The Countess Mottich was far more famous than most Prime Ministers or Imperial Chancellors. For, to the great bewilderment of many alleged men of science, she had the power of small objects to move without apparent physical contact. Her first experiments had been with a purblind old person named Oudouwitz, who was in love with her in his senile way. Few people swallowed the published results of his experiiments with her. If convinced they would have been very much startled. For she was supposed to be able to stop clocks at will, to open and close doors without approaching them — and other feats of the same general type. But she had sobered down since leaving the Professor — which she had done, just as soon as she had acquired enough money to get married to the man she wanted. Her power had left her instantly, strange to say; and many were the theories propounded connecting these circumstances. But her husband had displeased her; she had flown off in a rage — and her power had returned! But most of her sensational feats were relegated to the bad mad old days of wild and headstrong youth; at present she merely undertook to raise light small objects, such as tiny celluloid spheres, from the table, without touching them.
So Cyril explained, when Lisa asked "What does she do?"
(The Countess was supposed to know no English. She spoke it as well as anyone in the room, of course.)
"She moves things," he said; "manages to get hold of a couple of hairs when we're tired of looking at foolishness for hours together, twists them in her fingers, and, miracle of miracles! the ball rises in the air. This is everywhere considered by all rightly-disposed people to be certain proof of the immortality of the soul."
"But doesn't she challenge you? ask you to search her, and all that?"
"Oh yes! You've got the same chance as a deaf man has to detect a mistake in a Casals recital. If she can't get a hair, she'll pull a thread from her silk stockings or her dress; if you get people that are really too clever for her, then 'the force is very weak this afternoon,' though she keeps you longer than ever in the hope of tiring your attention, and perhaps to pay you out for baffling her!"
Grey said all this with an air of the most hideous boredom. It was evident that he hated the whole business. He was restless and anxious, too, with another part of his brain; Lisa could see that, but she dared not question him. So she went on the old track.
"Doesn't she get messages from the dead?"
"It's not done much now. It's too easy to fake, and the monied fools lost interest, as a class. This new game tickles the vanity of some of the sham scientific people, like Lombroso; they think they'll make a reputation like Newton out of it. They don't know enough science to criticize the business on sensible lines. Oh, really, I prefer your fat friend with the large building and the letter about a journey!"
"You mean that the whole thing is absolute fraud?"
"Can't say. Hard to prove a negative, or to affirm a universal proposition. But the onus of proof is on the spiritualists, and there are only two cases worth considering, Mrs. Piper, who never did anything very striking, anyhow, and Eusapia Palladino."
"She was exposed in America some time ago," said the girl, "but I think it was only in the Hearst newspapers."
"Hearst is the American Northcliffe," explained Cyril for the benefit of the Pasha. "And so is Northcliffe," he added musingly and unblushingly!
"I'm afraid I don't know who Northeliffe is," said Akbar.
"Northcliffe was Harmsworth." Cyril's voice was caressing, like one soothing a fractious child.
"But who was Harmsworth?" asked the Turk.
The young magician, in a hollow tone: "Nobody."
"Nobody?" cried Akbar. "I don't understand!"
Cyril shook his head solemnly and sadly." "There ain't no such person." Akbar Pasha looked at Grey as if he were a ghost. It was a horrible trick of the boy's. He would invite confidence by a sensible, even possibly a bright, remark; then, in an explanatory way, he would lead his interlocutor, with exquisite skill, through quaking sands of various forms of insanity, only to drop them at the end into the bog of dementia. The dialogue suddenly realized itself as a nightmare. To Cyril it was probably the one genuine pleasure of conversation. He went on, in a brisk professional manner, with a suave persuasive smile; "I am trying to affirm the metaphysical dogma enunciated by Schelling in his philosophy of the relative, emphasizing in particular the lemma that the acceptation of the objective as real involves the conception of the individual as a tabula rasa, thus correlating Occidental theories of the Absolute with the Buddhist doctrine of Sakyaditthi! But confer in rebuttal the Vagasaneyi-Samhita-Upanishad!" He turned brusquely to Lisa with the finality of one who has explained everything to the satisfaction of everybody. "Yes, you do right to speak in defence of Eusapia Palladino; we will investigate her when we reach Naples."
"You seem determined that I should go to Naples?"
"Nothing to do with me: the master's orders. He'll explain, by-and-by. Now let's prove that this lady, whose locks are bushy and black as a raven's, has no hairs concealed upon her person!"
"I hate you when you're cynical and sarcastic."
"Love me, love my dog!" —-
Simon Iff arrested his attention with an imperious gesture.
"Come into the garden, Maud," said Cyril suddenly; "For the black bat, Night, hath flown." He took her by the arm.
"Girl," he said, when they were among the flowers with his long arms about her, and a passionate kiss still flaming through every nerve of both their bodies, "I can't explain now, but you're in the most deadly danger from these people. And we simply can't get rid of them. Trust us, and wait! Till they're gone, keep away from them: make any excuse you like, 'if it's necessary; sham a hysterical attack and bolt if the worst comes to the worst — but don't let either of them manage to scratch you! It might be your death."
His evident earnestness did more than convince her. It reassured her on her whole position. She realized that he loved her, that his manner was merely an ornament, an affectation like his shaved head and his strange dress. And her own love for him, freed from all doubt, rushed out as does the sun from behind the crest of some cold pyramid of rock and ice, in mountain lands.
When they returned to the studio, they found that the simple preparations for the seance had been completed. The medium was already seated at the table, with the two men one on either side of her. Before her, between her hands, were some small spheres of celluloid, a couple of pencil-ends, and various other small objects. These had been "examined" with the utmost care, as who should examine the tail of a dog to find out whether he would bite. The history of spiritualism is that of blocking up every crack in a room with putty, and then leaving the door wide open.
It may well be doubted whether even the most tedious writer could describe a seance with success. People generally have an idea that there is something exciting and mysterious about it. In reality, people who boast of their ability to enjoy their third consecutive sleepless night have been known to pray their Maker for sudden death at least two hours before the occurrence of the first "phenomenon." To be asked to keep the attention unceasingly on things of not the slightest intrinsic interest or importance is absolutely maddening to anyone above the mental level of a limpet.
"Observe how advantageously we are placed," whispered Cyril to Lisa as they took seats on the divan, toward which the table had been drawn. "For all we know, one or both those men are in collusion with Mottich. I'd stake my life Simple Simon isn't; but I wouldn't expect my own twin brother to take my word for it, in a matter like this. Then the curtains have been drawn; why? To help the force along. Yet it is supposed to be kinetic force; and we cannot even imagine how light could interfere with it. Otherwise, it is that the light 'distresses the medium in her peculiar state.' Just as the policeman's bull's-eye distresses the burglar in his peculiar state! Now look here! These arguments about 'evidential' phenomena always resolve themselves into questions of the conditions prevailing at the time; but the jest is that it always turns out that the argument is about conjuring tricks, not about 'forces' at all."
"Won't she mind us talking?"
"Mediums alway's encourage the sitters to talk. The moment she sees us getting interested in what we are saying, she takes the opportunity to do the dangerous, delicate part of the trick; then she calls our attention, says we must watch her very carefully to see that the control is good and no cheating possible, because she feels the force coming very strong. Everybody disguises himself as a cat at a mousehole — which you can keep up, after long training, for about three minutes; then the attention slackens slightly again, and she pulls off the dear old miracle. Listen!"
Simon Iff was engaged in a violent controversy with the Pasha as to the disposition of the six legs at their end of the table. On the accurate solution of this problem, knotty in more than one sense, depended the question as to whether the medium could have kicked the table and made one of the balls jump. If it were proved that it was impossible, the question would properly arise as to whether a ball had jumped, anyhow.
"Isn't it the dullest thing on earth?" droned Cyril. But, even without what he had said in the garden, she would have known that he was lying. For all his nonchalance, he was watching very acutely; for all his bored, faded voice, she could feel every tone tingling with suppressed excitement. It was certainly not the seance that interested him; but what was it?
The medium began to moan. She complained of cold; she began to twist her body about; she dropped her head suddenly on the table in collapse. Nobody took any particular notice; it was all part of the performance. "Give me your hands!" she said to Lisa, "I feel you are so sympathetic." As a matter of fact, the girl's natural warmth of heart had stirred her for a moment. She reached her hands out. But Simon Iff rose from the table and caught them. "You may have a hair or a loose thread," he said sharply. "Lights up, please, Cyril!"
The old mystic proceeded to make a careful examination of Lisa's hands. But Cyril watching him, divined an ulterior purpose. "I say," he drawled, "I'm afraid I was in the garden when you examined the Countess. Oughtn't I to look at her hands if this is to be evidential?" Simon Iff's smile showed him that he was on the right track. He took the medium's hands, and inspected them minutely. Of course he found no hairs; he was not looking for them. "Do you know," he said, "I think we ought to file off these nails. There's such a lot of room for hairs and things."
The Pasha immediately protested. "I don't think we ought to interfere with a lady's manicuring," he said indignantly. "Surely we can trust our eyes!"
Cyril Grey had beaten lynxes in the Open Championship; but he only murmured: "I'm so sorry, Pasha; I can't trust mine. I'm threatened with tobacco amblyopia."
The imbecility of the remark, as intended, came near to upset the Turk's temper.
"I've always agreed with Berkeley," he went on, completely changing the plane of the conversation, while maintaining its original subject, "that our eyes bear no witness to anything external. I am afraid I'm only wasting your time, because I don't believe anything I see, in any case."
The Turk was intensely irritated at the magician's insolence. Whenever Cyril was among strangers, or in any danger, he invariably donned the bomb-proof armour of British aristocracy. He had been on the "Titanic"; a second and a half before she took the last plunge, he had turned to his neighbour, and asked casually, "Do you think there is any danger?"
Half an hour later he had been dragged into a boat, and, on recovering consciousness, took occasion to remark that the last time he had been spilt out of a boat was in Byron's Pool — "above Cambridge, England, you know" — and proceeded to relate the entire story of his adventure. He passed from one story to another, quite indifferent to the tumult on the boat, and ended by transporting the minds of the others far from the ice of the Atlantic to the sunny joys of the May Week at Cambridge. He had got everybody worked up as to what would happen after "First shot just before Ditton, and missed by half a blade; Jesus washed us off, and went away like the devil! Third were coming up like steam, with Hall behind them, and old T.J. cursing them to blazes from his gee; it was L for leather all up the Long Reach; then, thank goodness, Hall bumped Third just under the Railway Bridge: Cox yelled, and there was Jesus —-" But they never heard what happened to the first boat of that excellent college, for Grey suddenly fainted, and they found that he was bleeding slowly to death from a deep wound over the heart.
This was the man who was frightened out of his life at the possibility of a chance scratch from an exquisitely clean and polished finger-nail.
The Turk could do nothing but bow. "Well, if you insist, Mr. Grey, we can only ask the lady."
He did so, and she professed most willing eagerness. The operation was a short one, and the seance recommenced.
But in a few minutes the Countess herself wearied. "I know I shall get nothing; it's no use; I do wish Baby were here; she could do what you want in a minute."
The Pasha nodded gleefully. "That's always the way we begin," he explained to Simple Simon. "Now I'll have to hypnotize her and she'll wake up in her other personality."
"Very, very interesting," agreed Simon; curiously enough, we were just discussing double personalities with Madame la Giuffria when you honoured us with your visit. She has never seen anything of the kind."
"You'll he charmed, Marquise," the old Turk assured Lisa; "it's the most wonderful thing you ever saw." He began to make passes over the medium's forehead; she made a series of convulsive movements, which gradually died away, and were succeeded by deep sleep. Cyril took Lisa to one side. "This is really great magic! This is the old original confidence trick. Pretend to be asleep yourself, so that all the others may go to sleep in reality. It is described at no length whatever by Frazer in his book on sympathetic magic. For that most learned doctor, vir praeclarus et optimus, omits the single essential of his subject. It is not enough to pretend that your wax image is the person you want to bewitch; you must make a real connexion. That is the whole art of magic, to be able to do that; and it is the one point that Frazer omits."
The Countess was now heaving horribly, and emitting a series of complicated snorts. The Pasha explained that this was "normal," that she was "waking up into the new personality." Almost before he finished, she had slid off her chair on to the floor, where she uttered an intense and prolonged wail. The men removed the table, that her extrication might become more simple. They found her on her back, smiling and crowing, opening and closing her hands. When she saw the men she began to cry with fright. Then her first articulation was "Mum—Mum—Mum—Mum—Mum."
"She wants her mother," explained Akbar. "I didn't know a lady was to be present; but as we are so happy, would you mind pretending to be her mother? It would help immensely."
Lisa had quite forgotten Cyril's warning, and would have accepted. She was quite willing to enter into the spirit of the performance, whether it was a serious affair, a swindle, or merely an idiotic game; but Simon Iff interfered.
"Madame is not accustomed to seances," he said; and Cyril darted a look at her which compelled her obedience, though she had no idea in the world why she should, or why she shouldn't, do any given thing. She was like one in a strange country; the only thing to do is to conform to the customs as well as one can; and to trust one's guide.
"Baby" continued to yell. The Pasha, prepared for the event, whipped a bottle of milk out of his pocket, and she began to suck at it contentedly.
"What ridiculous fellows those old alchemists were!" said Cyril to his beloved. "How could they have gone on fooling with their athanors and cucurbites and alembics, and their Red Dragon, and their Caput Mortuum, and their Lunar Water? They really had no notion of the Dignity of Scientific Research."
There was no need to press home the bitterness of his speech; Lisa was already conscious of a sense of shame at assisting at such degrading imbecilities.
"Baby" relinquished the bottle, and began to crawl after one of the celluloid balls, which had rolled off the table when they moved it. She found it in a corner, sat up, and began to play with it.
All of a sudden something happened which shocked Lisa into a disgusted exclamation.
"It is all part of the assumption of baby-hood," said Cyril, coldly "and a bad one; for there is no reason why obsession by a baby's soul or mind should interfere with adult reflexes. The real reason is that this woman comes from the lowest sewers of Buda-Pesth. She was a common prostitute at the age of nine, and only took up this game as a better speculation. It is part of her pleasure to abuse the licence we allow her by such bestialities: it is a mark of her black envy; she does not understand that her foulness does not so much as soil our shoe-heather."
Despite her years of practice in the art of not understanding English, "Baby " winced momentarily. For her dearest thought was the social prestige which she enjoyed. It was terrible to see that the Real Thing was not under the slightest illusion. She did not mind a thousand "exposures" as a fraud; but she did want to keep up the bluff of being a Countess. She was past thirty-five; it was high time she found an old fool to marry her. She had designs on the Pasha; she had agreed to certain proposals in respect of this very seance with a view to getting him into her power.
He was apologizing for her in the conventional way to Simon Iff. She had no consciousness or memory of this state at all, it appeared. "She will grow up in a little while; wait a few moments only."
And so it happened; soon she was prattling to the Pasha, who thoughtfully produced a doll for her to play with. Finally, she came over on her knees to Lisa, and began to cry, and simulate fear, and stammer out a confession of some kind. But Lisa did not wait to hear it; she was hot-tempered, and constitutionally unable to conceal her feelings beyond a certain point. She dragged her skirts away roughly, and went to the other end of the room. The Pasha deprecated the action, with oriental aplomb; but the medium had already reached the next and final stage. She went to the Pasha, sat on his knee, and began to make the most violent love to him, with wanton kisses and caresses.
"That's the best trick of the lot," explained Cyril; "It goes wonderfully with a great many men. It gets their powers of observation rattled; she can pull off the most obvious 'miracles,' and get them to swear that the control was perfect. That's how she fooled Oudouwitz; he was a very old man, and she proved to him that he was not as old as he thought he was. Great Harry Lauder! apart from any deception, a man in such circumstances might be willing to swear away his own reputation in order to assure her a career!"
"It's rather embarrassing," said the Pasha, "especially to a Mohammedan like myself; but one must endure everything in the cause of Science. In a moment now she'll be ready for the sitting."
Indeed, she changed suddenly into Personality Number Three, a very decorous young Frenchwoman named Annette, maid to the wife of a Jewish Banker. She went with rather stiff decorum to the table — she had to lay breakfast for her mistress, it appeared — but the moment she got there, she began to tremble violently all over, sank into the chair, and resumed the "Baby" personality, after a struggle. "Det away, bad Annette — naughty, naughty!" was the burden of her inspiring monologue for a few minutes. Then she suddenly became absorbed in the small objects before her — the Pasha had replaced them — and began to play with them, as intently as many children do with toys.
"Now we must have the lights down!" said the Pasha. Cyril complied. "Light is terribly painful and dangerous to her in this state. Once she lost her reason for a month through some one switching on the current unexpectedly. But we shall make a close examination, for all that." He took a thick silk scarf, and bound it over her eyes. Then, with an electric torch, he swept the table. He pulled back her sleeves to the shoulder and fastened them there; and he went over her hands inch by inch, opening the fingers and separating them, searching the nails, proving, in short, to demonstration, that there was no deception.
"You see," whispered Cyril, "we're not preparing for a scientific experiment; we're preparing for a conjuring trick. It's the psychology of trickery. Not my idea; the master's."
However, the attention of Lisa la Giuffria, almost despite herself, was drawn to the restless fingers on the table. They moved and twisted into such uncanny shapes; and there was something in the play of them, their intention towards the frail globe on which they converged, that fascinated her.
The medium drew her fingers swiftly away from the ball; at the same instant it jumped three or four inches into the air.
The Turk purred delight. "Quite evidential, don't you think, sir?" he observed to Simon.
"Oh, quite," returned the old man, but in a tone that would have made any one who knew him well continue the conversation with these words "Evidential of WHAT?" But Akbar was fully satisfied. As a matter of form, he turned the torch on again, and made a new examination of the medium's fingers; but no hairs were to be discovered.
From this moment the phenomena became continuous. The articles upon the table hopped, skipped and danced like autumn leaves in a whirlwind. For ten minutes this went on, with constantly increasing energy.
"The fun is fast and furious," cried Lisa.
Cyril adjusted his monocle with immense deliberation. "The epithet of which you appear to be in search," he remarked, "is, possibly, 'chronic.'"
Lisa stared at him, while the pencils and balls still pattered on the table like dancing hail.
"Doctor Johnson once remarked that we need not criticize too closely the performance of a whistling cabbage, or whatever it was," he explained wearily, "the wonder being in the fact of the animal being able to do it at all. But I would venture to add that for my part I find wonder amply satisfied by a single exhibition of this kind; to fall into a habit appears to me utterly out of accord with the views of the late John Stuart Mill on Liberty."
Lisa always found herself whirled about like a Dervish by the strange twists which her lover continued to give to his conversation.
Monet-Knott had told her in London of his famous faux pas at Cannon Street Station, when the railway official had passed along the train, shouting "All change! All change!" only to be publicly embraced by Cyril, who pretended to believe that he was a Buddhist Missionary, on the ground that one of the chief doctrines of Buddhism is that change is a principle inherent in all component things!
And unless you knew beforehand what Cyril was thinking, his words gave you no clue. You could never tell whether he were serious or joking. He had fashioned his irony on the model of that hard, cold, cruel, smooth glittering black ice that one finds only in deep gullies of the loftiest mountains; it was said in the clubs that he had found seventy-seven distinct ways of calling a man, to his face, something which only the most brazen fish-wives of Billingsgate care to call by its name, without his suspecting anything beyond a well-turned compliment.
Fortunately his lighter side was equally prominent. It was he who had gone into Lincoln Bennett's — Hatters to his Majesty since helmets ceased to be the wear — had asked with diffidence and embarrassment to see the proprietor on a matter of the utmost importance; and, on being deferentially conducted to a private room, had enquired earnestly: "Do you sell hats?"
The mystery of the man was an endless inquietude to her. She wished to save herself from loving, him, but only because she felt that she could never be sure that she had got him. And that intensified her determination to make him wholly and for ever hers.
Another story of Monet-Knott's had frightened her terribly. He had once put himself to a great deal of trouble to obtain a walking-stick to his liking. Ultimately he had found it, with such joy that he had called his friends and neighbours together, and bidden them to a lunch at the Carlton. Alter the meal, he had walked down Pall Mall with two of his guests — and discovered that he had forgotten the walking-stick. "Careless of me!" had been his only remark; and nothing would persuade him to stir a step towards its recovery.
She preferred to think of that other side of his character which she knew from the "Titanic" episode, and that other of how his men had feared to follow him across a certain snow-slope that hung above a Himalayan precipice — when he had glissaded on his back, head foremost, to within a yard of the brink. The men had followed him then; and she knew that she too would follow him to the end of the world.
Lost in these meditations, she hardly noticed that the seance was over. The medium had gradually fallen "asleep" again, to wake up in her Number One personality. But as the others rose from the table, Lisa too rose, more or less automatically, with them.
The foot of Akbar Pasha caught in the edge of a bearskin; and he stumbled violently. She shot out an arm to save him; but the young magician was quicker. He caught the Turk's shoulder with his heft hand, and steadied him; at the same moment she felt his other hand crushing her wrist, and her arm bent back with such suddenness that she wondered that it did not snap.
The next moment she saw that Cyril, with his hand on the Pasha's arm, was begging permission in his silkiest tones to examine a signet-ring of very beautiful design "Admirable!" he was saying, "but isn't the edge too sharp, Pasha? One could cut oneself if one drew one's hand across it sharply, like this." He made a swift gesture. "You see?" he remarked. A stream of blood was already trickling from his hand. The Turk looked at him with sudden black rage, of which she could not guess the cause. Cyril had expressly told her that a scratch might be death. Yet he had courted it; and now he stood exchanging commonplaces, with his blood dripping upon the floor. Impulsively she seized his hand and bound it with her handkerchief.
The Countess had wrapped her furs about her; but suddenly she felt faint "I can't bear the sight of blood," she said, and collapsed upon the divan. Simon Iff appeared at her side with a glass of brandy. "I feel better now; do give me my hat, Marquise!" Again Cyril intervened. "Over my dead body!" he cried, feigning to be a jealous lover; and adjusted it with his own hands.
Presently the visitors were at the door. The Turk became voluble over the seance. "Wonderful!" he cried; one of the most remarkable I was ever present at!"
"So glad, Pasha!" replied Grey, with his hand on the door; "one can't pick a winner every time at this game, can one?"
Lisa ha Giuffria saw that (somehow) the courteous phrase cut like a whip of whalebone.
She turned as the door closed. To her surprise she saw that Simon Iff had sunk on the divan, and that he was wiping the sweat from his brows.
Behind her, her lover took a great breath, as one who comes out of deep water.
And then she realized that she had been present not at a seance, but at a battle. She became conscious of the strain upon herself. and she broke into a flood of tears.
Cyril Grey, with a pale smile, was bending upon her face, kissing away the drops even as they issued; and, beneath her, his strong arm bore her whole weight without a tremor.