Bright magic, p.17
Bright Magic, p.17Alfred Doblin
Not a word was spoken in the séance room, which had now been turned into a waiting room. Around the table, the assistant mediums bleated, cackled, and giggled, most likely occupied or possessed by a new set of spirits, who were apparently here as reporters.
Things dragged on for a long time in the side room. At first they could hear the medium’s soft, faltering voice, then (horrors) a slap and then another, a cry from Eveline, and then nothing—silence, deathly silence. Now it was on. The reporter spirits cackled eagerly.
What happened in there, while all of the co-mediums and some of the society members too (not the wakeful policeman, or Valley, on tenterhooks) were snoring deeply in the séance room, and one could hardly speak of a spiritualist session anymore—its serenity was more like that among the higher astral ranks—what happened in there?
As soon as the policeman, certain of victory, shut the door behind the furious Eveline and she found herself alone with Wiscott, grinning and nodding at her from his seat, she yanked him up by his jacket buttons and shook him back and forth. He tried to placate her. She gave him a couple of mighty slaps, which were heard in the next room, and when he asked her to calm down (nothing more), she drove him into a corner of the room with a series of thumps in the ribs, and there, with him literally up against the wall, their confrontation took place.
The voluptuous little creature Wiscott had before him was acting like a fury. She had no need to be transported to the spirit world to become one.
How did he have the nerve to attack her like that in front of those people? Full-bosomed lady? (He received another blow to the chest.) Voluptuous charms? Nudism? (Shoves in the stomach.) And her name? Nebeltrine!? (He turned away as the blows rained down.)
While crouching to present a smaller target, he answered: None of that was him, it was all the spirits.
At that she grabbed him by the hair and hit his head against the wall, and when he turned around, gave him a kick. Wiscott responded to all this with very soft squealing noises, which did nothing to affect the termagant. She was mad.
Then she took a step back, so that he could recover, but she didn’t let him get away; instead, she started in again: What was he thinking, bringing the pajamas? Didn’t he realize that that would necessarily incriminate them? Was he that much of an idiot?
“Incriminate me?” he grinned. “It was the spirits.”
She had had enough of his ears, those sensitive organs on either side of the human head. She crumpled the cartilaginous objects in her hands like paper. He went down again, onto his knees; she did not let go of his ears, and he crept along the floor.
She: “And you’re wearing his shirts, in broad daylight, in front of all those people.”
He: “They’re new silk shirts, Evie. No one will notice anything here.”
She: “You have enough shirts. I would have bought you some.”
He: “Why throw away money like that.”
She had let him go. She looked at him with tears in her eyes as he stood there rubbing his red ears and tugging at his jacket. She reached behind her for a chair and sat down. “Tom, we’re lost. Why did you do it?”
He pulled out his hand mirror and smoothed down his brown hair, which she had mussed. “Lost? I’d like to see that.”
“Why, why did you do it, Tom? What have I ever done to you? We should have run away a long time ago, or said the whole truth about how it happened.”
He grabbed her by the shoulder, looking anything but friendly. “Why did I do it? You have to ask? To give you a little warning. Evie. Do you deny you were sitting on that fat brewer’s lap when I came into the room and surprised you?”
“He had pulled me onto his lap. He was already drunk.”
“No excuses, Evie. He’s not the first man I’ve found you with like that, or close to it.”
“I’m not a nun and never said I was. I can’t lock myself up in jail. And if someone gives me presents, who am I accepting them for? Who gambles and bets all the time, me or you? Who comes to me every week and shows me his empty pockets? And, Tom, who paid all those hundreds of pounds for your sanatorium?”
He sat down on the table and covered his ears. Then he slumped and stared straight ahead, exhausted. He murmured, “I’ve had enough of this inanity. The strongest man in the world couldn’t take it. If I stay here one more week I’ll be ready for the madhouse.”
She tenderly took his hand, maternally stroked the cheeks still red from her slaps, and said, “Tom, I asked you over and over to give up this kind of work. Your nerves can’t take it, and right after the sanatorium too.”
He pushed her away, with a dark expression on his face. “The hardest thing to take is you, with your affairs. But now you’ve been punished, and as for your last sweetheart, you’ve sure lost him.”
“Tom, stop being silly.”
His crazy expression scared her.
“Come on, Tom, we have to get out of here. They’ll arrest us. Come on.”
He turned his face toward the door. “They’re all sitting there. Waiting for us, for the result of your interrogation, Nebeltrine.”
“Enough, please, Tom.”
“Good Mr. Valley is sweating blood. I confessed everything to him yesterday. He almost cried. I told him we wanted to vanish from the scene.”
With a gloomy smile, Wiscott showed her his wallet. It was stuffed full of money.
“All from Valley.”
The company at the table in the next room would have gone on snoring and snoozing until morning if some of them hadn’t been overcome with fear after such a long silence in the side room. The spirits, deceitful as they so often were, must have broken their pact and had taken justice into their own hands on the spot; it was all over, this was the terrible end of an encounter between this side and the beyond that had begun so splendidly.
They couldn’t stop themselves. They stood up and anxiously approached the closed door. The detective was more afraid than anyone—he could see his hopes going up in smoke.
When they stood at the door and heard nothing stirring within, they looked at one another, then someone gave a tug and opened the door.
The first in fell back with a scream.
The room was . . . empty.
No sign of Nebeltrine, nor of the brewer spirit, Schnurzel/Süffel, nor even of the medium. They had even kidnapped the medium, probably to use him in their future agitations against this side.
Everyone was so shaken and horrified that they did not even dare to sit in the chairs that the abducted might have touched. They found no blood in the room. Only the glimmer of a cigarette on the floor.
It was midnight. When they sounded the alarm, the landlord appeared, who incidentally seemed to want to lock up. They explained the situation.
Most of the people present were staring stupidly into space and had not yet freed themselves from the influence of certain spheres of the beyond. They growled in a high degree of spiritualization, bleated and cackled, some managed to croak and look shamefacedly around now and then, presumably for spirits.
This behavior made no impression whatsoever on the landlord. He was used to dealing with occulto-spiritualists.
He jovially explained to the gentlemen who had summoned him that they needn’t worry about the vanished parties. At least when it came to Wiscott and the floozy, he had seen them both in the lounge an hour before. No spirits were present. He would swear to that. The pair had been sitting as close together as can be and had downed several rounds of mulled wine and cognac. Finally, they had ordered a taxi and merrily made off. Valley asked if Mr. Wiscott had paid. The landlord grinned. “No, same as usual. He said it was on the society’s tab.”
When the landlord left, the president, who looked calm and fresh again despite the late hour, remarked, “Naturally, what this man said is all nonsense. We have no idea who sat there carousing in the restaurant as the medium and Nebeltrine.”
Weisskäse, the second-in-command, said, “It must be the
Valley: “They can take on different shapes, to fool people.”
The detective (a beginner in occult matters) was stunned. “Still, I sat the young lady down on that chair.”
Valley shrugged. “Well, you can be sure of one thing: She’s not there anymore. The medium has disappeared too.”
The detective, a beginner in spirito-occultism, as mentioned, stammered, “But they were drinking mulled wine and cognac downstairs.”
Valley, perfectly politely: “But to whom are you referring, my friend? To whom?”
The policeman could no longer make heads or tails of anything. He asked no more questions. He merely jingled the handcuffs uncertainly (as though trying to lure the criminal back, but she did not appear). Then he shook his head—if only to convince himself that it was still sitting on his shoulders, because it was spinning. He knew only that, this time too, his prospects of a permanent position would come to nothing.
The public took a lively interest in the case.
The co-mediums, who had not been translated and kidnapped, were found the next morning, when people wanted to question them, in a strange state. They were not in full command of their senses and talked drivel, for instance that they had to follow the instructions of a certain senior-ranking member of the beyond. One of the women told crazy stories about a mother-in-law, Nebbich, from Damascus, who had had all sorts of problems with one Omai-Omi, starting a few centuries ago.
What were people supposed to make of that? Valley had no comment. Weisskäse the huckster, as Valley’s spokesman, told the reporters streaming into the building, “The case is not as simple for us spiritualists as it is for advocates of so-called healthy common sense. Much of what this healthy common sense says seems doubtful and suspicious to us.”
“And vice versa,” murmured the reporters, scribbling in their notebooks.
Weisskäse: “The pair’s disappearance and the murder are indeed closely linked, in fact even more closely than the layman’s eye can see. Think of the mysterious side of the case, which hasn’t changed: the incident in the cemetery, the retrieval of the missing pajamas, etc. For us paranormal researchers the case stands as follows: The astral world played a role in this murder, in a way never before seen and not yet explained.”
“So that is your explanation of the murder and the disappearance?” the reporters asked, entirely straight-faced. They had been photographing Weisskäse in various poses during the interview. Other society members, insofar as they had returned to their senses that morning, added that these sessions were the first successful attempt at collaboration between this side and the beyond. They had learned vitally important things about the nature and way of life of astral beings. The problem on the other side was a lack of things to do. No one could stand it. The spirits had no diversions, because they had no bodies, and so they were forced to be lazy, indeed grow lazier and lazier. The devil finds work for idle hands. They grow capricious and deceitful there. Thus we mustn’t have any illusions about establishing a truly punctual and reliable system of transportation between here and the beyond.
The papers put out the news that same evening, under the headlines “Spiritualists Tricked” and “See You in the Beyond, Or in Jail.”
The vanished duo—the elegant gambler and the soubrette, Dutort—were traced to London two months later, when she brought him into a police station there, asking to be set free of him.
She told the following story:
He was her husband. They had been married for five years. He had many talents, but never put them to real use. He did all sorts of stupid things. He gambled, bet, and had let her support him for the past two years. And she had always been glad to do it.
But he was terribly jealous. Her career as a soubrette brought her into contact with all sorts of people, including gentlemen of course. He took it badly. As he did the occasional gifts she sometimes received, which she couldn’t refuse because he lost so much money gambling.
She had invited the deceased van Steen to have a glass of wine in her room one time—he had lived upstairs in the hotel, in the same wing as her.
She cried for several minutes when she came to this point in her very plausible-sounding report (at a police station in West London—Wiscott, meanwhile, sat silently in the corner as though the whole thing had nothing to do with him).
Then, she went on, her husband had surprised her with van Steen. At first, invited in by van Steen, he had drunk along with them, and they talked about this and that. He didn’t show any signs of anger, and she was glad he was behaving so well. Then—
“He has been sick since a car accident. All of a sudden it comes over him. What? He is not really there. He looks perfectly reasonable, it’s just that his gaze becomes strangely rigid and he purses his mouth over and over, which otherwise he never does. Then he talks crazy. That’s why I sent him to the sanatorium. Anyway, he started dancing with van Steen too, who thought it was fun, but I could see what was happening to Tom, and of course I also knew how jealous he could get. Right away I was so scared. But he danced with van Steen and talked all kinds of crazy nonsense and van Steen couldn’t stop laughing. Tom didn’t bat an eye. I just wanted us to leave. But van Steen was having so much fun, he thought Tom was simply drunk. And so they had to dance some more, and I had to join in, even though I didn’t like what Tom was doing, and then he gave me and van Steen such a swing and was so strong that I knocked over the table with the glasses and van Steen was flung against the stove.”
Again she stopped. She sobbed. Wiscott looked over at her, with furrowed brow; he was listening, but it was impossible to tell how much he understood.
She: “I don’t know what happened next. Van Steen was lying there. I was dazed myself. I thought, I have to get out of here as fast as I can, or something will happen. I ran to my room. Tom came after a while and sat with me a while. He came back to his senses too. Then he left.”
“And everything around the body?” the commissioner asked.
“But Tom didn’t know he was dead! He just told me, ‘He’s lying on the carpet. We’ll leave him there.’”
“So later, when he left your room, he went to van Steen’s mansion and broke in. And what about the broken window and torn curtains in the hotel?”
Wiscott, looking pale and incoherent, spoke up: “The spirits did that. He was lying there bleeding and still moving. Then they broke the window and took him.”
The careworn soubrette continued her statement: Wiscott was a ventriloquist and magician by profession. She could not accept any jobs herself, because she had to keep an eye on him. He has a screw loose, a spiritualist screw. He has conversations in the dark with a certain Depp, from Upper Egypt (“Does he know anyone named Depp?” the commissioner wanted to know. She: “God no! It’s all his imagination”), and with someone he calls the “senior dope from the upper ranks.” It frightened her.
They sent him to an asylum.
There he recovered from his spiritualist fits rather quickly. He took up his profession again under another name, despite having fallen victim to it himself, and referred everything that had taken place during his participation in the spiritualist sessions in E. to the realm of fiction, namely a tale produced by him. It had all been invented and arranged by him, he said. It had been very contre coeur for him to get involved in the van Steen affair, he said, and Eveline, his wife, had even warned him and tried to dissuade him. But when he saw how scared she was—about her reputation, her job—he decided to teach her a lesson. He wanted to make her squirm—naturally, he wanted to compromise her, punish her, and have his revenge. But now everything was fine between them. (“At least as far as I know,” he added with a smile and a shrug.)
His statements concerning the séances in E. sharply contradicted what the other participants had to say, of course. Mr. Valley, for instance, who incidentally had retreated back into simple postal deliveries limited entirely to th
“Which they probably often are,” the reporters said.
“Of course, just like everyone else. And the money that can be made with this gift corrupts many of them. But what does that prove about the genuine and convincing phenomena?”
And, let’s be honest: Wiscott’s explanations also contradict what we think ourselves.
For if we took those explanations seriously, all of our insights into the other side that we have only just gained would again be thrown into doubt: the incredible idleness and boredom that reigns there, the chronic atrophy the astral beings suffer from, their loss of memory and intelligence, resulting in great wisdom and refinement, which marks the character of the whole realm of the beyond and gives it its marvelous structure: the all-powerful blockheads at the very top, who no longer even know who they are (loss of individual personality), then the ranks of Depps, with Nulpe and the other dopes, and, in the lower depths, still close to our earth, the many bright figures unstoppably drawing away, such as Mrs. Nebbich, Omai-Omi the donkey driver’s mother-in-law, who still, after all these centuries, has to stick her nose into everything.
Bright Magic by Alfred Doblin / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes