Excerpted from Jay Waitkus' Crime Chronicles: Sight Unseen by Mary Roberts Rinehart
SHE was not at all what we had expected. Twenty-six, I should say, and in a black dinner dress. She seemed like a perfectly normal young woman, even attractive in a fragile, delicate way. Not much personality, perhaps; the very word “medium” precludes that. A “sensitive,” I think she called herself. We were presented to her, and but for the stripped and bare room, it might have been any evening after any dinner, with bridge waiting.
When she shook hands with me she looked at me keenly. “What a strange day it has been!” she said. “I have been very nervous. I only hope I can do what you want this evening.”
“I am not at all sure what we do want, Miss Jeremy,” I replied.
She smiled a quick smile that was not without humor. Somehow I had never thought of a medium with a sense of humor. I liked her at once. We all liked her, and Sperry, Sperry the bachelor, the iconoclast, the antifeminist, was staring at her with curiously intent eyes.
Following her entrance Herbert had closed and bolted the drawing-room doors, and as an added precaution he now drew Mrs. Dane’s empty wheeled chair across them.
“Anything that comes in,” he boasted, “will come through the keyhole or down the chimney.”
And then, eying the fireplace, he deliberately took a picture from the wall and set it on the fender.
Miss Jeremy gave the room only the most casual of glances.
“Where shall I sit?” she asked.
Mrs. Dane indicated her place, and she asked for a small stand to be brought in and placed about two feet behind her chair, and two chairs to flank it, and then to take the black cloth from the table and hang it over the bamboo rod, which was laid across the backs of the chairs.
Thus arranged, the curtain formed a low screen behind her, with the stand beyond it. On this stand we placed, at her order, various articles from our pockets – I a fountain pen, Sperry a knife; and my wife contributed a gold bracelet. We all felt, I fancy, rather absurd. Herbert’s smile in the dim light became a grin.
“The same old thing!” he whispered to me. “Watch her closely. They do it with a folding rod.”
We arranged between us that we were to sit one on each side of her, and Sperry warned me not to let go of her hand for a moment. “They have a way of switching hands,” he explained in a whisper. “If she wants to scratch her nose I’ll scratch it.”
We were, we discovered, not to touch the table, but to sit around it at a distance of a few inches, holding hands and thus forming the circle. And for twenty minutes we sat thus, and nothing happened. She was fully conscious and even spoke once or twice, and at last she moved impatiently and told us to put our hands on the table.
I had put my opened watch on the table before me, a night watch with a luminous dial. At five minutes after nine I felt the top of the table waver under my fingers, a curious, fluid-like motion.
“The table is going to move,” I said.
Herbert laughed, a dry little chuckle. “Sure it is,” he said. “When we all get to acting together, it will probably do considerable moving. I feel what you feel. It’s flowing under my fingers.”
“Blood,” said Sperry. “You fellows feel the blood moving through the ends of your fingers. That’s all. Don’t be impatient.”
However, curiously enough, the table did not move. Instead, my watch, before my eyes, slid to the edge of the table and dropped to the floor, and almost instantly an object, which we recognized later as Sperry’s knife, was flung over the curtain and struck the wall behind Mrs. Dane violently.
One of the women screamed, ending in a hysterical giggle. Then we heard rhythmic beating on the top of the stand behind the medium. Startling as it was at the beginning, increasing as it did from a slow beat to an incredibly rapid drumming, when the initial shock was over Herbert commenced to gibe.
“Your fountain pen, Horace,” he said to me. “Making out a statement for services rendered, by its eagerness.”
The answer to that was the pen itself, aimed at him with apparent accuracy, and followed by an outcry from him.
“Here, stop it!” he said. “I’ve got ink all over me!”
We laughed consumedly. The sitting had taken on all the attributes of practical joking. The table no longer quivered under my hands.
“Please be sure you are holding my hands tight. Hold them very tight,” said Miss Jeremy. Her voice sounded faint and far away. Her head was dropped forward on her chest, and she suddenly sagged in her chair. Sperry broke the circle and coming to her, took her pulse. It was, he reported, very rapid.
“You can move and talk now if you like,” he said. “She’s in trance, and there will be no more physical demonstrations.”
Mrs. Dane was the first to speak. I was looking for my fountain pen, and Herbert was again examining the stand.
“I believe it now,” Mrs. Dane said. “I saw your watch go, Horace, but tomorrow I won’t believe it at all.”
“How about your companion?” I asked. “Can she take shorthand? We ought to have a record.”
“Probably not in the dark.”
“We can have some light now,” Sperry said.
“Go and get Clara, Horace,” Mrs. Dane said to me, “and have her bring a notebook and pencil.” Nothing, I believe, happened during my absence. Miss Jeremy was sunk in her chair and breathing heavily when I came back with Clara, and Sperry was still watching her pulse.
There was a sort of restrained movement in the room now. Herbert turned on a bracket light, and I moved away the roller chair.
Suddenly my wife said: “Why, look! She’s wearing my bracelet!”
This proved to be the case, and was, I regret to say, the cause of a most unjust suspicion on my wife’s part. Even today, with all the knowledge she possesses, I am certain that Mrs. Johnson believes that some mysterious power took my watch and dragged it off the table, and threw the pen, but that I myself under cover of darkness placed her bracelet on Miss Jeremy’s arm. I can only reiterate here what I have told her many times, that I never touched the bracelet after it was placed on the stand.
“Take down everything that happens, Clara, and all we say,” Mrs. Dane said in a low tone. “Even if it sounds like nonsense, put it down.”
It is because Clara took her orders literally that I am making this more readable version of her script. There was a certain amount of non-pertinent matter which would only cloud the statement if rendered word for word, and also certain scattered, unrelated words with which many of the statements terminated. For instance, at the end of the sentence, “Just above the ear,” came a number of rhymes to the final word, “dear, near, fear, rear, cheer, three cheers.” These I have cut, for the sake of clearness.
For some five minutes, perhaps, Miss Jeremy breathed stertorously, and it was during that interval that we introduced Clara and took up our positions. Sperry sat near the medium now, having changed places with Herbert, and the rest of us were as we had been, save that we no longer touched hands. Suddenly Miss Jeremy began to breathe more quietly, and to move about in her chair. Then she sat upright.
“Good evening, friends,” she said. “I am glad to see you all again.”
I caught Herbert’s eye, and he grinned.
“Good evening, little Bright Eyes,” he said. “How’s everything in the happy hunting ground tonight?”
“Dark and cold,” she said. “Dark and cold. And the knee hurts. It’s very bad. If the key is on the nail – Arnica will take the pain out.”
She lapsed into silence.
In transcribing Clara’s record I shall make no reference to these pauses, which were frequent, and occasionally filled in with extraneous matter. For instance, once there was what amounted to five minutes of Mother Goose jingles.
Our method was simply one of question, by one of ourselves, and of answer by Miss Jeremy. These replies were usually in a querulous tone, and were often apparently unwilling. Also occasionally there was a bit of vernacular, as in the next reply.
Herbert, who was still flippantly amused, said: “Don’t bother about your knee. Give us some local stuff. Gossip. If you can.”
“Sure I can,” she said.
Then suddenly there was a sort of dramatic pause, and then an outburst.
“He’s dead!” she cried out.
MISS JEREMY did not come to dinner. She never ate before a séance. And although we tried to keep the conversational ball floating airily, there was not the usual effervescence of the Neighborhood Club dinners. One and all, we were waiting, we knew not for what.
I am sorry to record that there were no physical phenomena of any sort at this second séance. The room was arranged as it had been at the first sitting, except that a table with a candle and a chair had been placed behind a screen for Mrs. Dane’s secretary.
There was one other change. Sperry had brought the walking-stick he had taken from Arthur Wells’ room, and after the medium was in trance he placed it on the table before her.
The first questions were disappointing in results. Asked about the stick, there was only silence. When, however, Sperry went back to the sitting of the week before, and referred to questions and answers at that time, the medium seemed uneasy. Her hand, held under mine, made an effort to free itself and, released, touched the cane. She lifted it, and struck the table a hard blow with it.
“Do you know to whom that stick belongs?”
A silence. Then: “Yes.”
“Will you tell us what you know about it?"
“It is writing.”
“It was writing, but the water washed it away.”
Then, instantly and with great rapidity, followed a wild torrent of words and incomplete sentences. It is inarticulate, and the secretary made no record of it. As I recall, however, it was about water, children, and the words “ten o’clock” repeated several times.
“Do you mean that something happened at ten o’clock?”
“No. Certainly not. No, indeed. The water washed it away. All of it. Not a trace.”
“Where did all this happen?”
She named, without hesitation, a seaside resort about fifty miles from our city. There was not one of us, I dare say, who did not know that the Welless had spent the preceding summer there and that Charlie Ellingham had been there, also.
“Do you know that Arthur Wells is dead?”
“Yes. He is dead.”
“Did he kill himself?”
“I don’t know.”
Here the medium laughed. It was horrible. And the laughter made the whole thing absurd. But it died away quickly.
“If only the pocketbook was not lost,” she said. “There were so many things in it. Especially car-tickets. Walking is a nuisance.”
Mrs. Dane’s secretary suddenly spoke. “Do you want me to take down things like that?” she asked.
“Take down everything, please,” was the answer.
“Where was the pocketbook lost?” Sperry asked.
“If that were known, it could be found,” was the reply, rather sharply given. “Hawkins may have it. He was always hanging around. The curtain was much safer.”
“Nobody would have thought of the curtain. First ideas are best.”
She repeated this, following it, as once before, with rhymes for the final word, best, rest, chest, pest.
“Pest!” she said. “That’s Hawkins!” And again the laughter.
“Did one of the bullets strike the ceiling?”
“Yes. But you’ll never find it. It is holding well. That part’s safe enough – unless it made a hole in the floor above.”
“But there was only one empty chamber in the revolver. How could two shots have been fired?”
There was no answer at all to this. And Sperry, after waiting, went on to his next question: “Who occupied the room overhead?”
But here we received the reply to the previous question: “There was a box of cartridges in the table-drawer. That’s easy.”
From that point, however, the interest lapsed. Either there was no answer to questions, or we got the absurdity that we had encountered before, about the drawing-room furniture. But, unsatisfactory in many ways as the séance had been, the effect on Miss Jeremy was profound, and she was greatly exhausted when it was all over.
Excerpt from Jay Waitkus' Crime Chronicles™ e-book series. Cover image by NZ Graphics.