The Land of Mist, by Arthur Conan Doyle

2. Which Describes an Evening in Strange Company

THE love-affair of Enid Challenger and Edward Malone is not of the slightest interest to the reader, for the simple reason that it is not of the slightest interest to the writer. The unseen, unnoticed lure of the unborn babe is common to all youthful humanity. We deal in this chronicle with matters which are less common and of higher interest. It is only mentioned in order to explain those terms of frank and intimate comradeship which the narrative discloses. If the human race has obviously improved in anything — in Anglo-Celtic countries, at least — it is that the prim affectations and sly deceits of the past are lessened, and that young men and women can meet in an equality of clean and honest comradeship.

A taxi took the adventurers down Edgware Road and into the side-street called “Helbeck Terrace.” Halfway down, the dull line of brick houses was broken by one glowing gap, where an open arch threw a flood of light into the street. The cab pulled up and the man opened the door.

“This is the Spiritualist Church, sir,” said he. Then, as he saluted to acknowledge his tip, he added in the wheezy voice of the man of all weathers: “Tommy-rot, I call it, sir.” Having eased his conscience thus, he climbed into his seat and a moment later his red rear-lamp was a waning circle in the gloom. Malone laughed.

“Vox populi, Enid. That is as far as the public has got at present.”

“Well, it is as far as we have got, for that matter.”

“Yes, but we are prepared to give them a show. I don’t suppose Cabby is. By Jove, it will be hard luck if we can’t get in!”

There was a crowd at the door and a man was facing them from the top of the step, waving his arms to keep them back.

“It’s no good, friends. I am very sorry, but we can’t help it. We’ve been threatened twice with prosecution for over-crowding.” He turned facetious. “Never heard of an Orthodox Church getting into trouble for that. No, sir, no.”

“I’ve come all the way from ‘Ammersmith,” wailed a voice. The light beat upon the eager, anxious face of the speaker, a little woman in black with a baby in her arms.

“You’ve come for clairvoyance, Mam,” said the usher, with intelligence. “See here, give me the name and address and I will write you, and Mrs. Debbs will give you a sitting gratis. That’s better than taking your chance in the crowd when, with all the will in the world, you can’t all get a turn. You’ll have her to yourself. No, sir, there’s no use shovin’. What’s that? Press?”

He had caught Malone by the elbow.

“Did you say Press? The Press boycott us, sir. Look at the weekly list of services in a Saturday’s Times if you doubt it. You wouldn’t know there was such a thing as Spiritualism . . . What paper, sir? . . . ‘The Daily Gazette.’ Well, well, we are getting on. And the lady, too? . . . Special article — my word! Stick to me, sir, and I’ll see what I can do. Shut the doors, Joe. No use, friends. When the building fund gets on a bit we’ll have more room for you. Now, Miss, this way, if you please.”

This way proved to be down the street and round a side-alley which brought them to a small door with a red lamp shining above it.

“I’ll have to put you on the platform — there’s no standing room in the body of the hall.”

“Good gracious!” cried Enid.

“You’ll have a fine view, Miss, and maybe get a readin’ for yourself if your lucky. It often happens that those nearest the medium get the best chance. Now, sir, in here!”

Here was a frowsy little room with some hats and top-coats draping the dirty, white-washed walls. A thin, austere woman, with eyes which gleamed from behind her glasses, was warming her gaunt hands over a small fire. With his back to the fire in the traditional British attitude was a large, fat man with a bloodless face, a ginger moustache and curious, light-blue eyes — the eyes of a deep-sea mariner. A little bald-headed man with huge horn-rimmed spectacles, and a very handsome and athletic youth in a blue lounge-suit completed the group.

“The others have gone on the platform, Mr. Peeble. There’s only five seats left for ourselves.” It was the fat man talking.

“I know, I know,” said the man who had been addressed as Peeble, a nervous, stringy, dried-up person as he now appeared in the light. “But this is the Press, Mr. Bolsover. Daily Gazette special article . . . Malone, the name, and Challenger. This is Mr. Bolsover, our President. This is Mrs. Debbs of Liverpool, the famous clairvoyante. Here is Mr. James, and this tall young gentleman is Mr. Hardy Williams, our energetic secretary. Mr. Williams is a nailer for the buildin’ fund. Keep your eye on your pockets if Mr. Williams is around.”

They all laughed.

“Collection comes later,” said Mr. Williams, smiling.

“A good, rousing article is our best collection,” said the stout president. “Ever been to a meeting before, sir?”

“No,” said Malone.

“Don’t know much about it, I expect.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Well, well, we must expect a slating. They get it from the humorous angle at first. We’ll have you writing a very comic account. I never could see anything very funny in the spirit of one’s dead wife, but it’s a matter of taste and of knowledge also. If they don’t know, how can they take it seriously? I don’t blame them. We were mostly like that ourselves once. I was one of Bradlaugh’s men, and sat under Joseph MacCabe until my old Dad came and pulled me out.”

“Good for him!” said the Liverpool medium.

“It was the first time I found I had powers of my own. I saw him like I see you now.”

“Was he one of us in the body?”

“Knew no more than I did. But they come on amazin’ at the other side if the right folk get hold of them.”

“Time’s up!” said Mr. Peeble, snapping his watch. “You are on the right of the chair, Mrs. Debbs. Will you go first? Then you, Mr. Chairman. Then you two and myself. Get on the left, Mr. Hardy Williams, and lead the singin’. They want warmin’ up and you can do it. Now then, if you please!”

The platform was already crowded, but the newcomers threaded their way to the front amid a decorous murmur of welcome. Mr. Peeble shoved and exhorted and two end seats emerged upon which Enid and Malone perched themselves. The arrangement suited them well, for they could use their notebooks freely behind the shelter of the folk in front.

“What is your reaction?” whispered Enid.

“Not impressed as yet.”

“No, nor I,” said Enid, “but it’s very interesting all the same.”

People who are in earnest are always interesting, whether you agree with them or not, and it was impossible to doubt that these people were extremely earnest. The hall was crammed, and as one looked down one saw line after line of upturned faces, curiously alike in type, women predominating, but men running them close. That type was not distinguished nor intellectual, but it was undeniably healthy, honest and sane. Small trades-folk, male and female shopwalkers, better class artisans, lower middle-class women worn with household cares, occasional young folk in search of a sensation — these were the impressions which the audience conveyed to the trained observation of Malone.

The fat president rose and raised his hand.

“My friends,” said he, “we have had once more to exclude a great number of people who desired to be with us to-night. It’s all a question of the building fund, and Mr. Williams on my left will be glad to hear from any of you I was in a hotel last week and they had a notice hung up in the reception bureau: ‘No cheques accepted’. That’s not the way Brother Williams talks. You just try him.”

The audience laughed. The atmosphere was clearly that of the lecture-hall rather than of the Church.

“There’s just one more thing I want to say before I sit down. I’m not here to talk. I’m here to hold this chair down and I mean to do it. It’s a hard thing I ask. I want Spiritualists to keep away on Sunday nights. They take up the room that inquirers should have. You can have the morning service. But its better for the cause that there should be room for the stranger. You’ve had it. Thank God for it. Give the other man a chance.” The president plumped back into his chair.

Mr. Peeble sprang to his feet. He was clearly the general utility man who emerges in every society and probably becomes its autocrat. With his thin, eager face and darting hands he was more than a live wire — he was a whole bundle of live wires. Electricity seemed to crackle from his fingertips.

“Hymn One!” he shrieked.

A harmonium droned and the audience rose. It was a fine hymn and lustily sung:

“The world hath felt a quickening breath
+From Heaven’s eternal shore,
And souls triumphant over death
+Return to earth once more.”

There was a ring of exultation in the voices as the refrain rolled out:

“For this we hold our Jubilee
+For this with joy we sing,
Oh Grave, where is thy victory
+Oh Death, where is thy sting?”

Yes, they were in earnest, these people. And they did not appear to be mentally weaker than their fellows. And yet both Enid and Malone felt a sensation of great pity as they looked at them. How sad to be deceived upon so intimate a matter as this, to be duped by impostors who used their most sacred feelings and their beloved dead as counters with which to cheat them. What did they know of the laws of evidence, of the cold, immutable decrees of scientific law? Poor earnest, honest, deluded people!

“Now!” screamed Mr. Peeble. “We shall ask Mr. Munro from Australia to give us the invocation.”

A wild-looking old man with a shaggy beard and slumbering fire in his eyes rose up and stood for a few seconds with his gaze cast down. Then he began a prayer, very simple, very unpremeditated. Malone jotted down the first sentence: “Oh, Father, we are very ignorant folk and do not well know how to approach you, but we will pray to you the best we know how.” It was all cast in that humble key. Enid and Malone exchanged a swift glance of appreciation.

There was another hymn, less successful than the first, and the chairman then announced that Mr. James Jones of North Wales would now deliver a trance address which would embody the views of his well-known control, Alasha the Atlantean.

Mr. James Jones, a brisk and decided little man in a faded check suit, came to the front and, after standing a minute or so as if in deep thought, gave a violent shudder and began to talk. It must be admitted that save for a certain fixed stare and vacuous glazing of the eye there was nothing to show that anything save Mr. James Jones of North Wales was the orator. It has also to be stated that if Mr. Jones shuddered at the beginning it was the turn of his audience to shudder afterwards. Granting his own claim, he had proved clearly that an Atlantean spirit might be a portentous bore. He droned on with platitudes and ineptitudes while Malone whispered to Enid that if Alasha was a fair specimen of the population it was just as well that his native land was safely engulfed in the Atlantic Ocean. When, with another rather melodramatic shudder, he emerged from his trance, the chairman sprang to his feet with an alacrity which showed that he was taking no risks lest the Atlantean should return.

“We have present with us to-night,” he cried, “Mrs. Debbs, the well-known clairvoyante of Liverpool. Mrs. Debbs is, as many of you know, richly endowed with several of those gifts of the spirit of which Saint Paul speaks, and the discerning of spirits is among them. These things depend upon laws which are beyond our control, but a sympathetic atmosphere is essential, and Mrs. Debbs will ask for your good wishes and your prayers while she endeavours to get into touch with some of those shining ones on the other side who may honour us with their presence to-night.”

The president sat down and Mrs. Debbs rose amid discreet applause. Very tall, very pale, very thin, with an aquiline face and eyes shining brightly from behind her gold-rimmed glasses, she stood facing her expectant audience. Her head was bent. She seemed to be listening.

“Vibrations!” she cried at last. “I want helpful vibrations. Give me a verse on the harmonium, please.”

The instrument droned out “Jesu, Lover of my soul.”

The audience sat in silence, expectant and a little awed.

The hall was not too well lit and dark shadows lurked in the corners. The medium still bent her head as if her ears were straining. Then she raised her hand and the music stopped.

“Presently! Presently! All in good time,” said the woman, addressing some invisible companion. Then to the audience, “I don’t feel that the conditions are very good to-night. I will do my best and so will they. But I must talk to you first.”

And she talked. What she said seemed to the two strangers to be absolute gabble. There was no consecutive sense in it, though now and again a phrase or sentence caught the attention. Malone put his stylo in his pocket. There was no use reporting a lunatic. A Spiritualist next him saw his bewildered disgust and leaned towards him.

“She’s tuning in. She’s getting her wave length,” he whispered. “It’s all a matter of vibration. Ah, there you are!”

She had stopped in the very middle of a sentence. Her long arm and quivering forefinger shot out. She was pointing at an elderly woman in the second row.

“You! Yes, you, with the red feather. No, not you. The stout lady in front. Yes, you! There is a spirit building up behind you. It is a man. He is a tall man — six foot maybe. High forehead, eyes grey or blue, a long chin brown moustache, lines on his face. Do you recognize him, friend?”

The stout woman looked alarmed, but shook her head.

“Well, see if I can help you. He is holding up a book — brown book with a clasp. It’s a ledger same as they have in offices. I get the words ‘Caledonian Insurance’. Is that any help?”

The stout woman pursed her lips and shook her head.

“Well, I can give you a little more. He died after a long illness. I get chest trouble — asthma.”

The stout woman was still obdurate, but a small, angry, red-faced person, two places away from her, sprang to her feet.

“It’s my ‘usband, ma’m. Tell ’im I don’t want to ‘ave any more dealin’s with him.” She sat down with decision.

“Yes, that’s right. He moves to you now. He was nearer the other. He wants to say he’s sorry. It doesn’t do, you know, to have hard feelings to the dead. Forgive and forget. It’s all over. I get a message for you. It is: ‘Do it and my blessing go with you’! Does that mean anything to you?”

The angry woman looked pleased and nodded.

“Very good.” The clairvoyante suddenly darted out her finger towards the crowd at the door “It’s for the soldier.”

A soldier in khaki, looking very much amazed, was in the front of the knot of people.

“Wot’s for me?” he asked.

“It’s a soldier. He has a corporal’s stripes. He is a big man with grizzled hair. He has a yellow tab on his shoulders. I get the initials J. H. Do you know him?”

“Yes — but he’s dead,” said the soldier.

He had not understood that it was a Spiritualistic Church, and the whole proceedings had been a mystery to him. They were rapidly explained by his neighbours. “My Gawd!” cried the soldier, and vanished amid a general titter. In the pause Malone could hear the constant mutter of the medium as she spoke to someone unseen.

“Yes, yes, wait your turn! Speak up, woman! Well, take your place near him. How should I know? Well, I will if I can.” She was like a janitor at the theatre marshalling a queue.

Her next attempt was a total failure. A solid man with bushy side-whiskers absolutely refused to have anything to do with an elderly gentleman who claimed kinship. The medium worked with admirable patience, coming back again and again with some fresh detail, but no progress could be made.

“Are you a Spiritualist, friend?”

“Yes, for ten years.”

“Well, you know there are difficulties.”

“Yes, I know that.”

“Think it over. It may come to you later. We must just leave it at that. I am only sorry for your friend.”

There was a pause during which Enid and Malone exchanged whispered confidences.

“What do you make of it, Enid?”

“I don’t know. It confuses me.”

“I believe it is half guess-work and the other half a case of confederates. These people are all of the same church, and naturally they know each other’s affairs. If they don’t know they can inquire.”

“Someone said it was Mrs. Debbs’ first visit.”

“Yes but they could easily coach her up. It is all clever quackery and bluff. It must be, for just think what is implied if it is not.”

“Telepathy, perhaps.”

“Yes, some element of that also. Listen! She is off again.”

Her next attempt was more fortunate. A lugubrious man at the back of the hall readily recognized the description and claims of his deceased wife.

“I get the name Walter.”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“She called you Wat?”

“No.”

“Well, she calls you Wat now. ‘Tell Wat to give my love to the children’. That’s how I get it. She is worrying about the children.”

“She always did.”

“Well, they don’t change. Furniture. Something about furniture. She says you gave it away. Is that right?”

“Well, I might as well.”

The audience tittered. It was strange how the most solemn and comic were eternally blended — strange and yet very natural and human.

“She has a message: ‘The man will pay up and all will be well. Be a good man, Wat, and we will be happier here then ever we were on earth’.”

The man put his hand over his eyes. As the seeress stood irresolute the tall young secretary half rose and whispered something in her ear. The woman shot a swift glance over her left shoulder in the direction of the visitors.

“I’ll come back to it,” said she.

She gave two more descriptions to the audience, both of them rather vague, and both recognized with some reservations. It was a curious fact that her details were such as she could not possibly see at the distance. Thus, dealing with a form which she claimed had built up at the far end of the hall, she could none the less give the colour of the eyes and small points of the face. Malone noted the point as one which he could use for destructive criticism. He was just jotting it down when the woman’s voice sounded louder and, looking up, he found that she had turned her head and her spectacles were flashing in his direction.

“It is not often I give a reading from the platform,” said she, her face rotating between him and the audience, “but we have friends here to-night, and it may interest them to come in contact with the spirit people. There is a presence building up behind the gentleman with a moustache — the gentleman who sits next to the young lady. Yes, sir, behind you. He is a man of middle size, rather inclined to shortness. He is old, over sixty, with white hair, curved nose and a white, small beard of the variety that is called goatee. He is no relation, I gather, but a friend. Does that suggest anyone to you, sir?”

Malone shook his head with some contempt. “It would nearly fit any old man,” he whispered to Enid.

“We will try to get a little closer. He has deep lines on his face. I should say he was an irritable man in his lifetime. He was quick and nervous in his ways. Does that help you?”

Again Malone shook his head.

“Rot! Perfect rot,” he muttered.

“Well, he seems very anxious, so we must do what we can for him. He holds up a book. It is a learned book. He opens it and I see diagrams in it. Perhaps he wrote it — or perhaps he taught from it. Yes, he nods. He taught from it. He was a teacher.”

Malone remained unresponsive.

“I don’t know that I can help him any more. Ah! there is one thing. He has a mole over his right eyebrow.”

Malone started as if he had been stung.

“One mole?” he cried.

The spectacles flashed round again.

“Two moles — one large, one small.”

“My God!” gasped Malone. “It’s Professor Summerlee!”

“Ah, you’ve got it. There’s a message: ‘Greetings to old —’ It’s a long name and begins with a C. I can’t get it. Does it mean anything?”

“Yes.”

In an instant she had turned and was describing something or someone else. But she had left a badly-shaken man upon the platform behind her.

It was at this point that the orderly service had a remarkable interruption which surprised the audience as much as it did the two visitors. This was the sudden appearance beside the chairman of a tall, pale-faced bearded man dressed like a superior artisan, who held up his hand with a quietly impressive gesture as one who was accustomed to exert authority. He then half-turned and said a word to Mr. Bolsover.

“This is Mr. Miromar of Dalston,” said the chairman. “Mr. Miromar has a message to deliver. We are always glad to hear from Mr. Miromar.”

The reporters could only get a half-view of the newcomer’s face, but both of them were struck by his noble bearing and by the massive outline of his head which promised very unusual intellectual power. His voice when he spoke rang clearly and pleasantly through the hall.

“I have been ordered to give the message wherever I think that there are ears to hear it. There are some here who are ready for it, and that is why I have come. They wish that the human race should gradually understand the situation so that there shall be the less shock or panic. I am one of several who are chosen to carry the news.”

“A lunatic, I’m afraid!” whispered Malone, scribbling hard upon his knee. There was a general inclination to smile among the audience. And yet there was something in the man’s manner and voice which made them hang on every word.

“Things have now reached a climax. The very idea of progress has been made material. It is progress to go swiftly, to send swift messages, to build new machinery. All this is a diversion of real ambition. There is only one real progress — spiritual progress. Mankind gives it a lip tribute but presses on upon its false road of material science.

“The Central Intelligence recognized that amid all the apathy there was also much honest doubt which had out-grown old creeds and had a right to fresh evidence. Therefore fresh evidence was sent — evidence which made the life after death as clear as the sun in the heavens. It was laughed at by scientists, condemned by the churches, became the butt of the newspapers, and was discarded with contempt. That was the last and greatest blunder of humanity.”

The audience had their chins up now. General speculations were beyond their mental horizon. But this was very clear to their comprehension. There was a murmur of sympathy and applause.

“The thing was now hopeless. It had got beyond all control. Therefore something sterner was needed since Heaven’s gift had been disregarded. The blow fell. Ten million young men were laid dead upon the ground. Twice as many were mutilated. That was God’s first warning to mankind. But it was vain. The same dull materialism prevailed as before. Years of grace were given, and save the stirrings of the spirit seen in such churches as these, no change was anywhere to be seen. The nations heaped up fresh loads of sin, and sin must ever be atoned for. Russia became a cesspool. Germany was unrepentant of her terrible materialism which had been the prime cause of the war. Spain and Italy were sunk in alternate atheism and superstition. France had no religious ideal. Britain was confused and distracted, full of wooden sects which had nothing of life in them. America had abused her glorious opportunities and, instead of being the loving younger brother to a stricken Europe, she held up all economic reconstruction by her money claims; she dishonoured the signature of her own president, and she refused to join that League of Peace which was the one hope of the future. All have sinned, but some more than others, and their punishment will be in exact proportion.

“And that punishment soon comes. These are the exact words I have been asked to give you. I read them lest I should in any way garble them.”

He took a slip of paper from his pocket and read:

“‘What we want is, not that folk should be frightened, but that they should begin to change themselves — to develop themselves on more spiritual lines. We are not trying to make people nervous, but to prepare while there is yet time. The world cannot go on as it has done. It would destroy itself if it did. Above all we must sweep away the dark cloud of theology which has come between mankind and God’.”

He folded up the paper and replaced it in his pocket. “That is what I have been asked to tell you. Spread the news where there seems to be a window in the soul. Say to them, ‘Repent! Reform! the Time is at hand’.”

He had paused and seemed about to turn. The spell was broken. The audience rustled and leaned back in its seats. Then a voice from the back:

“Is this the end of the world, mister?”

“No,” said the stranger, curtly.

“Is it the Second Coming?” asked another voice.

“Yes.”

With quick light steps he threaded his way among the chairs on the platform and stood near the door. When Malone next looked round he was gone.

“He is one of these Second-coming fanatics,” he whispered to Enid. “There are a lot of them — Christadelphians, Russellites, Bible Students and what-not. But he was impressive.”

“Very,” said Enid.

“We have, I am sure, been very interested in what our friend has told us,” said the chairman. “Mr. Miromar is in hearty sympathy with our movement even though he cannot be said actually to belong to it. I am sure he is always welcome upon our platforms. As to his prophecy, it seems to me the world has had enough trouble without our anticipating any more. If it is as our friend says, we can’t do much to mend the matter. We can only go about our daily jobs, do them as well as we can, and await the event in full confidence of help from above. If it’s the Day of Judgment tomorrow,” he added, smiling, “I mean to look after my provision store at Hammersmith today. We shall now continue with the service.”

There was a vigorous appeal for money and a great deal about the building-fund from the young secretary. “It’s a shame to think that there are more left in the street than in the building on a Sunday night. We all give our services. No one takes a penny. Mrs. Debbs is here for her bare expenses. But we want another thousand pounds before we can start. There is one brother here who mortgaged his house to help us. That’s the spirit that wins. Now let us see what you can do for us to-night.”

A dozen soup-plates circulated, and a hymn was sung to the accompaniment of much chinking of coin. Enid and Malone conversed in undertones.

“Professor Summerlee died, you know, at Naples last year.”

“Yes, I remember him well.”

“And ‘old C’ was, of course, your father.”

“It was really remarkable.”

“Poor old Summerlee. He thought survival was an absurdity. And here he is — or here he seems to be.”

The soup-plates returned — it was mostly brown soup, unhappily, and they were deposited on the table where the eager eye of the secretary appraised their value. Then the little shaggy man from Australia gave a benediction in the same simple fashion as the opening prayer. It needed no Apostolic succession or laying-on of hands to make one feel that his words were from a human heart and might well go straight to a Divine one. Then the audience rose and sang their final farewell hymn — a hymn with a haunting tune and a sad, sweet refrain of “God keep you safely till we meet once more.” Enid was surprised to feel the tears running down her cheeks. These earnest, simple folks with their direct methods had wrought upon her more than all the gorgeous service and rolling music of the cathedral.

Mr. Bolsover, the stout president, was in the waiting-room and so was Mrs. Debbs.

“Well, I expect you are going to let us have it,” he laughed. “We are used to it Mr. Malone. We don’t mind. But you will see the turn some day. These articles may rise up in judgement.”

“I will treat it fairly, I assure you.”

“Well, we ask no more.” The medium was leaning with her elbow on the mantel piece, austere and aloof.

“I am afraid you are tired,” said Enid.

“No, young lady, I am never tired in doing the work of the spirit people. They see to that.”

“May I ask,” Malone ventured, “whether you ever knew Professor Summerlee?”

The medium shook her head. “No, sir, no. They always think I know them. I know none of them. They come and I describe them.”

“How do you get the message?”

“Clairaudient. I hear it. I hear them all the time. The poor things all want to come through and they pluck at me and pull me and pester me on the platform. ‘Me next — me — me’! That’s what I hear. I do my best, but I can’t handle them all.”

“Can you tell me anything of that prophetic person?” asked Malone of the chairman. Mr. Bolsover shrugged his shoulders with a deprecating smile.

“He is an Independent. We see him now and again as a sort of comet passing across us. By the way, it comes back to me that he prophesied the war. I’m a practical man myself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof. We get plenty in ready cash without any bills for the future. Well, good night! Treat us as well as you can.”

“Good night,” said Enid.

“Good night,” said Mrs. Debbs. “By the way, young lady, you are a medium yourself. Good night!”

And so they found themselves in the street once more inhaling long draughts of the night air. It was sweet after that crowded hall. A minute later they were in the rush of the Edgware Road and Malone had hailed a cab to carry them back to Victoria Gardens.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/doyle/arthur_conan/mist/chapter2.html

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