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"Through"  (1917) 
by E. F. Benson

Extracted from the Century magazine, 1917, pp. 321-327. Accompanying illustration by Howard Giles omitted. Included in The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories, ca. 1920, pp. 210-227


Author of "Dodo," "Dodo's Daughter," etc.

RICHARD WAGHORN was among the cleverest and most popular of professional mediums, and a never-failing source of consolation to the credulous. That there was fraud, downright, unadulterated fraud, mixed up with his remarkable manifestations it would be impossible to deny; but it would have been futile not to admit that these manifestations were not wholly fraudulent. He had to an extraordinary degree that rare and inexplicable gift of tapping, so to speak, not only the surface consciousness of those who consulted him, but, in favorable circumstances, their inner or subliminal selves, so that it frequently happened that he could speak to an inquirer of something he had completely forgotten, which subsequent investigation proved to be authentic.

So much was perfectly genuine, but he gave, as it were, a false frame to it all by the manner in which he presented these phenomena. He pretended, at his séances, to go into a trance, during which he was controlled sometimes by the spirit of an ancient Egyptian priest, who gave news to the inquirer about some dead friend or relative, sometimes more directly by that dead friend or relative who spoke through him.

As a matter of fact, Waghorn would not be in a trance at all, but perfectly conscious, extracting, as he sat quiescent and with closed eyes, the knowledge, remembered or even forgotten, that lurked in the mind of his sitter, and bringing it out in the speech of Mentu, the Egyptian control, or of the lost friend or relative about whom inquiry was being made. Fraudulent also, as coming from the intelligence of discarnate spirits, were the pieces of information he gave as to the conditions under which those who had "passed over" still lived, and it was here that he chiefly brought consolation to the credulous, for he represented the dead as happy and busy, and full of spiritual activities. This information, to speak frankly, he obtained entirely from his own conscious mind. He made it up, and we cannot really find an excuse for him in the undoubted fact that he sincerely believed in the general truth of all he said when he spoke of the survival of individual personality.

Finally, deeply dyed with fraud, and that in crude, garish colors, were the spirit-rappings, the playing of musical boxes, the appearance of materialized spirits, the smell of incense that heralded Cardinal Newman, all that bag of conjuring tricks, in fact, which disgraces and makes a laughing-stock of the impostors who profess to be able to bring the seen world into connection with the unseen world. But to do Waghorn justice, he did not often employ those crude contrivances, for his telepathic and thought-reading gifts were far more convincing to his sitters. Occasionally, however, his powers in this line used to fail him, and then, it must be confessed, he presented his Egyptian control in the decorations of the Egyptian hall as controlled by Messrs. Maskelyne & Cooke.

Such was the general scheme of procedure when Richard Waghorn, with his sister as accomplice in case mechanical tricks were necessary, undertook to reveal the spirit world to the material world. They were a pleasant, handsome pair of young people, gifted with a manner that, if anything, disarmed suspicion too much, and while futile old gentlemen found it quite agreeable to sit in the dark holding Julia's firm, cool hand, similarly constituted old ladies were the recipients of thrilling emotions when they held Richard's, the touch of which, they declared, was strangely electric. There they sat while Richard, breathing deeply and moaning in his simulated trance, was the mouthpiece of Mentu and told them things which, but for his indubitable gift of thought-reading, it was impossible for him to know; or, if the power was not coming through properly, they listened, hardly less thrilled, to spirit-rappings and musical boxes and unverifiable information about the conditions of life where the mortal coil hampers no longer. It was all very interesting and soothing and edifying. And then there suddenly came an irruption of something wholly unexpected and inexplicable.

Brother and sister were dining quietly one night after a busy, but unsatisfactory, day when the tinkling summons came from the telephone, and Richard found that a quiet voice, belonging, so it said, to Mrs. Gardner, wanted to arrange a sitting alone for next day. No address was given, but he made an appointment for half-past two, and without much enthusiasm went back to his dinner.

"A stranger," he said to his sister, "with no address and no reference of introduction. I hope I shall be in better form to-morrow. There was nothing but rappings and music to-day. They are boring, and also they are dangerous, for one may be detected at any time. And I got an infernal blow on my knuckles from that new electric tapper."

Julia laughed.

"I know. I heard it," she said. "There was quite a wrong noise in one of the taps as we were spelling out 'silver wing.’"

He lit his cigarette, frowning at the smoke.

"That's the worst of my profession," he said. "On some days I can get right inside the mind of the sitter, and, as you know, bring out the most surprising information; but on other days—to-day, for instance; and there have been many such lately—there's a mere blank wall in front of me. I shall lose my position if it happens often; nobody will pay my fees only to hear spirit-rappings and generalities."

"They 're better than nothing," said Julia.

"Very little. They help to fill up, but I hate using them. Don't you remember, when we began investigating, just you and I alone, how often we seemed on the verge of genuine supernatural manifestations? They appeared to be just round the corner."

"Yes; but we never turned the corner. We never got beyond mere thought-reading."

He got up.

"I know we did n't, but there always seemed a possibility. The door was ajar: it was n't locked, and it has never ceased to be ajar. Often when the mere thought-reading, as you call it, is flowing along most smoothly, I feel that if only I could abandon my whole consciousness a little more completely, something, somebody, would really take control of me. I wish it would; and yet I'm frightened of it. It might revenge itself for all the frauds I 've perpetrated in its name. Come, let's play piquet and forget about it all."

It was settled that Julia should be present next day when the stranger came for her sitting, in order, if Richard's thought-reading was not coming through any better than it had done lately, that she should help in the rappings and the luminous patches and the musical box. Mrs. Gardner was punctual to her appointment, a tall, quiet, well-dressed woman who stated with perfect frankness her object in wishing for a séance and her views about spirit-communication.

"I should immensely like to believe in spirit-communications," she said, "such as I am told you are capable of producing; but at present I don't."

"It is important that the atmosphere should not be one of hostility," said Wag-horn in his dreamy, professional manner.

"I bring no hostility," she said. "I am in a state, shall we say, of benevolent neutrality, unless"—and she smiled in a charming manner—"unless benevolent neutrality has come to mean malevolent hostility. That, I assure you, is not the case with me. I want to believe." She paused a moment.

"And may I say this without offense?" she asked. "May I tell you that spirit-rappings and curious lights and sounds of music do not interest me in the least?"

They were already seated in the room where the séance was to be held. The windows were thickly curtained, there was only a glimmer of light from the red lamp, and even this the spirits would very likely desire to have extinguished. If this visitor took no interest in such things, Waghorn felt that he and his sister had wasted their time in adjusting the electric hammer (made to rap by the pressure of the foot on a switch concealed in the thick rug underneath the table) behind the sliding-panel, in stringing across the ceiling the invisible wires on which the luminous globes ran, and making ready all the auxiliary paraphernalia in case the genuine telepathy was not on tap. So with voice dreamier than before and with slower utterance as he was supposed to be beginning to sink into trance, he just said:

"I can't foretell the manner in which they may choose to make their presence known."

He gave one loud rap, which perfectly conveyed the word "No" to his sister, indicating that the conjuring tricks were not to be used. Subsequently, if really necessary, he could rap "Yes" to her, and the music and the magic lights would be displayed. Then he began to breathe quickly and in a snorting manner, to show that the control was taking possession of him.

"My brother is going into trance very quickly," said Julia, and there was dead silence.

Almost immediately a clear and shining lucidity spread like sunshine, after these days of cloud, over Waghorn's brain. Every moment he found himself knowing more and more about this complete stranger who sat with hand touching his. He felt his subconscious brain, which had lately lain befogged and imperceptive, sun itself under the brilliant clarity of illumination that had come to it, and in the impressive bass in which Mentu was wont to give vent to his revelation he said:

"I am here; Mentu is here."

He felt the table rocking beneath his hands, which surprised him, since he had exerted no pressure on it, and he supposed that Julia had not understood his signal, and was beginning the conjuring tricks. One hand of his was in hers, and by the pressure of his finger-tips in code he conveyed to her, "Don't do it." Instantly she answered back, "I was n't."

He paid no more heed to that, though the table continued to oscillate and tip in a very curious manner, for his mind was steeped in this flood of images that impressed themselves on his brain.

"What shall Mentu tell you to-day?" he went on, with pauses between the sentences. "Some one has come to consult Mentu. It is a lady, I can see her. She wears a locket round her neck, with a piece of black hair under glass between the gold."

He felt a slight jerk from Mrs. Gardner's hand, and in finger-tip code said to Julia, "Ask her."

Julia whispered across the table:

"Is that so?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Gardner, and Waghorn heard her take her breath quickly. He just remembered that she was not in mourning; but that made no difference. He knew, not guessing, that Mrs. Gardner wished to know something from the man or woman on whose head that hair once grew which was contained in the locket that rested unseen below her buttoned jacket. Then the next moment he knew also that this was a man's hair. Thereafter the flood of sun and certain mental impressions poured over him in spate of sunlit waters.

"She wants to know about the boy whose hair is in the locket. He is not a boy now. He is, according to earth's eyes, a grown man. There is a D; I see a D. Not Dick, not David. There is a Y. It is Denys. Not Saint Denys, not French. English Denys—Denys Bristow."

He paused a moment, and heard Mrs. Gardner whisper:

"Yes; that is right."

Waghorn gave vent to Mentu's jovial laugh.

"She says it is right," he said. "How should not Mentu be right? Perhaps Mentu is right, too, when he says that Denys is her brother? Yes; that is Margaret Bristow who sits here. Not Margaret Bristow. Margaret—"

Waghorn saw the name quite clearly, but yet he hesitated. It was not Gardner at all. Then it struck him for the first time that nothing was more likely than that Mrs. Gardner had adopted a pseudonym. He went on:

"Margaret Forsyth is Denys's sister. Margaret wants to know about Denys. Denys is coming. He will be here in a moment. He has spoken of his sister before. He did not call her Margaret. He called her Q—he called her Queenie. Will Queenie speak?"

Waghorn felt the trembling of her hand; he heard her twice try to speak, but she was unable to control the trembling in her voice.

"Can Denys speak to me?" she said then in a whisper. "Can he really come here?"

Up to this moment Waghorn had been enjoying himself immensely, for after the days in which he had been unable to get into touch with his rare and marvelous gifts of consciousness-reading, it was blissful to find his mastery again, and, besieged with the images which Margaret Forsyth's contact revealed to him, he had been producing them in Mentu's impressive voice, reveling in his restored powers. Her mind lay open to him like a book; he could read where he liked on pages familiar to her and on pages which had remained long unturned. But at this moment, as sudden as some qualm of sickness, he was aware of a startling change in the quality of his perceptions. Fresh knowledge of Denys Bristow came into his mind, but he felt that it was coming not from her, but from some other source. Some odd buzzing sang in his ears, as when an anesthetic begins to take effect, and opening his eyes, he thought he saw a strange patch of light, inconsistent with the faint illumination of the red lamp, hovering over his breast. At the same moment he heard, though dimly, for his head was full of confused noise, the violent rapping of the electric hammer, and already only half-conscious, felt an impotent irritation with his sister for employing these tricks. He struggled with the oncoming of the paralysis that was swiftly invading his mind and his physical being, but he struggled in vain, and next moment, overwhelmed with the onrush of a huge, enveloping blackness, he lost consciousness altogether. The trance that he had often simulated had invaded him, and he knew nothing more.

He came to himself again, with the feeling that he had been recalled from some vast distance. Still unable to move, he sat listening to the quick panting of his own breath before he realized what the noise was. His face, from which the sweat poured in streams, rested on something cold and hard, and presently, when he opened his eyes, he saw that his head had fallen forward upon the table. He felt utterly exhausted and yet somehow strangely satisfied. Some amazing thing had happened.

Then as he recovered himself he began to remember that he had been reading Mrs. Gardner's, or Mrs. Forsyth's, mind when some power external to himself took possession of him, and on his left he heard Julia's voice speaking very familiar words:

"He is coming out of his trance," she said. "He will be himself again in a moment now."

With a sense of great weariness he raised his head, disengaged his hands from those of the two women, and sank back in his chair.

"Draw back the curtains," he said to Julia, "and open the window. I am suffocating."

She did as he told her, and he saw the red rays of the sun near to its setting pour into the room, while the breeze of sunset refreshed the air. On his right still sat Mrs. Forsyth, wiping her eyes, and smiling at him; and having opened the window, Julia came back to the table, looking at him with a curious, anxious intentness.

Then Mrs. Forsyth spoke.

"It has been too marvelous," she said. "I cannot thank you enough. I will do exactly as you, or, rather, as Denys, told me about the test; and if it is right, I will certainly leave my house to-morrow, taking my servants with me. It was so like Denys to think of them, too."

To Waghorn this meant nothing whatever; she might have been speaking Hebrew to him. But Julia, as she often did, answered for him.

"My brother knows nothing of what happened in his trance," she said.

Mrs. Forsyth got up.

"I will go straight home," she said. "I feel sure that I shall find just what Denys described. May I telephone to you about it at once?"

"Yes, pray do," said Julia. "We shall be most anxious to hear."

Richard got up to show her out, but having regained his feet, he staggered, and collapsed into his chair again. Mrs. Forsyth would not hear of his attempting to move just yet, and Julia, having taken her to the door, returned to her brother. It was usual for him, when the sitting was over, to feign great exhaustion, but the realism of his acting to-day had almost deceived her into thinking that something not yet experienced in their séances had occurred. Besides, he had said such strange, detailed, and extraordinary things. He was still where she had left him, and there could be no reason, now that they were alone, to keep up this feigned languor.

"Dick," she said, "what's the matter? And what happened? I could n't understand you at all. What did you say all those things for?"

He stirred and sat up.

"I'm better," he said. "And it is you who have to tell me what happened. I remember up to a certain point, and after that I lost consciousness completely. I remember thinking you were rocking the table, and I told you not to."

"Yes; but I was n't rocking it. I thought you were."

"Well, it was neither of us, then," said he. "I was vexed because Mrs. Gardner—Mrs. Forsyth had said she did n't want that sort of thing, and I was reading her as I never read any one before. I told her about the locket and the black hair, I got her brother's name, I got her name and her nickname Queenie. Then she asked if Denys could really come, and at that moment something began to take possession of me. I think I saw a light as usual over my breast, and I think I heard a tremendous rapping. Did you do either of those, or did they really happen?"

Julia stared at him a moment in silence.

"I did neither of those," she said; "but they happened. You must have pressed the breast-pocket switch and trod on the switch of the hammer."

He opened his coat.

"I had not got the breast-pocket switch," he said, "and I certainly did not tread on the hammer-switch."

Julia moved her chair a little closer to him.

"The hammer did not sound right," she said. "It was ten times louder than I have ever heard, and the light was quite different somehow. It was much brighter. I could see everything in the room quite distinctly. Go on, Dick."

"I can't. That's all I know until I came to, leaning over the table and bathed in perspiration. Tell me what happened."

"Dick, do you swear that is true?" she asked.

"Certainly I do. Go on."

"The light grew, and then faded again to a glimmer," she said, "and then suddenly you began to talk in a different voice: it was n't Mentu any longer. Mrs. Forsyth recognized it instantly, and I thought what wonderful luck it was that you should have hit on a voice that was like her brother's. Then it and she had a long talk; it must have lasted half an hour. They reminded each other how Denys had come to live with her and her husband on their father's death. He was only eighteen at the time and still at school. He was killed in a street accident, being run over by a bicycle two days before her birthday. All this was correct, and I thought I never heard you mind-reading so clearly and quickly; you hardly paused at all."

Julia was silent a moment.

"Dick, don't you really know what followed?" she asked.

"Not in the smallest degree," he said.

"Well, I thought you had gone mad," she said. "Mrs. Forsyth asked for a test, something that was not known to her, and never had been known to her, and you gave it instantly. You laughed, Denys laughed, the voice that spoke laughed, and told her to look behind the row of books beside the bed in the room that was still known as Denys's room, and she would find tucked away a little cardboard box with a gold safety-pin set with a pearl. He had bought it for her birthday present, and had hidden it there till the day came. He was killed, as I told you, two days before. And she, half sobbing, half laughing, said, 'O Denys, how deliciously secretive you used to be!’"

"And is that what she is going to telephone about?" asked Waghorn.

"Yes, Dick. What made you say all that?"

"I don't know, I tell you. I did n't know I said it. And was that all? She said something about leaving her house to-morrow and taking the servants. What did that mean?"

"You got very much distressed. You told her she was in danger. You said—" Julia paused again. "You said there was something coming, fire from the clouds, and a rending. You said her country house, which I gathered was down somewhere near Epping, would be burst open by the fire from the clouds to-morrow night. You made her promise to leave it and take the servants with her. You said her husband was away, which again is the case. And she asked if you meant Zeppelins, and you said you did."

Waghorn suddenly got up.

"‘You meant,' 'you said,' 'you did,’" he cried. "What if it's 'he meant.' 'he said,' 'he did'?"

"It's impossible," she said.

"Good Lord! what's impossible?" he asked. "What if I really am that which I have so long pretended to be? What if I am a medium, one who is the mysterious bridge between the quick and the dead? I'm frightened, but I'm bound to say I'm horribly interested. All that you tell me I said when I was in trance never came out of Mrs. Forsyth's mind. It was n't there. She did n't know about the pearl pin; she had never known it. Nor had I ever known it. Where did it come from, then? Only one person knew, the boy who died ten years ago."

"It yet remains to be seen whether it is true," said she. "We shall know in an hour or two, for she is motoring straight down to her house in the country."

"And if it turns out to be true, who was talking?" said he.

The sunset faded into the dusk of the clear May evening, and the two still sat there waiting for the telephone to inform them whether the door which, as Waghorn had said, had seemed so often ajar, and never quite closed, was now thrown open, and light and intelligence from another world had shone on his unconscious mind. Presently the tinkling summons came, and with an eager curiosity, below which lurked that fear of the unknown, the dim, mysterious land into which all human creatures pass across the closed frontier, he went to hear what news awaited him.

"Trunk call," said the operator, and he listened.

Soon the voice came through.

"Mr. Waghorn?" it said.


"I have found the box in exactly the place described. It contained what we had been told it would contain. I shall leave the house, taking all the servants away, to-morrow."

Two mornings later the papers contained news of a Zeppelin raid during the night on certain Eastern counties. The details given were vague and meager, and no names of towns or villages where bombs had been dropped were vouchsafed to the public. But later in the day private information came to Waghorn that Forsyth Hall, near Epping, had been completely wrecked. No lives, luckily, were lost, for the house was empty.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.