Unseen Company

This was too long for the Readwave writing challenge (I still haven’t finished the one about The World Time Forgot ….) but I posted it on my own profile and thought I might as well post it here too before ether dust completely covers this sorry little blog …. the theme was Dreams. I got a bit carried away …

Unseen Company

(London, 1920)

Was it a dream?  Wallace is not so sure; Mrs Draycott is quite convinced it was, while Gerome has decided that this is the sort of thing one will get at séances, which is why they are best avoided.

They had gone to humour Adele, who went  to great lengths to arrange the thing : ’She (the medium)comes much recommended, I didn’t think much of it myself to begin with until I went – quite took my breath away!  The things she knew!  So if you could be punctual, there will also be the dear old Colonel, Mr and Mrs Fanshaw, oh, and Lorca.’  ‘Lorca, eh? Well, it will be worth going if only to see what he makes of it,’ said Wallace. Gerome raised an eyebrow. ‘That must have taken a bit of doing – not his sort of thing, I’d have thought; but yes, good fun, I wouldn’t miss that.’

Mrs Draycott, bored, nearly divorced and ready for anything, was adamant they would all go for Adele’s sake : ‘She always makes such an effort, the dear,’ she said, replacing yet another cigarette  in her ivory holder. ‘I’ve ordered a car for six thirty – don’t want to miss out if there is any booze going, eh? ‘

‘I should bally well think not!’ agreed her two companions. And so it was arranged.

Adele lived a little off Berkeley Square, in a quiet area more used to polite evenings around the pianoforte than séances, but then,  the medium was not your little old lady in feathers and pearls.

Lorca, resplendent in peacock green with purple cravat was just finishing one of his parodies as the little group entered – turning with cocktail in hand, he waved briefly and turned the final sentence in their direction, much to the amusement of his audience.

‘Come, old man, you’ll have to explain all that now,’ remarked Gerome as he pulled off his scarf.

‘A trifle, a mere trifle; your entrance was so deliciously timed – I was using the Arrival of the Mikado to illustrate my own entrance at the Savoy on opening night – ‘… the paraphrase to fit the line, I shall in course of time ….’ He hummed the refrain and allowed himself a self-congratulatory chuckle.

‘Ellipses and apostrophes, is that what we are to you?’ exclaimed Gerome with mock severity.

‘Dear boy, you could never be anything less than an exclamation mark,’ purred Lorca, ‘but come, there are some simply splendid young things dying to meet you…’

‘Bless me if you don’t crack me up every time;  thank goodness they invited you –  but, ‘ and here Gerome lowered his voice, ‘what do you make of the special guest tonight?’

‘Ah, la belle voyeuse – too soon to say, but I fancy the Daimler she rolled up in has seen better days, what?’

‘That Daimler, I happen to know, was Adele’s cousin who kindly offered to bring the lady in question here tonight, you frightful old snob.’

‘Then her credentials are impeccable and I say no more… ‘

‘Which one is she ? Oh, I say!’ Gerome now caught sight of the medium and drew in his breath.

Dressed in the height of fashion, she more resembled a Vionnet mannequin or a Parisienne (perhaps with shades of grisette), and her speech was calm, collected, almost disinterested. One could imagine she did not believe in the whole business at all. Her name, or soubriquet under these circumstances, was Astoral and she, like Mrs Draycott, smoked from a long ivory holder; it was hard to imagine her as being anything other than an exquisite design on a Vogue magazine cover.

Talk over drinks covered the usual topics one might find in any other drawing room of an evening in Bloomsbury  or Battersea in 1920 : Ascot, the theatre, Cole Porter, and why oh why A Night Out was so popular.

Suddenly Adele stepped forward, eyes bright with excitement and announced: ‘It is time – the table is set!’ and led the way to the dining room.

There was some subtle change in the air once she had spoken.

Astoral snaked (there was no other word for it) across Adele’s polished parquet as if on the way to a dance, her heavily shadowed eyes cloudy, unfocussed, distant.

The room was candle-lit. The lights had been lowered, the guests were in their places in that combination of shy embarrassment and expectation one finds at such gatherings.Gradually a hush fell.

‘I hope she doesn’t have all that ectoplasm coming out of her mouth…’ murmured Wallace.

‘Oh, I shouldn’t think so, dear boy – that is only in the lower circles, surely. It will be infinitely more refined here,’ Lorca replied in conspiratorial tones.

‘Hush, hush!’

The medium was now seated, her eyes continuing in that vacuous, dreamy state. She placed her cigarette holder on the ashtray provided for her; a thin thread of smoke continued to wind up from it.

Silence.  ‘…which did last an infernally long time,’ commented Gerome afterwards.

Someone, a late-comer presumably, walked across the floor. The candle light flickered and wavered causing the shadows to lurch uncertainly, confusing the eye.

‘You may be seated,’ said the medium.

Wallace thought it a bit much that the medium should take on the role of hostess in such a way, but perhaps this was now her realm. Certainly, the changed light, the oddness of the situation, the very atmosphere itself made it seem another world.

Whoever it was drew up a chair – at least, they all heard it scraping across the floor.

‘Adele will have a fit,’ whispered Mrs Draycott, her  voice tickling Wallace’s ear. Gerome, seated on the other side of him, stifled a chuckle. Wallace twitched irritably.

‘Tell us why you have come,’ continued the medium.

Silence.

Well, what is he likely to answer?  thought Wallace, almost petulantly. Why are we all here? Curiosity, idleness, ennui …

More footsteps. Somebody, bored or in need of replenishment was pacing about, as if looking for something. Not the drinks cabinet after all, by the sound of it.

‘I say, is it usual for people to get up and move about?’

‘Anything can happen,’ replied the medium, unruffled.

‘Didn’t really answer my question, though,’ muttered Wallace. ‘If that’s the case, think I might stretch my legs as well.’

And he stood up.

Several things happened at once:  amid a general gasp and admonishments to ‘not break the circle’ there was a groan followed by  a crash as somebody’s (possibly Wallace’s) chair fell over, and then, a rush of air, causing the door to slam shut, and the running of feet.

‘Well, bless me, if a chap can’t take a stroll if he feels like it – I’ve had enough!’ Wallace strode across and tried the door, but it resolutely declined to budge.

‘Speak!’ said the medium, a little louder this time.

Wallace turned in time to see her lean forward, apparently addressing him, although her eyes had rolled back, showing only the whites.

‘Speak? What on earth am I to say?’ he spluttered.

‘She doesn’t mean you, you dolt!’ hissed Gerome. ‘Come and sit down, there’s a good fellow.’

The door chose that moment to open, or he had simply managed the trick of it, and he was out, back in the drawing room, only here too all was now shadow and shade, strange patterns leaping across the walls, a flickering, slumberous glow from the fireplace (a fire in summer? had it really been so chilly?) –  he tried to cross the room to reach the other door to the hallway, stumbling into furniture; someone, perhaps  the latecomer, had the same idea, only they kept moving things about and his path was being impeded.

‘I say,’  Wallace bleated, anxious only to get out, ‘you might stop chucking the furniture about.’

Instant silence.

It had grown dark indeed. Whatever fire had been in the hearth was now extinct. Yet still he could see, by the little light allowed through the windows, shadows, moving. Moving across the wall, and most definitely not cast by any log or candle.

‘Not by humans, either, ‘  he said afterwards. ‘Some of them, if I’d seen them by a stronger light, might have turned me quite silly: beastly outlines, more man mixed with animal – perfectly monstrous.’

‘It was probably some of those statues Adele has dotted about the place,’ soothed Mrrs Draycott. ‘You mistook them for … something else.’

Wallace thinks not.

At first he thought it some foolish prank, and called out to them to stop being such silly asses and let him out. Instead, without reply,  they all turned and advanced slowly, very slowly, towards him.

Whatever they were, he said , they made to come at him, and shout as he might for help, no word came out of his mouth. Some part of his fear also bound his hands and legs, for move he could not. Paralysed in speech and deed, he could only stand, looking around him at the closing circle.

‘On and on they came,’ he stuttered, ‘whispering, whispering : “You let them in, you let them in, “ – although who, and how, I cannot tell,’ he broke off, burying his head in his hands. He continued, in muffled tones: ‘I couldn’t breathe – I thought I was being strangled – there seemed a whole army of them; I must have passed out then … and none of you heard them, pounding and stamping about the place?’ He raised his head and stared at his companions incredulously.

‘We thought you were just asleep in the armchair, Wallace darling,’ said Mrs Draycott. ‘And you were quite, quite alone. There certainly wasn’t anyone pounding or prancing about. We found you there, quite peaceful, after we’d finished.  I do think it a pity you didn’t join us though – then you might not have had such an awful, silly dream.’

Wallace stared at her again, wide-eyed and dishevelled.

‘I did join you , though.’   There was some gentle laughter at this.

‘My dear, you decided you wouldn’t, after all. You’d picked up a book of myths and legends, just as we were leaving the room and said : “Herne the Hunter, there’s the chap. I’ll sit here and read him. You lot go ahead.” And so we left you.’

Wallace still insists this was not the case. Yet the Book of Myths and Legends, by one M. Larrimer (All Saints College, 1st ed.1872) with Herne, Oberon and Titania and all the rest of the Unseen Company, was definitely lying open on the table at his side. And he had collapsed in an armchair. The one they had found him in. The book was heavily illustrated, containing engravings that were … grotesque. He looked at a few, then shuddered and closed the book.  And then shrugged.

The medium was quite unconcerned by it all, and murmured something about sensitives, possession, and the like.

‘She was really excellent tonight – chilling, in fact,’ commented Mrs Draycott, once they were on their way home. ‘I could see even Lorca was impressed. She knew all about Uncle Horace – and she did mention there were quite a few ‘Unknowns’ wandering about. I wasn’t too certain what she meant by that. Perhaps they were the ones bothering Wallace while he was asleep?  I almost believe in it after all.’

‘Darling Davinia,’chuckled Gerome, ‘ you are too, too droll. As well as divine. There, all words beginning with D. Like your initials.’

‘How perfectly charming, perhaps I shall have them embroidered on something.’

Their levity had little effect. Wallace knows what he saw. Safe to say, he has not been to a séance since. And still sleeps badly.

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