The Land of Mist, by Arthur Conan Doyle

12. There are Heights and there are Depths

THE Institut Metapsychique was an imposing stone building in the Avenue Wagram with a door like a baronial castle. Here it was that the three friends presented themselves late in the evening. A footman showed them into a reception-room where they were presently welcomed by Dr. Maupuis in person. The famous authority on psychic science was a short, broad man with a large head, a clean-shaven face, and an expression in which worldly wisdom and kindly altruism were blended. His conversation was in French with Mailey and Roxton, who both spoke the language well, but he had to fall back upon broken English with Malone, who could only utter still more broken French in reply. He expressed his pleasure at their visit, as only a graceful Frenchman can, said a few words as to the wonderful qualities of Panbek, the Galician medium, and finally led the way downstairs to the room in which the experiments were to be conducted. His air of vivid intelligence and penetrating sagacity had already shown the strangers how preposterous were those theories which tried to explain away his wonderful results by the supposition that he was a man who was the easy victim of impostors.

Descending a winding stair they found themselves in a large chamber which looked at first glance like a chemical laboratory, for shelves full of bottles, retorts, test-tubes, scales and other apparatus lined the walls. It was more elegantly furnished, however, than a mere workshop, and a large massive oak table occupied the centre of the room with a fringe of comfortable chairs. At one end of the room was a large portrait of Professor Crookes, which was flanked by a second of Lombroso, while between them was a remarkable picture of one of Eusapia Palladino’s seances. Round the table there was gathered a group of men who were talking in low tones, too much absorbed in their own conversation to take much notice of the newcomers.

“Three of these are distinguished visitors like yourselves,” said Dr. Maupuis. “Two others are my laboratory assistants, Dr. Sauvage and Dr. Buisson. The others are Parisians of note. The Press is represented today by Mr. Forte, sub-editor of the Matin. The tall, dark man who looks like a retired general you probably know . . . Not? That is Professor Charles Richet, our honoured doyen, who has shown great courage in this matter, though he has not quite reached the same conclusions as you, Monsieur Mailey. But that also may come. You must remember that we have to show policy, and that the less we mix this with religion, the less trouble we shall have with the Church, which is still very powerful in this country. The distinguished-looking man with the high forehead is the Count de Grammont. The gentleman with the head of a Jupiter and the white beard is Flammarion, the astronomer. Now, gentlemen,” he added, in a louder voice, “if you will take your places we shall get to work.”

They sat at random round the long table, the three Britons keeping together. At one end a large photographic camera was reared aloft. Two zinc buckets also occupied a prominent position upon a side table. The door was locked and the key given to Professor Richet. Dr. Maupuis sat at one end of the table with a small middle-aged man, moustached, bald-headed and intelligent, upon his right.

“Some of you have not met Monsieur Panbek,” said the doctor. “Permit me to present him to you. Monsieur Panbek, gentlemen, has placed his remarkable powers at our disposal for scientific investigation, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude. He is now in his forty-seventh year, a man of normal health, of a neuro-arthritic disposition. Some hyper-excitability of his nervous system is indicated, and his reflexes arc exaggerated, but his blood-pressure is normal. The pulse is now at seventy-two, but rises to one hundred under trance conditions. There are zones of marked hyper-aesthesia on his limbs. His visual field and pupillary reaction is normal. I do not know that there is anything to add.”

“I might say,” remarked Professor Richet, “that the hyper-sensibility is moral as well as physical. Panbek is impressionable and full of emotion, with the temperament of the poet and all those little weaknesses, if we may call them so, which the poet pays as a ransom for his gifts. A great medium is a great artist and is to be judged by the same standards.”

“He seems to me, gentlemen, to be preparing you for the worst,” said the medium with a charming smile, while the company laughed in sympathy.

“We are sitting in the hopes that some remarkable materializations which we have recently had may be renewed in such a form that we may get a permanent record of them.” Dr. Maupuis was talking in his dry, unemotional voice. “These materializations have taken very unexpected forms of late, and I would beg the company to repress any feelings of fear, however strange these forms may be, as a calm and judicial atmosphere is most necessary. We shall now turn out the white light and begin with the lowest degree of red light until the conditions will admit of further illumination.”

The lamps were controlled from Dr. Maupuis’ seat at the table. For a moment they were plunged in utter darkness. Then a dull red glow came in the corner, enough to show the dim outlines of the men round the table. There was no music and no religious atmosphere of any sort. The company conversed in whispers.

“This is different to your English procedure,” said Malone.

“Very,” Mailey answered. “It seems to me that we are wide open to anything which may come. It’s all wrong. They don’t realize the danger.”

“What danger can there be?”

“Well, from my point of view, it is like sitting at the edge of a pond which may have harmless frogs in it, or may have man-eating crocodiles. You can’t tell what may come.”

Professor Richet, who spoke excellent English, overheard the words.

“I know your views, Mr. Mailey,” said he. “Don’t think that I treat them lightly. Some things which I have seen make me appreciate your comparison of the frog and the crocodile. In this very room I have been conscious of the presence of creatures which could, if moved to anger, make our experiments seem rather hazardous. I believe with you that evil people here might bring an evil reflection into our circle.”

“I am glad, sir, that you are moving in our direction,” said Mailey, for like everyone else he regarded Richet as one of the world’s great men.

“Moving, perhaps, and yet I cannot claim to be altogether with you yet. The latent powers of the human incarnate spirit may be so wonderful that they may extend to regions which seem at present to be quite beyond their scope. As an old materialist, I fight every inch of the ground, though I admit that I have lost several lines of trenches. My illustrious friend Challenger still holds his front intact, as I understand.”

“Yes, sir” said Malone, “and yet I have some hopes —”

“Hush!” cried Maupuis in an eager voice. There was dead silence. Then there came a sound of uneasy movement with a strange flapping vibration.

“The bird!” said an awestruck whisper.

There was silence and then once again came the sound of movement and an impatient flap.

“Have you all ready, Rene?” asked the doctor.

“All is ready.”

“Then shoot!”

The flash of the luminant mixture filled the room, while the shutter of the camera fell. In that sudden glare of light the visitors had a momentary glimpse of a marvellous sight. The medium lay with his head upon his hands in apparent insensibility. Upon his rounded shoulders there was perched a huge bird of prey — a large falcon or an eagle. For one instant the strange picture was stamped upon their retinas even as it was upon the photographic plate. Then the darkness closed down again, save for the two red lamps, like the eyes of some baleful demon lurking in the corner.

“My word!” gasped Malone. “Did you see it?”

“A crocodile out of the pond,” said Mailey.

“But harmless,” added Professor Richet. “the bird has been with us several times. He moves his wings, as you have heard, but otherwise is inert. We may have another and a more dangerous visitor.”

The flash of the light had, of course, dispelled all ectoplasm. It was necessary to begin again The company may have sat for a quarter of an hour when Richet touched Mailey’s arm.

“Do you smell anything, Monsieur Mailey?”

Mailey sniffed the air.

“Yes, surely, it reminds me of our London Zoo.”

“There is another more ordinary analogy. Have you been in a warm room with a wet dog?”

“Exactly,” said Mailey. “That is a perfect description. But where is the dog?”

“It is not a dog. Wait a little! Wait!”

The animal smell became more pronounced. It was overpowering. Then suddenly Malone became conscious of something moving round the table. In the dim red light he was aware of a mis-shapen figure, crouching, ill-formed, with some resemblance to man. He silhouetted it against the dull radiance. It was bulky, broad, with a bullet-head, a short neck, heavy, clumsy shoulders. It slouched slowly round the circle. Then it stopped, and a cry of surprise, not unmixed with fear, came from one of the sitters.

“Do not be alarmed,” said Dr. Maupuis’ quiet voice. “It is the Pithecanthropus. He is harmless.” Had it been a cat which had strayed into the room the scientist could not have discussed it more calmly.

“It has long claws. It laid them on my neck,” cried a voice.

“Yes, yes. He means it as a caress.”

“You may have my share of his caresses!” cried the sitter in a quavering voice.

“Do not repulse him. It might be serious. He is well disposed. But he has his feelings, no doubt, like the rest of us.”

The creature had resumed its stealthy progress. Now it turned the end of the table and stood behind the three friends. Its breath came in quick puffs at the back of their necks. Suddenly Lord Roxton gave a loud exclamation of disgust.

“Quiet! Quiet!” said Maupuis.

“It’s licking my hand!” cried Roxton.

An instant later Malone was aware of a shaggy head extended between Lord Roxton and himself. With his left hand he could feel long, coarse hair. It turned towards him, and it needed all his self-control to hold his hand still when a long soft tongue caressed it. Then it was gone.

“In heaven’s name, what is it?” he asked.

“We have been asked not to photograph it. Possibly the light would infuriate it. The command through the medium was definite. We can only say that it is either an apelike man or a man-like ape. We have seen it more clearly than to-night. The face is Simian, but the brow is straight; the arms long, the hands huge, the body covered with hair.”

“Tom Linden gave us something better than that,” whispered Mailey. He spoke low but Richet caught the words.

“All Nature is the field of our study, Mr. Mailey. It is not for us to choose. Shall we classify the flowers but neglect the fungi?”

“But you admit it is dangerous.”

“The X-rays were dangerous. How many martyrs lost their arms, joint by joint, before those dangers were realized? And yet it was necessary. So it is with us. We do not know yet what it is that we are doing. But if we can indeed show the world that this Pithecanthropus can come to us from the Invisible, and depart again as it came, then the knowledge is so tremendous that even if he tore us to pieces with those formidable claws it would none the less be our duty to go forward with our experiments.”

“Science can be heroic,” said Mailey. “Who can deny it? And yet I have heard these very scientific men tell us that we imperil our reason when we try to get in touch with spiritual forces. Gladly would we sacrifice our reason, or our lives, if we could help mankind. Should we not do as much for spiritual advance as they for material?”

The lights had been turned up and there was a pause for relaxation before the great experiment of the evening was attempted. The men broke into little groups, chatting in hushed tones over their recent experience. Looking round at the comfortable room with its up-to-date appliances, the strange bird and the stealthy monster seemed like dreams. And yet they had been very real as was shown presently by the photographer, who had been allowed to leave and now rushed excitedly from the adjacent dark room waving the plate which he had just developed and fixed. He held it up against the light, and there, sure enough, was the bald head of the medium sunk between his hands, and crouching closely over his shoulders the outline of that ominous figure. Dr. Maupuis rubbed his little fat hands with glee. Like all pioneers he had endured much persecution from the Parisian Press, and every fresh phenomenon was another weapon for his own defence.

“Nous marchons! Hein! Nous Marchons!” he kept on repeating, while Richet, lost in thought, answered mechanically:

“Oui, mon ami, vous marchez!”

The little Galician was sitting nibbling a biscuit with a glass of red wine before him. Malone went round to him and found that he had been in America and could talk a little English.

“Are you tired? Does it exhaust you?”

“In moderation, no. Two sittings a week. Behold my allowance. The doctor will allow no more.”

“Do you remember anything?”

“It comes to me like dreams. A little here — a little there.”

“Has the power always been with you?”

“Yes, yes, ever since a child. And my father, and my uncle. Their talk was of visions. For me, I would go and sit in the woods and strange animals would come round me. It did me such a surprise when I found that the other children could not see them.”

“Est ce que vous etes pretes?” asked Dr. Maupuis.

“Parfaitment,” answered the medium, brushing away the crumbs. The doctor lit a spirit-lamp under one of the zinc buckets.

“We are about to co-operate in an experiment, gentlemen, which should, once and for all, convince the world as to the existence of these ectoplasmic forms. Their nature may be disputed, but their objectivity will be beyond doubt from now onwards unless my plans miscarry. I would first explain these two buckets to you. This one, which I am warming, contains paraffin, which is now in process of liquefaction. This other contains water. Those who have not been present before must understand that Panbek’s phenomena occur usually in the same order, and that at this stage of the evening we may expect the apparition of the old man. To-night we lie in wait for the old man, and we shall, I hope, immortalize him in the history of psychic research. I resume my seat, and I switch on the red light, Number Three, which allows of greater visibility.”

The circle was now quite visible. The medium’s head had fallen forward and his deep snoring showed that he was already in trance. Every face was turned towards him, for the wonderful process of materialization was going on before their very eyes. At first it was a swirl of light, steam-like vapour which circled round his head. Then there was a waving, as of white diaphanous drapery, behind him. It thickened. It coalesced. It hardened in outline and took definite shape. There was a head. There were shoulders. Arms grew out from them. Yes, there could not be a doubt of it — there was a man, an old man, standing behind the chair. He moved his head slowly from side lo side. He seemed to be peering in indecision towards the company. One could imagine that he was asking himself, “Where am I, and what am I here for?”

“He does not speak, but he hears and has intelligence,” said Dr. Maupuis, glancing over his shoulder at the apparition. “We are here, sir, in the hope that you will aid us in a very important experiment. May we count upon your co-operation?”

The figure bowed his head in assent.

“We thank you. When you have attained your full power you will, no doubt, move away from the medium.” The figure again bowed, but remained motionless. It seemed to Malone that it was growing denser every moment. He caught glimpses of the face. It was certainly an old man, heavy-faced, long-nosed, with a curiously projecting lower lip. Suddenly with a brusque movement it stood clear from Panbeck and stepped out into the room.

“Now, sir,” said Maupuis in his precise fashion. “You will perceive the zinc bucket upon the left. I would beg you to have the kindness to approach it and to plunge your right hand into it.”

The figure moved across. He seemed interested in the buckets, for he examined them with some attention. Then he dipped one of his hands into that which the doctor had indicated.

“Excellent!” cried Maupuis, his voice shrill with excitement. “Now, sir, might I ask you to have the kindness to dip the same hand into the cold water of the other bucket.”

The form did so.

“Now, sir, you would bring our experiment to complete success if you would lay your hand upon the table, and while it is resting there you would yourself dematerialize and return into the medium.”

The figure bowed its comprehension and assent. Then it slowly advanced towards the table, stooped over it, extended its hand — and vanished. The heavy breathing of the medium ceased and he moved uneasily as if about to wake. Maupuis turned on the white light, and threw up his hands with a loud cry of wonder and joy which was echoed by the company.

On the shining wooden surface of the table there lay a delicate yellow-pink glove of paraffin, broad at the knuckles, thin at the wrist, two of the fingers bent down to the palm. Maupuis was beside himself with delight. He broke off a small bit of the wax from the wrist and handed it to an assistant, who hurried from the room.

“It is final!” he cried. “What can they say now? Gentlemen, I appeal to you. You have seen what occurred. Clan any of you give any rational explanation of that paraffin mould, save that it was the result of dematerialization of the hand within it?”

“I can see no other solution,” Richet answered. “But you have to do with very obstinate and very prejudiced people. If they cannot deny it, they will probably ignore it.”

“The Press is here and the Press represents the public,” said Maupuis. “For the Press Engleesh, Monsieur Malone,” he went on in his broken way. “Is it that you can see any answer?”

“I can see none,” Malone answered.

“And you, monsieur?” addressing the representative of the Matin.

The Frenchman shrugged his shoulders.

“For us who had the privilege of being present it was indeed convincing,” said he, “and yet you will certainly be met with objections. They will not realize how fragile this thing is. They will say that the medium brought it on his person and laid it upon the table.”

Maupuis clapped his hands triumphantly. His assistant had just brought him a slip of paper from the next room.

“Your objection is already answered,” he cried, waving the paper in the air. “I had foreseen it and I had put some cholesterine among the paraffin in the zinc pail. You may have observed that I broke off a corner of the mould. It was for purpose of chemical analysis. This has now been done. It is here and cholesterine has been detected.”

“Excellent!” said the French journalist. “You have closed the last hole. But what next?”

“What we have done once we can do again,” Maupuis answered. “I will prepare a number of these moulds. In some cases I will have fists and hands. Then I will have plaster casts made from them. I will run the plaster inside the mould. It is delicate, but it can be done. I will have dozens of them so treated, and I will send them broadcast to every capital in the world that people may see with their own eyes. Will that not at last convince them of the reality of our conclusions?”

“Do not hope for too much, my poor friend,” said Richet, with his hand upon the shoulder of the enthusiast. “You have not yet realized the enormous vis inertioe of the world. But as you have said, ‘Vous marchez — vous marchez toujours’.”

“And our march is regulated,” said Mailey. “There is a gradual release to accommodate it to the receptivity of mankind.”

Richet smiled and shook his head.

“Always transcendental, Monsieur Mailey! Always seeing more than meets the eye and changing science into philosophy! I fear you are incorrigible. Is your position reasonable?”

“Professor Richet,” said Mailey, very earnestly, “I would beg you to answer the same question. I have a deep respect for your talents and complete sympathy with your caution, but have you not come to the dividing of the ways? You are now in the position that you admit — you must admit — that an intelligent apparition in human form, built up from the substance which you have yourself named ectoplasm, can walk the room and carry out instructions while the medium lay senseless under our eyes, and yet you hesitate to assert that spirit has an independent existence. Is that reasonable?”

Richet smiled and shook his head. Without answering he turned and bid farewell to Dr. Maupuis, and to offer him his congratulations. A few minutes later the company had broken up and our friends were in a taxi speeding towards their hotel.

Malone was deeply impressed with what he had seen, and he sat up half the night drawing up a full account of it for the Central News, with the names of those who had endorsed the result — honourable names which no one in the world could associate with folly or deception.

“Surely, surely, this will be a turning point and an epoch.” So ran his dream. Two days later he opened the great London dailies one after the other. Columns about football. Columns about golf. A full page as to the value of shares. A long and earnest correspondence in The Times about the habits of the lapwing. Not one word in any of them as to the wonders which he had seen and reported. Mailey laughed at his dejected face.

“A mad world, my masters,” said he. “A crazy world! But the end is not yet!”

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 21:33