The Man Of The Crowd by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
THE MAN OF THE CROWD
by Edgar Allan Poe

Ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir etre seul.
LA BRUYERE.

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 burden 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- achlus os prin epeen-
and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its everyday
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 redoubled their gesticulations, and awaited, with an
absent and overdone smile upon their 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 be an exact facsimile of what had been the
perfection of bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before. They
wore the castoff 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 bands, 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
recognizable. 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, and
whose eyes were 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, pic-men, porters,
coal-heavers, sweeps; organ-grinders, monkey-exhibitors, 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 Retszch,
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 all 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 by 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 reappeared. 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 around 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
by-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 overshoes, 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 peopleless 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 daybreak; 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. “The old man,” I said at
length, “is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be
alone. 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 Animae,’* and perhaps it is
but one of the great mercies of God that “er lasst sich nicht lesen.”

* The “Hortulus Animae cum Oratiunculis Aliquibus Superadditis” of
Grunninger.
THE END

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