Read Chapter VIII - Strange Scenes in Curzon Street of Master of His Fate, free online book, by J. Mclaren Cobban, on ReadCentral.com.

It happened, however, that just when all the bays and creeks of Dr Lefevre’s attention were occupied, as by a springtide, with the excellent, the divine fortune that had come to him, when he seemed thus most completely divorced from anxious speculation about Julius Courtney and “M. Dolaro,” his attention was suddenly and in unexpected fashion hurried again to the mystery. The doctor had not seen Julius since the day he had received him in his bedroom it must be admitted he had not sought to see him but he had heard now and then from his mother, in casual notes and postscripts, that Courtney continued to call in Curzon Street.

On a certain evening Lady Lefevre gave a dinner and a reception, designed to introduce Lady Mary to the Lefevre circle. Julius was not at dinner (at which only members of the two families sat down), but he was expected to appear later. It is probable, under the circumstances, that Lefevre would not have remarked the absence of Julius from the dinner-table, had it not been for Nora. He was painfully struck with her appearance and demeanour. She seemed to have lost much of her beautiful vigour and bloom of health, like a flower that has been for some time cut from its stem; and she, who had been wont to be ready and gay of speech, was now completely silent, yet without constraint, and as if wrapt in a dream.

“What has come over Nora?” asked Lefevre of his mother when they had gone to the drawing-room.

“Ah,” said Lady Lefevre, “you have noticed something, have you? Do you find her very changed, then?”

“Very much changed.”

“It’s this attachment of hers to Julius. I want to have a talk with you about it presently. She seems scarcely to live when he is not with her. She sits like that always when he is gone, and appears only to dream and wait, wait with her life as if suspended till he comes back.”

“Has it, indeed, got so far as that?” said her son with concern. “I had better have a word or two with Julius about it.”

Just then Mr Courtney was announced, and there were introductions on this side and on that. He turned to be introduced to Lady Mary, and for the time Lefevre forgot his sister, so engrossed was he with the altered aspect of his friend. He looked worn and weary, like a student when the dawn finds him still at his books. Lady Lefevre expressed that in her question

“Why, Julius, have you taken to hard work? You’re not looking well, and we have not seen you for days.”

A flush rose to tinge his cheek, but it sank as soon as it appeared.

“I have been out of sorts,” said he; “that is all. And you have not seen me because I have bought a yacht and have been trying it on the river.”

“A yacht!” exclaimed Lefevre. “I did not know you cared for the water.”

You know me,” laughed Julius in his own manner, “and not know that I care for everything!” So saying, he laid his hand on Lefevre’s arm. The act was not remarkable, but its result was, for Lefevre felt it as if it were a blow, and stood astonished at it.

During this interchange of words Lefevre (with Lady Mary) had been moving with Julius, as he drew off across the room to greet Nora, and the doctor could not help observing how the attention of all the company was bent on his friend. Before his entrance all had been chatting or laughing easily with their neighbours; now they seemed as constrained and belittled as is a crowd of courtiers when a royal personage appears in their midst. In truth, Julius at all times had a grace, an ease, and a distinction of manner not unworthy of a prince; but on this occasion he had an added something, an indefinable attraction which strangely held the attention. Lefevre, therefore, was scarcely surprised (though, perhaps, a trifle disappointed, considering that he was a lover) to note that Lady Mary was regarding Julius with a silent, wide-eyed fascination. They convoyed Julius to Nora, and then withdrew, leaving them together.

There were several fresh arrivals and new introductions to Lady Mary. These, Lefevre observed, she went through half-absently, still turning her eyes on Julius in the intervals with open and intense interest.

“Well,” said Lefevre at length, smiling in spite of a twinge of jealousy, “what do you think, now you have seen him, of the fascinating Julius?”

She gave him no answering smile, but replied as if she painfully withdrew herself from abstraction, “I I don’t know. He is very interesting and very strange. I I can’t make him out. I don’t know.”

Then Lefevre turned his eyes on Julius, and became aware of something strained in the relations of his sister and his friend. He could not forbear to look, and as he continued looking he instinctively felt that a passionate scene was being silently enacted between them. They sat markedly apart. Nora’s bosom heaved with suppressed emotion, and her look, when raised to Julius, plied him with appeal or reproach Lefevre could not determine which. The doctors interest almost drew him over to them, when Lady Lefevre appeared and said to Julius

“Do go to the piano, Julius, and wake us up.”

Nora put out her hand with a gesture which plainly meant, “Don’t!... Don’t leave me!”

But Julius rose, and as he turned (the doctor noted) he bent an inscrutable look of pain on Nora. He sat down at the piano and struck a wild, sad chord. Instantly it became as if the people in the room were the instrument upon which he played, as if the throbbing human hearts around him were directly connected by invisible strings with the ivory keys that pulsed beneath his fingers. What was the music he played no one knew, no one cared, no one inquired: each individual person was held and played upon, and was allowed no pause for reflection or criticism. The music carried all away as on the flood of time, showing them, on one hand, sunshine and beauty and joy, and all the pride of life; and on the other, darkness and cruelty, despair, and defiance, and death. It might have been, on the one hand, the music with which Orpheus tamed the beasts; and on the other, that which AEschylus arranged to accompany the last act of his tragedy of “Prometheus Bound.” There was, however, no clear distinction between the joyous airs and the sombre: all were wrought and mingled into an exciting and bewildering atmosphere of melody, which thrilled the heart and maddened the brain. But as the music continued, its joyous strains died out; the instrument cried aloud in horror and pain, as if the vulture of Prometheus were tearing at its vitals; darkness seemed to descend upon the room a darkness alive with the sighs and groans, the disillusions and tears, of lost souls. The men sat transfixed with agony and dread, the women were caught in the wild clutches of hysteria, and Courtney himself was as if possessed with a frenzy: his features were rigid, his eyes dilated, and his hair rose and clung in wavy locks, so that he seemed a very Gorgon’s head. The only person apparently unmoved was old Dr Rippon, whose pale, gaunt form rose in the background, sinister and calm as Death!

The situation was at its height, when a black cat (a pet of Miss Lefevre’s) suddenly leaped on the top of the piano with a canary in its mouth, and in the presence of them all, laid its captive before Julius Courtney. The music ceased with a dissonant crash. With a cry Julius rose and laid his hand on the cat’s neck: to the general amazement the cat lay down limp and senseless, and the little golden bird fluttered away. Then the sobs of the women, hitherto controlled, broke out, and the murmurs of the men.

“O Julius! Julius! what have you done?” cried Nora, sweeping up to him in an ecstasy of emotion.

He caught her in his arms, when with a strange cry a strained kind of laugh with a hysterical catch in it she sank fainting on his breast. With a sharp exclamation of pain and fear he bore her swiftly from the room (he was near the door) and into a little conservatory that opened upon the staircase, casting his eyes upon Lefevre as he went, and saying, “Come! come quick!” Lefevre then woke to the fact that he had been fixedly regarding this last strange scene, while Lady Mary clung trembling to his arm. He hurried out after Julius, followed by Lady Mary and his mother.

“Take her!” cried Julius, standing away from Nora, and looking white and terror-stricken. “Restore her! Oh, I must not! I dare not touch her!”

With nimble accustomed fingers Lady Mary undid Nora’s dress, while the doctor applied the remedies usual in hysterical fainting. Nora opened her eyes and fixed them upon Julius.

“O Julius, Julius!” she cried. “Do not leave me! Come near me! Oh!... I think I am going to die!”

“My love! my life! my soul!” said Julius, stretching out his hands to her, but approaching no nearer. “I cannot I must not touch you! No, no! I dare not!”

“O Julius!” said she. “Are you afraid of me? How can I harm you?”

“Nora, my life! I am afraid of myself! You would not harm me, but I would harm you! Ah, I know it now only too well!”

Then, as she closed her eyes again, she said, “I had better die!”

“No, you must not die!” he exclaimed. “Your time is not yet! Yes, you will live! live! But I must be cut off though not for ever from the sweetest and dearest, the noblest and purest of all God’s creatures!”

In the meantime Lefevre had been examining his sister with closer scrutiny. He raised her eyelid and looked at her eye; he pricked her on the arm and wrist; and then he turned to Julius.

“Julius,” said he, “what does this mean?”

“It means,” answered Julius, covering his face with his hands, “that I am of all living things the most accurst!” Then with a cry of horror and anguish he fled from the room and down the stairs.

Lady Lefevre followed him in a flutter of fear. Presently she returned, and said, in answer to a look from her son, “He snatched his hat and coat, and was gone before I came up with him.”

Without a word Lefevre set himself to recover his sister, and in half an hour she was well enough to walk with Lady Mary’s assistance to bed.

The guests, meanwhile, had departed, all but two or three intimates; and in less than an hour Dr Lefevre was returning home in the Fane carriage. Lord Rivercourt and he talked of the strange events of the evening, while Lady Mary leaned back and half-absently listened. They were proceeding thus along Piccadilly, when she suddenly caught the doctors arm and exclaimed

“Oh! Look! The very man I met in the Park! I am sure of it! I can never forget the face!”

Lefevre, alert on the instant, looked to recognise Hernando Courtney, the Man of the Crowd: he saw only the back of a person in a loose cape and a slouch hat turning in at the gateway of the Albany courtyard. In flashes of reflection these questions arose: Who could he be but Hernando Courtney? and where could he be going but to Julius’s chambers? Julius, therefore (whose own conduct had been that night so extraordinary), must be familiar with his whole mysterious course, and consequently with the peril he was in. Before Lefevre could out of his perplexity snatch a resolution, Lord Rivercourt had pulled the cord to stop the coachman. The coachman, however, having received orders to drive home, was driving at a goodly pace, and it was only on a second summons through the cord that he slackened speed, and obeyed his master’s direction to “draw up by the kerb.”

“I’ll get out,” said Lefevre, “and look after him. You’d better get Mary home; she’s not very strong yet, and she has been upset to-night.”

He put himself thus forward for another reason besides, on the impulse of his friendship for Julius, without considering whether in the event of an arrest and an exposure, he could do anything to shield Julius from shame and pain.

He got out, saying his adieus, and the carriage drove on. He found himself well past the Albany. He hurried back, nerved by the desire to encounter Julius’s visitor, and at the same time by the hope that he would not. In his heart was a turmoil of feeling, to the surface of which continued to rise pity for Julius. The events of the evening had forced him to the conclusion that Julius possessed the same singular, magnetic, baleful influence on men and women as his putative father Hernando; but Julius’s burst of agony, when Nora lay overcome, had declared to him that till then he had scarcely been aware of the destructive side of his power. All resentment, therefore, all sense of offence and suspicion which had lately begun to arise in his mind, was swallowed up in pity for his afflicted friend. His chief desire, now that he seemed reduced to the level of suffering humanity, was to give him help and counsel.

Thus he entered the Albany, and passed the porter. The lamps in the flagged passage were little better than luminous shadows in the darkness, and the hollow silence re-echoed the sound of his hurried steps. No one was to be seen or heard in front of him. He came to the letter which marked Julius’s abode. He looked into the gloomy doorway, and resolved he would see and speak to Julius in any case. He passed into the gloom and knocked at Julius’s door. After a pause the door was opened by Jenkins. Lefevre could not well make out the expression of the serving-man’s face, but he was satisfied that his voice was shaken as by a recent shock.

“I wish to see Mr Courtney,” said Lefevre, in the half hope that Jenkins would say, “Which Mr Courtney?”

“Not at home, sir,” said Jenkins in his flurried voice, and prepared to shut the door.

“Not at home, Jenkins? You don’t mean that!”

“Oh, it’s you, Dr Lefevre, sir. Mr Courtney is not at home, but perhaps he will see you, sir! I hope he will; for he don’t seem to me at all well.”

“But if he is engaged, Jenkins ?”

“Oh, sir, you know what ‘not-at-home’ means,” answered Jenkins. “It means anything or nothing. Will you step into the drawing-room, sir, while I inquire? Mr Courtney is in his study.”

“Thank you, Jenkins,” said the doctor; “I’ll wait where I am.”

Jenkins returned with deep concern on his face. “Mr Courtney’s compliments, sir,” said he, “and he is very sorry he cannot see you to-night. It is a pity, sir,” he added, in a burst of confidence, “for he don’t seem well. He’s a-settin’ there with the lamp turned down, and his face in his hands.”

“Is he alone, then?” asked the doctor.

“Oh yes, sir,” answered Jenkins, in manifest surprise.

“Has nobody been to see him since he came in?”

“No, sir, nobody,” said Jenkins, in wider surprise than before.

It appeared to Lefevre that his friend must be sitting alone with the terrible discovery he had that night made of himself. His heart, therefore, urged him to go in and take him by the hand, and give what help and comfort he could.

“I think,” said he to Jenkins, “I’ll try and have a word with him.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jenkins, and led the way to the study. He tapped at the door, and then turned the handle; but the door remained closed.

“Who is there?” asked a weary voice within, which scarce sounded like the voice of Julius.

“I Lefevre,” said the doctor, putting Jenkins aside. “May not I come in? I want a friendly word with you.”

“Forgive me, Lefevre,” said the voice, “that I do not let you in. I am very busy at present.”

“You are alone,” said Lefevre, “are you not?”

“Alone,” said Julius; “yes, all alone!” There was a melting note of sadness in the words which went to the doctor’s heart.

“My dear Julius,” said he, “I think I know what’s troubling you. Don’t you think a talk with me might help you?”

“You are very good, Lefevre.” (That was an unusual form of speech to come from Julius.) “I shall come to your house in a few minutes, if you will allow me.”

“Do,” answered Lefevre, for the moment completely satisfied. “Do!” And he turned away.

But when Jenkins had closed the outer door upon him, doubts arose. Ought he not to have insisted on seeing whether Julius was in truth alone in the study? And why could they not have had their talk there as well as in Savile Row? These doubts, however, he thrust down with the promise to himself that, if Julius did not come to him within half an hour, he would return to him. Yet he had not gone many steps before an unworthy suspicion shot up and arrested him: Suppose Julius had got rid of him to have the opportunity of sending a mysterious companion away unseen? But Jenkins had said he had let no one in, and it was shameful to suspect both master and man of lying. Yet Lady Mary Fane had distinctly recognised the man who passed into the Albany courtyard: had he merely passed through on his unceasing pursuit of something unknown? or were father and son somehow aware of each other? Between this and that his mind became a jumble of the wildest conjectures. He imagined many things, but never conceived that which soon showed itself to be the fact.