Serapion, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 3

ON PUSHING aside the black curtains, the cabinet proved to be a place like a square closet, with a smooth, solid wooden back, built out from the wall. In it there stood a small, rather heavy table, made of polished oak, on which reposed several objects.

There was a thing like a small megaphone, to which Moore referred as the “cone.” There was an ordinary glass tumbler, nearly filled with water; a lump of soft putty; a sheet of paper blackened by sooty smoke; a pad of ordinary white paper, and several pencils and pens, of different colors and sizes.

“Our preparations tonight,” said Moore, “are of the simplest sort. I have passed the stage of registering Alicia’s externalized motivity by means of instruments of precision. The exact force exerted to lift a weight yards beyond her bodily reach, the regulated rhythm of a metronome’s pendulum, compression of a pneumatic ten feet from her hand — these have all been proved and left behind me. Others have done that with other mediums.

“But I go the step further that Bottazzi and many others dared not take. Having admitted the phenomena, I admit a cause for them outside the physical and beyond Alicia’s individuality. I admit the disembodied spirit. My experiments are no longer based on doubt, but certainty. Their culmination will mean a revolution for the thinking world — a reversal of its whole stand toward matter and the forces that affect it.”

Roberta and I were not particularly interested in revolutions of thought. Like younger children, we wished to know what he proposed doing with the things on the table, and after that we wished to see it done. So we stood silent, hoping that he would stop talking soon and let the exhibition of Alicia’s mysterious powers begin.

Being off on his hobby, Moore probably mistook our silence for interest. At last, however, in the midst of a dissertation on “psychic force,” “telekinesis” and “spiritual controls,” he was interrupted by a long, deep sigh from the chair. The sigh was followed by a strangled gasping, very much as though Alicia were choking to death.

We both started toward the chair, but Moore barred the way.

“Let her alone!” he ordered imperatively. “She’s all right. Come back to your seats.” And when we had returned to our former positions, he added: “She is going into trance now. Later you may approach closer — hold her hands, if you like. But Alicia can’t bear even myself to be very near her in the first stages. It hurts her, you understand. Gives her physical pain.”

Judging from poor Alicia’s appearance, she was in physical pain anyway. Her peaked white face writhed in the most unpleasant contortions. She choked, gasped, gurgled and showed every symptom of a woman in dying agonies. Then suddenly she quieted, her face resumed its lay-figure calmness, and the great eyes opened wide.

“Differs from most psychics. Opens her eyes in trance. Quite frequently.” I heard Moore muttering; but Alicia herself began to speak now, and I forgot him.

The queerest, silliest little voice issued from her lips. It was like a child’s voice, but an idiot child’s.

“Pretty, pretty, pretty!” it gurgled. “Oh such a pretty lady! Did pretty lady come to see Maudie?” Followed a pause. When it spoke again the voice had a petulant note: “Did pretty lady come to see Maudie?”

Moore looked at Roberta. “Why don’t you answer her, Miss Whitingfield?”

Before she could comply, however, another personality had apparently superseded the idiot child. A great laugh that I would have sworn was a man’s echoed across the silent library. It seemed to come from Alicia’s throat.

“Ha, ha, ha! Oh, ha, ha! You’ve got queer taste, Jimmy Moore! Why do you want to drag that pair of freaks in here? Tell ’em to go home! Go on home, young fellow, d’you hear? Go on, now — and take the skirt with you!”

“That is Horace,” commented Moore imperturbably. “You haven’t any manners, Horace, have you?”

“Not a manner!” retorted the voice. “Is that young sport going to leave, or do I have to heave a brick at him? Scat! Get out — you!”

This was certainly outside my idea of a seance. It occurred to me abruptly that the voice was not proceeding from Alicia. Some confederate was concealed nearby — had entered the cabinet, perhaps, by a concealed door. Or Moore himself was ventriloquizing.

Then I realized that Alicia’s eyes were again fixed on my face, and their expression was not that of a woman entranced. They were keen, bright, intelligent. Her lips moved.

“Get! Get out!” adjured that brutally vulgar voice. Then it changed to a whining, female treble: “You are young, Clayton Barbour; young and soft to the soft, cruel hand that would mold you. You are easy to mold as clay-clay-Clayton-clay! Evil hangs over you — black evil! Flee from the damned Clayton Barbour. Go home — you!”

Moore was frowning uneasily.

“Subliminal,” he said shortly. “Pay no attention to these voices. They emanate from the subconscious — Alicia’s dream self. Similar to delirium, you know.”

“Ah!” I murmured, and settled back in my chair. Not that I agreed with Moore, though I had dismissed thought of either a confederate or my host’s ventriloquism. The ventriloquist was Alicia herself. I had no doubt that she could have caused the voices to sound from any quarter of the room as easily as from her own throat. As for trance, her eyes were entirely too wakeful and intelligent. Nearly everything said so far had been more repetition, in different phrases and voices, of that first brief, fierce little demand that I leave.

But by that time I was more than a trifle annoyed. It was hardly pleasant to sit in Roberta’s presence and hear rude puns made on my name — to bear it implied that I was a mere nonentity with no character of my own. I rather plumed myself that Alicia would not find me so pliable. If she really wished me to depart, she had gone the wrong way about it.

“Ah,” I said, settled back, and — the vulgarity of “Horace” may have been contagious — deliberately winked at Alicia. It was a crude enough act, but her methods struck me as crude, too.

A blaze of fury leaped into those too attentive eyes. Her features writhed in such an abominable convulsion as I had never believed possible to the human countenance. Purple, distorted, terrible — with a flashing of bone-white teeth — and out of it all a voice discordant, and different from any we had heard.

“Fool-fool-fool!” it grated. “Protect — try — can’t protect fool! Slipping — it’s got me — I’m slip-Oh-h-h! Oh-h-h-h!”

Even Moore seemed affected this time. We were all on our feet, and he was beside his wife in three long strides. As the last, long-drawn moan died away, however, the dreadful purple subsided from Alicia’s countenance as quickly as it had risen. She was again the queer, white porcelain doll, leaning back with closed lids in her imprisoning chair.

Moore straightened, wiped his forehead, and laughed shakily.

“Do you know,” he said, “with all the experience I’ve had, Alicia still gives me an occasional fright? But I never saw her pass into the second stage quite so violently.”

“Don’t these horrible convulsions hurt your wife, Mr. Moore?”

Roberta was deeply distressed, and no wonder! I felt as if I had brought her to watch the seizures of an epileptic.

“She says they don’t,” replied Moore. “But never mind that. Listen!”

Alicia’s lips writhed whitely. “Light!” came her barely audible whisper.

Promptly Moore reached for a switch. Two of the three lights burning went out. The third was a shaded library lamp on a table not far off. I expected him to extinguish that also, for everything in the room was plainly visible, but he let it be.

“You may hold Alicia’s hands, if you wish,” he offered generously.

We shook our heads. Presently the hushed whisper was heard again.

“Many shadows are here tonight,” it said. “Shadows living and dead. They crowd close. An old, old shadow comes. Blood runs from his lean, gnarled throat. He speaks!”

The whisper became a ghastly, bubbling attempt at articulation. There were no words. The result was just an abominable sound.

“Man with his throat cut might speak like that,” observed Moore reflectively. “She must mean old Jenkins, who was murdered next door. That’s the reason we have this house, you know. The other half’s supposed to be haunted — and is.”

Now I wanted to get out in earnest. Fraud or epileptic, Alicia was entirely too horrible, and Moore, with his calmness, almost worse. I tried to draw Roberta toward the door, but she held back.

“Not yet, Clay. I wish to see what will happen.”

Now the horrid gurgle had merged into a man’s voice. It was loud and distinct as “Horace’s,” but otherwise slightly different — as different, say, as tenor from high baritone.

“I am Jason Gibbs,” it asserted. “Mr. Moore, will you kindly ask your friends to step back a little? We will do what we can for you, but my fellow spirits are a trifle shy of strangers.”

Moore motioned us back. At the same time he shook his head smilingly.

“That’s not Jason,” he murmured. “A very good imitation, but an imitation, nonetheless. We shan’t get much tonight.”

“And in that,” retorted the tenor, “you are exactly mistaken! You will get much. In fact you are likely to get more than one of you ever bargained for. You say I’m not Jason Gibbs? Seeing is believing, isn’t it? Shall I show myself?”

Moore acquiesced smoothly. “Do so, by all means.”

“I’ll attend to that in a little while. I can read your mind all right, Jimmy Moore! You think I’m Horace talking high. Well, Horace is a very good fellow, and fond of his joke, but I’m Jason Gibbs tonight — and all the time, of course! Like to see something pretty?”

“Anything at all, Hor — pardon me Jason!”

“Then watch the cabinet.”

We did. For a minute or two nothing happened.

Then Roberta cried out: “It’s on fire!”

“No,” said Moore. “Watch!”

A strange, tiny flame was running along the edge of the black curtains where they touched the floor.

When I say “running along,” I do not mean that in the usual sense as applied to fire. It was a tiny, individual flame, violet in color, about an inch and a half high, and as it moved it twirled and spun on its own base in the oddest manner. Reaching the center, where the curtains joined, it floated slowly upward, still twirling, left the cabinet and presently disappeared, apparently through the ceiling. Another flame and another followed it.

I assured myself that we were watching a very clever and unusual exhibition of fireworks. But I didn’t believe that. I didn’t know exactly what I believed, but I did know that those twirling, violet flames were the first really strange thing I had ever seen in my life. When seven of them had appeared and vanished, Moore spoke.

“Isn’t that enough — er Jason? Can’t you do better than that for us?”

There was silence, while the eighth and last flame twirled upward and vanished. Then, that great, rough laugh burst startlingly from Alicia’s lips.

“Ha. Ha, ha! Ha, ha! Oh, Jimmy Moore, I should say I can do better! I should say so!”

And with that the curtains parted suddenly and — it is hard to tell, but it was harder to stand the shock of it — a huge, misshapen, grayish-black hand darted out from between them.

Behind it I caught a glimpse of wrist — I couldn’t see any arm. It just leaped out and into existence, as one might say, and to my unspeakable horror laid its gross, gnarled fingers fairly across Roberta Whitingfield’s mouth and chin.

I believed it had seized her throat. Half-mad with shock, I sprang at the hand, gripping, holding it in both of mine. I felt a kind of roughness in my grasp — a rough solidity that melted to nothing even as I touched it. My hands were empty. I caught Roberta, as she swayed backward, whiter than Alicia herself.

And Moore was reproving — something, in the most everyday manner.

“Really, Horace, that wasn’t a nice joke at all!” he criticized.

Easing Roberta into a chair, I sprang savagely at the curtains and swept them aside: behind there was only the table and what we had seen on it. I had a fleeting impression that the lump of putty was different — that, where it had been a formless lump, it appeared now as if it had been squeezed between giant fingers. Then Moore was pulling me back.

“Don’t do that, Barbour. We shan’t get anything more, if you interfere like that.”

“Devil!” it was all I could think of to call him, and it seemed inadequate enough.

“You — devil! To play a trick like that on an unsuspecting girl! Bert, darling, come, I’ll take you home; then I’ll come back and settle with these people!”

“Barbour, I give you my word of honor that I had nothing to do with what just occurred. You brought Miss Whitingfield here of your own volition, and pardon me — against my wishes. But she assured me she was, not of the nervous type-”

“Nervous!” I repeated scornfully. “A really nervous woman would have died when that black paw flew out at her!”

“I’m not hurt, Clayton,” intervened Roberta. “Don’t quarrel with him — please!”

“You are sensible,” approved Moore, “There is no danger from such manifestations as that hand. Why, I have taken a peek into the cabinet when the power was strong and seen half a dozen human limbs and parts of limbs lying about — fragmentary impulses, as one might say, of the mediumistic force-”

But here, with marked decision, Roberta rose.

“I think we will go home, Clay. I have just discovered that I am of the nervous, screaming sort! Mr. Moore, will you please say good night for us to Mrs. Moore when she — when she wakens?”

He sighed disappointedly.

“It’s too bad, really! If Jason Gibbs had actually been in control tonight there would have been nothing to shock you. Horace is nothing. Just a secondary, practical-looking phase of Alicia’s own personality.”

“Come, Roberta.” We started toward the door.

And then, without a warning flicker, the library lamp went out, leaving the room in impenetrable darkness.

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