I first became acquainted with Bernard Wroxley when we were students at Oxford in the early 1860s. We weren’t intimates for reasons both practical and social: he was studying Law and I Medicine, I was the son of a North Country rector, he a junior member of the aristocracy (his uncle was the Third Earl of Bridehampton), which meant that we mixed in very different societies. We knew each other well enough, however, to stop and converse whenever our paths crossed in the porter’s lodge or the High Street. Wroxley was dark-haired and stocky with extravagant side whiskers and what people used to call ‘laughing eyes’. He cut something of a Byronic figure in college; he was a first-class sportsman who won blues for racquets and rugby and was reputed to have swum the Thames from Oxford to Westminster Bridge for a guinea wager. He was a feared opponent in debates at the Union and a keen amateur actor – he appeared in several plays got up by the university dramatic society and his performances were always much admired. I saw him play the part of Mercutio in a torch-lit production of Romeo and Juliet in the college gardens and thought he quite outshone a rather dull Romeo. It was obvious to me even then that Wroxley was a man marked out for great things in his career at the Bar.
Unlike many of my fellows, the fires of ambition did not burn strongly within me. I’m unsure whether this was due to my diffident temperament or an awareness of my modest beginnings – or whether the latter had in fact shaped the former. Whatever the reason, I wasn’t tempted by any of the opportunities available to me as a newly-qualified medical man to make my fortune in some far-flung corner of the British Empire. Instead, on graduation in 1865, I took up a position as a general practitioner in a clinic in Bayswater, and three years later became a partner in a large medical practice in Knightsbridge. In 1869 I married Jocelyn Bright, a trustee of the local cottage hospital whose company, I’d gradually come to realize, I couldn’t bear to be without. We bought a three-bedroomed villa in South Kensington from whence I walked to work on good days and took a cab on inclement ones. Our first child, Henry, was born the following year, shortly after I turned thirty, and was quickly followed by George and Alfred. The revolutionary orators who ranted with such fervour on their soap boxes in Hyde Park would no doubt have condemned me as a ‘petit bourgeois’ for the life I’d chosen, but its comforts and routines suited me extremely well.
Wroxley, meanwhile, had joined a prominent set of chambers specializing in criminal law and was made a Queen’s Counsel after only six years at the Bar. He married Lydia Butler-Schloss, whose mother, Lady Emilia, had been one of Princess Alice’s ladies-in-waiting. I became quite used to seeing Wroxley’s name in The Times and in 1873 when he defended Mary Collins, he was rarely out of it. Mary Collins was a housemaid accused of murdering her elderly mistress then dismembering her body and boiling it in the kitchen copper. It seemed as if people spoke of nothing else that summer and crowds gathered on Barnes bridge every Sunday to see the spot where the suitcase containing the mistress’s grisly remains had washed up (Collins was eventually convicted after a three week trial and hanged at Wandsworth prison). I used to bump into Wroxley from time to time at the Oxford and Cambridge club and we always greeted each other warmly and enjoyed a brief conversation within the well-delineated parameters of our acquaintance as we had used to do.
One Saturday in March 1875 I was tasked by the other partners to attend an auction of surgical equipment being held near Leicester Square as we were in the process of adding two new consulting rooms to our practice. When the business was concluded, I decided to drop into the Oxford and Cambridge Club before I went home. In truth I was looking forward to an hour’s peace in the club lounge before returning to a house in which three blood-thirsty pirates (we’d recently been to see Blackbeard, the Sea Devil) were sure to make me walk the plank a great many times before their nanny whisked them up to bed.
I’d taken a newspaper from the rack and was about to sit down when I noticed Wroxley seated in an armchair in the far corner by the window. I hadn’t seen him for several months and went over, waving as I did, but he didn’t seem to see me and I imagined him deep in thought about one of his forthcoming cases. As I drew closer, I fancied I could detect a change in him; he seemed thinner and his face had lost its usual ruddy complexion. When he saw me, however, he smiled and shook my hand with enthusiasm and offered me the chair beside him. As we rehearsed the usual civilities, I could tell that he was preoccupied, and once or twice I noticed his eyes dart to a corner of the room in a most disconcerting fashion. When the waiter had brought my tea and we’d exhausted family, business, and mutual acquaintances, I couldn’t stop the doctor in me from enquiring –
‘You seem, if you don’t mind my saying so, Bernard, a little out of sorts. I trust you’re keeping well?’
Rather than taking offence at my question, he seemed grateful for the opportunity to discuss what was troubling him.
‘Actually, I’ve been having problems with my damned eyes,’ he said.
‘Problems? What kind of problems?’
‘Well, it’s very odd.’ He pursed his lips, trying to think how best to explain himself. ‘I keep seeing something out of the corner of my eye.’ As he spoke his hand went to his temple as if to forestall this eventuality.
‘That is odd,’ I said.
‘I first noticed it a month or so ago when I was working in my rooms at chambers. I was in the middle of writing a long opinion when I caught sight of a movement in the periphery of my vision. I looked round thinking my clerk had come into the room, but there was no one there. It happened three or four more times that day and each time I turned to look thinking that a carriage had driven into the courtyard or a bird had alighted on the window ledge, but each time there was nothing.’
‘Since then I’ve suffered the same annoyance several times a day. Of late, however, it seems to be growing worse – by which I mean more frequent.’
‘What has your physician said?’
‘He thought at first I might have a tiny splinter in the fluid of my eye, but after examining me for a considerable time, was unable to detect anything. His final determination was eye strain brought on by too much reading…’
Wroxley looked forlornly out of the window into the side street off Pall Mall where a horse-drawn omnibus and a brewer’s dray were edging past each other with great caution, the dray’s enormous shire greys dwarfing the omnibus’s bays.
‘It is true that I’m having to read a great deal at the moment…the trial of the anarchists accused of plotting to kill the Home Secretary starts next month…there are five defendants and I’m having to work my way through several thousand pages of evidence…’ He said this in the tone of a man trying to persuade himself of a proposition in which he doesn’t in fact believe.
‘Perhaps I can help,’ I said. ‘I know an excellent eye specialist by the name of Robert Carter. He works at the Royal South London Ophthalmic Hospital in Southwark and has dedicated himself solely to eyes since ’59. It might be worth your while visiting him for a second opinion. It could be the early signs of glaucoma…’
I instantly regretted making reference to such a serious condition as I didn’t want to cause any unnecessary alarm, but Wroxley seemed only anxious to find the cause of his ailment. Opening his leather case with great alacrity, he produced a fountain pen and paper on which I proceeded to write down Carter’s address.
I was extremely busy over the following three months. The retirement of one of the partners from the medical clinic uncovered some serious financial irregularities; there was a series of difficult partners’ meetings in which we attempted to negotiate a solution to the problem, but in the end we had to threaten to go to the police before the partner in question agreed to repay the sums outstanding. Much time was then taken up advertising for a new partner then interviewing the prospective candidates and it was several weeks before we found an applicant of whom we all approved.
It wasn’t until June that I saw Wroxley again. I’d popped into the Oxford and Cambridge club to see if the library had a copy of The Law and the Lady, the latest Wilkie Collins three-decker, and was told it was on order but yet to arrive. I was descending the staircase from the library when I passed Wroxley. He was standing before the Richard Westall painting which shows Caesar’s ghost appearing to Brutus on the eve of the battle of Philippi. He was so absorbed in his sombre contemplation of the painting that I had to say his name several times before he turned around. I asked him if he cared to join me for afternoon tea, and, rather distractedly, as if his mind were still on the painting, he accepted. We made our way to the lounge and sat in the same seats by the window where we’d last conversed.
‘Did you see Carter?’ I asked as soon as we’d ordered our tea.
‘Yes, I saw him.’
‘He’s a remarkable man. Truly dedicated. Unfortunately, however, he was unable to help me very much. He performed a great many tests, but couldn’t find anything amiss. He, too, diagnosed eye strain.’
I was disappointed and I won’t deny that mixed with my disappointment was a certain wounded vanity. I think I’d been hoping, like the mouse in Aesop’s fable, to do the lion a great service for which he’d be eternally gratefully.
‘He advised me to avoid reading by gaslight,’ Wroxley went on, ‘which, obviously, in my profession is all but impossible. He gave me some drops to use four times a day which I’ve been doing now for some two months. Unfortunately, they make my eyes rather sore, but I’ll persist in using them a little longer.’
I noticed now that his eyes were bloodshot and lustreless as if he had a bad cold.
‘Has there really been no improvement whatsoever?’
His faced seemed to darken and his mouth set in a stern grimace.
‘I’m afraid it’s getting worse,’ he said. He stared morosely at the carpet, then looked up suddenly like a man who’s just noticed that the spit of land on which he’s walking has been cut off by the tide. There was genuine terror in his eyes.
‘I – I can scarcely read a page now without catching sight of something out of the corner of my eye. And it’s no longer just when I’m reading, it happens when I’m walking through the city, when I’m cross-examining witnesses in court, when I’m playing racquets…It’s become all but impossible to concentrate on anything. I’m constantly distracted by a shadow obtruding on my vision and I can’t help but turn to look. Only yesterday when I was summing up before Justice McKinley he interrupted my speech to ask if I was quite well and I had to confess to an eye complaint that I hoped would be quickly resolved. People are beginning to give me strange looks, they see me suddenly turn my head as if my name had been called, but when they follow my eyes they see nothing…’
I was at a loss to know what to say. There was no better eye doctor in all of London than Robert Carter. If he could find nothing…
Wroxley sat brooding, his fingers drumming restlessly on the arm of his chair and I began to think he was considering whether to confide further in me.
‘And there’s something else,’ he said at last. ‘Something I’ve told no one else, not even Lydia…’
At that moment the waiter arrived with our tea and Wroxley waited until the man was quite out of hearing before he continued.
‘Something else?’ I prompted him.
‘When it first began I glimpsed a vague shape, a black entity, nothing more, something minuscule, spidery, a vague doodle that a child might make with a pencil.’
I could see his masseter working furiously in his jaw and knew it was costing him a great deal to articulate what was on his mind.
‘However, it comes so often now that I have begun to form a more exact picture of the – shape. Don’t mistake me, it’s still unclear, blurred, like the imperfections on a photographic plate, and yet – and yet – I am more and more convinced that what I glimpse is the figure of a man…’
At these words I felt as if a cold hand had been lain on the back of my neck and I coughed noisily in an attempt to hide my discomfort.
‘What does this – “man” – look like?’
‘You have to understand, I glimpse it for only an infinitesimal fraction of a second. Rather than “see” him, I have an impression, as it were, the ghostly impression that is left on my retina. But, to answer your question, I seem to see a face of extraordinary pallor with sunken cheeks and protuberant eyes.’
I felt instinctively that it was important to dissuade him from this fantasy before it could take firm root in his mind.
‘That’s preposterous, Wroxley. Quite ridiculous. You admit that the image is unclear and no doubt since you’ve been applying these drops it has become even less well defined. This is nothing more than a trompe l’oeil as the French would say; we all know the tricks our eyes can play on us – the way we see a face in the pattern of a wallpaper or mistake a post at the side of the road for a person. If Robert Carter says it’s eye strain, Bernard, then eye strain is what it is. It’s obvious to me that you’re simply overworked. What you need is a holiday. A good long period of rest.’
I was pleased to see that Wroxley’s face had brightened at my words. ‘I’m sure you’re right. Lydia and I intend to take a vacation in August when the higher courts close. I hope to take a great deal of exercise and do very little reading.’ He smiled and there was, albeit briefly, a return of that cavalier sparkle to his eyes.
I left Wroxley in much better spirits than I’d found him and congratulated myself that the mouse had at least been able to render the lion this small service.
That summer my wife gave birth to our fourth child, a daughter whom we named Emily. The baby arrived six weeks before time, however, and was sickly, her skin was jaundiced and she ran a high fever. Jocelyn and I kept anxious vigil over the newborn but at the same time tried to prepare ourselves for the worst. After five gruelling days the fever unexpectedly broke, a healthy pink chased away the cadaverous yellow from the child’s cheeks and we knew a merciful God had answered our prayers. I began to look forward to living in a household in which the female contingent was now doubled, hopeful that this would have a civilizing effect on the increasingly boisterous activities of Henry, George and Alfred.
An unusually warm summer gave way to a gloomy September. Day after day there were leaden skies and heavy rain; an unpleasant dampness seemed to pervade everything – the clothes one wore, the food one ate, the sheets one slept in. To add to the gloom, the newspapers were full of reports of the uprisings against the Turks in Herzegovina. Disraeli’s staunch support of the Ottoman Empire – despite rumours of their brutal treatment of the Christian insurrectionists – caused great disquiet among my circle. Jocelyn, although still convalescent after the birth, felt it her moral and religious duty to help, and involved herself in various fund-raising activities.
One morning I was making my way down the Strand after visiting a patient in Fleet Street when the heavens opened again. I trudged on under my umbrella through puddles that hadn’t had time to dry since the last downpour, trying to avoid the spray from passing carriage wheels. It had eased a little by the time I reached the Royal Courts of Justice, but not enough to put up my umbrella. I saw a group of barristers in wig and gown sheltering at the top of the steps and among their number I recognized Wroxley. He stood apart from the others, a troubled expression on his face, and seemed unaware that the spot where he had chosen to stand still left him exposed to the rain. Although I didn’t want to credit it, his lips were working rapidly as if he were holding an animated conversation with himself. I called his name and he looked around as if roused from a heavy slumber. On coming closer, I saw that the skin around his eyes was red and sore-looking; the effect was to age him considerably. I invited him to join me for a drink in one of the nearby taverns, and he followed me like a man who cared little what he did or where he went.
The tavern was thick with pipe smoke and extremely crowded, but we managed to find a table in the saloon bar. I ordered a pint of porter for myself from the potboy and Wroxley asked for a sweet Madeira wine. When his drink came I noticed his hand trembled as he raised the glass to his lips. He did not ask about my work or family, but stared vacantly past me, a haunted look in his eyes.
‘Has there has been any improvement in your condition since last we met?’
I asked the question although the answer was only too obvious.
He closed his eyes and gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
‘Your vacation didn’t help?’
He let his head rest against the high-backed settle and looked at me with an expression I was unable to read.
‘Lydia and I went to a fishing village on the Devon coast, famous for smugglers and shipwrecks. The weather was perfect. We walked along the beach each day, we bathed, we took excursions on the steamer around the bay…but I was never free of my affliction. In fact the bright light and the unbroken expanse of blue sky seemed to make it worse. I frequently saw the ghostly figure in the periphery of my vision and it soured what would otherwise have been an exquisite happiness. I’m afraid I was prey to fits of melancholy and bad temper that shame me now and I own that I behaved quite unconscionably to my wife. But in mitigation I was at my wits’ end and more than once I was tempted to throw myself into the sea and have done with this torture.’
I almost interjected at this confession, but let him go on with his story.
‘One afternoon, Lydia being indisposed, I chose to walk into the countryside behind the coast in the hope that vigorous exercise might put me in a better humour. I was soon lost in a maze of high-hedged lanes that are a common feature in those parts. In a field on the edge of a village, I came across a fair, and having nothing better to do, I paid a ragamuffin my ha’penny and passed through the stile. There were the usual attractions: demonstrations of local crafts – basketry and weaving and such like – roundabouts and swingboats, a desultory tug-of-war which neither side seemed particularly concerned to win. I drank a cup of locally brewed mead, threw some pennies to the beggar with the dancing bear, and, having passed an idle hour, was retracing my steps back to the stile when I saw a garishly painted gypsy caravan. On a board outside it there was a sign on which “Madame Zora” for the sum of three pennies, offered to tell my fortune.’
He looked at me with a mixture of embarrassment and defiance.
‘I don’t know what came over me – perhaps when science fails us, all we have left is superstition – but on an impulse I mounted the steps, drew aside the heavy curtain and stepped from bright day into deepest gloom. At a table, lit by one flickering candle, sat an old woman of indescribable ugliness in a headscarf and shawl. I noticed with a shiver of repulsion that her eyes were covered with a milky film, and concluded from her confused reaction when I spoke that she was quite blind. Without waiting for an invitation I sat down opposite her and explained all I had suffered these last several months. I told her about the spectral shape I repeatedly glimpsed out of the corner of my eye and how I had, through painful familiarity with it, begun to discern the image of a pallid-faced man. I asked her if she could tell me what this meant and whether I’d ever be rid of this affliction.’
‘She had not uttered a single word while I spoke but turned her head from side to side as if trying to find me with her blind eyes. I was beginning to wonder whether the old woman was in her right mind when she slowly stretched out her hand towards me. Not without some trepidation I placed my right hand in hers. She gripped it with surprising strength, and pulling it sharply to her, began to run her arthritic fingers back and forth across my palm. Her white irises no longer seemed to gaze vaguely past me now but bored directly into my eyes. She was silent for a long time then gave a sharp intake of breath which made me start in my seat.’
‘I will never forget the sound of her voice when she finally spoke. It was breathless, rasping, as if her windpipe had been sliced in two. ‘“The man you see,’ she said, ‘is Death. He is your death.”’
‘Outrageous!’ I exclaimed, unable to keep silent any longer. ‘How could you expose yourself to such dangerous nonsense!’
He raised his hand to indicate that he had more to relate.
‘At that moment a middle-aged woman entered the caravan and, on seeing the old crone seated with me at the table, flew into a furious rage. She seized her by the arm, and dragging her to the back of the caravan, pulled aside a curtain and forced her to sit on a small truckle bed with an admonition to stay there and remain silent if she knew what was good for her.’
‘Closing the curtain she then turned her attentions to me, her countenance all simpering politeness and civility. She explained that the old woman was her grandmother who’d read palms for many years but had retired long ago and was blind and hopelessly senile now. Madame Zora now sat down and, taking my hand, told me all the nonsense I might have expected to hear – in short, how I would find fame, untold wealth, and undying love, but I hardly listened. I could think only of what the blind old woman had said to me. I paid the charlatan her money and stumbling back out into the daylight wandered through the fair in a daze. I stopped at the stall where I’d purchased the mead, and asked the proprietor what he knew about the gypsies. He dismissed Madame Zora with a roll of his eyes, but when I mentioned the grandmother his expression changed. “The grandmother’s something different altogether,” he said. “She has the gift all right. She’s a true necromancer. She can see things with her blind eyes as none of us sighted folk can.”’
Wroxley drained his wine and stared down at his hands folded on the table before him. ‘I think he was right. I believe the old crone does have the gift. I think she saw something that you and I aren’t capable of seeing.’ A look of the utmost despair came over his face. ‘I’m convinced the figure I see is in some way a harbinger of my death.’
‘That’s nonsense, Bernard. This is merely an unhappy coincidence. You must stop torturing yourself in this way.’
He shook his head slowly. ‘“Ask for me tomorrow,”’ he said, “‘and you shall find me a grave man.”’
I recognized the lines that the fatally wounded Mercutio speaks and my mind flashed back to that night in the college gardens when Wroxley strode the stage in the prime of his youth, full of vigour, ambition and joie de vivre.
I tried again to persuade him of the foolishness of such fantastical thinking, but he was no longer listening to me. As I was urging him to go away from London and take the waters at a spa town like Baden-Baden, he suddenly gripped my hand and stared at me with a wild look in his eyes.
‘It’s all the time now!’
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘I mean that he doesn’t come and go any longer. I can see him out of the corner of my eye all the time now – every second of every minute of every day! As I look at you now, I can see him at the farthermost edge of my vision. He’s waiting, he’s waiting…’
In spite of myself I fell silent as if suddenly aware of a sinister stranger eavesdropping on my conversation, and it was a little while before I was able to find my voice again. I did my best to persuade Wroxley of the wrong-headedness of the conclusion he’d reached but without success. Having already stayed too long I could do nothing more than make my excuses and hurry away. I left him standing outside the tavern in the spitting rain, staring after me, his eyes filled with inconsolable misery.
I found the interview with Wroxley extremely upsetting and my spirits were depressed all afternoon. On my cab ride home that evening, I thought long and hard about his predicament. A small problem – an irritation of the eyes – had grown out of all proportion in his feverish imagination and become a dangerous monomania. I blamed his work, the heavy case load he’d been forced to carry over the years, the intolerable responsibility placed on the shoulders of a man still relatively young. These pressures had damaged the delicate workings of his mind, leaving him vulnerable to phantom terrors, and now the unfortunate meeting with the gypsies had, I feared, driven him into the arms of madness; it remained to be seen how quickly – if ever – he could escape that dangerous embrace. I was convinced that Wroxley’s problem was a psychical not a physical one and I determined to write to an acquaintance I had at Highgate asylum to see what advice he could give. I remembered how I’d once bemoaned my lack of ambition and felt myself inadequate in the shadow of men such as Wroxley. Now I only blessed the unassertive temperament that had saved me from the stresses to which he’d been subjected, and when I returned home that night, I embraced Jocelyn and the children with an unusual degree of emotion.
I wrote to Doctor Van Haal, my acquaintance at Highgate asylum, and received an encouraging response; he said that he’d had some success treating patients with psychosomatic disorders over the years and that he’d be happy to meet Wroxley if I thought it would be beneficial. I sent a note to Bernard at his chambers saying I had something I wished to discuss with him in relation to his eye disorder. I declined to go into detail in the note thinking it something better broached face to face and suggested we meet at the Oxford and Cambridge club. I didn’t receive a reply the next day or the next, but was not unduly concerned as I knew only too well how busy he was. When I hadn’t heard from him for a fortnight, however, I wrote again.
Shortly after sending this second note, towards the end of October, I attended an evening lecture at Somerset House given by Sir John Simon, Chief Medical Officer to the General Board of Health. The subject was the Public Health Act which he’d been instrumental in seeing passed into law that summer. I arrived late and, such was the speaker’s popularity, I was forced to stand with several other latecomers at the back of the crowded hall. I did not mind the discomfort of standing, however, as the talk was every bit as instructive as I’d hoped it would be. Sir John, dark-browed and white-whiskered, described in detail the Act’s comprehensive sanitary code which he confidently predicted would eliminate many of the contagious diseases that still plagued the nation. There were a great many questions afterwards and it was gone nine o’clock when the Chief Medical Officer finally stepped down from the podium to a thunderous ovation.
As I was leaving the lecture, regretting that I’d not had the courage to ask the question I’d wished to ask, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and turning, saw a tall, fair-featured man smiling at me. His hair had thinned and he’d grown a luxurious set of Dundrearies since the last time we’d met, but I had no difficulty recognizing Sebastian Darcy, an old colleague from my first practice in Bayswater. I was delighted to see him again as he was an amusing fellow and we’d always got on exceedingly well. We walked out together into a chill, starless night; an icy wind gusted so violently it bent the poplars outside the church of St. Mary le Strand like bamboo canes. We both shivered in our overcoats and agreed that we were in for a harsh winter. Darcy lived in Chelsea and suggested we share a cab and, upon my agreeing, he hailed a passing growler.
In the relative warmth of the closed carriage we caught up on each other’s news and I learned with interest of the additions to his burgeoning family, the laudanum addiction of a former colleague and the death of another’s young wife in a riding accident.
The growler travelled up the Haymarket, slowing for revellers who caroused in the street seemingly impervious to the cold. We turned down Piccadilly and I had just seen the Bath hotel flash past and the railings of Green Park appear when the carriage gave a violent judder and stopped abruptly. I was thrown forwards into the seat opposite and ended up on the carriage floor. Sebastian, with great solicitousness, helped me back onto my seat, then lowering the window called up to the driver.
‘What is it, cabbie? What has happened?’
The blustery wind seemed to muffle his reply and I only caught the word ‘accident’.
I saw pedestrians hurrying past the window with concerned looks on their faces and a growing murmur of voices as of a rapidly gathering crowd.
Thinking that our assistance might be required we climbed out of the carriage and instructed the driver to wait for us. Ahead I could see a throng of people around a hackney cab; several men were trying to get the horses to back up but the agitated animals were shying and whinnying in their traces.
‘Someone’s been run down by the looks of it,’ Sebastian said as we drew closer. ‘A drunk most likely; the same thing happened here just a few days ago – a drunk came staggering out of one of the taverns and walked right under a horse omnibus.’
Just at that moment a cry went up for a doctor and Sebastian, raising his hand, shouted, ‘We’re doctors!’
The crowd parted to make way for us and a bare-footed boy with a hare lip tugged on my coat and said, ‘’E’s been mangled by the ’orses, mister.’
A man lay face down in the road, his black suit muddied and torn. A trouser leg had ridden up revealing the white flesh of his calf and he was missing one of his dress shoes; his right arm had been snapped at the elbow and was bent at a sickening angle, and an arrowhead of white bone protruded from the muscle of his left thigh. I knelt down beside him and I saw at once that the left side of his head above the temple had been struck by a horse’s hoof with such force it had cracked like a breakfast egg; a fragment of skull the size of my fist had come away, exposing the grey jelly of the brain.
‘There’s no pulse,’ Darcy sighed. ‘I’m afraid he’s dead.’
I felt the crowd pressing in around us, gawping at the corpse as if it were some fairground attraction. ‘We should get the poor beggar off the road,’ I said. ‘Help me to carry him, Sebastian.’
Carefully, we began to turn the dead man over, but as he rolled onto his back I started violently.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ Sebastian exclaimed.
I stared in horror, too overwrought to speak.
Through a mask of black dirt and congealing blood, Bernard Wroxley’s blue eyes glared up at me and his mouth hung open in a silent scream.
‘Did you know this man?’
I nodded, aghast. ‘I – we – we were at university together…’
As gently as I could I closed the eyes that had been the source of such infernal torment to him. I had been going to cure Wroxley of his ailment, the mouse had been going to save the lion, but now the fevered brain to which I’d hoped to minister was spattered across the cobbles of a London thoroughfare. I was suddenly seized with uncontrollable anger, and jumping to my feet, glared at the crowd around me.
‘What happened here?’ I demanded. ‘Who saw what happened?’
A woman in a large hat decorated with ostrich feathers pointed to a lanky young man in a black cabbie’s cape and bowler hat. ‘It was his fault,’ she said, ‘He was going too fast. He rode the poor gentleman down.’
‘Now ’old on a minute,’ the youth said, raising his hands defensively. ‘E walked out in front of me. ‘E wasn’t looking where ’e was going.’
Beside myself with rage, I seized the cabman by the throat and pushed him up against a gas lamp with such force that his bowler hat was knocked from his head and fell to the ground. His features were suddenly illuminated in the yellow glare of the gas light and I felt the blood in my veins turn to ice. I was staring at a face of extraordinary pallor, with sunken cheeks and protuberant eyes.
‘You!’ I gasped.
I seemed to lose all my strength, I let go my grip on him and staggered backwards as if struck.
Seeing in my confusion a chance to give his side of the story he threw out his arms in appeal. ‘I shouted a warning to him I tell ya and he looked up – looked right at me ’e did – but instead of jumping out of the way ’e just stood there starin’ at me like ’e’d seen a ghost. I was pullin’ up on the reins, but there weren’t nothing I could do. It weren’t my fault, sir, honest to God it weren’t.’
At that moment two policemen elbowed their way through the crowd and while one examined the body the other demanded to know what had happened; the woman in the hat seized his arm and began to accuse the cabman while the cabman shouted over her, frantically trying to defend himself. I walked away from the grisly farce on unsteady legs, my whole body shaking uncontrollably.
‘Are you quite well?’ Sebastian asked, putting a hand on my shoulder.
I was on the point of telling him the whole bizarre story, but managed to stop myself just in time. What could I have said to him? How could I have explained it without sounding like a madman?
‘We can’t do any more here,’ Sebastian said. ‘Let’s go back to the cab. The driver will find some alternative route I’m sure.’
‘No, no, thank you, Sebastian,’ I replied. ‘I would prefer to walk. The air will do me good. Please excuse me,’ and before he could open his mouth to protest, I turned on my heels and hurried away.
I passed through an alley and found myself in the dingy backstreets of Shepherd Market. I entered the first tavern I came to and sat in the darkest corner I could find, still shaking from the fright the cab driver’s face had given me. I ran my hands frantically back and forth through my hair asking myself over and over again – how was it possible? How could Wroxley’s eyes have seen the face of the man who would be the instrument of his death? How had Death succeeded in breaking its bounds and reaching back into the world of the living in this way? I searched for some logical explanation but I knew there was none. Even though it went against everything I believed as a man of science living in a great age of science, I knew that the old gypsy woman had understood his affliction at once for what it really was – a supernatural premonition of his approaching death…
It was a long time before I was calm enough to return home and when I stepped into the bright light and laughter of that household I felt like Dante returning from the Stygian depths of Hell.
Over the weeks and months that followed, however, my belief in an occult explanation for the mystery of Wroxley’s eyes began to seem ridiculous as I went about my busy work schedule in a winter that did indeed turn out to be extremely harsh. I began to revisit events in a calmer frame of mind and, in time, came to settle on a more rational interpretation. Wroxley, in the grip of an acute mental crisis, had, in his distracted state, walked out in front of the hackney carriage; looking up at the cab driver’s shout and seeing the face he’d imagined was haunting him, he’d been paralyzed by fear and trampled to death by the horses bearing down on him. The cab driver’s resemblance to the face Wroxley had described was, I concluded, nothing more than a grotesque coincidence and, the more I thought about it, not an entirely surprising one – such was the vagueness of the description, after all, I was confident I could have met with half a dozen similar faces on a Saturday afternoon stroll down High Street Kensington. As for the blind gypsy at the fair and her ghoulish prophecy, that was nothing more than the rantings of a woman who, even by her own daughter’s estimation, was lost to senility. Once I was confident of the soundness of this assessment, I endeavoured thenceforth when I thought of Bernard Wroxley to dismiss the Gothic fantasies I’d spun around his death and to think only of a man with great gifts whose life had been cut tragically short by a dreadful accident.
And that is how I have proceeded for these last several years…Until, that is, the month before last.
I was working in my study at home when I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye and turned thinking that Emily had entered my study without knocking – as she was wont to do – but there was no one there. A cold chill ran down my spine and I immediately thought of Wroxley in his room at chambers.
Several more times since then have I glimpsed a hazy shape in the periphery of my vision which has made me turn to look, and I fear it is occurring with greater and greater frequency. I have begun to have trouble sleeping now and awake in the night beset by a terrible dread that one day – one day soon – I will be able to make out the vague delineations of a human face….