The second part of the two-part finale of our story has two parts. (You may have to think about that one for a minute.) Nina has written the final chapter (of which you read the first part last week), and I've written a short epilogue that will immediately follow her installment.
It has been a very great pleasure working with all of you on this story, and I think we should all be proud of what we've done! I hope we get to do it again sometime.
And now for part 2 of Nina's final chapter.
A great metal beast is the steam engine, tearing its way through the countryside, shrieking and clattering, leaving trails of evil black soot in its wake. How appropriate, then, that it was the chosen conveyance of Messrs. Pecksniff and Heep, as the sun rose once more, as they stirred from their lodgings with their companions, brought their deceit and falsehood along for the ride, and wound their way upon a clanging serpent into the hallowed cleanliness of the English landscape.
A little copse had been selected as the site—Jenny, unbeknownst to Mr. Dickens’ band, had been in possession of a map which she had observed covertly, and thus had been able to direct their rivals to this secluded place of advantage on the skirts of the Crossroads Inn. “This way, we can save you from public shame,” quoth Miss Wren, decisively, to Miss Trotwood’s satisfaction.
All of that group had traveled together—even Mr. Guppy, because Ada had protested it would be uncharitable to leave him behind in his condition. Though the knowledge that he’d been placed in Mr. Woodcourt’s especial care would likely have deathly mortified the law clerk. In fact, that young gentleman actually opened his eyes near the end of their journey. In his half-stupor, he could observe a tattered greyish sky over his head, and wondered what atmospheric complications had rendered such a singular firmament. Further studying told him it was in reality the dingy roof of a closed carriage, which induced him to wonder what he had gotten himself into. All of a sudden, he heard voices all around him.
“Sam, Sam!” came first, and Mr. Guppy was confronted with the eager face of that old blunderbuss, Mr. Pickwick, shoved and uncomfortable inch or two above his face. “Oh lord,” groaned Mr. Guppy. Then he felt the cushion that had been supporting his head shift a bit, “which is odd,” he mused, still slightly dazed, and another voice saying “Esther—oh, I mean Miss Summerson, he has revived!” Which made Mr. Guppy look for the ugly face of the physician who had called his angel by her Christian name, and which brought him to the startling revelation that he was reclining on that man’s knees!
You can imagine the speed with which Mr. Guppy righted himself, knocking his head against the ceiling, and glowering generally.
“Mr. Guppy,” said Esther quickly and with a certain smile, as a way of calming things, “you showed extraordinary valor yesterday—”
“Oh, you may be sure I did it all for you, Miss!” Mr. Guppy interjected.
“I do not doubt it,” Esther nodded graciously, “but you have been in an unconscious state for several hours. There have been great proceedings since then, and we have become acquainted with several others like ourselves. For instance, this gentleman,” gesturing to the man at her left, “is Mr. Nickleby, and a Mr. Venus, Mr. Lightwood, Mr. Wrayburn, and a man called Headstone have all joined our party.”
“Headstone is being watched by Mr. Venus and Miss Trotwood,” Nicholas put in. “He could prove useful to us—at any rate, it would be a bad thing to have him skulking about without our supervision.”
“Oh,” said Mr. Guppy, at this barrage of information.
Esther proceeded to inform him of all that had occurred—Headstone’s arrival and confrontation, Jenny’s disappearance and subsequent announcement, and news on the letter and duel. When she began describing the duel, Mr. Guppy put in earnestly, “You wasn’t there, Miss Summerson, so you wasn’t witness to my military prowess at the tavern—I gunned down Tulkinghorn, you know.” He stretched a pleased smile, like a seam, across his face, but was instantly checked.
“Keep out of trouble, Mr. Guppy, I beg you,” Woodcourt said firmly (they were still sitting next each other). “We shall have enough difficulties without you accidentally getting yourself into scrapes.”
Mr. Guppy could not believe his legal ears, and he gaped for several seconds. “SIR—” he began loudly, but Miss Summerson quickly added, “Please, Mr. Guppy, you will keep yourself from harm’s way—for my sake?”
What could the chastened clerk say in return to this? So Mr. Guppy shut his mouth, and said no more. But he made no binding promises. Oh no. He made sure of that.
It is necessary, reader, that we also record what was occurring at this time in the other two carriages, for it will prove important presently.
Mr. Dickens had been crammed into the second cab with five others. By this point, two full days since his initial reading, he had learnt to suspend his disbelief, and instead of wondering how his characters had been brought to life, he now regarded them as equals, wondering instead how he had any more right to life than they had, he who had been so selfish, so full of pride and importance, blinded by fame, and cruel to those who had no claim to it. He did wonder, as he sat there, his great mind working at a lightning rate, as ever, what would happen if he were to be killed at the hands of Pecksniff or Heep? But, invariably, his eyes would fall upon the calm, firm countenance of Sydney Carton, and he would reprimand himself at his own cowardice, and bless his Creator that he had had the chance to re-examine himself, and to alter his ill graces.
Sydney had sat silently, and so had Eugene and Mortimer, who had assumed rather sullen silences since their late encounter with Bradley Headstone. Even Richard had barely spoken a word, except in kindly comfort to Ada, who had been conscientiously fretting the length of the journey.
“If Mr. Dickens were to be injured,” she reasoned, trembling, “I suppose we could nurse him back to health—a bullet wound doesn’t always mean death, does it, Richard dear?”
“There she goes being earnest and sentimental again,” Jenny said with a chop of each word. “Haven’t I explained it over and over again? And here you are vexing Mr. Dickens, LORD!”
“Jenny dear, be patient with Ada,” the author reminded her. “After all, Ada is a very tenderhearted girl, and she can’t help it.”
“I don’t think Mr. Dickens will be hurt, love,” said Richard, but Ada, diamonds shining in her eyes, looked out the window.
“But if Mr. Dickens made us, and he does get—oh, it’s too horrible!—then Richard, what will happen to us?”
This was a startling prospect, which none of them had yet considered. Even Miss Wren went a little pale. “Well,” said Eugene, finally, “I suppose we would just go back where we came from—there’s nothing so horrible in that, is there?”
Meanwhile, in the third carriage, Bradley Headstone was longing to brush away the clammy beads of perspiration that had gathered on his forehead. The unhappy wretch was flanked on either side by Mr. Venus, who had been examining his skeletal structure (particularly the jawbone) most keenly by way of diversion, and by Miss Betsey, who was the more formidable of the two, and who seemed to stare at him for hours, without blinking. (Mr. Dick was absent, as that good lady had left him home for his safety and to “hold the fort,” as she put it.) She pounced on him whenever he shifted, and in that shuddering conveyance, with his hands tightly wrenched together, it was hard to find comfort. He had also been placed directly across from the girl who had read him his fate, like a gipsy in a glass, and he wondered whether this was part of his torment. He wetted his lips and said, in a hoarse voice, the weakness of which shamed him, “It was you who brought me here—you are to blame for this.”
“Hush,” said Miss Betsey, severely, but Bradley, through clenched teeth, pursued doggedly, “You wished to influence me, to control me, though you yourself rebuked such domination by the ones you would have me bound to, in my suffering and anguish. You told me of my doomed fate and in doing so led me to it. Are you satisfied, you fine lady?”
But this was as far as he got, for Mr. Venus promptly shoved a sallow handkerchief down his throat as a conclusion.
Miss Estella regarded him serenely for a moment. Would that she had continued to glare at him with those cold and expressionless eyes, and said not a word, to humble him. But Estella had not been shaped for years—by a withered, wasted, vengeful and prideful hand!—for naught. Never breaking her steady stare, but continuing to contemplate him, impassive, she responded, “Mr. Headstone, I am not satisfied, for how can I be so, when I’ve not taken a single moment to contemplate the fate of you? You, a man I wouldn’t pay threepence to hand me out of a carriage—you, with your awkward and ugly manners, and sullen disposition—you, who are so far below me and my companions, and yet put on airs as though they were borrowed feathers, and climb and climb like some sort of rat—you think your outburst has hurt me, or dominated me, but you are sorely mistaken about my sentiments toward you and your pitiful condition. Why should I be satisfied, or humiliated, or anything at all?”
At the end of this, Estella gave a short, hard laugh—a laugh conjured up not from any emotion, but used as punctuation, as the sound of triumph and mastery. Bradley had gone entirely pale, but yet there was as much deception in his pallor as in Estella’s amusement.
Mr. Tappertit gave a long low whistle (for it was clear the schoolmaster had been bested), recrossed his legs, and bestowed his Eye upon Miss Estella, as a mark of his approval; Madame did nothing, except dart her hawklike eyes between the two young faces, with some kind of satisfaction. Mr. Venus and Miss Betsey had rather forgotten themselves, and simultaneously turned their glance to their captive, the target of this late speech, and were slightly perturbed by his appearance: his color had returned, yet he had closed his eyes, as in a reverie, his jaw was set and squared, and from his lip there sprang a red wound, from where he had bit into his own flesh and brought the blood leaping.
Yet, for all accounts, he seemed quite—composed, is a word for it.
And thus it was that the three carriages arrived in that shady and green English glen.
Everyone began to pile from their carriages as soon as they halted—the girls held Mr. Dickens and hugged him devotedly, the gentlemen immediately began consulting one another on the best way to solve the problems that awaited them, and Miss Betsey, thinking it prudent to divide Bradley Headstone from Estella, left him bound (but no longer gagged) within the darkness of their cab, as she urged the young lady away. Now we have said before that no one took much notice of Mr. Guppy—not even Esther, alas!—and if they had, they would have realized he was absent from the party. This proved to be a deathly oversight, as we shall shortly see.
In all actuality, Mr. Guppy had sprung from the carriage bearing Woodcourt as quickly as possible, and took no notice of the other divisions’ activities, including the imprisonment of Headstone. What he had planned to do is lost to the fates, for just as he was about to strike out in some badly chosen direction, he felt a strong clutch at his shoulder, and felt himself being dragged backwards steadily.
He turned to find the handsome face of Madame Defarge near his own, and she was saying something in French. “I don’t understand you,” he protested, struggling to free himself; he even attempted to duck out of his jacket but her grip tightened upon him.
“Shut up,” said Sim Tappertit for, to Mr. Guppy’s astonishment, he was also there—as was Estella.
“How dare you, young man, tell a law clerk such as myself to ‘shut up’?” Mr. Guppy demanded, but Sim spoke over him, “Madame ’ere is planning a reverlution and we are to be her generals, so to speak.”
Apparently Mr. Guppy had already reached his destination, some distance from where the cabs were stationed, as Madame released her grasp, and crouching to the ground, began to create a crude diagram with the point of her knitting needle. Mr. Guppy could not decipher it in the least, and wondered with misgivings if diagrams could be in French also. But slowly, he began to make out the roads Madame was sketching—from what he understood, she was intimating that they must go to the railroad station, which was a few roads down and could be vaguely seen in the distance.
“You wish us to go to the railroad, Madame?” Estella inquired in her fluent French. Madame nodded, and responded, “We are to thwart their aims. We passed them—Madame saw out the carriage window, the others did not—and piling out of the train like so many cockroaches was their entire repulsive lot. They are all here—Monsieur Rigaud, Willet, M. Steerforth—they have all come, they and the rest, and we shall thwart the plans of their leaders by subduing their minions.”
Estella looked at her curiously. “How shall we do it?”
“However we can.”
Estella decided to put this intelligence out of her mind—not to think of it further—but to translate for the benefit of the other two.
“But we, despite our intelligence,” Mr. Guppy protested, “cannot fight them alone!”
“You wish to leave it to the women, to this mite?” Madame demanded in halting English. “Then go!”
This was not exactly a comfortable circumstance. Mr. Guppy shifted uneasily but, summoning all the courage that was within him, straightened himself and squared his shoulders. “I don’t need to stand here and be ordered about by a Frenchwoman.” And saying that, he left.
He didn’t look back, either—he credited himself on that. Oh no. Mr. Guppy had resolution. What did it matter to him that two women and a very tiny man thought him cowardly? It didn’t matter. Much. Hmm. Mr. Guppy considered this. He did have his reputation to uphold. And what if Miss Summerson would no longer think him valorous if he did not defend her? Oh, what a dilemma this was!
“A lawyer ought to be able to just sit behind a desk and make money,” the clerk lamented, and doing thus, bumped into the corner of one of the cabs. He had returned. He surveyed the cab within—and there was a man sitting there, unexpectedly. And above all, he was tied together at the wrists with a rope! “Why, who in the world are you?” Mr. Guppy gasped.
“My name is Headstone,” the gentleman responded, dully, and Mr. Guppy got the sense it was just to have something to do that he spoke at all. Yet that name—Headstone. It was a rather grisly one to be sure, but he recalled Miss Summerson saying something about it—“a man who had joined their forces?” Indeed, that was it!
“If you do not mind my asking you, sir, why are you tied up like a Christmas goose?” Mr. Guppy inquired. “I was under the impression that you were with our forces—the forces of good?”
Bradley Headstone raised his sullen head and looked at Mr. Guppy listlessly. Yet then, as though a spark of genius struck him, he had a great and terrible idea. “I was once a villain,” he remarked, as though he were reciting something mechanically from a book, “but I have joined forces with you, it is true. You were unconscious and so do not recall, I suspect, but it was agreed upon that I should act as a sort of decoy to goad the true villains into a trap if need be. Yet I have heard no news regarding this plan, and would be exceedingly grateful if you could cut me loose.”
Ah, enlightenment! Mr. Guppy quickly acquiesced to the schoolmaster’s request, never mind the vagueness of his alibi, for Mr. Guppy had a plan of his own. “You look like a strong gent,” he said conversationally, as he sawed away at the rope with his pen knife, “and we—myself and a few others, like Madame Defarge and Miss Estella—could surely use your assistance in our own plan.”
“I should be glad to assist you,” said Bradley Headstone, with the same mechanical politeness, noting with silent satisfaction the trust on Mr. Guppy’s face as they climbed out of the carriage.
And Mr. Guppy, astute law clerk, was slave to his own brilliant plans, as he led Headstone down the path to the reformed villains, and into the presence of Estella, who had scorned the schoolmaster with her insufferable pride.
“I should like to be your second, sir,” Nicholas Nickleby said into Dickens’ ear, as they plodded through the high grass that swayed easily in the absence of a footpath.
“My second—second what?” Mr. Dickens said, distractedly.
“I should like to shoot for you—as a sort of understudy,” Nickleby explained, drawing on his theatrical expertise. “Would you oblige me with this honor, sir?”
Mr. Dickens paused for a moment and turned to face Nickleby. Now he understood why, when all the others (Jenny excepted) had been left at the end of the path, Nickleby had insisted on pushing on with him. Charles Dickens could be quite sentimental himself, sometimes, and tears, though not unmanly ones, sprang to his eyes.
“I should be honored. It would be rather fitting, I think.”
Mr. Nickleby smiled, and Charles Dickens patted his coat pocket, where David Copperfield’s pistol was buried.
“There they are,” said Jenny Wren, with the air of a 40-year-old working man and not a child of twelve.
Charles Dickens looked up, slightly startled, and spied the orange head perched on top of the pike that was Uriah Heep’s skeleton, and the all-devouring white collar of Mr. Pecksniff.
“Our worthy opponent has arrived!” Pecksniff cried with an odd semblance of gratitude, and Uriah Heep fawned so vigorously he even surpassed his usual displays of humility. The very sight of them sickened Mr. Dickens, even as it disturbed him to think that they had been his own good work.
“Shut up,” said Jenny Wren, picking up her skirts and stepping over a puddle resolutely. “Which of you is to be the gunman, and which the second?”
Uriah Heep and Seth Pecksniff smiled at one another.
“I should very much like you to ave the onors,” Uriah Heep grinned. “I am sure as that you, being a gentleman, ave been trained in such arts.”
“Oh, my dear man,” Pecksniff countered. “I couldn’t possibly!”
As this sort of bandying continued for several minutes, it would be well to return to the actions of a different player in this scene, the brooding young man with the long brown hair hanging in his eyes, who stood apart from the rest, at the end of the footpath.
“Perhaps I should have gone,” he considered, his hands plunged deep into the spacious pockets of his old-fashioned coat. “What have I to lose? And he, with a wife and family!” He heard the nervous, giddy laughter of the two young ladies, and this recalled him to the action around him. He surveyed the scene. The law clerk—Guppy—was absent.
Very uncharitable of him, Sydney mused, and struck off back down the road, towards where the cabs had been stationed. He rambled about them, peering inside, wondering what sort of scrapes the young man had gotten himself into (he had conversed with Mr. Woodcourt on this subject), when something gnawed at his mind. Carton peered into the shadows of the last musty cab, and saw on the seat the draggled remains of a piece of rope, hacked in two.
Headstone! This was what was left of Headstone!
Immediately Sydney scanned the landscape for the fugitive but saw nothing, save a vague shimmering movement in the distance, and the thin white thread of a road. That was where the train had stopped—Headstone would surely have tried making his way toward that conveyance, in hopes of escape!
And so Sydney Carton, without a word to the rest, fled that way in solitude.
The scene to which Mr. Guppy had returned, with Bradley Headstone now at his side, was utter chaos. Non-literary humans were fleeing from the site, only adding to the confusion Madame stirred steadily, and kept at the height of its deadly passion. The attack had been a complete surprise, and this unexpectancy had shattered the unity of the villains. Charley Bates was openly cowering but Steerforth, steeled by the success and brilliance of his childhood fencing days, was organizing his pitifully few allies with customary charm and control. Sim had come into possession of a blade and gleefully pricked anyone who came within range (this included John Willet) and Madame was engaged in a deathly waltz with M. Rigaud.
Mr. Guppy stood, frozen, at the site of battle, his old legal side recognizing the wealth of settlements that could be made there, but presently he was knocked to his senses by a one-eyed man, who had been pierced rather deeply by Sim’s weapon and had fallen against the law clerk.
Where was the schoolmaster in all this? Among shadow. Like the wretched creatures that spring from their haunts at night (probably called to mind by his biological studies), he kept to the ground, hidden. But why so much precaution?
Estella was standing some way apart from the battlements, bent over, pale and ill, and made even more anxious in the attempt to hide these feelings of weakness. A killer, she was not. Perhaps she was hard—she knew, indeed, that she had broken many hearts and triumphed in the knowledge that she had. But there were limits, and the violence and bloodshed repulsed the girl instinctively.
Estella also had a bad conscience on other matters. “I lost to him,” she moaned mentally. “I lost my control, my self-possession, the gift of governing myself, and I succumbed to giving the harsh words naturally expected of me. If only I’d held my tongue!”
If only, Estella. If only, as your hair ripples down your back into the folds of your dress; if only, as your pale breast heaves with emotion; if only, as you look to the horizon, and see the sky torn in half, and buckle at your knees—as you glance upward once more with those cold staring eyes, and see our own world—now drowned in livid gushing black!—for the last time!
Sydney Carton saw it—he saw it all, as though it were a sickening tableau played out before him: saw the broad vicious hand upraised; saw the pale face struck down to the stones below, swathed among wayward folds of green satin—and saw how it had been so easy, so intolerably easy to bring down such pride, such haughtiness, such cold fragility and beauty at a single blow. “And she will go to a hell!” his mind cried, in the depths of his heart and from the shadows of his own troubled life, “and none of them care!”
It seemed to Carton as though he had stood there in that one spot for years, but it all happened in mere seconds; and he was wrong on another point also, for someone else did see the violence.
“Why—why,” Mr. Guppy stuttered, frozen, as Bradley Headstone whirled to face him, “he’s—he’s MURDERED her!”
Madame had thrust M. Rigaud to the ground and was clutching a deep gash in her own side, but when she turned all eyes seemed to follow her piercing gaze.
Bradley Headstone took one look back at them and ran.
“We’ll hold the fort,” Sim Tappertit screamed at the top of his tiny lungs. “After him!” But his words fell on deaf ears, for Charley Bates had darted off at an angle, to warn the others, and both Sydney Carton and Mr. Guppy were plunging, wildly, through the underbrush, in steady pursuit of the man who had murdered Estella.
“But my dear Mr. Heep, you are too modest! Why shouldn’t you have the first go, you know?”
“I am modest, Mr. Pecksniff, and I recognize it and accept it, and would be exceedingly more appy for you to take the first shot!”
So it went on, and on, and on, in a beautiful display of modesty.
“Come now!” Charles Dickens barked, losing himself for a moment. “It’ll all come to the same outcome in the end, will it not?” He looked expectantly at each of them, and they looked at each other, because each of them knew the answer to the author’s question—“Not quite.”
Uriah tried once more. “Mr. Pecksniff, why should such an umble person as me ave the first chance, really? I—”
“Oh, oh my dear man,” Pecksniff shook his head most vigorously, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth! You are so very meek indeed, it would be a sin for me to behave otherwise—you shall have the gun, and I shall be your second!” And saying so, he placed it in the damp hands of Uriah Heep, who had run through his arsenal of false compliments, and was forced to be the contender. His face took on an ugly, ungracious scowl as he stalked over to Mr. Dickens. Uriah Heep had a cunning mind, but not a quick one—and as he dragged himself across the field, he frantically tried to determine what he should do.
As Mr. Pecksniff and Nicholas Nickleby retreated into their respective positions, Miss Wren took on an authoritative tone. “Gentlemen,” she announced, “you are to take twenty paces away from one another in a straight line. I will count aloud. When this is done, I shall say ‘draw,’ and then we’ll see.”
Charles Dickens drew a steady breath. He was strangely at ease—why, he did not know, but so it was, and he cocked the pistol—the one David Copperfield had seized—confidently.
“One,” said Jenny, shortly.
Uriah Heep was not at ease; frantically, he mapped out schemes in his head, and fumed that his neat method of disposal had been spoiled, and grew livid toward Pecksniff, who stood beaming, as though he were lord of all, and he cocked the gun so absently that he didn’t even notice the lack of a bullet in the chamber.
“Two. Three. Four.”
Uriah and Mr. Dickens continued to separate. A master and his creation, going their separate ways. How appropriate, mused Mr. Pecksniff. He pulled out his fine gold pocketwatch, determining that in about three minutes Uriah would lie sprawled across the sward in an inky tangle, and he would be placing a bullet through Mr. Dickens’ skull. He snapped the watch shut with extreme satisfaction.
“Five. Six. Seven.”
A space away from this polite and contained scene, Esther, Miss Betsey, Ada, Richard, and the London party sat, in stiff and solemn apprehension, scarcely drawing breath, counting the minutes as one awaits the chime of a clock at midnight, when Richard gave a cry, as young Charley Bates came sprinting into their midst. “Butchery!” he cried.
“Eight. Nine. Ten.”
Bradley Headstone could scarcely control himself, as he plunged through the underbrush, thorns wounding his face, the very elements of nature dragging him back from his evil course. It was not that he was a monster—on the contrary, what was so terrible was that he felt he was no man, that he was nothing, a cipher to be steered about, brought to humiliation and degradation and shame, that all his work (for he remembered it still) had been for naught, and that he must summon the strength to break the ones who cursed and trod him down, those three figures in the glen.
So it was with the men and the characters, as Jenny counted, and then suddenly, as a red ember will escape from a burning blaze, a decision struck Uriah Heep, who turned suddenly, raised his ghastly spectral hand, and fired his gun at Seth Pecksniff’s face.
Uriah gave a strangled cry of fury, comprehending the trick that had been played upon him, just as the realization struck Pecksniff that he had been a target of violence, and their eyes narrowed and met over the dual epiphany of treachery from the other side. If this pause had not occurred, what happened next would have been impossible: “You fool!” Pecksniff cried, and in this quick moment, he whipped his own pistol from his coat pocket and fired; and Uriah Heep went down, like a broken toy, upon the sward.
Pecksniff wheeled upon Charles Dickens, with the gun upraised; Nicholas Nickleby did his best to shield the author and Jenny ducked for her life, when suddenly, there was a rustling in the brush behind them.
It was Bradley Headstone.
He stood there, a black cloud upon his face, looking like Death itself in his paleness, and surveying the scene, evidently satisfied to find Uriah Heep’s form already quivering in the breeze. He had his own weapon, an old-fashioned revolver, which he had reaped from the villains’ arsenal at the train station, and he seemed to deliberate, as he looked between Pecksniff and Dickens, which of them to gun down first.
Lest you think that Charles Dickens was a ninny who allowed himself to be shielded by a character whose loyalties he had formed, we shall prove you wrong, for despite hurried whispered protests, Dickens shoved Nickleby aside. “Bradley Headstone,” he said in a powerful, menacing voice; the schoolmaster looked up with wide and harried eyes, to the tune of Pecksniff’s nervous breathing; and all else was silent, except for a queer rustling in the brush beyond. Suddenly, as quickly as Headstone himself had appeared, two men sprang from the bushes—why, it was Mr. Guppy, and Sydney Carton!
Bradley Headstone wheeled; but there was no time for him to move because, casting himself at full length, Mr. Guppy sprang upon the schoolmaster’s knees and sent him crumpling to the ground. The gun went off and crashed through the silence of the wood, sending myriad birds escaping into space. Sydney Carton and Nicholas Nickleby darted to shield the author, but it was not he who had fallen at that wayward bullet; it was Seth Pecksniff, who, with a strange and confused face, looked up to the heavens in one last beseeching glance, and collapsed unceremoniously next to Uriah Heep.
“Are you all right, sir?” Nicholas Nickleby asked, his nervous voice barely raised above a whisper, for he and Carton and Dickens had dropped to the ground. Sydney reached out and turned Mr. Dickens about with his hand, and Mr. Dickens looked, confusedly, at the scene before him. Mr. Guppy was sprawled out on the ground and rolled over on his back with a moan, revealing the prostrate form of Bradley Headstone, fallen, with an inky gash upon his brow. Just as he had assassinated Estella.
Mr. Guppy took one look at this carnage and promptly fainted.
At this point, Esther and Ada came rushing into their midst, as did Charley Bates, with Pickwick and Woodcourt and all the rest fast at their heels.
“What on earth happened?” Esther cried, going down on her knees next to Mr. Dickens, who looked at her with a strange air of satisfaction.
“It was all so fast, so very fast, but it was as Sydney Carton said—they bore no violence at our hands. They were their own undoing.”
Mr. Dick jumped up eagerly as soon as they all returned to the London townhouse of Mr. Pickwick, and begged to be told EVERYTHING, but Miss Betsey waved her hand wearily. “No, Dick. We triumphed, to be sure, but through violence, and there is little honor in that.”
Mr. Dick looked extremely chagrined, and decided to change the subject. “Oh, oh, oh yes. Well then. I suppose we can be going home now. But then, how ARE we to go home?” He looked expectantly at Charles Dickens, who looked, admittedly, quite at a loss.
“Well, is the ONLY way you can bring your characters to life through your voice?” Miss Betsey queried at length, scrutinizing the author. “It isn't a very powerful one, after all.”
“I agree,” Jenny gave a sharp nod.
Mr. Dickens gulped back and digested a wave of indignation. “Madam, I am not sure I entirely comprehend you.”
“No need to get your feelings hurt.” Miss Betsey waved her hand again, as if she were dispelling cobwebs of problems. “But your characters would not even exist if you hadn't had a pen to begin with. Correct?”
Mr. Dickens stared at her, a vague understanding and a foggy idea swirling into substance in the back of his mind. “Correct.”
“And so,” Miss Betsey said, triumphantly, “why not write them, to right them?”
“You said that twice,” Mr. Dick finally whispered. Miss Betsey swiveled her head in his direction.
“I said, you said the same thing twice,” the old man repeated, timidly.
“Oh no, Mr. Dick, you misunderstand me. It is called the use of the ‘homophone,’ as our author could tell you, but at any rate, the idea of it is that Mr. Dickens MADE the characters' fate by writing it that way, so why can't he control them with his pen? You understand?”
Mr. Dick nodded, but his eyes grew into wide, concerned saucers. “But what if I were to make him angry, and he wrote me into Bedlam where my brother would have put me in the beginning?!”
Miss Betsey regarded him for a moment with a wave of emotion, and then turned sharply to Mr. Dickens. “You, sir, had better not dare to alter OUR storylines, or else it shall not go well with you,” she growled.
“Oh no, I wouldn't think of it,” Mr. Dickens assured her, “but the question is, will it work?”
We shall make an exceedingly long story short and say that, with a few tests, it did work, and one by one, with many tears, the characters disappeared from that sitting room. It was hard to do some of them. Madame was easy, and Sim was easy, and Mr. Pickwick had a lovely life to return to, but what of Esther, and Woodcourt, and Ada and Richard—and Sydney?
For his part, Mr. Guppy woke from his second faint to find Miss Summerson, illuminated just exactly like an angel, peering down from above him, but there was some curious emotion he could not comprehend in her face. And that Woodcourt was there too, looking so intolerably smug, that Mr. Guppy weakly begged Mr. Dickens to send him away before his wounds got the best of him, for he shouldn’t wish to distress the company further. Mr. Dickens was only too happy to comply.
“I wonder,” said Mr. Dick, at length, as he observed Rick and Ada clasp their hands together trustingly, and vanish.
“What’s that, Dick?” demanded Miss Betsey, shading her ear.
“Oh, I just wondered,” Mr. Dick pursued, “if we shall remember all this, or think it is a dream, or what.”
“Hm. Well Dick, sometimes I think you tend to understand things better than I, so if ever I’m cross with you for mentioning these events and don’t believe you, I pray you’ll forgive me, for some of us (you excepted) can be quite mad sometimes.”
Though I think this speech was rather wasted, for Mr. Dick was holding in his hands a tiny handkerchief, done all over in blue and gold broidery, which had been bestowed upon him by a softened Jenny Wren, who was abashed by her earlier apple-refusing behavior. It seems there may be happy endings after all, as they both vanished through the pen of Charles Dickens.
And yet…One has ordained that there must always be exceptions, and we come, at last, to Sydney Carton, who stood gravely before Mr. Dickens. What a contrast the two were, as they regarded one another, and yet they seemed to share some strange common bond—the bond of creator with his creation.
“Sydney,” Mr. Dickens broke the silence at length, “I cannot do it. I cannot send you back. I don’t know what you know of your future, but you deserve to live such a better life than I had granted you!”
“Mr. Dickens,” Carton finally replied, in a thick voice, “I appreciate your sentiment, your kindliness. The fact that you recognize our emotion, our feelings, our concerns, makes me glad, for I know that no longer are we merely ciphers you can bend to your will or your own satisfaction.
“However, as I said before, what respect can I gain from behaving dishonorably when I am given a choice? Why would I choose a life of ease, of comfort, of idleness and waste—oh! It is the life I’ve already lived these many years!—in exchange for a legacy? I can only thank you for leading me down that road. ’Tis a far better thing—yes, those are my words indeed.” And he could go on no further, but glancing in the direction of the waning light, set his face, and Mr. Dickens wrote through tears and pride and utter despair the destiny of a friend—yes, a friend!—who had taught him so much in so little time.
Charles Dickens stood alone in that deserted building. He had aristocrats and cab drivers and toadies and sons and daughters and countries of people at his mercy, and yet somehow, despite all maths, their impact came to naught. He cherished his books far more. “It is a good thing to have a couple of thousand people, all rigid and frozen together, in the palm of one’s hand.”
The gash on his head still hurt him, and was certainly a topic of conversation upon his return to his dear fashionable elite, who attributed it to a battle wound received from his two-story fall (from a four-foot stage) a few days past, and Mr. Dickens was quite disposed to let them think this. What he wanted most, now, was to return to his latest serial, a murder mystery, and treat his characters well.
But—the pages lie cold, the people frozen, as their author commands no more, but writes his last, as an indirect result of work and sorrow and the doings of Steerforth’s earlier wreckage. Let him now return to his rightful place, so he may meet up with his own author, and dream dreams of his friends between his own pages!
Epilogue (by Gina)On the evening after her father’s funeral, a slight, sweet-faced young woman stood in his study, pausing for a moment in her mournful task of cleaning out his books and papers. She held in her hands a note that she had found tucked away, carefully folded, in a drawer of his desk. Through eyes blurred with tears she read these words, in a handwriting that was not her father’s and yet somehow looked strangely familiar:
Have no regrets about me. I have learned something from my meeting with my creator . . . something I shall not forget, I think.With a perplexed expression, the young woman turned the note over and over in her fingers. There was no one to tell her of the man who had scribbled these words on a scrap of paper while waiting his turn to be sent back to his book, and had left it on the author’s desk for him to find. And even if there had been, could she have believed the tale?
So although she would share the note with family members and friends, and try to discover if they might know what the strange words signified, neither she nor anyone else ever knew.