetime! Pain we cannot truly recall; luxury—in all its Sybaritic details—we can never forget.” Well, perhaps. But I assure you, Dear Reader, that the terrible pain I was suffering in January, February, March, and April of 1868 was of a nature and horrible specificity that I shall never forget. IF A FARMER IS ILL, others till the fields in his place. If a soldier falls ill, he reports to the infirmary and is replaced on the field of battle. If a tradesman falls ill, others— perhaps his wife—must perform daily duties in his shop. If a queen falls ill, millions pray for her and voices and footsteps are muffled in her bedroom wing of the palace. But in all these cases, the work of the farm, army, shop, or nation goes on. If a writer falls terribly ill, everything stops. If he dies, his “business” ends forever. In this sense, a popular writer’s career is most like that of a famous actor—but even the most famous actor has an understudy. A writer does not. No one can replace him. His distinctive voice is everything. This is especially true for a popular writer whose work is already in the process of being serialised in a major national magazine. The Moonstone had begun its serial run both in our English All the Year Round and the Americans’ Harper’s Weekly in January. Although I had several numbers written in advance of this initial publication, those were already being set in type; new instalments would be

needed almost immediately. They existed only in rough note and outline form and were yet to be written. This pressure brought on a terror on top of my terror, a pain of pressure on top of the pressure of pain crawling and digging its way through my screaming brain and body. In that first week of my new misery, unable to sit up and hold a pen, racked in unspeakable pain and confined to bed, I attempted dictating the next chapter to Caroline and then to her daughter, Carrie. Neither could tolerate the screams and moans of agony that, unbidden, interrupted and punctuated my attempts at dictation. Both would rush to my side in an attempt to soothe me rather than sit and wait for dictation to resume. By the weekend, Caroline had hired a male amanuensis to sit in a nearby chair and take my dictation. But this secretary, obviously of a sensitive nature, could also not bear my moans, expostulations, and involuntary writhings. He quit after the first hour. The second male amanuensis on Monday seemed to have little care or empathy for my pain, but he also seemed incapable of pulling the dictated sentences and punctuations out of the background of my cries and moans. He was fired after the second hour. That Monday night, with the household asleep but the agony from hard-pincered scuttlings in my brain and then down along my spine keeping me from being able to sleep—or just to lie still—even after half a dozen self-ministrations of laudanum, I got out of bed and staggered to the window, pulling back the funereally heavy drapes and raising the blinds to look out at the slushy darkness towards Portman Square. Somewhere out there, I was certain, however invisible to a layman’s eye, one or more of Inspector Field’s agents still stood watch. He would never abandon me now, not after what I had seen and learned of his operations. For days I had begged Caroline for the newspaper and asked her for copies of the Times which I had missed while in my coma. But those newspapers had been thrown away and the few recent ones I was able to peruse made no mention of a former policeman’s eviscerated body being found in a slum cemetery. There was no account of fires breaking out in areas near the Thames or in the Fleet Ditch sewer system, and Caroline only looked at me oddly when I asked if she had heard of such fires. I queried Frank Beard when he came and my brother, Charles, in his turn, but neither had noticed mention of any detective’s murder nor of any subterranean fires. Both Beard and Charley assumed that my queries were the result of nightmares I had been having— it was certainly true that my few scattered hours of sleep gained during this entire period were ruled by terrible nightmares—and I made no effort to disabuse them of that theory. Obviously Inspector Field has used his influence to keep the police and news-papers quiet about Sergeant Hatchery’s terrible murder… but why? Perhaps Field—and his hundred or more men who had come to the punitive expedition beneath the city—simply had kept the fact of the murder from the police. But, again… why? I had neither strength of body nor adequate mental concentration that Monday night as I clung to the drapes and looked out at the cold, foggy London January midnight to answer my own questions, but I looked for Inspector Field’s inevitable eavesdropping

detectives as if peering into darkness in search of a Saviour. Why? How can Inspector Field help me stop this pain? The scarab moved an inch or two at the base of my brain and I screamed twice, muffling the second scream in a wad of velvet drapery stuffed into my mouth. Field was the second chess player in this terrible game, matched in his ability to provide counterweight to the monster Drood perhaps only by the absent Charles Dickens (whose motives were even less understandable), and I realised that I had begun ascribing impossible, almost mystical, abilities to the old, fat, side-whiskered detective. I needed someone to save me. There was no one. Sobbing, I staggered back to my bed, held on to the post as the moving pain blinded me for a moment, and then managed the few faltering steps to my dressing bureau. The key to the lowest drawer was there in my brush box, beneath the lining, where I kept it hidden. The gun that Detective Hatchery had given me was still there beneath fresh linen. I lifted it out—amazed again by its terrible weight—and staggered back to sit on the edge of the bed near the single burning candle. Tugging on my glasses, I realised that I must look as mad as I felt, my hair and beard in wild disarray, my face distorted in an almost constant open-mouthed moan, my eyes wild with pain and terror, and my nightshirt rucked up above pale, shivering shanks. As best I could, given my total unfamiliarity with firearms, I ascertained that the bullets were still in their cylindered receptacles. I remember thinking, This pain will never end. This scarab will never leave. The Moonstone will never be finished. In weeks, tens of thousands of people will line up to buy the next issue of All the Year Round and Harper’s Weekly only to find empty white pages. The idea of emptiness, of void, appealed to me that night beyond all words to describe it. I raised the pistol towards my face and inserted the heavy, broad barrel in my mouth. The small bead of what I assumed was a gun sight tapped my front tooth as the barrel slid in. Someone long ago—it may have been the old actor Macready—had explained to several of us around a happy table that someone serious about blowing his brains out had to fire the bullet upward through the soft palate rather than against the hard outer bone of the skull that too frequently deflected the projectile and left the would-be suicide as a painriddled vegetable and object of derision rather than a corpse. My arms shaking wildly—all of me shaking—I held the anvil-heavy weapon as steady as I could and raised one hand to pull the massive hammer back until it clicked into place. As I was finishing this operation, I realised that if my sweaty thumb had slipped, the gun would already have fired and the bullet would already have ricocheted around through the remaining pulp of my brain. And the scarab would be dead—or at least would be left to eat and burrow in peace, since I would no longer be feeling this pain. I began shaking harder, weeping as I shook, but I did not remove the obscene pistol’s

barrel from my mouth. The reflex to gag was very strong, and if I had not vomited half a dozen times already that afternoon and evening, I am sure I would have done so then. As it was, my stomach cramped, my throat spasmed, but I kept the barrel in place and angling upward in my mouth, feeling the steel circle touching the soft palate of which Macready had spoken. I set my thumb on the trigger and began applying pressure. My chattering teeth closed on the long barrel. I realised that I had been holding my breath but could do so no longer and gasped in a final breath. I could breathe through the pistol barrel. How many people knew this was possible? I could taste the sour-sweet bite of gun oil— applied long ago by the dead Detective Hatchery, no doubt, but still strong to the tongue —and the cold, vaguely coppery taste of the steel itself. But I could breathe through the pistol even as I bit down on the barrel on all sides, and as I did so, taking long racking breaths, I could hear the whistle of my inhalations and exhalations around the cavitied cylinder and out the echoing chamber near where the hammer was pulled back and co*cked. How many men had ended their lives with this as the last, irrelevant thought passing through their brains so soon to be dead, scattered, cooling, and thoughtless? The novelist-sensed irony of this was more painful than the scarab-pain and I began laughing. It was a strange, muffled, and oddly obscene sort of laughter, distorted as it was around a pistol barrel. After a moment I pulled the pistol from my mouth—the otherwise dull metal glistening in the candlelight due to the film of my saliva along its length—and, still idly holding the co*cked weapon, I lifted the candle and staggered out of my room. Downstairs, the doors to my new study were closed but not locked. I went in and pulled the broad double doors closed behind me. The Other Wilkie sat sideways behind my desk, reading a book in the near total darkness. He looked up at me as I came in and adjusted spectacles that reflected my candle, hiding his eyes behind two vertical, flickering columns of yellow flame. I noticed that his beard was slightly shorter and slightly less grey than mine. “You require my help,” said the Other Wilkie. Never, not in all the years since my first, vague childhood sense that my Other Self existed, had the Other Wilkie ever spoken to me or uttered any sound. I was surprised at how feminine his voice sounded. “Yes,” I whispered hoarsely. “I require your help.” I realised stupidly that the co*cked and loaded pistol was still in my right hand. I could raise it now and fire five—six?—bullets into that too-solid-looking flesh sitting presumptuously behind my desk. When the Other Wilkie dies, will I die? When I die, will the Other Wilkie die? The questions made me giggle, but the giggle came out as a sort of sob. “Shall we start tonight?” asked the Other Wilkie, laying the book down open on my blotter. He removed his spectacles to wipe them on a kerchief (which he kept in the

same jacket pocket in which I kept mine), and I noticed that even without the spectacleglass in front of them to reflect, his eyes were still two flickering vertical cat’s irises of flame. “No, not tonight,” I said. “But soon?” He set the small spectacles back on his face. “Yes,” I said. “Soon.” “I will come to you,” said the Other Wilkie. I had just enough energy left to nod. Still in bare feet, still carrying the co*cked pistol, I left my study, closed the heavy doors behind me, padded up the staircase, went into my room, collapsed onto my bed, and fell asleep atop the tumbled bedcovers with the gun still in my hand and my finger still taut on its curved, cold trigger.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

For years I had explained to Caroline that I was not free to marry her because my highstrung mother, who had always suffered from excitability and who was now dying from it (according to Dr Beard), simply would never understand—or agree to—such an arrangement with a formerly married woman who, it would be discovered after marriage, had shared my home for years. I explained that I had to spare the delicate old woman (who, in truth, was not that delicate at all except for her excitability) such a shock. Caroline never fully accepted the argument, but after some years she had ceased to challenge it. Now Mother was dying. On Thursday, 30 January—a week and a day after I’d awakened in my bed after the Undertown burnings and Barris’s attack on me—Caroline helped dress me, and Charley all but carried me to a carriage that took us to the railway station. I had sedated the scarab into relative calm by doubling my usual high dosage of laudanum, sometimes drinking straight from a large decanter. My plan was to continue this high dosage and to do my writing at Mother’s cottage until she died. After that milestone was reached and passed, I would work out a way to deal with Caroline, the scarab in my brain, and my other problems.

TRAVELLING BY RAIL to Tunbridge Wells and Southborough, I was so sick and shaky that poor Charley with his aching stomach had to put his arm around me and sit sideways on the outside seat so as to shield me somewhat from public view. I tried to stifle my moans, but I am sure that some were audible to the other passengers over the sounds of the locomotive, rails, and our hurtling passage through the cold air of the countryside. God alone knows what noises the scarab and I might have made if I had not taken the massive doses of laudanum. I had a sudden, terrible, total insight into what a hell it had been for Charles Dickens in the two and a half years since Staplehurst— especially on his exhausting and demanding reading tours, including the American one he was in the middle of at that moment—as he forced himself almost every day and night to ride the shaking, quaking, freezing or stifling, smoke-filled, rocking, coal-and-sweat-reeking carriages from city to city. Did Dickens have his own scarab? Does Dickens have a scarab now? This is all I could think about as the carriage rumbled on. If Dickens had a Droodimplanted scarab but somehow rid himself of it—by the public murder of an innocent man?—then Dickens was my only hope. If Dickens still carried the monster beetle but had learned to live and work and function with it, Dickens was still my best hope. The carriage rocked and I moaned. Heads turned. I buried my face in the wet-wool scent of Charley’s overcoat for solace and escape, then remembered doing precisely the same thing in the dark cloakroom of the boarding school when I was a boy. MY LETTER TO THE HARPER BROTHERS in America, I thought, opened with the perfect blend of masculine sadness and professionalism: “The dangerous illness of my mother has called me to her cottage in the country and I am working at my story as best I can, in intervals of attendance at her bedside.” I went on—equally professionally—about my revisions and shipping of the twelfth and thirteenth weekly parts of the novel and spent some time first praising and then correcting some of the illustration proofs they had sent me. (My first of a series of epistolary narrators, head-servant Gabriel Betteredge, had been depicted in the artist’s renderings as wearing livery. This would never do, as I explained to the Americans, since the head-servant in a fine house such as the one he served would wear plain black clothes and would look, with his white cravat and grey hair, like an old clergyman.) But I finished with what I considered to be a fine personal flourish— You may rely on my sparing no effort to study your convenience, after the readiness that you have shown to consider mine. I am very glad to hear that you like the story so far. There are some effects to come, which—unless I am altogether mistaken—have never been tried in fiction before. I confess that this last sentence sounded a trifle bold, perhaps even a tad presumptuous, but my plan for the mystery of the stolen Moonstone depended upon a long and accurate description of a man walking and acting in the night totally under the influence of opium —performing complicated operations of which he would have absolutely no memory the next morning or any day thereafter until helped, by a more self-aware opium eater, to

recover those memories—and I did believe that these scenes and themes were unprecedented in serious English fiction. As for working during intervals of attendance at my mother’s bedside, I did not feel it relevant or appropriate to explain that those intervals of attendance were very few and far apart, even though I was spending all my time in her cottage. The truth was, Mother could not abide my presence in her bedroom. Charley had warned me that in the almost two weeks of my absence, Mother had regained the ability to speak, but “speech” certainly is not the accurate descriptor of the screams, moans, inchoate shouts, and animal-like noises she made when anyone—but especially I—was in attendance. When Charley and I first stood in her presence that Thursday afternoon on the next-tolast day in January, I was shocked to the point of nausea by her appearance. Mother had seemed to lose all her living weight, so the figure in the bed, still distorted, was little more than mottled skin laid over bone and sinew. She reminded me—I could not help the association!—of a dead baby bird I had found in our garden once when I was very young. Like that young bird’s corpse (with its terrible featherless and folded wings), Mother’s dark and blotchy skin was translucent, showing the shape of things meant to be left unseen beneath. Her irises—just barely discernible between half-lowered lids—still fluttered like trapped sparrows. But she had indeed regained some vocal powers.