Chapter 1 – The Séance
Only the flame of a single candle pierced the darkness. What few windows the warehouse had once been provided with were now boarded up, hiding the goods within from the eyes of the curious.
Crates and barrels jostled for floor space between rows of cast iron pillars. Bales of Indian cotton and Australian wool were stacked in precarious towers like the building blocks of a giant child, awaiting the last leg of their long journey north to the mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Chests of tea, fresh from Ceylon, spiced the air. Lacquered Japanese furniture stood in orderly rows, each piece neatly wrapped in brown paper. A thousand pin-prick eyes gleamed out of the gloom, the candle’s flame reflected in rack after rack of spirit bottles and stout, almost spherical carboys of Chinese turpentine.
In the middle of the warehouse floor a space had been cleared to make room for a circular pedestal table, on which the solitary candle stood in a cheap, pressed tin holder. Around the table sat five people, pale and ghostly in the flickering light. Each held the hand of his neighbour, forming a silent, unbroken circle. At first glance they seemed an ill-assorted group; though with a little study, relationships could be deduced.
The first was an elderly lady, built along the lines of the great merchant ships that had brought the goods to this warehouse from every corner of the British Empire. Her heavy black mourning added to the stateliness of her appearance, while its artful tailoring suggested curves where none existed in nature. Her bearing and the tasteful accents of pearl and jet suggested that she possessed both wealth and a position in Edwardian society.
On her right sat an athletic youth who could have been – and indeed was – her grandson. He wore an Oxford half-blue blazer and sported a vigorous moustache and a black eye acquired two days before on the rugby football pitch. To her left was a slender, grey-haired and altogether more modestly dressed woman who could have been – but was not – her spinster sister. In fact, she was a member of a professional class unique to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Lady’s Companion; a combination of secretary, personal assistant and professional friend.
The other two were harder to place. One was a woman in her thirties whose eau-de-nile silk dress complemented the subtle green of her eyes. She was a classic Celtic beauty; plump-cheeked, with full red lips and a fair complexion, powdered paler still to conceal freckles. Her auburn hair was styled in the elaborate fashion of the Aesthetic movement and held in place with carved tortoiseshell combs. Her relationship with the other members of the party was not immediately obvious, though from the puppy-eyed attentions of the young man it was clear that he was completely besotted with her.
She spoke, softly and with a slight French accent.
“I am delighted that a new seeker of the truth beyond the veil has joined us this afternoon,” she smiled at the fifth member of the party who sat between her and the lady’s companion, holding both their hands.
“For your benefit, Mister Gibbins, I must explain the importance of maintaining the spiritual connection between us during the séance. Once I have entered the trance state it is vital that we do not break the circle, for that would risk causing me great harm. And I am sure that you are too much of a gentleman to hurt a lady.” She smiled coquettishly. Beside her, the young man’s moustache bristled with jealousy.
The man opposite inclined his head gravely. Of the entire group, this last member was the strangest. Although no more than thirty years old, he was dressed in a style more in keeping with the height of the previous century. He was painfully thin, a fact which his tight-fitting black moleskin trousers and white waistcoat only served to emphasise. His prematurely grey hair was unfashionably long and swept back to reveal a pronounced widow’s peak. His face was gaunt, with a high forehead and prominent cheekbones, and his chin was finished with a scrap of beard that looked almost accidental. Slung casually over the back of his chair was a black velvet cape lined with purple satin, clasped with an oxidised silver buckle in the form of a Jackdaw’s head. A top hat rested on the floor beside him.
The crowning eccentricity of his costume, however, was the extraordinary pair of spectacles he was wearing. The round lenses were made of thick cobalt glass, of so deep a blue that they appeared quite opaque. Leather flaps attached to the chromium frames fitted his face closely, preventing any light from entering around the sides. Wire earpieces held them in place, joined behind his head with an India-rubber cord.
From the fact that, even in the gloom of the warehouse, Gibbins refused to remove these extraordinary spectacles, one might have suspected that he was blind. Nothing could be further from the truth.
“I observe,” he stated in a low, quiet voice, “that the candle is failing.”
All eyes turned to the flame. As they watched, it shrank, guttered and finally went out.
The darkness that engulfed them was absolute and as suffocating as a woollen blanket. For several seconds nothing could be heard but the sound of their breathing. Then a voice – grating, harsh and suggestive of unimaginable age – broke the silence.
“Who summons Robert Fludd from his rest?”
After a few moments the stout lady tremulously replied, “We are friends; we mean you no harm. Will you show yourself to us?” There was a pause.
“Very well,” rumbled the voice.
Silence descended upon the warehouse again. Nobody even dared to breathe. Then there was a collective gasp of surprise.
The medium’s mouth had fallen slightly open, and a faint green luminescence could be seen glowing within. Slowly, a thin strand of light wormed out between her lips, and crept through the air. By its sickly glow the others could see the medium slumped in her chair, her eyes eerily rolled back in their sockets.
“Ectoplasm!” the young man whispered excitedly, and was immediately and sternly hushed by his grandmother.
The irregular, glowing cord extended until it reached a spot above the centre of the table, then stopped. A bulb formed at the end and began, slowly, to swell, until it had grown to a ball the size and proportion of a human head. Suddenly it flickered and momentarily vanished. When it reappeared, the features were distinct and alive, yet the head itself was disembodied and floating in mid-air.
It was the head of an elderly man, wizened and wrinkled, with a wispy beard. He wore the horned cap that was the badge of office of the natural philosophers of the Elizabethan age.
“Robert Fludd, the alchemist,” explained the elderly woman under her breath. “He is often our spirit guide, though he can be somewhat temperamental.”
“Why do you call upon me?” the spirit rasped, directing a sweeping, accusatory stare around the circle of séancers.
“We wish to communicate with those who have passed beyond the veil,” replied the elderly lady, a little of the imperious tone returning to her voice. It seemed that she expected even the inhabitants of the afterworld to do as she told them to.
“With whom would you speak?”
Before the dowager could reply, another voice interjected.
“May I ask a question?”
It was the young man in black. The others stared at him in surprise and with more than a hint of irritation, feeling perhaps that it was presumptuous of the newcomer to be so forward in his first meeting with the spirits.
In the light of the apparition’s faint luminescence they could see that Mister Gibbins had removed his spectacles, though neither the medium nor the lady’s companion could recollect having let go his hand. What little they could make out through the gloom suggested that he suffered from some strange abnormality, for his eyes had no discernable white or iris, but were entirely black, like orbs of polished onyx set into the ivory of his face.
“Speak,” commanded the disembodied head.
“Can you tell me whether William Bones is still suffering?” The young man asked.
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