Book Lover


THE MAN OF THE CROWD.

by Edgar Allan Poe

Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir être seul.

La Bruyère.

IT was well said of a certain German book that "er lasst sich nicht
lesen
" - it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets
which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds,
wringing the hands of ghostly confessors and looking them piteously in the
eyes -- die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of
the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be
revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burthen so
heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus
the essence of all crime is undivulged.

Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at
the large bow window of the D---- Coffee-House in London. For some months
I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning
strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely
the converse of ennui - moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from
the mental vision departs - the "PL> 0 BDT ,B­,L - and the intellect,
electrified, surpasses as greatly its every-day condition, as does the
vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of
Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure
even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but
inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a
newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the
afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the
promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky
panes into the street.

This latter is one of the principal thoroughfares of the city, and had
been very much crowded during the whole day. But, as the darkness came on,
the throng momently increased; and, by the time the lamps were well
lighted, two dense and continuous tides of population were rushing past
the door. At this particular period of the evening I had never before been
in a similar situation, and the tumultuous sea of human heads filled me,
therefore, with a delicious novelty of emotion. I gave up, at length, all
care of things within the hotel, and became absorbed in contemplation of
the scene without.

At first my observations took an abstract and generalizing turn. I looked
at the passengers in masses, and thought of them in their aggregate
relations. Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute
interest the innumerable varieties of figure, dress, air, gait, visage,
and expression of countenance.

By far the greater number of those who went by had a satisfied
business-like demeanor, and seemed to be thinking only of making their way
through the press. Their brows were knit, and their eyes rolled quickly;
when pushed against by fellow-wayfarers they evinced no symptom of
impatience, but adjusted their clothes and hurried on. Others, still a
numerous class, were restless in their movements, had flushed faces, and
talked and gesticulated to themselves, as if feeling in solitude on
account of the very denseness of the company around. When impeded in their
progress, these people suddenly ceased muttering, but re-doubled their
gesticulations, and awaited, with an absent and overdone smile upon the
lips, the course of the persons impeding them. If jostled, they bowed
profusely to the jostlers, and appeared overwhelmed with confusion. -
There was nothing very distinctive about these two large classes beyond
what I have noted. Their habiliments belonged to that order which is
pointedly termed the decent. They were undoubtedly noblemen, merchants,
attorneys, tradesmen, stock-jobbers - the Eupatrids and the common-places
of society - men of leisure and men actively engaged in affairs of their
own - conducting business upon their own responsibility. They did not
greatly excite my attention.

The tribe of clerks was an obvious one and here I discerned two remarkable
divisions. There were the junior clerks of flash houses - young gentlemen
with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips.
Setting aside a certain dapperness of carriage, which may be termed
deskism for want of a better word, the manner of these persons seemed to
me an exact fac-simile of what had been the perfection of bon ton about
twelve or eighteen months before. They wore the cast-off graces of the
gentry; - and this, I believe, involves the best definition of the class.

The division of the upper clerks of staunch firms, or of the "steady old
fellows," it was not possible to mistake. These were known by their coats
and pantaloons of black or brown, made to sit comfortably, with white
cravats and waistcoats, broad solid-looking shoes, and thick hose or
gaiters. - They had all slightly bald heads, from which the right ears,
long used to pen-holding, had an odd habit of standing off on end. I
observed that they always removed or settled their hats with both hands,
and wore watches, with short gold chains of a substantial and ancient
pattern. Theirs was the affectation of respectability; - if indeed there
be an affectation so honorable.

There were many individuals of dashing appearance, whom I easily
understood as belonging to the race of swell pick-pockets with which all
great cities are infested. I watched these gentry with much
inquisitiveness, and found it difficult to imagine how they should ever be
mistaken for gentlemen by gentlemen themselves. Their voluminousness of
wristband, with an air of excessive frankness, should betray them at once.

The gamblers, of whom I descried not a few, were still more easily
recognisable. They wore every variety of dress, from that of the desperate
thimble-rig bully, with velvet waistcoat, fancy neckerchief, gilt chains,
and filagreed buttons, to that of the scrupulously inornate clergyman,
than which nothing could be less liable to suspicion. Still all were
distinguished by a certain sodden swarthiness of complexion, a filmy
dimness of eye, and pallor and compression of lip. There were two other
traits, moreover, by which I could always detect them; - a guarded lowness
of tone in conversation, and a more than ordinary extension of the thumb
in a direction at right angles with the fingers. - Very often, in company
with these sharpers, I observed an order of men somewhat different in
habits, but still birds of a kindred feather. They may be defined as the
gentlemen who live by their wits. They seem to prey upon the public in two
battalions - that of the dandies and that of the military men. Of the
first grade the leading features are long locks and smiles; of the second
frogged coats and frowns.

Descending in the scale of what is termed gentility, I found darker and
deeper themes for speculation. I saw Jew pedlars, with hawk eyes flashing
from countenances whose every other feature wore only an expression of
abject humility; sturdy professional street beggars scowling upon
mendicants of a better stamp, whom despair alone had driven forth into the
night for charity; feeble and ghastly invalids, upon whom death had placed
a sure hand, and who sidled and tottered through the mob, looking every
one beseechingly in the face, as if in search of some chance consolation,
some lost hope; modest young girls returning from long and late labor to a
cheerless home, and shrinking more tearfully than indignantly from the
glances of ruffians, whose direct contact, even, could not be avoided;
women of the town of all kinds and of all ages - the unequivocal beauty in
the prime of her womanhood, putting one in mind of the statue in Lucian,
with the surface of Parian marble, and the interior filled with filth -
the loathsome and utterly lost leper in rags - the wrinkled, bejewelled
and paint-begrimed beldame, making a last effort at youth - the mere child
of immature form, yet, from long association, an adept in the dreadful
coquetries of her trade, and burning with a rabid ambition to be ranked
the equal of her elders in vice; drunkards innumerable and indescribable -
some in shreds and patches, reeling, inarticulate, with bruised visage and
lack-lustre eyes - some in whole although filthy garments, with a slightly
unsteady swagger, thick sensual lips, and hearty-looking rubicund faces -
others clothed in materials which had once been good, and which even now
were scrupulously well brushed - men who walked with a more than naturally
firm and springy step, but whose countenances were fearfully pale, whose
eyes hideously wild and red, and who clutched with quivering fingers, as
they strode through the crowd, at every object which came within their
reach; beside these, pie-men, porters, coal- heavers, sweeps;
organ-grinders, monkey-exhibiters and ballad mongers, those who vended
with those who sang; ragged artizans and exhausted laborers of every
description, and all full of a noisy and inordinate vivacity which jarred
discordantly upon the ear, and gave an aching sensation to the eye.

As the night deepened, so deepened to me the interest of the scene; for
not only did the general character of the crowd materially alter (its
gentler features retiring in the gradual withdrawal of the more orderly
portion of the people, and its harsher ones coming out into bolder relief,
as the late hour brought forth every species of infamy from its den,) but
the rays of the gas-lamps, feeble at first in their struggle with the
dying day, had now at length gained ascendancy, and threw over every thing
a fitful and garish lustre. All was dark yet splendid - as that ebony to
which has been likened the style of Tertullian.

The wild effects of the light enchained me to an examination of individual
faces; and although the rapidity with which the world of light flitted
before the window, prevented me from casting more than a glance upon each
visage, still it seemed that, in my then peculiar mental state, I could
frequently read, even in that brief interval of a glance, the history of
long years.

With my brow to the glass, I was thus occupied in scrutinizing the mob,
when suddenly there came into view a countenance (that of a decrepid old
man, some sixty-five or seventy years of age,) - a countenance which at
once arrested and absorbed my whole attention, on account of the absolute
idiosyncrasy of its expression. Any thing even remotely resembling that
expression I had never seen before. I well remember that my first thought,
upon beholding it, was that Retzch, had he viewed it, would have greatly
preferred it to his own pictural incarnations of the fiend. As I
endeavored, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some
analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically
within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of
penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood thirstiness,
of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense - of supreme
despair. I felt singularly aroused, startled, fascinated. "How wild a
history," I said to myself, "is written within that bosom!" Then came a
craving desire to keep the man in view - to know more of him. Hurriedly
putting on an overcoat, and seizing my hat and cane, I made my way into
the street, and pushed through the crowd in the direction which I had seen
him take; for he had already disappeared. With some little difficulty I at
length came within sight of him, approached, and followed him closely, yet
cautiously, so as not to attract his attention.

I had now a good opportunity of examining his person. He was short in
stature, very thin, and apparently very feeble. His clothes, generally,
were filthy and ragged; but as he came, now and then, within the strong
glare of a lamp, I perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of
beautiful texture; and my vision deceived me, or, through a rent in a
closely-buttoned and evidently second-handed roquelaire which enveloped
him, I caught a glimpse both of a diamond and of a dagger. These
observations heightened my curiosity, and I resolved to follow the
stranger whithersoever he should go.

It was now fully night-fall, and a thick humid fog hung over the city,
soon ending in a settled and heavy rain. This change of weather had an odd
effect upon the crowd, the whole of which was at once put into new
commotion, and overshadowed by a world of umbrellas. The waver, the
jostle, and the hum increased in a tenfold degree. For my own part I did
not much regard the rain - the lurking of an old fever in my system
rendering the moisture somewhat too dangerously pleasant. Tying a
handkerchief about my mouth, I kept on. For half an hour the old man held
his way with difficulty along the great thoroughfare; and I here walked
close at his elbow through fear of losing sight of him. Never once turning
his head to look back, he did not observe me. By and bye he passed into a
cross street, which, although densely filled with people, was not quite so
much thronged as the main one he had quitted. Here a change in his
demeanor became evident. He walked more slowly and with less object than
before - more hesitatingly. He crossed and re-crossed the way repeatedly
without apparent aim; and the press was still so thick that, at every such
movement, I was obliged to follow him closely. The street was a narrow and
long one, and his course lay within it for nearly an hour, during which
the passengers had gradually diminished to about that number which is
ordinarily seen at noon in Broadway near the Park - so vast a difference
is there between a London populace and that of the most frequented
American city. A second turn brought us into a square, brilliantly
lighted, and overflowing with life. The old manner of the stranger
re-appeared. His chin fell upon his breast, while his eyes rolled wildly
from under his knit brows, in every direction, upon those who hemmed him
in. He urged his way steadily and perseveringly. I was surprised, however,
to find, upon his having made the circuit of the square, that he turned
and retraced his steps. Still more was I astonished to see him repeat the
same walk several times -- once nearly detecting me as he came round with
a sudden movement.

In this exercise he spent another hour, at the end of which we met with
far less interruption from passengers than at first. The rain fell fast;
the air grew cool; and the people were retiring to their homes. With a
gesture of impatience, the wanderer passed into a bye-street comparatively
deserted. Down this, some quarter of a mile long, he rushed with an
activity I could not have dreamed of seeing in one so aged, and which put
me to much trouble in pursuit. A few minutes brought us to a large and
busy bazaar, with the localities of which the stranger appeared well
acquainted, and where his original demeanor again became apparent, as he
forced his way to and fro, without aim, among the host of buyers and
sellers.

During the hour and a half, or thereabouts, which we passed in this place,
it required much caution on my part to keep him within reach without
attracting his observation. Luckily I wore a pair of caoutchouc
over-shoes, and could move about in perfect silence. At no moment did he
see that I watched him. He entered shop after shop, priced nothing, spoke
no word, and looked at all objects with a wild and vacant stare. I was now
utterly amazed at his behavior, and firmly resolved that we should not
part until I had satisfied myself in some measure respecting him.

A loud-toned clock struck eleven, and the company were fast deserting the
bazaar. A shop-keeper, in putting up a shutter, jostled the old man, and
at the instant I saw a strong shudder come over his frame. He hurried into
the street, looked anxiously around him for an instant, and then ran with
incredible swiftness through many crooked and people-less lanes, until we
emerged once more upon the great thoroughfare whence we had started -- the
street of the D---- Hotel. It no longer wore, however, the same aspect. It
was still brilliant with gas; but the rain fell fiercely, and there were
few persons to be seen. The stranger grew pale. He walked moodily some
paces up the once populous avenue, then, with a heavy sigh, turned in the
direction of the river, and, plunging through a great variety of devious
ways, came out, at length, in view of one of the principal theatres. It
was about being closed, and the audience were thronging from the doors. I
saw the old man gasp as if for breath while he threw himself amid the
crowd; but I thought that the intense agony of his countenance had, in
some measure, abated. His head again fell upon his breast; he appeared as
I had seen him at first. I observed that he now took the course in which
had gone the greater number of the audience - but, upon the whole, I was
at a loss to comprehend the waywardness of his actions.

As he proceeded, the company grew more scattered, and his old uneasiness
and vacillation were resumed. For some time he followed closely a party of
some ten or twelve roisterers; but from this number one by one dropped
off, until three only remained together, in a narrow and gloomy lane
little frequented. The stranger paused, and, for a moment, seemed lost in
thought; then, with every mark of agitation, pursued rapidly a route which
brought us to the verge of the city, amid regions very different from
those we had hitherto traversed. It was the most noisome quarter of
London, where every thing wore the worst impress of the most deplorable
poverty, and of the most desperate crime. By the dim light of an
accidental lamp, tall, antique, worm-eaten, wooden tenements were seen
tottering to their fall, in directions so many and capricious that scarce
the semblance of a passage was discernible between them. The paving-stones
lay at random, displaced from their beds by the rankly-growing grass.
Horrible filth festered in the dammed-up gutters. The whole atmosphere
teemed with desolation. Yet, as we proceeded, the sounds of human life
revived by sure degrees, and at length large bands of the most abandoned
of a London populace were seen reeling to and fro. The spirits of the old
man again flickered up, as a lamp which is near its death hour. Once more
he strode onward with elastic tread. Suddenly a corner was turned, a blaze
of light burst upon our sight, and we stood before one of the huge
suburban temples of Intemperance - one of the palaces of the fiend, Gin.

It was now nearly day-break; but a number of wretched inebriates still
pressed in and out of the flaunting entrance. With a half shriek of joy
the old man forced a passage within, resumed at once his original bearing,
and stalked backward and forward, without apparent object, among the
throng. He had not been thus long occupied, however, before a rush to the
doors gave token that the host was closing them for the night. It was
something even more intense than despair that I then observed upon the
countenance of the singular being whom I had watched so pertinaciously.
Yet he did not hesitate in his career, but, with a mad energy, retraced
his steps at once, to the heart of the mighty London. Long and swiftly he
fled, while I followed him in the wildest amazement, resolute not to
abandon a scrutiny in which I now felt an interest all-absorbing. The sun
arose while we proceeded, and, when we had once again reached that most
thronged mart of the populous town, the street of the D---- Hotel, it
presented an appearance of human bustle and activity scarcely inferior to
what I had seen on the evening before. And here, long, amid the momently
increasing confusion, did I persist in my pursuit of the stranger. But, as
usual, he walked to and fro, and during the day did not pass from out the
turmoil of that street. And, as the shades of the second evening came on,
I grew wearied unto death, and, stopping fully in front of the wanderer,
gazed at him steadfastly in the face. He noticed me not, but resumed his
solemn walk, while I, ceasing to follow, remained absorbed in
contemplation. "This old man," I said at length, "is the type and the
genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. [page 228:] He is the man of
the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him,
nor of his deeds. The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the
'Hortulus Animæ,' {*1} and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of
God that 'er lasst sich nicht lesen.' "

{*1} The "Hortulus Animæ cum Oratiunculis Aliquibus Superadditis" of
Grünninger



More Great Books and Authors to Explore!
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
William Hope Hodgson
William Hope Hodgson
Secret Hiding Places
Secret Hiding Places
Egyptian Book of the Dead
Egyptian Book of the Dead


Sponsors:





Sponsors:





Articles About Books and Authors that Matter

The Fascinating Story of Medieval Libraries

The Lost Art of Embroidered Books

Holbein's Dance of Death: A Cheerily Macabre World View

Quotes About Books: Writers Writing About Books and the Art of Reading





Explore

Micro Nations: Sometimes the Smallest Countries Have the Biggest Dreams

George Cruikshank: A Moralistic Victorian Crusader With a Secret Life

Marguerite de Navarre: Queen, Feminist and Author of Raunchy Medieval Lit

The Weird and Wonderful Illustrations of Gustave Dore

World War One Propaganda Posters







Book-Lover.com has an eclectic collection of weird and unusual books online. Site Map | XML | RSS Feed | What's New | About Us | Privacy | Contact Us

Other Sites: CruikshankArt.com  ·  Dante's Inferno  ·  QuoteMonger.com  · Canterbury Tales  · Heptameron.info  · Shakespeare-1.com · DickensLit.com