This is an excerpted story from Walden Books best-selling author Michael Williams’ fine novel Trajan’s Arch, which we over at Blackwyrm have published. It is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and blackwyrm.com.
Part 1: Sybil’s Masque
The Chariot is the card for those who achieve greatness. The cryptic pharaoh in a canopied cart, drawn by twin sphinxes, his vehicle emblazoned with wings above lingam and yoni.
But perhaps, in the days of Mrs. Sybil Gault Lefcourt, the chariot was merely a symbol for all vehicles, for all travel. For the travel that brought her miles across the ocean, and those less defined, interior travels that brought Ephesians Munday onto the stage of her memory and thought.
Sybil Gault first entered the theatre in 1891, when she was but a girl of sixteen, at Stratford, in The Tempest. Though she would appear in the same play in later years--and then as Ariel, mind you--on this particular performance she was only a dancing sprite near the play’s end, among a chorus of girls swaying ethereally to the music of Mr. Haydn’s Sturm.
There will be time enough, I am certain, to recount her other early ventures on the English stage. But it is the events of that particular performance that I shall relate here, as they are in keeping with her visitations and intimations of the World of Spirit, a world that often mingles with our own. And as with most experiences of travelers in the ethereal and transcendent, the venture began in unsettlement and unease.
As she joined in the dance on that evening in ’91, the first of Sybil Gault’s troubles was simply a girlish one, to assure that her crown of daisies did not slip from her head. The second, of course, remembering the simple steps of the dance, and aligning them with those of her fellows. It was in watching the moving arms of the girl beside her, matching gestures with those of the older, more trained dancer, that she noticed yet another girl, arriving late and taking a place at the end of the row.
This creature was squat, a head shorter than any of the other dancers, her skin pocked and curd-pale. The face and features of a Mongolian idiot, her own steps abstract and tentative, as though she were remembering them over a long span of years or reading instructions through murky water.
Something repellent there was in her smell, moreover. Later, Sybil would describe it as a whiff of the charnel house, though at that time she knew nothing of that terrible sweet odor, nor that the phrase itself was good spiritualist poetry, one that medium and mystic alike would use to describe ghostly visitation. At the time, however, Sybil thought of setting her foot at the topmost step of a rat-rife cellar, of a warm metallic stench rising out of that cool dark underground.
Watching the poor thing gesture her way through the simple dance, trying to keep up nervously and awkwardly, Sybil’s sympathy transformed into a kind of contempt. The cruelty of those sentiments alarmed her, more than the girl’s nature or her occluded purpose in the Shakespearian dance.
Despite herself, Sybil wanted to slap the girl. Wanted to startle and confuse her. She did not like what she wanted. And then, the dance coming slowly to a close, the creature turned over the sea of waving arms and swirling crinoline. Her eyes were all dark, as though the pupils had expanded to fill them entirely, lid to lid, so that she stared from blackened slits and smiled stupidly, a grin ecstatic and malicious, sans teeth and sensibility.
Sybil turned from this slow monstrosity and fumbled with the music. The dance ended with her some steps behind her fellows, staggering like an idiot in the silence. It was the girl’s fault, she told herself with the righteousness of a sixteen-year-old, and she vowed to take it up at curtain.
But of course, by then the creature was nowhere to be found.
As Sybil moved through the dancers, through the bustle of actors and stagehands, her anger at the creature changed to a sort of pity borne out of her own shame. For after all, there was something inexcusable in the malice she felt toward the terrible little thing. Perhaps this was a friend or relation of Frank Benson’s, or an idiot girl upon whom the famous director had taken pity. Surely such contempt was unreasonable and inordinate.
Sybil searched the tiring rooms, then the whole of the backstage. Miranda flitted before her like a wraith, and Ariel as well, though at a second glance these figures were clearly and palpably actresses, solid and in the process of undress, making re-adjustments in their paint and attire about which I could never tell you, for it is unfamiliar country to me: as it was to Miss Sybil Gault at that early hour of her theatrical calling. She would grow accustom to mask and role in later years, but now she waded through simple enigmas, through the milling cast in search of a greater mystery.
There was one patch of darkness in the wings, farthest from the lamps, and as she approached it, a smell--sour and feral--drifted to meet her out of the mottled shadows.
No doubt it was more caution than kindness that slowed her steps. Whatever the girl was, whether dancer or revenant, she had receded into that inclement darkness. She was hiding from Sybil there, or waiting for her.
Sybil stopped, at the edge of the lamplight, her reluctance mingled with fear. For a moment, she glimpsed a deeper darkness in the heart of the shadows. Something that moved away from her, that settled and crouched in a shapeless, disheveled heap that was alive, or feigning life, to judge by its movement in the core of the gloom. Again, the hot, rusted stench of some furtive creature boiled in the close air.
Sybil turned away from it, from the strange truce it was making between life and death, and it was almost a decade until that shame would slip away from her. Sometimes she would remember that turning as a kind of betrayal of what was best in her; at other times, she felt as though she had betrayed her worst impulses, and that it would have been wiser to see them through, to give them light. It would be years until she could decide which, and it would take the events in Marylebone to show her that she had turned from neither side of her nature, but from what was deeply and radically both.
Needless to say, the next production of The Tempest was short two dancers. Sybil set off by the train to London, and never worked with Frank Benson again. And yet in the years to come, when again and again she would tread the stage in this very play--as a Nymph, then as Ariel and finally as Miranda--she could never sing her songs without a shudder.
“Full fathom five thy daughter lies;
Of her bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were her eyes;
Nothing of her that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something harsh and strange.”
It was six years from that moment--almost to the day--when the Ethereal would yet again touch Sybil Gault’s mundane life. Doubtless something in her acknowledged its presence: the dim and perhaps ulterior promptings of beyond and beneath.
But here is the strange part, Reader. That moment in Frank Benson’s theatre she had dismissed almost altogether for a spell, remembering it only when she passed by the mouths of dark alleys, when she heard voices tumble from second-story windows at sunset. It was as though something in the Mystery--or perhaps something in Sybil--prevented future encounters.
Sometimes, albeit rarely, when The Honorable and she would attend the theatre, when visiting friends backstage, Sybil would catch a whiff from a tiring room of something turning in the air, and see a shadow in the corner of her eyes that seemed to quiver for a moment, but would resolve into a cape, a property coat rack or a billing sign when taken in full gaze. But memory is a strange ghost. It haunts you at times of its own choosing, and for motives that are entirely its own.
Suffice it to say that, five years to the day, her lodgings more comfortable in Marylebone now, her daily life becoming more accustomed to the new flat, to her new husband and to his Parliamentary absences, and to her brace of servants, she chanced across a second and more enduring encounter.
Her father had moved his family to London in her infancy. Sybil remembered the first house near Tower Hill, the bridge and the bone-white parapets, but chiefly the stench and the yellow smoke, the gray water pooled in the morning wash basin, even after she had scrubbed diligently before going to bed. The lamps lit at midday against the omnipresent fog, and the stream of visitors with American accents and whispered business.
At times she wondered if her father were not a smuggler of sorts, because all the arrivals smelled of far places and sea salt. But it was nothing so dramatic, nothing of romance and piracy: he had simply espoused the losing army in the disastrous American civil conflict, and had refused the reconstruction of his conquerors. Instead of defeat, he chose decay and poverty, and Sybil’s earliest days were spent hand to mouth in the Borough.
But Marylebone, where our story takes place, was another London altogether. Far west of the early squalor Sybil remembered, north of the seediness and dust in which her father located them finally, Marylebone was respectable, even posh around the Regent’s Park. However, it was, for the daughter of an actress and a genuine American Confederate general, tame surroundings, despite her sudden rise in social prominence as the new wife of an M.P. At first Sybil would welcome the respite from work, would relish the security, enjoy the company of her lady’s maid Becky, but soon her thoughts turned back to other pursuits. Most to her liking, she was not far from the theatre, and the Marylebone Spiritualist Association was even closer, located on Russell Square, within walking distance from her flat.
Let it be known from the outset that Sybil Gault Lefcourt (for that was her name now, in the safety of this Parliamentary marriage) took not a shilling for her readings. To have done so would have been to add fraudulence to what was at its very best an understandable pattern of deceiving. This part of London was filled with ladies who had little to do and much to ponder, and the findings of Messrs. Lyell and Darwin--not to mention the questionable Mr. Freud--had turned gentle thoughts along unhealthy and brazen pathways... or so Sybil’s husband, the Honorable Philip Lefcourt, insisted, urging her to use her gifts--both spiritual and theatrical--to restore these ladies to their customary spirit of meekness and impressionability. Perhaps she did her duties less gladly than she should, for she employed her gifts toward the goals he set before her, being as St. Paul urges those of her sex, submitted to her husband. And yet she stood at the edge of a new century, when the glory was passing from the world, and parlour games were one sad way to recover it, so she employed her gifts theatrically, not spiritually, and certainly not in a manner that met with The Honorable Philip Lefcourt’s approval.
But it is a story unto itself how Sybil Lefcourt had come to such mannerly duties. A story that, perhaps at this time, I should recount.
Sibyl Gault’s earliest theatrical ventures were those not uncommon to a young woman of reasonable comeliness and wit, though the small role in Mr. Benson’s Shakespearean troupe was testimony that the comeliness was more than reasonable, the wit sharper than common. Though the Gaults were of modest social station, as I have related, nonetheless the stage would have been forbidden her were it not for her father’s death in her eighth year. A mournful and distracted mother had kept scant eye on her sister and her: her education was one of greasepaint rather than Greek, of lamplight rather than Latin. It is a wonder that Sybil learned to read at all, but learn she did, if only to master the scripts and prompts of the stage that excited her, that seduced her by the age of twelve.
By the time Sybil was fifteen, as raw and untutored a child as ever stood before a stage lamp, she had met Mr. Frank Benson, whose Shakespearian productions traveled all England from York to Shrewesbury. It was something in her appearance and demeanor that had drawn Mr. Benson to her, but I assure you that his attentions were never untoward, never more base than paternal. Under his guidance, she had played Peaseblossom, had played as well a Nymph in The Tempest, and later, of course, the most challenging rôle of Ariel. For a brief run, when she was scarcely eighteen, she had played Phebe the Shepherdess, and once, with great nervousness and chagrin, had stood in the part of Viola.
That was the night she had met the Honorable Phillip Lefcourt. Who fell in love with her, he claimed. And indeed, the note he sent backstage was filled with ambiguous praise of her adoption of Cesario’s role, how the boy had become his master’s mistress, and on and on with such airy delights that she felt herself compelled to meet him.
Now, only three short years later, his bride of a year and two years removed from the stage, she was given permission to again employ her talents, this time for the amusement of idle ladies. But by then, the employment of those talents was insufficient. An especial estrangement had occurred between the Honorable and his much younger wife, although I hesitate to blame the divisions upon the difference in their ages. Mark it as one of those situations in which two souls drift widely apart on a sunstruck, desolate sea. Each acknowledges that once, years ago, he saw the other suffused in a glorious light--nothing like this bare and merciless glitter on calm waters. But each acknowledges as well that the memorable light was imagined at best, reflected at worst.
No matter the reasons, early in their second year of marriage, Sybil’s husband took to long nights at his club, then boldly announced he would be playing chess at the residence of the Honorable Valerian Quant. Though the Honorable Philip Lefcourt had displayed neither inclination nor talent for that game in their brief courtship, Sybil knew fully well his élan at other games, other matters: Valerian Quant had a dark-haired daughter scarcely fourteen.
At any rate, when her husband released her to the stage, Sybil Lefcourt was no longer drawn to acting. Instead, it was the stagecraft and dramaturgy that enchanted her, and most of all the words that breathed life into the actors. She knew the impossibilities that a woman could write and stage her own dramas: even the melodramas, the provinces of Jerrold, Bernard, or Boucicault, were forbidden country for the female pen, and though her husband knew both Messrs. Shaw and Wilde, neither of the aforesaid gentlemen was inclined to lend assistance to the fairer sex.
Nor would The Honorable himself ply influence to aid his wife in the manly pursuit of playwriting. He would pat her on the head, like he did his spaniel, and explain that the stage was too rough a trade, that rescuing her once from gaslight and vagaries should suffice for a lifetime, given that she was a clever and resourceful girl.
That even though the theatre district swarmed with lesser luminaries than Bernard or Oscar, lesser contemporaries who might be more amiable to women and amenable to championing their causes for the fame that notoriety could bring, it was still London, after all. London, not Paris, mind you. And a whiff of scandal--any whiff, and any scandal--could be quite damaging to the wife of an M.P. (there’s a good girl).
So the playwrights, as Sybil translated his warnings, would be no help to her. She was forced to improvise, and the Association on Russell Square became a likely spot for invention. It was well known that, in the old days of Good Queen Bess, the roles she played on the stage would have been acted by boys, and it had occurred to her that when the Honorable Phillip Lefcourt fell in love with his Viola, she was a girl who played a girl playing a boy, and was that unlike the layers of masquerade she would perform at the Association? And in Shakespeare’s day, had her husband and she met under those circumstances, she would have been a girl playing a boy playing a girl playing a boy...
It dizzied her to think upon such matters.
The Spiritualist Association was far more simple: it offered itself, a choir of true believers wherein the fairer sex might mask and masquerade as both playwright and actress. It occurred to Sybil that these ladies were a willing audience, at home with spectacle and high drama, at finding meaning beneath the brittle surfaces of event and situation. So she must be forgiven for approaching their assembly with a scheming and indifferent heart, for she was a woman penned in a city and in a household, and we should not be too quick to judge her behaviors.
Automatic writing is a wonderful talent, Dear Reader. When genuinely undertaken, as I have come to believe it may be, it can open the doors to the Unknown and Unfathomable, giving us purchase in untraveled country. In the years that followed, wiser women than Sybil--Miss Besant, for example, and the celebrated wife of the poet Yeats--would draw the miraculous from a narrow parlor as the spirit’s hands closed on theirs, guiding their pens across the page with messages from the Otherworld.
I regret to say that Mrs. Lefcourt used the practice as a hoax. Meeting with a number of the distinguished ladies of the Spiritual Association, she introduced them to one Ephesians Munday--a playwright from the time of the first King James--whose work, she claimed, had existed only in what they called prompt copies and foul papers--the manuscripts used by the players in performance. They had been lost in the burning of the Globe Theatre in 1614, but the insistent Munday, whom she had met in a session with planchette and lettered board, was bent on salvaging his name through his posthumous visitations.
That was her story. Indeed, there was conveniently little more to substantiate it beyond a passing mention in the Stationers’ Register--Sybil was clever enough to do her homework, and this old record of Jacobean play performance had been preserved, reprinted and bound, and she knew her way around the Museum in Bloomsbury. Moreover, she knew her associates well enough to know that my research was probably superfluous--that gullible women need a trail of magic more than a trail of clues.
But her research, thin as it might have been, was more than a covering of her tracks. Somehow, the presence of names in an old document became a kind of evidence for Mrs. Lefcourt herself, as though she needed testament herself, that something--that anything--lay behind the stage of her own imagining, in a dark tiring room where things scuttled and moved. If she were making Ephesians Munday from whole cloth, she reckoned, it would somehow soothe her heart and her own yearnings if there were essentials, signs to read that stood for something. If there was an Ephesians Munday behind the one she invented.
At any rate, the Register mentioned four works--a series of masques ‘performed at the Black Fryars and to acclayme at the Innes of Court.’ It was enough for reverie. With the names in her recollection, in long sittings with pen poised above blank paper, Sybil performed for her susceptible audience, inventing the history and ambitions of Ephesians Munday, and finally passages from his vanished works.
The four masques Munday had supposedly written, shaped by enterprise and counterfeit trances, were each supernatural and of classical bent. Now the masque, good reader, is a playlet of sorts--a short drama scented with music and dance, in its day and time a story that stood at the margin of the real, the larger story that was the play itself. The masque, Sybil explained to the assembled spiritualist ladies, was especially splendid in that it bridged the worlds of audience and illusion. When the masquers came down from the stage to dance with those who had watched the play, it was as though the play would continue through eternity, she told them, with the lines between audience and characters perpetually and unchangeably blurred.
You can imagine how much she laughed inside when she told them this.
To hear Sybil tell it, Master Munday was reaching his prominence as a writer of masques, when mystery cut short his time, leaving us with this curious legacy of four short plays.
Indeed, so that you will not consider all my doings fraudulent, I insist that the names were present in the Register.
One was Achilles, entered in the 1609 Register. And Sybil took the single word in hand and invention, spinning a tale for the credulous of the hero’s haunting by his dear friend Patroclus, of his untimely death, and his ghostly return to demand the death of the maiden Polyxena.
The next was Alcyone, and another ghostly tale: her inventions were more restrained, because, unlike Achilles, Alcyone had few stories about her. Sybil picked the most famous: that of her mourning, of the loss of her shipwrecked husband, his nightly visits and her transformation into a bird at the end of the masque.
The next was even narrower: Thyestes and his Maske of Vengaunce. And though Sybil had no Latin, she remembered her father’s library, and so she claimed it was the oddest thing, was it not, that Munday had translated and adapted Seneca’s dark story of revenge? This, of course, was the easiest, for all she had to do was read a translation of the Roman play (again, she had no Latin) and ‘render’ it through ‘automatic writing.’
And finally, entered in the Register in late 1613, there was his Eurydice. And of course the poor girl is known only for her tragic story--the brief, happy marriage to Orpheus, the adder’s bite and her death, and her bereaved husband’s vain attempt to harrow her out of the country of death.
And yes, they would talk with Master Munday, after the lectures on the Tarot and the Hindoo pantheon, the anecdotes surrounding the tulpa, that Tibetan ghost with no prior life, conjured from the imagination of the Asiatic magician. After the readings from Nostradamus and the Renaissance Platonists, when the air was still, and Sybil gathered the ladies around the table, they would hover and bode then, like a pack of perched ravens, while Sybil’s pen traced over paper and the planchette skimmed the lettered board. Mrs. Murtagh, the wife of a blustery Home Rule Irishman, took copious notes as Sybil invented, improvised, and translated her impulse and her desire for expression into Jacobean poetry, which the women would read aloud in muffled light.
Part 2. Ministering Spirits
Without another clue, she would have recognized Maggie Murtagh as a spiritualist from a simple glance at her parlor.
It seems that most women with metaphysical interests, especially the Irish ones, lose all notion of tidiness.
The place was a striking contrast to the neatness encouraged by the Honorable and enforced by Becky, Sybil’s Cockney housekeeper. Blankets and deep chairs cluttered the Murtaghs’ parlor, and the thick curtains blocked the sunlight entirely. The socket lamps cast an almost shadowy light, next to the electrical wonders of Baker and Oxford Streets, scarcely a cry from the window.
Indeed, the whole room was dingy, as though glimpsed through a dirty window, and the faint, ammoniac smell of a cat underlay the heavy mixture of kerosene and lilac. There would always be the divining board, often lying athwart the marble tabletop--sometimes replaced by Mr. Murtagh’s chessboard, or by a stereopticon with its twinned, amber pictures of Tibet or India or of Roman ruins, but always in the parlor, always in sight. Maggie would note the board as they entered the room, and if there were men present, now would come the time of gallantries, of polite departure. Often in their midst was Conan Doyle, author of the ratiocinative tales, and Thomas Parnell before and after the scandal. Occasionally, Messrs. Wilde and Douglas were among the company--this before the disasters and humiliations of the Queensbury trial.
In short, it was masculine company in which the truly remarkable and the catastrophic were about to happen, to which the spiritual adventures were merely prelude or postlude or intervening dumbshow. And when the men, led by the Honorable Edmund Murtagh, retired to the dining room, to cigars and an opened bottle of whiskey, then Mrs. Murtagh would set the device on her knees, take up the planchette, and look at her expectantly.
So it was each night, until the summer of ’94, when the veil parted and Munday’s ultimate masque was played out upon a wider London stage.
Her husband’s coach had brought her to the Murtaghs’. The Honorable had no need of it that night, or if he did, he would need it much later, for there would be time aplenty to wander, after his wife was safely home. But on this particular night, Sybil stood in the archway between dining room and parlor, half-contemplating what the Bushmill’s would taste like, and whether word would reach her husband if she joined the gentlemen, though she knew that the matter was settled, that she would join with the ladies, and derive amusements in their company.
It would be an opportune time. Slovenly the house might be, but it breathed money, and Maggie Murtagh was just the type to underwrite a larger theatrical venture.
The matter would have to be broached delicately. There were always warnings in the papers against confidence artists. And it seemed that theatrical folks were more suspect than anyone. But perhaps the matter could be broached delicately when the gentlemen retired: perhaps Ephesians Munday might suggest the possibility of patronage from his vantage point in the afterlife.
Reluctantly--because she rather liked some of the men now filing into the study, despite their rather silly female attachments--Sybil seated herself as accustomed, opposite Maggie Murtagh. She placed her fingers lightly on the planchette.
These devices were rather easy to use. Your fingers barely brushing the indicator, you would follow along with the first few letters or numbers. It was a fluid, intuitive process, waiting as your partner in divination eventually opened her hand.
Your partner was almost always a woman. The thing that Sybil liked most about the husbands of these women was their immunity from such foolishness. Almost all of the spiritualists had an idea how the Beyond would answer their questions. They looked for confirmation rather than insight; if you were lucky, the first few letters would tell you the direction of your reading, what your partner wanted to hear.
If it was what you wanted her to hear, that was well and good. Let her push the planchette wherever she pleases.
If not, you would be forced to improvise. The letters already revealed by the indicator you would slowly direct toward another word entirely: the ‘m.a.r’ she intended to spell ‘marriage’ might, under your hand, become ‘martha’ or ‘march’ or, in Sybil’s case, ‘Marlowe’ or ‘Marston’--a name that guided her toward the subject Sybil wanted to address.
In a matter of a few minutes Sybil Lefcourt could spell out intentions and expect them to be followed. Her partner would do her own work in the meantime, her desire for a spiritual guide persuading her that these were the words she wanted to hear all along.
I must confess that Mrs. Lefcourt rather liked the feel of this kind of fortune telling. The conspiracy, unspoken and even unaware, established with a willing mark. It was a masque itself, as your performance spilled onto the board and planchette into your compliant partner, as again the line between player and audience became indefinite. And even before this particular night, Sybil had noted the occasional sense that a third presence inhabited the space of the board, and that she was carried somehow into its vicinity, as in those moments on stage when, for an instant, she began to see the world through the eyes of the character she portrayed, to believe what she believed.
And though, Dear Reader, Sybil Gault Lefcourt fancied herself weathered and skeptical, she was still but twenty on the night of which I speak, and she was susceptible to many things. And in retelling the invented stories of Master Munday’s stage career, playing the role of a woman inadvertently receiving mysteries, she sometimes came to believe her own fictions: that she might have seen a kind of lambency behind the world, that indeed the masques of Ephesians Munday might have once filled the stage at Blackfriars or even at the court of James.
But not tonight. Tonight Sybil was pure calculation. And she fought down a rising irritation when Miss Urania Bell lit a candle by the divining board and placed her hand as well upon the planchette. Another hand would make the job of fooling Maggie Murtagh that much more difficult.
‘Do you suppose Master Munday will speak to me--to us?’ Raney asked breathlessly.
‘Hush, dear,’ Sybil replied, with as much kindness as she might muster. ‘No placing of ideas in Mrs. Murtagh's lovely head. Hands back on the indicator, Mrs. Murtagh. I only tease you. I know full well you are...receptive.’
For a moment Sybil felt a presence over her shoulder. A proximity of breath, the faint hint of whiskey and tobacco. And before she could even startle herself, a voice jostled the arcane mood.
‘If it is Ephesians Munday you summon, Mrs. Lefcourt, tell him his verse is wooden and sordid.’
Sybil turned, annoyed, to face the man she had seen on the doorstep--this interloper between separated worlds.
‘I am sorry, sir. I do not believe I have had the pleasure...’
The man bowed slightly. ‘The oversight is mine, then. Lysander Garvey, Disrupter of Mysteries, at your impertinent service.’
She could not prevent a smile. The man was handsome; he must have once bordered on beautiful, or more likely thought he had, like a magnificent fallen angel. But her attraction to him was blunted by the quick realization that the attraction was not mutual, that his gaze was assessing rather than admiring. Where she had seen him before was the greater enigma. She plumbed her memory, found nothing at the moment.
‘Now, Mr. Garvey,’ she admonished, scolding flirtatiously because somehow they both knew it was safe to scold and to flirt. ‘Mystery does not brook interruptions. Nor do playwrights brook harsh words regarding their work. So if you might--’
Mr. Garvey winked, placed his index finger across his lips as though he were about to quiet a small child.
Sybil turned back to the board, the back of her neck warm and reddening. In her distraction, the indicator had already passed over two letters. Raney had written down the ‘f’ and the ‘r’, and by the time Sybil gathered myself, focusing thoughts on what had already been spelled and how she might guide the message toward yet another play by Master Munday, the planchette had raced across other letters:
Garvey chuckled grimly.
‘‘Fratreme’?’ Sybil was at last constrained to ask. ‘Miss Bell, might one of your guides be...’
But again the indicator moved, passing across even more perplexing letters.
‘Why, I do believe we’ve Latin here!’ Lysander Garvey exclaimed with a kind of mocking astonishment. ‘Something about brother fearing brother, I believe, though my once formidable Latin is rusty. Best to call Sir Tristram: Perhaps great Caesar's ghost is present!’
Raney scowled at him. ‘Then do call Papá, if you will, Mr. Garvey.’
Suddenly the mockery had left the room. Her hands shaking a little, riding the indicator over the board, Sybil tried vainly to follow the flow of the letters.
Surely Raney knew some Latin. Had picked it up from her father's endeavors. Perhaps her hands were guiding the planchette more than Sybil had reckoned heretofore. But it seemed an astonishing length to go, for Urania Bell to summon a Latinate control.
But now, summoned in the flesh by a smiling Lysander Garvey, Sir Tristram Bell stood in the room. A Scotsman, knighted by Victoria for heroism in the Raj. Soldier and scholar. The wise man, the reader of omens. He stood in the doorway now. Another handsome older man--younger than Mr. Garvey but, I would surmise, passing his fiftieth year. Still a bit of the fusilier about him, and dashing in a silvery, bearded fashion with the face of a Roman emperor.
Which was entirely in keeping with Sir Tristram’s reputation as an amateur classicist of some standing.
‘Now, really, Urania,’ Sir Tristram chided, and you could hear the slow glide of whiskey in his voice. ‘You know that I do not hold with...’
But Urania pointed to the paper on which she had printed the letters. He read, and then watched as the planchette continued to move and his daughter continued to write, his face unreadable in the light of the socket lamps.
It seemed an hour. And yet the clock on the mantel had marked only a quarter of that time when the planchette slowed and stopped entirely, and Urania handed the message to her father.
Tristram squinted over the words. ‘It's difficult to tell,’ he began apologetically.
Edmund Murtagh had entered the room by then. ‘Your reputation as scholar is at stake, Sir Tristram,’ he scolded jokingly. ‘I, for one, am free of such anxiety, my studies in linguam Romanam having concluded at the Masses I so dearly wished were over, and in the schoolroom when the subjunctive reared its head and scowled at me.’
Tristram joined in the soft masculine laughter. ‘Oh, but there are spirits and subjunctives here, sir,’ he explained. ‘And no space between words, just as one would encounter on arch or sarcophagus. Once I divide this passage, I shall translate wonders.’
You could hear it in his voice. The lukewarm attempt to summon the same skepticism and irony as his comrades. He wanted to tease, but he was not up to it.
Now the planchette quivered a last dying time beneath Urania’s fingers, and the socket lights gutted and fluttered, then revived into smoky, slanted light.
‘Ah...’ Mr. Garvey exclaimed, in counterfeit mystery. ‘Did not the room grow suddenly cold, gentlemen?’
‘Mr. Garvey,’ Mrs. Murtagh began to object, but Sir Tristram interrupted.
‘From the Thyestes of Seneca. Early in the play, the Fury mocks the ghost of Tantalus, announces the collapse of all bonds. Brother will fear brother, she prophesies, parents will fear children, and the son the father, and the wife will plot the husband’s undoing, as blood will irrigate the world...’
‘My, my, Mrs. Lefcourt,’ Maggie Murtagh exclaimed, her broad Irish face knotted in a skeptical frown. ‘Perhaps Master Munday shows us that, indeed, his Latin was worthy to translate Seneca? For I can speak for Miss Raney and myself in telling you that Latin is... well, Greek to us.’
Her laughter, and the laughter of the other guests, tunneled away from Sybil, as though the world had dropped from the table. She felt a lightness behind her eyes, and a shudder along the back of her neck.
For Dear Reader, Sybil Gault Lefcourt had perhaps less Latin than either of the other two women whose hands helped to guide the planchette that night. If Mrs. Murtagh spoke the truth--and I have no doubt that she did--there had been a fourth story, a fourth hand on the board, a story to complement the others, and no doubt a hand that was years, if not centuries dead.
Part 3. Stereopticon
That night Sybil stood at the bedroom window, her vista facing east toward Russell Square.
The events of the afternoon had unsettled her. She had pled dizziness and left soon after the Latin, carried in coach by the kindness of Mr. Garvey. The Honorable was not at home--indeed, had not been at home since the previous night--and the young girl or girls with whom he was no doubt consorting were spectral in her thoughts, only abstractions.
As for now, the masques of Ephesians Munday seemed infinitely more real.
Some would call it a leap of faith that she picked up the pen and little journal. And some would call it even more than faith--would call it a kind of foolishness--that she placed her hand above the blank page, that she emptied her thoughts of all save a simple command.
Return to me... whoever or whatever you are.
Next she would remember the morning. The sunrise over Regent’s Park as it climbed into her window, waking her or not waking her...
For she was uncertain whether she had dreamt or even slept.
And whether it was sleep or entrancement, the page of the journal--the page upon which Sybil Lefcourt had set her pen and cleared her distracted orb--was full now with scrawling, with letters in a child’s hand that metamorphosed slowly into a mature albeit ancient Italic script.
What evrer, it had begun, two bold words framed by inkblots and scrawling, as though her pen had struggled for purchase on the blank page.
What evrer in the signs arraied by heauene...
And then, on the facing page, a verse in Latin:
umbra fuit sed et umbra tamen manifesta virique
vera mei. non ille quidem si quaeris habebat
adsuetos vultus nec quo prius ore nitebat:
pallentem nudumque et adhuc umente capillo
Then trailing into incomprehensible scrawls.
These are the very words she had copied, reader. At first she pondered returning to the Bells’ and seeking the skills of Sir Tristram. But in that, of course, she should procure the involvement of Miss Urania, and that, in turn, meant questions she might not be comfortable answering.
Depending on what the Latin said.
She mulled on it. ‘Umbra’ she knew to be ‘shadow’, and ‘manifesta’ was probably ‘manifest’. But everything else in the passage was opaque. Sir Tristram looked more likely each time the reading baffled her. But if this were not Latin but gibberish--spuriously, nonsensically Latinate, or little better, Latinized weather forecast or directions to a decorator--then what would be made of her talents? Could she throw herself on the mercies of Sir Tristram, confessing fraudulence when, indeed, she had duped his daughter?
Or if (and believe me when I say that she still considered this prospect remote) indeed this was a message from some sentient, external force, then what if the Latin exposed her previous deceptions?
As Sybil looked at the circumstances, it seemed that both the most likely and least likely of possibilities would unmask her. In either case, it would cause scandal. And scandal was the least welcome guest at the house of the Honorable Philip Lefcourt: indeed, she could not imagine her husband’s reaction were his wife exposed as a confidence artist.
It was then that the thought of Lysander Garvey descended, like a rescuing angel, into the midst of her dilemma.
He had spoken, had he not, of his once formidable Latin. Perhaps a ghost of it remained--enough, at least, to clarify what was written in the journal.
And now, in the trance or the dream of the evening, Sybil Lefcourt had remembered the circumstances under which she had seen Lysander Garvey before. In these desperate straits, she was prepared to exchange her confidence for his own.
That afternoon, accompanied by her lady’s maid Becky, Sybil paid a call on Mr. Garvey. Becky was, of course, horrified at the prospect of a lady calling unsolicited upon a gentleman, but Sybil assured her, quite truthfully for once, that it was exclusively a business matter, related to her translations of the masques of Ephesians Munday. Why, Becky could even be present in the room, if she thought it proper, Sybil told her, knowing full well that the poor girl would stammer and decline.
Sybil was sure that Becky did not believe her entirely. Of course, she was also sure that the girl would know her place, would ask no questions and reveal no secrets, at least to those who would convey them to husbands.
Lysander Garvey received them graciously.
His flat on Oxford Street was decorated at the height of elegance, the most striking of its adornments a pair of pen-and-inks by Aubrey Beardsley and a pastel by Fernand Khnopff. A beautiful Asian boy in a paisley robe opened the door for Sybil, and then slipped quietly into the far room of the flat as Mr. Garvey offered tea and cordialities.
They exchanged chatter for a moment; chatter that hovered comfortably near gossip. It was soon that Sybil mentioned Cleveland Street to him, and Lysander Garvey absorbed the information without dramatic response. After all, it was a small step from meeting the boy at the door to insinuations of Cleveland Street, where many a boy could be found.
But not a boy like that one, Sybil noted. Not one who hovered like a bright apparition in the back room of the flat, his burgundy robe almost trailing light as Sybil glimpsed him through the doorway.
“Your friend keeps busy,” she observed, and Lysander raised an ironic eyebrow.
“They say bad things about idle hands,” he observed.
“Thai?” Sybil asked.
Lysander frowned, his hands moving to his collar. “Beg your pardon?”
“Thai... Siamese... the boy. Am I right?”
“Hardly. Khandro is Tibetan. I met him there. Sometimes I feel like I conjured him out of mist and mountains.”
It seemed an odd thing to say. Sybil stammered a little, grasped at the conversation.
“Then no doubt, Mr. Garvey,” she began at last, “you enjoyed the presentations of Helena Blavatsky on her travels in that region, though I fear I never met the famous Madame.”
“Oh, Jack,” Garvey observed dryly, using the strange pet name Blavatsky allowed to her friends but not her followers. “A magnificent fraud, that one. I doubt she ever got east of Palestine.”
It was an odd thing to say about such a revered mystic. Once again, Sybil was surprisingly stuck for words.
However, Lysander Garvey was only beginning.
“Blavatsky never spoke of Tibetan witchcraft. At least not in my hearing. And it always seemed to me that she’d never have ceased talking of such things, had she known of them or even seen them. Nothing of the extraction of vital energies, or of the tulpa, of which I know you heard at that silly spiritualist club.”
Sybil frowned. “So the Tibetans can invent their ghosts. Out of airy nothing.”
Lysander nodded toward the room at the back, where Khandro stood by the window, holding a piece of silk up to the dim London sunlight.
She knew that he knew that she knew, and from that moment a silent and mutual understanding passed between them, as Sybil poured extra cream into Lysander Garvey’s bracing tea, and Becky hovered by the doorway, trying not to look at the Beardsleys.
‘So what business brings me a lovely visitant?’ Mr. Garvey teased. ‘I am sure you know that my business is hardly theatrical, so I fear I can provide no venue for the redoubtable, albeit late Master Munday.’
Sybil could not refrain from smiling, even though she feared what the next revelation might bring. ‘Indeed, it is that very gentleman who brought me here,’ she replied, extending the journal to Mr. Garvey’s waiting hand. ‘It seems that Master Munday has left me a cryptic missive.’
His frown as he read the passage unsettled her.
‘Yesterday you said, I believe, that your Latin was formidable.’
‘Once formidable, I believe I said. Once formidable, now rusty. However, you need not fear. This is schoolboy’s Ovid. Indeed, I believe Khandro himself could translate it.’
Sybil cleared her throat. ‘Khandro looks untranslatable himself, Mr. Garvey. If, however, he is old enough to translate, I should be surprised.’
Mr. Garvey raised an eyebrow, and then turned to the Latin. ‘“It was a shade,”’ he translated, “and nevertheless, it was the shade of my husband, truly made manifest. If you ask, he had not the same face... features... as once he had, nor did his face shine as it once did. But, unhappy, I saw him pale, naked, and with dripping hair.”’
He looked up from the page. His eyes were inscrutable. ‘A ghostly visitation, Mrs. Lefcourt. And your Master Ephesians Munday sent you this classical missive?’
Sybil kept silent. Becky fidgeted uncomfortably behind her, and from somewhere in the back room came the faint sound of Khandro talking to himself.
‘The imperfect tense has always baffled me, Mrs. Lefcourt,’ Mr. Garvey said, his gaze unwavering. ‘Easily recognized, but damnably difficult to translate. The Romans made much of shadings and nuance--imperfect, pluperfect, perfect--but I say what’s past is past. Do we agree?’
‘I must confess my ignorance, Mr. Garvey. If this is some point of grammar, it is lost on me entirely.’
He shrugged, withdrew a cigarette from a silver box on the tea table. He offered one to Sybil, who smiled and declined.
‘I see,’ he said at last, smiled, and lit the cigarette. Jasmined smoke wreathed his hair briefly, and he brushed it away languidly. Now he stood, and moved slowly to the library table by the window, where a chessboard rested, the pieces already moved in the first stages of a game. He reached down and tipped a white rook elegantly, then righted the piece and stared out the window.
Becky coughed nervously.
‘’Tis a sad story,’ Mr. Garvey said at last. ‘That of Ceyx and Alcyone. But of course you know it, Mrs. Lefcourt. Or should I say that your playwright knows, or knew, it well?’
Sybil was no longer sure where this was headed. ‘Oh, I know it as well as he, Mr. Garvey. Ceyx sails off, is drowned, the wife mourns him inordinately, and they are both transformed into sea birds for her tears.’
‘Inordinately? ’Tis a curious word to use, Mrs. Lefcourt, for a widow’s sorrow. But the tale is more perplexing than you--and perhaps Master Munday--have understood it.’
He looked at Sybil slyly, picked up the letter opener that lay on the library table and turned it in his hand, the smooth silver blade catching the rusty light of late afternoon. He seemed to be choosing his words carefully as he began to speak.
‘You have, I assume, recalled where we first met,’ he said at last.
‘Yes sir, indeed I have,’ Sybil replied, though she was still fumbling in the dark of memory, persuaded but not altogether sure she did recall. ‘I believe, though, that it has been seven--no, eight--years, since we met.’
He nodded. ‘Those were better times,’ he said. ‘Before the dreadful business with Oscar.’
At once Sybil motioned Becky from the room. For she had her first certainty since the night before, when the planchette had moved into unknown country. Now she was sure that it was Cleveland Street, that the notorious 19 Cleveland, where gentlemen would go to meet much younger gentlemen, had been their place of meeting. Do not ask, readers, what had taken her there as a young girl, but rest in the knowledge that some of her stage acquaintances, especially some of the younger boys, had occasion to frequent the place.
Now the scandals surrounding Oscar Wilde and Bosey Douglas had made the climate of the city less forgiving for men of inverted nature, and after all it was only ’97, with Oscar still in Reading Gaol and his plays still an anathema to London producers. Despite his claim, the past was not past to gentlemen of Lysander Garvey’s proclivities, and the conversation was dodging, strained.
Sybil had no desire to unmask Mr. Garvey, to display the painting in his attic or, more directly, to identify the boy as a frequenter of his lodgings. Indeed, she was unsure whether Khandro was a presiding angel in Mr. Garvey’s flat or simply a wayfarer. Her hopes were simple: that Mr. Garvey would not betray her cozenry out of simple gratitude for her disinclination to expose him. Though she did not express her full sentiments to Mr. Garvey (and perhaps she should have, perhaps that was her failing) she had no intention of making public whatever arrangement prevailed in those apartments. But she claims to have meant Mr. Garvey no harm, and if anyone knew today where her dear Becky resided, it is sure that the girl would confirm that Mrs. Lefcourt’s intentions were innocent on this matter. For in fact, Becky’s testimony on other matters before the police in the days that followed was unfailingly loyal, and her advocacy of her lady’s ‘plain auld goodniss’ was compelling to the constables and, I can guarantee, touching to the mistress who employed her.
For this story ended unhappily, as by now you must have concluded it would end--would have no other way of ending, given the ghosts and betrayals. Mr. Garvey was, of course a gentleman, offering his carriage for Sybil’s return to Marylebone. She had no choice to decline the transport, assuring him that her husband’s barouche was at our call, when indeed they both knew that it was not, that given Mr. Garvey’s possible reputation in some circles, her maid and she would be walking substantial distances or...
But a long account of how they returned to Marylebone is not the subject of my story. Suffice it to say that, upon returning to her flat, a surpassing weariness haunted Sybil. Something in the light had changed, and as Becky, possessed of the same strange lassitude, trundled from lamp to lamp, the parlor took on a kind of amber glory, a distanced and painterly quality like a photograph glimpsed through a stereopticon. Sybil had long ago plumbed the mystery of that novelty--how a slight variance between the photograph glimpsed by the left eye gave the illusion of depth when the mind juxtaposed it over or beneath the image that the right eye captured and held. She had the stereopticon used by confidence artists: how the huckster would set a figure in one photograph and not in the other, parallel one, and when the viewer glimpsed the scene through the glasses of the device, the single figure would shimmer with a kind of transparency.
It was one way a photographer invented his ghosts. And yet, even if Sybil knew the devices, the amber tint of the photographs had never ceased to render them mysterious and strange. It was that colour of light in which she wandered now, and she imagined somewhat foolishly an adjoining room, in which all furniture and ornament and lighting was identically the same, with one remarkable exception.
In that second room she was not present.
And the very act of thinking such a thing made her feel diaphanous and frail.
But it was more than that. She knew somehow that Mr. Garvey’s photograph, though tinted the same amber and possessed of the same furniture, differed ever so slightly from her own--a shift of perspective, perhaps, or simply from the left eye to the right.
All this talk about the stereopticon may seem incongruous, Dear Reader, as out of place as an honored general lost in a smuggler’s den, or a smuggler’s daughter in the houses of the Houses of Parliament. As a strange, unsightly idiot girl dancing sprite-like to the choruses of The Tempest. But our minds entertain strange suppositions, and we move far more readily from thought to thought than we do from house to house, from station to station. And events move more strangely than our thoughts. For here is what came to pass that very night.
It was the stroke of the mantel clock that awakened Sybil, the sonorous little bell marking the hour of two in the morning. She was lying on the divan, my journal open and spine-up on my lap. For a moment, brief but fraught with a great and manifest unease, she was reluctant to look at the pages, assured in some terrible recess of her mind that they would contain more words, that her conversation with Master Munday--or whoever had guided the pen in her hand on yesterday’s sunlit and distant afternoon--would have continued while she slept, only to greet her on wakening with new and incomprehensible communication.
Imagine her relief to find the page blank beneath the Latin and the inkblots. But imagine as well a tremor of what she could only call disappointment. For Sybil had thought briefly that she performed on a larger stage, wrestling not against her own untruthfulness and selfishness and resentful imaginings, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Now it seemed that in this--in this grandeur and scope of proportion--she might have been mistaken.
But what of the Latin? she asked herself. What of it, indeed?
Questioning that brought her, with little delay, back to the table and the journal beneath her steadied hand. Questioning that closed her eyes and emptied her thoughts, as she slipped beyond calculation and performance into a state of comfortable quietude.
In the times that followed, when I spoke to the girl, dear Becky vouched that her mistress had not left the room, that Sybil had spoken to no one since her return from Mr. Garvey’s flat, and that even the conversation with the aforesaid gentleman was conducted under the watchful eye of the lady’s maid.
I fear that now I must provide the rest of my testimony. And I fear that I must provide it by denials.
Sybil did not feel ‘something come over her’. Did not feel her hand move. Nor could I tell you where her thoughts ventured and strayed. It was more an abstraction, a reverie sans images and emotion, her chin propped on her hand and her eyes intent on nothing. But it was not quite that, either.
What emerged from this state--this trance, if you will--was yet another passage of verse. It was, in fact a famous speech--one Sybil had spoken on the stage herself—but that speech was rendered aslant and off kilter, invaded by surrogate words both intimate and disturbing. I record them for you in this account. You can only imagine her alarm.
Full fadom fiue thy Philip lies,
Of his bones are Corrall made:
All the girles that charm’d his eies,
Into nothingnesse doe fade,
He doth suffer River-change
Into something lost & strange,
Mantel clocks will ring his knell.
Harke now I heare them, ding-dong bell.
You will have to believe my testimony, dear Reader, and I may only trust that you will, having lingered with my story this long. But as Sybil read the last line, the clock on the mantel rang three, as though her thoughts were summoned and blocked by stage directions.
She blinked and shuddered, both at the coinciding of inner and outer worlds, and at the strange, perverse twisting of the Bard’s honoured song. Was this the contrivance of her own hand? Was it the inscrutable joke of Ephesians Munday, played on his greater predecessor? Or was this a hand and voice with some even darker intent?
I am sure she entertained all possibilities. But as of yet, she had no inkling of the moment’s immediate import.
It was late the next morning when Becky admitted the officers from Scotland Yard, who came bearing the terrible tidings of Sybil’s new widowhood.
Apparently, it was an evening upon which Sybil’s husband was indeed late in his offices. After leaving the Houses of Parliament, The Honorable had walked over Westminster Bridge, headed toward the site of the old Sanger Theatre. Where he was bound that late at night and with what purpose, neither the inspectors nor Sybil herself were able to divine.
And though I shall not speak ill of the departed--of any of the departed--rest assured that I could guess at the dead man’s motive.
At any rate, they had found the body at the foot of the bridge, entangled in some flotsam that in turn was entangled amid the moorings of the structure--one of the inspectors explained these things quite avidly, explained as well the wound inflicted by several, swift stabbings with a blunt blade. For some reason, he insisted to describe the pain that might ensue from such a weapon, such a terrible death -- but of course Sybil was beyond understanding, perhaps even beyond hearing.
Perhaps she was thinking back over years that seemed like centuries, thinking of
Philip’s face when, in another, now-vanished era and on another stage, he brought flowers to his dazzled Viola. There is always a desire to return, you know. To redeem the time. Because all days are evil.
It would be remiss, Dear Reader, to burden you with the depth and the fervor of Sybil’s mourning. Suffice it to say she strove, in all ways, to be worthy of her husband. And it is heartening when your provider continues to provide: her inheritance left her self-sustained, and her further ventures with cards and crystals, with board and planchette, deepened well into her middle years.
In those years she came to believe that Ephesians Munday had seized his opportunity. And when an addled girl in the British Museum had endeavored to invent him, had dreamed him out of mist and paper, he had issued forth to body her imaginations. He had wrested her game from her hands and guided her toward his truth.
But was that the truth, after all? Sybil Lefcourt herself understood the layers of truth, not only how one truth lay beneath another but how, sometimes, one could glimpse two of them side by side, bleeding into each other to form a picture in its entirety out of the fragmentary ghosts of both. So it will not surprise you, I am sure, that I was on Westminster Bridge that night, and that I saw the Honorable Philip Lefcourt passing. That I knew full well the layers of truth in ghostly communications, the unspoken desires that lay beneath the words from the pen or the planchette, and the desires that lay beneath those desires as well.
I saw Philip Lefcourt, but he did not see me. And whether I acted on impulse or cold premeditation, or if some larger force compelled my hand, I am powerless to determine, even from this undiscovered country. But a pale mist encircled the two of us as I approached from behind, as I was accustomed to approach, and I am sure--or as sure as I can be in such matters--that he felt the brush of my hand against his shoulders before the knife struck, before he tumbled into the Thames and into reckoning as deep as any plummet sounds.
Or so it seemed from the Westminster Bridge, on the way to the old Sanger Theatre.
And perhaps in that theatre, not long for this world itself, the cast of this and a hundred other stories are assembling now in your mind or mine, These our actors, as I might have told you, had we the time, were all spirits of a sort, as insubstantial as the souls they courted, and like the generals and guides and sibyls of spiritualist fancies, they too are melted into air, into thin air. I am not sure on what layer of truth some of them might lie--neither the poor girl in the play, nor Ephesians Munday, nor even the strange boy Khandro imagined in a dream of mountains, but they were on the stage with Sybil Lefcourt, though they were not the ghosts that peopled the stage of her later and perhaps more vivid nightmares.
I wonder myself what became of some of these ghosts, though there are others whose whereabouts I can almost, if not entirely, guess. For I am old passing into ancient, and though I should say there are no surprises left on the globe, there are surprises aplenty in the backstage shadows of our mansions.