Charles Dickens.

The mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories online

. (page 55 of 103)
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or sharp blades ; but he could not persuade
himself to move or walk about, having just that
vague expectation of a sudden assault which
made it a comfortable thing to have something
at his back, even though that something were a
gallows-tree. He had no great faith in the
superstitions of the age ; still such of them as
occurred to him did not serve to lighten the
time, or to render his situation the more en-
durable. He remembered how witches were
said to repair at that ghostly hour to church-
yards and gibbets, and such-like dismal spots,
to pluck the bleeding mandrake or scrape the
flesh from dead men's bones, as choice ingre-
dients for their spells ; how, stealing by night to
lonely places, they dug graves with their finger-
nails, or anointed themselves, before riding in
the air, with a delicate pomatum made of the fat
of infants newly boiled. These and many other
fabled practices of a no less agreeable nature, and
all having some reference to the circumstances
in which he was placed, passed and repassed
in quick succession through the mind of Will
Marks, and adding a shadowy dread to that
distrust and watchfulness which his situation
inspired, rendered it, upon the whole, sufficiently
uncomfortable. As he had foreseen, too, the
rain began to descend heavily, and driving
before the wind in a thick mist, obscured even
those few objects which the darkness of the
night had before imj)erfectly revealed.

" Look ! " shrieked a voice. " Great Heaven,
it has fallen down, and stands erect as if it
lived ! "



The speaker was close behind him ; the voice
was almost at his ear. Will threw oft' his cloak,
drew his sword, and darting swiftly round, seized
a woman by the wrist, who, recoiling from him
with a dreadful shriek, fell struggling upon her
knees. Another woman, clad, like her whom
he had grasped, in mourning garments, stood
rooted to the spot on which they were, gazing
upon his face with wild and glaring eyes that
quite appalled him.

" Say," cried Will, when they had confronted
each other thus for some time, '' what are ye ? "

"Say what are you^' returned the woman,
" who trouble even this obscene resting-place
of the dead, and strip the gibbet of its honoured
burden ? Where is the body ? "

He looked in wonder and affright from the
woman who questioned him to the other whose
arm he clutched.

"Where is the body?" repeated his ques-
tioner, more firmly than before. " You wear no
livery which marks you for the hireling of the
government. You are no friend to us, or I
should recognise you, for the friends of such as
we are fev/ in number. What are you then, and
wherefore are you here ? "

" I am no foe to the distressed and helpless,"
said Will. " Are ye among that number ? Ye
should be by your looks."

" We are," was the answer.

" Is it ye who have been wailing and weeping
here under cover of the night .'' " said Will.

" It is," replied the woman sternly; and point-
ing, as she spoke, towards her companion, " she
mourns a husband, and I a brother. Even the
bloody law that wreaks its vengeance on the dead
does not make that a crime, and if it did 'twould
be alike to us who are past its fear or favour.'"

Will glanced at the two females, and could
barely discern that the one whom he addressed
was much the elder, and that the other was
young and of a slight figure. Both were deadly-
pale, their garments wet and worn, their hair di-
shevelled and streaming in the wind, themselves
bowed down with grief and misery ; their whole
appearance most dejected, wretched, and forlorn.
A sight so different from any he had expected
to encounter touched him to the quick, and all
idea of anything but their })itiable condition
vanished before it.

" I am a rough, blunt yeoman," said Will.
" Why I came here is told in a word : }-ou have
been overheard at a distance in the silence of
the night, and I have undertaken a watch for
hags or spirits. I came here expecting an ad-
venture, and prepared to go through with any.
If there be aught that I can do to help or aid



A MYSTERIOUS SERVICE PROPOSED.



2^3



you, name it, and on the faith of a man who
can be secret and trusty, I will stand by you to

the death."

"How comes this gibbet to be empty?"
asked the elder female.

" I swear to you," replied Will, " tliat I know
as little as yourself. But this I know, that when
I came here an hour ago or so, it was as it is
now ; and if, as I gather from your question, it
was not so last night, sure I am that it has been
secretly disturbed without the knowledge of the
folks in yonder town. Bethink you, therefore,
whether you have no friends in league with you,
or with him on whom the law has done its worst,
by whom these sad remains have been removed
for burial."

The women spoke together, and Will retired
a pace or two while they conversed apart. He
could hear them sob and moan, and saw that
they wrung their hands in fruitless agony. He
could make out little that they said, but between-
whiles he gathered enough to assure him that
his suggestion was not very wide of the mark,
and that they not only suspected by whom the
body had been removed, but also whither it had
been conveyed. When they had been in con-
versation a long time, they turned towards him
once more. This time the younger female
spoke.

'' You have offered us your help ? "

" I have."

" And given a pledge that you are still willing
to redeem ? "

" Yes. So far as I may, keeping all plots and
conspiracies at arm's length."

" Follow us, friend."

Will, whose self-possession was now quite re-
stored, needed no second bidding, but with his
drawn sword in his hand, and his cloak so
muffled over his left arm as to serve for a kind
of shield without offering any impediment to its
free action, suffered them to lead the way.
Through mud and mire, and wind and rain,
they walked in silence a full mile. At length
they turned into a dark lane, where suddenly
starting out from beneath some trees where he
had taken shelter, a man appeared, having in
his charge three saddled horses. One of these
(his own apparently), in obedience to a whisper
from the women, he consigned to Will, who,
seeing that they mounted, mounted also. Then,
without a word spoken, they rode on together,
leaving the attendant behind.

They made no halt nor slackened their pace
until they arrived near Putney. At a large wooden
house, which stood apart from any other, they
alighted, and giving their horses to one who



was already waiting, passed in by a side-door,
and so up some narrow creaking stairs into a
small panelled chamber, where Will was left
alone. He had not been here very long, when
the door was softly ojjened, and there entered
to him a cavalier whose face was concealed be-
neath a black mask.

^\'ill stood upon his guard, and scrutinised
this figure from head to foot. The form was that
of a man pretty far advanced in life, but of a firm
and stately carriage. His dress was of a rich and
costly kind, but so soiled and disordered that it
was scarcely to be recognised for one of those
gorgeous suits which the expensive taste and
fashion of the time prescribed for men of any
rank or station. He was booted and spurred,
and bore about him even as many tokens of the
state of the roads as Will himself. All this he
noted, while the eyes behind the mask regarded
him with equal attention. This survey over, the
cavalier broke silence.

" Thou'rt young and bold, and wouldst be
richer than thou art ? "

" The two first I am," returned Will. " The
last I have scarcely thought of. But be it so.
Say that I would be richer than I am ; what
then ? "

" The way lies before thee now," replied the
Mask.

" Show it me."

" First let me inform thee that thou wert
brought here to-night lest thou shouldst too
soon have told thy tale to those who placed
thee on the watch."

" I thought as much when I followed," said
Will. " But I am no blab, not I."

" Good," returned the Mask. " Now listen.
He who was to have executed the enterprise of
burying that body, which, as thou hast sus-
pected, was taken down to-night, has left us in
our need."

Will nodded, and thought within himself that
if the Mask were to attempt to play any tricks,
the first eyelet-hole on the left-hand side of his
doublet, counting from the buttons up the front,
would be a very good place in which to pink
him neatly.

" Thou art here, and the emergency is des-
perate. I propose his task to thee. Convey the
body (now cofiined in this house), by means
that I shall show, to the church of St. Dunstan
in London to-morrow night, and thy service
shall be richly paid. Thou'rt about to ask whose
corpse it is. Seek not to know. I warn thee,
seek not to know. Felons hang in chains on
every moor and heath. Believe, as others do,
that this was one, and ask no further. The



284



MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK.



murders of state policy, its victims or avengers,

had best remain unknown to such as thee."

" The mystery of this service," said Will,
" bespeaks its danger. What is the reward?"

" One hundred golden unities," replied the
cavalier. " The danger to one who cannot be
recognised as the friend of a fallen cause is not
great, but there is some hazard to be run. De-
cide between that and the reward."

"What if I refuse?" said Will.

" Depart in peace, in God's name," returned
the Mask in a melancholy tone, '" and keep our
-ecret, remembering that those who brought
thee here were crushed and stricken women,
and that those who bade thee go free could
have had thy life with one word, and no man
the wiser."

Men were readier to undertake desperate ad-
ventures in those times than they are now. In
this case the temptation was great, and the
punishment, even in case of detection, was not
likely to be very severe, as Will came of a loyal
stock, and his uncle was in good repute, and a
passable tale to account for his possession of the
body and his ignorance of the identity might be
easily devised.

The cavalier explained that a covered cart had
been prepared for the purpose ; that the time of
departure could be arranged so that he should
reach London Bridge at dusk, and proceed
through the City after the day had closed in ;
that people would be ready at his journey's end
to place the coffin in a vault without a minute's
delay ; that officious inquirers in the streets
would be easily repelled by the tale that he was
carrying for interment the corpse of one who
had died of the plague ; and, in short, showed
him every reason why he should succeed, and
none why he should fail. After a time they
were joined by another gentleman, masked like
the first, who added new arguments to those
which had been already urged ; the wretched
wife, too, added her tears and prayers to their
calmer representations ; and in the end, Will,
moved by compassion and good-nature, by a
love of the marvellous, by a mischievous antici-
pation of the terrors of the Kingston people
when he should be missing next day, and finally,
by the prospect of gain, took upon himself the
task, and devoted all his energies to its success-
ful execution.

The following night, when it was quite dark, the
hollow echoes of old London Bridge responded
to the rumbling of the cart which contained the
ghastly load, the object of Will Marks' care.
Sufficiently disguised to attract no attention by
his garb, Will walked at the horse's head, as un-



concerned as a man could be who was sensible
that he had now arrived at the most dangerous
part of his undertaking, but full of boldness and
confidence.

It was now eight o'clock. After nine, none
could walk the streets without danger of their
lives, and even at this hour robberies and murder
were of no uncommon occurrence. The shops
upon the bridge were all closed ; the low wooden
arches thrown across the way were like so many
black pits, in every one of which ill-favoured
fellows lurked in knots of three or four ; some
standing upright against the wall, lying in wait :
others skulking in gateways, and thrusting out
their uncombed heads and scowling eyes ; others
crossing and recrossing, and constantly jostling
both horse and man to provoke a quarrel; others
stealing away and summoning their companions
in a low whistle. Once, even in that short pas-
sage, there was the noise of scuffling and the
clash of swords behind him ; but Will, who
knew the City and its ways, kept straight on,
and scarcely turned his head.

The streets being unpaved, the rain of the
night before had converted them into a perfect
quagmire, which the splashing water-spouts from
the gables, and the filth and offal cast from the
different houses, swelled in no small degree.
These odious matters, being left to putrefy in
the close and heavy air, emitted an insupport-
able stench, to which every court and passage
poured forth a contribution of its own. Many
parts, even of the main streets, with their pro-
jecting stories tottering overhead and nearly
shutting out the sky, were more like huge chim-
neys than open ways. At the corners of some
of these, great bonfires were burning to prevent
infection from the plague, of which it was ru-
moured that some citizens had lately died ; and
few who, availing themselves of the light thus
afforded, paused for a moment to look around
them, would have been disposed to doubt the
existence of the disease, or wonder at its dread-
ful visitations.

But it was not in such scenes as these, or even
in the deep and miry road, that Will Marks found
the chief obstacles to his progress. There were
kites and ravens feeding in the streets (the only
scavengers the City kept), who, scenting what
he carried, followed the cart or fluttered on its
top, and croaked their knowledge of its burden
and their ravenous appetite for prey. There
were distant fires, where the poor wood-and-
plaster tenements wasted fiercely, and whither
crowds made their way, clamouring eagerly for
plunder, beating down all who came within their
reach, and yelhng like devils let loose. There



THE MYSTERIOUS SERVICE PERFORMED.



285



were single-handeJ men flying from bands of
ruffians, who pursued them with naked weapons,
and hunted them savagely ; there were drunken,
desperate robbers issuing from their dens and
staggering through the open streets, where no
man dared molest them ; tliere were vagabond
servitors returning from the Bear Garden, where
had been good sport that day, dragging after
them their torn and bleeding dogs, or leaving
them to die and rot upon the road. Nothing
was abroad but cruelty, violence, and disorder.

Many were the interruptions which Will
Marks encountered from these stragglers, and
many the narrow escapes he made. Now some
stout bully would take his seat upon the cart,
insisting to be driven to his own home, and now
two or three men would come down upon him
together, and demand that on peril of his life
he showed them what he had inside. Then a
party of the City watch, upon their rounds, would
draw across the road, and not satisfied with his
tale, question him closely, and revenge them-
selves by a little cuffing and hustling for mal-
treatment sustained at other hands that night.
All these assailants had to be rebutted, some by
fair words, some by foul, and some by blows.
But Will Marks was not the man to be stopped
or turned back now he had penetrated so far,
and though he got on slowly, still he made his
way down Fleet Street, and reached the church
at last.

As he had been forewarned, all was in readi-
ness. Directly he stopped, the coffin was re-
moved by four men, who appeared so suddenly
that they seemed to have started from the earth.
A fifth mounted the cart, and scarcely allowing
Will time to snatch from it a little bundle con-
taining such of his own clothes as he had thrown
off on assuming his disguise, drove briskly away.
Will never saw cart or man again.

He followed the body into the church, and it
was well he lost no time in doing so, for the
door was immediately closed. There was no
light in the building save that which came from
a couple of torches borne by two men in cloaks,
who stood upon the brink of a vault. Each
supported a female figure, and all observed a
profound silence.

By this dim and solemn glare, which made
Will feel as though light itself were dead, and
its tomb the dreary arches that frowned above,
they placed the coffin in the vault, with un-
covered heads, and closed it up. One of the
torch-bearers then turned to Will and stretched
forth his hand, in which was a j)urse of gold.
Something told him directly that those were the
same eyes which he had seen beneath the mask.



" Take it," said the cavalier in a low voice,
" and be hajjpy. Though these have been hasty
obsequies, and no priest has blessed the work,
there will not be the less peace with thee here-
after, for having laid his bones beside those of
his little children. Keep thy own counsel, for
thy sake no less than ours, and God be with
thee ! "

" The blessing of a widowed mother on thy
head, good friend ! " cried the younger lady
through her tears ; " the blessing of one who
has now no hope or rest but in this grave ! "

Will stood with the purse in his hand, and
involuntarily made a gesture as though he would
return it, for though a thoughtless fellow, he
was of a frank and generous nature. But the
two gentlemen, extinguishing their torches, cau-
tioned him to be gone, as their common safety
would be endangered by a longer delay; and at
the same time their retreating footsteps sounded
through the church. He turned, therefore, to-
wards the point at which he had entered, and
seeing, by a faint gleam in the distance, that the
door was again partially open, groped his way
towards it, and so passed into the street.

Meantime the local authorities of Kingston
had kept watch and ward all the previous night,
fancying every now and then that dismal shrieks
were borne towards them on the wind, and fre-
quently winking to each other, and drawing closer
to the fire as they drank the health of the lonely
sentinel, upon whom a clerical gentleman pre-
sent was especially severe by reason of his levity
and youthful folly. Two or three of the gravest
in company, who were of a theological turn, pro-
pounded to him the question, whether such a
character was not but poorly armed for a single
combat with the Devil, and whether he himself
would not have been a stronger opponent ; but
the clerical gentleman, sharply reproving them
for their presumption in discussing such ques-
tions, clearly showed that a fitter chami)ion than
Will could scarcely have been selected, not only
for that, being a child of Satan, he was the less
likely to be alarmed by the appearance of his
own father, but because Satan himself would be
at his ease in such company, and would not
scruple to kick up his heels to an extent which
it was quite certain he would never venture
before clerical eyes, under whose influence (as
was notorious) he became quite a tame and
milk-and-water character.

But when next morning arrived, and with it
no Will Marks, and when a strong party repair-
ing to the spot, as a strong party ventured to do
in broad day, found Will gone and the gibbet
empty, matters grew serious indeed. The day



2S6



MASTER HUMPHREY'S CLOCK.



passing away and no news arriving, and the
night going on also without any intelligence, the
thing grew more tremendous still ; in short, the
neighbourhood worketl itself up to such a com-
fortable pitch of mystery and horror, that it is a
great question whether the general feeling was
not one of excessive disappointment when, on
the second morning, Will ATarks returned.

However this may be, back Will came in a
very cool and collected state, and appearing not
to trouble himself much about anybody except
old John Podgers, who, having been sent for,
was sitting in the Town-hall crying slowly, and
dozing between-whiles. Having embraced his
uncle and assured him of his safety, Will mounted
on a table and told his story to the crowd.

And surely they would have been the most
unreasonable crowd that ever assembled to-
gether, if they had been in the least respect dis-
appointed with the tale he told them ; for, besides
describing the Witches" Dance to the minutest
motion of their legs, and performing it in cha-
racter on the table, with the assistance of a
broomstick, he related how they had carried off
the body in a copper cauldron, and so bewitched
him, that he lost his senses until he found
himself lying under a hedge at least ten miles
off, whence he had straightway returned as they
then beheld. The story gained such universal
applause that it soon afterwards brought down
express from London the great witch-finder of
the age, the Heaven-born Hopkins, who, having
examined Will closely on several points, pro-
nounced it the most extraordinary and the best
accredited witch story ever known, under which
title it was published at the Three Bibles on
London Bridge, in a small quarto, with view
of the cauldron from an original drawing, and a
portrait of the clerical gentleman as he sat by
the fire.

On one point Will was particularly careful :
and that was to describe, for the witches he had
seen, three impossible old females, whose like-
nesses never were or will be. Thus he saved
the lives of the suspected parties, and of all
other old women who were dragged before him
to be identified.

This circumstance occasioned John Podgers
much grief and sorrow, until, happening one day
to cast his eyes upon his housekeeper, and ob-
serving her to be plainly afflicted with rheuma-
tism, he procured her to be burnt as an un-
doubted witch. For this service to the state he
was immediately knighted, and became from
that time Sir John Podgers.

Will ALarks never gained any clue to the
mystery in which he had been an actor, nor did



any inscription in the church, which he often
visited afterwards, nor any of the limited in-
quiries that he dared to make, yield him the
least assistance. As he kept his own secret, he
was compelled to spend the gold discreetly and
sparingly. \\\ the course of time he married the
young lady of whom I have already told you,
whose maiden name is not recorded, with whom
he led a prosperous and happy life. Years and
years after this adventure, it was his wont to tell
her upon a stormy night that it was a great com-
fort to him to think those bones, to whomso-
ever they might have once belonged, were not
bleaching in the troubled air, but were moulder-
ing away with the dust of their own kith and
kindred in a quiet grave.



FURTHER PARTICULARS OF MASTER
HUMPHREY'S VISITOR.

Being very full of ]\Ir. Pickwick's application,
and highly pleased with the compliment he
had paid me, it will be readily supposed that
long before our next night of meeting I com-
municated it to my three friends, who unani-
mously voted his admission into our body. We
all looked forward with some impatience to the
occasion which would enrol him among us, but
I am greatly mistaken if Jack Redburn and
myself were not by many degrees the most
impatient of the party.

At length the night came, and a few minutes
after ten Mr. Pickwick's knock was heard at the
street-door. He was shown into a lower room,
and I directly took my crooked stick and went
to accompany him up-stairs, in order that he
might be presented with all honour and for-
mality.

" Mr. Pickwick," said I on entering the room,
" I am rejoiced to see you — rejoiced to believe
that this is but the opening of a long series of
visits to this house, and but the beginning of a
close and lasting friendship."

That gentleman made a suitable reply with a
cordiality and frankness peculiarly his own, and
glanced with a smile towards two persons behind
the door, whom I had not at first observed, and
whom 1 immediately recognised as Mr. Samuel
Wellcr and his father.

It was a warm evening, but the elder INIr.
Weller was attired notwithstanding in a most
capacious great-coat, and his chin enveloped in
a large speckled shawl, such as is usually Avorn
by stage-coachmen on active service. He looked
very rosy and very stout, especially about the
legs, which appeared to have been compressed



MA\ WELLER SENIOR HAS A QUESTION 10 ASK.



into his top-boots with some difficulty. His
broad-brimmed hat he held under his left arm,
and with the forefinger of his right hand he
touched his forehead a great many times, in
acknowledgment of my presence.

" I am very glad to see you in such good
health, Mr. Wellcr," said I.

"Why, thankee, sir," returned Mr. Weller,



Online LibraryCharles DickensThe mystery of Edwin Drood, Reprinted pieces, and other stories → online text (page 55 of 103)