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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 4. The Patron Of Psychics
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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 4. The Patron Of Psychics Post by :p00kie Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :3051

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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 2 - Chapter 4. The Patron Of Psychics


Up to the hour of his wife's death Simeon Pratt had been but the business-man, large of appetite, pitiless, self-sufficient, and self-absorbed--the type of man often described by amiable critics as "a hard citizen, but good to his family, you know," as if the fact of his not beating his wife were adequate excuse for railway wrecking.

He might be seen taking the 7.49 train at Eighty-sixth Street each week-day morning with a bundle of newspapers under his arm, a man of depending jowls and protuberant belly, who never offered any one a seat and did not expect such courtesy from others. He was burly and selfish as a hog, and was often so designated by work-weary women, whom he forced to stand while he read his market reports in callous absorption.

His associates greeted him with a nod, unsmiling and curt, and the elevator-boys at the Pratt building were careful not to elbow him. He had the greed of a wolf and the temper of an aging bear, and yet his business ability admittedly commanded respect. Everything he did had a certain sweep. He was not penurious or mean in his wars. On the contrary, he despised the small revenges; but in a strife with his equals he was inexorable--he pushed his adversaries to the last ditch, and into it, remorseless as a mountain land-slide.

All the tenderness in his nature, all his faith in goodness and virtue, he reserved for his home. To his wife (a woman of simple tastes and native refinement) and to his children, bright and buxom girls of twenty-odd, he was a fond and gruffly indulgent provider, making little protest over new gowns and parties. He had no sons, and this was a hidden sorrow to him, and had the effect of centring all his paternal pride and care in his daughters. He could deny them nothing when they wheedled him, and they were nearly always humorously and brazenly trying to "work him," as he called it. Only in one particular had he been granite. With means to build on the east side of the Park, he had deliberately chosen the Riverside Drive in order to show his contempt for the social climbers of upper Fifth Avenue, and neither smiles nor tears had availed to change his plan.

His house was a dignified structure exteriorly, but within was dominated by his taste rather than by that of his daughters, who were quite unable to change his habits after they were once set. He refused to consider their suggestions as to furniture. The interior was, as Britt had said, not unlike a very ornately formal French hotel, and this resemblance arose from the fact that he had once enjoyed a pleasant stay in a house of this sort; and when the decorator submitted a number of "schemes," he chose the one which made the pleasantest impression on his mind.

With three women at the table, he habitually took charge of the dinner, controlling the menu and the decorations as well. It amused outsiders to see him in wordy consultation with the head-waiter and the butler while his guest of honor vainly tried to continue some story he had begun, but his wife suffered in silence. In short, Simeon proceeded precisely as he would have done at a restaurant or at his club, and his family stood clear of his elbow, the girls with sly shrugs of their rounded shoulders, the wife meekly, but ineffectually, protesting against his usurpation of her domain.

He was not politically ambitious, and was in a fair way to grow old as one of the obscure millionaires of New York City when death reached a sable hand and smote him full in the front of his pride and assurance--his wife and daughters were lost in the sinking of a boat off the coast of France.

The news of this disaster came to him as he sat at his desk--the morning papers had given no hint of it. "I don't believe it," he said, quietly, and began pressing the buttons of his desk with the same swift calmness he would have used had the markets been going against him. Messages flew to and fro, the wires pulsed with his imperious anxiety. The manager of the steamboat company answered--denied. The news was confirmed, all to the same end; and when Simeon Pratt rose from his desk that night his jaw hung lax, his big form stooped and shambled as though twenty additional years had suddenly been heaped upon his shoulders. He went back to his splendid, lonely palace (where the servants huddled and whispered and hastened) with a hard, dry knot in his throat, and with eyes heavy and hot and tearless confronted his ruined altar. From one to be feared he had fallen in a day to the most desolate of beings.

Messengers pursued him. The bodies were recovered. He gave orders for them to be shipped by the first boat. In the blaze of the electric light, with horrid, staring eyes and stiffly moving lips, he cursed himself and God. He cursed himself for letting his treasures go from him, he cursed God for permitting such outrages upon justice. At last he fell silent, but he did not sleep nor eat till the end of the second day. Then he rose, took the 7.49 train as usual, and returned to his desk--unshaved, with creased and crumpled clothing, a gray and battered man, sustained by habit, seeking relief in work.

His associates, with forced cheerfulness, professed pleasure at his return, carefully avoiding mention of his appalling loss. To those who did speak of it he returned no word or glance. With fumbling, thick, and nerveless fingers he took up the purple-lettered ribbon of his trade. He fixed his dim eyes on market reports and dictated notes and orders, but it was a poor show. Even those who hated him as a gross, unlovely character were shocked at his shrunken form, his grayed and grizzled cheek. When death deals a blow like that the defeated one acquires a certain majesty.

Gradually the old man regained ability to compute and combine, and to converse with his partners concerning the affairs of the house; but his keen interest, his prompt decision of utterance, were all gone. His presence in the office was the result of habit merely. In reality he was waiting the return of the steamer which bore his precious clay.

This boat was delayed by storms, and for three days the broken financier, unable to remain in his office, walked to and fro between Broad Street and Bowling Green, haunting the office of the steamship company until the bloodless manager, nervous and irritated, left his chair to avoid him, unable to endure the sight of his haggard face and piteous eyes.

When the boat arrived, Simeon met it with his own yacht, and, with a return of his iron resolution, stood by to protect the graves of his hopes as they slid across the rail. Then, ordering every soul from the cabin, he sat down beside the caskets. He _knew that his loved ones were there, and yet he could not realize it. He was filled with a desire to prove it all a mistake, but the fear--the certainty of the disfigured faces--deterred him.

He took them home. Nothing could have been more piercingly pathetic than that flabby, gray old man, sitting alone amid the tawdry splendor of his drawing-room with the remains of all he loved in this world shut away from him by rosewood and silver. When the last pale and shaking servant had left the room, the father gave one long, hoarse, choking wail, and fell upon his face on the floor, crushed and utterly despairing.

When he rose he was calmer. He began to give orders for a sumptuous funeral, taking charge of every detail in his familiar way. The ceremony was magnificent and profoundly affecting. Every one present in the great church shed tears of heartfelt sorrow, pitying the great banker, quite humanly; but he himself did not weep, he sat limply with eyes on the floor, in a daze of internal emotion; but when the door of the vault closed on his dead a final terrible cry burst from him, the cry of one who realizes to the last and to the full the emptiness, the futility of a life without love, an old age without hope.

His interest in the material world, in the war of trade, was gone. His vast wealth would still bring him dividends, and his clerks and partners would still consult him, still demand his signatures, but the ones who made all these matters worth doing had vanished.

Life seemed utterly useless, a vain effort, but while yet he struggled with the fear of death and a hate of the day, a delegation of those who claim to hold communion with the dead came to him with a greeting from his wife. This message contained words which startled him. He was persuaded to seek confirmation. He was convinced and became the most fervent of spiritualists. His form lifted, his eyes brightened. A new world opened for him. He announced his intention to use his vast wealth for the faith which had comforted him. He built a magnificent temple to the unseen. He hired speakers and musicians to entertain and instruct those who came to hear. He sought out and entertained scores of mediums, psychics, sensitives, inspiritual speakers, and natural healers--all were welcome at his hearth. He might have been called, and was called, "the prey of harpies," but, as his interests now were in these matters, and as he had the means wherewithal to amuse himself, surely he was not a loser. True, he was many times deceived by false prophets and wronged by fraudulent seers, but still he enjoyed the exquisite solace which the voice of his wife unfailingly brought when the conditions were favorable. He was no longer hopeless; on the contrary, he was reanimated, made over in the faith of the spirit-world. The daughters came less often to speak to him, but when they did come they made his dark, cold heart glow with their gay words. At times it seemed that he could reach out his hands and touch their soft cheeks, so palpable were they, so intimate and familiar were their voices.

Gradually a part of his old-time business shrewdness came to his aid in these intangible matters, and he began to distinguish and to cast out the base and parasitic prestidigitators who infested his house. He grew discerning, and was able to weed the tares from the wheat, and with this discernment came the conviction that it was his duty to violently expose those who sought to cheat him. He became a terror to the fraudulent, and by his vigorous denouncement of this and that performer raised storms of opposition; for it seemed that no trickster, no matter how base, was without a following. His purposes clarified. Aided by cunning counsel, he began to conceive of himself as one called to a great mission; and, resigned to his lot, he set himself to the work of furthering in every possible way the reign of the spirit-world.

It was into the hands of this shattered yet still powerful man that Viola Lambert had been persuaded to deliver herself, and Simeon, convinced of her powers by experiment, and charmed by her girlish grace and dignity, had pushed all other keepers of the door of silence from his house, thereby arousing a tempest of denunciation; for these sibyls gave up the luxury of his table, the munificence of his purse, only after persuasion, and in bitterness and wrath.

Viola's meeting with Pratt was brought about by Clarke, who was aware through the special organs of the faith that the great merchant and promoter was not merely insatiable in his thirst for new sources of solace, but exceedingly generous with his comforters. No sooner had he secured the girl's consent to go than he wrote to Pratt asking him to meet them in Boston. Receiving no answer (Pratt was afflicted with such letters), he wrote again, detailing the experiments he had made, laying great stress upon the fact that the psychic was the daughter of a well-to-do Western mine-owner, that she was a cultured young girl, and that her mother (a distinguished evangel in the cause) was devoted even to the point of submitting her daughter to a series of absolutely convincing tests. He made mention also of his book, which was nearly ready for the press, and which he hoped would create a great stir among scientists.

Simeon did not answer this letter, but sent a representative to Colorow to investigate the writer's claims. The detective returned to say that "the parties" had gone to Boston, but that they had a fine reputation in the region, and that the father was a rich and well-considered citizen. "No one knows anything out o' the way with the girl," the spy added.

Simeon now flamed with eagerness and set out to find Viola and to test her. It was not easy to locate her, for Clarke had proceeded with caution in Boston. After consultation with the editor of _The Spiritist_, and at his suggestion, he had given only a few very private sittings to a few very discreet friends. These evenings, however, had been very successful, and those who had been permitted to attend them had jealously guarded the jewel they had found, selfishly urging continued secrecy. Nevertheless, the circle had spread, and Viola, apparently resigned to her singular function, was patiently sitting night after night in stuffy, darkened rooms, while Clarke, vivid as ever, sonorous as ever, declaimed in passionate rhythms the promise of a new era for spiritism to be inaugurated by the message of "this wonderful organism." He had, indeed, laid out an elaborate programme for the capture of Boston, but this he instantly dropped when Simeon Pratt sent up his card and asked to see what the girl could do. He demanded a sitting much as a dealer in horses would ask the hostler to drive the proffered animal before him in order that he might judge of her paces. He did not intend to offend; on the contrary, he was instantly consumed with anxiety lest this splendid young creature should refuse to perform.

Viola was deeply offended by his first manner and coldly said: "I am not sitting for money, and I will not be put on exhibition for any one."

Simeon ended by pleading with her for one sitting--one short hour; but she refused, and he went away dejected, flabby with defeat. He returned next day, and still a third time; and at last, to work on her sympathies, he told her how he came to enter the faith, and with broken voice and quivering lips displayed his sorrows.

His weakness availed. The utter tragedy of his life brought the ready tears to Viola's eyes and quite melted her opposition. She saw him in a new light, understood him for what he really was, a lonely, broken old man hastening to the grave, and in her pity consented.

The manifestation which followed he reported as the most marvellous he had ever had. "Jennie, my eldest daughter, spoke from the megaphone for more than an hour, minutely detailing the circumstances of her death, giving orders for the disposition of their jewels and trinkets, and in other ways most completely satisfied me of her identity."

He rose from this sitting exalted, comforted beyond measure, pathetically happy, quite ready to embrace the blessed girl who had made his hour of sweet communion possible. His home, his private car, his yacht were all at her disposal. No queen, however powerful, could have won such homage from him. "You must come to my home," he said. "I will enlarge your work. I will meet every wish of your 'guides'."

With Clarke and the mother on his side, he prevailed. Viola consented to go to New York as his guest, provided her secret powers were not revealed. "I will not be advertised," she said. "Too many people are coming to see me now. If you publish me I will never sit again."

This threat threw Simeon into a panic. "Of course you will remain private. You will be my guest, the same as your mother. No one but my own family shall know of your wonderful powers. I will see to that."

Perhaps he was honest in this promise, but his habit of entertaining "Arabian Priestesses," "Crystal Gazers," and other women of singular endowments was too well known to permit of the fulfilment of his agreement. No sooner was Viola seen on the drive in his carriage than his friends and hangers-on began to smile and say: "Simeon has a new enchantress. I wonder who she is?" And those remarks aroused the curiosity of the ubiquitous workers for the press. Furthermore, the directors of the temple, of course, must needs be told, and the other seeresses, neglected by their once-idolized patron, did not need to be told; so that long before Serviss had a hint of her coming the news of Viola's domestication with Simeon was widely disseminated among the faithful, who hurried at once to meet her.

These seekers went with smiling faces and hastening feet, but they came away laggardly, reproaching the master of the temple for a selfish brute. Some few were admitted, stayed, and met the girl and Clarke--for Clarke fairly divided the honors, so vivid, so picturesque was he. He did not hesitate to speak of his great work, a work which would astound the world, and to announce the title of his great oration which Simeon had engaged for the temple. This was the first big gun of his campaign, this compelling oration; but he must have Viola's consent to the use of her name--her consent also to sit with a group of chosen great men of the city in order to issue a defiant challenge to science. From these special sittings he expected to deduce the final and greatest chapter of his book.

From this public test of her power Viola still shrank, but Pratt's wealth and power, which Clarke continually emphasized, fairly stunned her into acquiescence. So far from being a faith of the poor, the obscure, a faith that lurked in dark corners, avoiding the direct gaze of men, spiritualism from the portals of a resplendent temple appeared to be not merely respectable but triumphant. From this sacred meeting-place of the angelic forces, from the windows of Pratt's palatial home, she looked out upon the city with more of content with her mission than she had ever known before--troubled only by a deeply hidden wish to see again the man whose buoyant health and smiling eyes had so strongly impressed her on their ride into the Marshal Basin.

But this sense of security of power did not last. As the novelty of her position in Pratt's household wore away she found her duties irksome. She resented the flocks of curious or melancholy visitors and began to perceive the bitter truth--that she was only a servant, after all, ministering to the pleasures of Pratt and his friends. She had very little time to herself, and could not escape her masters even for a drive in the Park--one or the other of them was always at her side.

She attempted to withdraw her consent to the use of her name, but Clarke, the guides, even her mother, insisted on the test. Britt alone of all her friends took the side of her fears. They were in correspondence of a formal sort, and when he reached the city he went straight to her, anxious to know what Clarke's plans actually were. To him she spoke more freely than ever before, expressing her dread of the flaring light which Clarke was about to turn upon her.

Britt listened gravely. "There is one way of escape," he said at last, with a smile, both mocking and tender. "I don't pretend to say it's to your mind, but want to remind you that my offer is still open. If you give me the necessary authority I will stop this crusade with a jolt."

"I'm grateful to you, Dr. Britt, truly I am, but I can't do what you ask--not even--" She hesitated and fell silent.

"Not even to save your life or mine. I don't blame you--I am but a poor thing."

"I didn't mean it that way. I respect you very, very much; but you must know Anthony depends on me, and, besides, maybe it _is my duty to go on the platform. Father and grandfather both say it is. To them it seems small and selfish of me to want to be happy in my own home while the millions weep uncomforted; but oh, if I could only live my own life _part of the time! If I could feel free of this terrible weight one day in seven."

Britt, looking into her clear eyes, acquired a new confidence in her. "Tell me, Miss Lambert, do you really believe that your father comes to you in this way?"

"I dare not doubt it," she answered, with evasive eyes.

"Some of the messages are not specially--"

"I know," she acquiesced, with a shudder. "There are evil spirits as well as good, and sometimes the bad ones come. I don't see why grandfather permits them to use me. He says he can't always help it if there are bad people in the circle. That is another reason why I dread this public test--there is no knowing what the evil spirits might make me say or do. If it did not mean so much to Anthony I would refuse--even if grandfather asked it."

"I saw Professor Serviss to-day."

"Did you?" Her eyes were instantly alight. "Where did you see him? Does he know we are here?"

"He didn't know till I told him. I called at his laboratory."

"Did you tell him where we are?"

"Yes; and he felt as I do, that this is not a good place for you. Pratt has the reputation of entertaining sensational characters, and it will be a miracle if you are not exploited to the press."

Her face clouded again. "Oh, I am so tired of having people look at me and shrug and whisper. I am so tired of having this abnormal thing reflected in the eyes of all my visitors. I wish I could become commonplace--without the slightest thing queer about me. Sometimes I feel like taking a dose of poison and ending it all."

"Don't do that," Britt replied, soberly. "You mustn't even say such a thing. I wish I could help you, but I see no way so long as your own parents and Clarke himself are your guides; but if at any time you will give me the authority"--here his voice became stern--"I will see that you are not troubled by any outside influence."

"You are very kind," she said, but her face expressed only a troubled liking, and he pressed her hand in both of his and silently went away.

Young Clinton Ward also came seeking, boyish, eager, contemptuous of any barrier so illusory as the fact of her trances, which she confessed to him. Her words hardly impressed themselves on his mind, and he replied, flippantly: "That cuts no ice with me. You couldn't be anything I wouldn't like. You're living too close and your nerves are sort of frazzled. What you need is a jolly good time. Come back to Boston and forget all about this business. Come, I want folks to meet you. My mother knows how I feel about you, and is crazy to see you."

"What would she say if she knew what I have told you?" she asked, bitterly.

"She won't mind--after she sees you," he answered, loyally. "No one can know you without--without--Oh, hang it, Viola, you know what I mean. Nothing matters when you love a person. I want you, no matter what any one says. And, besides, I don't see why you can't just chuck the whole blooming business. I'll chuck Clarke out o' the window, if you say the word. He's just trying to work you, and--"

"You mustn't talk that way, Clinton."

"Why not? It's true."

"Well, because--" She hesitated, then said, as if to end her own uncertainty: "I am committed to this life--and to him. My way is marked out, and I must walk in it."

The young fellow was hard hit. He sat looking at her with eyes of consternation and awe. He tried to speak, but could not for a little while; at last he made a second trial. "Do you mean--you _don't mean--"

"Yes, I mean--all you think I mean," she answered, and then her fortitude failed her, and she turned away, her eyes filled with hot tears.

He rose awkwardly, all his jaunty self-confidence gone. "I take my medicine. It's all right. I hope you'll be happy--" He broke off with quivering lips.

"I shall never be happy," she said, and the very calmness of her voice went to the boy's heart. "I've given up all hope of being anything but an instrument--a thing whose wishes do not count. Good-bye, Clint," and she gave her hand.

He took it and pressed it hard and went out into the street, staggering under the weight of the revelation he had received.

Viola was fond of Clinton--his simple, wholesome, untroubled nature appealed to her--and yet this very ingenuousness, this ready confidence, made her own life and daily habit seem the more forbidding. She understood now the insuperable barrier which had been raised between herself and the careless youth of the normal world.

In this hour of depression, as in many others, her mind went out towards Morton Serviss. Britt's mention of the young scientist's name seemed to bring him very near, and she wondered again for the hundredth time whether he had entirely forgotten her or not. Would he call, now that he was informed of her presence in the city? She knew (almost as well as if he had written it) the reason for his hasty flight from Colorow, and with a knowledge that he considered her a freak if not something worse she could not write to him, although she still had his card and address.

He was a greater man in the world than when he visited their mountain home, for he had written a book which the critics called "a great and implacable study of diseases and their uses." She had not been able to read it, but she treasured it, nevertheless, and longed to meet him again, to lay her case before him, to ask his advice, not with regard to whether she should go on with her music, but whether her life was worth continuing--for there were times when she secretly considered the morality of making an end of it. It was in the hope of drawing him again to her side that she asked Clarke to include him in the list of scientific men to whom he was planning to send a printed copy of his oration and challenge--after their delivery--and to her mother she said: "I would not be so nervous if I knew that Dr. Serviss were on the committee; I know he would be just and considerate, even if he does despise mediums."

"He's exactly the one," responded Mrs. Lambert, with enthusiasm. "I wonder Tony hasn't spoken of him. Grandfather will be delighted, I'm sure."

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