Read Chapter IV - The Man of the Crowd of Master of His Fate, free online book, by J. Mclaren Cobban, on ReadCentral.com.

In a few days Dr Lefevre found a quiet afternoon, and went and told his mother the story of the Spanish marquis which he had got from Dr Rippon. She hailed the story with delight. Courtney was a fascinating figure to her before: it needed but that to clothe him with a complete romantic heroism; for, of course, she did not doubt that he was the son of the Spanish grandee. She wished to put it to him at once whether he was not, but she was dissuaded by her son from mentioning the matter yet to either Julius or her daughter.

“If he wishes,” said Lefevre, “to keep it secret for some reason, it would be an impertinence to speak about it. We shall, however, have a perfect right to ask him about himself if his attentions to Nora go on.”

Soon afterwards (it was really a fortnight; but in a busy life day melts into day with amazing rapidity), Lefevre was surprised at dinner, and somewhat irritated, by a letter from his mother. She wrote that they had seen nothing of Julius Courtney for three or four days, which was singular, since for the past three or four weeks he had been a daily visitor; latterly he had begun to look fagged and ill, and it was possible he was confined to his room, though, after all, that was scarcely likely, for he had not answered a note of inquiry which she had sent. She begged her son to call at his chambers, the more so as Nora was pining in Julius’s absence to a degree which made her mother very anxious.

With professional suspicion Lefevre told himself that if Julius, with his magnificent health, was fallen ill, it must be for some outrageous reason. But even if he was ill, he need not be unmannerly: he might have let his friends who had been in the habit of seeing him daily know what had come to him. Was it possible, the doctor thought, that he was repenting of having given Nora and her mother so much cause to take his assiduous attentions seriously? He resolved to see Julius at once, if he were at his chambers.

He left his wine unfinished (to the delight of his grave and silent man in black), hastily took his hat from its peg in the hall, and passed out into the street, while his man held the door open. In two minutes he had passed the northern gateway of the Albany, which, as most people know, is just at the southern end of Savile Row. Courtney’s door was speedily opened in response to his peremptory summons.

“Is your master at home, Jenkins?” asked Lefevre of the well-dressed serving-man, who looked distinguished enough to be master himself.

“No, doctor,” answered Jenkins; “he is not.”

“Gone out,” said Lefevre, “to the club or to dinner, I suppose?”

“No, doctor,” repeated Jenkins; “he is not. He went away four days ago.”

“Went away!” exclaimed Lefevre.

“He do sometimes go away by himself, sir. He is so fond of the country, and he likes to be by himself. It is the only thing that do him good.”

“Becomes solitary, does he?” said Lefevre. “Yes; intelligent, impulsive persons like him, that live at high pressure, often have black moods.” That was not quite what he meant, but it was enough for Jenkins.

“Yes, sir,” said Jenkins; “he do sometimes have ’em black. He don’t seem to take no pride in himself, as he do usual don’t seem to care somehow if he look a gentleman or a common man.”

“But your master, Jenkins,” said Lefevre, “can never look a common man.”

“No, sir,” said Jenkins; “he cannot, whatever he do.”

“He is gone into the country, then?” asked Lefevre.

“Yes, sir; I packed his small port-mantew for him four days ago.”

“And where is he gone? He told you, I suppose?”

“No, sir; he do not usual tell me when he is like that.”

It did not seem possible to learn anything from Jenkins, in spite of the apparent intimacy of his conversation, so Lefevre left him, and returned to his own house. He had sat but a little while in his laboratory (where he had been occupying his small intervals of leisure lately in electrical studies and experiments) when, as chance would have it, the last post brought him a note from Dr Rippon. Its purport was curious.

I think,” the letter ran, “you were sufficiently interested in the story I told you some week or two ago about one Hernando Courtney, not to be bored by a note on the same subject. Last night I accompanied my daughter and son-in-law to the Lyceum Theatre. On coming out we had to walk down Wellington Street into the Strand to find our carriage, and in the surging crowd about there I am almost sure I saw the Hernando Courtney whom I believed to be dead. Aut Courtney aut Diabolus. I have never heard satisfactory evidence of his death, and I should very much like to know if he is really still alive and in London. It has occurred to me that, considering the intimacy of yourself and your family with the gentleman who was made known to me at your mother’s house by the name of Courtney, you may have heard by now the rights of the case. If you have any news, I shall be glad to share it with you."

Considering this in association with the absence of Julius, Lefevre found his wits becoming involved in a puzzle. He could not settle to work, so he put on overcoat and hat, and sallied out again. He had no fixed purpose: he only felt the necessity of motion to resolve himself back into his normal calm. The air was keen from the east. May, which had opened with such wanton warmth and seductiveness, turned a cold shoulder on the world as she took herself off. It was long since he had indulged in an evening walk in the lamp-lit streets, so he stepped out eastward against the shrewd wind. Insensibly his attention forsook the busy and anxious present, and slipped back to the days of golden and romantic youth, when the crowded nocturnal streets were full of the mystery of life. He recalled the sensations of those days the sharp doubts of self, the frequent strong desires to drink deep of all that life had to offer, and the painful recoils from temptation, which he felt would ruin, if yielded to, his hope of himself, and his ambition of filling a worthy place among men.

Thus musing, he walked on, taking, without noting it, the most frequented turnings, and soon he found himself in the Strand. It was that middle time of evening, after the theatres and restaurants have sucked in their crowds, when the frequenters of the streets have some reserve in their vivacity, before reckless roisterers have begun to taste the lees of pleasure, and to shout and jostle on the pavements. He was walking on the side of the way next the river, when, near the Adelphi, he became aware of a man before him, wearing a slouch-hat and a greatcoat a man who appeared to choose the densest part of the throng, to prefer to be rubbed against and hustled rather than not. There was something about the man which held Lefevre’s attention and roused his curiosity something in the swing of his gait and the set of his shoulders. The man, too, seemed urged on by a singular haste, which permitted him to be the slowest and easiest of passengers in the thick of the crowd, but carried him swiftly over the less frequented parts of the pavement. The doctor began to wonder if he was a pickpocket, and to look about for the watchful eye of a policeman. He kept close behind him past the door of the Strand Theatre, when the throng became slacker, and the man turned quickly about and returned the way he had come. Then Lefevre had a glimpse of his face, the merest passing glimpse, but it made him pause and ask himself where he had seen it before. A dark, foreign-looking man, with a haggard appeal in his eye: he tried to find the place of such a figure in his memory, but for the time he tried in vain.

Before the doctor recovered himself the man was well past, and disappearing in the throng. He hurried after, determined to overtake him, and to make a full and satisfying perusal of his face and figure. He found that difficult, however, because of the man’s singular style of progression. To maintain an even pace for himself, moreover, Lefevre had to walk very much in the roadway, the dangers of which, from passing cabs and omnibuses, forbade his fixing his attention on the man alone. Yet he was more and more piqued to look him in the face; for the longer he followed him the more he was struck with the oddity of his conduct. He had already noted how he hurried over the empty spaces of pavement and lingered sinuously in the thronged parts; he now remarked further that those who came into immediate contact with him (and they were mostly young people who were to be met with at that season of the night) glanced sharply at him, as if they had experienced some suspicious sensation, and seemed inclined to remonstrate, till they looked in his face.

Lefevre could not arrive at a clear front view till, by Charing Cross Station, the man turned on the kerb to look after a handsome youth who crossed before him, and passed over the road. Then the doctor saw the face in the light of a street-lamp, and the sight sent the blood in a gush from his heart. It was a dark hairless face, terribly blanched and emaciated, as if by years of darkness and prison, with the impress of age and death, but yet with a wistful light in the eyes, and a firm sensuousness about the mouth that betrayed a considerable interest in life. He turned his eyes away an instant, to bring memory and association to bear. When he looked again the man was moving away. At once recognition rushed upon him like a wave of light. The terribly worn, ghastly features resolved themselves into a kind of death-mask of Julius! The wave recoiled and smote him again. Who could the man be, therefore, who was so like Julius, and yet was not Julius? who could he be but Julius’s father, that Hernando Courtney whom Dr Rippon believed he had seen the evening before?

Here was a coil to unravel! Julius’s father the Spanish marquis that was supposed to be dead, but yet wandering in singular fashion about the London streets, clearly not desiring, much less courting, opportunities of being recognised; Julius not caring to speak of his father, apparently ignoring his continued existence, and yet apparently knowing enough of his movements to avoid him when he came to London by suddenly removing “into the country” without leaving his address. What was the meaning of so much mystery? Crime? debt? political intrigue? or, what?

The mysterious Hernando went on his way, by the southern sweep of Trafalgar Square and Cockspur Street, to the Haymarket, and Lefevre followed with attention and curiosity bent on him, but yet with so little thought of playing spy that, if Hernando had gone any other way or had returned along the Strand, he would probably have let him go. And as they went on, the doctor could not but note, as before, how the object of his curiosity lingered wherever there was a press of people, whether on the pavement or on a refuge at a crossing, and hurried on wherever the pavement was sparsely peopled or whenever the persons encountered were at all advanced in years. Indeed, the farther he followed the more was his attention compelled to remark that Hernando sharply avoided contact with the weakly, the old, and the decrepit, and wonder why the young people of either sex whom he brushed against should turn as if the touch of him waked suspicion and a something hostile. Thus they traversed the Haymarket, the Criterion pavement, and, flitting across to the Quadrant, the more popular side of Regent Street, among pushing groups, weary stragglers, and steady pedestrians. Lefevre had a mind to turn aside and go home when he was opposite Vigo Street, but he was drawn on by the hope of observing something that might give him a clue to the Courtney mystery. When Oxford Circus was reached, however, Hernando jumped into a cab and drove rapidly off, and Lefevre returned to his own fireside.

He sat for some time over a cigar and a grog, walking in imagination round and round the mystery, which steadfastly refused to dissolve or to be set aside. His own honour, and perhaps the peace of his mother and sister, were involved in it. He was resolved to ask Julius for an explanation as soon as he could come to speech with him; but yet, in spite of that assurance which he gave himself, he returned to the mystery again and again, and beset and bewildered himself with questions: Why was Julius estranged from his father? What was the secret of the old man’s life which had left such an awful impress on his face? And why was he nightly haunting the busiest pavements of London, in the crowd, but not of it, urged on as by some desire or agony?

He went to bed, but not to sleep. In the quiet and the darkness his imagination ranged without constraint over the whole field of his questionings. He went back upon Dr Rippon’s story of the Spanish marquis, and fixed on the mention of his occult studies. He saw him, in fancy, without wife or son, cut off from the position and activities in his native country which his proper rank would have given him, sequester himself from society altogether, and give himself up to the study of those Arabian sages and alchemists in whom he had delighted when he was a young man. He saw him shun the daylight, and sleep its hours away, and then by night abandon himself like another Cagliostro to strange experiments with alembic and crucible, breathing acrid and poisonous vapours, seeking to extort from Nature her yet undiscovered secrets, the Philosophers Stone, and the Elixir of Life. He saw him turn for a little from his strange and deadly experiments, and venture forth to show his blanched and worn face among the throngs of men; but even there he still pursued his anxious quest of life in the midst of death. He saw him wander up and down, in and out, among the evening crowd, delighting in contact with such of his fellow-creatures as had health and youth, and seeking, seeking he knew not what. From this phantasmagoria he dozed off into the dark plains of sleep; but even there the terribly blanched and emaciated face was with him, bending wistful worn eyes upon him and melting him to pity. And still again the vision of the streets would arise about the face, and the sleeper would be aware of the man to whom the face belonged walking quickly and sinuously, seeking and enjoying contact with the throng, and strangely causing many to resent his touch as if they had been pricked or stung, and yet urged onward in some further quest, an anxious quest it sometimes resolved itself into for Julius, who ever evaded him.

Thus his brain laboured through the dead hours of the night, viewing and reviewing these scenes and figures, to extract a meaning from them; but he was no nearer the heart of the mystery when the morning broke and he was waked by the shrill chatter of the sparrows. The day, however, brought an event which shed a lurid light upon the Courtney difficulty, and revealed a vital connection between facts which Lefevre had not guessed were related.