The Complete Works of



Charles Dickens > The Mystery of Edwin Drood > Chapter IV

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Chapter IV


Accepting the Jackass as the type of self-sufficient stupidity and
conceit--a custom, perhaps, like some few other customs, more
conventional than fair--then the purest jackass in Cloisterham is
Mr. Thomas Sapsea, Auctioneer.

Mr. Sapsea 'dresses at' the Dean; has been bowed to for the Dean,
in mistake; has even been spoken to in the street as My Lord, under
the impression that he was the Bishop come down unexpectedly,
without his chaplain. Mr. Sapsea is very proud of this, and of his
voice, and of his style. He has even (in selling landed property)
tried the experiment of slightly intoning in his pulpit, to make
himself more like what he takes to be the genuine ecclesiastical
article. So, in ending a Sale by Public Auction, Mr. Sapsea
finishes off with an air of bestowing a benediction on the
assembled brokers, which leaves the real Dean--a modest and worthy
gentleman--far behind.

Mr. Sapsea has many admirers; indeed, the proposition is carried by
a large local majority, even including non-believers in his wisdom,
that he is a credit to Cloisterham. He possesses the great
qualities of being portentous and dull, and of having a roll in his
speech, and another roll in his gait; not to mention a certain
gravely flowing action with his hands, as if he were presently
going to Confirm the individual with whom he holds discourse. Much
nearer sixty years of age than fifty, with a flowing outline of
stomach, and horizontal creases in his waistcoat; reputed to be
rich; voting at elections in the strictly respectable interest;
morally satisfied that nothing but he himself has grown since he
was a baby; how can dunder-headed Mr. Sapsea be otherwise than a
credit to Cloisterham, and society?

Mr. Sapsea's premises are in the High-street, over against the
Nuns' House. They are of about the period of the Nuns' House,
irregularly modernised here and there, as steadily deteriorating
generations found, more and more, that they preferred air and light
to Fever and the Plague. Over the doorway is a wooden effigy,
about half life-size, representing Mr. Sapsea's father, in a curly
wig and toga, in the act of selling. The chastity of the idea, and
the natural appearance of the little finger, hammer, and pulpit,
have been much admired.

Mr. Sapsea sits in his dull ground-floor sitting-room, giving first
on his paved back yard; and then on his railed-off garden. Mr.
Sapsea has a bottle of port wine on a table before the fire--the
fire is an early luxury, but pleasant on the cool, chilly autumn
evening--and is characteristically attended by his portrait, his
eight-day clock, and his weather-glass. Characteristically,
because he would uphold himself against mankind, his weather-glass
against weather, and his clock against time.

By Mr. Sapsea's side on the table are a writing-desk and writing
materials. Glancing at a scrap of manuscript, Mr. Sapsea reads it
to himself with a lofty air, and then, slowly pacing the room with
his thumbs in the arm-holes of his waistcoat, repeats it from
memory: so internally, though with much dignity, that the word
'Ethelinda' is alone audible.

There are three clean wineglasses in a tray on the table. His
serving-maid entering, and announcing 'Mr. Jasper is come, sir,'
Mr. Sapsea waves 'Admit him,' and draws two wineglasses from the
rank, as being claimed.

'Glad to see you, sir. I congratulate myself on having the honour
of receiving you here for the first time.' Mr. Sapsea does the
honours of his house in this wise.

'You are very good. The honour is mine and the self-congratulation
is mine.'

'You are pleased to say so, sir. But I do assure you that it is a
satisfaction to me to receive you in my humble home. And that is
what I would not say to everybody.' Ineffable loftiness on Mr.
Sapsea's part accompanies these words, as leaving the sentence to
be understood: 'You will not easily believe that your society can
be a satisfaction to a man like myself; nevertheless, it is.'

'I have for some time desired to know you, Mr. Sapsea.'

'And I, sir, have long known you by reputation as a man of taste.
Let me fill your glass. I will give you, sir,' says Mr. Sapsea,
filling his own:

'When the French come over,
May we meet them at Dover!'

This was a patriotic toast in Mr. Sapsea's infancy, and he is
therefore fully convinced of its being appropriate to any
subsequent era.

'You can scarcely be ignorant, Mr. Sapsea,' observes Jasper,
watching the auctioneer with a smile as the latter stretches out
his legs before the fire, 'that you know the world.'

'Well, sir,' is the chuckling reply, 'I think I know something of
it; something of it.'

'Your reputation for that knowledge has always interested and
surprised me, and made me wish to know you. For Cloisterham is a
little place. Cooped up in it myself, I know nothing beyond it,
and feel it to be a very little place.'

'If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man,' Mr. Sapsea
begins, and then stops:- 'You will excuse me calling you young man,
Mr. Jasper? You are much my junior.'

'By all means.'

'If I have not gone to foreign countries, young man, foreign
countries have come to me. They have come to me in the way of
business, and I have improved upon my opportunities. Put it that I
take an inventory, or make a catalogue. I see a French clock. I
never saw him before, in my life, but I instantly lay my finger on
him and say "Paris!" I see some cups and saucers of Chinese make,
equally strangers to me personally: I put my finger on them, then
and there, and I say "Pekin, Nankin, and Canton." It is the same
with Japan, with Egypt, and with bamboo and sandalwood from the
East Indies; I put my finger on them all. I have put my finger on
the North Pole before now, and said "Spear of Esquimaux make, for
half a pint of pale sherry!"'

'Really? A very remarkable way, Mr. Sapsea, of acquiring a
knowledge of men and things.'

'I mention it, sir,' Mr. Sapsea rejoins, with unspeakable
complacency, 'because, as I say, it don't do to boast of what you
are; but show how you came to be it, and then you prove it.'

'Most interesting. We were to speak of the late Mrs. Sapsea.'

'We were, sir.' Mr. Sapsea fills both glasses, and takes the
decanter into safe keeping again. 'Before I consult your opinion
as a man of taste on this little trifle'--holding it up--'which is
BUT a trifle, and still has required some thought, sir, some little
fever of the brow, I ought perhaps to describe the character of the
late Mrs. Sapsea, now dead three quarters of a year.'

Mr. Jasper, in the act of yawning behind his wineglass, puts down
that screen and calls up a look of interest. It is a little
impaired in its expressiveness by his having a shut-up gape still
to dispose of, with watering eyes.

'Half a dozen years ago, or so,' Mr. Sapsea proceeds, 'when I had
enlarged my mind up to--I will not say to what it now is, for that
might seem to aim at too much, but up to the pitch of wanting
another mind to be absorbed in it--I cast my eye about me for a
nuptial partner. Because, as I say, it is not good for man to be

Mr. Jasper appears to commit this original idea to memory.

'Miss Brobity at that time kept, I will not call it the rival
establishment to the establishment at the Nuns' House opposite, but
I will call it the other parallel establishment down town. The
world did have it that she showed a passion for attending my sales,
when they took place on half holidays, or in vacation time. The
world did put it about, that she admired my style. The world did
notice that as time flowed by, my style became traceable in the
dictation-exercises of Miss Brobity's pupils. Young man, a whisper
even sprang up in obscure malignity, that one ignorant and besotted
Churl (a parent) so committed himself as to object to it by name.
But I do not believe this. For is it likely that any human
creature in his right senses would so lay himself open to be
pointed at, by what I call the finger of scorn?'

Mr. Jasper shakes his head. Not in the least likely. Mr. Sapsea,
in a grandiloquent state of absence of mind, seems to refill his
visitor's glass, which is full already; and does really refill his
own, which is empty.

'Miss Brobity's Being, young man, was deeply imbued with homage to
Mind. She revered Mind, when launched, or, as I say, precipitated,
on an extensive knowledge of the world. When I made my proposal,
she did me the honour to be so overshadowed with a species of Awe,
as to be able to articulate only the two words, "O Thou!" meaning
myself. Her limpid blue eyes were fixed upon me, her semi-
transparent hands were clasped together, pallor overspread her
aquiline features, and, though encouraged to proceed, she never did
proceed a word further. I disposed of the parallel establishment
by private contract, and we became as nearly one as could be
expected under the circumstances. But she never could, and she
never did, find a phrase satisfactory to her perhaps-too-favourable
estimate of my intellect. To the very last (feeble action of
liver), she addressed me in the same unfinished terms.'

Mr. Jasper has closed his eyes as the auctioneer has deepened his
voice. He now abruptly opens them, and says, in unison with the
deepened voice 'Ah!'--rather as if stopping himself on the extreme
verge of adding--'men!'

'I have been since,' says Mr. Sapsea, with his legs stretched out,
and solemnly enjoying himself with the wine and the fire, 'what you
behold me; I have been since a solitary mourner; I have been since,
as I say, wasting my evening conversation on the desert air. I
will not say that I have reproached myself; but there have been
times when I have asked myself the question: What if her husband
had been nearer on a level with her? If she had not had to look up
quite so high, what might the stimulating action have been upon the

Mr. Jasper says, with an appearance of having fallen into
dreadfully low spirits, that he 'supposes it was to be.'

'We can only suppose so, sir,' Mr. Sapsea coincides. 'As I say,
Man proposes, Heaven disposes. It may or may not be putting the
same thought in another form; but that is the way I put it.'

Mr. Jasper murmurs assent.

'And now, Mr. Jasper,' resumes the auctioneer, producing his scrap
of manuscript, 'Mrs. Sapsea's monument having had full time to
settle and dry, let me take your opinion, as a man of taste, on the
inscription I have (as I before remarked, not without some little
fever of the brow) drawn out for it. Take it in your own hand.
The setting out of the lines requires to be followed with the eye,
as well as the contents with the mind.'

Mr. Jasper complying, sees and reads as follows:

Reverential Wife of
Whose Knowledge of the World,
Though somewhat extensive,
Never brought him acquainted with
More capable of
And ask thyself the Question,
If Not,

Mr. Sapsea having risen and stationed himself with his back to the
fire, for the purpose of observing the effect of these lines on the
countenance of a man of taste, consequently has his face towards
the door, when his serving-maid, again appearing, announces,
'Durdles is come, sir!' He promptly draws forth and fills the
third wineglass, as being now claimed, and replies, 'Show Durdles

'Admirable!' quoth Mr. Jasper, handing back the paper.

'You approve, sir?'

'Impossible not to approve. Striking, characteristic, and

The auctioneer inclines his head, as one accepting his due and
giving a receipt; and invites the entering Durdles to take off that
glass of wine (handing the same), for it will warm him.

Durdles is a stonemason; chiefly in the gravestone, tomb, and
monument way, and wholly of their colour from head to foot. No man
is better known in Cloisterham. He is the chartered libertine of
the place. Fame trumpets him a wonderful workman--which, for aught
that anybody knows, he may be (as he never works); and a wonderful
sot--which everybody knows he is. With the Cathedral crypt he is
better acquainted than any living authority; it may even be than
any dead one. It is said that the intimacy of this acquaintance
began in his habitually resorting to that secret place, to lock-out
the Cloisterham boy-populace, and sleep off fumes of liquor: he
having ready access to the Cathedral, as contractor for rough
repairs. Be this as it may, he does know much about it, and, in
the demolition of impedimental fragments of wall, buttress, and
pavement, has seen strange sights. He often speaks of himself in
the third person; perhaps, being a little misty as to his own
identity, when he narrates; perhaps impartially adopting the
Cloisterham nomenclature in reference to a character of
acknowledged distinction. Thus he will say, touching his strange
sights: 'Durdles come upon the old chap,' in reference to a buried
magnate of ancient time and high degree, 'by striking right into
the coffin with his pick. The old chap gave Durdles a look with
his open eyes, as much as to say, "Is your name Durdles? Why, my
man, I've been waiting for you a devil of a time!" And then he
turned to powder.' With a two-foot rule always in his pocket, and
a mason's hammer all but always in his hand, Durdles goes
continually sounding and tapping all about and about the Cathedral;
and whenever he says to Tope: 'Tope, here's another old 'un in
here!' Tope announces it to the Dean as an established discovery.

In a suit of coarse flannel with horn buttons, a yellow neckerchief
with draggled ends, an old hat more russet-coloured than black, and
laced boots of the hue of his stony calling, Durdles leads a hazy,
gipsy sort of life, carrying his dinner about with him in a small
bundle, and sitting on all manner of tombstones to dine. This
dinner of Durdles's has become quite a Cloisterham institution:
not only because of his never appearing in public without it, but
because of its having been, on certain renowned occasions, taken
into custody along with Durdles (as drunk and incapable), and
exhibited before the Bench of justices at the townhall. These
occasions, however, have been few and far apart: Durdles being as
seldom drunk as sober. For the rest, he is an old bachelor, and he
lives in a little antiquated hole of a house that was never
finished: supposed to be built, so far, of stones stolen from the
city wall. To this abode there is an approach, ankle-deep in stone
chips, resembling a petrified grove of tombstones, urns, draperies,
and broken columns, in all stages of sculpture. Herein two
journeymen incessantly chip, while other two journeymen, who face
each other, incessantly saw stone; dipping as regularly in and out
of their sheltering sentry-boxes, as if they were mechanical
figures emblematical of Time and Death.

To Durdles, when he had consumed his glass of port, Mr. Sapsea
intrusts that precious effort of his Muse. Durdles unfeelingly
takes out his two-foot rule, and measures the lines calmly,
alloying them with stone-grit.

'This is for the monument, is it, Mr. Sapsea?'

'The Inscription. Yes.' Mr. Sapsea waits for its effect on a
common mind.

'It'll come in to a eighth of a inch,' says Durdles. 'Your
servant, Mr. Jasper. Hope I see you well.'

'How are you Durdles?'

'I've got a touch of the Tombatism on me, Mr. Jasper, but that I
must expect.'

'You mean the Rheumatism,' says Sapsea, in a sharp tone. (He is
nettled by having his composition so mechanically received.)

'No, I don't. I mean, Mr. Sapsea, the Tombatism. It's another
sort from Rheumatism. Mr. Jasper knows what Durdles means. You
get among them Tombs afore it's well light on a winter morning, and
keep on, as the Catechism says, a-walking in the same all the days
of your life, and YOU'LL know what Durdles means.'

'It is a bitter cold place,' Mr. Jasper assents, with an
antipathetic shiver.

'And if it's bitter cold for you, up in the chancel, with a lot of
live breath smoking out about you, what the bitterness is to
Durdles, down in the crypt among the earthy damps there, and the
dead breath of the old 'uns,' returns that individual, 'Durdles
leaves you to judge.--Is this to be put in hand at once, Mr.

Mr. Sapsea, with an Author's anxiety to rush into publication,
replies that it cannot be out of hand too soon.

'You had better let me have the key then,' says Durdles.

'Why, man, it is not to be put inside the monument!'

'Durdles knows where it's to be put, Mr. Sapsea; no man better.
Ask 'ere a man in Cloisterham whether Durdles knows his work.'

Mr. Sapsea rises, takes a key from a drawer, unlocks an iron safe
let into the wall, and takes from it another key.

'When Durdles puts a touch or a finish upon his work, no matter
where, inside or outside, Durdles likes to look at his work all
round, and see that his work is a-doing him credit,' Durdles
explains, doggedly.

The key proffered him by the bereaved widower being a large one, he
slips his two-foot rule into a side-pocket of his flannel trousers
made for it, and deliberately opens his flannel coat, and opens the
mouth of a large breast-pocket within it before taking the key to
place it in that repository.

'Why, Durdles!' exclaims Jasper, looking on amused, 'you are
undermined with pockets!'

'And I carries weight in 'em too, Mr. Jasper. Feel those!'
producing two other large keys.

'Hand me Mr. Sapsea's likewise. Surely this is the heaviest of the

'You'll find 'em much of a muchness, I expect,' says Durdles.
'They all belong to monuments. They all open Durdles's work.
Durdles keeps the keys of his work mostly. Not that they're much

'By the bye,' it comes into Jasper's mind to say, as he idly
examines the keys, 'I have been going to ask you, many a day, and
have always forgotten. You know they sometimes call you Stony
Durdles, don't you?'

'Cloisterham knows me as Durdles, Mr. Jasper.'

'I am aware of that, of course. But the boys sometimes--'

'O! if you mind them young imps of boys--' Durdles gruffly

'I don't mind them any more than you do. But there was a
discussion the other day among the Choir, whether Stony stood for
Tony;' clinking one key against another.

('Take care of the wards, Mr. Jasper.')

'Or whether Stony stood for Stephen;' clinking with a change of

('You can't make a pitch pipe of 'em, Mr. Jasper.')

'Or whether the name comes from your trade. How stands the fact?'

Mr. Jasper weighs the three keys in his hand, lifts his head from
his idly stooping attitude over the fire, and delivers the keys to
Durdles with an ingenuous and friendly face.

But the stony one is a gruff one likewise, and that hazy state of
his is always an uncertain state, highly conscious of its dignity,
and prone to take offence. He drops his two keys back into his
pocket one by one, and buttons them up; he takes his dinner-bundle
from the chair-back on which he hung it when he came in; he
distributes the weight he carries, by tying the third key up in it,
as though he were an Ostrich, and liked to dine off cold iron; and
he gets out of the room, deigning no word of answer.

Mr. Sapsea then proposes a hit at backgammon, which, seasoned with
his own improving conversation, and terminating in a supper of cold
roast beef and salad, beguiles the golden evening until pretty
late. Mr. Sapsea's wisdom being, in its delivery to mortals,
rather of the diffuse than the epigrammatic order, is by no means
expended even then; but his visitor intimates that he will come
back for more of the precious commodity on future occasions, and
Mr. Sapsea lets him off for the present, to ponder on the
instalment he carries away.

< Back
Forward >

Index Index

Other Authors Other Authors

Charles Dickens. Copyright © 2022,
Contact the webmaster
Disclaimer here. Privacy Policy here.