THE ENCOUNTER OF THE PAVEMENT

Mr. Dyson, walking leisurely along Oxford. Street, and staring with
bland inquiry at whatever caught his attention, enjoyed in all its rare
flavors the sensation that he was really very hard at work. His
observation of mankind, the traffic, and the shop-windows tickled his
faculties with an exquisite bouquet; he looked serious, as one looks on
whom charges of weight and moment are laid, and he was attentive in his
glances to right and left, for fear lest he should miss some
circumstance of more acute significance. He had narrowly escaped being
run over at a crossing by a charging van, for he hated to hurry his
steps, and indeed the afternoon was warm; and he had just halted by a
place of popular refreshment, when the astounding gestures of a well
dressed individual on the opposite pavement held him enchanted and
gasping like a fish. A treble line of hansoms, carriages, vans, cabs,
and omnibuses, was tearing east and west, and not the most daring
adventurer of the crossings would have cared to try his fortune; but the
person who had attracted Dyson’s attention seemed to rage on the very
edge of the pavement, now and then darting forward at the hazard of
instant death, and at each repulse absolutely dancing with excitement,
to the rich amusement of the passers-by. At last, a gap that would, have
tried the courage of a street-boy appeared between the serried lines of
vehicles, and the man rushed across in a frenzy, and escaping by a
hair’s breadth pounced upon Dyson as a tiger pounces on her prey. “I saw
you looking about you,” he said, sputtering out his words in his intense
eagerness; “would you mind telling me this? Was the man who came out of
the Aerated Bread Shop and jumped, into the hansom three minutes ago a
youngish looking man with dark whiskers and spectacles? Can’t you speak,
man? For Heaven’s sake can’t you speak? Answer me; it’s a matter of life
and death.”

The words bubbled and boiled out of the man’s mouth in the fury of his
emotion, his face went from red to white, and the beads of sweat stood
out on his forehead, and he stamped his feet as he spoke and tore with
his hand at his coat, as if something swelled and choked him, stopping
the passage of his breath.

“My dear sir,” said Dyson, “I always like to be accurate. Your
observation was perfectly correct. As you say, a youngish man, a man, I
should say, of somewhat timid bearing, ran rapidly out of the shop here,
and bounced into a hansom that must have been waiting for him, as it
went eastwards at once. Your friend also wore spectacles, as you say.
Perhaps you would like me to call a hansom for you to follow the
gentleman?”

“No, thank you; it would be waste of time.” The man gulped down
something which appeared to rise in his throat, and Dyson was alarmed to
see him shaking with hysterical laughter, and he clung hard to a
lamp-post and swayed and staggered like a ship in a heavy gale.

“How shall I face the doctor?” he murmured to himself. “It is too hard
to fail at the last moment.” Then he seemed to recollect himself, and
stood straight again, and looked quietly at Dyson. I owe you an apology
for my violence, he said at last. “Many men would not be so patient as
you have been. Would you mind adding to your kindness by walking with me
a little way? I feel a little sick; I think it’s the sun.”

Dyson nodded assent, and devoted himself to a quiet scrutiny of this
strange personage as they moved on together. The man was dressed in
quiet taste, and the most scrupulous observer could find nothing amiss
with the fashion or make of his clothes, yet, from his hat to his boots,
everything seemed inappropriate. His silk hat, Dyson thought, should
have been a high bowler of odious pattern worn with a baggy
morning-coat, and an instinct told him that the fellow did not commonly
carry a clean pocket-handkerchief. The face was not of the most
agreeable pattern, and was in no way improved by a pair of bulbous
chin-whiskers of a ginger hue, into which mustaches of light color
merged imperceptibly. Yet in spite of these signals hung out by nature,
Dyson felt that the individual beside him was something more than
compact of vulgarity. He was struggling with himself, holding his
feelings in check, but now and again passion would mount black to his
face, and it was evidently by a supreme effort that he kept himself
from raging like a madman. Dyson found something curious and a little
terrible in the spectacle of an occult emotion thus striving for the
mastery, and threatening to break out at every instant with violence,
and they had gone some distance before the person whom he had met by so
odd a hazard was able to speak quietly.

“You are really very good,” he said. “I apologize again; my rudeness was
really most unjustifiable. I feel my conduct demands an explanation, and
I shall be happy to give it you. Do you happen to know of any place near
here where one could sit down? I should really be very glad.”

“My dear sir,” said Dyson, solemnly, “the only café in London is close
by. Pray do not consider yourself as bound to offer me any explanation,
but at the same time I should be most happy to listen to you. Let us
turn down here.”

They walked down a sober street and turned into what seemed a narrow
passage past an iron-barred gate thrown back. The passage was paved with
flagstones, and decorated with handsome shrubs in pots on either side,
and the shadow of the high walls made a coolness which was very
agreeable after the hot breath of the sunny street. Presently the
passage opened out into a tiny square, a charming place, a morsel of
France transplanted into the heart of London. High walls rose on either
side, covered with glossy creepers, flower-beds beneath were gay with
nasturtiums, geraniums, and marigolds, and odorous with mignonette, and
in the centre of the square a fountain hidden by greenery sent a cool
shower continually plashing into the basin beneath, and the very noise
made this retreat delightful. Chairs and tables were disposed at
convenient intervals, and at the other end of the court broad doors had
been thrown back; beyond was a long, dark room, and the turmoil of
traffic had become a distant murmur. Within the room one or two men were
sitting at the tables, writing and sipping, but the courtyard was empty.

“You see, we shall be quiet,” said Dyson. “Pray sit down here, Mr.–?”

“Wilkins. My name is Henry Wilkins.”

“Sit here, Mr. Wilkins. I think you will find that a comfortable seat. I
suppose you have not been here before? This is the quiet time; the place
will be like a hive at six o’clock, and the chairs and tables will
overflow into that little alley there.”

A waiter came in response to the bell; and after Dyson had politely
inquired after the health of M. Annibault, the proprietor, he ordered a
bottle of the wine of Champigny.

“The wine of Champigny,” he observed to Mr. Wilkins, who was evidently a
good deal composed by the influence of the place, “is a Tourainian wine
of great merit. Ah, here it is; let me fill your glass. How do you find
it?”

“Indeed,” said Mr. Wilkins, “I should have pronounced it a fine
Burgundy. The bouquet is very exquisite. I am fortunate in lighting upon
such a good Samaritan as yourself. I wonder you did not think me mad.
But if you knew the terrors that assailed me, I am sure you would no
longer be surprised at conduct which was certainly most unjustifiable.”




He sipped his wine, and leant back in his chair, relishing the drip and
trickle of the fountain, and the cool greenness that hedged in this
little port of refuge.

“Yes,” he said at last, “that is indeed an admirable wine. Thank you;
you will allow me to offer you another bottle?”

The waiter was summoned, and descended through a trap-door in the floor
of the dark apartment, and brought up the wine. Mr. Wilkins lit a
cigarette, and Dyson pulled out his pipe.

“Now,” said Mr. Wilkins, “I promised to give you an explanation of my
strange behavior. It is rather a long story, but I see, sir, that you
are no mere cold observer of the ebb and flow of life. You take, I
think, a warm and an intelligent interest in the chances of your
fellow-creatures, and I believe you will find what I have to tell not
devoid of interest.”

Mr. Dyson signified his assent to these propositions, and though he
thought Mr. Wilkins’s diction a little pompous, prepared to interest
himself in his tale. The other, who had so raged with passion half an
hour before, was now perfectly cool, and when he had smoked out his
cigarette, he began in an even voice to relate the