Neville Landless had started so early and walked at so good a pace, that whe_he church-bells began to ring in Cloisterham for morning service, he wa_ight miles away. As he wanted his breakfast by that time, having set forth o_ crust of bread, he stopped at the next roadside tavern to refresh.
Visitors in want of breakfast — unless they were horses or cattle, for whic_lass of guests there was preparation enough in the way of water-trough an_ay — were so unusual at the sign of The Tilted Wagon, that it took a lon_ime to get the wagon into the track of tea and toast and bacon. Neville i_he interval, sitting in a sanded parlour, wondering in how long a time afte_e had gone, the sneezy fire of damp fagots would begin to make somebody els_arm.
Indeed, The Tilted Wagon, as a cool establishment on the top of a hill, wher_he ground before the door was puddled with damp hoofs and trodden straw; where a scolding landlady slapped a moist baby (with one red sock on and on_anting), in the bar; where the cheese was cast aground upon a shelf, i_ompany with a mouldy tablecloth and a green-handled knife, in a sort of cast- iron canoe; where the pale-faced bread shed tears of crumb over its shipwrec_n another canoe; where the family linen, half washed and half dried, led _ublic life of lying about; where everything to drink was drunk out of mugs, and everything else was suggestive of a rhyme to mugs; The Tilted Wagon, al_hese things considered, hardly kept its painted promise of providing goo_ntertainment for Man and Beast. However, Man, in the present case, was no_ritical, but took what entertainment he could get, and went on again after _onger rest than he needed.
He stopped at some quarter of a mile from the house, hesitating whether t_ursue the road, or to follow a cart track between two high hedgerows, whic_ed across the slope of a breezy heath, and evidently struck into the roa_gain by-and-by. He decided in favour of this latter track, and pursued i_ith some toil; the rise being steep, and the way worn into deep ruts.
He was labouring along, when he became aware of some other pedestrians behin_im. As they were coming up at a faster pace than his, he stood aside, agains_ne of the high banks, to let them pass. But their manner was very curious.
Only four of them passed. Other four slackened speed, and loitered a_ntending to follow him when he should go on. The remainder of the party (half- a-dozen perhaps) turned, and went back at a great rate.
He looked at the four behind him, and he looked at the four before him. The_ll returned his look. He resumed his way. The four in advance went on, constantly looking back; the four in the rear came closing up.
When they all ranged out from the narrow track upon the open slope of th_eath, and this order was maintained, let him diverge as he would to eithe_ide, there was no longer room to doubt that he was beset by these fellows. H_topped, as a last test; and they all stopped.
'Why do you attend upon me in this way?' he asked the whole body. 'Are you _ack of thieves?'
'Don't answer him,' said one of the number; he did not see which. 'Better b_uiet.'
'Better be quiet?' repeated Neville. 'Who said so?'
'It's good advice, whichever of you skulkers gave it,' he went on angrily. '_ill not submit to be penned in between four men there, and four men there. _ish to pass, and I mean to pass, those four in front.'
They were all standing still; himself included.
'If eight men, or four men, or two men, set upon one,' he proceeded, growin_ore enraged, 'the one has no chance but to set his mark upon some of them.
And, by the Lord, I'll do it, if I am interrupted any farther!'
Shouldering his heavy stick, and quickening his pace, he shot on to pass th_our ahead. The largest and strongest man of the number changed swiftly to th_ide on which he came up, and dexterously closed with him and went down wit_im; but not before the heavy stick had descended smartly.
'Let him be!' said this man in a suppressed voice, as they struggled togethe_n the grass. 'Fair play! His is the build of a girl to mine, and he's got _eight strapped to his back besides. Let him alone. I'll manage him.'
After a little rolling about, in a close scuffle which caused the faces o_oth to be besmeared with blood, the man took his knee from Neville's chest, and rose, saying: 'There! Now take him arm- in-arm, any two of you!'
It was immediately done.
'As to our being a pack of thieves, Mr. Landless,' said the man, as he spa_ut some blood, and wiped more from his face; 'you know better than that a_idday. We wouldn't have touched you if you hadn't forced us. We're going t_ake you round to the high road, anyhow, and you'll find help enough agains_hieves there, if you want it. — Wipe his face, somebody; see how it'_-trickling down him!'
When his face was cleansed, Neville recognised in the speaker, Joe, driver o_he Cloisterham omnibus, whom he had seen but once, and that on the day of hi_rrival.
'And what I recommend you for the present, is, don't talk, Mr. Landless.
You'll find a friend waiting for you, at the high road — gone ahead by th_ther way when we split into two parties — and you had much better say nothin_ill you come up with him. Bring that stick along, somebody else, and let's b_oving!'
Utterly bewildered, Neville stared around him and said not a word. Walkin_etween his two conductors, who held his arms in theirs, he went on, as in _ream, until they came again into the high road, and into the midst of _ittle group of people. The men who had turned back were among the group; an_ts central figures were Mr. Jasper and Mr. Crisparkle. Neville's conductor_ook him up to the Minor Canon, and there released him, as an act of deferenc_o that gentleman.
'What is all this, sir? What is the matter? I feel as if I had lost m_enses!' cried Neville, the group closing in around him.
'Where is my nephew?' asked Mr. Jasper, wildly.
'Where is your nephew?' repeated Neville, 'Why do you ask me?'
'I ask you,' retorted Jasper, 'because you were the last person in hi_ompany, and he is not to be found.'
'Not to be found!' cried Neville, aghast.
'Stay, stay,' said Mr. Crisparkle. 'Permit me, Jasper. Mr. Neville, you ar_onfounded; collect your thoughts; it is of great importance that you shoul_ollect your thoughts; attend to me.'
'I will try, sir, but I seem mad.'
'You left Mr. Jasper last night with Edwin Drood?'
'At what hour?'
'Was it at twelve o'clock?' asked Neville, with his hand to his confused head, and appealing to Jasper.
'Quite right,' said Mr. Crisparkle; 'the hour Mr. Jasper has already named t_e. You went down to the river together?'
'Undoubtedly. To see the action of the wind there.'
'What followed? How long did you stay there?'
'About ten minutes; I should say not more. We then walked together to you_ouse, and he took leave of me at the door.'
'Did he say that he was going down to the river again?'
'No. He said that he was going straight back.'
The bystanders looked at one another, and at Mr. Crisparkle. To whom Mr.
Jasper, who had been intensely watching Neville, said, in a low, distinct, suspicious voice: 'What are those stains upon his dress?'
All eyes were turned towards the blood upon his clothes.
'And here are the same stains upon this stick!' said Jasper, taking it fro_he hand of the man who held it. 'I know the stick to be his, and he carrie_t last night. What does this mean?'
'In the name of God, say what it means, Neville!' urged Mr. Crisparkle.
'That man and I,' said Neville, pointing out his late adversary, 'had _truggle for the stick just now, and you may see the same marks on him, sir.
What was I to suppose, when I found myself molested by eight people? Could _ream of the true reason when they would give me none at all?'
They admitted that they had thought it discreet to be silent, and that th_truggle had taken place. And yet the very men who had seen it looked darkl_t the smears which the bright cold air had already dried.
'We must return, Neville,' said Mr. Crisparkle; 'of course you will be glad t_ome back to clear yourself?'
'Of course, sir.'
'Mr. Landless will walk at my side,' the Minor Canon continued, looking aroun_im. 'Come, Neville!'
They set forth on the walk back; and the others, with one exception, straggle_fter them at various distances. Jasper walked on the other side of Neville, and never quitted that position. He was silent, while Mr. Crisparkle more tha_nce repeated his former questions, and while Neville repeated his forme_nswers; also, while they both hazarded some explanatory conjectures. He wa_bstinately silent, because Mr. Crisparkle's manner directly appealed to hi_o take some part in the discussion, and no appeal would move his fixed face.
When they drew near to the city, and it was suggested by the Minor Canon tha_hey might do well in calling on the Mayor at once, he assented with a ster_od; but he spake no word until they stood in Mr. Sapsea's parlour.
Mr. Sapsea being informed by Mr. Crisparkle of the circumstances under whic_hey desired to make a voluntary statement before him, Mr. Jasper brok_ilence by declaring that he placed his whole reliance, humanly speaking, o_r. Sapsea's penetration. There was no conceivable reason why his nephe_hould have suddenly absconded, unless Mr. Sapsea could suggest one, and the_e would defer. There was no intelligible likelihood of his having returned t_he river, and been accidentally drowned in the dark, unless it should appea_ikely to Mr. Sapsea, and then again he would defer. He washed his hands a_lean as he could of all horrible suspicions, unless it should appear to Mr.
Sapsea that some such were inseparable from his last companion before hi_isappearance (not on good terms with previously), and then, once more, h_ould defer. His own state of mind, he being distracted with doubts, an_abouring under dismal apprehensions, was not to be safely trusted; but Mr.
Mr. Sapsea expressed his opinion that the case had a dark look; in short (an_ere his eyes rested full on Neville's countenance), an Un-English complexion.
Having made this grand point, he wandered into a denser haze and maze o_onsense than even a mayor might have been expected to disport himself in, an_ame out of it with the brilliant discovery that to take the life of a fellow- creature was to take something that didn't belong to you. He wavered whethe_r no he should at once issue his warrant for the committal of Nevill_andless to jail, under circumstances of grave suspicion; and he might hav_one so far as to do it but for the indignant protest of the Minor Canon: wh_ndertook for the young man's remaining in his own house, and being produce_y his own hands, whenever demanded. Mr. Jasper then understood Mr. Sapsea t_uggest that the river should be dragged, that its banks should be rigidl_xamined, that particulars of the disappearance should be sent to all outlyin_laces and to London, and that placards and advertisements should be widel_irculated imploring Edwin Drood, if for any unknown reason he had withdraw_imself from his uncle's home and society, to take pity on that lovin_insman's sore bereavement and distress, and somehow inform him that he wa_et alive. Mr. Sapsea was perfectly understood, for this was exactly hi_eaning (though he had said nothing about it); and measures were taken toward_ll these ends immediately.
It would be difficult to determine which was the more oppressed with horro_nd amazement: Neville Landless, or John Jasper. But that Jasper's positio_orced him to be active, while Neville's forced him to be passive, there woul_ave been nothing to choose between them. Each was bowed down and broken.
With the earliest light of the next morning, men were at work upon the river, and other men — most of whom volunteered for the service — were examining th_anks. All the livelong day the search went on; upon the river, with barge an_ole, and drag and net; upon the muddy and rushy shore, with jack-boots, hatchet, spade, rope, dogs, and all imaginable appliances. Even at night, th_iver was specked with lanterns, and lurid with fires; far-off creeks, int_hich the tide washed as it changed, had their knots of watchers, listening t_he lapping of the stream, and looking out for any burden it might bear; remote shingly causeways near the sea, and lonely points off which there was _ace of water, had their unwonted flaring cressets and rough-coated figure_hen the next day dawned; but no trace of Edwin Drood revisited the light o_he sun.
All that day, again, the search went on. Now, in barge and boat; and no_shore among the osiers, or tramping amidst mud and stakes and jagged stone_n low-lying places, where solitary watermarks and signals of strange shape_howed like spectres, John Jasper worked and toiled. But to no purpose; fo_till no trace of Edwin Drood revisited the light of the sun.
Setting his watches for that night again, so that vigilant eyes should be kep_n every change of tide, he went home exhausted. Unkempt and disordered, bedaubed with mud that had dried upon him, and with much of his clothing tor_o rags, he had but just dropped into his easy-chair, when Mr. Grewgious stoo_efore him.
'This is strange news,' said Mr. Grewgious.
'Strange and fearful news.'
Jasper had merely lifted up his heavy eyes to say it, and now dropped the_gain as he drooped, worn out, over one side of his easy-chair.
Mr. Grewgious smoothed his head and face, and stood looking at the fire.
'How is your ward?' asked Jasper, after a time, in a faint, fatigued voice.
'Poor little thing! You may imagine her condition.'
'Have you seen his sister?' inquired Jasper, as before.
The curtness of the counter-question, and the cool, slow manner in which, a_e put it, Mr. Grewgious moved his eyes from the fire to his companion's face, might at any other time have been exasperating. In his depression an_xhaustion, Jasper merely opened his eyes to say: 'The suspected young man's.'
'Do you suspect him?' asked Mr. Grewgious.
'I don't know what to think. I cannot make up my mind.'
'Nor I,' said Mr. Grewgious. 'But as you spoke of him as the suspected youn_an, I thought you had made up your mind. — I have just left Miss Landless.'
'What is her state?'
'Defiance of all suspicion, and unbounded faith in her brother.'
'However,' pursued Mr. Grewgious, 'it is not of her that I came to speak. I_s of my ward. I have a communication to make that will surprise you. A_east, it has surprised me.'
Jasper, with a groaning sigh, turned wearily in his chair.
'Shall I put it off till to-morrow?' said Mr. Grewgious. 'Mind, I warn you, that I think it will surprise you!'
More attention and concentration came into John Jasper's eyes as they caugh_ight of Mr. Grewgious smoothing his head again, and again looking at th_ire; but now, with a compressed and determined mouth.
'What is it?' demanded Jasper, becoming upright in his chair.
'To be sure,' said Mr. Grewgious, provokingly slowly and internally, as h_ept his eyes on the fire: 'I might have known it sooner; she gave me th_pening; but I am such an exceedingly Angular man, that it never occurred t_e; I took all for granted.'
'What is it?' demanded Jasper once more.
Mr. Grewgious, alternately opening and shutting the palms of his hands as h_armed them at the fire, and looking fixedly at him sideways, and neve_hanging either his action or his look in all that followed, went on to reply.
'This young couple, the lost youth and Miss Rosa, my ward, though so lon_etrothed, and so long recognising their betrothal, and so near being married —'
Mr. Grewgious saw a staring white face, and two quivering white lips, in th_asy-chair, and saw two muddy hands gripping its sides. But for the hands, h_ight have thought he had never seen the face.
'— This young couple came gradually to the discovery (made on both side_retty equally, I think), that they would be happier and better, both in thei_resent and their future lives, as affectionate friends, or say rather a_rother and sister, than as husband and wife.'
Mr. Grewgious saw a lead-coloured face in the easy-chair, and on its surfac_readful starting drops or bubbles, as if of steel.
'This young couple formed at length the healthy resolution of interchangin_heir discoveries, openly, sensibly, and tenderly. They met for that purpose.
After some innocent and generous talk, they agreed to dissolve their existing, and their intended, relations, for ever and ever.'
Mr. Grewgious saw a ghastly figure rise, open-mouthed, from the easy-chair, and lift its outspread hands towards its head.
'One of this young couple, and that one your nephew, fearful, however, that i_he tenderness of your affection for him you would be bitterly disappointed b_o wide a departure from his projected life, forbore to tell you the secret, for a few days, and left it to be disclosed by me, when I should come down t_peak to you, and he would be gone. I speak to you, and he is gone.'
Mr. Grewgious saw the ghastly figure throw back its head, clutch its hair wit_ts hands, and turn with a writhing action from him.
'I have now said all I have to say: except that this young couple parted, firmly, though not without tears and sorrow, on the evening when you last sa_hem together.'
Mr. Grewgious heard a terrible shriek, and saw no ghastly figure, sitting o_tanding; saw nothing but a heap of torn and miry clothes upon the floor.
Not changing his action even then, he opened and shut the palms of his hand_s he warmed them, and looked down at it.