The carriage slowed and jostled Alexander in his seat. More than slightly confused, he brushed the curtains aside and leaned from the window to peer ahead.
There was a commotion in the street--a boy rushing around on the cobbles calling to people. His voice was pitiable.
"Monsieur?" The driver said, noticing his passenger opening the carriage door to step out.
"Un moment." Alexander took his violin case and shut the door behind him. He moved closer to where the boy was grabbing onto coats and pleading with passers-by. The child was wearing the livery of some manor. People were rushing away from him with wide, uncertain eyes.
"Please!" The boy said, his hands out.
Alexander caught him by the arm. "What is it?" He said in his best French.
"My monsieur. He is very sick."
The Englishman nodded, leaned down. "Are you in need of a doctor?"
"Non, non. A musician, Monsieur. That is the only thing. It will calm him, but only that. Is no one..." The child went on in a frenzy.
Alexander blinked. How was this? But he felt he had no time to contemplate it. "I am a violinist," he said, laying a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Is that suitable enough?"
Tears of gratitude immediately sprang to his eyes. "Please, this way. Please!"
Alexander motioned to his carriage driver to wait and dashed off after the boy, who was already disappearing into a crowd. He held his violin case close and followed as well as he was able. These streets were so vivid, so bustling. It was overwhelming to him, who knew them only by names and as lines on a crude map. He was quickly led around corners, down alleys, had to push his way through groups of peddlers and idle shoppers, darted horses and the carts they pulled.
Finally, the boy leapt onto the step of a fine-looking house front. He beckoned to Alex to follow him into the broad doorway. The Englishman hesitated, then crossed the thresh.
A servant came up as Alexander removed his hat. This man wore the same unmistakable livery as the boy, was stern-faced and began speaking harshly to the child in hushed tones.
Alexander stood awkwardly to the side and tried not to listen. In spite of himself, he glanced around at the beautifully decorated foyer, into the rooms at either side, at the ornately carved banister of the staircase.
Something above their heads thudded. A sound of shattering glass. The boy broke into tears. The serving man sent him away. It was then that he turned to finally address Alexander.
"My sincerest apologies, Monsieur. Young Gilbert is moved by his emotions too easily," the man began. Upstairs, something clattered against a wall. "We greatly appreciate your assistance."
"What can I do?"
"Come." He took Alexander's hat and held out an arm for his overcoat, which the Englishman removed and handed over. "You've brought an instrument, good." He said. "Above stair, come quickly."
He started up the stairwell with Alexander directly behind. The steps led to a narrow hallway with many doors. Only one of them was shut and two serving women huddled outside it, their faces creased with worry.
"Oh, Lumis, his spell. It is getting worse," said the elder of the two. She held a closed fist to her throat. "Can someone come?"
"I have a one." He slipped to the side to allow Alexander past.
"Thank the heavens!" She said. The sounds of a great struggle came to them clearly from behind the panels of the wall. "Your music," she said. "He is in such need."
Alexander gave a decisive nod and held his case out to Lumis. He drew forth the violin and its bow. Then everyone stood aside for him. He swallowed. Then reached for the doorknob.
He found himself standing in a bedchamber. Articles of clothing lay strewn about the floor. There were broken chairs and shattered mirrors, mangled wall sconces, a cracked chamber pot, torn drapes. And, in the midst of it all, a middle-aged man with ragged hair and a feral expression. His teeth were on the bedboard, which showed signs of being gnawed on, and there were long pale streaks in the stained wood where fingers had dug at it.
The two men stared motionless at each other for a long moment, both surprised that they should find themselves in such a place together. Alexander furrowed his brow and swallowed.
This man looked completely inhuman. There was something wolfish, something rageful in his eyes. He drew himself up on the bed. "Who?"
Startled, Alexander stepped back. He moved his jaw but couldn't find words to answer.
"Who?!" The man demanded again, this time flinging tattered bedding to the floor and moving to stand. His eyes bore like embers into Alexander's.
Suddenly, remembering his one purpose, Alexander raised the violin to his cheek. He arched his arm and drew the bow across the strings.
The sound alone, though not even in tune after the journey from the docks, was enough. The ragged man melted to the floor. His wild eyes closed in ecstasy, and he held his hands out as though in prayer. "Please," he whispered, "please."
Alexander began to play. Quietly at first, full of uncertainty. He kept his eye trained on the stranger. Gradually the music gained strength until it filled the chamber.
The man began to weep. He moved with the soaring notes, bent himself double in some kind of exquisite pain. Mumbled, "My god, my god." The fire left his eyes. His limbs grew limp. And, by the end of the piece, he was a crumpled heap on the carpet at Alexander's feet.
Alexander lowered his bow. He felt his surroundings close upon him; the eyes staring from the hallway, the boy who had come up and was hovering in the door. And this strange man who had, a mere moment ago, been fanatical in his madness.
This man breathed deeply now, looked calmly at Alexander from the floor. "I--forgive me, I have an--illness." He tried to get himself to his knees, tried to smooth his savage hair back. "I would not have you, or anyone--see me like this." He said at last. "Who are you? Are you--a student? I don't recognize your face."
Alexander didn't answer. He felt increasingly uncomfortable. It was something in this man's eyes. Something familiar. Frightening. He took another step back. "I must go."
"Please!" The man held his hand out imploringly. "I am in your debt. Please, your name, that I may call--at a better, more proper time---and express my gratefulness."
"I'm sorry." Alexander turned abruptly on his heel and swept into the hall.
The man called after him. "Just your name. Lumis, get his name. Renee! His name!"
Alexander took his case back, put the violin away. Then he ran down the stairs, took his coat and hat, flung them back on.
The serving man was behind him. "Monsieur, might we give you something in return for--"
"No. Good day." He had stepped back onto the street.
"Wait! Monsieur, your name?"
But Alexander hurried away, pretending he hadn't heard the question.