The Victorian age was the age of the ghost story – the Victorians were fascinated by the supernatural, by all sorts of matters connected to the spirit world. Seances were popular; there was a lot of table rapping, there was that desire to communicate with the other world. There was also a deep interest in mesmerism – Dickens was a mesmerist, what we would call a hypnotist. There was even a Ghost Club founded in Cambridge in 1855 where a group of fellows discussed ghosts and psychic phenomena. It was launched officially in 1862 and Dickens was a member; other members were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Siegfried Sassoon, the WW1 poet and Peter Cushing, the actor who played Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and Doctor Frankenstein. It is still going strong today.
Of Dickens, his first biographer, John Forster wrote: Among his good things should not be omitted his telling of a ghost story. He had a hankering after ghosts.
He was not entirely a believer in ghosts; he was more inclined to think of such tales as illustrative of particular states of mind and processes of the imagination. But he made this strange comment after visiting a prison:
What if ghosts be one of the terrors of these jails? The more I think of it, the more I feel certain that not a few of these men are nightly visited by spectres.
It sounds here as if he did believe at times, depending on his own state of mind – the prison he visited may have brought back memories of the times as a child when he visited his father imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea Prison in London.
And he said once to a friend: Don’t suppose that I am so bold and arrogant as to settle what can and what cannot be, after death. He was certainly curious enough to join the Ghost Club.
And he was superstitious – he would touch things for luck; he always had a superstitious habit of turning his bed in a north-south direction – he maintained he could not sleep in any other position.
Whatever he believed at different times, he knew the attraction of a good ghost story and there are twenty ghost stories in my Wordsworth edition of the complete ghost stories of Charles Dickens. These include: A Christmas Carol and The Haunted Man – both stories in which the ghost brings a message – the message that the haunted one needs to learn about unselfishness and forgiveness.
And whether he believed in ghosts or not, it is reported that days after his death, Dickens’ ghost was reportedly turning up in Victorian séance parlours, still narrating spooky tales from the other side of the grave. Whether this is true or not, one thing is certain: he still haunts us with his tales of that other world. And I myself wonder at times: am I haunted by Charles Dickens? Whose is that tread on the stair and why can I smell the smoke of a cigar? No one smokes in my house.
By Corpse Light
Part 1: Mr Dickens Receives a Letter
The boy seemed rather hesitant when he offered Mr Dickens the letter.
‘Think it came by hand, sir.’
‘Found it on the doorstep.’
Dickens looked at the envelope. Someone dead, he thought, noting the thick black border. And so near Christmas. The handwriting was not familiar. It was very black, too, but an educated hand. The letters were very pointed at their tops, the down strokes very broad and black as if the writer had pressed with great force. A masculine hand. It was his name, however, writ black and sombre, whoever the penman was. He shivered as if he were looking at an invitation to his own funeral.
Tom, a noticing sort of boy, observed, ‘Queer, ain’t it?’
‘Why?’ What was the boy thinking?
‘Turn it over, sir.’
Dickens did so. Affixed to the envelope was a large black wax seal clearly imprinted with a death’s head. Morbid, he thought, but some people paraded their grief as if they were waving black flags. There’d be plumes and mutes at the funeral, he supposed.
He looked up at Tom’s bright blue eyes which regarded his intently. ‘It is strange, but then I get a lot of odd people writing to me. Very queer folk about, my lad. Now get away home to your ma.’ He grinned at the boy, tossed him a florin. ‘Tell Mr Wills I’ll lock up. I’ve something to finish before I go.’
‘Cor, sir, Merry Christmas, sir.’
‘And the same to you.’
He heard him pounding down the stairs. Good lad. He looked at the letter again. Who was dead? How the mowing of the old scythe went on. He examined the wax seal. It was decidedly queer. He couldn’t think of anyone who would use such a thing. Crank, probably. He tossed it aside.
He took up his pen to continue the corrections to the piece he was writing for his magazine Household Words: The Doom of English Wills. His pen spluttered to a halt and left a black blot as big as that black seal. The letter intruded itself between his pen and the inkwell.
He reached for his magnifying glass – there were no initial letters to indicate a name, but there were two tiny words: Memento Mori.
Remember you must die.
Yes, well, I do, but not convenient at the moment. He could see the skull clearly now – the mouth open and distinctly leering. Oh, open it. It’ll be some crank.
He didn’t know what it was. Just a black-edged card with a hand-written name and address:
“The grave’s a fine and private place”
But none, I think, do there embrace. Dickens murmured the rest of the quotation from Andrew Marvell’s poem. Quite a witty line. An undertaker with a sense of humour – you’d have to, he supposed. A lady undertaker. Now that was unusual – probably a widow inherited her husband’s business. He imagined her: wreathed in black like Hamlet’s aunt – if he’d had one; parchment face behind her dusty veil, and thin as the kitchen poker. Made from steel like –
Miss Murdstone – his chuckle stopped in his throat – Jane Murdstone. Now that was damned queer. He thought he’d made her up – Edward Murdstone’s sister, David Copperfield’s tormentor. He looked at the address. Paradise Alley – he knew it. It wasn’t far from his house in Devonshire Terrace. Near the Marylebone Workhouse and its burial ground. You went through Burying-Ground-Passage. It made sense, but he had never noticed an undertaker’s there.
But Jane Murdstone – it seemed incredible. It was a message with a purport; someone wanted him to go there. Well, he would. He’d see Mrs or Miss Murdstone – he rather hoped she wasn’t Miss – and ask her what she wanted. Then he would go home and take his children to the toy shop at Holborn.
Part 2: Nails in a Coffin
Dickens walked up to Oxford Street. It was beginning to be misty – fog was coming down, wreathing the gas lamps, turning the distance into emptiness. He quickened his pace along Portland Street, turned left into Weymouth Street and came to into Paradise Street. Dank Burying-Ground-Passage led into Paradise Alley. The geography was apt, he supposed – out of the workhouse, through the passage, into the burial ground hard by, and off to paradise when the day came.
Paradise Alley looked even narrower than usual; darkness had thickened and the fog itself seemed black as a shroud now. Further along, there was a single gaslight giving off an eerie, greenish glow, making ghosts of the fog, but when he passed it, there was darkness again. He felt his way along the house fronts and railings – just a huddle of mean little houses and a gap sometimes as if a rotting tooth had fallen out of a rotten mouth. The place smelt of decay, too. The gutter down the middle of the passage ran with slime and mud. He peered at every bleary window, but there was no sign of an undertaker’s – no sign of anyone, for that matter. He almost fell into one of the gaps and grabbed a railing. He stood still to get his breath. Go home, you fool. Then he heard something.
A kind of tune: RAT – tat – tat, RAT – tat- tat, RAT- tat-tat.
He stood, holding his breath, listening, the fog shrouding him, touching his face with chill fingers, freezing his blood. The sound went on, getting louder in the darkness – summoning him, but still he stood.
Then he breathed out. Someone was hammering nails into – a coffin. Of course. The coffin-maker would know where the undertaker’s premises were. Probably where the coffins were made. He followed the noise to the end of Paradise Alley. A right turn led into another narrow passage: Bone Yard. Never noticed that before. The RAT- tat – tat continued. He turned into the alley and saw a faint light at the end where some kind of workshop abutted a dead wall. It was from this building that the noise came.
The door was ajar, its chain and padlock dangling. He pushed it open, calling out – a bit self-consciously – ‘Mrs – er – Miss Murdstone.’
Part 3: Memento Mori
Dicken stepped in. He couldn’t make out what he was seeing – it looked like some kind of church or chapel – some sort of place of worship. Peculiar People, maybe, or some such. Yet, it smelt of the grave, was cold as that private place, and secret dark except for a flickering, faintly blue circle of light in the centre of the cobbled floor. He took another step. A footstep scraped behind him. The door closed. He whirled round and heard the clink of the chain. The key turned in the lock. He hammered on the door with his stick and shouted again, ‘Miss Murdstone!’ No one answered.
He looked back at the circle of light. Candles on stands and some dark shape in the centre. And all the time the RAT- tat – tat went on – the hideous music of death.
Outside the circle, shadows crouched and then leapt up the walls, sliding along roof beams to hang as corpses on gallows, elongated legs twisting into an antic dance of death. He stepped back. One of the shadows leered forward, its thin legs dangling, its head growing longer and thinner. It was his own shadow hanging there.
He stood frozen, listening and looking at that terrible circle – corpse light. The hammering ceased, but his heart took up the tune.
He had to look. He went through the shivering lights into the darkness within. There was a rough pair of trestles on which was laid a coffin. There was a hammer on top and a few scattered nails. The coffin maker had finished his work. He saw that there was a brass plate on the coffin lid. He plucked a candle from a stand and read there:
He dropped his candle. Somewhere a wind blew and the corpse lights went out, one by one, as if some spectral hand had snuffed them.
Part 4: A Woman in Black
The wind died down. The shadows vanished. There was only silence – the silence of the grave, he thought. His coffin. Was he to die here? Who was it who would place him in his coffin? Who was his murderer? Jane Murdstone? He shook his head. For goodness’ sake.
Adjusting his eyes to the darkness, he was aware of a fragile light wavering down a set of wooden stairs. Someone was there. He moved away from the coffin, sidling into deeper darkness, gripping his stick. He must fight his way out.
More light spilled down. An arm held a lantern. He saw a naked foot and the hem of a skirt. Miss Murdstone come to life? Mrs Murdstone, the undertaker?
He waited, not daring to breathe, and watched the woman in her black dress come down the stairs. She made no sound – not the creak of a stair, not the scrape of a foot, not the rustle of a dress. She was veiled as he had imagined her. Her progress was agonisingly slow. She held out the lantern in front of her – her other arm was likewise stretched out. It was like watching a blind person. She seemed to stare directly ahead, never looking down at her naked feet.
She made her way to the coffin where she placed her lantern. The candles flared into life and the crouching shadows leapt up again. She put her hand on the brass plate and then she spoke.
‘Mr Dickens, you need not be afraid.’
The shadows cringed back. His shadow’s legs rolled up, but still he saw it, hunched on its beam. Humbug, he thought, stepping forward, but his stick was ready. She lifted her veil to reveal a face that he knew.
Part 5: Murder Most Foul
‘Mrs Lennox?’ He knew her. Of course, he knew her, but it was impossible. She was dead. He had seen her buried in Highgate Cemetery on a bitter February morning. He had seen her coffin lowered into the cold ground. He had seen her father’s anguished face look down into that black hole and the tears frozen on his old face. When he had helped the old man away, he had turned round to see the grave diggers take up their spades. And later, he had seen the headstone which bore the legend:
1825 – 1850
Beloved and Only Daughter of
Canon Henry Temple
‘He did it. You know he did. You told the policeman.’
‘I did, but we never found him.’
Savile Lennox had poisoned his wife. He claimed that it was suicide. Dickens hadn’t believed him. The man’s eyes had given him away – Dickens had seen the glitter there, hard as ice. He had seen it before in the man and had known it was greed. Savile Lennox stood to inherit a fortune.
Charles Dickens had found out the unhappiness at the heart of their marriage. Savile Lennox had a mistress whom he intended to marry. A search of her house had produced the letters that told of the wicked plan. To save herself, the woman had denounced him: by Savile Lennox’s hand, his wife had died. Superintendent Jones went to arrest him, but he had gone, vanished into the air.
But Savile Lennox had not been able to claim his fortune or his mistress. He was a hunted thing – an outcast creature, his name blazoned in every newspaper, his face on every bill: Wanted for Murder.
‘Is he here?’ Dickens asked.
‘He will come back.’
‘To kill me?’
‘He will have his revenge. He has lost his fortune and his Lydia – he blames me. I should have killed myself. He blames you for finding him out.’
‘Can you help me?’
‘That is what I have come for – I am allowed this one night.’
She came towards him, out of the circle of light. She seemed to fade as she came, the black garments growing grey, and greyer, disintegrating into shreds, so that she seemed to be made of cobwebs.
‘There is not much time.’
He followed her to the door which opened at their approach. Then she was a mist dissolving into the fog outside. He followed and stood in Bone Yard. Just at that moment, he heard footsteps
Part 6: Enter a Murderer.
He shrank back into the shadow of the doorway. There was nowhere to go. And no Julia Lennox to lend him aid. He could take Lennox by surprise, however – a blow with his stick. He wouldn’t be expecting that. He gripped his stick more tightly.
Then he heard a police rattle and stepped forward again. A boy came running, followed by Superintendent Sam Jones and Sergeant Rogers.
‘Mr D.’ shouted Scrap, the unofficial police detective – always on the spot, as if by magic.
‘You all right?’ asked Sam Jones. ‘Your man, John, came to see me. Said you were missing. You were expected at home hours ago – you were going to the toy shop.’
‘What time is it?
‘Midnight. John went to your office in Wellington Street and found this.’ He offered the card with the address. Dickens had taken up the envelope without realising.
‘This ain’t the undertaker’s,’ Rogers said.
‘No, but there’s a coffin inside.’
‘How did you get in?’ Sam pointed to the padlock – fastened again.
‘Someone was here – a woman, but she’s gone.’
‘Who was she?’
‘No idea, but I think you’d better have a look.’
Sam tried his skeleton keys and opened the lock. The lights were out, the candles wrapped in their winding sheets of wax. Rogers lit his bull’s eye lamp. Sam went to look at the coffin and saw the name plate. ‘Good God – who did this?’
‘Savile Lennox – he means to murder me.’
‘How do you know?’
‘The woman told me – he’s coming.’
‘Right, we’ll wait. Rogers, outside with Scrap – hide yourselves.’
Savile Lennox came. Dickens and Jones heard him open the padlock. He stepped in to see the candles lit and his intended victim seated on an old chair with his feet up on his coffin.
‘You,’ Lennox said, ‘memento mori.’
‘I do, I do – I came, as you see, to attend your little drama. Superintendent Jones would very much like to know your whereabouts.’
‘Too late, Charles Dickens. I’ll send him a black-edged card notifying him of your death. Alas, he’ll miss the funeral.’
‘A second murder.’
‘If you say so.’
‘I do – you poisoned Julia – your own wife. You should hang for that.’
‘Well, they can’t hang me twice, but you -’ He held a rope taut between his two hands. The noose was prepared.
‘You murdered your wife.’
‘I’ve said so. Why do you harp on so? It won’t save your life.’
Superintendent Jones stepped out of the shadows. He had heard what he wanted to hear. Lennox turned to run, but Rogers was there with his truncheon. Lennox still had his noose in his hands.
The End of It
Later, when Lennox was in his cell, Sam asked Dickens about the woman. ‘Was the woman this Jane Murdstone?’
‘I don’t know. It was so dark and then it was so foggy outside. I might have imagined her.’
‘No, yer didn’t – I saw ’er – queer lookin’ woman all in grey rags an’ no shoes. She was – I dunno – sort o’ not all there, then she jest vanished. She musta gorn round the corner,’ Scrap interrupted.
‘But it’s a dead end, Bone Yard – there is no corner, just a dead wall,’ Rogers said.
‘Went through the wall then,’ said Dickens, grinning.
‘Saw a ghost did you?’ Sam’s tone was wry.
‘Perhaps it was Jane Murdstone – my Jane Murdstone, I mean.’
Sam gave him a narrow look. ‘Hardly the woman to save you, Mr Copperfield.’