This part is by Christy. Join me in the comments section for a discussion of how the next couple of installments should be parceled out as we move toward wrapping things up!
Our story must now return to the person with whom it started—not Mr Dickens, but Miss Summerson, for without Esther’s sudden appearance in Dickens’ reading, his life would have gone on as usual. Under the protection of Mr Pickwick, Esther and Ada Clare went out into the new morning, in haste for Nicholas Nickleby’s house. The two beautiful girls (for beautiful Esther still was, despite all disfigurement; no change of face could hide what had always made her truly beautiful) had never before experienced such a journey of haste and hiding, such looking out for pursuit, such worry for the ones left behind. Despite all bluff Mr Pickwick’s reassurances, Ada clasped her hands before her in terror for Rick going on to confront the villains, and Esther—did she, in her heart of hearts wish Allan Woodcourt had never been drawn into the fray, out of his rightful story?
The carriage arrived at Mr Nickleby’s house without incident. Though once the two girls would have been delighted with its beauty and warm feeling of home, today they were too full of other thoughts and cares. Mr Nickleby and Mr Pickwick shook hands solemnly.
“I am sorry that there is no woman here to receive you, Miss Summerson, Miss Clare,” Mr Nickleby said. “My wife and children are in the country, with their dear Aunt Kate and Uncle Frank and their cousins. And now we are only a company of men, for the others have joined us from Mr Woodcourt’s house. We felt we ought all to band together and form our plans.”
Did Esther’s heart leap within her at the mention of that name? Only she can tell, and she never will. “And what of the poor boy who tried to lead me here, Mr Nickleby?”
He shook his head sadly. “Alas, Miss Summerson. His wound was too great. He has returned…to wherever he had come from.”
“Oh!” Ada gave a sob and put her face on Esther’s shoulder. “Oh, Esther, the brave boy who helped you!”
“He has not truly died, my darling,” Esther said comfortingly, denying her own tears and winding her arm around Ada. “He has only returned to his proper world.”
“Will you ladies go to my wife’s sitting room and eat some breakfast? Or will you join us in my library?”
Ada, who knew Esther better than anyone, said boldly, “We will join you, if you please, sir.”
“You will be welcome, and you, Mr Pickwick. We are in earnest council what we should do.”
The three men awaiting them in the library were a strange combination of companions. Mr Venus, the melancholy articulator of bones who, like Mr Guppy, had been disappointed in love, sat slurping tea and examining the interesting bones of Eugene Wrayburn, as if it were his sole goal to unclothe them of him and make a complete study of them. Eugene Wrayburn himself presented a far less elegant figure than he once might have done, swaddled nearly head to toe in bandages, and yet an old friend might have said the change was for the better, for indolence was gone from his posture as he conversed with the kind Welsh doctor who was rewrapping his head. When Allan saw the newcomers, he rose immediately with his warm smile and hastened toward them.
“Miss Clare—Miss Summerson—” (one might almost have imagined that he saved Miss Summerson for last so that his eyes might dwell on her longest) “—I—we are relieved at your safety! Have you met with Mr Dickens? Please, come sit with us and tell us what has happened.”
When they had heard the story, Mr Woodcourt and Mr Venus were both for going straight to find and assist their friends, but it was Eugene who spoke calmer reason. “It would do us no good to go hunting all over London—and indeed I am in no shape for that sort of game again. By now they will have reached their goal and attained their objective or lost it. Whichever the case, they will need to regroup somewhere, and here is the most logical place. We must all come together and all come up with a unified, rational plan. This Sydney Carton seems to be just the sort of fellow to do so.”
“I can wait just as well as anything else,” Mr Venus sighed. “I’ve been a’waiting ever so long, since she told me she did not wish to be regarded in that bony light…”
Apparently, “she” and her bony light had been the subject of conversation far more often than any of the others wished. Eugene closed his eyes, feigning weariness. Mr Nickleby rose with the stated objective of finding out about breakfast. Allan Woodcourt drew his chair confidentially next to Esther’s and asked, “Miss Summerson, do you think we will remember any of this when we return to our own lives and our own books?”
Dear me, why he should be asking little Esther such a question as though she were wise was something she could not answer to, though a watchful, smiling Ada could have…
Though with a new wall between them, Mr Pecksniff and Uriah Heep had managed to fulfill their mutual goal, which was to goad Bradley Headstone into doing what they had no desire to do themselves and what he had proven himself so good at. In blind, shaking rage, he blundered out of the tavern to hunt down his man. Like a dog he would get his teeth into something and never let it go; like a bull he would blindly charge at the red flag waved before him and ignore the stings and arrows until it was too late. He had a vague memory of having gotten the better of Eugene Wrayburn, and yet it felt as though it had all gone wrong, somehow. Whatever it was, it was that meddling Dickens’ fault. If it hadn’t been for him, the schoolmaster might have kept his ill-fitting decency close about him instead of having it tear to shreds under the troubled glance of one beautiful girl and the supercilious expression of one worthless gentleman…!
Bradley did not stop to consider that perhaps not all his actions were dictated, that perhaps he did not have to follow the cruel dictatorship of his passions. He plunged on in his search, determined to do to the author of his being what he had done to his rival, and he did not notice for some time that he, the follower, was being followed.
It had been a very strange day for Mortimer Lightwood, a strange day coming upon the heels of many strange days. He had seen his dearest friend lying dying, nearly beaten to death, and begging him not to prosecute his would-be murderer. He had seen the man who would have made a mistress out of a waterwoman marry her instead and be grateful to her for it. He had seen near death and constant pain become the salvation of his friend, and he did not understand it. And now, when he had moments before been walking beside the bank of the Thames under the setting countryside sun, he found himself on a street in London in the early morning.
His first impulse was to feel his head and make sure that he had not also been attacked and left for dead all night. He had an odd feeling that he had been walking about for a long time, dazed. And yet his body was unscathed.
As he tried to decide precisely where in London he had been dropped, he heard an eerily familiar sound. Instinctively he ducked into the shadow of a pillar and watched with a kind of surreal horror as a man walked by him. He knew that tread, that rigid figure all too well. True to his word, he had stayed away from the schoolmaster and all pertaining to him in the weeks since Eugene had begun to recover, but he had never forgotten that long night of being inexorably tracked while Eugene called it a game and had never yet lost the anger and horror that thrilled through him each time he thought of Bradley Headstone. Surely he was on the hunt again, but what could he possibly be tracking in London?
It was time for the tracker to be tracked and for the game to be turned upside down. After the schoolmaster had passed, Mortimer slid out of his shadow and followed. Headstone was too wrapped up in his own thoughts and his goal to notice he was no longer alone. Mortimer stalked him one—two very long hours, his mind whirling as he listened to the schoolmaster question people in the street and heard him mutter to himself. Dickens? Who was Dickens and why should Headstone hate him with the passion he had once directed toward Eugene Wrayburn? How could he possibly blame this Dickens for all that had gone wrong in his life? What did he mean by “being read out of that book”? Headstone really must have driven himself mad.
But the more Mortimer stalked him and eavesdropped on him and the more he began to see that this London he was in was a strange and oddly alien London, the more he began to wonder if Headstone’s lunatic ravings as he tracked this Dickens man might not be lunatic ravings after all. He began to apply his lawyer’s mind to it (for Mortimer had one, latent beneath his poor-rich-man’s lassitude and his dearest friend’s indolent influence) and to wonder what was real.
Bradley Headstone stopped once, to take his refreshment in a pub, and Mortimer took the opportunity to inquire of a cab driver brushing down his horse, “Have you ever heard of a man named Dickens?”
The cabbie stared at him. “Is this a trick question, guv’nor?”
“A trick? By no means. It is perfectly straightforward. Have you ever heard of a man named Dickens?”
“Walk’er! Oi, Bert! This ‘ere gen’l'man wants to know if I’ve ever ’eard of a man called Dickens!”
“Arsk ’im if ’e’s ever ’eard of a lady called Victoria!” another cabbie called back.
“Then you have. Is he a writer?”
“Look, guv’nor, you all right? ’Ad one too many, ’ave yer?”
“No, I haven’t had any at all. If this Dickens is a writer, have you heard of someone called Bradley Headstone?”
Deciding that Mortimer must be an eccentric gentleman who went about quizzing people about popular books, the cabbie said good-humoredly, “You want to talk to Bert. ’E’s the one who reads and suchlike. Oi, Bert! Now ’e wants to know about a gen’l’man called Bradley ’Eadstone!”
“Hour Mutural Friend,” Bert said with relish. “Just finished it, Mr Dickens did. Weren’t that ’Eadstone a cove! Go on, arsk another ’un.”
Mortimer said, almost afraid, “Do you know the name of Mortimer Lightwood?”
“Mort’mer Lightwood,” Bert mused. “Mort’mer. You’ll ‘ave to do better than that, gov’nor, if’n you want to stump me. Same book. Frien’ of that odd fellow the ’Eadstone character tried to kill. Go on, try me again. An’ don’t say the bloomin’ Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come!”
“Excuse me,” Mortimer said faintly. “I—I must go.”
“Bert,” the first cabbie said, “I don’t fink that gen’l’man was quite right in the ’ead.”
Now Mortimer knew what Headstone wanted to do, and despite his spinning head, he knew he had to keep him from doing it. Promise to Eugene or no promise to Eugene, the schoolmaster must not be allowed to try to kill another human being, especially not the one on whom Mortimer’s very life depended.
Headstone had apparently found out what he wanted, because he led Mortimer to a house in a district he was slightly familiar with, having sometimes gone there for dinner parties or balls, though it was rather different than Mortimer remembered it. The schoolmaster paced up and down outside the house a few moments.
“Do I go and tell them I have found the place, or do I lie in wait for the scoundrel Dickens?” he muttered to himself.
“Neither,” Mortimer said and hit him.
It didn’t work out quite the way he had anticipated. Rather than laying him out, the blow rattled Headstone slightly but not enough to prevent him striking back. Now, Bradley Headstone had a solid and heavy fist, but in the old days at school when he had thought to make something of himself, Mortimer Lightwood had led his pugilism club, and his old skills had not entirely died. He took Headstone’s blow but did not allow it to rattle him either as he attacked again. Headstone did not fight like a gentleman, of course, but Mortimer already knew that. He fought like an enraged bull, having recognized his attacker, who dodged round him and nipped at his heels in the neatest way.
Neither had gained the upper hand when the door of the house burst open and three men rushed out. Two of them seized Headstone and one Mortimer and dragged them apart.
“What does this mean?” the portly gentleman who held Mortimer’s arm said sternly. “What sort of men are you to fight in such a fashionable street in the early morning?”
“This man—” Mortimer panted “—wishes to do injury to a Mr Dickens, who is, I understand, quite famous and is on his way here, if he has not already arrived.”
“Coming here?” cried one of the men who held a struggling Headstone, a fine, tall gentleman. “This must be one of the villains. Let us take him inside and discover if any of us recognizes him. Mr Venus, do you?”
“That I do not,” the youngish man with the straggly hair answered, holding the schoolmaster firmly. “But I don’t like his countenance.”
“He is a schoolmaster,” Mortimer explained as they went up the steps. “His name is Bradley Headstone.”
“A schoolmaster?” The fine-looking man shook Headstone by the arm. “I have had dealings with schoolmasters in the past. Come inside, sir,” to Mortimer. “There is a doctor within who will see to your wounds, and two sweet ladies the sight of whom will make you forget them, and another wounded comrade who has a fine head upon his shoulders. My name is Nicholas Nickleby. This is my house, and these are my friends Mr Venus and Mr Pickwick. And here,” leading them into a book-lined library, “are the other friends I mentioned to you. Miss Esther Summerson, Miss Ada Clare, Doctor Allan Woodcourt, and—”
“Eugene!” Mortimer cried.
Eugene Wrayburn tried to struggle up from his chair and fell back into it. “Mortimer, I had no idea you were here—The schoolmaster!”
Bradley Headstone, having caught sight of Eugene as Eugene caught sight of him, gave a strangled cry of rage and rushed at him, causing one of the young ladies to scream and cling to the other. All the men fell upon the schoolmaster and in a moment had subdued him, using a curtain cord to tie him securely to a chair. Eugene in his chair was pale and trembling, but his eyes were ablaze.
“Mortimer, what in heaven’s name have you been doing?”
“Eugene, I am so confused I can hardly tell you. You and I—we had just been talking—in your room in that little village by the Thames—I had left you to rest and gone out to walk—and suddenly I was wandering in London.”
“Much the same happened to me. I was one moment in that blessed room, and the next this good doctor was bending over me as I lay in a London street. He brought me to his house, and this morning we came here. No one has seen or heard of my sweet Lizzie, so she must be safe back in our book.”
“In our book,” Mortimer muttered. “One can hardly give it credence.”
“I am afraid you must,” Nicholas Nickleby told him. “We are all characters from books written by Mr Dickens. Miss Summmerson, Miss Clare, and Doctor Woodcourt all belong to one called Bleak House, Mr Pickwick has the distinction of being Mr Dickens’ first main character, I am honored by being his second, and Mr Venus, it seems, is from your book, Our Mutual Friend.”
Mortimer stared blankly at Mr Venus. “I have never seen him before in my life.”
“Do you know a man named Wegg?” Mr Venus asked.
“What about Boffin?”
“Boffin! Mr Boffin is my own particular dustman!”
“You see? He is our mutual friend. But what are we to do with this scoundrel, this Weggish sort of fellow?”
Eugene struggled to his feet, holding Mortimer’s shoulder. Headstone glared at him with such rage that beautiful Miss Clare shrank back again, and the other young lady, by no means beautiful but with a rich, expressive darkness of eye, put a protective arm around her.
“This is the schoolmaster who tried to kill me,” Eugene said calmly. “In doing so he has done me the greatest service ever done me, and I have nothing to say to him, for good or for evil. Once again he has allowed his unreasoning hatred to destroy everything that might have been good in his life. He is to be pitied.”
“No!” Headstone cried, but over his ineffectual rage a new sound came from outside the house, a great commotion of people shouting, whether in rejoicing or fear or anger it was uncertain. Everyone who could rushed to the windows.