Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015
Jack Jasper is the choirmaster of the cathedral at Cloisterham. Young as he is, he is also the guardian of his orphan nephew, Edwin Drood, who is only a few years Jasper’s junior. Edwin Drood is an apprentice engineer who expects one day to become a partner in the firm that employs him, for his father had been one of the owners. Drood’s profession takes him all over the world, but he comes back at every opportunity to Cloisterham to see his uncle and his fiancé.
Drood’s fiancé, Rosa Bud, is attending a finishing school in Cloisterham. She has been there for several years, for both her parents are dead. The fathers of the two young people had been extremely close friends, and both had requested in their will that their two children become engaged and, at the proper time, married. As the years passed, Edwin and Rosa realized that they were not in love and had no desire to marry. During Rosa’s last year at the finishing school, they agree to remain friends but to put aside all ideas of marriage. No one except Rosa realizes that Jasper is in love with her. Rosa is very much afraid of Jasper, so much so that she dares not tell anyone of Jasper’s infatuation, but she almost gives her secret away when she ceases taking music lessons from him.
During one of Drood’s visits to Cloisterham, a young English couple arrives there from Ceylon, where they had been orphaned. The young woman, Helena Landless, who is Rosa Bud’s age, enters the finishing school, and the young man, who is the age of Edwin Drood, begins studies under one of the minor officials at the cathedral, Mr. Crisparkle. Crisparkle, a friend of Jasper and Drood, introduces his charge, Neville Landless, to Jasper and Edwin, in the hope that they will all become fast friends.
As it turns out, however, young Landless was immediately smitten with Rosa and becomes irritated by Drood’s casual attitude toward her. The very first evening the three men spend together in Jasper’s lodgings, the two quarrel; Jasper claims that if he had not interceded, Landless would have killed Drood.
Rosa and Helena become close friends, and Rosa confesses to Helena that she is in love with Helena’s brother. Jasper soon deduces this fact for himself and becomes exceedingly jealous. Jasper, who is addicted to opium, is extremely peculiar and mysterious at times. He becomes acquainted with Durdles, a stonemason, who takes him about the cathedral and points out the various old tombs under the ancient edifice. On one of the visits, which took place in the dead of night, Durdles became very drunk. While he was asleep, Jasper took the key to an underground tomb from Durdles’s pocket. What he did with it later on remains a mystery.
During the following Christmas season, Mr. Crisparkle tries to patch up the quarrel between Landless and Drood. He proposes that they meet together at Jasper’s lodgings and, after mutual apologies, have a congenial evening together. The two young men agree. On Christmas morning, however, Drood is reported missing by his uncle, with whom the nephew is staying. Jasper says that late the night before the two young men had walked out of his lodgings and turned toward the river. No one has seen them after that. When Mr. Crisparkle appears, he reports that young Landless had left earlier that morning on a solitary walking trip. A search party sets out after him and brings him back to Cloisterham. Young Landless is unable to convince anyone of his innocence, although there...
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is not enough evidence to convict him of any crime. Indeed, the body of Drood is not found, although Mr. Crisparkle discovers his watch and tiepin in the river.
At first, only Rosa and Helena are convinced of Landless’s innocence. They soon win Mr. Crisparkle over to their side, and he helps Landless to leave Cloisterham for a refuge in London. Jasper vows that he will find evidence to incriminate the murderer. He also intimates that he has some evidence that Landless is the guilty person. Publicly, however, there is no evidence that Drood has actually been killed.
After a few months, Jasper appears at the school and requests an interview with Rosa. As they walk in the school gardens, Jasper tells her of his love for her and warns her that he has sufficient evidence to send Landless to the gallows. He also implies that he will use his knowledge unless Rosa returns his love. After he leaves, Rosa leaves, too, for London, where she seeks the protection of her guardian, Mr. Grewgious, an odd man who loves her because he had been in love with her mother years before. Mr. Grewgious arranges for Rosa to remain in safe lodgings in London. Mr. Crisparkle arrives the next day and begins to lay plans to extricate Landless and Rosa from their troubles.
One day, a white-haired stranger arrives in Cloisterham. His name is Datchery, and he says he is looking for quiet lodgings where he can end his days in comfort and peace. Looking for a place of residence that will reflect the quaintness of the past, he takes a room across from Jasper’s home in the old postern gate. Passersby see him sitting by the hour behind his open door. Every time he hears a remark about Jasper, he makes a chalk mark, some long, some short, inside his closet door.
A short time later, Jasper begins to be followed, almost haunted, by a haggard old woman from whom he has in the past bought opium. She apparently learned something about the choirmaster and suspects a great deal more. Datchery notes her interest in Jasper and follows her to a cheap hotel. The next morning, he and the strange woman attend a service in the cathedral. When the woman tells him that she knows Jasper, old Datchery returns home and adds another chalk mark to those behind his closet door.