Sight Unseen by Mary Roberts Rinehart
The butler wheeled out Mrs. Dane's chair, as her companion did not dine with her on club nights, and led us to the drawing-room doors. There Sperry threw them, open, and we saw that the room had been completely metamorphosed.
Mrs. Dane's drawing-room is generally rather painful. Kindly soul that she is, she has considered it necessary to preserve and exhibit there the many gifts of a long lifetime. Photographs long outgrown, onyx tables, a clutter of odd chairs and groups of discordant bric-a-brac usually make the progress of her chair through it a precarious and perilous matter. We paused in the doorway, startled.
The room had been dismantled. It opened before us, walls and chimney-piece bare, rugs gone from the floor, even curtains taken from the windows. To emphasize the change, in the center stood a common pine table, surrounded by seven plain chairs. All the lights were out save one, a corner bracket, which was screened with a red-paper shade.
She watched our faces with keen satisfaction. "Such a time I had doing it!" she said. "The servants, of course, think I have gone mad. All except Clara. I told her. She's a sensible girl."
"Very neat," he said, "although a chair or two for the spooks would have been no more than hospitable. All right Now bring on your ghosts."
My wife, however, looked slightly displeased. "As a church-woman," she said, "I really feel that it is positively impious to bring back the souls of the departed, before they are called from on High."
"Oh, rats," Herbert broke in rudely. "They'll not come. Don't worry. And if you hear raps, don't worry. It will probably be the medium cracking the joint of her big toe."
There was still a half hour until the medium's arrival. At Mrs. Dane's direction we employed it in searching the room. It was the ordinary rectangular drawing-room, occupying a corner of the house. Two windows at the end faced on the street, with a patch of railed-in lawn beneath them. A fire-place with a dying fire and flanked by two other windows, occupied the long side opposite the door into the hall. These windows, opening on a garden, were closed by outside shutters, now bolted. The third side was a blank wall, beyond which lay the library. On the fourth side were the double doors into the hall.
As, although the results we obtained were far beyond any expectations, the purely physical phenomena were relatively insignificant, it is not necessary to go further into the detail of the room. Robinson has done that, anyhow, for the Society of Psychical Research, a proceeding to which I was opposed, as will be understood by the close of the narrative.
Further to satisfy Mrs. Dane, we examined the walls and floor-boards carefully, and Herbert, armed with a candle, went down to the cellar and investigated from below, returning to announce in a loud voice which made us all jump that it seemed all clear enough down there. After that we sat and waited, and I daresay the bareness and darkness of the room put us into excellent receptive condition. I know that I myself, probably owing to an astigmatism, once or twice felt that I saw wavering shadows in corners, and I felt again some of the strangeness I had felt during the day. We spoke in whispers, and Alice Robinson recited the history of a haunted house where she had visited in England. But Herbert was still cynical. He said, I remember:
"Here we are, six intelligent persons of above the average grade, and in a few minutes our hair will be rising and our pulses hammering while a Choctaw Indian control, in atrocious English, will tell us she is happy and we are happy and so everybody's happy. Hanky panky!"
"You may be as skeptical as you please, if you will only be fair, Herbert," Mrs. Dane said.
"And by that you mean "
"During the sitting keep an open mind and a closed mouth," she replied, cheerfully.
As I said at the beginning, this is not a ghost story. Parts of it we now understand, other parts we do not. For the physical phenomena we have no adequate explanation. They occurred. We saw and heard them. For the other part of the seance we have come to a conclusion satisfactory to ourselves, a conclusion not reached, however, until some of us had gone through some dangerous experiences, and had been brought into contact with things hitherto outside the orderly progression of our lives.
But at no time, although incredible things happened, did any one of us glimpse that strange world of the spirit that seemed so often almost within our range of vision.
Miss Jeremy, the medium, was due at 8:30 and at 8:20 my wife assisted Mrs. Dane into one of the straight chairs at the table, and Sperry, sent out by her, returned with a darkish bundle in his arms, and carrying a light bamboo rod.
"Don't ask me what they are for," he said to Herbert's grin of amusement. "Every workman has his tools."
Herbert examined the rod, but it was what it appeared to be, and nothing else.
Some one had started the phonograph in the library, and it was playing gloomily, "Shall we meet beyond the river?" At Sperry's request we stopped talking and composed ourselves, and Herbert, I remember, took a tablet of some sort, to our intense annoyance, and crunched it in his teeth. Then Miss Jeremy came in.
She was not at all what we had expected. Twenty-six, I should say, and in a black dinner dress. She seemed like a perfectly normal young woman, even attractive in a fragile, delicate way. Not much personality, perhaps; the very word "medium" precludes that. A "sensitive," I think she called herself. We were presented to her, and but for the stripped and bare room, it might have been any evening after any dinner, with bridge waiting.
When she shook hands with me she looked at me keenly. "What a strange day it has been!" she said. "I have been very nervous. I only hope I can do what you want this evening."
"I am not at all sure what we do want, Miss Jeremy," I replied.
She smiled a quick smile that was not without humor. Somehow I had never thought of a medium with a sense of humor. I liked her at once. We all liked her, and Sperry, Sperry the bachelor, the iconoclast, the antifeminist, was staring at her with curiously intent eyes.
Following her entrance Herbert had closed and bolted the drawing-room doors, and as an added precaution he now drew Mrs. Dane's empty wheeled chair across them.
"Anything that comes in," he boasted, "will come through the keyhole or down the chimney."
And then, eying the fireplace, he deliberately took a picture from the wall and set it on the fender.
Miss Jeremy gave the room only the most casual of glances.
"Where shall I sit?" she asked.
Mrs. Dane indicated her place, and she asked for a small stand to be brought in and placed about two feet behind her chair, and two chairs to flank it, and then to take the black cloth from the table and hang it over the bamboo rod, which was laid across the backs of the chairs. Thus arranged, the curtain formed a low screen behind her, with the stand beyond it. On this stand we placed, at her order, various articles from our pockets - I a fountain pen, Sperry a knife; and my wife contributed a gold bracelet.
We all felt, I fancy, rather absurd. Herbert's smile in the dim light became a grin. "The same old thing!" he whispered to me. "Watch her closely. They do it with a folding rod."
We arranged between us that we were to sit one on each side of her, and Sperry warned me not to let go of her hand for a moment. "They have a way of switching hands," he explained in a whisper. "If she wants to scratch her nose I'll scratch it."
We were, we discovered, not to touch the table, but to sit around it at a distance of a few inches, holding hands and thus forming the circle. And for twenty minutes we sat thus, and nothing happened. She was fully conscious and even spoke once or twice, and at last she moved impatiently and told us to put our hands on the table.
I had put my opened watch on the table before me, a night watch with a luminous dial. At five minutes after nine I felt the top of the table waver under my fingers, a curious, fluid-like motion.
"The table is going to move," I said.
Herbert laughed, a dry little chuckle. "Sure it is," he said. "When we all get to acting together, it will probably do considerable moving. I feel what you feel. It's flowing under my fingers."
"Blood," said Sperry. "You fellows feel the blood moving through the ends of your fingers. That's all. Don't be impatient."
However, curiously enough, the table did not move. Instead, my watch, before my eyes, slid to the edge of the table and dropped to the floor, and almost instantly an object, which we recognized later as Sperry's knife, was flung over the curtain and struck the wall behind Mrs. Dane violently.
One of the women screamed, ending in a hysterical giggle. Then we heard rhythmic beating on the top of the stand behind the medium. Startling as it was at the beginning, increasing as it did from a slow beat to an incredibly rapid drumming, when the initial shock was over Herbert commenced to gibe.
"Your fountain pen, Horace," he said to me. "Making out a statement for services rendered, by its eagerness."
The answer to that was the pen itself, aimed at him with apparent accuracy, and followed by an outcry from him.
"Here, stop it!" he said. "I've got ink all over me!"
We laughed consumedly. The sitting had taken on all the attributes of practical joking. The table no longer quivered under my hands.
"Please be sure you are holding my hands tight. Hold them very tight," said Miss Jeremy. Her voice sounded faint and far away. Her head was dropped forward on her chest, and she suddenly sagged in her chair. Sperry broke the circle and coming to her, took her pulse. It was, he reported, very rapid.
"You can move and talk now if you like," he said. "She's in trance, and there will be no more physical demonstrations."
Mrs. Dane was the first to speak. I was looking for my fountain pen, and Herbert was again examining the stand.
"I believe it now," Mrs. Dane said. "I saw your watch go, Horace, but tomorrow I won't believe it at all."
"How about your companion?" I asked. "Can she take shorthand? We ought to have a record."
"Probably not in the dark."
"We can have some light now," Sperry said.
There was a sort of restrained movement in the room now. Herbert turned on a bracket light, and I moved away the roller chair.
"Go and get Clara, Horace," Mrs. Dane said to me, "and have her bring a note-book and pencil." Nothing, I believe, happened during my absence. Miss Jeremy was sunk in her chair and breathing heavily when I came back with Clara, and Sperry was still watching her pulse. Suddenly my wife said:
"Why, look! She's wearing my bracelet!"
This proved to be the case, and was, I regret to say, the cause of a most unjust suspicion on my wife's part. Even today, with all the knowledge she possesses, I am certain that Mrs. Johnson believes that some mysterious power took my watch and dragged it off the table, and threw the pen, but that I myself under cover of darkness placed her bracelet on Miss Jeremy's arm. I can only reiterate here what I have told her many times, that I never touched the bracelet after it was placed on the stand.
"Take down everything that happens, Clara, and all we say," Mrs. Dane said in a low tone. "Even if it sounds like nonsense, put it down."
It is because Clara took her orders literally that I am making this more readable version of her script. There was a certain amount of non-pertinent matter which would only cloud the statement if rendered word for word, and also certain scattered, unrelated words with which many of the statements terminated. For instance, at the end of the sentence, "Just above the ear," came a number of rhymes to the final word, "dear, near, fear, rear, cheer, three cheers." These I have cut, for the sake of clearness.
For some five minutes, perhaps, Miss Jeremy breathed stertorously, and it was during that interval that we introduced Clara and took up our positions. Sperry sat near the medium now, having changed places with Herbert, and the rest of us were as we had been, save that we no longer touched hands. Suddenly Miss Jeremy began to breathe more quietly, and to move about in her chair. Then she sat upright.
"Good evening, friends," she said. "I am glad to see you all again."
I caught Herbert's eye, and he grinned.
"Good evening, little Bright Eyes," he said. "How's everything in the happy hunting ground tonight?"
"Dark and cold," she said, "Dark and cold. And the knee hurts. It's very bad. If the key is on the nail - Arnica will take the pain out."
She lapsed into silence. In transcribing Clara's record I shall make no reference to these pauses, which were frequent, and occasionally filled in with extraneous matter. For instance, once there was what amounted to five minutes of Mother Goose jingles. Our method was simply one of question, by one of ourselves, and of answer by Miss Jeremy. These replies were usually in a querulous tone, and were often apparently unwilling. Also occasionally there was a bit of vernacular, as in the next reply. Herbert, who was still flippantly amused, said:
"Don't bother about your knee. Give us some local stuff. Gossip. If you can."
"Sure I can, and it will make your hair curl." Then suddenly there was a sort of dramatic pause and then an outburst.
"Who is dead?" Sperry asked, with his voice drawn a trifle thin.
"A bullet just above the ear. That's a bad place. Thank goodness there's not much blood. Cold water will take it out of the carpet. Not hot. Not hot. Do you want to set the stain?"
"Look here," Sperry said, looking around the table. "I don't like this. It's darned grisly."
"Oh, fudge!" Herbert put in irreverently. "Let her rave, or it, or whatever it is. Do you mean that a man is dead?" - to the medium.
"Yes. She has the revolver. She needn't cry so. He was cruel to her. He was a beast. Sullen."
"Can you see the woman?" I asked.
"If it's sent out to be cleaned it will cause trouble. Hang it in the closet."
Herbert muttered something about the movies having nothing on us, and was angrily hushed. There was something quite outside of Miss Jeremy's words that had impressed itself on all of us with a sense of unexpected but very real tragedy. As I look back I believe it was a sort of desperation in her voice. But then came one of those interruptions which were to annoy us considerably during the series of sittings; she began to recite Childe Harold.
When that was over,
"Now then," Sperry said in a businesslike voice, "you see a dead man, and a young woman with him. Can you describe the room?"
"A small room, his dressing-room. He was shaving. There is still lather on his face."
"And the woman killed him?"
"I don't know. Oh, I don't know. No, she didn't. He did it!"
"He did it himself?"
There was no answer to that, but a sort of sulky silence.
"Are you getting this, Clara?" Mrs. Dane asked sharply. "Don't miss a word. Who knows what this may develop into?"
I looked at the secretary, and it was clear that she was terrified. I got up and took my chair to her. Coming back, I picked up my forgotten watch from the floor. It was still going, and the hands marked nine-thirty.
"Now," Sperry said in a soothing tone, "you said there was a shot fired and a man was killed. Where was this? What house?"
"Two shots. One is in the ceiling of the dressing-room."
"And the other killed him?"
But here, instead of a reply we got the words, "library paste."
Quite without warning the medium groaned, and Sperry believed the trance was over.
"She's coming out," he said. "A glass of wine, somebody." But she did not come out. Instead, she twisted in the chair.
"He's so heavy to lift," she muttered. Then: "Get the lather off his face. The lather. The lather."
She subsided into the chair and began to breathe with difficulty. "I want to go out. I want air. If I could only go to sleep and forget it. The drawing-room furniture is scattered over the house."
This last sentence she repeated over and over. It got on our nerves, ragged already.
"Can you tell us about the house?"
There was a distinct pause. Then: "Certainly. A brick house. The servants' entrance is locked, but the key is on a nail, among the vines. All the furniture is scattered through the house."
"She must mean the furniture of this room," Mrs. Dane whispered.
The remainder of the sitting was chaotic. The secretary's notes consist of unrelated words and often childish verses. On going over the notes the next day, when the stenographic record had been copied on a typewriter, Sperry and I found that one word recurred frequently. The word was "curtain." Of the extraordinary event that followed the breaking up of the seance, I have the keenest recollection. Miss Jeremy came out of her trance weak and looking extremely ill, and Sperry's motor took her home. She knew nothing of what had happened, and hoped we had been satisfied. By agreement, we did not tell her what had transpired, and she was not curious.
Herbert saw her to the car, and came back, looking grave. We were standing together in the center of the dismantled room, with the lights going full now.
"Well," he said, "it is one of two things. Either we've been gloriously faked, or we've been let in on a very tidy little crime.
It was Mrs. Dane's custom to serve a Southern eggnog as a sort of stir-up-cup - nightcap, she calls it - on her evenings, and we found it waiting for us in the library. In the warmth of its open fire, and the cheer of its lamps, even in the dignity and impassiveness of the butler, there was something sane and wholesome. The women of the party reacted quickly, but I looked over to see Sperry at a corner desk, intently working over a small object in the palm of his hand.
He started when he heard me, then laughed and held out his hand.
"Library paste!" he said. "It rolls into a soft, malleable ball. It could quite easily be used to fill a small hole in plaster. The paper would paste down over it, too."
"Then you think?"
"I'm not thinking at all. The thing she described may have taken place in Timbuctoo. May have happened ten years ago. May be the plot of some book she has read."
"On the other hand," I replied, "it is just possible that it was here, in this neighborhood, while we were sitting in that room."
"Have you any idea of the time?"
"I know exactly. It was half-past nine."