Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 2

THAT afternoon I reached home to find Roberta herself on the veranda with my sister Catherine. Rather to my consternation, on hearing of the restaurant encounter, Bert promptly dubbed it, “The Adventure of the Awful Veiled One,” and announced her intent to solve the mystery in my company. Catherine seconded the motion, calmly including herself in the party, but there I rebelled.

Roberta and I were to be married one of these days. She was mine to command me.

I had a vague idea of what Moore’s invitation portended, and I knew what would happen if I took both those girls and anything unusual occurred. They would giggle.

We kept Roberta with us for dinner, and when she had gone home to dress, Cathy and I had our argument in earnest. My mother was confined to her room with one of her frequent headaches, and for a while dad hid himself in his paper. Then a grizzled head appeared over the top of it.

“Cathy,” he drawled, “I haven’t a notion what this is all about, but wherever Clay is off to, I’m sure he doesn’t want two girls. Clay, I don’t wish to be rude, but if you are going, won’t you please depart at once? Run upstairs, Catherine, and see if all this loud talking has disturbed your mother.”

Cathy went. She knew better than to oppose dad when he used that tone.

That evening I called for Roberta in my car, and after nine o’clock we arrived at the address written across Moore’s card. It turned out to be half of a detached double dwelling, standing on a corner beyond a block of quiet, respectable red-stone fronts, with a deep lawn between it and the street.

“Ridiculous house,” Bert named it on first sight, and ridiculous house it was in a certain sense. It reminded one of that king in the old fairy tale who “laughed with one side of his face and smiled with the other.”

The half that bore Moore’s number was neat, shining and of unimpeachable exterior. Its yellow brick front was clean, with freshly painted white woodwork; it’s half of the lawn, close-clipped and green, was set with little thriving round flower beds.

The other half had the look of a regular old beggar among houses. The paint, weather-beaten, blistered and brown, was no dingier than the dirt-freckled bricks. Two or three windows were boarded up. Not one of the rest but mourned a broken pane or so. From the dilapidated porch wooden steps all askew led to a weed-grown walk. On that side the lawn was a straggling waste of weeds.

Roberta had hopped out of the car without waiting for assistance. I joined her and we stood staring at the queer-looking combination.

“Roberta,” I said solemnly after a moment, “there is a grim, grisly secret which I hadn’t meant to alarm you with, but perhaps it is better you should be warned now.”

“Clay! What do you mean?”

“That house!” My voice was a sinister whisper. “Don’t you see? ‘Life and death,’ or ‘Chained to the corpse of his victim!’ Moore murdered one of the twin houses, and now he must live in the other house as a penance.”

To my surprise, instead of laughing at my nonsense, she took my arm with a shiver. “Don’t!” she protested. “When you speak so the house isn’t funny any more. It’s horrid. A-a dead-alive house! Let’s not go in, Clay.”

I felt annoyed, for this last-moment retreat was not like her. I said, “Come along, Berty, and don’t be silly. I suppose one half belongs to Moore and the other to somebody else, and he can’t make the other owner keep his half in repair.”

After some further discussion, we entered the gate at last. I remembered that as we went up Moore’s walk, I threw back my head and glanced upward. The moonlight was so white on the slanting house roofs that for just a moment I had an illusion of their being thick with snow.

With snow. Yes, I remembered that illusion afterward.

Moore had expected me alone, of course, but he needn’t have made that fact quite so obvious. He met us in his library on the second floor, whither a neat, commonplace maid had ushered us after a glance at my card.

It was a long, rather heavily furnished room, lined with books to the ceiling. Our first view of it noted nothing bizarre or out of the ordinary. Moore was seated reading, but as we were announced he rose quickly. It was when he perceived Roberta and realized that I had brought a companion that I had my first real doubt that Nils had not exaggerated about the man’s temper.

His good-humored, full-lipped mouth seemed to draw inward and straighten to a disagreeably gash-like-effect. The skin over his cheekbones tightened. A pronounced narrowness between the eyes forced itself suddenly upon the attention. For one instant we faced a man disagreeably different from the one who had parried all Berquist’s thrusts with unshakable good nature.

As he rose and came toward us, however, the ominous look melted again to geniality. “Began to think old Nils had seared you off in earnest, Barbour,” he greeted. “Witch burnings; would still be in order if our wild anarchist had his way, eh?”

Rather reluctantly I performed the necessary introductions.

“I had no right to come with Clayton,” Roberta apologized. “But when he told me of your invitation, I— we thought-”

“That you might find some amusement here?” Moore finished for her. “That’s all right, Miss Whitingfield, though the work I am engaged in is a bit serious to be amusing, I fear. Hope you’re not the nervous, screaming sort?” he added, with blunt anxiety.

She flushed a trifle, then laughed. “I’m not — really!” she protested. “But I’ll go away if you wish.”

That was too much for me. “We’ll both leave,” I said very haughtily. “Sorry to have put you out, Mr. Moore.”

To my astonishment, for I was really angry, he burst out laughing. It was such a genial, inoffensive merriment as caught me unawares. I found myself laughing with him, though at what I hadn’t the faintest notion.

“Why, Barbour,” he chuckled, “you mustn’t take offense at a lack of conventional mannerisms on my part. I’m a worker first, last and all the time. Miss Whitingfield, you’re welcome as the flowers in May, but I can no more forget my work nor what is likely to affect it than I can forget my own name. You — aren’t angry with me, are you?”

“N-no — ” she began rather hesitatingly, but just then the door opened behind us and we heard someone enter.

“I am here!”

The words were uttered in a dry, toneless voice. We both turned, and I realized that the “Mystery of the Awful Veiled One” was a mystery no more, or at least had been shorn of its purple drapery.

Of course, I had expected to meet Alicia here, but I think I should have recognized those eyes in any surroundings. They were fully as bright, dark, and almost incredibly large and attentive as they had seemed behind the veil. For the rest, Mrs. Moore’s slender figure was draped in filmy black, between which and a mass of black hair her face gleamed, a peaked white patch — and with those eyes in it.

“Medium” or not, Mrs. Moore herself was more like the creature of another world than any human being I had ever seen.

“Be seated, Alicia.”

Without troubling to present Roberta, Moore gestured toward a peculiar-looking chair at one side of the room. The slender creature in black swept toward it obediently.

Having reached the chair, she turned, faced us for a moment, still expressionless save for those terribly attentive eyes, then sank into the chair’s depths.

Roberta was frankly staring, and so was I, but my stare had a newly startled quality. Alicia had passed me very closely indeed. My hand still tingled where another hand — a bony, fierce little hand — had closed on it in a swift, pinching clasp. And though I was sure that her colorless lips had not moved, four low words had reached my ears distinctly.

“Go away — you! Go.”

I glanced at Berty, but decided that she had missed the rude little message. Moore certainly hadn’t heard, for he had gone over to the chair, and was standing behind it when Alicia reached there.

With a slight shrug I determined that where so much oddity prevailed, this additional eccentricity of Mrs. Moore had better be ignored. To think of her as a real person — my hostess — was made difficult by the atmosphere of utter strangeness which her appearance and Moore’s treatment of her had already created.

“You and Miss Whitingfield sit over there,” commanded Moore briskly.

“I’ll explain what we’re about in a minute. You’ll be interested. Can’t avoid it. A little farther off, Miss Whitingfield — do you mind? Alicia is more easily affected than other sensitives. More easily affected. Right! Now just a moment and I can talk to you.”

We had seated ourselves as he directed, I some half dozen feet from the enthroned Alicia, Roberta much farther away, well over by the heavily curtained windows.

To the savage and to the young “strange” is generally synonymous with “funny.” We exchanged one quick look, then kept our eyes resolutely apart. A wave of incipient mirth had fairly leaped between us. It was well, I thought, that Cathy had been suppressed.

Then we saw what Moore was doing at the chair, and forgot laughter in amazement. It must be remembered that Roberta and I were innocent of the least previous experience in this line. Save for some hazy knowledge of “spiritualistic fakes” and “mind-reading” of the vaudeville type, we were blankly ignorant, and by consequence as unconsciously receptive as a couple of innocent young sponges. But at first we were merely shocked by the brutal fact of Moore’s preparations.

I have said that the chair taken by Alicia was a peculiar one. It stood before a pair of black curtains, which concealed what in spiritualistic circles is called a cabinet. The chair itself was large, heavy, with a high back and uncommonly broad armrests. More, it had about it that look of apparatus which one associates with dentists’ and surgeons’ fixtures. Alicia leaned back in it, her hands resting limp on the armrests.

Then up over each fragile wrist Moore clamped a kind of steel handcuff, attached to the chair arm. Another pair of similar fetters, extended on short rods from the back, were clasped round her upper arms. And, as if this were not enough — he locked together the two halves of a wide steel band about her waist.

And his wife sat there, inert as a porcelain doll, her enormous eyes wide open and fixed on me in perfectly unswerving contemplation.

“All really great mediums will trick you if they can,” said Moore coolly. “Don’t need any object for fraud. Unless you should call the trickery itself an object. Alicia is a great medium. Very — great!”

Suddenly every decent impulse I had rose to revolt. That was a woman in the chair — Moore’s wife — and he treated her, talked about her, as though she were some peculiarly trained and subject animal.

I rose sharply. “Mrs. Moore, is this affair proceeding with your consent?”

“Don’t address the psychic!” snapped her husband over one shoulder.

But I wasn’t afraid of him. At that moment I could have thrashed the man cheerfully — and with ease, for I carried no superfluous flesh in those days, and had inches the better of him in height and reach. Roberta was suddenly at my side, and I knew — by the excited shine of her eyes — that she sensed my emotion and approved it.

“Mrs. Moore,” I repeated “are you enduring this of your own free will? Moore, attempt to intimidate her, and you’ll be sorry!”

He straightened, and turned on me in earnest, but Alicia herself broke the strain.

“Sit down, boy,” she said in her dry, toneless voice. “What James says of fraud is true. But he does not mean what you think. I am not conscious of what I do in trance, and the self then in control has no moral standards. Were my earthly limbs not bound, no phenomena could be credited, and my own guides have advised the construction of the chair. The steel bands are padded with felt, and do not hurt me. I did not speak to you when I entered, because at some times the guides like me to be silent. This is tiring me. You must not quarrel with James. Violent emotion tires me. A great evil will come to you through me, but now you must sit down and be very quiet. I am tired.”

For the first time, white lids drooped over those unnatural eyes. The closing of them seemed to rob her face of the last trace of fellow-humanity. Moore was grinning again, though rather tensely.

“Please sit down, Barbour,” he pleaded in a very low voice. “I should have explained a few things to you in advance. Alicia will be asleep directly, and then we can talk.”

I did sit down, and Roberta retired to her window. That toneless, indifferent voice of Alicia’s, that cool exactitude of statement, had not seemed the expression of a meek and terrorized soul. But if she were not afraid of Moore, why had she been so surreptitious in asking — in ordering me to leave? “I did not speak to you when I entered — ” But she had spoken to me. “A great evil will come to you through me — ” And she said it like a remark on the weather!

I gave up suddenly. All my curiosity was submerged in a wave of healthy revolt against the obviously abnormal. A vague unhappiness came with it, and the desire above everything to take Roberta and get out.

Alicia was breathing regularly now, in long, deep breaths, soft but audible. Leaving her, Moore drew up a chair between Roberta and me, seated himself, crossed one leg over his knee, and beamed amiably.

“Mr. Moore,” I began, but he checked me, finger in air.

“Sh! Trifle lower, please. I know what you’re thinking, Barbour, and I don’t blame you. Not in-the-least! My fault entirely. Now let’s drop all that and forget it. You are two very intelligent people, but I can never remember that the average man or woman knows as much about sensitives as a baby knows of trigonometry. Now, why did I invite you here, Barbour?”

“For an interesting evening, you said.”

“Exactly! And you’ll have it. First of many, I hope. But don’t expect any messages from your deceased grandfathers tonight, for you won’t get ’em.”

“Very well,” I assented. “Bert, do you hear that? Our revered ancestors won’t speak to us!”

“And don’t imagine this is a matter for joking, either,” reproved Moore, but still amiably. “I did not say that purely spiritual forces would not be involved. But a psychic — a medium — has all the complexity of the highest type of nervous human — plus. And it’s the plus sign that complicates matters. You might get messages through from almost anyone — eventually. You’ll seem to get them tonight. But they won’t be real. Alicia has more different selves than the proverbial cat has lives. And all wanting a chance to talk, and parade around, and pass themselves off as anybody you’d care to name, from Julius Caesar to your mother’s deceased aunt’s nephew. Very remarkable!”

“I should say so!”

We glanced rather anxiously at Alicia’s quiescent figure. But no sudden procession of selves had yet appeared.

“That, however, is beside the mark,” announced Moore briskly. “In such commonplace manifestations, Alicia dematerializes a percentage of her own fleshly bulk, externalizes and projects it from her subliminal consciousness. Aside from proving the accepted laws of matter to be false, the phenomena are of small importance.”

He paused again.

“I should think,” ventured Roberta, carefully avoiding my eyes, “that disproving the laws of matter would be — might be almost enough for one evening.”

“The accepted laws,” he corrected rather sharply. “Crooks-Oschorowicz–Lombroso-Bottazzi–Lodge — I could name you over a dozen great scientists who have already disproved them in that way. But they had only Tusapia Paladino and lesser psychics to work with. We have — Alicia!”

A vague memory stirred in me. “Paladino?” I said. “You mean that famous Italian medium? I thought she was exposed as a fraud.”

He frowned. This was a sore subject with him, though I did not know why till much later.

“I tell you,” he scowled, “they are all frauds — when they have the chance. The first impulse of hysteria is toward deception. Genuine mediumship and hysteria are practically inseparable. What can you expect? Paladino was as genuine as Alicia, and Alicia will fool you outrageously, given the least opportunity. Quite — scandalously — unscrupulous!”

“You’re very frank about it,” I couldn’t help saying.

“Why not? You heard Alicia’s own statement in that regard. She works with me to overcome the disadvantage. Mabel and Maudie are manageable enough, but Horace is a born joker. For a long time Horace fought bitterly against the idea of that chair, and only yielded when I threatened to give up the sittings.”

“These people are friends who attend the seances?” I inquired, thinking that Moore had Nils’ habit of referring to all his acquaintances by their Christian names.

Moore appeared mildly surprised.

“Don’t you really know anything at all of spiritualistic investigation?”

“Sorry. I’m afraid I’ve never had enough faith in spooks to be interested.”

“Never mind. We’ll correct that!” assured Moore calmly. “Mabel and Maudie and Horace are three of Alicia’s spirit guides. She believes them to be real entities of the spirit world — people who have passed beyond, you understand — but I doubt it. Doubt it — very seriously! In fact, I have reason to be positive that those three, along with several subsidiary ‘spirits,’ are just so many phases of Alicia’s subconscious. On the other band, Jason Gibbs, her real ‘control,’ is a spirit to be reckoned with. You will find Jason an amazingly interesting man on acquaintance. And now that I have explained fully, suppose we take a look at the cabinet?”

Roberta and I rose and followed him, not sure whether to be amused or impressed. His statement that he had “explained fully” was a joke, so far as we were concerned. What nebulous ideas of a seance we had possessed were far removed from anything we had met tonight. To sit in a circle, holding hands in the dark; to hear mysterious raps and poundings; to glimpse, perhaps, the cheese-clothy forms of highly fictitious “ghosts” — that had been our previous conception of a “sitting” culled from general and half-forgotten reading.

Moore was so utterly matter-of-fact and unmystical of manner that he probably impressed us more deeply than if he had attempted to inspire awe.

And, I reflected, if he were a charlatan, where was his profit? Nils himself had assured me that Mrs. Moore was not a professional medium.

The fact was that I had emerged from college almost wholly ignorant of the modern debate between the physicist and the spiritist — ignorant that science itself had been driven to admission of supernormal powers in certain “victims of hysteria,” but stood firm on the ground that these powers were of physical and terrestrial origin.

James Barton Moore, however, was a born materialist who had accepted the spiritistic theory from an intellectual viewpoint. The result showed in his matter-of-fact way of dealing with the occult. He had, moreover, one characteristic of a certain type of scientist in less weird fields. He would have put a stranger or his best friend on the vivisection table, could he by that means have hoped to acquire one small modicum of the knowledge he sought.

Figuratively, he already had me on the table that night.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00