Hunted Down: The Detective Stories of Charles Dickensby Charles Dickens
Dickens was fascinated by crime. Murders, especially, fascinated him, and the skills of the detectives engaged in solving them. Peter Haining casts his net wide in this collection of twelve stories that embody that fascination. He is justified too, in his emphasis on their influence on crime fiction and detective stories of the past century. As a coda to Dickens' tales, M. R. James' intriguing story The Edwin Drood Syndicate subjects the mystery of Dickens' last and most enigmatic novel to detailed scrutiny, entertainingly dissecting it until every permutation of the plot is examined.
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The Detective Stories of Charles Dickens
By Peter Haining
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1996 Peter Haining
All rights reserved.
The night had now come, when the old clerk Chuffey was to be delivered over to his keepers. In the midst of his guilty distractions, Jonas had not forgotten it.
It was a part of his guilty state of mind to remember it; for on his persistence in the scheme depended one of his precautions for his own safety. A hint, a word, from the old man, uttered at such a moment in attentive ears, might fire the train of suspicion, and destroy him. His watchfulness of every avenue by which the discovery of his guilt might be approached, sharpened with his sense of the danger by which he was encompassed. With murder on his soul, and its innumerable alarms and terrors dragging at him night and day, he would have repeated the crime, if he had seen a path of safety stretching out beyond. It was in his punishment; it was in his guilty condition. The very deed which his fears rendered insupportable, his fears would have impelled him to commit again.
But keeping the old man close, according to his design, would serve his turn. His purpose was to escape, when the first alarm and wonder had subsided: and when he could make the attempt without awakening instant suspicion. In the meanwhile these women would keep him quiet; and if the talking humour came upon him, would not be easily startled. He knew their trade.
Nor had he spoken idly when he said the old man should be gagged. He had resolved to ensure his silence; and he looked to the end, not the means. He had been rough and rude and cruel to the old man all his life; and violence was natural to his mind in connexion with him. 'He shall be gagged if he speaks, and pinioned if he writes,' said Jonas, looking at him; for they sat alone together. 'He is mad enough for that; I'll go through with it!'
Still listening! To every sound. He had listened ever since, and it had not come yet. The exposure of the Assurance office; the flight of Crimple and Bullamy with the plunder, and among the rest, as he feared, with his own bill, which he had not found in the pocket-book of the murdered man, and which with Mr Pecksniff's money had probably been remitted to one of other of those trusty friends for safe deposit at the banker's; his immense losses, and peril of being still called to account as a partner in the broken firm; all these things rose in his mind at one time and always, but he could not contemplate them. He was aware of their presence, and of the rage, discomfiture, and despair, they brought along with them; but he thought – of his own controlling power and direction he thought – of the one dread question only. When they would find the body in the wood.
He tried – he had never left off trying – not to forget it was there, for that was impossible, but to forget to weary himself by drawing vivid pictures of it in his fancy: by going softly about it and about it among the leaves, approaching it nearer and nearer through a gap in the boughs, and startling the very flies that were thickly sprinkled all over it, like heaps of dried currants. His mind was fixed and fastened on the discovery, for intelligence of which he listened intently to every cry and shout; listened when any one came in or went out; watched from the window the people who passed up and down the street; mistrusted his own looks and words. And the more his thoughts were set upon the discovery, the stronger was the fascination which attracted them to the thing itself: lying alone in the wood. He was for ever showing and presenting it, as it were, to every creature whom he saw. 'Look here! Do you know of this? Is it found? Do you suspect me?' If he had been condemned to bear the body in his arms, and lay it down for recognition at the feet of every one he met, it could not have been more constantly with him, or a cause of more monotonous and dismal occupation than it was in this state of his mind.
Still he was not sorry. It was no contrition or remorse for what he had done that moved him; it was nothing but alarm for his own security. The vague consciousness he possessed of having wrecked his fortune in the murderous venture, intensified his hatred and revenge, and made him set the greater store by what he had gained. The man was dead; nothing could undo that. He felt a triumph yet, in the reflection.
He had kept a jealous watch on Chuffey ever since the deed; seldom leaving him but on compulsion, and then for as short intervals as possible. They were alone together now. It was twilight, and the appointed time drew near at hand. Jonas walked up and down the room. The old man sat in his accustomed comer.
The slightest circumstance was matter of disquiet to the murderer, and he was made uneasy at this time by the absence of his wife, who had left home early in the afternoon, and had not returned yet. No tenderness for her was at the bottom of this; but he had a misgiving that she might have been waylaid, and tempted into saying something that would criminate him when the news came. For anything he knew, she might have knocked at the door of his room, while he was away, and discovered his plot. Confound her, it was like her pale face to be wandering up and down the house! Where was she now?
'She went to her good friend, Mrs Todgers,' said the old man, when he asked the question with an angry oath.
Aye! To be sure! Always stealing away into the company of that woman. She was no friend of his. Who could tell what devil's mischief they might hatch together! Let her be fetched home directly.
The old man, muttering some words softly, rose as if he would have gone himself, but Jonas thrust him back into his chair with an impatient imprecation, and sent a servant-girl to fetch her. When he had charged her with her errand he walked to and fro again, and never stopped till she came back, which she did pretty soon: the way being short, and the woman having made good haste.
Well! Where was she? Had she come?
No. She had left there, full three hours.
'Left there! Alone?'
The messenger had not asked; taking that for granted.
'Curse you for a fool. Bring candles!'
She had scarcely left the room when the old clerk, who had been unusually observant of him ever since he had asked about his wife, came suddenly upon him.
'Give her up!' cried the old man. 'Come! Give her up to me! Tell me what you have done with her. Quick! I have made no promises on that score. Tell me what you have done with her.'
He laid his hands upon his collar as he spoke, and grasped it: tightly too.
'You shall not leave me!' cried the old man. 'I am strong enough to cry out to the neighbours, and I will, unless you give her up. Give her up to me!'
Jonas was so dismayed and conscience-stricken, that he had not even hardihood enough to unclench the old man's hands with his own; but stood looking at him as well as he could in the darkness, without moving a finger. It was as much as he could do to ask him what he meant.
'I will know what you have done with her!' retorted Chuffey. 'If you hurt a hair of her head, you shall answer it. Poor thing! Poor thing! Where is she?'
'Why, you old madman!' said Jonas, in a low voice, and with trembling lips. 'What Bedlam fit has come upon you now?'
'It is enough to make me mad, seeing what I have seen in this house!' cried Chuffey. 'Where is my dear old master! Where is his only son that I have nursed upon my knee, a child! Where is she, she who was the last; she that I've seen pining day by day, and heard weeping in the dead of night! She was the last, the last of all my friends! Heaven help me, she was the very last!'
Seeing that the tears were stealing down his face, Jonas mustered courage to unclench his hands, and push him off before he answered:
'Did you hear me ask for her? Did you hear me send for her? How can I give you up what I haven't got, idiot! Ecod, I'd give her up to you and welcome, if I could; and a precious pair you'd be!'
'If she has come to any harm,' cried Chuffey, 'mind! I'm old and silly; but I have my memory sometimes; and if she has come to any harm -'
'Devil take you,' interrupted Jonas, but in a suppressed voice still; 'what harm do you suppose she has come to? I know no more where she is than you do; I wish I did. Wait till she comes home, and see; she can't be long. Will that content you?'
'Mind!' exclaimed the old man. 'Not a hair of her head! not a hair of her head ill-used! I won't bear it. I – I – have borne it too long, Jonas. I am silent, but I – I – I can speak. I – I – I can speak -' he stammered, as he crept back to his chair, and turned a threatening, though a feeble, look upon him.
'You can speak, can you!' thought Jonas. 'So, so, we'll stop your speaking. It's well I knew of this in good time. Prevention is better than cure.'
He had made a poor show of playing the bully and evincing a desire to conciliate at the same time, but was so afraid of the old man that great drops had started out upon his brown; and they stood there yet. His unusual tone of voice and agitated manner had sufficiently expressed his fear, but his face would have done so now, without that aid, as he again walked to and fro, glancing at him by the candle-light.
He stopped at the window to think. An opposite shop was lighted up; and the tradesman and a customer were reading some printed bill together across the counter. The sight brought him back, instantly, to the occupation he had forgotten. 'Look here! Do you know of this? Is it found? Do you suspect me?'
A hand upon the door. 'What's that!'
'A pleasant evenin',' said the voice of Mrs Gamp, 'though warm, which, bless you, Mr Chuzzlewit, we must expect when cowcumbers is three for twopence. How does Mr Chuffey find his self to-night, sir?'
Mrs Gamp kept particularly close to the door in saying this, and curtseyed more than usual. She did not appear to be quite so much at her ease as she generally was.
'Get him to his room,' said Jonas, walking up to her, and speaking in her ear. 'He has been raving to-night – stark mad. Don't talk while he's here, but come down again.'
'Poor sweet dear!' cried Mrs Gamp, with uncommon tenderness. 'He's all of a tremble.'
'Well he may be,' said Jonas, 'after the mad fit he has had. Get him upstairs.'
She was by this time assisting him to rise.
'There's my blessed old chick!' cried Mrs Gamp, in a tone that was at once soothing and encouraging. 'There's my darlin' Mr Chuffey! Now come up to your own room, sir, and lay down on your bed a bit; for you're a-shakin' all over, as if your precious jints was hung upon wires. That's a good creetur! Come with Sairey!'
'Is she come home?' inquired the old man.
'She'll be here directly minnit,' returned Mrs Gamp. 'Come with Sairey, Mr Chuffey. Come with your own Sairey!'
The good woman had no reference to any female in the world in promising this speedy advent of the person for whom Mr Chuffey inquired, but merely threw it out as a means of pacifying the old man. It had its effect, for he permitted her to lead him away: and they quitted the room together.
Jonas looked out of the window again. They were still reading the printed paper in the shop opposite, and a third man had joined in the perusal. What could it be, to interest them so?
A dispute or discussion seemed to arise among them, for they all looked up from their reading together, and one of the three, who had been glancing over the shoulder of another, stepped back to explain or illustrate some action by his gestures.
Horror! How like the blow he had struck in the wood!
It beat him from the window as if it had lighted on himself. As he staggered into a chair he thought of the change in Mrs Gamp, exhibited in her new-bom tenderness to her charge. Was that because it was found? – because she knew of it? – because she suspected him?
'Mr Chuffey is a-lyin' down,' said Mrs Gamp, returning, 'and much good may it do him, Mr Chuzzlewit, which harm it can't and good it may, be joyful!'
'Sit down,' said Jonas, hoarsely, 'and let us get this business done. Where is the other woman?'
'The other person's with him now,' she answered.
'That's right,' said Jonas. 'He is not fit to be left to himself. Why, he fastened on me to-night; here, upon my coat; like a savage dog. Old as he is, and feeble as he is usually, I had some trouble to shake him off. You – Hush! – It's nothing. You told me the other woman's name. I forget it'
'I mentioned Betsey Prig,' said Mrs Gamp.
'She is to be trusted, is she?'
'That she ain't!' said Mrs Gamp; 'nor have I brought her, Mr Chuzzlewit. I've brought another, which engages to give every satigefaction.'
'What is her name?' asked Jonas.
Mrs Gamp looked at him in an odd way without returning any answer, but appeared to understand the question too.
'What is her name?' repeated Jonas.
'Her name,' said Mrs Gamp, 'is Harris.'
It was extraordinary how much effort it cost Mrs Gamp to pronounce the name she was commonly so ready with. She made some three or four gasps before she could get it out; and, when she had uttered it, pressed her hand upon her side, and turned up her eyes, as if she were going to faint away. But, knowing her to labour under a complication of internal disorders, which rendered a few drops of spirits indispensable at certain times to her existence, and which came on very strong when that remedy was not at hand, Jonas merely supposed her to be the victim of one of these attacks.
'Well!' he said, hastily, for he felt how incapable he was of confining his wandering attention to the subject. 'You and she have arranged to take care of him, have you?'
Mrs Gamp replied in the affirmative, and softly discharged herself of her familiar phrase, 'Turn and turn about; one off, one on.' But she spoke so tremulously that she felt called upon to add, 'which fiddle-strings is weakness to expredge my nerves this night!'
Jonas stopped to listen. Then said, hurriedly:
'We shall not quarrel about terms. Let them be the same as they were before. Keep him close, and keep him quiet. He must be restrained. He has got it in his head to-night that my wife's dead, and has been attacking me as if I had killed her. It's – it's common with mad people to take the worst fancies of those they like best. Isn't it?'
Mrs Gamp assented with a short groan.
'Keep him close, then, or in one of his fits he'll be doing me a mischief. And don't trust him at any time; for when he seems most rational, he's wildest in his talk. But that you know already. Let me see the other.'
'The t'other person, sir?' said Mrs Gamp.
'Aye! Go you to him and send the other. Quick! I'm busy.'
Mrs Gamp took two or three backward steps towards the door, and stopped there.
'It is your wishes, Mr Chuzzlewit,' she said, in a sort of quavering croak, 'to see the t'other person. Is it?'
But the ghastly change in Jonas told her that the other person was already seen. Before she could look round towards the door, she was put aside by old Martin's hand; and Chuffey and John Wesdock entered with him.
'Let no one leave the house,' said Martin. 'This man is my brother's son. Ill-met, ill-trained, ill-begotten. If he moves from the spot on which he stands, or speaks a word above his breath to any person here, open the window, and call for help!'
'What right have you to give such directions in this house?' asked Jonas faintly.
'The right of your wrong-doing. Come in there!'
An irrepressible exclamation burst from the lips of Jonas, as Lewsome entered at the door. It was not a groan, or a shriek, or a word, but was wholly unlike any sound that had ever fallen on the ears of those who heard it, while at the same time it was the most sharp and terrible expression of what was working in his guilty breast, that nature could have invented.
He had done murder for this! He had girdled himself about with perils, agonies of mind, innumerable fears, for this! He had hidden his secret in the wood; pressed and stamped it down into the bloody ground; and here it started up when least expected, miles upon miles away; known to many; proclaiming itself from the lips of an old man who had renewed his strength and vigour as by a miracle, to give it voice against him!
He leaned his hand on the back of a chair, and looked at them. It was in vain to try to do so scornfully, or with his usual insolence. He required the chair for his support. But he made a struggle for it.
Excerpted from Hunted Down by Peter Haining. Copyright © 1996 Peter Haining. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Peter Haining was a celebrated anthologist and author whose anthologies include The Golden Age of Crime Fiction and The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories.
- Date of Birth:
- February 7, 1812
- Date of Death:
- June 18, 1870
- Place of Birth:
- Portsmouth, England
- Place of Death:
- Gad's Hill, Kent, England
- Home-schooling; attended Dame School at Chatham briefly and Wellington
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