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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 3. Britt Comes To Dine
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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 3. Britt Comes To Dine Post by :p00kie Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1206

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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 3. Britt Comes To Dine

BOOK II CHAPTER III. BRITT COMES TO DINE

His sister's blunt words brought Morton face to face with himself. His heart had been touched, his imagination fired by Viola, hence his discontent, his heat of anger towards the unlovely side of her life. It was the memory of her that had kept him half-hearted to the claims of several comely women of his circle whom Kate had advocated.

And now his mind (which ought to have been given up entirely to bacteria) was filled with the face and fortunes of one who was either living a lie or suffering from an abnormally developed brain. Singular and sad predicament for a man who had determined to move slowly and with calm foresight. Furthermore, the whole world in which his love lived and moved was repellent, silly, and morbid. Since his meeting with her he had tried to read some of the journals devoted to her faith, and had found them incredibly inane--smudgily printed, slovenly of phrase, and filled with messages from Aristotle, Columbus, and Confucius, which would have been discouraging in a boy of twelve years old. The phraseology, the cant terms, nauseated him. The advertisements of "Psychics," "World-famous Mediums," "Palmists," "Horologists," and only the devil himself knows what else, filled him with disgust, added to his already poor opinion of sick humanity. Of these Viola now formed a part--as an actress shares the envy, the brag, the selfish, blatant struggle for success which is reflected in the advertising columns of dramatic journals. He ran down each column of "display ads" of _The World of Spirit_, timorously, almost expecting to see a notice of "the marvellous psychic Miss Viola Lambert, the mountain seeress"--and so on.

On deeper thought he found these papers shrewdly contrived to take human beings at their weakest point, their most unguarded moment; they had the boldness of the juggler who knows the blind spot in the eyes of his spectators. They occupied a field apart from all other periodicals in the world. Science, literature, and art concerned them only so far as they touched upon, illuminated, or strengthened faith in "the farther shore." They were as special as a trade-journal--far more so, indeed, for the _Boot and Shoe News prints occasional reviews of books, and some admirable stories may be found within its pages side by side with notes on "Burnishers" and stitching-machines.

The accounts of circles, sittings, and "seances"--good Lord, how he hated that word!--were almost comic, and yet to think of Viola and her gracious mother concerned with these meetings, even as spectators, filled him with angry disgust.

According to Britt, the girl was a self-deluded fakir at the best--at the worst, an habitual, hysterical trickster, avid for notoriety. In either case a tainted, leprous thing--a woman to be shunned by every man who valued a dignified and wholesome life. It was worse than folly to permit such a creature to break in on his work, to draw his mind from his reading; nevertheless she continued to do both these things.

The next morning, as he was leaving the house for his office, he stepped into the dining-room and took a seat by his sister's side.

"Kate," he said, and his voice was stern, "you must not call upon Miss Lambert."

"Why not, Morton?"

"Because it would prove a snare to you and an embarrassment to me. She is a singularly attractive girl. No one can face her and accuse her. Britt says she is much more mature than when I saw her; and by that he meant to convey that she had grown clever, if not tricky. There is a bad streak in her, I'm afraid, for all her charm, and you would better let her entirely alone. Upon the most charitable construction she is hysterical, and her deception probably arises, as Britt says, from a diseased brain. In any case she is not a fit person for you to meet."

"But you said she has good eyes?"

"She has. She is bewitchingly pretty, but that only makes her case the more perplexing. Why trouble ourselves about her?"

"I'm going to call upon her, anyway. I'm not afraid. I am wild to see a girl who can upset you so completely. You are upset; I can see that."

Morton laughed, rather sadly. "That's a fine, womanly reason, and may be sufficient for you; but, if you go, understand, Kate, it is against my wish. I do not care to know anything more about her and her problems; she has interfered too much with my work already."

She looked deep into his soul, then took another tack. "Well, then, bring on this man Britt; he's the only witness for the prosecution, isn't he? Let's have him to dinner. I want to interrogate him, as the lawyers say. I want to know what kind of a man he is before I take his word against a girl who rejected him. He may be only jaundiced."

"He was their family physician."

"I don't care if he was, he may be seeking revenge on the girl." She put her arm about his neck. "You poor boy, that girl's troubles have upset you. I'm delighted to find you so humanly romantic--at least I would be if she weren't so questionable. But we'll find out. I'm on her side till I know more of Britt; besides, I'm not sure that her mysterious powers are not real," and she sent him away less keenly concerned. With all her impulse and zeal of friendship she was a woman of sense and power.

* * * * *

Britt came to dinner promptly, gratified for a chance to wear his evening dress. Kate received him gladly, but was taken aback by his languid elegance of manner. He really looked distinguished, and she rather hastily explained, "Our dinner is only a family affair, Dr. Britt. We wanted to have you all to ourselves."

"Nothing could be better for me, Mrs. Rice, I assure you," he answered, gallantly. "A formal dinner would embarrass me. I've been so long in the hills I feel like a Long Island hermit. It's a far halloo from Colorow to the Bowery."

"It's farther still from the Bowery to Colorow. That's what makes you Western people so interesting to us of the East."

"Please don't make me out an honored son of the West, Mrs. Rice. I was born in New Jersey."

"Were you, indeed? Oh, I'm so sorry."

"I regret it myself. The West would have fitted me out with better lungs."

Kate never went round when she could wade across. Therefore, no sooner were they inhaling the savor of the soup than she began her interrogation. "I am very much interested in occult affairs, Dr. Britt, and my brother tells me you were the family physician of this remarkable Miss Lambert. Tell us about her."

Britt considered a moment. "It is true that Mrs. Lambert confided in me and permitted me to take a part in Viola's sittings; but I can hardly be called her physician. In the first place, the girl seems so perfectly well physically that medicine is unnecessary, and then, too, I never had her confidence. To be plain, I think she hated the sight of me."

"Why was that?"

He cast a curious sidewise glance. "Well, I'm not pretty to look at, and then, I reckon she thought I was investigating her."

"I hope you were."

"I was, but I didn't get very far."

"What barred you?"

"Well, to begin with, pretty nearly everything took place in the dark."

"It's always so," exclaimed Kate. "I wonder why?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "They all say 'light is antagonistic to the power.' You can draw your own inference."

Morton spoke. "I never could understand why they didn't make a special effort to avoid that criticism."

"Well, tell us what happened," cried Kate. "I'm on the edge of my chair with interest."

Britt looked at Morton. "That's the curious thing, isn't it? People _are interested. The fact is, we all secretly hope the ghost-story may turn out to be true."

Kate laughed. "You're perfectly right. We all pooh-pooh, but we'd be bitterly disappointed if all spirit footsteps turned out to be rats rolling nuts. But please hurry--wasn't _any of it true?"

"Now, I'm going to be candid--"

At this Morton leaned forward with excess of interest, and Kate exulted. "Good! Now it's coming. Be as candid as you can."

Britt went on musingly. "One night as I sat between Viola and the closed piano, the spook, or whatever it was, ran up and down the keys--now on the treble, now on the bass--keeping time to my whistling."

Morton interrupted. "Did you _know that the lid was closed?"

"Yes, I laid my hand on it while the keys were drummed."

"Where was Miss Lambert?"

"Apparently at my left, sleeping. It didn't really matter where she was, for the lid was down. When the lights were turned on she was in deep trance--apparently. That one fact of the closed piano being played in that way remains inexplicable."

"Was that all?" cried Kate, in a most disappointed way.

"Oh no. There were marvels to raise your hair, but that was all that I really valued."

Morton answered quickly. "It was enough, if properly conditioned. The theory is--I've been reading up on it--that these spook brethren of ours attack their doubters in different ways. Knowing you to be a man of materialistic and rather methodical habit of mind, the powers essayed a material test. Perhaps it was a mouse?"

"Or the cat?" suggested Kate.

"They must have been musical and of exceptional intelligence, then," put in Britt, "for they played up and down on the key-board at my request, and kept time to 'Yankee Doodle.'"

Kate exulted. "What do you think of that, Morton? If one is true, then all may be true."

Britt went on. "No. Whatever the power was, it was controlled by human intelligence. It answered to my will."

"You were convinced of that." Morton's glance was keen, keener than he knew. "If you admit that one of these manifestations is true you open the door for the witches."

Britt was a little nettled. "All this took place precisely as I relate it, in the dark, of course. But one sense, that of touch, controlled the situation--hearing took the rest."

"It all shows the inadequacy of human evidence. You must not expect any one to believe that such a manifestation took place. It is like the stories we hear of haunted houses. A friend of mine the other day was telling me of a ghost that frequented an Australian bungalow where he was visiting last year. Said he: 'I saw vases thrown from the mantel-piece in broad daylight. I've heard invisible feet tramping all about my chair in a vividly lighted room.' I didn't believe him, of course. The fact is, we don't know our own capacity for being deceived. We are each a microcosm--a summing-up of all our forebears, and in the obscure places of our brains are the cells of cavemen, nooks troubled by shadows and inhabited by strange noises. If you come at me in the right way you can raise a terrifying echo deep in some knot of my brain-cells; but it is only the echo of a far-away cry--it is not even the cry."

Britt poised himself. "Let me tell you this. I have started in to understand this thing. It isn't a haphazard series of deceits, of that I am at this moment convinced. The most amazing consideration to my mind is this: there is _system in their fool-tricks. I don't mean Miss Lambert alone, I mean in all the best-authenticated manifestations. As you say, they know how to attack the public; the ones who don't are exposed and drop out; but, generally speaking, they go on smoothly because they know just what can be safely attempted and what can't. Now in Miss Lambert's case the same system appears. Her alleged phenomena fit into the scheme, her development is according to the spiritualistic Hoyle. No originality is permitted, hence no failure of effect."

"And yet my brother tells me she is quite young and engaging."

"Altogether charming in body, and in every other thought most ingenuous."

Morton interposed mockingly. "And you think she has built up this most elaborate system of deceit?"

"Somebody has. I lay a good part of it to Clarke, but most of it to hysteria and the suggestion of _The Flag of Truth and other similar sheets."

"But she already had all these manifestations before Clarke's coming, and presumably before she read _The Flag of Truth_."

"They say so. I don't know that. Many of the tricks are noted in Randall's notes."

"Who was Randall?" asked Kate.

"Their family physician--my predecessor. Some of her phenomena convinced him. He put himself on record in his notes as a convert. However, that was after his wife died."

"They all weaken when their wives die."

"Not all; some are not anxious to bridge the gulf," answered Britt, lightly. "I'm told Clarke's communion with his dead wife is now as cool as friendship."

Kate faced him. "It's only fair to say, Dr. Britt, that I, too, am one of the 'bereaved,' and that if I seem more hospitable to these messages than my brother you will understand. My husband died two years ago."

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Rice, if I've seemed too harsh in my zeal to explain--"

"Oh, I'm not one to fear the truth," she answered, quickly. "I come of a family of questioners. It's only now and then that I waver--for a moment. My husband said he would come back to me if he could, and I've been half hoping--not really expecting it, you know--"

She did not complete her sentence, and Morton spoke with tender reproach. "I am being profoundly illumined, Kate. Why didn't you tell me that?"

"Because it was only a jocular remark. I didn't intend you should know it. I don't know how I came to let it slip from my mouth. He has never returned, strange to say. I feel mother, but never Hayward."

They had reached a very tender and solemn pause--so self-revealing had been the woman's admission--and Britt was looking at his plate as his hostess began again with assumed brightness. "Well, now, about this girl. Can you take me to see her? She interests me beyond anything."

"Certainly. I should be delighted. But your brother knows her--she would be pleased to see you both, I've no doubt."

"My brother thinks she is a fraud, and does not wish to see her--"

"I derive my knowledge from you, Dr. Britt."

Britt was undisturbed. "I think she is a fraud, too, but a very charming one."

"That ought to make her all the more convincing," said Kate.

"And all the more dangerous," replied Britt. "She baffles me--when face to face with her."

"What are they going to do with her--exhibit her to the public?"

"Not for the present. Clarke has been making notes industriously all the year and is about ready to publish. He now wants a few of the big fellows, like Uncle Simeon Pratt, to help boom his book. The Lamberts are not in this for money--please give them credit for that--and as for the mother, she is entirely honest--she believes implicitly in her spirits."

"That puts the girl in a horrible position--if she _is deceiving," Morton interposed. "Imagine her state of mind if she realizes that her own mother has come to rest upon her system of deceit. The thought is horrible."

"It is quite as bad at that," returned Britt. "You see, the mother has been for years in close daily communion--as she supposes--with her husband, her little son, and others of her dead. Half of her daily life is in these joys, the other half in her daughter. There stood the wall that stopped me. I couldn't express my doubt to the mother. I couldn't apply the clamps. I simply withdrew. I do not intend to pursue the matter to a finish so long as the mother is alive."

Morton's face was clouded with pain. "Let us drop the Lamberts as a subject; they are too distressing, especially as I see no way of helping them. When do you return?"

Kate acquiesced in her brother's diversion of the stream of talk, but an hour later, as Britt was about to go, she seized the opportunity to say: "You must not fail to take me to see this girl. I have never been so excited about any one in my life. Can't you take me to-morrow?"

"I am entirely at your service. Suppose I call at four--will that do?"

"Perfectly. I'm very grateful to you."

"I hope you won't come to curse me for it. I warn you, the girl is damnably convincing. She may enamour you."

"No fear of that," she cried, in defiant brightness. "I'm not so easily fooled."

She re-entered the library with the flush of an excited conviction in her face. "Morton, I feel as if I had taken part in the dissection of a human soul."

He threw up his hand with a gesture of pain and despair. "Don't! I can only hope that girl is utterly bad. Otherwise she is the sport of devils. Help me forget the whole uncanny business."

"You're wrong," she said, firmly. "It is just such men as you and Dr. Weissmann who should snatch the pearl of truth from this bucket of mental mire."

"That's a very good phrase, Kate--if only I was sure of the pearl."

There really was no way out for him. His mind utterly discredited the phenomena Viola claimed to produce, and that left but one other interpretation. She was a trickster and auto-hypnotist--uncanny as the fabled women who were fair on one side but utterly foul and corrupt on the other. In his musing her splendid, glowing, physical self drew near, and when he looked into her sweet, clear eyes his brain reeled with doubt of his doubt. If there were any honest eyes in the world, she was innocent, and a tortured victim, as Kate had so quickly decided; and his plain duty was to beat back the forces seeking to devour her.

"The mind is an obscure kingdom subject to inexplicable revolts and sudden confusions," he thought. "Delusions are easy to foment, and at the last are indistinguishable from the fact, so far as the mind which gave them being is concerned. The body of this girl is young, but her brain may be cankered by the sins and lies of a long line of decadent ancestry." The thought was horrible, but it was less revolting than the alternative--in no other way could her life be explained and excused. In any case it was highly courageous in her to put marriage away as decisively as if it were a crime. And this she must have done, for even Clarke, according to Britt, had thus far sued in vain. There was a heroic strain in the girl somewhere. Was it too late to rescue her from the mental gangrene eating its way to the very centre of her soul? This was the question which only a renewed acquaintance, a careful study could resolve.

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