Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a new guest short story by Bruce Woods, the author of Royal Blood.
This story expands the scope of Paulette's world and illustrates how she relates to the otherworldly things in it.
(You can find the previous story here.)
About Royal Blood:
Historical and fictional characters come together and change the future of Africa forever. Renowned actress Lady Ellen Terry, detective Sherlock Holmes, financier Cecil Rhodes, hunter/naturalist Frederick Courtney Selous, King Lobengula, and a mysterious, undead adventuress named Paulette Monot become chess pieces in the Great Game, which takes the form of Africa's First Matabele War.
Spirited Away by Bruce Woods
Imagine you heard rumors of a new wine, rich with the flavors of fresh fruit and promising an intoxication quite unique and exquisite. You’d want to try it yourself; either to confirm its promise or disprove the hype. I found myself in similar circumstances.
Spiritualism, for want of a better term, was rife in the early years of the twentieth century. In truth, the practice took many forms. There were the simple table-rappers, those who manifested ectoplasm, others who, upon request, would deposit unlikely or foreign objects into the middle of a séance, and so forth. Furthermore, given that, according to the tenets of the faith, all individuals who pass on enter the heaven of Summerland, it only stood to reason that most of those who contact the living are fools.
Then again, my wanderings among the American Suffrage movement had taught me much about the world of becoming a sort of inter-reality megaphone, and about what other beings might be summoned by, or attracted to, such activity.
So, although I am skeptical by nature, my years among the undead, or “vampires” in the common parlance, had taught me not to trust the limits of any earthly philosophy. Surely, I thought, if any moral was indeed capable of piercing the barriers between this world and the next, that individual must be different in nature, and perhaps carry that little miracle in his or her blood that could be savored by those so inclined.
And, of course, I was.
This “new religion” counted some of the greatest minds in England among its cheerleaders,
and was only slightly less popular in those parts of the United States that were not mercilessly pinned under the boot-heels of whatever sect they publicly professed to believe. When I crossed the ocean to my homeland, then, I turned my hungry curiosity in its direction.
Fortunately, the search was not difficult. Spiritualist societies and publications thrived on both sides of the Atlantic, and I found it easy to locate hotbeds of activity even within the provincial swampland of my own District of Colombia. Finding a true psychic was not so simple. As the noted author Conan Doyle has pointed out, the ranks of purported spiritualists are every bit as polluted with hucksters and scams as is society as a whole, and their tricks are, if anything, more apparent to my senses than to those of the average debunker. Suffice it to say that I encountered no shortage of con artists in my investigations.
There were many who rode at the edges of the stage magician craze, and I endured their toe-bone-popping and fairy pictures with patience. There was one who was different, who seemed to know instinctively that I was not quite what I appeared to be, but unfortunately her performance failed to astound. Under different circumstances I might have probed further, but I was on a mission of sorts, and happy to cut away the peripherals.
So I continued to peruse the spiritualist periodicals (“wasting time” is not a relevant concept to me, you see), and began to pick up tidbits about a Mina Crandon. Raised as a Canadian farm girl, she had begun to make waves in the community, largely at the urging of her second husband, a Harvard physician named Dr. Le Roi Crandon, who was a curious enthusiast for all things other-worldly.
Ms. Crandon was given the nom de guerre of “Margery the Medium” by her friend J. Malcolm Bird, who supposedly aimed to protect her privacy but, to my way of thinking at least, did her no favors. I confess to being somewhat of a literary bent, after all, and “Mina” was itself a name of some renown in occult quarters, while “Margery,” well, did not exactly promise adventures in the unknown.
Nonetheless, she was later to figure in some of the most controversial challenges ever faced by the spiritualist community, involving as they did Arthur Conan Doyle and the great self-promoter Harry Houdini. At the time, however, she was just beginning to test her wings as it were in localized performances, and with a combination of patience and persistence I managed to arrange as assignation for a private sitting. It as an easy enough matter to book travel from my D.C. home to Massachusetts, and then to the Beacon Hill residence where my séance was to take place. Not knowing how long my visit might extend, I found a tolerable room at a nearby boarding house for proper ladies, and arrived at the site somewhat early.
A gentleman met me at the door. He took the card I offered, allowed that “Margery” would be with me shortly, and led me to a comfortable, unoccupied room to await her arrival. I had barely seated myself, and begun to sift through the periodicals placed there for the edification of guests, when the silence was slashed by a long, hearty whistle, as if a youth were signaling friends.
Having thought myself quite alone, I glanced around, perhaps more rapidly than I would have in company, and was rewarded by a harsh male voice, seeming to surround me and without specific location.
“Aww, she’s a fast one, she is. An’ jist about droolin’ at the thought of me little sis. Well, I’m the boy to see about that!”
Now I am not one to be easily intimidated, even when my adversary is not to be seen. I was also unaware of any instance when a “spirit” caused mortal harm to a living being (and I am so much more than that). In fact, other than using a rapping table as a weapon I was unaware of any really violent acts committed by a summoned entity. Still, I slipped my glasses from my eyes to make my own abilities clearer before addressing the empty room. I kept my voice soft, chill, and quite without inflection.
“I cannot see how it would be any business of yours, whatever you may claim to be, and I rather doubt that your presence during the promised event can even be assumed.”
“You’ll know different soon enough,” the voice began, rough, virile, and angry, before it faltered.
“She’s coming’,” it said, reduced to almost a whisper; and in the silence that followed, as dramatic as the sudden cessation of pain, I encountered the mystic Margery, first settling my glasses back upon my nose.
She would later, at the height of her fame, be known as “The Blond Witch of Lime Street.” At present, however, she was only a Boston Brahmin, performing for friends and her husband’s business associates.
She was not a large woman, in truth close to my height, and in her flapper garb, with her blond hair bobbed short, she was more striking than beautiful.
“Miss Margery,” I greeted her. “Your arrival was announced with appropriate formality.”
“So you’ve already met Walter?” she asked, with a charming little laugh. “He’s very protective, it seems. You don’t intend me harm, do you Miss Monot?”
This could have been a hint that she knew I was more than I appeared, or it could have been innocent banter. Regardless, I determined to proceed with caution.
“You will, I’m sure, face greater threats than me in your lifetime,” I demurred. “I’ve only come to witness personally some of the wonders of which I’ve heard.”
“I confess to feeling a tad weary,” she said, “and can never guarantee what the spirits will provide. However, Walter and I will do our best for you.” With that she led me into an adjoining room where her husband and two other individuals waited.
I had learned that her mate always attended Margery’s séances to provide comfort. The other couple, doubtless friends of my hosts, are unimportant to the tale that I have to tell.
We seated ourselves around the séance table, with Margery’s husband taking the medium’s right hand to offer support. I was given the honor of sitting to her left, and after warming my skin with a quick rub against the rough fabric of my skirt, captured her hand. The purpose of this “control” was to limit the medium’s mobility, but I was more worried that the relative chill of my flesh would give me away.
That concern seemed to be misplaced, because rather than flinch from my touch Margery took my hand greedily, and with little squeezes and even an interlacing of fingers showed herself quite happy to have me where I was. The woman had, I knew, a reputation for flirtation. I returned her pressure, knowing that piquing her romantic interest was a sure route to my own satisfaction.
Once the lights were out (which of course impacted me far less than it did my companions) Walter announced himself with the cheery whistle that I assumed was his trademark. As I expected, his first comment was for me.
“So,” he said, “you decided to show yerself anyway. Don’t say you wasn’t warned!”
Clearly he could see as well in the dark as I could. I didn’t dare risk a conversation with him, though, as it might reveal more than I intended. So I decided to test the spirit’s capabilities, and rather than reply aloud merely thought my answer.
‘I suspect you are more of a nuisance than a threat.’ I formed the words carefully in my mind. Furthermore, as this was no time to hide my light under a bushel, and since my hands were imprisoned, I lifted my chin and snapped it down, driving my glasses lower the bridge of my nose and displaying the power of my naked eyes.
I felt a reassuring squeeze from the hand of the medium, which I returned fittingly, at Walter’s statement; but there was a considerable pause before the spirit replied, letting me know that he had “heard” my answer.
“Do you figure you can challenge me here, in front of my little sis?” He boomed.
Again I thought my reply, searching the room with my uncovered eyes as his voice seemed to come from anywhere and everywhere.
‘It is not so much a challenge as an assertion of my authority.’
Walter, acting I believed with the cruelty of the weak, chose again to speak his reply aloud.
“I have the armies of Summerland behind me!” He said, referring to the heaven of the spiritualists.
‘And I,’ I thought in reply, ‘counter with both physicality and immorality. I am, one might say, a Summerland of one.’
The other sitters seemed to grow impatient; and, I assumed, fearful of losing their attention, Walter turned his remarks to them. I allowed myself a smile, which I thought said everything that was needed. I had clearly made an enemy, but one whom I at least for the moment had no cause to fear. It was victory enough for me.
The séance wound down, without the trumpets and manifestations with which Margery was later to decorate her performances. Walter made one more attempt at intimidation.
“You steer clear of her, you hear?” He as obviously speaking to me.
‘If you are one of those who prefer to watch rather than involve yourself,’ I thought, ‘it can perhaps be arranged.’
I received no answer.
As the lights came up and the group disbanded, clearly satisfied with their supernatural experience, I contrived to continue to hold Margery’s hand.
“I would profit, I think, from spending some time alone with you .” I said.
She simpered prettily, and named a place and time when we could meet undisturbed. I agreed to this assignation though it was two days hence, patient now that the way appeared clear.
The date arrived, as even Christmas eventually does. Margery greeted me at the door, kimono clad. We made some desultory conversation, and eventually found ourselves standing face to face, and rather close.
“Would you like to kiss me?” She whispered. Giving me all the excuse I needed to remove my glasses and capture her mind.
I will do the proper thing and leave the rest to your imagination. Suffice to say, despite my expectations, her blood was disturbingly ordinary. Though I had erased the experience from much of her memory, I did leave it in a place that one as facile as she could discover it with some searching.
I hope she visits there often.
Margery of course wanted to see me again, but with my curiosity (and my appetite) sated, I had no interest in arranging another meeting.
And Walter? Well, I did hear from the medium shortly thereafter. She had arrived at her next séance a bit the worse for wear (of course). She informed me that her spirit guide’s first words concerned yours truly.
“Did that Monot woman harm you?” He had asked, noting the medium’s depleted appearance.
Margery responded coyly. Clever girl, it seems she had already accessed the memory, though I had hid it ever so well.
“Not at all,” she’d said. “She was really quite gentle.”
To which Walter had made no reply.