UNHAPPY MEDIUM

(a Daisy Dalrymple mystery story)

Carola Dunn

"A séance?" Daisy exclaimed. "I didn't think you believed in all that tommy-rot."

"I don't," Lucy said languidly, locking the door of her mews studio behind her. "Absolute eye-wash, and too, too tedious, darling! But this one should be rather a lark. Actually, Binkie asked me to trot along to keep an eye on his aunt, Lady Ormerod."

"It doesn't sound like much of a lark." Daisy led the way across the tiny courtyard garden to the back door of the ­bijou­ residence she shared with her photographer friend. "Lady Ormerod's the most fearfully depressing female."

"That's just the point. She's been that way ever since Binkie's cousin Jerome was killed in the trenches."

"Her only son, wasn't he?"

"Yes, and in her eyes daughters definitely play second fiddle," Lucy said tartly.

"She pulled herself together enough to do a couple of seasons in town and marry them off," Daisy pointed out.

"Only ­just­ enough. Now she hasn't even got that to take her mind off Jerome. Of course one is sorry and all that, but after all, other people have it worse. You lost your fiancé and your only brother in the Wa,r and your father soon after, and you haven't gone around for the last five years looking like the middle of a wet week."

"Keep a stiff upper lip," Daisy said ironically, trying not to remember the first few days, months, even years.

"Well, Lady O not only doesn't want to hear about stiff upper lips, she spends simply pots of money trying to communicate with Jerome through those frightful mediums."

"Lord Ormerod must be a bit peeved."

"More than a bit. He called in one of those Psychical Research johnnies to investigate the last psychic Lady Ormerod patronized. She was arrested for fraud, but it doesn't seem to have put Lady O off in the slightest. I think there are a couple of digestives in the tin." They were in the kitchen by now, and Lucy was at the sink, filling the kettle for tea. Their daily, Mrs. Potter, went home at four.

Daisy set down the Royal Worcester cups and saucers on the well-scrubbed kitchen table and reached for the biscuit tin. "Aren't there any choccy biccies left?"

"No, and it was you who ate them. ­Some­ of us watch our figures, darling."

With an envious glance at Lucy's boyish shape, sleekly elegant in her low-waisted, mid-calf-length voile frock, Daisy sighed. It was no use feeling guilty. However hard she dieted, she would never be straight up and down. All she could do was wait for hips and bosoms to come back into fashion.

"These have gone soft." She took a digestive biscuit anyway, nibbling as she sat down. "So Lady O has found a new medium to put her in touch with Jerome?"

"Madame Vasilieva. The second consultation is tomorrow evening, and Binkie says his uncle has arranged for the scientific chappie to attend. He hopes seeing the woman exposed as a charlatan right before her eyes will disillusion Lady O. Binkie's afraid she may be a bit upset, though."

"I should jolly well think so," Daisy said, her opinion of the strong, silent Lord Gerald Bincombe's sensitivity soaring, "if she's convinced she's been talking to her dead son."

"She is. She's obsessed with it. Binkie has a feeling she may be heading for a nervous breakdown. He's rather fond of her, and he thinks she ought to have a woman's support when the new psychic is unmasked, but Lord Ormerod has forbidden the family to go, so he asked me to. Be a sport, darling, and come with me."

"Oh, right-o." It sounded less and less like a lark, but Lady Ormerod might need more sympathy than she was likely to get from Lucy. "Where is it?"

"Maida Vale." Lucy grimaced. "Too frightfully dreary, but Binkie will stand us a taxi. I'm going to take the new camera I bought at the Kodak place in Regent Street. It's small enough to hide in my handbag, and I'd hate to miss a chance to photograph an apparition. Maybe you'll get an article out of the unmasking."

"Now that's a spiffing notion!" Daisy said with enthusiasm. "The whole beastly business is in the news at the moment, with Houdini's exposés of just how the mediums create their effects. I shan't mind adding my mite to bring down the rotters who exploit other people's sorrows."

~ ~ ~

The setting sun painted the smoky sky an angry crimson as the motor-taxi dropped Daisy and Lucy in a drab suburban street lined with semi-detached villas.

"The Laurels," Daisy read on the gate, as Lucy paid the taxi-driver. "Trite, but at least appropriate."

She regarded the high evergreen hedge with a jaundiced eye. Already the shiny new leaves of early summer had gathered a dingy film of city soot. It looked a fitting place for all sorts of horrid mysteries.

Not that anything a medium could produce, from ectoplasm to levitation, was a mystery to Daisy any longer. A visit to the Chelsea Free Library had produced Harry Houdini's recent book, ­Miracle-Mongers and Their Methods­. In the ­Times­ and ­Manchester Guardian­ files, she found newspaper reports of discredited and confessed frauds. The only thing still capable of astonishing her was how otherwise intelligent people allowed themselves to be taken in.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the supremely rational Sherlock Holmes, was not merely a firm believer but a proselytiser. He remained convinced his friend, Houdini, performed his feats by psychic means, even after the magician explained his methods!

What struck Daisy most was the meaningless triviality of most phenomena. Why should the dead bother return from beyond the veil simply to make knocking noises, move a table, or play a few notes on an accordion? The voices and automatic writing tended to produce pure drivel, or garbled, rambling messages at best, as open to interpretation as the Oracle at Delphi.

If the spirits really wanted to communicate, surely they'd do better than that?

Adding to Daisy's disillusionment was the fact that almost every aspect of the subject had been written about extensively. The only opening she found for a fresh point of view was to portray the grief of those forced to acknowledge that the manifestations of their dead loved ones were nothing but trickery.

And that, she felt, would exploit their grief as surely as did the crooked mediums. In particular, she could not do it to Lady Ormerod, whom she had come to comfort.

"Here's Lady Ormerod," Lucy said as a gleaming silver-grey Isotta Fraschini, chauffeur-driven, drew up at the curb.

"Does she know we're coming?"

"Yes, Binkie asked her to take us in with her, in case they wouldn't let us attend a private sitting otherwise. Not without paying through the nose, anyway. Remember we're just interested observers."

"Right-o." Daisy wanted to ask if Lucy knew how the Psychical Research man intended to sneak in, but Lady Ormerod stepped down from the motor and greeted them.

In their alter egos as, respectively, daughter of a viscount and granddaughter of an earl, Daisy and Lucy were distantly acquainted with Lady Ormerod. A tall, gaunt woman, clad in unrelieved black draperies with a black veil over her face, she drooped. That was the only word for it, Daisy decided. She drooped along the short garden path and stood drooping as they waited for the door-bell to be answered, whereupon she drooped into the house.

"I have brought friends," Lady Ormerod told the tall, fleshy man in evening dress who admitted them. "I hope their presence will not discommode Madame Vasilieva?"

He bowed. "My wife is always happy to accommodate believers, milady," he said suavely, in a deep, sonorous, accented voice. The accent sounded Russian to Daisy—unless she was just influenced by the medium's name, for somehow it did not quite ring true.

"Miss Fotheringay and Miss Dalrymple."

He bowed again as Daisy followed Lucy into a commonplace entrance hall such as might be found in any of thousands of small, middle-class suburban houses.

At least, it would have been had not the wall opposite the hall table been hung with far from commonplace photographs. Each showed a woman with masses of black hair, her eyes closed, and hovering above her one or two misty faces. Daisy recognized the late czar of Russia and the Czarina Alexandra in one. Another had Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, and a third Queen Elizabeth, dead centuries before the invention of photography.

Lucy looked at them and gave a quiet snort. "I could fake those," she muttered to Daisy.

"Hush!"

At the last moment, a small, nondescript man in a bowler hat and a baggy suit slipped in behind them. Removal of the bowler revealed thinning grey hair and steel-rimmed spectacles with thick lenses which effectively hid his eyes. The investigator from the Society for Psychical Research, Daisy guessed, glancing sidelong to avoid drawing attention to him.

She had read about the Society. For the most part, the members were not, as she had assumed, sceptics out to show up Spiritualism as sheer hocus-pocus. On the contrary, they were would-be believers. Their merciless denunciations of fraudulent mediums sprang from their eagerness to discover true psychics.

 The little man made no attempt to introduce himself, and no one took any notice of him. Presumably Vasiliev assumed he was one of Lady Ormerod's friends, and her ladyship thought he belonged to the medium's entourage.

Vasiliev ushered them towards the back of the house. He moved with a lightness which belied his bulk and reminded Daisy of her mountainous friend, Detective Sergeant Tring. As with the sergeant, the result was a feeling of leashed energy, of power held in check, an uncomfortable feeling when the man responsible was not on the side of the angels.

He showed them into a smallish parlour. The furniture consisted solely of a number of straight chairs set against the walls, which were hung with midnight-blue plush curtains. A thick carpet of the same shade covered the floor, and the ceiling was painted to match. A central electric light fixture was turned off. The only light came from the twilight sky outside french windows leading to a narrow, straggly lawn surrounded by more high laurel hedges.

Despite herself, Daisy shivered. The sinister gloom was impressive—and no doubt intended to impress.

The curtains could conceal any amount of skullduggery, she realized. Against the dark blue, black threads used to suspend objects in midair and telescoping rods for moving them about would be invisible. The carpet would deaden the sound of footsteps, allowing spirits to glide silently about the room in their white gauze draperies dyed with luminous paint.

The will to believe would do the rest. That was really the only frightening thing.

A woman was already present in the room, sitting on one of the chairs. A pudding-faced, mousy, middle-aged creature in dark grey, with wispy hair escaping from beneath a black cloche hat, she gave an uncertain smile as the others entered.

Vasiliev gestured towards her. "Mrs. Baines also has a loved one on the other side. She will join us, if your ladyship has no objection."

"None, as long as Madame concentrates on trying to contact my son first," said Lady Ormerod with a sort of desperate belligerence.

"Naturally, milady. Will you be seated? My wife is in her cabinet preparing herself for the trance. Excuse me while I go to see if she is ready."

He slipped out between the curtains opposite the french window. Daisy guessed that they partitioned the room from another at the front of the house. Most convenient for ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night. She was glad spiritualists didn't go in for long-leggity beasties.

"Isn't it simply too ghastly?" Lucy whispered to her.

"A bit different from an evening of table-turning at a weekend house party."

"I need a breath of fresh air." She went to the french windows, opened one leaf, and stood gazing out. The set of her shoulders indicated to Daisy a sort of uneasy boredom.

The bespectacled man hovered indecisively by the door, wearing a convincingly vacant air, though Daisy was sure he was studying every detail. Lady Ormerod wilted onto a chair, as far away as possible from Mrs. Baines, and turned back her veil.

Daisy politely joined her. "This is jolly interesting," she said.

"Have you never attended a séance before? You lost a brother, didn't you? But I expect Lady Dalrymple has spoken to him since he passed over."

"I don't think Mother has even tried to talk to Gervaise, actually."

"Oh but she must!" said Lady Ormerod with fervour, her pale, hollow-cheeked face unexpectedly animated. "Tell her I can't recommend it too strongly. It's such a comfort to hear the voice of the dear departed himself, to know he is happy and still remembers and loves his family, though translated to a higher sphere."

"I'm sure it must be."

"Jerome has spoken to me several times. The darling boy has been trying to pass on a warning to me, but a mischievous spirit, a medieval Hungarian called Istvan, constantly interrupts."

"What a nuisance," Daisy murmured. And what a way to keep the anxious believer returning time after time! And how convenient that the meddler was Hungarian, a language as unlikely as the commonly claimed Ancient Egyptian to be recognized, let alone understood, by anyone present.

"I'm sure Jerome was about to get through with a clear message. Akhenaten, Mrs. Blackburn's spirit guide, had almost managed to subdue Istvan when those horrible, interfering research people had her arrested on trumped up charges," Lady Ormerod said angrily.

"Oh dear."

"Goodness knows how long it will take to get to the same point with Madame Vasilieva. Her reputation is marvellous, but of course she has a different control, so it means starting all over again."

Certain that the medium or her husband was listening behind the curtains, Daisy decided it was time to feign ignorance. "Control?" she asked.

"Another word for the spirit guide. Every medium has a friendly spirit who acts as a go-between on the other side, much as the medium does on this plane. Madame's control, Devaki, is a rather childish Indian girl."

"Devaki can't stop Istvan interrupting?"

"Oh, my dear, Istvan hasn't turned up yet. I have only had one consultation with Madame Vasilieva. At first Devaki could not grasp who was wanted. She brought several young officers killed in Flanders, each of them expecting and eager to speak to his mother, and terribly upset to be disappointed. It was quite shattering!"

"It sounds simply frightful," Daisy said sincerely.

Lady Ormerod turned an earnest gaze upon her. "So you see why I say Lady Dalrymple really must make an effort to communicate."

"Perhaps Gervaise will speak to me today, and give me a message for Mother," Daisy said, rather less sincerely. "Did Devaki find your son in the end?"

"Yes, but by then she was tired and wanted to go and play. I had no more than a word or two from Jerome, just to reassure me he was anxious to speak to me. It should be easier this time, since she knows him. And with luck, Istvan won't have followed him to the new guide."

Daisy suspected the best way to dispose of Istvan would have been not to discuss him within hearing of the Vasilievs. They were hardly likely to pass up such a chance of keeping Lady Ormerod on the hook.

They would not be pleased to lose so rich a prize when the man from Psychical Research exposed their tricks.

He had gone over to Lucy now. As he spoke to her, his spectacles glinted enigmatically in the sombre light from the darkening sky. He'd be no match for Vasiliev if the brawny Russian was angry enough at his wife's exposure to resort to fisticuffs. Daisy studied the chairs, wondering whether a biff with one of them would be enough to knock the big man out if it seemed advisable.

They were flimsy objects of faux bamboo with cane seats, quite useless for bonking anyone over the head. The investigator would just have to take his chances.

What was he saying to Lucy?

"No." Lucy's usually penetrating soprano was deadened by the draperies. "­I­ haven't come to consult the medium. Not this time," she added hastily, no doubt recalling that she and Daisy were supposed to be interested onlookers.

The man spoke again, too low for Daisy to make out his words.

"Really, I can't see that it's any of your business." Lucy had small patience with presumption in the lower orders. She turned a cold shoulder.

"What on earth is Madame doing?" said Lady Ormerod fretfully. "She could have started preparing herself earlier. I want to speak to Jerome."

"I don't suppose the spirits have much idea of time," Daisy soothed her, as Lucy came to join them. "I'm sure she doesn't mean to keep you waiting."

Vasiliev's prompt reappearance confirmed her opinion that he had been eavesdropping. He popped through the dividing curtains and drew them back to reveal a sort of Punch-and-Judy booth without a stage. Instead of gaily striped canvas, it was entirely enclosed with dark blue plush to match the draperies of both rooms.

"The spirit cabinet," explained Lady Ormerod.

In front of this, in the centre of the double-room, Vasiliev placed a small round table. As flimsy as the chairs, it would be easy to tilt with a toe or fingertip, Daisy noted.

Lady Ormerod surged eagerly to her feet. "Madame is ready?"

"She has prepared herself to enter the trance, milady." He started to set chairs around the table, and after a moment the other man went to help.

The front curtains of the booth were parted from inside. A slight, pale woman stood there, a faraway expression on her face. She was dressed in black—Daisy's pale blue and Lucy's amber flowered summer frocks began to seem positively garish. The bird's nest of black hair piled on the psychic's head gave her an Edwardian look. Daisy immediately suspected a wig. She probably had bobbed fair hair underneath, to help make her unrecognizable when she exposed it to appear as a spirit.

"Lady Ormerod," she said in a soft, contralto voice, "be so good as to sit on my right. I must have my husband on my left to lend me his strength."

Like her husband, she had a vaguely Russian accent, with rolling r's and guttural h's, but Daisy caught the flat tones of Birmingham beneath. Neither used the speech patterns of Russian, she realized. Since meeting a couple of Russians recently, she was familiar with the distinctive rhythm, the tendency to skip pronouns and articles.

For the first time, Daisy was rather sorry for the medium. To escape Birmingham, practically any expedient was reasonable. Exposed as a fraud, she would lose her livelihood and maybe even go to prison.

After all, from her point of view she was going to a lot of trouble to provide a valued service for which many people were happy to pay well. Perhaps she even saw herself as easing the pain of the bereaved. They might be gullible fools, but she gave them what they sought: comfort in their affliction.

The only harm was to their pocketbooks, and they shelled out willingly.

On the other hand, as with gambling, the obvious victims were not the only victims. Even in these days of female emancipation, Lord Ormerod had a right to put a stop to his wife's bleeding of the family coffers. Also, Lady Ormerod might have emerged by now from her pitiable state if not for her belief in the possibility of communicating with the dead.

Daisy sighed. How much easier life was for those who didn't see both sides to every question!

Lucy sighed. "I suppose Binkie expects me to sit next to Lady O," she murmured. "I hope that research bounder gets a move on with doing his stuff, so we can get it over with and go home."

She sat down beside Lady Ormerod, and Daisy took the next chair. Mrs. Baines moved to sit next to Vasiliev, but the nameless research chappie, still surprisingly unquestioned, got there first. Mrs. Baines's mouth tightened with annoyance, though she did not protest aloud. She took the place between the man and Daisy.

Seated in the spirit cabinet, Madame Vasilieva requested, "Gloves off, please, and everyone hold hands. Do not break the circle, or the power will depart."

Mrs. Baines took Daisy's hand with a deprecating smile. "Most mediums prefer physical contact," she said in an undertone.

To give the illusion that their hands are restrained, Daisy recalled from her reading. In this case, Madame and her husband obviously each had a hand free to produce phenomena.

For some reason, Daisy had assumed Mrs. Baines was new to the séance business. She must have attended several, though, to make such an observation. Daisy regarded her with more interest than hitherto, but the room was too dark by now to pick out more than a pale patch of disembodied face.

"I'm getting the creeps," Lucy whispered on her other side.

Daisy turned to smile at her. She too was nothing but a pale blur, so Daisy squeezed her hand instead.

"Hush!" hissed Lady Ormerod. "Madame needs quiet to enter the trance."

After a few minutes of silence, during which the last hint of light vanished, strange mutters and moans came from the direction of the cabinet. It was jolly eerie, Daisy admitted to herself as Lucy's grip on her hand tightened.

Suddenly a high, shrill voice cried out in an exotic tongue—an Indian language? More likely nonsense syllables.

"Is that you, Devaki?" came Madame Vasilieva's lower tones.

More shrill nonsense.

"Please speak English. We need your help. Will you help us?"

"No, I don't want to. It's no fun."

"Just for a little while," Madame coaxed. "Only you can bring comfort to a sorrowful mother."

"I don't...." The petulant voice broke off. "Oh, here is someone who want to speak."

"Who is it?"

"A soldier."

"Devaki, we don't want just any soldier again."

A high giggle: "A soldier...."

Her words were drowned by the blare of a trumpet playing the Reveille. The sound came from the far side of the room. A ghostly, phosphorescent trumpet floated there, suspended in mid air.

Lucy gasped.

The brassy notes died away. "Who is there?" the medium queried sharply.

"Je...Je...."

Gervaise? thought Daisy, her heart somersaulting.

"Jerome!" cried Lady Ormerod.

"Jemmy Heatherwood." The slow, country voice came from behind Daisy. She twisted her head to look back. A luminous sword hovered there.

"What do you want?" asked Madame.

"Kilt on Bosworth Field, I were, wi' nary a chance to bid me mam farewell. Mother, are ye there?"

"Your mother is not here, Jemmy."

The sword slashed the air and a horrid, keening lament rent the darkness, fading into a silence shattered by the clang of the sword landing on the table. It lay there, glimmering. Daisy shuddered.

"Devaki, please find Captain Jerome Ormerod for us."

"There are no ranks on this side," scolded the childish spirit guide. "No ranks, no titles, no...."

"Mater?" A clear, light tenor, very public-school. A muted trumpet sounded the Last Post, the mournful notes bringing tears to Daisy's eyes.

"Who is it?" the medium asked.

"Jerome? Is it you?" cried Lady Ormerod. "Oh, my dearest boy."

"Hullo, mater. Can you hear me? This is Jeremy."

"Not Jerome?"

"Not Jerome," the voice confirmed sadly. "Hold on half a tick. There's this frightful little Hungarian blighter.... Hullo? Are you there?" It was like a bad telephone connection. "Jerome is here. He wants to speak to you, but...."

"Mater?" This voice was very similar, perhaps a shade deeper, coming from the opposite direction, to Daisy's left, well behind Lady Ormerod. A filmy white figure stood there, hovering above the floor. Its indistinct, moustached face suggested a handsome young man—any fair, handsome young man.

"Jerome!"

"Don't break the circle," snapped Madame Vasilieva, "or the spirit will vanish."

Daisy imagined Lady Ormerod frantically trying to see her son without losing hold of the medium's and Lucy's hands. She'd not be able to get a clear view, but even if she did, in the frenzied state she was in she would be convinced it was Jerome.

"Jerome, speak to me! Are you happy?"

"It's absolutely ripping over here, mater. But I have to tell you...."

A burst of rapid gibberish interrupted him.

"Go away, you perishing bounder!"

At that moment the beam of a powerful electric torch shot out. From somewhere to Daisy's right, the dazzling light crossed the medium's pallid, shocked face, probed the empty space where Vasiliev ought to be, and swung back. It struck the spirit figure in the face, pitilessly illuminating a crude mask, then sank past the billowing gauze to focus on a pair of black trouser turn-ups and black-socked feet.

Toes twitched. Their owner bolted for refuge behind the cabinet.

Caught in the scattered light on the edge of the beam, Lady Ormerod opened her mouth in a sobbing wail of desolation and fury. Springing to her feet, she leaned forward, hands outstretched. The table went flying. The torch fell with a thud on the carpet and lay there, still shining, its reflection from the plush curtains providing a dim, ghostly light in which unrecognizable figures moved.

A ghastly shriek rang out.

Daisy made for the nearest door. Feeling for an electric light switch, she snapped it on.

The glare blinded her momentarily but, expecting it, she was the first to recover. The tableau which met her eyes made her wish she hadn't.

The shabby little investigator lay flat on his back on the carpet, glassy gaze fixed on the ceiling. A crimson stain crept across his white shirt-front, spreading out from the spot where Jemmy Heatherwood's sword protruded from his chest.

His mouth twitched once and then fell open, still and slack.

Lady Ormerod was on her knees at his head, her face hidden in her hands, rocking back and forth. A low, steady moan issued from her blanched lips. Beyond him the medium clung to her husband's arm. They both stared down with appalled fascination at the inert clay whose spirit was passing "to the other side" even as they watched.

Lucy stood by her chair, transfixed, camera forgotten, too utterly astonished to be horrified yet. Mrs. Baines knelt and reached for the man's wrist.

"He's gone," she said tersely.

Lady Ormerod threw back her head and laughed. The hysterical cackle rose to a screech, fell in a whimper to an incoherent mumble. Hurrying to her, Daisy snapped, "Lucy, you'd better go and telephone the police."

"But...." She turned an aghast gaze on the Vasilievs. "Daisy, I can't leave you here with them. It's not safe."

"It wasn't them." Gently Daisy raised Lady Ormerod to her feet and supported her tottering steps to the nearest upright chair. "It was her."

"Lady Ormerod? Impossible!" As if the scene had suddenly sunk in, Lucy paled, the rouge on her high cheekbones standing out starkly, horribly like the crimson smears on Lady Ormerod's gaunt cheeks.

"Look at her hands, her face. Don't you understand? He parted her from her son, drove Jerome away. He's the investigator from the Society for Psychical Research."

"No, no, my dear," said Mrs. Baines in a shaky voice.

As she rose awkwardly from the floor, she drew from the man's sleeve a black rod with a hook on one end. She pulled on the hook and the rod lengthened telescopically. Comprehending, Daisy drew in a sudden breath.

Mrs. Baines continued, "This man is Agnes Potts's—Madame Vasilieva's—uncle, who was once a stage ventriloquist. My information suggests that his was the brain behind this swindle. No, her ladyship made the same mistake as you did. I am the psychical researcher. I very much fear the sword was meant for me." 


First published in Malice Domestic 7, Avon 1998

Learn more about Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple mysteries published by St. Martin's Press in hardcover, Kensington in paperback at Carola Dunn’s website

Death at Wentwater Court

The Winter Garden Mystery

Requiem for a Mezzo

Murder on the Flying Scotsman

Damsel in Distress

Dead in the Water

Styx and Stones

Rattle His Bones

To Davy Jones Below

The Case of the Murdered Muckraker

Mistletoe and Murder

And find ebooks of many of Ms. Dunn’s Regencies on the Belgrave House website