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 house maid 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 court yard 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.’ ‘And?’ ‘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 been 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 mandible clenching and unclenching 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…’
To Be Continued