The Ghost Bureau

The ghost bureau

I arrived at 14 Dean’s-Yard in the autumn of 1894 entirely unaware that this part of the city should prove so attractive. My eyes, from every conceivable angle, were rewarded with the delights of such remarkable construction and I make no bones in saying that I did feel at this juncture to be overawed by the finery of it all. The public entrance, framed by such an imposing arch, brought me to a spot where I stood and viewed the scene rather as a small insect would look upon a world of far greater magnitude. It felt peaceful enough and presented as a retired and quiet nook amongst the lofty stone-built mansions.

Despite the surrounding charm, I could not help but feel that Number 14 had an odd feeling to it, almost as if it was in mourning. The generous windows of the most antique pattern, seemed to be scrutinising me with a curious meaning, as if awed by my temerity. I approached the door, which was raised, about three feet from the ground and was reached by several steps of rough stone. I rang the bell, timidly at first, but there was no response save the faint echo of the ringing. Then, emboldened by my initial efforts and by the darkness of the clouds brewing overhead, which seemed rolling on towards the enclosure from all portions of the sky, I rang again, this time more vigorously, so that the loud peels rolled through the empty rooms, and returned to my ear in repeated echoes. My heart beat quickly, for I was sure I heard a step within. It appeared to proceed from an upper chamber, and came slowly, stealthily down the stair.

The steps came along the hallway and, after some time, the door was opened by an elderly grey-haired man. He muttered something under his breath and beckoned me accompany him along the corridor. I was shown into a luxuriously-furnished room, which seemed to be a kind of library to judge at least by the open bookcase, thickly stocked with books. The room was filled with flickering shadows from the fire held within an ornate grate, heaped up carefully towards the middle and the sides blocked in by bricks.

I had been alone for several minutes when the still and contemplative atmosphere was broken by the entrance of a gentleman who, from first appearance, appeared to be my host, followed by a lady in a light-coloured cotton dress. The gentleman was thick set, very active and determined-looking, with dark hair turning now to grey, a thick but evenly-cut moustache, joining his bushy whiskers, the large square heavy chin left bare, with small, restless, passionate eyes beneath. Mr Thomas made his introductions and spoke at length as to the nature of my employment. It was mid-way in the conversation when the lady rose from her seat and left the room.

Mr Thomas maintained the flow of conversation. I must declare that I was entirely untroubled by the more prosaic aspects of this collection of information — nothing could be more clearly worded or directly put than questions regarding age, occupation, rank, and so forth — however, it was not the formal aspects of form-filling which concerned me; rather, it was the nature of the questions that were to be asked. I should point out that there is very little within the realm of the supernatural that would give me nerves. Personally, I do not believe in ghosts, or that it is possible for the dead to return in any form, or to communicate, by any means, with the living. I have been regaled on many a winter’s evening by stories with a ghostly bent but never had I been asked to give such serious thought to things so otherworldly; and, if ever had I been asked to predict a situation where I would have to give such consideration, then I most certainly would not have envisaged that it would be through employment.

My duty was to gather information from as many persons as would grant their commitment to answer a series of questions related to the subject of hallucinations or dreams, and manifestations of the spectral variety. Specifically, these persons had to be of the “sane and healthy” variety though I was quite uncertain how one should diagnose such a candidate with certainty. Fortunately, the undertaking was not delivered so bluntly and indelicately as to alienate me from this eccentric proposal; Mr Thomas made a point of addressing my natural concern, stating that only a few years ago a project of this manner would have been regarded as bordering very closely on the insane but now, in more enlightened times the suggestion had been taken up by scientists and others working in the field of psychical research. And, I must say, despite what I had said earlier regarding my scepticism for such things, the words he chose were altogether rather intriguing: —

“I acknowledge with a certain amount of objectivity,” began Mr Thomas, “that the evidence is far from conclusive, yet the cases that have been recorded thus far do, in my mind, afford some argument for the continuity of psychical life, and the possibility of communication between the dead and the living.”

There was something so strange, and yet so honest, about the man, that I was in a certain his charm of manner, knowledge of the world, and high intelligence qualified him for almost any kind of business. There could be no credit in liking him because, simply, one could not help it.

And, so, accepting these peculiarities, I was most pleased to be employed in such a field. (The opportunity was all the more precious for it was but three years earlier, in the weeks leading up to the census of 1891, when I had enquired as to a similar role, the position of census enumerator. I was, however, denied on the basis of my gender and chose instead to accompany my brother (more fortunate than I in this appointment) on his rounds spent gathering and filling out forms. The work was at times prolonged and taxing; I, nevertheless, found it very rewarding.)

I accepted the appointment and at once found myself working for this most unusual and pioneering of agencies — for there could be no other working under the remit of documenting the activity of communicant spirits! I joined a team of over two hundred men and women, a tenth of whom were educated persons, enlisted to take the evidence of thousands of witnesses, the majority of whom also belonged to the educated classes. Our objective was to question witnesses regarding their observations of apparitions, whether they felt them to have been the result of hallucination or an actual visitation, and to enquire as to whether the manifestation had been accompanied by other phenomena such as sound or smell. More elaborate and detailed questions were reserved for any person who should testify to actually being touched by a phantom. I must admit that if it had not been for the rationality and level-headedness of those working around me, I would have considered myself a little lacking in wits and most fearful of the opinions of my mother and father. It was inevitable, however, that such a field would, unsurprisingly, attract much curiosity, ridicule and even indignation from the press. Indeed, a day did not go by when the press had not reported on the machinations of ‘The Ghost Bureau’. Newspapers of the day were as fascinated as they were scornful of our endeavours but still they faithfully scrutinised and hung upon our every word.

The position of enumerator proved no sinecure of an appointment; its duties had to be promptly performed, and whoever undertook the work had to be prepared to devote considerable time to it. Nevertheless, the work was so interesting, Mr. Thomas and his staff so uniformly kind, and the life so novel, that I soon settled down, perfectly happy.

It was during my apprenticeship that I learned a great deal about my employer; a colleague had informed me that Mr Thomas was a member of a club devoted to intellectual discussions that had a particular interest in spiritualism. It appeared that the club consisted of several believing mortals, and any imaginable number of disembodied spirits who attended the meetings by turns commendable regularity. The séances took place once a week, held in one of the upstairs rooms, and a summary of the proceedings was duly set down in a minute-book, proudly on display in the office of our employer, with as much gravity and formality as if the inspired coterie were the commissioners for the reduction of the national debt.

I am not entirely sure why I became so strongly obsessed by the thought of attending such a gathering (of course, I was a sceptic, and would surely leave the meeting feeling assured that a clever trick had been performed) but I felt impelled to go; and, barely a month after I began working for Mr Thomas, I accepted an invitation to one.

I found the company composed of five gentlemen and seven or eight ladies, including one newspaper reporter, a few of whom, like myself, had never attended a formal séance before. The room we entered was on the second floor, and was divided from a smaller room at the back by folding doors, which were now, however, wide open, thus giving full opportunity of examining the inner room. The only items of furniture were a table, with a musical box upon it, and a few chairs. There was a plain brown cupboard, with two or three shelves in it, which were pulled out, and which contained nothing beyond one or two unidentifiable items. Upon our placement around the table, the folding doors were closed and locked, as was the other door in the room, and I may say as we were sitting, before eight o’ clock, and the only window in the room was darkened, neither of these doors could be unlocked without at once being exposed in the room by the entrance of a ray of light.

I was introduced to Mrs P., a private medium, by Mr Thomas, who seemed rather to be in his element. She was a very pleasant-looking lady, of about thirty years of age, of middle stature, and agreeable manners, and was very cordially received by all present, and seemed quite at home with everybody. A gentleman visitor locked the door and kept the key until the close of the séance. Everything, so far, seemed square and above board. After Mr Thomas had made a short speech to those present, pointing out the absurdity of supposing that a number of respectable persons would sit regularly twice a week for a series of years “for the delightful purpose of deceiving themselves and friends,” all hands in the circle were joined, Mrs. P. being seated between Mr Thomas and a reporter. The Lord’s Prayer was said and hymns sung in the dark, for the candles had all been blown out. The musical box, which only played church music, was then wound up. We sat there and waited for something to happen while a drowsiness appeared to fall upon the medium. Occasionally a breath, long-restrained came in a half-sobbing gasp, and it lent eeriness to the situation, Then the medium, with head fallen back, moaned and drummed on the floor with the heels of her shoes.

Almost immediately we saw spots of light, somewhat similar to those emitted by fireflies, floating all about the room. Much to my amazement, I saw the musical box levitate into the air, and continued playing while hovering over our heads, and going first to one corner of the ceiling and then to another. We then heard voices, said to be those of the spirits.

If you could imagine a bird darting about the room on a summer evening, one moment striking the ceiling the next flitting about your head, gifted with the ability of whispering to you in its strange flight, you would be able to form a very good idea of the performance of the female spirit. When it was suggested that if providence would have it Mrs P. would be able to deliver up something, she replied enthusiastically, “Yes, yes.” In an instant one of the gentlemen called out, “Great God, there is something on my neck,” accompanied by a heavy thump upon the table and one or two shrieks. A match was immediately struck, and to the astonishment of all there, sure enough, was a large quantity of flowers some being on the table and a few on the floor. It was noticed too that these flowers were all wet. Mrs. P. came forward and examined them, and at once declared that they were hers, and that she had put them into a vase resting on the mantelpiece of what she called her “front room”. The whole circle then stood up, and with Mrs. P. solemnly declared in the sight of God that they had no conscious act or part in bringing these flowers there. After the excitement had died down a little, Mrs. P. sat back in her chair, the lights were blown out and the séance was resumed. (It was at this point that I acknowledged events had progressed too far for me to declare my scepticism, despite such obvious trickery, for I saw nothing but excitement and astonishment in those gathered.)

“Who is it, who is there?” began Mrs P.

Nothing stirred.

She repeated the question. “Who is it, who is there?”

It was at this point that something quite singular took place. A weird looking phosphorescent light appeared in front of all present. It moved up and down, and then assumed a globular shape; and looked to be covered with white gauze.

“Something is coming through,” she revealed, a mixture of relief and delight in her voice.

Whisperings began, but so faint were they that I could not detect what was said. When they had ceased, Mr. Thomas explained to us that the medium, whilst in this state of trance, would know nothing of the earthly presences around her; it was the controlling spirit who would speak through her, and the medium was simply the mouthpiece or passive agent.

Another tune was played on the gramophone, and, presently, a young girl’s voice was heard. “Oh, that must be our darling daughter Prudence,” said some body, “turn off the gramophone. Is that you, Prudence?” and some conversation ensued between this voice and the medium’s, fragmentary and meagre on the part of the spirit, voluble on the part of the initiated who joined with the medium in interrogating it.

And then with amazement I saw that the gauze had been shed, and in its place was that of a face, a woman’s face, but not unrecognisable, for I instantly knew it to be that of the person who I had met on my very first day here, the woman who had left the room early, before Mr. Thomas had completed his interview of me; though, peculiarly, I had seen nothing of her since. Both doors were still locked and despite my initial reaction being one of incredulity I was unable to ascertain how the woman could possibly have entered the room.

The séance continued but my attention was wholly and ineluctably drawn to the pale face, hovering in the gloom, shrouded in the ghostly light. The eyes were fixed, and appeared slightly swollen. It remained for some time, disappeared and reappeared; but the eyes never lost their fixed stare, and showed no symptom of blinking. After several minutes it went altogether.

I may add that during the séance I was also aware of a soft voice, like that of a woman, as if speaking to Mrs P. However, on coming out of her trance, though much affected and on the verge of tears, and adding that she could scarcely believe that it had not been some member of the circle standing by her talking to her, she made no mention of the woman, speaking only of the young girl who she had been in conversation with.

Following her recovery, Mrs P. sat with us, and the lights were extinguished, whereupon the party became aware of heaps of flowers strewn all over the table. Leaves from a horse-chestnut tree, with moisture on them as though just sprinkled by a shower of rain, and apparently just wrenched from the tree, were also brought in large quantities. After the séance was over, three of us offered to escort Mrs P. home. It was in this time that I questioned her regarding the woman I had seen.

“No, my dear,” she responded, “I saw nothing of a woman, only the young girl.”

I told her of the strange purple light and the face appearing from the darkness.

“As Mr Thomas informed us,” she said, “I am not entirely aware of all that occurs during my communications with the spirit world. You see, my dear, it is the communicant spirits who are in charge — I am merely a servant. And, so, it is quite possible that you saw something not brought to my attention at the time.”

Then I noticed that one of the gentlemen was gazing intently at us, as if he was waiting for an opportune moment to intervene in the conversation.

“Madam, the face that you saw, are you able to describe it in any detail?”

There was something in his eyes that made me feel vulnerable. I described to him the woman I had seen and as each detail was revealed, his face fell deeper into shadow.

“What is it, sir?” asked the medium.

“I am not quite sure. Though I am only a merely a layman in such matters, I would say, earnestly, that the materialisation of any spirit bears significance.”

I stopped, for I was certain that my body had passed through a layer of ice-cold air.

“Young lady, given the events we have just witnessed I’m sure that this it is entirely possibly that you saw what you saw. It is also entirely possible that this person, whoever she may be – or was – holds significance for no one other than yourself.”

The cab pulled up a few yards opposite from the house of Mrs. P. The two gentlemen having escorted the lady to her accommodation made equal, if not greater, effort to ensure that I arrived home safely. Before stepping from the cab, they enquired if I was well in respect to the events I had just relayed. I informed them that I was quite fine and need trouble them no longer, but they insisted that they would wait with me until I boarded a cab to take me home. It was only a matter of minutes before one drew up by us and the two gentlemen bid me a good night.

As I crossed the road to board the cab, however, I became aware of a woman sitting upright by the side of the road, her hand held against her forehead. She was sobbing uncontrollably. I approached a yard or two closer. Next to her, I could dimly see, in the faint moonlight that filtered into the dark of the hedge, a figure, that of the same woman I had seen in the séance. The figure sat rigid, motionless as a statue. Close to the woman seated, I could not see her face for it was lowered and nestled in her hands, but her dress was torn, slashed diagonally across the front, and her neck bore a significant wound. I stopped. Was I dreaming or was I really looking on some frightful ghosts? Then, with a murmured prayer, for I must confess I had a cold feeling at my heart, I drew close up to the figure. To convince myself it was all hallucination, I put out my hand slowly to touch the features, expecting to feel only air. My fingers reached and stroked — a face. I drew back my hand with a cry and tumbled into the road. For a moment I was aware of the sound of a horse rearing up as if startled and then, the sound of a woman, pleading for another not to leave. Was I going mad?

It was then that I felt an arm pulling me up. It was the driver escorting me into the cab.

I was soon seated and rested exhausted against the back of the compartment. My mind was in such a state that I barely noticed that the evening had, now, taken a turn for the worse and the heavens had begun to open.

We had gone just about half a mile through the dismal streets, when the driver suddenly stopped, and called through the little window on the roof — “Madam.” “Yes,” said I. “Could you do me a favour — me and a poor half-drowned lady out here? She wants me to take her in. Of course, it would be a good thing for me, and it would be a charity to her, poor thing, on such a day; but of course, if you object—”

“Oh no, I don’t object,” said I. “I wouldn’t keep a woman out in such a storm for worlds. Let her in.” “Thank you,” said the driver. And I opened the door. In an instant a person had hurried in and taken a seat opposite me. It was a woman, whose face I could not see, for she wore a veil, but her dress was of light grey colour, and her figure that of someone in her thirties. She wore a mourning gown, elaborately brimmed, a breakfast cape, and a little cap that might as well have been a man’s as a woman’s. She had no umbrella, no gloves, no waterproof cloak, and I felt sure, as I looked at her, that she had been obliged to step out in the rain to call the doctor to a child with a fever, or to someone who had met with a misfortune, for she had seemed to forget her own comfort entirely. I felt sorry for her as she wiped her sad little wet hands on her handkerchief, and looked piteously at her soaked dress. I sat in silence, therefore, until at last she spoke:

“It is a damp, uncomfortable sort of world after all, isn’t it?”

“Indeed, it appears so to-day,” I said, with a glance at the paling nacreous sky.

“And it surely never rains in heaven,” said she. “Oh, no.”

“I hope not,” said I.

It was at this point that I began to feel quite uncomfortable.

“Where storms do not come,” she repeated, as though constructing a quotation. “Of course it does not. But then,” she added at once, “you see one remains with one’s husband and children at any cost. As long as they are in this cold, wretched world, one must wish to stay.”

“Indeed, yes,” said I. And then, noticing that she was agitated, and remembering my fancy that she was searching for a doctor, I said, haphazardly: “And when anyone we love is ill, we grow despairing, and fear all sorts of things.”

“Yes,” said she. “I have a husband, the dearest fellow, and two delightful children — pretty and good as a mother could wish — and how worried they were when I was so ill. Terribly worried. He cried — a great, stout man. Yes, he cried. Of course the little ones did, too. And when I died —— ”

“When you died?” I repeated.

“Yes, when I died,” she said, in a sharper tone. “When I died, I say, he fainted. Oh, you think it odd that I should speak of myself so. Nobody believes me; but it’s true. I am not living; I am only materialised.”

I could not think to make any answer to this; I only shrank away into the darkest corner of the carriage. We had yet some distance to go, though the driver was doing his utmost, and what with the clatter of the horse’s hoofs, the constant patter of the rain, and the usual noises in the street, I questioned if I could make my voice heard if it became necessary.

“Yes,” the lady continued — “yes, I have a friend who is a spiritualist, and I went to her at once, and as soon as I appeared to her she thoughtfully materialised me, and I want to stay so. I want to stay in body, stay materialised, because, don’t you see, though it never rains in heaven, I must remain with my husband and little ones, if I can. They’d miss me so.”

“Oh, you will,” I said, with some trepidation; “you surely will. Let us, instead, drive to your house, and as soon as your children place their kisses upon you, you will know that you are no longer a spirit. Have you told the driver where to go ? Shall I?”

She placed her hand upon my arm and drew me down, but I resisted slightly and rose to endeavour to call the driver.
“Stop,” she said; as soon as I step across the threshold where my corpse is lying I shall be a frightful ghost again, and frighten them all. Don’t you know that? Sit down!”

I sat down. She kept her hand firmly on my arm. “Listen!” said she, “don’t you hear the sounds around us? Spirits coming to take me to heaven. I don’t want to go to heaven, I want this life again; but there is only one way to avoid it. The spirits want a soul to take away, and it must be a young woman’s soul. You — you are about my age, are you not?”

“I suppose so,” said I.

“Yes,” said she; “and have you presently a husband?”

“I am a widow,” said I.

“Oh, how marvellous!” said she. ” How fortunate that is! You surely wish to go to heaven because your husband is there; I want to remain because mine is here. Come. I’ll tell them that it is all agreed — that they can take your spirit away — you’ll let me, won’t you?”

I had grown very cold, and felt that I was trembling very much, but I found strength to ask her what seemed to myself then to be a very important question.

“How would you do it? It depends a little on that.”

“Oh,” said she, “as to how, there is just one way. I must slice your throat — but I have a very sharp razor, and it won’t hurt you at all. It’s really the best for us both, you see, my husband being here, yours there. And those spirits, with their snow white wings and cold hands will never know.”

She pulled a razor from her pocket as she spoke and opened it. Then she lifted off her veil and, once more, I recognised her, and, in a terrible instant, I knew this to be my end and the poor creature I had seen by the side of the road – the broad slash across her dress, the blood – to be me.

I made one charge for the door — but as I did so her face changed, her eyes flashed angrily, and she grabbed me by the throat. I gave a ringing scream, the carriage stopped, and I heard amidst the terror the voices of two men shouting something near to us.

Then, as if waking from a terrible dream, I saw the woman struggling in a policeman’s arms, and a gentleman holding the razor in his hands and then folding it away in its sheath. There was another carriage besides ours, and these two men had evidently sprung from it.

“Madam, I hope you are unharmed?” enquired the gentleman, speaking with a slight accent. “Yes, I am thankful to say I am,” said I.

“You know what it all means?” said he. “It was a superior mind that illness changed so terribly. She has been ill for a considerable time, and she believes herself now a spirit. It is a delusion of hers that if she can send a spirit to heaven she may remain here herself. She escaped from St Luke’s — though I am at odds to say exactly how — and vanished into the chill night. Forgive us the terror you have felt. We thought her well-watched, but she escaped from her cell. I am of the opinion that dwelling too much on spiritualism has caused all this.”

——————————

There is little more to say on the matter: either the woman was dead, or she was not. Since that night of awful terror I have not attended another séance; and neither have I seen that woman so deranged. I had cause to be thankful that I had escaped with my life but what help I had received in avoiding death I cannot say. Whether dead or alive, I saw my potential murderer before her attempt on my life; I know this to be true.

A Victorian seance

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