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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 2. News Of Viola
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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 2. News Of Viola Post by :p00kie Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :792

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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 2. News Of Viola

BOOK II CHAPTER II. NEWS OF VIOLA

One morning in late March, while Serviss was still at his morning's mail, Dr. Britt's card came in, bringing with it instant, vivid recollection of Colorow. The beauty of his days there had by no means faded from his mind, although he had succeeded in putting his romance in the background of his working brain, and had given up all thought of ever seeing Viola again.

He greeted Britt most cordially. "So you turned up at last! How is the lung? Isn't this a raw time of the year for you?"

"Well, yes; but my father died a few days ago, and I had to come on, and being near I ran in to see how you and the 'bugs' were getting on."

"Oh, we're thriving. Their ways are quite absorbing. How is your own 'farm'?"

"All in ruins. The fact is I've neglected the poor little brutes. I had no time for germs after I went off into the study of 'spooks.'"

"You don't tell me you've turned investigator of spirits! What have you discovered?"

"Not a thing. It's the most elusive problem I ever tackled. You remember the Lamberts?"

"Very well. I was about to ask about them."

"They're here now."

"Here! In New York?"

"Yes. They went to Boston last fall--Boston is a hot-bed of spookism, as you may know. They spent the winter there among the brethren, and have come on here for a change."

"They'll get it. What is--the girl doing?"

"Spooking mainly. That's all her 'guides' will allow her to do. Clarke still dominates the household by the aid of the ghostly granddaddy--a grim old chap that. They hold regular 'seances' now."

"You don't mean it!" Serviss grew graver yet of countenance. "I had hoped they would spare her that humiliation. I haven't seen her name in the papers."

"Oh, they don't go quite so far as that. The circles are 'very select.' Only the priests of the faith and their friends are invited--no admission fee--you understand?"

"I'm glad of that. It would be too bad to put that child forward in the double role of fakir and money-breeder; but, tell me, have you any fresh light on the subject of her mediumship?"

"Well, yes. I've changed my point of view slightly. I'm inclined to think there is pretty generally some basis for the faith. The literature of the subject is immense, and some of it is as well authenticated as any physical treatise. I'm convinced that Miss Lambert has no intent to deceive--she has no possible motive to do so--but Clarke has, and yet I cannot connect him directly with the phenomena."

"How is her health?"

"Very good, apparently. She is quite as blooming as when you saw her, and is immensely more mature mentally."

"Is she resigned to her life?"

"Sometimes she is and sometimes not. She is very sensitive to influences, and at times when Clarke is near she grows almost as enthusiastic as he--at other times she bitterly complains. I tried to free her from Clarke, but she wouldn't give me the authority necessary."

"What do you mean by that?"

There was something both sad and mocking in Britt's face as he answered: "I offered to marry her--wasn't that generous of me? She spurned my humble offer, intimating that there was small choice between me and Clarke and the spooks. No, I'll be honest, she was very nice and kind about it, and added that perhaps Mr. Clarke was right--her duty in the world was to 'convince people of the reality of the forces,' or something like that. 'I shall never marry,' she added, to soften the blow, and really she does seem a person set apart."

Serviss looked down at his book. "I suppose she imagines herself stricken with a mortal illness. I confess I sometimes think of her in that way. I can't understand why her parents--" He checked himself. "Where are they stopping?"

"They're housed over near the Riverside Drive with a wild enthusiast who has oodles and wads of money--old Simeon Pratt."

"I've heard of Simeon--Uncle Simeon the reporters call him on 'the Street.' I remember now about his spiritualism. He had some remarkable experiences after his wife's death--drowned, wasn't she?"

"You can't afford to be indefinite about Simeon's sorrows, doctor, for they made him what he is. I find these believers all start in about the same way. Simeon's wife and two daughters were lost in the English Channel. Simeon became a believer the following Monday--or maybe it was Tuesday."

"I recall the story of his life now. It was all very tragic. I wonder he didn't become a maniac."

"Some people think he did," answered Britt, dryly.

"So they're with Simeon. He lives gorgeously, I'm told."

"About like a lone American guest in a twenty-franc-per-day hotel in Paris. Why, yes, they're very comfortable there--all but the girl. She's discontented and unhappy, if I'm any judge, and is besieged day and night by the mourning faithful, not to speak of certain amorous males."

This hurt, and Serviss shifted ground. "Does she keep up her music?"

Again Britt smiled, but not humorously. "She plays the harp--in the dark."

"You mean--"

"She's taken on a lot more of the regulation tricks--materializing flowers, slate-writing, music without hands, etc."

"You don't mean it! I can hardly associate such doings with her," sorrow and indignation mingled in his voice.

"I assure you I was there last night at a 'circle,' and these things took place with Clarke as ring-master. There wasn't a particle of originality--it was the same old mill, and the same old grist, yet I don't hold her responsible in any harmful degree. I can't believe she designedly tricks, but she's surrounded now by a gang of chattering, soft-pated women, and men with bats in their belfry, who unite in assuring her that her God-given powers must be fostered. They've cut her off from any decent marriage--she's virtually a prisoner to their whims. What they may induce her to do next I don't know. I'm going to hang round here for a week or two and see." A violent fit of coughing interrupted him. When he recovered he looked up sidewise. "Isn't this a peach of a climate? Wouldn't you think they'd build at least one of their big cities where microbes couldn't fatten on genius?"

"What led Clarke to consent to leaving the West? When I was there he bitterly opposed her going."

"Oh, it's very simple. He has written a book on _The Physical Proof of Immortality_, and, being anxious for a publisher, withdrew his opposition to her plan, and declared himself willing to go to Boston--at Lambert's expense."

"Is he out of the Church?"

"Absolutely. You should have heard his farewell sermon. It really was as dramatic a speech as I ever heard. He went on to declare that the Hebrews were not the only seers, that the wells of inspiration were not yet dry, that revelation was waiting upon every soul to-day, and that he had been led by sorrow to listen at the key-hole, and so on. I trembled for the girl's secret, but he had himself in hand, and did not betray her. No one out there knows for certain what her abnormalities are."

"How about Lambert? Why didn't he take a hand?"

"He seemed bewildered by it all, and overawed by Clarke and the girl's 'controls.' 'It's all above timber-line for me,' he said, but he didn't like their coming away a little bit. He was angry with Clarke for breaking up his home, and if the girl had been his own I think he would have stopped the business long ago. Then there was a young fellow, Clinton Ward, who was working for Lambert, a fine young fellow--"

"I remember him."

"Well, it seems that his father is a partner in a publishing firm in Boston, and Clarke tried to make use of him to get his book published, and I believe his firm is to take it. Meanwhile the young fellow is in love with Viola, and willing to marry her and take chances, but his family is very properly aghast. Viola, knowing this--or for some other reason--refuses him. And there you are! The girl seems cursed on all sides, and, worst of all, has to endure Clarke and his ravings twelve hours of every mortal day."

"What is her relation to Clarke?" asked Serviss, hesitatingly.

"Well, now, I don't know. Sometimes I think he controls her by some infernal hypnotic power; and then again, from some phrase of her own, I think she considers her mind diseased, and marriage with any one else impossible."

"I don't see how the mother can stand by and see her daughter's life burned away."

"She, in her turn, seems enslaved to the dead. She has often told me that her father's spirit is leading her every movement."

"That particular ghost is Clarke--don't you think?"

Britt's eyes narrowed. "I don't know. I have never been able to connect him directly with a single one of these manifestations, and yet he must be at the bottom of part of it."

"It all comes back, then, to the girl herself."

Britt rose uneasily. "I repeat I am completely at sea. I have studied every line of old Randall's notes till I'm 'dopy' myself. Everything has conspired to make the girl hysterical--to fasten some accursed mental weakness upon her. If I could have stopped it two years ago she might have outgrown it. Every year now makes it less easy for her to shake it off--whatever it is."

"Atrocious!" exclaimed Serviss. "Has no one authority to act?"

Britt shrugged his shoulders. "What would you do when both parents--the living and the dead--consent? Only a husband could intervene, and Clarke seems to be about to claim that place. No, I see no hope for the girl. She may be right, after all, in joining Clarke."

Serviss rose to release the emotional tension under which he had kept his limbs. "You don't know their present plans?"

"No, only that Clarke is going to publish soon." He looked round the room. "What a development since my time! Bacteriology and auto-transportation are neck and neck in their amazing expansion."

Thereupon they dropped all reference to the Lamberts and their trials, and turned their minds upon phagocytes and other ravening mites whose likes and dislikes, minute as they are, work more devastation than cannon.

Serviss's work was over for that day; after Britt went away he sat idly at his desk, his mind busy with the revolting pictures called up by what he had heard of Viola. "They are destroying a beautiful soul," he exclaimed, bitterly, as he recalled the charm of her face and voice on that ride to the mine. "They are forcing a charming girl into an abominable life, they are warping her moral fibre into ugliness and death--and Clarke is the fanatic devil of the scheme."

The desire to see her, to talk with her, to measure the change in her grew very strong--so strong that he meditated a call, but the thought of Clarke cut the resolution off before it was fully formed. "Probably Britt is right--Clarke's rotten soul has fatally infected hers."

When Weissmann came in Serviss turned to him and said: "Doctor, I want to ask you a very unusual question."

"Proceed," replied the old man, who spoke with a little touch of the German now and then.

"What do you think of the claims of spiritualism?"

Weissmann did not smile as Serviss had expected. He became grave. "I am not qualified to judge. Speaking generally, I would say there are many phases to be considered. There are some millions of people who believe in it--which would argue some small basis of truth to start with. On the other hand, the extraordinary credulity of these people is to be taken into account."

"You mean they are those bereaved and anxious to believe?"

"Precisely. Again, speaking generally, I find few things impossible in this world of mystery. To take an old metaphor, I would not be surprised to find a grain of wheat in all this bushel of chaff. Every genuine phenomenon in the world stands related to every other phenomenon, and I believe that the truth or falsity of the spiritualistic hypothesis can be determined in accordance with physical science. If I were young and strong like you I would devote myself to the study of this delusion. It should be studied by one like yourself--to whom death is no near presence; as for me, I have two sons and one wife dead; my judgment would be vitiated therewith. You have no dead; you would make an admirable student of these spirit-voices and signs."

Serviss, though a little awed by the old man's unexpectedly solemn manner, ventured further. "Have you ever witnessed any of these unaccountable doings which Crookes and Zoellner instance?"

"I have had them in my own chamber." The old man's eyes twinkled. "Once, as I was dozing on my bed, one morning early, a faint cloud, like a puff of smoke, began to form above my head. It became pendulous, reaching towards me, and out of it a hand developed and extended. I said: 'It is an hallucination--very curious! I will touch it and it will vanish.' I reached--I grasped the hand--_it was warm and solid! I leaped from my bed with a yell." He chuckled at his keenly remembered discomfiture.

"How do you account for it? It was an illusion, of course. You thought the illusion only ocular--it extended to the sense of touch."

Weissmann's eyes gleamed speculatively. "We will let it go so. The world of sense and the world of spirit curiously intermingle--as we know."

"But these manifestations, so far as I have any knowledge, are so foolish and childish--"

"Well, so many foolish and childish persons have gone to the other world. Death is not the beginning of wisdom. I am an old man, Serviss, and already many of my loved ones are dead. I should like to believe they are still sentient, and maybe they are. I am German. The blood of Kant is in my veins." He seemed to be speaking partly to himself. "I do not dogmatize so gladly as I once did. As I do not know the essence of matter, it would be folly for me to assume to fathom the depth of spirit. The essential hopelessness of science is coming to render me humble. Spiritualism certainly is a comfortable belief. I would gladly embrace it if I could. I suspend judgment. This desire for another life may be only a survival of a more unreasoning time, something we will outgrow."

Serviss was profoundly surprised by his chief's attitude. He had expected a large, calm, and rather contemptuous reply to his question. In place of decision he encountered a doubt, a hesitancy, which betrayed weakness. Rudolph Weissmann, great as he was, belonged to the innumerable throng of the bereaved whose judgments are clouded by passion. He, too, was growing old, his all-embracing mind had yielded to an hallucination.

The young man's respect for his chief did not diminish, but a feeling of sadness swept over him as he realized that another renowned and fearless investigator was nearing the end of his great usefulness, and that upon the clear blue steel of his intelligence the rust of age had begun to fall. Truly the power of his early training, his worship of Kant and his school was still vital.

Then he pondered his words. "If I were a young man like you I would investigate this thing," and recalled that no young man of science had ever devoted himself to it. "They all came to it late in life, after bereavement."

The bereaved! The whole stupendous delusion seemed to rest upon the overmastering desire of the bereaved for their beloved. The great and good men and women among the believers (he was willing to admit there were such) came to investigation weakened by sorrow, made illogical by loss. They put their sane judgment, their strength, their calm patience aside and grasped eagerly at the lying comfort extended to them. They were not merely deceived, they developed fraud by their blindness, by their hunger for consolation, and by their crass credulity. He was still young enough to have inexorable theories--to be of single-hearted loyalty to his creed. To him as a monist, the soul (as an entity apart from the body) did not exist. Consciousness was a physical disturbance of the higher nerve centres, and thought a secretion of the brain. He acknowledged no line of demarcation between the crystal and the monera--and no chasm (of course) between man and the animals. The universe was a unit--and all its forms and forces differentiations of one substance and that substance too mysterious to be analyzed or named. In such a philosophy as this there could be no room for any hypothesis which even so much as squinted towards dualism, or that permitted a conception so childish as the persistence of the individuality after death.

However, he did not carry his implacable principles into the homes of his friends, and seldom permitted them to interfere with his enjoyment of wines or good dinners, the theatre or the drawing-room. This fact, from a cynical point of view, proved his faith to have been as truly of his laboratory as that of a bishop, with Spencer and Darwin and Koch and Haeckel as the founders of its articles.

He went home that night with the words of both Weissmann and Britt intermingling in his mind, strongly tempted to tell Viola's story to his sister, and so enlist her sympathy for the poor girl.

But it happened that an engagement to dine filled Kate's mind, and he had no time to open the subject till they were on the way, and by that time he had concluded not to involve her in his perplexity.

By a curious coincidence one of the guests at the dinner brought a hush of expectancy over the entire company by relating a series of experiences he had been privileged to share with a "psychic" some years before. He told of his mystification with a laugh in his eyes and with racy vigor of tongue, but Serviss, newly alive to the topic, could not but marvel at the intensity of interest manifested by every soul present. "Disguise it as we may," said the narrator, "this question of the life beyond the grave is chief of all our problems. It is the sovereign mystery, after all."

At this the hostess spoke: "I wish _we could see some of these things. You make us shudder deliciously. Can't you sometime bring this remarkable young woman--they're always women, aren't they?"

"Oh no," laughingly replied the young fellow. "One of the most amusing 'stunts' I ever saw was that of a man in Washington, who made a banjo play behind a curtain while holding both your hands."

"Why _do the spirits do such foolish things? I should think they'd be ashamed to act so 'frivolous like.'"

"They always talk like Indians, don't they? It's a pity. Why aren't they dignified and sincere?"

The young story-teller went on. "That's just it. The mediums are so nonchalant while causing these marvels that they fail to convince. Why, when I was holding a slate in order that they might write upon it, I minded the scratching no more than a clock a-ticking, they had made me that careless of their hocus-pocus. A voice in my ear can't make me start, and nothing, absolutely nothing, can now 'rouse my fell of hair.' You put a potato in the ashes of the hearth and it will ultimately pop into something to eat. You put a medium in a dark place and she will set your soul's nerves a-tingle."

Under all this banter Serviss perceived the pulse of an interest which laid hold on the most secret hopes and fears of the youngest and shook the eldest with an elemental dread and longing. It was as if the flood-gates of a sea of doubt and wonder had been turned in upon a dozen minds hitherto as well kept as lawns. Questions popped like corks and answers were as vivacious as the gurgle of wine, but the topic remained indeterminate--the argument inconclusive.

On their way home, Serviss said to his sister: "Did you notice how profound the silence became when Ralph started that discussion of the occult?"

"It is always so."

"Is it, really? I hadn't noticed it particularly."

"That's because people are afraid to talk such things before you scientists. Why, every woman there has been to a palmist or mind-reader or something."

"You astonish me. Have you?"

"Of course! I go every little while just for fun. We all pretend that we don't believe in it, but we do. I'm scared blue every time I go to a new one--they're all such creepy creatures. The last one I went to was positively weird."

Serviss was severe. "Kate, I am ashamed of you. To think that you, a woman of penetration, associating with people of rare intelligence like myself--"

"But why don't you people of rare intelligence look into these things? Why do you leave us poor untrained emotional creatures to suffer befoolment when you could so easily instruct us and shield us?"

"Because, while we could easily prove you befooled, you would still follow after your saw-dust idols. We prefer to save you from your _bodily infirmities and contagions, and so react on your minds."

She laughed. "That's very clever of you, and very decent. Stay with your germs, rob us of our diseases, but leave us, oh, leave us our delicious _thrills_!" She became grave. "The fact is, Morton, we all have moments when we feel the presence of the dead. I do. Father and mother never seem away off in our Graceland vault; sometimes they seem to be in the room with me. It's all a fancy, you'll say, and very foolish, but I believe mother actually comes to help me with Georgie when he is ill. Sometimes in the deep of the night I thrill as if she touched me."

He was not unsympathetic as he said: "You never hinted at this before."

"I was afraid to do so. If mother exists somewhere, and in some etherealized form, why can't she come back? Why couldn't her mind act on mine and produce the sensation of her presence?"

"Perhaps it could. Only there is no proof of its ever happening."

"Now see here, Morton, so long as we are on this subject at last, I want to ask you, do you believe mother is gone--absolutely blotted out of existence?" She waited in tense silence, and as they passed a street-lamp, and the light fell on his face, he seemed to have grown suddenly pale. "Do you believe Darwin and Spencer and Victor Hugo have gone to nothingness?"

"No, at the bottom of my heart I can't think that, and yet theoretically I cannot conceive of the existence of any soul apart from the body. Think of it! If mother lives, so do all the billions of cannibals, negroes, Bushmen--you can't draw a line and say 'here begins the immortal souls.'"

"That isn't the question. I do not believe that father and mother and Hayward have vanished into a handful of dust, I cling to a belief in their living selves, not because the bishop and the prayer-books say so, but just because my own mind says so. I won't surrender them, that's all."

"And yet a faith springing from such a desire is not well based. I want to tell you about some people I met last summer. They will interest you." Thereupon he pictured his first meeting with Viola. He described the mother and Clarke. He told of his interview with Britt and of Randall's revelations concerning Viola's life. "And now they have convinced the girl that she should extend her sphere of influence and bring her chicanery to bear on the metropolis."

"How do you know it is chicanery?"

"Britt said--"

"I don't care what Britt said. You found the mother sweet, and you admit the girl is charming. I'll trust your instinct in such matters, Mort; you've never been one to run after frumps and minxes. She had good eyes?"

"Beautiful eyes, steady, blue-gray, wistful. She quite enchanted me at first--"

"And you're sentimental over her still?"

"I didn't say that I was sentimental over her at any time."

"I don't care what you said. I can tell by your voice that she is a lost, sweet dream. What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing."

"Yes, you do. You want me to see her and find out what she's doing here. It is Kate to the rescue! I will go to-morrow."

"You are too precipitate! You might wait and get my mind."

"I have your mind already, and I believe in doing things vigorously. Besides, you've roused my curiosity. After all these years of waiting to see you get interested in something besides your 'bugs'!--I'm delighted to know you're human, and that there is one woman in the world who can make you moan. You are hit--don't deny it! You've been brooding on that girl all this time. I've known you were hit, but I thought I would wait till you cared to speak. I'm crazy to see her. I shall act at once."

"It's too much to ask of you, but I hope you will consider me to the extent--"

"If your theory is correct that girl ought to be snatched away before the mob of occultists, freaks, and flatterers of this city utterly spoil her. Anyhow, I'm going to look into her case on my own account." And in this determination she snuggled into the corner of the carriage and became silent.

Serviss found that sharing his experience with his sister had enormously increased the weight and importance of his doubt. Viola and her singular beleaguerment had suddenly grown to be a vital problem--something to be immediately seized upon, and he casually added: "It is only fair to say that the Lamberts are above the need of taking money for any display of 'psychic force.'"

Suddenly Kate sat up. "Suppose the girl really _has these powers?"

"That is impossible!"

"Why impossible? Do you men of science pretend to know _all there is to know?"

"Certainly not; but think what such an admission involves."

"No matter _what it involves. You don't ask what the X-ray involves; you ask, first of all, is it a fact? If the girl has these powers, then what? You don't even know what she claims, do you?"

"Not in detail."

"Well, then, don't condemn her till you know what you're condemning her for."

"Kate, you amaze me. I thought you would commend my cool judgment, my sanity, and lo and behold! as Aunt Celina says, you have become the girl's advocate and the assailant of science."

"Not at all. I merely say you scientific people should not be so insultingly sure that people with a faith are fools."

"We don't say fools--we merely say misinformed."

"Anyhow, you've interested me in this medium--"

"For Heaven's sake, don't call her that if you're going to see her. To apply such a name to that sweet child is an outrage."

Kate's voice was exultant as she cried out: "Now I know you're in love with her."

"Mrs. Rice, you are a very wise woman."

"I hope I shall not find you a very silly scientist," she replied, with several implications of superiority in both words and tone.

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