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CHAPTER III - THE NUNS' HOUSE
FOR sufficient reasons, which this narrative will itself unfold as it advances, a fictitious name must be bestowed upon the old Cathedral town. Let it stand in these pages as Cloisterham. It was once possibly known to the Druids by another name, and certainly to the Romans by another, and to the Saxons by another, and to the Normans by another; and a name more or less in the course of many centuries can be of little moment to its dusty chronicles.
An ancient city, Cloisterham, and no meet dwelling-place for any one with hankerings after the noisy world. A monotonous, silent city, deriving an earthy flavour throughout from its Cathedral crypt, and so abounding in vestiges of monastic graves, that the Cloisterham children grow small salad in the dust of abbots and abbesses, and make dirt-pies of nuns and friars; while every ploughman in its outlying fields renders to once puissant Lord Treasurers, Archbishops, Bishops, and such-like, the attention which the Ogre in the story-book desired to render to his unbidden visitor, and grinds their bones to make his bread.
A drowsy city, Cloisterham, whose inhabitants seem to suppose, with an inconsistency more strange than rare, that all its changes lie behind it, and that there are no more to come. A queer moral to derive from antiquity, yet older than any traceable antiquity. So silent are the streets of Cloisterham (though prone to echo on the smallest provocation), that of a summer-day the sunblinds of its shops scarce dare to flap in the south wind; while the sun-browned tramps, who pass along and stare, quicken their limp a little, that they may the sooner get beyond the confines of its oppressive respectability. This is a feat not difficult of achievement, seeing that the streets of Cloisterham city are little more than one narrow street by which you get into it and get out of it: the rest being mostly disappointing yards with pumps in them and no thoroughfare - exception made of the Cathedral-close, and a paved Quaker settlement, in colour and general confirmation very like a Quakeress's bonnet, up in a shady corner.
In a word, a city of another and a bygone time is Cloisterham, with its hoarse Cathedral-bell, its hoarse rooks hovering about the Cathedral tower, its hoarser and less distinct rooks in the stalls far beneath. Fragments of old wall, saint's chapel, chapter-house, convent and monastery, have got incongruously or obstructively built into many of its houses and gardens, much as kindred jumbled notions have become incorporated into many of its citizens' minds. All things in it are of the past. Even its single pawnbroker takes in no pledges, nor has he for a long time, but offers vainly an unredeemed stock for sale, of which the costlier articles are dim and pale old watches apparently in a slow perspiration, tarnished sugar-tongs with ineffectual legs, and odd volumes of dismal books. The most abundant and the most agreeable evidences of progressing life in Cloisterham are the evidences of vegetable life in many gardens; even its drooping and despondent little theatre has its poor strip of garden, receiving the foul fiend, when he ducks from its stage into the infernal regions, among scarlet-beans or oystershells, according to the season of the year.
In the midst of Cloisterham stands the Nuns' House: a venerable brick edifice, whose present appellation is doubtless derived from the legend of its conventual uses. On the trim gate enclosing its old courtyard is a resplendent brass plate flashing forth the legend: 'Seminary for Young Ladies. Miss Twinkleton.' The housefront is so old and worn, and the brass plate is so shining and staring, that the general result has reminded imaginative strangers of a battered old beau with a large modern eye-glass stuck in his blind eye.
Whether the nuns of yore, being of a submissive rather than a stiff-necked generation, habitually bent their contemplative heads to avoid collision with the beams in the low ceilings of the many chambers of their House; whether they sat in its long low windows telling their beads for their mortification, instead of making necklaces of them for their adornment; whether they were ever walled up alive in odd angles and jutting gables of the building for having some ineradicable leaven of busy mother Nature in them which has kept the fermenting world alive ever since; these may be matters of interest to its haunting ghosts (if any), but constitute no item in Miss Twinkleton's half-yearly accounts. They are neither of Miss Twinkleton's inclusive regulars, nor of her extras. The lady who undertakes the poetical department of the establishment at so much (or so little) a quarter has no pieces in her list of recitals bearing on such unprofitable questions.
As, in some cases of drunkenness, and in others of animal magnetism, there are two states of consciousness which never clash, but each of which pursues its separate course as though it were continuous instead of broken (thus, if I hide my watch when I am drunk, I must be drunk again before I can remember where), so Miss Twinkleton has two distinct and separate phases of being. Every night, the moment the young ladies have retired to rest, does Miss Twinkleton smarten up her curls a little, brighten up her eyes a little, and become a sprightlier Miss Twinkleton than the young ladies have ever seen. Every night, at the same hour, does Miss Twinkleton resume the topics of the previous night, comprehending the tenderer scandal of Cloisterham, of which she has no knowledge whatever by day, and references to a certain season at Tunbridge Wells (airily called by Miss Twinkleton in this state of her existence 'The Wells'), notably the season wherein a certain finished gentleman (compassionately called by Miss Twinkleton, in this stage of her existence, 'Foolish Mr. Porters') revealed a homage of the heart, whereof Miss Twinkleton, in her scholastic state of existence, is as ignorant as a granite pillar. Miss Twinkleton's companion in both states of existence, and equally adaptable to either, is one Mrs. Tisher: a deferential widow with a weak back, a chronic sigh, and a suppressed voice, who looks after the young ladies' wardrobes, and leads them to infer that she has seen better days. Perhaps this is the reason why it is an article of faith with the servants, handed down from race to race, that the departed Tisher was a hairdresser.
The pet pupil of the Nuns' House is Miss Rosa Bud, of course called Rosebud; wonderfully pretty, wonderfully childish, wonderfully whimsical. An awkward interest (awkward because romantic) attaches to Miss Bud in the minds of the young ladies, on account of its being known to them that a husband has been chosen for her by will and bequest, and that her guardian is bound down to bestow her on that husband when he comes of age. Miss Twinkleton, in her seminarial state of existence, has combated the romantic aspect of this destiny by affecting to shake her head over it behind Miss Bud's dimpled shoulders, and to brood on the unhappy lot of that doomed little victim. But with no better effect - possibly some unfelt touch of foolish Mr. Porters has undermined the endeavour - than to evoke from the young ladies an unanimous bedchamber cry of 'O, what a pretending old thing Miss Twinkleton is, my dear!'
The Nuns' House is never in such a state of flutter as when this allotted husband calls to see little Rosebud. (It is unanimously understood by the young ladies that he is lawfully entitled to this privilege, and that if Miss Twinkleton disputed it, she would be instantly taken up and transported.) When his ring at the gatebell is expected, or takes place, every young lady who can, under any pretence, look out of window, looks out of window; while every young lady who is 'practising,' practises out of time; and the French class becomes so demoralised that the mark goes round as briskly as the bottle at a convivial party in the last century.
On the afternoon of the day next after the dinner of two at the gatehouse, the bell is rung with the usual fluttering results.
'Mr. Edwin Drood to see Miss Rosa.'
This is the announcement of the parlour-maid in chief. Miss Twinkleton, with an exemplary air of melancholy on her, turns to the sacrifice, and says, 'You may go down, my dear.' Miss Bud goes down, followed by all eyes.
Mr. Edwin Drood is waiting in Miss Twinkleton's own parlour: a dainty room, with nothing more directly scholastic in it than a terrestrial and a celestial globe. These expressive machines imply (to parents and guardians) that even when Miss Twinkleton retires into the bosom of privacy, duty may at any moment compel her to become a sort of Wandering Jewess, scouring the earth and soaring through the skies in search of knowledge for her pupils.
The last new maid, who has never seen the young gentleman Miss Rosa is engaged to, and who is making his acquaintance between the hinges of the open door, left open for the purpose, stumbles guiltily down the kitchen stairs, as a charming little apparition, with its face concealed by a little silk apron thrown over its head, glides into the parlour.
'O! IT IS so ridiculous!' says the apparition, stopping and shrinking. 'Don't, Eddy!'
'Don't what, Rosa?'
'Don't come any nearer, please. It IS so absurd.'
'What is absurd, Rosa?'
'The whole thing is. It IS so absurd to be an engaged orphan and it IS so absurd to have the girls and the servants scuttling about after one, like mice in the wainscot; and it IS so absurd to be called upon!'
The apparition appears to have a thumb in the corner of its mouth while making this complaint.
'You give me an affectionate reception, Pussy, I must say.'
'Well, I will in a minute, Eddy, but I can't just yet. How are you?' (very shortly.)
'I am unable to reply that I am much the better for seeing you, Pussy, inasmuch as I see nothing of you.'
This second remonstrance brings a dark, bright, pouting eye out from a corner of the apron; but it swiftly becomes invisible again, as the apparition exclaims: 'O good gracious! you have had half your hair cut off!'
'I should have done better to have had my head cut off, I think,' says Edwin, rumpling the hair in question, with a fierce glance at the looking-glass, and giving an impatient stamp. 'Shall I go?'
'No; you needn't go just yet, Eddy. The girls would all be asking questions why you went.'
'Once for all, Rosa, will you uncover that ridiculous little head of yours and give me a welcome?'
The apron is pulled off the childish head, as its wearer replies: 'You're very welcome, Eddy. There! I'm sure that's nice. Shake hands. No, I can't kiss you, because I've got an acidulated drop in my mouth.'
'Are you at all glad to see me, Pussy?'
'O, yes, I'm dreadfully glad. - Go and sit down. - Miss Twinkleton.'
It is the custom of that excellent lady when these visits occur, to appear every three minutes, either in her own person or in that of Mrs. Tisher, and lay an offering on the shrine of Propriety by affecting to look for some desiderated article. On the present occasion Miss Twinkleton, gracefully gliding in and out, says in passing: 'How do you do, Mr. Drood? Very glad indeed to have the pleasure. Pray excuse me. Tweezers. Thank you!'
'I got the gloves last evening, Eddy, and I like them very much. They are beauties.'
'Well, that's something,' the affianced replies, half grumbling. 'The smallest encouragement thankfully received. And how did you pass your birthday, Pussy?'
'Delightfully! Everybody gave me a present. And we had a feast. And we had a ball at night.'
'A feast and a ball, eh? These occasions seem to go off tolerably well without me, Pussy.'
'De-lightfully!' cries Rosa, in a quite spontaneous manner, and without the least pretence of reserve.
'Hah! And what was the feast?'
'Tarts, oranges, jellies, and shrimps.'
'Any partners at the ball?'
'We danced with one another, of course, sir. But some of the girls made game to be their brothers. It WAS so droll!'
'Did anybody make game to be - '
'To be you? O dear yes!' cries Rosa, laughing with great enjoyment. 'That was the first thing done.'
'I hope she did it pretty well,' says Edwin rather doubtfully.
'O, it was excellent! - I wouldn't dance with you, you know.'
Edwin scarcely seems to see the force of this; begs to know if he may take the liberty to ask why?
'Because I was so tired of you,' returns Rosa. But she quickly adds, and pleadingly too, seeing displeasure in his face: 'Dear Eddy, you were just as tired of me, you know.'
'Did I say so, Rosa?'
'Say so! Do you ever say so? No, you only showed it. O, she did it so well!' cries Rosa, in a sudden ecstasy with her counterfeit betrothed.
'It strikes me that she must be a devilish impudent girl,' says Edwin Drood. 'And so, Pussy, you have passed your last birthday in this old house.'
'Ah, yes!' Rosa clasps her hands, looks down with a sigh, and shakes her head.
'You seem to be sorry, Rosa.'
'I am sorry for the poor old place. Somehow, I feel as if it would miss me, when I am gone so far away, so young.'
'Perhaps we had better stop short, Rosa?'
She looks up at him with a swift bright look; next moment shakes her head, sighs, and looks down again.
'That is to say, is it, Pussy, that we are both resigned?'
She nods her head again, and after a short silence, quaintly bursts out with: 'You know we must be married, and married from here, Eddy, or the poor girls will be so dreadfully disappointed!'
For the moment there is more of compassion, both for her and for himself, in her affianced husband's face, than there is of love. He checks the look, and asks: 'Shall I take you out for a walk, Rosa dear?'
Rosa dear does not seem at all clear on this point, until her face, which has been comically reflective, brightens. 'O, yes, Eddy; let us go for a walk! And I tell you what we'll do. You shall pretend that you are engaged to somebody else, and I'll pretend that I am not engaged to anybody, and then we shan't quarrel.'
'Do you think that will prevent our falling out, Rosa?'
'I know it will. Hush! Pretend to look out of window - Mrs. Tisher!'
Through a fortuitous concourse of accidents, the matronly Tisher heaves in sight, says, in rustling through the room like the legendary ghost of a dowager in silken skirts: 'I hope I see Mr. Drood well; though I needn't ask, if I may judge from his complexion. I trust I disturb no one; but there WAS a paper-knife - O, thank you, I am sure!' and disappears with her prize.
'One other thing you must do, Eddy, to oblige me,' says Rosebud. 'The moment we get into the street, you must put me outside, and keep close to the house yourself - squeeze and graze yourself against it.'
'By all means, Rosa, if you wish it. Might I ask why?'
'O! because I don't want the girls to see you.'
'It's a fine day; but would you like me to carry an umbrella up?'
'Don't be foolish, sir. You haven't got polished leather boots on,' pouting, with one shoulder raised.
'Perhaps that might escape the notice of the girls, even if they did see me,' remarks Edwin, looking down at his boots with a sudden distaste for them.
'Nothing escapes their notice, sir. And then I know what would happen. Some of them would begin reflecting on me by saying (for THEY are free) that they never will on any account engage themselves to lovers without polished leather boots. Hark! Miss Twinkleton. I'll ask for leave.'
That discreet lady being indeed heard without, inquiring of nobody in a blandly conversational tone as she advances: 'Eh? Indeed! Are you quite sure you saw my mother-of-pearl button-holder on the work-table in my room?' is at once solicited for walking leave, and graciously accords it. And soon the young couple go out of the Nuns' House, taking all precautions against the discovery of the so vitally defective boots of Mr. Edwin Drood: precautions, let us hope, effective for the peace of Mrs. Edwin Drood that is to be.
'Which way shall we take, Rosa?'
Rosa replies: 'I want to go to the Lumps-of-Delight shop.'
'To the - ?'
'A Turkish sweetmeat, sir. My gracious me, don't you understand anything? Call yourself an Engineer, and not know THAT?'
'Why, how should I know it, Rosa?'
'Because I am very fond of them. But O! I forgot what we are to pretend. No, you needn't know anything about them; never mind.'
So he is gloomily borne off to the Lumps-of-Delight shop, where Rosa makes her purchase, and, after offering some to him (which he rather indignantly declines), begins to partake of it with great zest: previously taking off and rolling up a pair of little pink gloves, like rose-leaves, and occasionally putting her little pink fingers to her rosy lips, to cleanse them from the Dust of Delight that comes off the Lumps.
'Now, be a good-tempered Eddy, and pretend. And so you are engaged?'
'And so I am engaged.'
'Is she nice?'
'Immensely tall!' Rosa being short.
'Must be gawky, I should think,' is Rosa's quiet commentary.
'I beg your pardon; not at all,' contradiction rising in him.
'What is termed a fine woman; a splendid woman.'
'Big nose, no doubt,' is the quiet commentary again.
'Not a little one, certainly,' is the quick reply, (Rosa's being a little one.)
'Long pale nose, with a red knob in the middle. I know the sort of nose,' says Rosa, with a satisfied nod, and tranquilly enjoying the Lumps.
'You DON'T know the sort of nose, Rosa,' with some warmth; 'because it's nothing of the kind.'
'Not a pale nose, Eddy?'
'No.' Determined not to assent.
'A red nose? O! I don't like red noses. However; to be sure she can always powder it.'
'She would scorn to powder it,' says Edwin, becoming heated.
'Would she? What a stupid thing she must be! Is she stupid in everything?'
'No; in nothing.'
After a pause, in which the whimsically wicked face has not been unobservant of him, Rosa says:
'And this most sensible of creatures likes the idea of being carried off to Egypt; does she, Eddy?'
'Yes. She takes a sensible interest in triumphs of engineering skill: especially when they are to change the whole condition of an undeveloped country.'
'Lor!' says Rosa, shrugging her shoulders, with a little laugh of wonder.
'Do you object,' Edwin inquires, with a majestic turn of his eyes downward upon the fairy figure: 'do you object, Rosa, to her feeling that interest?'
'Object? my dear Eddy! But really, doesn't she hate boilers and things?'
'I can answer for her not being so idiotic as to hate Boilers,' he returns with angry emphasis; 'though I cannot answer for her views about Things; really not understanding what Things are meant.'
'But don't she hate Arabs, and Turks, and Fellahs, and people?'
'Certainly not.' Very firmly.
'At least she MUST hate the Pyramids? Come, Eddy?'
'Why should she be such a little - tall, I mean - goose, as to hate the Pyramids, Rosa?'
'Ah! you should hear Miss Twinkleton,' often nodding her head, and much enjoying the Lumps, 'bore about them, and then you wouldn't ask. Tiresome old burying-grounds! Isises, and Ibises, and Cheopses, and Pharaohses; who cares about them? And then there was Belzoni, or somebody, dragged out by the legs, half-choked with bats and dust. All the girls say: Serve him right, and hope it hurt him, and wish he had been quite choked.'
The two youthful figures, side by side, but not now arm-in-arm, wander discontentedly about the old Close; and each sometimes stops and slowly imprints a deeper footstep in the fallen leaves.
'Well!' says Edwin, after a lengthy silence. 'According to custom. We can't get on, Rosa.'
Rosa tosses her head, and says she don't want to get on.
'That's a pretty sentiment, Rosa, considering.'
'If I say what, you'll go wrong again.'
'YOU'LL go wrong, you mean, Eddy. Don't be ungenerous.'
'Ungenerous! I like that!'
'Then I DON'T like that, and so I tell you plainly,' Rosa pouts.
'Now, Rosa, I put it to you. Who disparaged my profession, my destination - '
'You are not going to be buried in the Pyramids, I hope?' she interrupts, arching her delicate eyebrows. 'You never said you were. If you are, why haven't you mentioned it to me? I can't find out your plans by instinct.'
'Now, Rosa, you know very well what I mean, my dear.'
'Well then, why did you begin with your detestable red-nosed giantesses? And she would, she would, she would, she would, she WOULD powder it!' cries Rosa, in a little burst of comical contradictory spleen.
'Somehow or other, I never can come right in these discussions,' says Edwin, sighing and becoming resigned.
'How is it possible, sir, that you ever can come right when you're always wrong? And as to Belzoni, I suppose he's dead; - I'm sure I hope he is - and how can his legs or his chokes concern you?'
'It is nearly time for your return, Rosa. We have not had a very happy walk, have we?'
'A happy walk? A detestably unhappy walk, sir. If I go up-stairs the moment I get in and cry till I can't take my dancing lesson, you are responsible, mind!'
'Let us be friends, Rosa.'
'Ah!' cries Rosa, shaking her head and bursting into real tears, 'I wish we COULD be friends! It's because we can't be friends, that we try one another so. I am a young little thing, Eddy, to have an old heartache; but I really, really have, sometimes. Don't be angry. I know you have one yourself too often. We should both of us have done better, if What is to be had been left What might have been. I am quite a little serious thing now, and not teasing you. Let each of us forbear, this one time, on our own account, and on the other's!'
Disarmed by this glimpse of a woman's nature in the spoilt child, though for an instant disposed to resent it as seeming to involve the enforced infliction of himself upon her, Edwin Drood stands watching her as she childishly cries and sobs, with both hands to the handkerchief at her eyes, and then - she becoming more composed, and indeed beginning in her young inconstancy to laugh at herself for having been so moved - leads her to a seat hard by, under the elm-trees.
'One clear word of understanding, Pussy dear. I am not clever out of my own line - now I come to think of it, I don't know that I am particularly clever in it - but I want to do right. There is not - there may be - I really don't see my way to what I want to say, but I must say it before we part - there is not any other young - '
'O no, Eddy! It's generous of you to ask me; but no, no, no!'
They have come very near to the Cathedral windows, and at this moment the organ and the choir sound out sublimely. As they sit listening to the solemn swell, the confidence of last night rises in young Edwin Drood's mind, and he thinks how unlike this music is to that discordance.
'I fancy I can distinguish Jack's voice,' is his remark in a low tone in connection with the train of thought.
'Take me back at once, please,' urges his Affianced, quickly laying her light hand upon his wrist. 'They will all be coming out directly; let us get away. O, what a resounding chord! But don't let us stop to listen to it; let us get away!'
Her hurry is over as soon as they have passed out of the Close. They go arm-in-arm now, gravely and deliberately enough, along the old High-street, to the Nuns' House. At the gate, the street being within sight empty, Edwin bends down his face to Rosebud's.
She remonstrates, laughing, and is a childish schoolgirl again.
'Eddy, no! I'm too sticky to be kissed. But give me your hand, and I'll blow a kiss into that.'
He does so. She breathes a light breath into it and asks, retaining it and looking into it:-
'Now say, what do you see?'
'Why, I thought you Egyptian boys could look into a hand and see all sorts of phantoms. Can't you see a happy Future?'
For certain, neither of them sees a happy Present, as the gate opens and closes, and one goes in, and the other goes away.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER IV - MR. SAPSEA