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CHAPTER VI

 

OF A DINNER, WITH THE TALK OF DIVERS GUESTS

  

     SIMON IFF and Cyril Grey had slipped out of the reception-room to clothe themselves according to their dignity in the Order.

     They returned in a few moments. The old man was in a robe of the same pattern as Sister Cybele's -- all the robes of the Order were thus fashioned -- but it was of black silk, and on the breast was embroidered a golden eye within a radiant triangle.

     Cyril Grey was in a similar robe, but the eye was enclosed in a six-pointed star, and swords with undulating blades issued from each re-entrant angle.

     Their return broke up the conversation, and Sister Cybele led the way, with Lisa on her arm, to the lobby.

     There the wonder of the house began. The wall facing the front door was masked by a group of statuary of heroic size.

     It was a bronze, and represented Mercury leading Hercules into Hades. In the background stood Charon in his boat, one hand upon his oar, the other stretched to receive his obolus.

     Sister Cybele waited until all the guests were in the boat. Then she made pretence to place the coin in Charon's hand.

     In reality she touched a spring. The wall parted; the boat moved slowly through; it took its place beside another wharf.

     They were in a vast hall; and Lisa realized that [78] the hill behind the house must have been profoundly hollowed out. This hall was lofty, narrow and long. In the midst, a circular table awaited the guests. Behind each chair stood one of the Probationers of the Order in a white robe, on whose breast was a scarlet Pentagram. Neck, sleeves, and hem were trimmed with gold. Beyond this table, at which a number of other members, in variously coloured robes, were already seated, though they rose to salute the newcomers briefly and in silence, was a triangular  slab of black marble, the points truncated for convenience. Around this there were six seats, made of ebony inlaid with silver discs.

     Sister Cybele left the others to take her seat as president of the circular table. Simon Iff himself sat at the head of the triangle, placing Cyril Grey and the Mahathera Phang at the other corners. Lord Antony Bowling was at his left, Lisa at his right; Morningside faced him from the base.

     When all were seated, Sister Cybele rose, struck a bell that stood at her hand, and said:

     "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. O Master of the Temple, what is thy will?"

     Simon Iff rose in his place. "It is my will to eat and drink," said he.

     "Why shouldst thou eat and drink?"

     "To sustain my body in strength."

     "Why is it thy will that thy body may be sustained in strength?"

     "That it may aid me in the accomplishment of the Great Work."

     At this word all rose, and chanted solemnly in chorus, "So mote it be."

     "Love is the law, love under will," said Sister Cybele softly, and sat down.

     "Of course it's a most absurd superstition," remarked Morningside to Simon Iff, "to think that Food [79] sustains the body. It is sleep that does that. Food merely renews the tissues.

     "I agree entirely," said Cyril, before Iff could answer, "and I am about to renew my tissues to the extent of a dozen of these excellent Cherbourg prawns -- to begin with!"

     "My dear man," said Lord Antony, "prawns are much better at the end of a dinner -- as you'd know if you had been to Armenia lately."

     When Morningside said something absurd, it merely meant that he was airing his fads; when Lord Antony did so, it meant a story. And all his stories were good ones. Simon Iff jumped at the opening. He turned immediately, and asked for the yarn.

     "It's rather long," said Bowling, a little dubiously. "But it's very, very beautiful."

     Unacknowledged quotations gave a curious fascination to his narrative style. People became interested through the psychological trick involved. They recognized, yet could not place, the remark, and they were stirred by the magick of association, just as one becomes interested in a stranger who reminds one of -- one can't quite think who.

     "At the close of a dark afternoon," pursued Lord Antony, "a huntsman of sinister appearance might have been seen approaching the hamlet of Sitkab in Armenia. This was myself -- or I should hardly think it worth while to tell the story. Why detain you with a lesser potentate? I was in pursuit of the most savage, elusive, and dangerous wild beast, with the exception of woman," (he smiled at Lisa so delightfully that she could only take it as a compliment) "that infests this globe. Need I say that I refer to the Poltergeist?"

     "You must do more," laughed Lisa. "You must tell me what my rival is!"

     "A Poltergeist is a variety of spook distinguished by its playful habit of throwing furniture about, and [80] otherwise playing practical jokes of the clown-in-the-pantomime order. The particular specimen whose hide -- if they have hides -- I was anxious to add to my collection of theosophical tea-cups, spirit cigarettes, and other articles of vertu was an artist of singular refinement, for he performed upon only one instrument, as a rule; but of that instrument he had acquired the most admirable mastery. It was a common broomstick. This genial spectre -- or rather non-spectre, for the are but rarely seen, only heard, conditions precisely opposed, I beg you to note, to those that we require in little boys -- this Poltergeist, then, was alleged to be the guest of the local lawyer in the aforesaid hamlet. It had annoyed him considerably for some two years; for while claiming, through an excellent medium in the locality, to be the spirit of a deceased Adept, it had merely thrown broomsticks at him as he went about his daily task of making mischief between the citizens of that deplorably peaceful corner of the earth, or misappropriating funds intrusted to him for investment. He was an honest lawyer, as lawyers go -- I was called to the Bar myself in my unregenerate days -- and he resented the interference, the more so as no writ of habeas broomstick seemed to abate the nuisance.

     "The amiable creature, however, had recently taken pity upon his host, and sought to establish a claim upon his gratitude by saving him from death. For one day, as the lawyer was about to drive across the village bridge he saw the broomstick fall from the sky and stand erect, precisely in his path. His horse reared; a moment later the bridge was swept away by the torrent. (This is really excellent Bortsch, Mr. Iff.) Well, I had been called in to investigate this matter, and there I was, installed in the house of my brother brigand. The results of my stay of six weeks or so were inconclusive. I was [81] convinced of the man's entire belief in his story, and the broomstick certainly moved in various ways for which I could not account; but I was not fortunate enough to observe anything of the kind when he was not somewhere in the offing. And one is bound to strain one's theories of the limits of fraud as far as it is humanly possible -- especially when one is dealing with a lawyer or a broomstick. So I returned from the parts of the tribes even unto the modern Babylon, where I abode for a season. A little while later I received a card announcing my friend's marriage to the heiress of Sitkab, and, a year later again, in response to kind enquiries, he had the honour to announce that the manifestations of the Poltergeist had totally ceased since time day of the wedding. Some of these Adepts are of course fearfully particular on the sex-question, as we all know. Fall for an hour from the austerities of a Galahad, and devil a cigar will precipitate itself into your soup, nor will you be interrupted at billiards by the arrival of an urgent message from Tibet, written on notepaper of the kind you purchase in Walham Green if you are a real lady, to the effect that the secret Wisdom is beyond the Veil, or some other remark evidential of Supreme Enlightenment in too much of a hurry to use the regular post.

     "No, the story does not end here; in fact, the above has been but the prelude to a mightier theme. Once more a year passed by. By a singular, and, in view of what happened later, I think an ominous, train of circumstance, it occupied exactly twelve calendar months in the process.

     "I now received another letter from the lawyer. Whether love's moon had waned or no he did not say; but he announced the resumption of the phenomena, with additions and improvements. One encouraging point was that in the previous series nothing had ever happened outside his house, except in the case of [82] the bridge incident; now the broomstick was ubiquitous indeed, and followed him about like Mary's lamb. His wife, too, had developed the most surprising powers of mediumship and was obtaining messages from Herr P. Geist, which seemed of unusual importance. A new world was open to our view. I have always fancied myself as a Columbus; and, as I had recently made a considerable sum of money by a fortunate speculation in oil, I did not hesitate to go to the expense of a telegram. I have always fancied myself as a Caesar, and I endeavoured to emulate his conciseness. 'Come stay winter' was the expression employed. A week later those simple and pious souls, escaping the perils of the journey to Constantinople, were safely cloistered, if I may use the term, in the Orient Express. They were extricated from Paris by a friend whom I had thoughtfully sent to meet them; and the following day my heart was gladdened by the realization of my dreams -- the actual physical presence of my loved ones in my ancestral halls in Curzon Street -- those which I rented two years ago from Barney Isaacs; or rather from his heirs, for the poor fellow was hanged, as you remember.

     "Well, the conclusions of science appear to indicate that a  Poltergeist of the better classes takes a fortnight or more to accustom himself to a new domicile; from which circumstance learned men have written many treatises to suggest that it may be of the cat tribe; though others equally learned have contended with great plausibility that its touching attachment to this lawyer shows its nature to conform rather with that of the dog.

To me it has seemed possible that the light is not altogether withheld from either party to the discussion; I have in fac diffidently put forward the theory that the Poltergeist, for all its German name, is of an ambiguous nature, like [83] the animals of Australia; and I have ventured to rely upon the analogy between the broomstick employed in this case and the throwing-stick of the aborigines of that continent. However this may be, friend Poltergeist began to rehearse exactly fourteen days after the arrival of the lawyer and his wife, and was so kind as to oblige with a full recital -- Scherzo in A flat, or more accurately A house -- three days later. I never really valued the Sevres vase which was offered on this occasion to the infernal gods.

     The mediumistic powers of the lady began to develop at the same time. The spirit had devised an ingenious method of communication, known to science as Planchette. This instrument is probably familiar to you all; it is am inconvenient way of writing, but otherwise exhibits no marked peculiarity. Now that we have accepted 'automatic wrriting' as automatic, there is really no reason why mediums should pretend that a planchette is not under control.

     "This planchette gave us much invaluable information as to the habits, mode of life, social and other pleasures, of various parties deceased; and added, free of all charge, advice which, followed out, would undoubtedly tend to make me an even better man than I am. It is, however, with regret that I find myself obliged to confess that scientific truth is an even dearer object of my heart than moral beauty, and at the moment I was wholly absorbed in the desire to verify the latest facts about the Poltergeist, for these lent great weight to the theory that it was some kind of dog. Under the inspiring intuition of its charming mistress, it had developed those qualities which we associate with the spaniel or the retriever.

     "Even in Armenia it had been wont, when weary of its solos upon the broomstick, to gladden and instruct humanity by putting small articles in places [84] where they should not be. I would occasionally find my socks stuffed tightly into my trousers' pockets, or my razor poised upon a mirror, when I realized that morning in the bowl of night had flung the stone that puts the stars to flight, and that the Hunter of the East had caught the Sultan's Turret in a noose of light. But in the second series of phenomena the faithful and intelligent animal had done far more than this, bringing into the house various objects from afar. It was evidently appreciated in the Beyond that a Poltergeist's reach should exceed his grasp.

     "One day, in the wonderful month of May with all its flowers a-blossom, the planchette produced an exceedingly mysterious message. So far as we could understand him, he would bring more evidence of his presence. 'Proof' was one of the words used, I remember; yes, I remember that very distinctly. And the message ended, with a sudden transition, 'Look out for game!' There could hardly have been a more superfluous injunction so far as I was concerned!

     "I must now describe my dining-room. It is very like any other room of the sort, I dare say; the point is that there is a big table, over which is suspended a cluster of electric lamps, a flat shade covering these from above. The top of this shade is just about on the level of the eyes of a fairly tall man, standing. I can see clear over it from the edge of the table without straining.

     "Well, we went down to dinner, and the Poltergeist was exceptionally active all through the meal. The medium was exceedingly distressed by his insistence on the mysterious injunction to look out for game. It was only at dessert that the problem was solved. The medium screamed out suddenly, 'Oh! he's pinching my neck!' -- and a second later - [85] lightning in a clear sky -- a large quail fell from the empyrean upon my humble mahogany.

     "I only wished I could have had Rear Admiral Moore, Sir Oliver Lodge, Colonel Olcott, Sir Alfred Turner, Mr. A. P. Sinnett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle present on that sublime occasion. There could have been no dissentient voice to say that this was not 'evidential' -- save, possibly, what is negligible, my own. A poor thing, but mine own!

     "I wonder if you have ever reflected upon the halo of excitement and romance which must gild the lives of the members of the worshipful Company of Poulterers. They are the true sportsmen of our times; theirs to beard the turkey in his den, theirs to grapple the lordly pheasant, to close in deadly combat with the grouse, to wrest the plover's egg from its lonely nest upon the moors, to dare a thousand deaths in their grim heroism, the fulfilment of their oaths to supply us with sparrow, cat or rabbit. Think, too, of their relations with the mysterious bazaars of Baghdad; their traffickings with wily orientals, the counting-out of secret gold by moonlight in the shadow of the mosques; think of Mason, as he painfully deciphers the code cablegram from Fortnum, burns the message, and armed with a dagger and a bag of uncut rubies, plunges from the Ghezireh Palace Hotel to his rendezvous with Achmet Abdullah in the Fishmarket, where, with no eye to see, the hideous bargain is concluded, and, handing over his rubies, Mason sallies from that dreadful alley, clutching beneath his gaberdine -- a quail.

     "You have not thought such thoughts? Nor, until now, had I. But I knew that quails were cold storage products of the burning East, and I knew that the number of poulterers in my vicinity was limited. Early the next morning I visited in turn these respectable tradesmen, the third of whom [86] remembered the sale of a quail to a lady on the previous day. Both quail and lady answered to the descriptions I had in mind.

     "It had been the custom of my guests to walk abroad in the afternoons, now singly, now together, now with one or another of the members of my household.

     "On this particular day, I begged the medium to permit me the honour of escorting her. She agreed with characteristic amiability; and, once in the street, I pleaded with her, like a child, to tell me a story. I said that I was sure she had a nice story to tell me. But no; it appeared not.

     "In the course of our ambulation, we came -- surely led by some mysterious Providence -- to the very poulterer whom I had seen in the morning. I led her to that worthy man. 'Yes, my lord,' he replied to my urbane question with affable obsequience, 'this is the lady to whom I sold the quail.' She contradicted the statement brusquely; she had never been in the shop in her life. We proceeded on our walk. 'Tell me,' I said, 'exactly what you did do when you were out yesterday.' 'Nothing at all,' she answered. 'I went and sat in the park for a little. Presently my sister came and sat down with me, and we talked for a little. Then she went away, and came back in about half-an-hour. We talked some more, and them I came away back to Curzon Street.'

     "On our return I questioned her husband. 'Sister!' he exclaimed, 'she never had a sister!'

     "The mystery was cleared up. It was a case of Double Personality! There was, however, still one small point. How did that Spirit Quail get on to the table? It had fallen very straight, or so it seemed to us; and the butler said that he could hardly believe that a quail could have been concealed on [87] the lamp-shade; he would have noticed it, he thought, while laying the table.

     "The experiments continued. Some time later Brother Poltergeist permitted himself some allusions to fish -- in the best possible taste -- and I took my precautions accordingly. Before dinner I slipped downstairs and made a thorough search of the dining room. Alas! to what treacheries are the most virtuous of us liable to be subjected? That medium's saucy Sister Second Personality had again betrayed her to a most unjustifiable suspicion! For one dozen prawns, of the best quality, were distributed in most excellent symmetry about the lamp-shade.

     "A hasty reference to the dictionary not yet published by the Society for Psychical Research assured me that this sort of thing was a 'prepared phenomenon.'

     "Now, if you are going to prepare a phenomenon, you may as well prepare it properly; and I attended -- you shall soon learn how -- alike to decency and to asthetics.

     "Dinner was served; the Poltergeist supplied the conversation. Never before had he been so light, so genial, so anxious to assure us of our future in Summerland; but ever and anon he touched the minor chord, spoke darkly of 'proof,' and of fish! (I beg you all to bear witness that I have not degraded myself by the evident pun). The dessert arrived. And now the Poltergeist was imminent. The lawyer thought to touch him and to hold him; he saw signs of him all over the room; he ran about after him, like a boy with a butterfly-net. But of all this I took no heed; I was watching the lady's face.

     "Professor Freud would perhaps explain my motive as 'infantile psycho-sexual pre-sexuality'; but no matter: I watched her face.

     "The lawyer, like what's his name pursuing [88] Priam, was close on the heels of the Poltergeist -- 'jam, jam' as used by Vergil in the sense of prolonging the suspense -- at last he made one grab in empty air. He overbalanced; must have touched the lamp-shade, I suppose -- for a shower of prawns fell upon us like the gentle rain from heaven, blessing both him that gives and him that takes.

     "And oh! those spirit prawns were beautiful upon the table-cloth; for each had a bunch of blue ribbon, blue ribbon, to tie up its bonny red hair. I had not moved my eyes from that fair lady's face; and I am sorry to conclude this abstract and brief chronicle of the prawn by saying that I cannot swear that she betrayed any guilty knowledge!"

     Lord Antony stopped with a jerk; and lifting his liqueur glass, drained it suddenly.

     Sister Cybele rose and bowed to Simon Iff.

     But Cyril Grey's voice rose in a high-pitched drawl: "Better a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled prawn, and discontentment therewith!"

     The Master frowned him down. "Gentlemen!" he said, "It is the custom of this House that its guests pay for their entertainment. Lord Antony Bowling has done so by his delightful story; Mr. Morningside by his brilliant theory upon the function of food; and the Mahathera Phang by his silence. I may say that I expected no less, and no different, from any one of you; we are overpaid; and the debt of gratitude is ours.

     Morningside was pleased; he thhought the compliment sincere Bowling understood something of the soul which had escaped him until that moment; the Mahathera Phang remained in his superb indifference.

     Lisa addressed the Master: "I'm afraid I haven't paid; and I've had a perfectly wonderful dinner!"

     Simon Iff replied with weight: "My dear young lady, you are not a guest -- you are a candidate." [89]

     Suddenly conscious of herself, she blanched, and became rigid in her chair.

     Simon Iff bade farewell to the three guests; Cyril and Sister Cybele conducted them to the boat, and bade them God-speed. The other brethren of the Order dispersed, one to one task, one to another.

     Presently Simon and Cyril, Cybele and Lisa were together alone. The old man led the way to a cell cunningly hidden in the wall. There they took seats.

     Lisa la Giuffria recognized that the critical moment of her life was come upon her. [90]