The Familiar, by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Chapter 3

An Advertisement

OF the new series of impressions which were afterwards gradually to work out his destiny, I that evening witnessed the fact; and but for its relation to the train of events which followed, the incident would scarcely have been now remembered by me.

As we were walking in at the passage from College Green a man, of whom I remember only that he was short in stature, looked like a foreigner, and wore a kind of fur travelling-cap, walked very rapidly, and, as if under fierce excitement, directly towards us, muttering to himself fast and vehemently the while.

This odd-looking person walked straight toward Barton, who was foremost of the three, and halted, regarding him for a moment or two with a look of maniacal menace and fury; and then turning about as abruptly he walked before us at the same agitated pace and disappeared at a side passage. I do distinctly remember being a good deal shocked at the countenance and bearing of this man, which indeed irresistibly impressed me with an undefined sense of danger, such as I have never felt before or since from the presence of anything human; but these sensations were, on my part, far from amounting to anything so disconcerting as to flurry or excite me — I had seen only a singularly evil countenance, agitated, as it seemed, with the excitement of madness.

I was absolutely astonished, however, at the effect of this apparition upon Captain Barton. I knew him to be a man of proud courage and coolness in real danger — a circumstance which made his conduct upon this occasion the more conspicuously odd. He recoiled a step or two as the stranger advanced, and clutched my arm in silence, with what seemed to be a spasm of agony or terror! And then, as the figure disappeared, shoving me roughly back, he followed it for a few paces, stopped in great disorder, and sat down upon a form. I never beheld a countenance more ghastly and haggard.

“For God’s sake, Barton, what is the matter?” said — — our companion, really alarmed at his appearance. “You’re not hurt, are you? — or unwell? What is it?”

“What did he say? — I did not hear it — what was it?” asked Barton, wholly disregarding the question.

“Nonsense,” said — — greatly surprised, “who cares what the fellow said? You are unwell Barton, decidedly unwell; let me call a coach.”

“Unwell! No — not unwell,” he said, evidently making an effort to recover his self-possession; “but, to say the truth, I am fatigued — a little over-worked — and perhaps over-anxious. You know I have been in Chancery, and the winding-up of a suit is always a nervous affair. I have felt uncomfortable all this evening; but I am better now. Come, come — shall we go on?”

“No, no. Take my advice, Barton, and go home; you really do need rest; you are looking quite ill. I really do insist on your allowing me to see you home,” replied his friend.

I seconded ——’s advice, the more readily as it was obvious that Barton was not himself disinclined to be persuaded. He left us, declining our offered escort. I was not sufficiently intimate with — to discuss the scene we had both just witnessed. I was, however, convinced from his manner in the few common-place comments and regrets we exchanged, that he was just as little satisfied as I with the extempore plea of illness with which he had accounted for the strange exhibition, and that we were both agreed in suspecting some lurking mystery in the matter.

I called next day at Barton’s lodgings to inquire for him, and learned from the servant that he had not left his room since his return the night before; but that he was not seriously indisposed, and hoped to be out in a few days. That evening he sent for Dr. R— — then in large and fashionable practice in Dublin, and their interview was, it is said, an odd one.

He entered into a detail of his own symptoms in an abstracted and desultory way, which seemed to argue a strange want of interest in his own cure, and, at all events, make it manifest that there was some topic engaging his mind of more engrossing importance than his present ailment. He complained of occasional palpitations and headache.

Doctor R—— asked him, among other questions, whether there was any irritating circumstance or anxiety then occupying his thoughts. This he denied quickly and almost peevishly; and the physician thereupon declared his opinion that there was nothing amiss except some slight derangement of the digestion, for which he accordingly wrote a prescription, and was about to withdraw when Mr. Barton, with the air of a man who recollects a topic which had nearly escaped him, recalled him.

“I beg your pardon, Doctor, but I really almost forgot; will you permit me to ask you two or three medical questions — rather odd ones, perhaps, but a wager depends upon their solution; you will, I hope, excuse my unreasonableness?”

The physician readily undertook to satisfy the inquirer.

Barton seemed to have some difficulty about opening the proposed interrogatories, for he was silent for a minute, then walked to his book-case, and returned as he had gone; at last he sat down, and said:

“You’ll think them very childish questions, but I can’t recover my wager without a decision; so I must put them. I want to know first about lockjaw. If a man actually has had that complaint, and appears to have died of it — so much so, that a physician of average skill pronounces him actually dead — may he, after all, recover?”

The physician smiled, and shook his head.

“But — but a blunder may be made,” resumed Barton. “Suppose an ignorant pretender to medical skill; may he be so deceived by any stage of the complaint, as to mistake what is only a part of the progress of the disease, for death itself?”

“No one who had ever seen death,” answered he, “could mistake it in a case of lockjaw.”

Barton mused for a few minutes. “I am going to ask you a question, perhaps, still more childish; but first, tell me, are the regulations of foreign hospitals, such as that of, let us say, Naples, very lax and bungling. May not all kinds of blunders and slips occur in their entries of names, and so forth?”

Doctor R—— professed his incompetence to answer that query.

“Well, then, Doctor, here is the last of my questions. You will, probably, laugh at it; but it must out nevertheless. Is there any disease, in all the range of human maladies, which would have the effect of perceptibly contracting the stature and the whole frame — causing the man to shrink in all his proportions, and yet to preserve his exact resemblance to himself in every particular — with the one exception, his height and bulk; any disease, mark — no matter how rare — how little believed in, generally — which could possibly result in producing such an effect?”

The physician replied with a smile, and a very decided negative.

“Tell me, then,” said Barton, abruptly, “if a man be in reasonable fear of assault from a lunatic who is at large, can he not procure a warrant for his arrest and detention?”

“Really, that is more a lawyer’s question than one in my way,” replied Doctor R——; “but I believe, on applying to a magistrate, such a course would be directed.”

The physician then took his leave; but, just as he reached the hall-door, remembered that he had left his cane upstairs, and returned. His reappearance was awkward, for a piece of paper, which he recognized as his own prescription, was slowly burning upon the fire, and Barton sitting close by with an expression of settled gloom and dismay.

Doctor R—— had too much tact to observe what presented itself; but he had seen quite enough to assure him that the mind, and not the body, of Captain Barton was in reality the seat of suffering.

A few days afterwards, the following advertisement appeared in the Dublin newspapers:

“If Sylvester Yelland, formerly a foremast man on board His Majesty’s frigate ‘Dolphin,’ or his nearest of kin, will apply to Mr. Hubert Smith, attorney, at his office, Dame Street, he or they may hear of something greatly to his or their advantage. Admission may be had at any hour up to twelve o’clock at night, should parties desire to avoid observation; and the strictest secrecy, as to all communications intended to be confidential, shall be honourably observed.”

The “Dolphin,” as I have mentioned, was the vessel which Captain Barton had commanded; and this circumstance, connected with the extraordinary exertions made by the circulation of hand-bills, etc., as well as by repeated advertisements, to secure for this strange notice the utmost possible publicity, suggested to Dr. R—— the idea that Captain Barton’s extreme uneasiness was somehow connected with the individual to whom the advertisement was addressed, and he himself the author of it.

This, however, it is needless to add, was no more than a conjecture. No information, whatsoever, as to the real purpose of the advertisement was divulged by the agent, nor yet any hint as to who his employer might be.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:49