Mr Tilly’s Séance is a short story by E. F. Benson. It was first published in Collected Works of E. F. Benson (1922).
Close to 6,000 words in length, Mr Tilly’s Séance is one of E. F. Benson’s longer ghost stories. It’s set in London, England and you probably won’t be surprised to learn the central character is an unfortunate soul called Mr Tilly.
Mr Tilly’s Séance is not in any way a scary story. It’s somewhat humorous but not funny enough to force the average reader to curl up their lips into a smile.
The story begins with Mr Tilly’s death. Ironically, he’s on his way to a seance when he falls into the road and flattened under the wheels of a traction engine.
Still adjusting to his new spiritual status, Mr Tilly decides to turn up at the seance anyway, where he discovers the skills of the spiritualist medium are not as good as he’d previously believed.
About E. F. Benson
Edward Frederic Benson (1867 — 1940) is probably best known for his six Mapp and Lucia books, but he was a very versatile writer who produced a large body of work, including several biographies.
Benson also wrote a number of ghost stories and the author H. P. Lovecraft was impressed enough by Benson’s work to mention him in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”
Mr Tilly’s Séance
by E. F. Benson
(Unabridged Online Text)
Mr Tilly had only the briefest moment for reflection, when, as he slipped and fell on the greasy wood pavement at Hyde Park Corner, which he was crossing at a smart trot, he saw the huge traction-engine with its grooved ponderous wheels towering high above him.
“Oh, dear! oh, dear!” he said petulantly, “it will certainly crush me quite flat, and I shan’t be able to be at Mrs Cumberbatch’s séance! Most provoking! A-ow!”
The words were hardly out of his mouth, when the first half of his horrid anticipations was thoroughly fulfilled. The heavy wheels passed over him from head to foot and flattened him completely out. Then the driver (too late) reversed his engine and passed over him again, and finally lost his head, whistled loudly and stopped. The policeman on duty at the corner turned quite faint at the sight of the catastrophe, but presently recovered sufficiently to hold up the traffic, and ran to see what on earth could be done. It was all so much “up” with Mr Tilly that the only thing possible was to get the hysterical engine-driver to move clear. Then the ambulance from the hospital was sent for, and Mr Tilly’s remains, detached with great difficulty from the road (so firmly had they been pressed into it), were reverently carried away into the mortuary.
Mr Tilly during this had experienced one moment’s excruciating pain, resembling the severest neuralgia as his head was ground beneath the wheel, but almost before he realised it, the pain was past, and he found himself, still rather dazed, floating or standing (he did not know which) in the middle of the road. There had been no break in his consciousness; he perfectly recollected slipping, and wondered how he had managed to save himself. He saw the arrested traffic, the policeman with white wan face making suggestions to the gibbering engine-driver, and he received the very puzzling impression that the traction engine was all mixed up with him. He had a sensation of red-hot coals and boiling water and rivets all around him, but yet no feeling of scalding or burning or confinement. He was, on the contrary, extremely comfortable, and had the most pleasant consciousness of buoyancy and freedom. Then the engine puffed and the wheels went round, and immediately, to his immense surprise, he perceived his own crushed remains, flat as a biscuit, lying on the roadway. He identified them for certain by his clothes, which he had put on for the first time that morning, and one patent leather boot which had escaped demolition.
“But what on earth has happened?” he said. “Here am I, and yet that poor pressed flower of arms and legs is me—or rather I—also. And how terribly upset the driver looks. Why, I do believe that I’ve been run over! It did hurt for a moment, now I come to think of it…. My good man, where are you shoving to? Don’t you see me?”
He addressed these two questions to the policeman, who appeared to walk right through him. But the man took no notice, and calmly came out on the other side: it was quite evident that he did not see him, or apprehend him in any way.
Mr Tilly was still feeling rather at sea amid these unusual occurrences, and there began to steal into his mind a glimpse of the fact which was so obvious to the crowd which formed an interested but respectful ring round his body. Men stood with bared heads; women screamed and looked away and looked back again.
“I really believe I’m dead,” said he. “That’s the only hypothesis which will cover the facts. But I must feel more certain of it before I do anything. Ah! Here they come with the ambulance to look at me. I must be terribly hurt, and yet I don’t feel hurt. I should feel hurt surely if I was hurt. I must be dead.”
Certainly it seemed the only thing for him to be, but he was far from realising it yet. A lane had been made through the crowd for the stretcher-bearers, and he found himself wincing when they began to detach him from the road.
“Oh, do take care!” he said. “That’s the sciatic nerve protruding there surely, isn’t it? A-ow! No, it didn’t hurt after all. My new clothes, too: I put them on to-day for the first time. What bad luck! Now you’re holding my leg upside down. Of course all my money comes out of my trouser pocket. And there’s my ticket for the séance; I must have that: I may use it after all.”
He tweaked it out of the fingers of the man who had picked it up, and laughed to see the expression of amazement on his face as the card suddenly vanished. That gave him something fresh to think about, and he pondered for a moment over some touch of association set up by it.
“I have it,” he thought. “It is clear that the moment I came into connection with that card, it became invisible. I’m invisible myself (of course to the grosser sense), and everything I hold becomes invisible. Most interesting! That accounts for the sudden appearances of small objects at a séance. The spirit has been holding them, and as long as he holds them they are invisible. Then he lets go, and there’s the flower or the spirit-photograph on the table. It accounts, too, for the sudden disappearances of such objects. The spirit has taken them, though the scoffers say that the medium has secreted them about his person. It is true that when searched he sometimes appears to have done so; but, after all, that may be a joke on the part of the spirit. Now, what am I to do with myself. Let me see, there’s the clock. It’s just half-past ten. All this has happened in a few minutes, for it was a quarter past when I left my house. Half-past ten now: what does that mean exactly? I used to know what it meant, but now it seems nonsense. Ten what? Hours, is it? What’s an hour?”
This was very puzzling. He felt that he used to know what an hour and a minute meant, but the perception of that, naturally enough, had ceased with his emergence from time and space into eternity. The conception of time was like some memory which, refusing to record itself on the consciousness, lies perdu in some dark corner of the brain, laughing at the efforts of the owner to ferret it out. While he still interrogated his mind over this lapsed perception, he found that space as well as time, had similarly grown obsolete for him, for he caught sight of his friend Miss Ida Soulsby, whom he knew was to be present at the séance for which he was bound, hurrying with bird-like steps down the pavement opposite. Forgetting for the moment that he was a disembodied spirit, he made the effort of will which in his past human existence would have set his legs in pursuit of her, and found that the effort of will alone was enough to place him at her side.
“My dear Miss Soulsby,” he said, “I was on my way to Mrs Cumberbatch’s house when I was knocked down and killed. It was far from unpleasant, a moment’s headache—”
So far his natural volubility had carried him before he recollected that he was invisible and inaudible to those still closed in by the muddy vesture of decay, and stopped short. But though it was clear that what he said was inaudible to Miss Soulsby’s rather large intelligent-looking ears, it seemed that some consciousness of his presence was conveyed to her finer sense, for she looked suddenly startled, a flush rose to her face, and he heard her murmur, “Very odd. I wonder why I received so vivid an impression of dear Teddy.”
That gave Mr Tilly a pleasant shock. He had long admired the lady, and here she was alluding to him in her supposed privacy as “dear Teddy.” That was followed by a momentary regret that he had been killed: he would have liked to have been possessed of this information before, and have pursued the primrose path of dalliance down which it seemed to lead. (His intentions, of course, would, as always, have been strictly honourable: the path of dalliance would have conducted them both, if she consented, to the altar, where the primroses would have been exchanged for orange blossom.) But his regret was quite short-lived; though the altar seemed inaccessible, the primrose path might still be open, for many of the spiritualistic circle in which he lived were on most affectionate terms with their spiritual guides and friends who, like himself, had passed over.
From a human point of view these innocent and even elevating flirtations had always seemed to him rather bloodless; but now, looking on them from the far side, he saw how charming they were, for they gave him the sense of still having a place and an identity in the world he had just quitted. He pressed Miss Ida’s hand (or rather put himself into the spiritual condition of so doing), and could vaguely feel that it had some hint of warmth and solidity about it. This was gratifying, for it showed that though he had passed out of the material plane, he could still be in touch with it. Still more gratifying was it to observe that a pleased and secret smile overspread Miss Ida’s fine features as he gave this token of his presence: perhaps she only smiled at her own thoughts, but in any case it was he who had inspired them. Encouraged by this, he indulged in a slightly more intimate token of affection, and permitted himself a respectful salute, and saw that he had gone too far, for she said to herself, “Hush, hush!” and quickened her pace, as if to leave these amorous thoughts behind.
He felt that he was beginning to adjust himself to the new conditions in which he would now live, or, at any rate, was getting some sort of inkling as to what they were. Time existed no more for him, nor yet did space, since the wish to be at Miss Ida’s side had instantly transported him there, and with a view to testing this further he wished himself back in his flat. As swiftly as the change of scene in a cinematograph show he found himself there, and perceived that the news of his death must have reached his servants, for his cook and parlour-maid with excited faces, were talking over the event.
“Poor little gentleman,” said his cook. “It seems a shame it does. He never hurt a fly, and to think of one of those great engines laying him out flat. I hope they’ll take him to the cemetery from the hospital: I never could bear a corpse in the house.”
The great strapping parlour-maid tossed her head.
“Well, I’m not sure that it doesn’t serve him right,” she observed. “Always messing about with spirits he was, and the knockings and concertinas was awful sometimes when I’ve been laying out supper in the dining-room. Now perhaps he’ll come himself and visit the rest of the loonies. But I’m sorry all the same. A less troublesome little gentleman never stepped. Always pleasant, too, and wages paid to the day.”
These regretful comments and encomiums were something of a shock to Mr Tilly. He had imagined that his excellent servants regarded him with a respectful affection, as befitted some sort of demigod, and the rôle of the poor little gentleman was not at all to his mind. This revelation of their true estimate of him, although what they thought of him could no longer have the smallest significance, irritated him profoundly.
“I never heard such impertinence,” he said (so he thought) quite out loud, and still intensely earth-bound, was astonished to see that they had no perception whatever of his presence. He raised his voice, replete with extreme irony, and addressed his cook.
“You may reserve your criticism on my character for your saucepans,” he said. “They will no doubt appreciate them. As regards the arrangements for my funeral, I have already provided for them in my will, and do not propose to consult your convenience. At present—”
“Lor’!” said Mrs Inglis, “I declare I can almost hear his voice, poor little fellow. Husky it was, as if he would do better by clearing his throat. I suppose I’d best be making a black bow to my cap. His lawyers and what not will be here presently.”
Mr Tilly had no sympathy with this suggestion. He was immensely conscious of being quite alive, and the idea of his servants behaving as if he were dead, especially after the way in which they had spoken about him, was very vexing. He wanted to give them some striking evidence of his presence and his activity, and he banged his hand angrily on the dining-room table, from which the breakfast equipage had not yet been cleared. Three tremendous blows he gave it, and was rejoiced to see that his parlour-maid looked startled. Mrs Inglis’s face remained perfectly placid.
“Why, if I didn’t hear a sort of rapping sound,” said Miss Talton. “Where did it come from?”
“Nonsense! You’ve the jumps, dear,” said Mrs Inglis, picking up a remaining rasher of bacon on a fork, and putting it into her capacious mouth.
Mr Tilly was delighted at making any impression at all on either of these impercipient females.
“Talton!” he called at the top of his voice.
“Why, what’s that?” said Talton. “Almost hear his voice, do you say, Mrs Inglis? I declare I did hear his voice then.”
“A pack o’ nonsense, dear,” said Mrs Inglis placidly. “That’s a prime bit of bacon, and there’s a good cut of it left. Why, you’re all of a tremble! It’s your imagination.”
Suddenly it struck Mr Tilly that he might be employing himself much better than, with such extreme exertion, managing to convey so slight a hint of his presence to his parlour-maid, and that the séance at the house of the medium, Mrs Cumberbatch, would afford him much easier opportunities of getting through to the earth-plane again. He gave a couple more thumps to the table and, wishing himself at Mrs Cumberbatch’s, nearly a mile away, scarcely heard the faint scream of Talton at the sound of his blows before he found himself in West Norfolk Street.
He knew the house well, and went straight to the drawing-room, which was the scene of the séances he had so often and so eagerly attended. Mrs Cumberbatch, who had a long spoon-shaped face, had already pulled down the blinds, leaving the room in total darkness except for the glimmer of the night-light which, under a shade of ruby-glass, stood on the chimney-piece in front of the coloured photograph of Cardinal Newman. Round the table were seated Miss Ida Soulsby, Mr and Mrs Meriott (who paid their guineas at least twice a week in order to consult their spiritual guide Abibel and received mysterious advice about their indigestion and investments), and Sir John Plaice, who was much interested in learning the details of his previous incarnation as a Chaldean priest, completed the circle. His guide, who revealed to him his sacerdotal career, was playfully called Mespot. Naturally many other spirits visited them, for Miss Soulsby had no less than three guides in her spiritual household, Sapphire, Semiramis, and Sweet William, while Napoleon and Plato were not infrequent guests. Cardinal Newman, too, was a great favourite, and they encouraged his presence by the singing in unison of “Lead, kindly Light”: he could hardly ever resist that.
Mr Tilly observed with pleasure that there was a vacant seat by the table which no doubt had been placed there for him. As he entered, Mrs Cumberbatch peered at her watch.
“Eleven o’clock already,” she said, “and Mr Tilly is not here yet. I wonder what can have kept him. What shall we do, dear friends? Abibel gets very impatient sometimes if we keep him waiting.”
Mr and Mrs Meriott were getting impatient too, for he terribly wanted to ask about Mexican oils, and she had a very vexing heartburn.
“And Mespot doesn’t like waiting either,” said Sir John, jealous for the prestige of his protector, “not to mention Sweet William.”
Miss Soulsby gave a little silvery laugh.
“Oh, but my Sweet William’s so good and kind,” she said; “besides, I have a feeling, quite a psychic feeling, Mrs Cumberbatch, that Mr Tilly is very close.”
“So I am,” said Mr Tilly.
“Indeed, as I walked here,” continued Miss Soulsby, “I felt that Mr Tilly was somewhere quite close to me. Dear me, what’s that?”
Mr Tilly was so delighted at being sensed, that he could not resist giving a tremendous rap on the table, in a sort of pleased applause. Mrs Cumberbatch heard it too.
“I’m sure that’s Abibel come to tell us that he is ready,” she said. “I know Abibel’s knock. A little patience, Abibel. Let’s give Mr Tilly three minutes more and then begin. Perhaps, if we put up the blinds, Abibel will understand we haven’t begun.”
This was done, and Miss Soulsby glided to the window, in order to make known Mr Tilly’s approach, for he always came along the opposite pavement and crossed over by the little island in the river of traffic. There was evidently some lately published news, for the readers of early editions were busy, and she caught sight of one of the advertisement-boards bearing in large letters the announcement of a terrible accident at Hyde Park Corner. She drew in her breath with a hissing sound and turned away, unwilling to have her psychic tranquillity upset by the intrusion of painful incidents. But M. Tilly, who had followed her to the window and saw what she had seen, could hardly restrain a spiritual whoop of exultation.
“Why, it’s all about me!” he said. “Such large letters, too. Very gratifying. Subsequent editions will no doubt contain my name.”
He gave another loud rap to call attention to himself, and Mrs Cumberbatch, sitting down in her antique chair which had once belonged to Madame Blavatsky, again heard.
“Well, if that isn’t Abibel again,” she said. “Be quiet, naughty. Perhaps we had better begin.”
She recited the usual invocation to guides and angels, and leaned back in her chair. Presently she began to twitch and mutter, and shortly afterwards with several loud snorts, relapsed into cataleptic immobility. There she lay, stiff as a poker, a port of call, so to speak, for any voyaging intelligence. With pleased anticipation Mr Tilly awaited their coming. How gratifying if Napoleon, with whom he had so often talked, recognised him and said, “Pleased to see you, Mr Tilly. I perceive you have joined us …” The room was dark except for the ruby-shaded lamp in front of Cardinal Newman, but to Mr Tilly’s emancipated perceptions the withdrawal of mere material light made no difference, and he idly wondered why it was generally supposed that disembodied spirits like himself produced their most powerful effects in the dark. He could not imagine the reason for that, and, what puzzled him still more, there was not to his spiritual perception any sign of those colleagues of his (for so he might now call them) who usually attended Mrs Cumberbatch’s séances in such gratifying numbers. Though she had been moaning and muttering a long time now, Mr Tilly was in no-way conscious of the presence of Abibel and Sweet William and Sapphire and Napoleon. “They ought to be here by now,” he said to himself.
But while he still wondered at their absence, he saw to his amazed disgust that the medium’s hand, now covered with a black glove, and thus invisible to ordinary human vision in the darkness, was groping about the table and clearly searching for the megaphone-trumpet which lay there. He found that he could read her mind with the same ease, though far less satisfaction, as he had read Miss Ida’s half an hour ago, and knew that she was intending to apply the trumpet to her own mouth and pretend to be Abibel or Semiramis or somebody, whereas she affirmed that she never touched the trumpet herself. Much shocked at this, he snatched up the trumpet himself, and observed that she was not in trance at all, for she opened her sharp black eyes, which always reminded him of buttons covered with American cloth, and gave a great gasp.
“Why, Mr Tilly!” she said. “On the spiritual plane too!”
The rest of the circle was now singing “Lead, kindly Light” in order to encourage Cardinal Newman, and this conversation was conducted under cover of the hoarse crooning voices. But Mr Tilly had the feeling that though Mrs Cumberbatch saw and heard him as clearly as he saw her, he was quite imperceptible to the others.
“Yes, I’ve been killed,” he said, “and I want to get into touch with the material world. That’s why I came here. But I want to get into touch with other spirits too, and surely Abibel or Mespot ought to be here by this time.”
He received no answer, and her eyes fell before his like those of a detected charlatan. A terrible suspicion invaded his mind.
“What? Are you a fraud, Mrs Cumberbatch?” he asked. “Oh, for shame! Think of all the guineas I have paid you.”
“You shall have them all back,” said Mrs Cumberbatch. “But don’t tell of me.”
She began to whimper, and he remembered that she often made that sort of sniffling noise when Abibel was taking possession of her.
“That usually means that Abibel is coming,” he said, with withering sarcasm. “Come along, Abibel: we’re waiting.”
“Give me the trumpet,” whispered the miserable medium. “Oh, please give me the trumpet!”
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” said Mr Tilly indignantly. “I would sooner use it myself.”
She gave a sob of relief.
“Oh do, Mr Tilly!” she said. “What a wonderful idea! It will be most interesting to everybody to hear you talk just after you’ve been killed and before they know. It would be the making of me! And I’m not a fraud, at least not altogether. I do have spiritual perceptions sometimes; spirits do communicate through me. And when they won’t come through it’s a dreadful temptation to a poor woman to—to supplement them by human agency. And how could I be seeing and hearing you now, and be able to talk to you—so pleasantly, I’m sure—if I hadn’t super-normal powers? You’ve been killed, so you assure me, and yet I can see and hear you quite plainly. Where did it happen, may I ask, if it’s not a painful subject?”
“Hyde Park Corner, half an hour ago,” said Mr Tilly. “No, it only hurt for a moment, thanks. But about your other suggestion—”
While the third verse of “Lead, kindly Light” was going on, Mr Tilly applied his mind to this difficult situation. It was quite true that if Mrs Cumberbatch had no power of communication with the unseen she could not possibly have seen him. But she evidently had, and had heard him too, for their conversation had certainly been conducted on the spirit-plane, with perfect lucidity. Naturally, now that he was a genuine spirit, he did not want to be mixed up in fraudulent mediumship, for he felt that such a thing would seriously compromise him on the other side, where, probably, it was widely known that Mrs Cumberbatch was a person to be avoided. But, on the other hand, having so soon found a medium through whom he could communicate with his friends, it was hard to take a high moral view, and say that he would have nothing whatever to do with her.
“I don’t know if I trust you,” he said. “I shouldn’t have a moment’s peace if I thought that you would be sending all sorts of bogus messages from me to the circle, which I wasn’t responsible for at all. You’ve done it with Abibel and Mespot. How can I know that when I don’t choose to communicate through you, you won’t make up all sorts of piffle on your own account?”
She positively squirmed in her chair.
“Oh, I’ll turn over a new leaf,” she said. “I will leave all that sort of thing behind me. And I am a medium. Look at me! Aren’t I more real to you than any of the others? Don’t I belong to your plane in a way that none of the others do? I may be occasionally fraudulent, and I can no more get Napoleon here than I can fly, but I’m genuine as well. Oh, Mr Tilly, be indulgent to us poor human creatures! It isn’t so long since you were one of us yourself.”
The mention of Napoleon, with the information that Mrs Cumberbatch had never been controlled by that great creature, wounded Mr Tilly again. Often in this darkened room he had held long colloquies with him, and Napoleon had given him most interesting details of his life on St. Helena, which, so Mr Tilly had found, were often borne out by Lord Rosebery’s pleasant volume The Last Phase. But now the whole thing wore a more sinister aspect, and suspicion as solid as certainty bumped against his mind.
“Confess!” he said. “Where did you get all that Napoleon talk from? You told us you had never read Lord Rosebery’s book, and allowed us to look through your library to see that it wasn’t there. Be honest for once, Mrs Cumberbatch.”
She suppressed a sob.
“I will,” she said. “The book was there all the time. I put it into an old cover called Elegant Extracts. But I’m not wholly a fraud. We’re talking together, you a spirit and I a mortal female. They can’t hear us talk. But only look at me, and you’ll see. You can talk to them through me, if you’ll only be so kind. I don’t often get in touch with a genuine spirit like yourself.”
Mr Tilly glanced at the other sitters and then back to the medium, who, to keep the others interested, was making weird gurgling noises like an undervitalised siphon. Certainly she was far clearer to him than were the others, and her argument that she was able to see and hear him had great weight. And then a new and curious perception came to him. Her mind seemed spread out before him like a pool of slightly muddy water, and he figured himself as standing on a header-board above it, perfectly able, if he chose, to immerse himself in it. The objection to so doing was its muddiness, its materiality; the reason for so doing was that he felt that then he would be able to be heard by the others, possibly to be seen by them, certainly to come into touch with them. As it was, the loudest bangs on the table were only faintly perceptible.
“I’m beginning to understand,” he said.
“Oh, Mr Tilly! Just jump in like a kind good spirit,” she said. “Make your own test-conditions. Put your hand over my mouth to make sure that I’m not speaking, and keep hold of the trumpet.”
“And you’ll promise not to cheat any more?” he asked.
He made up his mind.
“All right then,” he said, and, so to speak, dived into her mind.
He experienced the oddest sensation. It was like passing out of some fine, sunny air into the stuffiest of unventilated rooms. Space and time closed over him again: his head swam, his eyes were heavy. Then, with the trumpet in one hand, he laid the other firmly over her mouth. Looking round, he saw that the room seemed almost completely dark, but that the outline of the figures sitting round the table had vastly gained in solidity.
“Here I am!” he said briskly.
Miss Soulsby gave a startled exclamation.
“That’s Mr Tilly’s voice!” she whispered.
“Why, of course it is,” said Mr Tilly. “I’ve just passed over at Hyde Park Corner under a traction engine.”
He felt the dead weight of the medium’s mind, her conventional conceptions, her mild, unreal piety pressing in on him from all sides, stifling and confusing him. Whatever he said had to pass through muddy water.
“There’s a wonderful feeling of joy and lightness,” he said. “I can’t tell you of the sunshine and happiness. We’re all very busy and active, helping others. And it’s such a pleasure, dear friends, to be able to get into touch with you all again. Death is not death: it is the gate of life.”
He broke off suddenly.
“Oh, I can’t stand this,” he said to the medium. “You make me talk such twaddle. Do get your stupid mind out of the way. Can’t we do anything in which you won’t interfere with me so much?”
“Can you give us some spirit lights round the room?” suggested Mrs Cumberbatch in a sleepy voice. “You have come through beautifully, Mr Tilly. It’s too dear of you!”
“You’re sure you haven’t arranged some phosphorescent patches already?” asked Mr Tilly suspiciously.
“Yes, there are one or two near the chimney-piece,” said Mrs Cumberbatch, “but none anywhere else. Dear Mr Tilly, I swear there are not. Just give us a nice star with long rays on the ceiling!”
Mr Tilly was the most good-natured of men, always willing to help an unattractive female in distress, and whispering to her, “I shall require the phosphorescent patches to be given into my hands after the séance,” he proceeded, by the mere effort of his imagination, to light a beautiful big star with red and violet rays on the ceiling. Of course it was not nearly as brilliant as his own conception of it, for its light had to pass through the opacity of the medium’s mind, but it was still a most striking object, and elicited gasps of applause from the company. To enhance the effect of it he intoned a few very pretty lines about a star by Adelaide Anne Procter, whose poems had always seemed to him to emanate from the topmost peak of Parnassus.
“Oh, thank you, Mr Tilly!” whispered the medium. “It was lovely! Would a photograph of it be permitted on some future occasion, if you would be so kind as to reproduce it again?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Mr Tilly irritably. “I want to get out. I’m very hot and uncomfortable. And it’s all so cheap.”
“Cheap?” ejaculated Mrs Cumberbatch. “Why, there’s not a medium in London whose future wouldn’t be made by a real genuine star like that, say, twice a week.”
“But I wasn’t run over in order that I might make the fortune of mediums,” said Mr Tilly. “I want to go: it’s all rather degrading. And I want to see something of my new world. I don’t know what it’s like yet.”
“Oh, but, Mr Tilly,” said she. “You told us lovely things about it, how busy and happy you were.”
“No, I didn’t. It was you who said that, at least it was you who put it into my head.”
Even as he wished, he found himself emerging from the dull waters of Mrs Cumberbatch’s mind.
“There’s the whole new world waiting for me,” he said. “I must go and see it. I’ll come back and tell you, for it must be full of marvellous revelations.”
Suddenly he felt the hopelessness of it. There was that thick fluid of materiality to pierce, and, as it dripped off him again, he began to see that nothing of that fine rare quality of life which he had just begun to experience, could penetrate these opacities. That was why, perhaps, all that thus came across from the spirit-world, was so stupid, so banal. They, of whom he now was one, could tap on furniture, could light stars, could abound with commonplace, could read as in a book the mind of medium or sitters, but nothing more. They had to pass into the region of gross perceptions, in order to be seen of blind eyes and be heard of deaf ears.
Mrs Cumberbatch stirred.
“The power is failing,” she said, in a deep voice, which Mr Tilly felt was meant to imitate his own. “I must leave you now, dear friends—”
He felt much exasperated.
“The power isn’t failing,” he shouted. “It wasn’t I who said that.”
But he had emerged too far, and perceived that nobody except the medium heard him.
“Oh, don’t be vexed, Mr Tilly,” she said. “That’s only a formula. But you’re leaving us very soon. Not time for just one materialisation? They are more convincing than anything to most inquirers.”
“Not one,” said he. “You don’t understand how stifling it is even to speak through you and make stars. But I’ll come back as soon as I find there’s anything new that I can get through to you. What’s the use of my repeating all that stale stuff about being busy and happy? They’ve been told that often enough already. Besides, I have got to see if it’s true. Good-bye: don’t cheat any more.”
He dropped his card of admittance to the séance on the table and heard murmurs of excitement as he floated off.
The news of the wonderful star, and the presence of Mr Tilly at the séance within half an hour of his death, which at the time was unknown to any of the sitters, spread swiftly through spiritualistic circles. The Psychical Research Society sent investigators to take independent evidence from all those present, but were inclined to attribute the occurrence to a subtle mixture of thought-transference and unconscious visual impression, when they heard that Miss Soulsby had, a few minutes previously, seen a news-board in the street outside recording the accident at Hyde Park Corner. This explanation was rather elaborate, for it postulated that Miss Soulsby, thinking of Mr Tilly’s non-arrival, had combined that with the accident at Hyde Park Corner, and had probably (though unconsciously) seen the name of the victim on another news-board and had transferred the whole by telepathy to the mind of the medium. As for the star on the ceiling, though they could not account for it, they certainly found remains of phosphorescent paint on the panels of the wall above the chimney-piece, and came to the conclusion that the star had been produced by some similar contrivance. So they rejected the whole thing, which was a pity, since, for once, the phenomena were absolutely genuine.
Miss Soulsby continued to be a constant attendant at Mrs Cumberbatch’s séance, but never experienced the presence of Mr Tilly again. On that the reader may put any interpretation he pleases. It looks to me somewhat as if he had found something else to do.
Edward Frederic Benson (1867 — 1940)