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Charles Dickens > The Mystery of Edwin Drood > Chapter I

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Chapter I


An ancient English Cathedral Tower? How can the ancient English
Cathedral tower be here! The well-known massive gray square tower
of its old Cathedral? How can that be here! There is no spike of
rusty iron in the air, 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.

Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness
has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises,
supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He
is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged
window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable
court. He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed, upon a
bedstead that has indeed given way under the weight upon it. Lying,
also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman,
a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or
stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, to kindle it. And
as she blows, and shading it with her lean hand, concentrates its
red spark of light, it serves in the dim morning as a lamp to show
him what he sees of her.

'Another?' says this woman, in a querulous, rattling whisper.
'Have another?'

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

'Ye've smoked as many as five since ye come in at midnight,' the
woman goes on, as she chronically complains. 'Poor me, poor me, my
head is so bad. Them two come in after ye. Ah, poor me, the
business is slack, is slack! Few Chinamen about the Docks, and
fewer Lascars, and no ships coming in, these say! Here's another
ready for ye, deary. Ye'll remember like a good soul, won't ye,
that the market price is dreffle high just now? More nor three
shillings and sixpence for a thimbleful! And ye'll remember that
nobody but me (and Jack Chinaman t'other side the court; but he
can't do it as well as me) has the true secret of mixing it? Ye'll
pay up accordingly, deary, won't ye?'

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

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

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

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

'What visions can SHE have?' the waking man muses, as he turns her
face towards him, and stands looking down at it. 'Visions of many
butchers' shops, and public-houses, and much credit? Of an
increase of hideous customers, and this horrible bedstead set
upright again, and this horrible court swept clean? What can she
rise to, under any quantity of opium, higher than that!--Eh?'

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


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

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

'What do you say?'

A watchful pause.


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

There has been chattering and clattering enough between them, but
to no purpose. When any distinct word has been flung into the air,
it has had no sense or sequence. Wherefore 'unintelligible!' is
again the comment of the watcher, made with some reassured nodding
of his head, and a gloomy smile. He then lays certain silver money
on the table, finds his hat, gropes his way down the broken stairs,
gives a good morning to some rat-ridden doorkeeper, in bed in a
black hutch beneath the stairs, and passes out.

That same afternoon, the massive gray square tower of an old
Cathedral rises before the sight of a jaded traveller. The bells
are going for daily vesper service, and he must needs attend it,
one would say, from his haste to reach the open Cathedral door.
The choir are getting on their sullied white robes, in a hurry,
when he arrives among them, gets on his own robe, and falls into
the procession filing in to service. Then, the Sacristan locks the
iron-barred gates that divide the sanctuary from the chancel, and
all of the procession having scuttled into their places, hide their
faces; and then the intoned words, 'WHEN THE WICKED MAN--' rise
among groins of arches and beams of roof, awakening muttered

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