Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/The latest from Spirit-land

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It was an evening late in this last July. The place was a large drawing-room, or gallery, in one of the most fashionable localities of the west-end of London. Nine persons were present, five ladies and four gentlemen; of the latter, one was a clergyman, one a military officer of high rank, another was an artist, the fourth was a man famous in the scientific world. Altogether, the persons assembled might have been taken as fairly representing the rank and education of English society. It was about half-past nine; the room would have been totally dark, were it not for a faint glimmer that entered from without, through the tops of the partially closed windows. This glimmering of light was just sufficient to enable a few objects, such as the white dresses of the ladies, to be dimly visible. The moon rose later in the evening, but though none of the rays entered the room, the reflection from without in some slight degree lessened the darkness within.

The party were seated round a circular table, with their hands resting on its surface, as it was understood that being thus placed in reference to the piece of furniture, as well as in juxta-position with an individual who shall be mentioned again presently, would be the means of calling forth certain manifestations, both visible and audible, from the world of spirits. That the spirits of the departed, in fact, would then and there come visibly before the assembly, and communicate with them mouth to mouth, eye to eye, hand to hand, as one man to another. The individual through whose mediumship the spirits were enabled to manifest themselves, was a small weakly-looking woman of some twenty-five years of age, without anything that would indicate the Pythoness in her appearance; on the contrary, she seemed, in a peculiar degree, fragile, artless, and childlike.

The party had been seated at the table for some five minutes. Conversation had not been altogether suspended, but had been carried on in the low, suppressed muttering, and the abrupt sententious manner, that the present writer supposes is customary with persons waiting in momentary expectation of a spiritual visitation. One of the party (a gentleman) was extremely deaf; but, strange to say, he heard the sounds that announced the approach of the spirit visitors, as loud, or indeed louder, than any other of the assembly; indeed, sounds of spirit-footsteps on the table, that were quite inaudible to others, were loud and distinct to him. Presently the table began to sway, to rise, to fall, to tilt, to balance itself; and, finally, it gave out such a peal of raps, that, for sustained continuity, the writer can only compare to a violent shower of large hailstones on a skylight, or to the noise made by Perkins’s patent steam-gun. It was communicated to the assembly, through the medium, that these sounds were preliminary to something quite out of the way and special in the forthcoming manifestations, which were not to consist of mere sentences rapped out on the table, as is usually the case, but the visible presence of the spirits might confidently be expected, and each person was commanded (modern Pythonesses, in all cases, command imperatively) to look intently into the darkness of the long gallery, and state what she or he perceived. Each individual would seem to have received a separate and different visual impression. One young lady saw wreaths of such beautiful little stars; another saw winged forms, indistinct from their luminosity. The gentlemen were, for the most part, duller in their perception; but one of them, known as a man of considerable scientific acquirements, could clearly see through the walls of the house into a long vista of scenes beyond. The present writer was evidently the most dull, the most clod-like, the least spiritual (if not something much worse), of the whole party, as he looked above and around him where the others were gazing, but he could see nothing; “not on him was the tongue of flame,” but something infinitely less desirable; for, casting his eyes on a distant corner of the gallery, the glimmering light just enabled him to perceive, squatted on the ground, a hideous, crawling, reptile-like form, apparently gigantic in size, and distinguishable from the light colour of the carpet by its sooty blackness. The writer looked again and again; surely it must be a phantasy of his imagination, or an optical illusion. No—for there, sure enough, the fearful reptile was, at first stationary; but now crawling slowly along the carpet, with the slimy, gliding movement that one inevitably associates with those horridly obese monsters; now, it is to be hoped happily extinct, but which occupy such conspicuous situations at Sydenham.

The writer with some perturbation inquired of the fragile Pythoness if all the persons assembled experienced the same manifestations, and if all saw alike.

“No,” was the answer, “the good and glorious spirits only show themselves to the good and mentally elevated, and the dark and bad spirits to the low, the grovelling, the vile, and the unbelieving in spiritualism.”

Neither flattering nor agreeable this, however instructive it might be. The writer looked above and around in the vain hope of seeing a dim halo of glory, or at least one of the stars that the rest of the party were now seeing in such abundance, but not a spark, not the scintillation of one was discernible to him; but there on the carpet was the fearful crawling form now moved more in front of him, and apparently bent on making a circuit of the room. He would have risen to inspect it closely, but he felt fastened (no doubt spiritually) to his chair. Again he inquired of the Pythoness. He described his vision, and asked its import. His communication was received with an expression of surprise and terror. The form which he had described, and which no one could see but himself, was the lowest and most utterly vile of spiritual essences; it was but very seldom that it appeared; in the whole course of her experience the Pythoness had never before been in its presence, and (horrible to relate) it only appeared to persons whose moral condition at the time was most deplorable. Had he committed any great crime? The writer sought refuge from the interrogation in a “treacherous memory.” The case was a most critical one, and decisive measures must be at once adopted. She, the fragile, childlike Pythoness, would at once rise and contend personally with the powers of darkness. She spoke and was immediately struck down as if by an epileptic fit. She writhed, struggled, gasped, and then lay as dead. Suddenly she started to her feet with a bound, and with the action and gesticulation of a maniac strode across the dark gallery apostrophising at the top of her voice, and in an unknown tongue, the (it is presumed) said powers of darkness. She did not direct her steps to where the form was located, but to a distant part of the room. Strange to say, however, the hideous crawling thing disappeared the instant she rose from her chair. There could be no question on the subject. A moment before it was there—there, now it was not, it had gone like an exhalation. The Pythoness returned to her seat triumphant. She had, unseen by the assembly, contended with a whole troup of demons, and unaided had conquered, but the terrible conflict had exhausted her. She fell powerless and insensible, with her head on the shoulder of the person seated next to her. In a few moments she revived; she had been visited and comforted by her own guardian spirit, who had a message for the unfortunate writer, which was to be delivered through raps on the table, and confirmed by divers graspings, clutchings, and touchings from spirit hands on such parts of his person as might be placed under the piece of furniture. The raps came in due course as promised, as did the spirit graspings, clutchings, and touchings under the table upon the writer’s hands and legs. They occupied some three quarters of an hour in their enactment, and, as far as the writer could make out, the communication had no reference, nor was in the least appropriate to any mental, moral, or other condition in which he then happened to be; possibly he mistook their import, as his attention was disagreeably distracted by seeing the dark, reptile-like form glide slowly from behind a piece of furniture and make its way, not now to a distant part of the room, but actually and unmistakeably in the direction of the chair on which he was sitting. It came crawling slowly on, with the action and almost the look of a huge tortoise, and just as the above rapping and spirit-touching had commenced, had placed itself with about half its length hidden under the chair of the Pythoness. There it remained fixed and motionless for half an hour or more, during which the spirit communications were proceeding in full vigour both upon and under the table. Was it the familiar spirit of the Pythoness, or was it the arch-fiend himself in conflict with her? More than the ordinary stillness had prevailed amongst the company for ten minutes or more, partly in order to listen to the rapping on the table, and partly on account of an apparent swoon into which the medium seemed to have fallen. Suddenly the Pythoness bounded from her chair, uttering shriek upon shriek, till the whole house rang with the fearful noise, and in a moment more she lay screaming and raving on the floor.

It was apparent to every one that something unusual, and not at all to be spiritually accounted for, had occurred. Two or three ladies fainted away instanter, while the others ran for candles. In the meantime the hideous reptile-like form stood erect over his fallen victim, and the coming lights showed it to be transformed into an Italian gentleman, who had left the room at the commencement of the séance. He thus apostrophised his fallen enemy:

“I suspected you to be an impostor from the beginning. I re-entered the room after you saw me leave. I crept on my chest along the gallery for its entire length, not raising myself even on my elbows; when you rose and pretended to combat the powers of darkness, I got behind an ottoman; when you had seated yourself, I came out again and placed myself under your chair with my hand on the floor close by your foot, so that I could feel its every motion. The so-called raps on the table, every one of them, I felt your foot make by striking against the leg of your chair; it struck my hand at the same time. The spirit touches on your neighbour’s leg were likewise caused by your foot. At length I suddenly grasped hold of it; you filled the room with your screams; it was the first time you ever believed in spirits.”