An excerpt from

Conversations With Spirits

E O Higgins

I awoke in the shadow of Sibella, the crumpled blackness of her crinoline dress hovering lightly before me.

Laid out on the floor - curled up like one of last year’s bluebottles in a shop window - my eyes narrowed. The rows of electric lights crossing the ceiling were an unreasonable irritation. Turning my head from them, I was alarmed to see one of Sibella’s boots drumming impatiently on the floor, inches from my face.

“Is something amiss?” I murmured.
“Get up,” Sibella replied.

Lurching forward, I saw at once that I had fallen asleep in the reading-room of my club. I must have been a piteous sight - a hearthrug wrapped about my flank and an upended bottle of brandy nestled in my armpit.

“What?” I asked testily. “What is it?”
Sibella waited to respond, helpless amidst the wretched volley of coughs that succeeded my words.
“Doyle’s man sent a cablegram,” she said finally. “He’s coming here.”
“Who?”
“Arthur Doyle.”
“What?” I muttered, processing her words. “Why? Whatever for?”
“He wants to talk to you.”
“Don’t allow him in,” I replied, “for pity’s sake.”
I leaned forward, putting a hand up and cradling my throbbing forehead.
“Please…” I whimpered, “tell him I’m not here.”
“Trelawney,” Sibella said firmly, “I’ve already replied and said you’ll see him. It might do you some good - it can’t be healthy just sitting around here on your own every day.”

The frou-frou of Sibella’s skirts swirled as she turned and crossed the room to the window. Pointedly, she threw back the heavy curtains, but this action was undermined since the light in the room scarcely changed. The smoke from the London manufactories had been choking the city since the early morning, and suffused the sky with a gloomy, yellow wash.

“You’ve got twenty minutes,” Sibella said, drifting from the window and making her way through the door.

Staggering to my feet, a sudden wave of dizziness rushed through me and I was forced to grab hold of a nearby chair in order to support myself. The hearthrug dropped down, becoming entangled around one of my boots. By the time I had kicked it from under me and dragged myself the ten feet to the bar, I was in a lather of cold sweats from the exertion. I have heard people refer to alcohol as a slow poison, but, in my own case, I am utterly without life-force before my morning pick-me-ups…

“A drink, Horrocks,” I called out to the waiting barman. “Better make it strong. I have a mouth as dry as a Shavian epigram.”

Without a word, Horrocks about-turned and airily headed towards a regiment of bottles on the back counter. At the best of times he seemed somehow removed from the natural world, as though his mind was adrift on some higher plane. But, as a point of direct correlation to my increasing shabbiness, he had become progressively more distant. It is probable that my habits disturb him, of course; working-people are generally disdainful of me. I attribute this to the natural assumption that, had I been of their class, I would have been shovelled up in some backstreet gin shop years ago.

Horrocks upturned a beaker and snatched up a bottle of Grant’s Morella from the line-up. Quickly turning the bung in the bottle-top, it bounced into the palm of his hand with a satisfying pop. Then, when a generous measure had been sloshed into the awaiting glass, Horrocks returned the stopper to the bottle and swerved back to me.
“Here you are, sir,” he said, pushing the glass across the bar.
“Have one yourself.”
The barman shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other, and said lightly: “No thank you, sir.”
“Why ever not?” I demanded.
“I would be dismissed, sir,” Horrocks replied daintily. “And that would be most unfortunate. Especially with Christmas so close at hand.”
“Well…” I sighed, as he went about duties. “Life is full of choices, I suppose.”

As I sipped at the brandy, my hand snaked automatically into the inside pocket of my suit and returned with my cigarette case. Pressing down the mechanism, the metal drawer slid open to reveal nothing more than a litter of tobacco dust.

“I say…” I called across the bar. “It would appear I am out of cigarettes.”
“A moment, sir.”
With this, Horrocks left me, drifting into the storage cupboard into which he occasionally installs himself when he wishes to be unobserved. He reappeared a minute later carrying a small silver platter with a packet of Sheiks placed upon it.
“Halloa!” I exclaimed, as he put it before me. “Sheiks! That won’t do at all, Horrocks. I’m a Dragoumis man, you know that!”
“I’m afraid…” responded Horrocks, looking suitably downcast, “we appear to be all out, sir. If you would like me to try another room in the club…?”
“No,” I sighed wearily, “I shall have to make do, I suppose.”

Clearly my words awoke some finer feelings in Horrocks, for a frown creased his brow, and he looked despondently down at the platter. Then, with a swiftness of purpose that could only follow a moment of inspiration, he sunk a hand into the pocket of his jacket and produced a box of Ogden’s Guinea Golds.
“Sir?” he said, presenting the box on his flattened palm. “Would you care for one of these?”
“Ogden’s?” I replied. “Nicely done, Horrocks!”
I snatched the box off him.

Discarding the spent matchstick a moment later, I sucked so heartily upon the cigarette that it caused a rush of pleasure in my brain which soon spread out across the rest of my jangled body.

“I hadn’t pegged you for a smoker, Horrocks,” I told him, as I steadied my wilting frame on the bar. “How is it you keep your fingers so free of nicotine stains?” To make my point, I stretched out my own yellowed digits before him. Horrocks glanced at them disapprovingly for a moment, before responding blandly: “I wash my hands, sir.”
I clapped my hands delightedly at this impertinence.
“You saucy bastard, Horrocks!”
Horrocks nodded gravely in return: “Thank you, sir.”

Picking up the box of cigarettes, I pushed it into the inside pocket of my suit jacket, without a word. I thought I saw a slight frisson of pique in Horrocks’ keen little eyes - but, of course, he said nothing.

*

Arthur Doyle edged through the door of the reading-room in a hesitant and watchful manner. Coming to a halt within the doorway, he removed his pearl-coloured Homburg and swept a hand carefully across his hair. Then, drumming his fingers on the brim of the hat, his eyes flitted about the dimly-lighted room, until, finally, he caught sight of me seated at the far side and raised his arm in a gesture of acknowledgement.

“There you are, Mr Hart…” Doyle called out genially, as he ambled towards me. Reaching the table, he offered a hand, which - after some playful show of reluctance - I accepted.
“Dr Doyle?” I said, removing my shaking mitt from his hearty grip. “Oh. I suppose I have to call you Sir Arthur now?”
Doyle did not respond, except to look awkwardly away. For the next half a minute or so, he busied himself with the removal of an overcoat.
I persisted: “They really do give out Knighthoods to practically anyone these days, do they not?”
Doyle folded up the coat and - together with rain-spattered Homburg - placed it on a nearby table. He then turned back to me, a thin smile turning up the corners of his moustaches.
“Charming as ever, Mr Hart,” he replied. Then, with an ill-advised attempt at flourish, he pulled a chair up to my table and settled into it.
“Do I need to be charming?” I responded. “As I understand it, you want something from me. So, would you mind getting to the point and telling me what you want?”
“Well…” he said, rubbing his hands together, “for starters, a wee glass of that brandy would be nice. It’s filthy out there.”

I gestured to the bar and within the minute Horrocks arrived at our table carrying a tray containing two fresh beakers and a bottle of cherry brandy. Once he had relieved me of my empty beaker and filled the two new ones, he picked the tray up again. After a step, he paused and turned back to the table.
“Shall I leave the bottle?” Horrocks asked, careful that his eyes should not meet those of anyone in particular.
“You may as well,” I replied.
Doyle placed a hand over his glass: “I don’t intend to stay that long, Mr Hart.”
“You can do as you please… Look, why exactly did you come here?”
“I was wondering, Mr Hart,” Doyle said tentatively, picking up his brandy glass and cradling it between his hands, “if you could tear yourself away from this place for a time, whether you would consider helping me with a little investigation?”
Doyle saw, instantly, that the preposterous nature of his statement served only to stiffen my resolve against him. A roll of my eyes caused him to qualify it: “You would be paid, of course.”
“Go on.”
“As you are no doubt aware, I have been a member of the Society of Psychical Research for a number of years now -”
“- If you are looking to increase the Society’s numbers, let me state it plainly: I am not easily gulled, Doyle, nor am I looking to discredit my reputation still further - not even for ready money.

“Clairvoyants and Mediums are, to my mind, and in my experience, a band of charlatans who prey on the desperate, the grieving…the weak-minded.”
At this, Doyle regarded me fiercely: “I don’t think I fall into any of those groups, Mr Hart! The society I represent is, first and foremost, about research - scientific research.”
“Scientific research?” I exclaimed. “So, you must wish me to expose as a fraud some Medium or other?”
Doyle looked at me intently: “No,” he responded slowly. “But I want you to try.”

“Why don’t you get your famous consulting detective to do it?”
At this, Doyle coloured slightly, but within a moment he had sufficiently composed himself to continue:
“Aye, perhaps I should…” he replied. “I could probably convince most of the world of anything if I got Holmes to endorse it.” Smiling sadly for a moment, Doyle shook his head with a look of bewilderment and sipped at his brandy. “People write to him, you know? And his rather stupid friend Watson. Only last week a woman wrote to The Strand asking them to forward a letter to Holmes in which she was offering her services as his housekeeper.”

“But, I suppose…” Doyle said suddenly, “in the absence of Holmes, your club had to be my first port of call.”
“Why?”
“You are known to the public. Or at least you have been. And you are in the front line of the cynics.” He paused for a moment, looking at me quite earnestly. “And…well, Mr Hart, the details of your fantastic education are the stuff of English folklore.”
“My education was the very opposite of fantastic, Mr Doyle. It was grinding, repetitive misery. One might just as easily praise a laboratory mouse.”
“Surely you cannot hold a grudge against your own father?”
“Can’t I, by God?! I’ll tell you something, something that is not common currency in my father’s spurious accounts of my childhood conditioning. He makes no reference whatsoever to the nervous breakdown I had at the age of thirteen!” My raised voice seemed to alarm the old man; he shifted back further into his seat. “That is the result when you try to turn a sensitive young man into some manner of analytical engine.”
“I am surprised to hear you speak like this,” Doyle said softly, after a moment’s consideration. “You have always been considered something of a modern marvel. A mind of pure logic like yours? I’m surprised you have not been engaged by the War Office.”
“Why?” I said sullenly. “And expose the fact that there is nothing logical about this ridiculous war?”
Doyle snorted.
“What?”
“Nothing. It’s just…well, I can imagine Sherlock Holmes saying precisely those words.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment? For some reason you imagine I would be pleased to be compared to your big-nosed, sulking drug-addict? Look, why have you come here? What is it you require of me? To use Holmes’ ‘methods’ to advance the cause of spiritualism? Am I to attempt an infiltration of the graveyards in the lowest quarters of this city dressed in a bed-sheet and hooting like a barn owl?”

“Mr. Hart,” Doyle replied firmly. “It is no surprise to me that you mock me, sir. It is the very reason I have asked for your assistance. On matters of psychical research, we are both gramophones - albeit gramophones with their horns directed against one another.”

Sighing heavily, I finished my drink. “Answer, me this, Doyle - how could the author of your books get mixed up in all this? How is that possible?”
“Let me tell you something, Mr Hart…” Doyle said flatly. “On the whole, when people contradict me on spiritual matters, they tend to have no experience at all - they’ve read little about it and haven’t even been to a séance. As you can imagine, I do not take their opposition very seriously.” He paused momentarily, gathering his thoughts. When he spoke again it was in a tone that mingled conviction with mild anguish. “When I talk on this subject I am not talking about what I believe, I’m not talking about what I think, I am talking about what I know.” He chuckled nervously for a second. “There’s an enormous difference between believing a thing and knowing a thing. I’m talking about things I’ve handled, that I’ve seen, that I’ve heard with my own ears - and always, mind you, in the presence of witnesses. I never risk hallucination.”

“But it is illusion, misdirection, chicanery…trickery,” I replied. “You must see that? You are not so naïve a fellow?”

“No,” he responded dryly, his brow beetling. “I do not suppose I am - and so, perhaps you could indulge me a little?” I waved my hand languidly, bidding him to continue. “I suppose, because I have travelled so extensively, I have sat with more Mediums – good, bad or indifferent – than any man alive. In Australia, America, South Africa - they were put at my disposal. I have seen things that - and this is my unshaken belief - were utterly impossible, Mr Hart.”

There was a short silence. I put my hands to my forehead and rubbed my temples.
“What exactly do you want me to do?”
“There is a man in Kent, Mr Hart, who seems to possess the most incredible powers. In fact, he may be the greatest psychic of his generation.”
“In Kent?” I repeated. “If he’s so remarkable - why then is he so provincial? Why is he not making his name in London?”
“That’s just the thing,” Doyle replied, restlessly rubbing down the bristles of his moustache, “he doesn’t do the sort of things one would expect from some bully-and-bluster showman. Although he can, occasionally, be convinced to a display of his powers, he only does so with the greatest reluctance - and, even then, he never accepts money.”
“Is that right?” I responded doubtfully.
“It is.”
“Like the great Daniel Douglas Home himself?”
That is what I have been thinking,” Doyle whispered conspiratorially. In his excitement, he had reached out and grabbed hold of my forearm. “Precisely that.”
Delicately, I returned Doyle’s hand to him with a reproachful look that made it clear that I would not be requiring it again.
“What is this fellow’s name?” I asked.
“Beasant,” Doyle replied lyrically. “J.P. Beasant.”
“Never heard of him,” I said, responding to Doyle’s exuberance with the lightest of yawns. “What sort of things does he do?”
“Apart from materialisation of solid spirits, it would seem he can do everything - direct voice, trance speaking, clairvoyance…even physical Mediumship.”
I clapped my hands together at this news: “Really?” I said jubilantly, leaning forward in my chair. “You mean he levitates?”

“No. More incredibly than that, Mr Hart…” He paused, looking at me in a way that conveyed almost desperate sincerity. “At the weekend, by way of a demonstration of his powers, Beasant intends to pass through a ten-foot-deep house of bricks - which is being especially constructed on a beach in Kent as we speak. And…” he paused to give what might be additional gravitas to his statement, “he’s going to do it in broad daylight.”
“Broad daylight…?” I repeated faintly, a slight smile playing upon my lips.
As I snatched up the packet of Ogden’s from the table and extracted a cigarette from it, I turned over Doyle’s words in my head. My mind drifted through the various ways in which such an audacious conjuring trick might be performed - for I had absolutely no doubt that was what it would be.

“Mr Hart,” Doyle said, with a sudden urgency that roused me from my thoughts. “I almost forgot…” Reaching into the inside pocket of his jacket, he withdrew a brown-paper envelope that had been carefully folded down the middle. “Here,” he said, flattening it on the tabletop. “I took the liberty of preparing this.” He pushed the envelope towards me. “Some newspaper articles, reports on meetings with Beasant.”

Doyle pushed his hand into his jacket once again, this time returning with his pocket book. “If you’re willing to help, Mr Hart, I think you’ll find the remuneration is really quite good.” He extracted three large bank notes from the wallet and placed them before me. He returned it to his pocket and pulled his jacket closed. “And the Society will pay any expenses…” His eyes drifted down to the contents of the table before him. “So long as they’re reasonable, of course.”
“You will pay regardless of my findings?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if I discover the source of this fellow’s powers to be more of this world than the next, you and your cronies will still be happy?”
“If it is so, then it is so,” Doyle replied evenly. “Either way, you will have done us a service. It is my hope that having someone such as yourself associated with our organisation - in whatever mode - will give it a renewed credibility.”
“Very well,” I replied, scrunching the bank notes into a ball and putting it into one of the front pockets of my trousers. “I accept.”

“Obviously, I will be travelling down to Broadstairs to watch this spectacle myself,” said Doyle, after taking back the last mouthful of his brandy and replacing the glass on the table. “But I am known to Beasant, and I think you should want to be there in the capacity of an independent witness.”

Pushing down on the arms of his chair, Doyle got slowly to his feet and stood over me. Scooping up his overcoat, he placed it carefully across his forearm. Then, taking up his Homburg, he thumbed the brim for a moment and brushed some rainwater from the grosgrain.

“I would also have thought that it would be a good idea, Mr Hart, that, for as long as you remain in Broadstairs, you took some measures to preserve your anonymity. We must strive to keep the conditions as controlled as possible.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “As you wish.”
“I shall bid you farewell then,” he said. “I will be in Broadstairs tomorrow evening. You might want to travel down there earlier.”
“What?” I replied. “You want me down there today?”
“I think that would be for the best.”
He spoke quite sharply, and I realised, suddenly, that in the midst of our conversation the balance of power had shifted - now I was on the payroll.

After shaking hands briskly, Doyle turned and headed across the room. It was a slow progression, which I watched with a vague feeling of despondency. The last time I met the man had been some five years before, at a literary event organised by my late wife. It seemed to me that, considering the brevity of the interval, Doyle’s manner had changed quite markedly. His movements had become small and careful, as though he were obliquely mindful of his growing age and infirmity. Yet, conversely, his conversation was more vigorous than it had been. When he spoke, it was with a sharp intensity, with a curious desperation in the eyes.

As Doyle approached the door, it opened suddenly and Sibella stepped into the room. Catching sight of her, Doyle came to an abrupt halt, clearly taken aback as much by her bizarre mode of dress as by her sex. Stopping shortly, Sibella drew herself back and hesitated, before giving Doyle a dignified, if somewhat embarrassed, bow. For a moment, Doyle remained unmoved but observed her oddly, his head cocked to one side. The sight of her old-fashioned bodice, pulled tightly atop the voluminous bulge of her black crinoline and silk skirts, must, at the very least, have sent Doyle’s mind hurtling back fifty years. I wondered, for a moment, whether he thought her an apparition…

“Madam,” Arthur Doyle said finally, “let me escort you outside.”
“Sorry?” replied Sibella.
“I think that would be for the best,” the old man said solemnly, “in your…condition, you have forgotten yourself.”
“In my condition?”
“Grief has overwhelmed you.”
“Sir Arthur -”
“- Not another word, Madam, please,” Doyle said, interrupting, “this is no place for a lady to be - and especially not to be unaccompanied. There are rules.”
“What rules?”
“Society’s rules!”
“Ah, yes… ” Sibella replied firmly, “but society is other people.”

Stretching out his arm, Doyle attempted to gently manoeuvre Sibella back through the doorway. Forced into retreat, she backed away from him and thrust herself up against the far wall. Standing on points, Sibella looked imploringly at me across Doyle’s shoulder, motioning for my assistance.

“Doyle,” I said loudly, crossing the room towards them.
“Ah, Mr Hart,” he said, turning to me, “will you please help? This lady -”
“- This lady is Sibella Carlton,” I told him. “She is the co-proprietor of the club.”
Doyle paused. His eyebrows elevated and he looked back at me, quite astonished: “What do you mean?”
“It’s quite true, I’m afraid.”
“A woman? Owning a gentleman’s club?”
“Thoroughly modern, I know!” I said. “It’s the war - these are unusual times.”
“But, madam…” Doyle said with a strangled voice. “Are you not in mourning then?”
“I’m afraid I may have given you a false impression, Sir Arthur,” Sibella replied, tactfully. “But, then, there is a war on - every patriotic English woman is in mourning.”

Doyle nodded at this, though it was clear that much of what he had just heard had disturbed him.

“Let me walk you to the front door, Sir Arthur,” Sibella said brightly. “Of course, you know you are welcome at the club any time.”

Doyle’s brow lowered perplexedly and his jaw sagged. Despite his years, he was evidently not a man of blunted sensibilities. An odd sepulchral noise, emanating from deep inside him, seemed to voice both his displeasure and his acquiescence within the same moment. Finally, without another word, Doyle shook his head and strode purposefully through the doorway.

“Hold on,” I said, grabbing Sibella by the arm as she went to follow him. She turned back, looking up at me with surprise. “What was all that ‘every patriotic English woman’ guff?” I asked her, “is that really the reason you wear those morbid duds?”
“No - I wear these clothes because I think they rather suit me,” Sibella said primly. “In any case, I have always found that wearing black in London simply saves time.”

Heading through the doorway, Sibella wavered momentarily and swerved back towards me.
“What did he want with you?”
“Oh,” I replied casually. “He offered me a job.”
“Really? What did he say when you turned it down?”
“I didn’t.”
“My word,” she responded faintly, “these are unusual times.”