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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 1 - Chapter 8. Dr. Britt Explains
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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 1 - Chapter 8. Dr. Britt Explains Post by :p00kie Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :2475

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The Tyranny Of The Dark - Book 1 - Chapter 8. Dr. Britt Explains


Serviss had just written and sealed a letter to his sister, wherein he said, "I shall remain a few days longer here in the mountains--they interest me greatly," when a knock on the door announced the bell-boy bearing a card.

"Dr. Britt!" exclaimed Serviss, with pleasure. "Bring him up, please," and to himself added, "Now we will learn something definite about this amazing group of people."

The manner in which Britt entered the room proclaimed a distinctive character. He edged himself through the door, not stealthily, but carelessly, casually. He, too, was tall, with a wide, dark beard curling over very pink and rather plump cheeks, and in his bright black eyes a sardonic sheen played as he loosely shook his host's hand. His expression was that of a man perpetually amused, as if anticipating a joke or recollecting a mockery. His voice was as languid as his limbs, but his words were precise and to their mark.

Serviss greeted him heartily. "I am glad to meet you, Dr. Britt; take a seat. I have heard of you through Miss Lambert."

"I saw you on the street," replied Britt, without change of expression, "so I looked over the register to find out who you were. I'm mighty glad to meet up with you. I know you very well by reputation, and Weissmann is an old acquaintance of our family's. What are you doing out here? Visiting the Lamberts?"

For some reason this directness disturbed Serviss a little. "No--oh no! I just drifted in over the divide from the desert, and met Miss Lambert by accident, quite by accident. I dropped into Colorow to rest and rinse the desert dust away, before returning East. Turn about is fair play--what are you doing here?"

Britt struck his left breast with his thumb. "Same old story--busted lung. Whenever you strike a suspicious character out here he's either a 'one-lunger' or a 'remittance man.'"

"That's what makes your country worth while."

"I don't know about that, but you'll find a good many of us waiting. When you fellows develop an anti-toxin for the consumption 'bug,' we're all going back to God's country."

"We're hot on its trail," replied Serviss, jocularly.

"I know you are. I 'read after you,' as they say out here. In fact, I've got a little 'farm,' and take a shy at breeding the beasts myself. I'd like you to come in and give me a hint or two."

"With pleasure," Serviss heartily responded. "So you know Weissmann?"

"I used to. My father was an attache of the embassy at Berlin at one time, and was a factor in getting old 'Hair and Goggles' to come over; he was a conceited ass at that time, with more wool than brains, the governor always said; but the governor wanted to do something for the college."

Serviss studied the card. "Do I know your father?--is he still in public life?"

"He is not." Britt's glance veered. "The governor, I'm sorry to say, has a weakness for toddy, and I've retired him. He boards in White Plains with Patsy Cline summers, and relapses winters."

Serviss changed the subject. "By-the-way, I want to ask you about this man Clarke. What kind of a chap is he?"

Britt's answer was languid but adequate. "Three parts fakir and the rest fanatic."

"I was afraid so--and the Lamberts, what of them?"

"Mrs. Lambert is a dear old ninny. Viola is a mighty bright girl suffering from a well-developed case of hysteria and auto-hypnosis."

"What do you mean?" asked Serviss, sharply.

Britt checked himself. "I ought not to speak of it, I suppose, but, as you are a stranger and can keep a professional secret, I will explain. The mother is a spiritualist--has been for years--and, being on the lookout for it, naturally discovered what she calls 'mediumship' in Viola when a child. By carefully nursing the delusion in herself and in her subject, she has been able to develop a rare 'up-rush of the subliminal,' as Myers would say. When I came here to take Dr. Randall's practice, I found among his papers elaborate notes on the girl's development."

"You amaze me!" exclaimed Serviss. "She seems so normal and so charming."

"In reality she's the most extraordinary puzzle I have ever undertaken to solve. It seems, according to Randall, that this power came upon her soon after the death of her little brother--a couple of years younger than herself. I'll let you see these notes if you like. They're very curious; in fact, I brought the book along--I wanted your opinion of them and your advice as to the girl's treatment."

Serviss leaned forward in growing interest. "By all means let me see the notes. You begin to throw light on something that puzzled me."

Britt drew a small brown book from his pocket and said: "Your first thought will be to relate this business to hysteria, and one of Randall's first entries is a reflection along these lines: 'There is much inconclusive literature on the shelves of medical libraries on the subject of hysteria, and many diverse ailments are thrown into that box of explanations.'" Britt looked up. "He's right there, but he goes on to slate the medical profession thus: 'The mind of a child, like any other expanding, growing thing, tends to depart from the norm--loves apparently to surprise its progenitors. Holding in its grasp latent tendencies of all ages, of all the race, it may at any time astound by its sudden expansion in unexpected directions, as well as by its inexplicable failure to follow ordained grooves.'" Here Britt paused again. "You can see the old chap was hard hit. He now gets evolutionary. 'We are all goats, satyrs, and serpents potentially--even from the neurologist's point of view our minds are infinitely complex.'"

Serviss said, "All this is wise, but is it pertinent?"

"He's coming at it. 'Now, what we men of medicine call hysteria seems to be a violent and, in a sense, unaccountable departure from the norm, induced by the removal of some check--by some deep change in the nervous constitution. Thus a girl suddenly refuses to eat, has visions, shouts, and sings uncontrollably, perhaps speaks in an unknown tongue--she is said to be hysterical. A mother, hearing of the death of her child, begins to laugh, passes at length into a cataleptic state, during which a child's voice sounds from her throat; this, too, is hysteria. A man of forty-five becomes melancholy, professes to hear music inaudible to others, develops automatic writing, and trances in which he is able to hear distant voices, and to read sealed letters; this, too, is hysteria. In reality, nothing is explained.'"

"What of it?" interrupted Serviss. "Let's have the application."

"He makes his point in the next paragraph: 'In conformity with this habit, when called in by Mrs. Lambert to study her daughter, who had passed suddenly into deep sleep and was speaking with the voice of her grandfather, I, with owlish gravity, pronounced her attack a case of hysteria. "Take her on a little trip," said I. "Keep her well nourished and out-of-doors, and she will outgrow it."'"

"Very good advice."

"So it was, but mark the sequel: '_She did not outgrow it._' He puts this in italics. 'The power within her gained in mastery, and, what is most singular and baffling to me, she continues to be a hearty, healthy child in all other ways, and yet at times she seems the calm centre of a whirlwind of invisible forces. Chairs, books, thimbles, even the piano, move to and fro without visible pushing. Electric snapping is heard in the carpet under her little feet, and loud knocking comes upon the walls--'"

"Ah!" exclaimed Serviss, and recalled the knocking at his first visit, while the girl was at the piano.

"Here he drops into italics again. '_One by one all the familiar manifestations of the spiritualistic medium are being reproduced by this pretty maiden here in this mountain home._'"

"Good Lord, what a pity!" exclaimed Serviss.

Britt read on: "'The mother, aggrieved and alarmed by the rude way in which the girl is buffeted, has been put to her paces to conceal the topsy-turvy doings of her household. Stones are hurled through the windows, cabinets are opened by invisible and silent locksmiths, _and I have seen these things and can offer no explanation_.'" Britt closed the book. "Right here the old doctor lost his nerve, up to this time he was a fairly acute observer. His next entry is evidently some weeks or, possibly, months later. He says: 'Slowly we have learned to understand the phenomena, but we cannot control them, and the child is still cruelly embarrassed by intrusive tappings and cracklings as she visits her friends or as she sits in her seat in school. She has become afraid to sleep alone, and calls piteously for a light whenever the noises begin.'"

"The poor child--"

"You may well say that," replied Britt. "She has told me that her time of greatest trial comes just after the family have had their evening meal, and while she is seated at her book; but Randall grows eloquent in his description of what took place: 'Almost every night at seven o'clock the obscure powers begin their uncanny and invisible riot, ending by seizing upon the child as if to destroy her, compelling her in the end to sleep. Then her voice, her limbs, seem at the disposal of some invisible intelligence.' You see, the old man is weakening. He says no more of hysteria, and nothing about taking the girl away."

"Do you mean to tell me he joined in fostering this delusion?"

"Mark his change of tone. He goes on: 'The mother, convinced by her reading, as well as by messages in writing, believes that the spirits of her dead are trying to communicate with her, and so sits night after night terrified yet hoping, waiting for further instructions from the imponderable ones.'" Britt turned a few pages rapidly. "Listen to this. Here is the key to the old man's change of heart: 'To-night the child began to speak to me in the voice of a man. Hoarse words rose from deep in her throat, a voice and words impossible to her in her normal condition. The voice purported to be my father's. It is all very singular. I do not understand how she could know the things this voice uttered to me.' You see," said Britt, "he has ceased to be the medical adviser." He turned a number of pages slowly. "Well, the girl passed rapidly through these various phases, according to Randall. She wrote messages with her left hand, wherein her grandfather McLeod detailed the method of treating her, and Randall was so far gone that he acquiesced. From her eleventh to her fifteenth year she lived under this 'control.' The manifestations increased in power and definiteness. The 'controls' at last were three--her grandfather, her brother, and her own father. At sixteen the most violent of the manifestations ceased, and the girl went away to school. At this point Joe Lambert enters--he married the mother."

"How did he take these doings?"

"He seems to have been a silent and reluctant witness; the doctor only mentions him incidentally. There are one or two pitiful letters from the girl written while at school, detailing several embarrassing returns of the 'spirits,' but, on the whole, she was happy. According to the record, her vacations must have been a torment, for 'Waltie,' that's no _Polter-geist_, seemed determined to make up for lost time. He came every night, making life a hell for his sister. She could go nowhere, and it was with the greatest difficulty that the mother kept her dreadful secret."

Serviss, with darkened brow, writhed uneasily in his chair. "I have heard of these things before now, but this is a new view of a medium's development. I don't understand the mother's attitude."

"Randall notes that the mother was resigned and content as soon as she was convinced of the return of her dead father and husband and son, and at present will not think of giving up her fancied communion, especially as the 'guides' constantly assure her that 'they' will protect the girl. But observe the senility of this note in Randall's diary: 'Martha comes regularly to me now, and I am happy in a renewed sense of her companionship. Indeed, I fancy at times that I can see her. She showed me her hands last night; I could see them plainly against the window. I had quite a controversy with Lambert after the sitting. "It's all bad business," he said. "I am scared when I think of what's going to become of Viola. Here she is growing to be a big girl, and a pretty girl, and she ought to be out in company--she ought to be singing and dancing like other girls. She ought to marry like other girls and be happy, and she can't be so long as these things are going on. It isn't right."'"

"No more was it," said Serviss. "It was villainous."

"Randall was too far gone to even agree. 'But it hasn't hurt her,' I replied; 'and, indeed, this marvellous fact resigns me to the practice. I can't endure now the thought of being cut off from Martha and Paul, our precious boy. It would be like shutting the door in their faces. Besides, they are in control; we could not stop their use of the girl if we were to try. As for me, it is now my life. I am old. My friends, my dear ones, are all on that side. I have only a few more days to live, and then--' Right here the old man stopped. He lived a month or two after that, but he made no more notes, and when I came on the scene Clarke was in control of the situation. I had no acquaintance with the family and no personal knowledge of the case till Lambert called one day and told me of the sittings going on in the little cottage. He had a notion that I might be able to cure the girl."

Serviss had listened to Britt with growing pain and indignation--pain at thought of Viola's undoing, indignation that the mother and her physician could so complacently join in the dark proceedings. "Of course, you took hold of the case."

"I tried to, but Mrs. Lambert and Clarke would not admit that the girl was in need of my care. They invited me to join the circle as a spectator, which I did. I am still the onlooker--merely."

"You don't mean to say they are still experimenting with her?"

"You may call it that. They sit regularly two or three nights each week. Clarke is preparing to renounce his pulpit and startle the world by a book on 'spiritism,' as he calls his faith. The girl is his source of thunder."

Serviss sank back into his chair and darkly pondered. "That explains a number of very strange words and actions on the girl's part. What is her attitude? She seemed to me extremely discontented and unhappy."

"She _is unhappy. She understands her situation and has moments of rebellion. She knows that she is cut off from her rightful share in the world of young people, and feels accursed."

"I can understand that, and several things she said to me corroborate your analysis of her feeling. But tell me--you have attended these sittings--what takes place--what does the girl profess to do?"

"I don't know. I can't determine Clarke's share in the hocus-pocus. It all takes place in the dark."

"It always does. It belongs there."

"Many of the good old 'stunts' of the professional medium are reproduced. Lights dance about, guitars are played, chairs nose about your knees, hands are laid on your cheek, and so on."

"You don't think she is wilfully tricking?" Serviss asked this with manifest anxiety.

"There's every inducement--darkness, deeply anxious friends. It would not be strange if she did 'help on' now and then."

"What a deplorable thing!"

"And yet I'm not so sure that she wilfully deceives, though I have detected her in fraud. Probably the whole thing began in some childish disorder which threw her system out of balance. There are hundreds of such cases in medical literature. She was 'possessed,' as of old, with a sort of devilish 'secondary personality.' She probably wrote treatises left-handed and upside-down. They often begin that way. The mother, lately bereaved, was convinced of her daughter's occult powers. She nursed the delusion, formed a circle, sat in the darkness, petting the girl when things happened, mourning when the walls were silent--and there you are! 'Sludge the Medium' all over again, in a small way. Probably the girl didn't intend to deceive anybody at first, but she was tolled along from one fakery to another, till at last she found herself powerless in the grasp of her self-induced coma. She is anxious to escape her slavery; she revolts, and is most unhappy, but sees no way out. That's my present understanding of the case. Now, what is your advice? What can I do? I am deeply interested in the girl, but I have no authority to act."

"You shock and disgust me," said Serviss, profoundly moved. "The girl seems too fine for such chicanery. Who is this man Clarke?"

"He was a sensational preacher in Brooklyn a few years ago, but a hemorrhage in the pulpit cut short his career in the East. He came out here and got better, but his wife, who had a weak heart, couldn't stand the altitude. She died--a sacrifice to her husband. He's the kind of a man who demands sacrifice. After his wife's death, he fairly lived at the Lambert cottage, and is now in full control. The girl's will is so weakened that she is but a puppet in the grasp of his powerful personality."

Serviss was now absorbed in reconstructing his conception of Viola. Her situation appealed to him with the greatest poignancy, but his ability to help her seemed gone. Fair as she looked, she was to be avoided, as one tainted with leprosy. His impression that first afternoon had been true--she was beleaguered, if not lost.

Britt was saying: "If the girl were under age I'd appeal to the health authorities of the state--I really would, much as I like Mrs. Lambert--but she is of age, and, what is more to the point, Clarke has won her love and confidence, and what can you do? He fills her horizon, and the mother favors him. He talks to her of her daughter's 'mission to the world,' and such-like vapor, and has the girl herself half convinced that her cataleptic states are of divine origin. I confess I haven't felt free to make any real tests--you can't treat her like a professional, you know--but she seems to have induced by long practice a genuine coma, and until some clamp is applied I can't say whether she or Clarke is the chief offender. Now what would you do?"

Serviss burned with the heat of his anger. "Don't reveal to me any more of this wretched business. I can't advise. If you, her physician, and Lambert, her step-father, can't put a stop to it, what can I, a passing stranger, do? I don't want to know anything more about it. Why, man, it's diabolical! To warp and imprison a girl like that! To think of that bewitching creature as a common trickster--appalls me. And to think that good people, millions of them, believe in such mummery! It is incredible!"

"You'd be surprised at the number of somewhat similar cases we find among our patients. Since coming here I've gone in for a little library of books on the subject. Every physician during his practice comes upon one or more of these abnormal cases which, as Randall says, we label, for convenience, '_hysteria_,' and I'm free to say that I don't think we're at the bottom of the matter. Let's be just to this girl. There are points in her favor."

Serviss protested. "Not another word. It's too painful."

Britt persisted. "I was merely going to say that I think there is some basis for all this humbuggery. These mediums don't start from nothing. They nearly all begin with some abnormality. Some submerged power rises to the surface of their minds like a sea-serpent, and that distinguishes them as seers. Curious friends crowd around, then the lying begins. It's going to be worth while to take the subject up, by-and-by. I'd do it myself if I could live in New York City." He rose. "Well, I don't blame you for not going into this case--I wish I were clear of it myself--but I was hoping you'd had some experience that would help me." Thereupon the conversation shifted to other grounds.

After Britt went out Serviss sat in brooding uneasiness over his visitor's sad revelations. He had known Viola Lambert but three days, and yet these revelations concerning her affected him most painfully, quite vitally. His pleasure in her and in the mother and their pretty home was utterly gone, and the breaking-off of this acquaintance left an ache in his heart.

Of course he put all this on very general grounds. "I hate to lose faith in any one. It is a shock to know that I can be so wholly deceived by appearance. Clarke is really the one to blame in the deception. I can't believe the girl wilfully deceives, and yet Britt was explicit, and he seems to be a keen, dispassionate observer."

Thereupon he began to pack in order to take the early morning train for the East. He decided not to see her again, and posted a polite note saying he had been obliged to return to New York, and that he regretted his inability to call.

As he stood on the rear platform of his train next day, looking back up the canon towards the shining crest of Colorow, he had a craven sense of having deserted a helpless young girl in the hour of her greatest trial.

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