1. Blossom Culp and the Portents of Doom
Miss Pearl White, whose spine-tingling adventures we have witnessed biweekly by grace of the Bijoux Picture Show downtown on the square, although admittedly some of us may have snuck in by way of the back door, has educated us all in the necessities of the Life of a Heroine. By all accounts, it is a known fact that a Heroine is in need of a Nemesis to provide peril. I am sorry to say that my own situation has been nothing but lacking in this respect, for all that life has offered up thus far is Letty Shambaugh, whose papa owns the Select Dry Goods Company, also conveniently located on the square downtown although some of us cannot afford to partake of its wonders even by the back door.
As nemeses go, Letty was neither Fiendishly Clever nor Hellbent on Mad Destruction. Her schemes did not run to the overarching or grand. She would never, for example, think to have anyone tied to the interurban tracks, although they run in spitting distance of my own front door. Letty was, however, frequently Drunk with Her Own Power, a minor qualification for the position and which made her a pain in my backside.
For my part, though I'd had some cause to mix with her family over the years, they generally did not notice me and I did my best to avoid them. But occasionally Letty insisted on applying her pointy elbows to my thoughts. Even now, she was standing before our homeroom and glowing with smug pleasure, as her abject subjects had done elected her as Class President for the fourth year in a row.
"As the first official order of business for our senior class of 1918," Letty Shambaugh decided, "let me introduce you all to the officers I've selected to support me." The immediate scraping of chairs from Letty's private club, the Sunny Thoughts and Busy Fingers Sisterhood, left no doubt that the decisions there had been made long in advance. Alexander Armsworth slouched down and looked real interested in the tree out the window. Because Tess and Bess Beasley refused to be seated anywhere but side by side, teachers had always kept the peace by putting them in the front of the room. That meant I'd spent every year of my school career in this fine state of Illinois in the desk directly behind our once and current puppet vice-president, who was steadfastly ignoring my idle kicks to the underside of his chair.
Letty smoothed her straight skirts around her and daintily levered her bottom up onto the teacher's desk with all the aplomb of assuming a throne. From the stiffness of her spine and the faint creaking from her midsection, one and all could observe how Letty was striding in the forefront of our class in fashion as well as tyranny and owed those strictly correct lines to a corset.
I myself was an adherent to Miss Fuller's Sensible Dress League, and no corset was ever to come between me and my dinner. I stuck with my high-waisted broad skirts and plain shirtwaist, and my shoes were a half-size too large but every button was intact, all courtesy the Foursquare Tabernacle rummage last June. The deep blue cashmere tunic that fell to my knees and the broad velveteen sash to pull it all together were courtesy of Miss-Dabney-that-was who is Mrs. Atlee Birdsall of Stratford-upon-Avon as of now. Lately her letters had begun to be more concerned with what she termed my deportment in society as a young lady, which may be related to her familiarity with my Mama's unique ideas of fashion. The packages with small additions to my nonexistent wardrobe had begun to arrive, each to commemorate mysterious events such as the Queen's Birthday, the Glorious Twelfth, and Eton versus Harrow. I'd taken the hint after receiving the hair combs and had evaded Mama's shears for an entire summer; my hair was now long enough to tame with a right neat twist in the back.
I figured I looked well put together for our first day, for all that it was a hodgepodge that had taken some ingenuity to pull off. Alexander had been drug up to Chicago by his cousin Elvera Shumate to acquire some culture in the weeks preceding the start of school, so I'd let him practice some of that refinement on me. But before I could ask him what he thought, he'd said, "Hey there, Blossom, you look as spooky as ever," and requested that I stay out of his business this year. Then he'd high-tailed it to see what mischief those boys were jostling over back in the corner. It is always a mistake to ask a boy for his opinion in such matters, and I do not disagree with Miss Fairweather that it has been an historic blunder to have let the men have it all their own way in government.
But it is just as big a mistake to leave it all to Letty. "I'm sure we all agree," she was saying, "that we have moved beyond the childishness of Halloween. The Spring Fling is to be the pinnacle of our era as scholars at Bluff City High School."
"Oh, I think some of that honor goes to getting our diplomas," I pointed out sensibly, as someone who hadn't voted for her.
The Busy Fingers all gasped at my effrontery, as though I didn't have plenty more frontery where that bit came from. Letty allowed herself one twitch before turning to face my row. From the tilt of her chin, I could see that she was already envisioning her head wearing that May Queen crown, with her admiring court arrayed at her feet.
"The chair recognizes Blossom Culp," she said with a gentle sigh. "Oh, Blossom," she said patiently, "you needn't worry that your devotion to academics will go unrecognized by our teachers. I'm certain they'll have something planned for you. Allow the rest of us our frivolous social rituals."
Behind me, Belcher Cunningham sniggered, a generalized sneer for those who bothered with books when Collis Ledbetter could be menaced into doing one's homework. But I was more interested in the slow bloom of red over the stiff collar before me. When I looked up, I saw that Letty was adjusting the collar of her shirtwaist, her wrist incidentally parting some of the ruffles so that the gaze of all could be drawn to the gleam of the small pin above her heart. It was a seed pearl set in a round metal band. I didn't have to wonder what was etched in the rim because I'd seen its predecessor close up, as have any number of bewildered Egyptologists.
This was why Letty could afford to be gracious. Not only did she have the bosom she'd once despaired of attaining, but Alexander's Iota Nu Beta pin resided upon it like a tiny rowboat lost on a frothing sea of flounces. The pin was, as she'd once put it to me, 'engaged to be engaged.' She'd won at last, and she was the rightfully acknowledged ruler of all she surveyed.
I carefully set aside my broken pencil, which like so many cheap modern products had proved fragile in actual use. Grim as this situation might seem to some, I was not concerned. It has long been my arduous lot in life to save Alexander from his foolhardy decisions, for like most boys he is little better than a possum in the road when consequences come barreling down it. Like his first INB pin, this replacement was bound for some equally confounding fate. As yet, I had no idea what that would be or how I'd be managing it, but I was confident that the school year would see me up to the task. As the poet says, too light winning makes the prize light.
As for my qualifications for this challenge, the likes of which ancient heroes and their stable cleaning may seem a measly comparison, they do not need enumerating. But I will run through them right quick for those who have not been keeping up. My veins run with gypsy blood though sadly diluted, and I have the Gift of the Second Sight. I can sense the Unseen and can part the Veil to the Spirit World. I can commune with the Departed and Foretell Events both astonishing and mundane, though the limits of my Powers have yet to be truly tested. My Powers have Translated me to the haunted cemeteries of New Orleans, the iceberg-studded depths of the North Atlantic, the desolate wastes of the Arabian desert, and the trash-strewn alleys of a far-flung future. Many are the journeys I have undergone, some with Alexander Armsworth alongside, though kicking and bellyaching as is his tendency.
My name is Blossom Culp, and this is not strictly my story. Now there, I'm getting ahead of myself, but as you will see, I have some reason.
I turned my attention to the window, having heard a distant roll of thunder. Sunny as it was, it seemed like it might rain soon, but I had no hope that would put a damper on Letty's designs. She continued to rattle on about raising funds for the school year, to which I paid only half a mind.
Then she was saying, "The next item on the agenda concerns our school's competition. The sophomore girls unfairly collaborated the month before school began and have already knitted at least twenty feet of bandages." She sniffed. "It is unendurable, I believe you'll all agree, that their patriotism should outshine ours, when our class is to be providing the heroes our country needs." It was true enough that our class was sadly reduced. Some we'd lost to the 'flu like every other class, but the held-backs like Les Dawson and Bub Timmons had scampered to enlist at the first opportunity to be free of school, and a few others had joined them by lying about their age as required.
Here, Letty caught the eye of Mr. Snodgrass, our homeroom math teacher who been frowning over his pocket watch, and he started and tucked it away hastily. He'd moved here to Bluff City to teach after Mr. Mueller quit to enlist, and being too old to enlist himself hadn't spared him the whispers about his profiting from others' sacrifices. Confident that she'd made her point and expecting no future attempts to usurp her authority, Letty continued, "After school this week, the Sunny Thoughts and Busy Fingers Sisterhood will be hosting a push to make up the slack, and I expect all the girls in our class to bring their needles to bear on this situation. The front porch of my family home will be made available for the overflow and refreshments will be provided." She glared at me. "All are expected to attend."
The thunder was drawing nearer. Letty could expect all she liked, but I didn't know a knitting needle from a butter knife and had no great desire to learn the difference. Besides, I had plots to foil, and I needed to get a start on that.
Then Letty twitched, and the light flashing off her pin blinded me.
I near lost my balance as I clutched at the flat, painted wood beneath my palms and a strong breeze ruffled my skirt. Letty said, "At least, that's what Mr. Seaforth's editorial said in the Pantagraph, Alexander. He seems certain they're going to lower the age. He's your brother-in-law, isn't he? Hasn't he spoken to you about this?"
I swung out my feet to steady myself, and they landed on two neat piles of schoolbooks, strapped for the walk home. I gawped at her. I was perched on the porch rail of the Shambaugh house on Fairview Avenue not two feet from Letty and Alexander, who were sitting side by side on the swing. Alexander had one arm stiffly stretched behind her shoulders, careful not to touch, and his other hand was clenched on his knee in the long trousers he'd taken to wearing like many of the other senior boys who'd cast aside their school knickers for something more manly.
If I was sitting here now, this was something I needed to know. "The age of what?" I demanded. Of course neither of them heard my question or paid any mind to me drumming my heels hard into the balusters.
"Only see them for Sunday dinners," Alexander mumbled, then he shot a hunted glance at me, frowning. He shook his head. "'Sides which, I thought you said the guys who did that were cowards."
I stomped my feet. "Did what?" I yelled at him.
"That's certainly true of other fellows," Letty said, "but naturally I didn't mean you." She turned wide sheep's eyes on him. "You know, Newton hasn't shown any interest in the business. My papa would take you on like a shot at the Select Dry Goods, Alexander," she said. "And if you were supporting a, a family—" I stared at her, and Alexander stiffened. "That is to say, if we were married, you would be deferred and could stay here safe—"
I sat up straight and declared, "Over my dead body!"
"Ahhh!" Alexander crashed off his stool by the cot.
I peered over the side at him. "After all my hard work and effort," I told him, "I'm not going to allow it."
"How hard did you hit your noggin?" he asked.
I blinked and looked around me. I was on the cot in the small room off the main office, and I had no earthly notion how I'd gotten here. But I could picture a chivalrous scene of Alexander lifting me in his arms and sweeping me off to the office. Somehow I couldn't get the picture to jell proper. I raised a trembling hand to my forehead and moaned a little. "Oh, my word," I said. "What has happened?"
Alexander snorted like horse. "Stop selling the drama," he said, "because no one's buying."
"I'm perfectly serious," I told him, rolling over to pin him with a dignified glare. "What's going on?"
"You pitched over right on top of me," he complained. "When you're going to have a fit, why can't you leave me out of it?"
Ignoring his whining, I asked, "So how'd I get down here?"
"I carted you down here," he said. So perhaps I'd been wrong, and he was a gentleman after all. "You're skinny enough that you don't weigh that much, but you're floppy." He flopped an arm to demonstrate. "So Collis Ledbetter got your feet. You can thank him later."
I sighed to myself, for that was more what I'd figured. "So why are you still here, Alexander?"
"Well, I didn't get around to my reading for English last night," he said in a practical tone, "so keeping an eye on you works out fine by me."
"I'm am so glad my suffering is of service," I said loftily.
He peered at me suspiciously. "I already know I'm going to regret asking, but what was all that in lieu of? And what's this about dead bodies? Blossom, you're not dealing with . . . them again, are you?"
If there is one thing Alexander fears more than anything else, it's the Spirit World. I suppose he has reason, as he, too, is receptive to the Unseen though he refuses to rightly give his Powers their due. In sober fact, Alexander had been the early bloomer, drawing the attention of the Other Worldly to himself—and running away as fast as his legs could carry him—long before my own Gift had sputtered to life.
Which reminded me abruptly that I needed some time alone to sort through what I'd seen. I'd been so intent on that porch discussion that I hadn't thought to look around me to see the time of year. Was it a discussion they'd already had, or one that was yet to come? Asking Alexander to come clean was out of the question, as he'd only lie like a rug. But I knew he'd only been back in town shortly before school had started on Monday, and I had a single clue. If I had copies of the Pantagraph from this week, I could check the editorials.
That was when I heard another rumble of thunder in the distance. I'd never had spells stacked up in a row like this, not since my Powers first came upon me. There was no outrunning it, but neither did I want to be caught up insensible in public. In this situation, as the philosopher says,
I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.
I knelt up on the bed, plucked back the window's sash lock, and forced the sash upward.
"Blossom, if you want some air—"
I ignored him and stuck my head out. It was only about a yard or so to the ground. I rucked up my skirts and threw a leg over the sill.
After a moment of stunned silence, Alexander slapped his hands his eyes, and moaned, "Blossom! What in tarnation are you doing now?"
"Leaving," I said.
"You, you can't just light out in the middle of the day!"
"Says who?" I lifted my other leg over the sill.
"Says me!" But if he intended to stop me, he'd have to look at what he was doing. "I'm supposed to be watching you! I'm the one who'll pay if you turn up missing while I was sitting right here!"
"Well, maybe you should have thought a bit more about that and a bit less about your loathing for King Lear," I said virtuously, and I dropped down to the lawn. Alexander was leaning out the window after me in the next instant, but I was already rounding the corner of the building. The screams of the first recess letting out across the road at Horace Mann School almost drowned out Alexander's "Dad-rat it, Blossom! Get your spidery pins back in here! You're going to land the both of us in the stew!"
I resisted the temptation to explain that if he hurried to answer the call of nature now, no one would know the difference if he come back and was shocked to find the room empty. But I was still smarting from my first Sight of the lovebirds, and I was quits with shouldering the burden of Alexander alone.
I could still be netted as a truant if I stuck to the streets, and Mama would have my hide if I waltzed in on her unawares during the day when she was fleecing a visitor or napping up for a night on the prowl, so I trotted along a few backyards to get to the tracks, making for Leverette's woods. I could hole up in the old farmhouse for the day, then make my way back home in time for school letting out, Mama none the wiser.
That was my plan, and it was a good one, but the thunder was growing nearer. I only got as far as the trees before they began to shimmer ominously around me and the world tilted underfoot.
Then the world was upside down and jolting about uncomfortably, and I felt light-headed, and something hard was digging painfully into my hip.
"Man," a deep voice grumbled, "you don't weigh much, but you're pretty floppy."
Being hauled about like a sack of old potatoes was not a situation worthy of Miss Pearl White. I responded in the only appropriate manner: I kicked him. We both landed in a tangle on a hard, wooden floor.
"That was totally uncool, man," he said in wounded tones. Unfolding myself from the floor I beheld the most curious of creatures. I'd assumed a man, but now I wasn't as certain. He had lengthy, luxurious hair that any lady might have envied, with a flat band of leather tied around his head, and around his neck hung a profusion of tangled necklaces of beads and pendants. Recalling how he'd just addressed me, I concluded that he must be just as confused about my sex.
I concluded that Miss Fairweather's cause of bringing men and women together in universal suffrage and equality had triumphed at last. I had to be in the future again, judging by his well-abused farmer clothes, but this time I saw no practicality in his denims as the bottoms were huge, flapping, and dragging on the floor. His shirt was made of a stretchy material covered with a profusion of paint slashes in clashing colors, and his feet were strapped with leather like in Biblical times.
"I think the 'uncool' here is you," I said frostily. "Perhaps you might explain yourself. I am not accustomed to being tossed over a shoulder like a bag of laundry."
"Explain myself?" he sputtered. "I found you passed out in the woods wearing that get up. It's a little early for Halloween, isn't it?" I smoothed my skirts and lifted my chin. "Anyway, you seem fine now. This is posted private property, so you were trespassing. I could have called the cops, you dig?"
Did I dig? "So why didn't you?" I shot back.
"The whole point of being against The Man is not running to The Man when it's going down," he said.
Perhaps it was a code. "If you'd prefer to be a woman," I said carefully, "then I think you've made an excellent start."
This was evidently the wrong thing to say because his expression darkened and he was up on his feet in an instant. "All right," he said, "you're outta here."
"Wait," I said thinking fast and throwing up a hand. "And Hark! For I have come to help you! Or you're to help me. I haven't had time to work it out yet."
"Help me? Help me what? I don't even know you."
I looked around quickly, and it dawned on me that I recognized this room, though in some respects it had changed greatly. This was the front parlor of Old Man Leverette's farmhouse, which he'd left behind to retire into town, the very house where I'd told fortunes a few years back during our freshman Haunted House. Outside it was now surrounded by the trees that had been spreading out from the forest, and over there was the cupboard where, under a floorboard, my spelling medal from Horace Mann School was waiting for Jeremy to uncover it one day in the future. But the house looked tidier than it should have after being so long abandoned. There were tools and boxes, and in one corner were a lantern and dishes and a puffy blanket set out like a pallet. "You're not living here?" I asked, appalled. It was a step up from Daisy-Rae's chicken coop, but not by far.
"Well, yeah," he said. "Off and on. Why not?"
Maybe that was why he was dressed in girl's things. He had to subsist on cast-offs as I did. I felt a great welling of pity. "So you've been abandoned alone to your fate?" I asked. "Well, that's a rotten shame."
"What on earth are you talking about?" he said. "My grandma owns this place. She's letting me fix it up, and she says I can have it some day if I do a good job with it."
"Your grandma?" I said. "But this is Old Ma— Mr. Leverette's place!"
"Yeah, and I'm Bill Leverette," he said. "You got a problem with that?"
I blinked at him. "So your grandma is never . . . Miss Fairweather?" I'd known Old Man Leverette was sweet on her, but he'd certainly been taking his time about making his sentiments known. Old-fashioned manners like his were evidently trained to the pace of a mule.
He looked blank for a moment. "That was her name before she was married, I think. How do you know my grandma? Who are you, anyway?"
"My name's Blossom Culp," I said, extending my hand. "Pleased to meet you."
He didn't shake my hand. He laughed in my face, the proof that I was again in the future, where manners were not only dead but long since fallen to dust. "No, seriously, like . . ." he sputtered, "so you really are practicing for Halloween? You're going with the whole child psychic thing?" He wriggled his fingers. "Woo-woo ESP?"
So it seemed my fame had endured after all. I sighed. "Listen, buster. I have to make it home in time for supper, so I need to get this figured out quick." At this, he nodded agreeably, now giving every appearance of humoring me. I stood up and shook out my skirts. "All right then." I walked to the front window to survey the trees and the September sun through green leaves. "You said that your . . . grandmother is Miss Fairweather that was? And Old Ma— Mr. Leverette was your grandfather?" Old Man Leverette and me had had a neighborly understanding of sorts, by which I provided him with tips about miscreant threats to his outhouse and his dignity, and he provided me with the occasional chicken.
"Sure," he said easy. "I never knew him—he was a lot older than her, had some sort of May-December romance thing, I guess. But yeah."
"And where is your grandmother now?"
"Chained to front of the White House probably," he said.
"Yeah, she's a tough old bird," he said admiringly. "She told me I couldn't skip out on school, or I'd be at that protest, too. I mean, whatever she says, it's not like I don't know she's doing it for me, y'know?"
"A protest?" My imagination leapt to the image of Miss Fairweather, whose stern, upright lines owed nothing to corsetry, screwing in her monocle and surrounded by long-haired, sloppily clothed youths. My imagination rolled over and showed its belly. "And how would it be for you?"
"I'm going to be eighteen in a few months," he said.
"And how does that matter?" I asked.
He looked at me owlishly for a moment, then gusted out a great sigh. "You know what? Why not? I don't even care if this is your idea of a joke. I'm just gonna go with it, and then maybe you can—hey, I dunno, tell me my fortune or something. That'd be in character, right? 'Cause I'm well and truly stuck here, man."
That was what I had wanted to hear. "Tell me your woes," I said grandly.
And then he settled on the floor, pulled out a box labeled TEA and a device that heated water over a flame, and proceeded to tell me of a war in a far-off land across the ocean, to which many men had already been sent never to return, and to which he would also go after he'd been 'drafted' into the military. "So," he finished, "I can get a deferment if I go to college, but I don't want to go to college. I want to stay here. I love it out here. Me and a couple of friends want to try to make a go of the old farm again. Get back to what matters, y'know? Back to nature."
"Get back to nature," I said, marveling at the idea. As far as I was aware, the old Leverette place was lacking in many respects. "Back to the outdoor privy?" Me and mama would trade ours like a shot for one of those fancy 'bathrooms' and hot water, the likes of which they had on Fairview Avenue and Alexander's family had on Pine Street.
"It's a little more complicated than that," he huffed, offended.
"Even the farmers have schools," I argued. The agricultural colleges certainly were doing a brisk trade, from what I'd heard.
"No, see, you don't get it," he said. "My parents are both schoolteachers, see? They don't have the money to send all of us to college, and my brother and sister want their shot, too. No sense wasting it on someone who doesn't even want to go, not when I can just learn by doing, right?"
I didn't think it was quite that easy to learn, but instead I pointed out, "But if Miss— your grandmother wants to give you this property, you could sell it for the funds."
"Got it in one. But I don't want to do that."
"But if you don't . . ." I understood the problem now, perhaps better than he did. For I'd seen a future beyond this, where the trees and fields were long gone, and the land was covered with winding lanes and large, bland houses, with glaring lights overhead and hard paving underfoot and the constant hum and lingering odor of machines. Someone who had spent long hours here alone, repairing the walls, sanding the floors, and sitting on the porch of the evenings would hate that a great deal. But I'd also seen war after war, an endless succession, and the one that concerned him now would hardly be the last.
"But if I don't, yeah," he sighed.
I poked at the small bag in the cup of flowery tea he'd made me with my finger. There were no leaves to read here, and I set it aside. "All right," I said briskly. "Give me your palm."
"Groovy," he said, "sock it to me." He willingly extended his hand, and I set aside my cup.
I examined his hand and waited for a nudge from my Gift, but I hadn't truly expected one. After all, it'd already given me what I needed years back. I'd already walked the streets of the future, and I knew what was to come. All that wanted deciding was the road to get there, and boys were notorious for bad decisions, Alexander being a case in point. This, I decided, was why I had come. "One way or another," I told him, "this here woods is going to be paved over." At this, he tried to jerk away, but I held him back. I may be skinny, but I've got some strength. "No, listen up. Either way, it's going to happen. I seen it, so I know. If you don't come back, there'll be no reason to keep it on, and it's going to be sold. If you use the money for school, it's going to be sold."
"Thanks," he muttered. "Like, so much."
"Don't be that way," I sighed. "The big moves in history, they grind themselves out over anything in their path, but little moves are open to change. You and me, we are little, and that is to our benefit. You can have your farm, just not this one, just not here in Bluff City." I eyed him. "Didn't you ever want to travel? See other places? Because, one way or another," I tapped his palm, "travel's in your future. One way you get to pick your destination, the other you don't. That much is up to you."
"So you're saying I put in a lot of work for nothing," he said, kicking out at his puffy pallet.
"Not for nothing," I told him, releasing his hand. "You enjoyed it, and I assure you that it's going to be the saving of this house. Someone's going to see the value here, and this old place is not going to go the way of the rest. Do you . . . dig that?"
He looked doubtful, but the grumble of thunder overhead reassured me though he gave no sign of noticing it. "You say that like you really know it," he said uneasily.
"That's because I do," I said. The windowpanes rattled, and I stood up and shook out my skirts. "I already told you. I'm Blossom Culp."
"But, hold on, what are you—"
Whatever he meant to ask, I couldn't hear it. "Tell your grandma I said hello," I told him cheerily as the floor slid away. I stumbled into a dusty, empty room with a pile of dried leaves in one corner and some faded paper streamers hanging from the ceiling. The light from the cracked window panes fell on a bent, torn sign that had been tossed in the corner. It told me, as it had before,
AVOID WHAT IS TO COME
As easy as that, I was home. From the look of the light, I wasn't going to be late for supper, neither.
Mama and me occupied a humble dwelling on the far side of the interurban tracks, but we could view such grand sights as the Armsworth's mansion from our front porch. The decorating from Mama's flusher periods had left it with peeling candy-striped pillars for the front porch and multicolored shingling all around. Bluff City's wealthier residents considered it an eyesore and would periodically sail into town board meetings to request that Something Be Done. But even the council feared confronting my mama, not so much because of her Powers and connections with the Spirit World but because of her temperament, which was uncertain at best and vile at worst. Anyone who'd witnessed her bidding my Paw a final adieu would attest.
As we sat on the back stoop of the aforementioned abode, Mama was dressing a rabbit she'd liberated from a snare the night before, a find that always put her in a good mood, and I was peeling and chopping the carrots and potatoes I'd borrowed from Old Man Leverette's back garden, which he had expanded in recent years—I surmised in view of demonstrating his matrimonial worthiness. My diet and Mama's both had reason for gratitude to Miss Fairweather.
After a relatively quiet few years, my Gift had barreled down on me like the Wabash Line with two Visions in a row, and I had much to ponder. Their common theme and the potential of foreshadowing had not escaped my notice, for unlike some I have paid attention in English and gotten good grades. My mama, however, would not recognize these literary elements as she has never been to school and respects that establishment only as it relieves her of dealing with me during the day, but Mama has Talents of her own and tends to view my preoccupations with direst suspicion. For this reason, it was in my best interests to turn her attention elsewhere.
"Say, Mama," I ventured.
"Lessh lip, more peelin'," Mama muttered. Her teeth were in, but their fit was chancy.
"I can do both," I pointed out reasonably. "I just wanted to let you know. The senior class will be picking up the dropped corn after the combines this year."
That got her attention. "Why?" she demanded, her black eyes and gory knife both swiveling my direction.
In the ordinary way, I would not have warned Mama; she views herself as the best judge of what's worth knowing about town. But this would also have some import for our own table this winter, as tidying up the fields at night after the harvest then selling the corn back to its owners was one of Mama's own sure-fire fund raising innovations. Letty's own paw had likely heard tell of Mama's activities at the co-op, where the men in town were known to congregate and make use of spittoons and polling-place language.
"To raise funds," I told her.
"What you youngins be needin' with funds," she said, lingering disdainfully on the last word. "You got folks that provide."
This was not true for all, but Mama did provide for me, in her own fashion. That was beside the point. "It's for the class treasury. They're starting to raise the money now for the Spring Fling in May."
"It's a school dance," I said. The juniors were tasked with arranging the Spring Fling for our benefit, but Letty was leaving nothing to chance. The juniors would be provided with enough incentive to go all out, and she would shadow their every step in the planning. Theirs was a sorry fate indeed, and ours was to be the most memorable of Flings to ever be flung or they'd have Letty to answer to. "It's held before graduation for the departing seniors."
"A dance party," Mama echoed scornfully. "So what's that to do with you?"
"Well, I." I stopped, knife poised over potato. What did it have to do with me? If it was, as Letty Shambaugh insisted, the crowning achievement of our high school careers, then how would I fit into it? It seemed implausible that anyone would be setting up a fortune teller's table in the corner. On the other hand, I did have time to work on such pertinent matters.
My mama glared, her eyes looking crafty. "I knows what yore thinking, girl. But you'd be wrong. That critter ain't asking you nowhere."
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," I said, uneasy. If she was implying that I was sweet on someone, I wanted nothing of it.
"You don't," mama stated flatly. With that, she tossed aside her half-skinned rabbit and plunged her hands into her water bucket. "Think it's 'bout time you had a reminder," she muttered.
Then her skinny hand shot out, and she grabbed my wrist. My carrots went flying. "Mama! That's supper!" I said, trying to wriggle free, but she had an iron grip, my mama. She dragged me in through the door and set me down hard in the chair at the table. She scooped up her greasy deck of cards and settled down across from me, shuffling them.
"I knows what you been thinkin' about yore maw all these years, but you be wrong about that, too. Yore Powers is still puny by compare." Mama had only read once for me before, a privilege she'd never offered at any other time, so this was worrying. She had an uncanny track record.
"Mama, I don't need a reading," I said.
"Thass up to me, ain't it? You be quiet," she said, laying out the cards, one by one. Then she frowned and said, "Journey over water."
Relieved, I settled back in my chair. I'd gotten that one before; it was an old standby that Mama used for everything from an ocean voyage to a streetcar ride over the Snake River bridge.
But then Mama frowned and muttered something to herself I didn't catch. She did something I'd never seen her do: she gathered up the cards, shuffled them, and began to lay them out again. "Mama?"
"Hush it," she said, staring at her spread. Finally, she said, "Death. That's twice."
I swallowed. "Pardon me, Mama, but I didn't quite—"
"Nothing wrong with yore ears," she said, peering at me through her thick, ratty hair.
"All right then. Whose?" I asked.
"Dunno," she said, sweeping the card back into a pile. "But you just keep on like yore headed, and you'll be findin' out."
With that, she shuffled back out to her rabbit, leaving me staring blankly at the deck on the table. Those cards had been there all my life, I'd used them myself on occasion when Mama wasn't there to see, but suddenly before my eyes they'd transformed into an adder, ready to strike.
I was not certain what I aimed to do, but I sensed the huge forces I'd warned another of were in motion, and the Unseen had placed its heavy hand upon me, and I would work out its message.
2. The Ghosts Walk by My Side
My Great-Uncle Miles Armsworth, who was renowned locally for his original character and his carpentry both, passed away several years back, and is sadly missed by many, myself included, though I admit I'm happier that he hasn't stopped in to visit since. He had many wise sayings like "A girl with her wits about her won't lose 'em for a loafer," and "The highest circles in society occupy the lowest circles where it's toasty," and "A pretty ankle's shown to its best advantage with a bustle, even on a man." I'm not certain what he meant by the last one, but my mother attributes it to whiskey, of which he was pretty fond.
Toward the end of his days, my Great-Uncle Miles also was a great admirer of Blossom Culp, which shows how their acquaintence was short and he did not have to put up with her long.
Blossom is a spooky, spidery-legged girl with black frizzy hair who lives yonder beyond our barn, on the other side of the streetcar tracks. As for us, we are comfortably set up and live in the mansion Captain Campbell built in the century before with money he stole, which is a fact my mother complains of whenever reminded. My dad, who is a builder and has had a hand in many houses in town, usually takes this opportunity to offer to build us a modern house with conveniences that'll cost less to heat and lack a history of suicides and spirits, but my mother won't hear of that either.
Even today, there are few houses in town as grand as ours.
But our view of the Culp place remains a stone in my mother's craw, and she often wishes that the town would pull it down for an eyesore. She was wishing that only this morning—and I would have ample reason to wish she'd have sticked to that topic—but just then, she noticed Gladys was rolling her eyes.
"That will be all, Gladys," my mother instructed her. "A servant remains in kitchen when not wanted."
"I ain't your servant, I'm your hired girl," Gladys pointed out loftily, as she always does. "No call for anyone to be putting on airs when they live in plain view of the old flour mill row, as you have been just now pointing out."
My mother's mouth snapped shut. Through her teeth, she said, "The kitchen, Gladys."
While Gladys flounced off to bang some pots and pans, my dad turned a page in the Pantagraph. He is a great believer in digesting the news along with his breakfast, so it's rare to see his face in the morning. The new editor-in-chief of the paper is Mr. Lowell Seaforth, who was still a cub reporter in our town when he first laid eyes on and married my sister Lucille, but we still get our news on the same schedule as everyone else in Bluff City. But Lowell Seaforth is the man responsible for why, when my mother took note of the paper's movement, her thoughts jumped to another track entirely.
"That reminds me, Alexander," she said, an ominous gleam entering her eye. "I have been meaning to ask. The new fraternity pin that you purchased, what's become of it?"
My milk headed down the wrong hole, and it took me a moment to reply. "It's a secret society, not a fraternity," I sputtered into my napkin.
"You haven't lost this one as well already?" she said. "You've scarcely had it a month—"
"It's that Shambaugh girl!" Gladys bawled from the kitchen.
My mother chose to overlook the source of her information. "Letty Shambaugh?" she said to me, looking delighted and also a little relieved for some reason.
Just then, my dad's paper descended, and he looked over the top. "What was that?" he asked.
"May I be excused please gonna be late gotta go," I blurted, already headed out the door like the City of Joliet on a full head of steam. Behind me my mother shouted, "Alexander, wait! I'd like to speak with you!" but it was the first week of school and class elections were today, so I had no time for idle chat.
If it seems like I thought I'd made a mistake in loaning that pin to Letty Shambaugh, that is not the case. She's been in my class at school forever, and we go to the Bijoux Picture Show together on a frequent basis to sit in the back row and discuss our respective responsibilities as officers of our class. Letty is highly organized and whipsmart and pretty, with curly blonde hair, and she smells fresh as a daisy every day. When she'd asked for my pin to remember me by while I was off being oppressed in Chicago by my Cousin Elvera Shumate, I saw no call to refuse Letty's request.
Letty appreciates me a lot, and I can't say that I mind being appreciated for a change.
If there is any downside with Letty, it would be how she and Blossom are like two cats in a burlap sack. I do not know why those two girls have it in for each other like they do, but they are perpetually scratching as soon they get within a yard. Letty has told me that the way Blossom treats me is a shameful thing, and with that, I agree. Letty has also told me that Blossom occupies too much of my attention, but it's not like I'm handing it over on purpose.
I never even noticed Blossom existed until fifth grade; she offered to let me wear her spelling medals, which I did not because I was already wise to her scheming nature. Later she forcibly wedged herself into my existence in the Horace Mann School's fire escape slide, and after that she nagged me into paying mind to the Unseen, which had been doing just fine without my seeing it. As for all those other unfortunate occasions, somebody has to watch out for Blossom's backside after she has brought hair-raising and horrifying situations upon herself, and I would hardly be a man if I turned tail and ran, but that does not mean I have to hang around after.
Blossom's wide and eccentric acquaintance has whisked me along on several trips beyond Bluff City's boundaries, but all that is in the past.
Blossom still insists I have a Gift and am receptive to the Spirit World, and if that was ever true, I have grown out of it now. While I am at it, I would also like to state for the record that any time my lips touched Blossom Culp's was strictly by accident or under duress.
Because alphabetical order minus Tess and Bess Beasley has put Blossom behind me in class for many years, I am used to ignoring her provoking wiles. But it was a little hard to not notice when she collapsed on top of me in class in the first week of our senior year at Bluff City High School. I figured it for another ruse, but she was genuinely out cold, and I had to get Collis Ledbetter to grab her ankles while we maneuvered her on the stairs. In the office, they said they'd call her mama, but I knew the Culps have no phone and besides, Blossom's mama is not someone you would want stopping in to your school of a weekday.
So because I am used to cleaning up Blossom's messes, I volunteered to sit for a spell with her until she rejoined our day in progress. This was a decision I would come to regret, as the first thing she did was sit up and start hollering about dead people. That is a sure sign that she is up to no good and most likely is planning to involve me.
Before I could properly explain how this time she would not be involving me, she whipped up her skirts and went crawling out the window. This is the sort of behavior I have come to expect from her. Her legs are as skinny as they ever were, even though she is no longer wearing those thick, black stockings like she used to. As this was not something I could properly explain to Mr. Moody, our principal, I had to spend some time after school cleaning chalkboards rather than walking Letty home as I'd intended.
This, as I was pointing out, is the type of predicament one gets accustomed to around Blossom, and why she's best avoided.
My senior year at Bluff City High School continued without a hitch, except for certain hurdles presented by English class, until the the beginning of March 1918, which was about three months give or take before our graduation, which was also about three months before the senior class Spring Fling. This was not an event I could comfortably forget because Letty was what you might call highly strung over it.
That also was about the time Blossom Culp stopped coming to class.
Although Blossom was known for her mean attendance streak and clearly had her eye on that class pin, I didn't notice at first that she was absent from school. That is because she sits in the desk behind me and I do not have eyes in the back of my head. It's true that my grades took a definite wobble around that point, but that was in large part owing to Letty, who was distracting me from my studies.
Not long after, I was walking Letty home from school as I had begun to do, and she invited me to stay a spell because she had something to discuss with me of "great import." It was a pretty fine day with a nice, strong breeze, and we were sitting on the Shambaugh's front porch on the swing, looking down on Pine Street. I was thinking Letty was looking uncommon well that day, and I casually drapped my arm over the back of the swing, and Letty didn't even twitch, so that was all to the good.
Then I had a creepy feeling of nameless dread, which I have come to associate with certain topics that I do not wish to discuss, so I will just allow that I had a feeling something was not quite right with my world.
Then Letty rounded on me. "Are you even listening, Alexander?" she demanded.
"I am," I said. "You were talking about the . . . Spring Fling." That was a safe bet, as that's all she talked about these days. If it wasn't the juniors' multitude of failings, it was the decorations, or her dress, or her shoes. When she looked satisfied, I knew I was right.
"So you'll take care of it," she said firmly.
"You agree, don't you?" she insisted.
"I do?" I felt a mysterious chill at those words.
"Blossom Culp!" she said.
"Where!" I yelped, yanking back my arm and looking around. That creepy feeling was explained at last. "Oh, that is it," I moaned. "I am a hunted man for sure. So where is she hiding?"
"Exactly. That's what you have to find out, Alexander," Letty said, mouth pursing with annoyance. "You know where she lives. Go talk to her mama, and find out what Blossom's plotting. I can't rest until I know."
"She dropped out of school," I pointed out. "I figure that means she's got better things to do than spoil a school dance." If I wasn't in school, I know for sure I would. In sober fact, I was just then thinking that a life without a school dance would be ideal. More to the point, I also was thinking I did not care to have a sit down with Blossom's mama, who is an individual you would best avoid if you're smart.
I put this to Letty. "I don't think Blossom's planning anything, or at least nothing I've heard about." I added hopefully, "Could be she has caught the Spanish 'flu and is now in her death throes. In which case, she is more to be pitied than censured." I heard my mouth spilling out verse like Blossom's bad habit, and I clapped my hand over it and prayed for it to stop.
"I don't believe it for a minute," Letty said in darkest tones, never noticing my lapse. "I know she has something up her sleeve to ruin my Fling, and I want to know what it is."
"The school must have sent someone over," I pointed out. "They're pretty strict about hooky."
"They sent Miss Fairweather," Letty said scornfully. "Blossom has that woman wrapped around her little finger. As the duly elected President of the our Senior Class, I demanded in the office to be shown Blossom's file, and that woman Mrs. Fenchell had the temerity to tell me their records are confidential. As if that even applies to me!"
"Well, perhaps if you were to ask Mrs. Culp—"
"You already know the woman," Letty said, eyeing me. "She was a guest at your bon voyage party before your trip to England. With Blossom. As I heard tell."
"Yes, she was, but that—"
"Alexander," she said, and her voice became soft and she leaned forward. "I know you want what's best." Her eyes seemed huge and pleading, and I was reminded once again of a puppy. If only my mother would only have let me have a dog, I would have been set for life, I know it, because they adore you unconditionally and never inveigle you in situations that endanger your life. "I'm depending on you. As the vice-president of the senior class, it's your responsibility to us all to investigate any truancy among its members."
I felt a powerful urge at that moment to kiss Letty. I also felt a powerful urge to lean over the porch rail and double-check the bushes, because this struck me as precisely the sort of situation Blossom would capitalize on in her sneak fashion. But I manfully resisted the latter urge and gave in to the former.
Eventually I found myself agreeing that I should drop in to see Mrs. Culp on my way home the next day. If I wasn't kept at school too late and had the spare time.
Out of politeness, I made sure to ask around the next afternoon to make certain none of the teachers wanted me to stay after school for any reason. Fortunately they did not, so I found myself standing on the Culp front porch considering what sort of knock might be appropriate for the that situation and being careful not to look around too carefully. I considered Letty's fears unfounded, but I couldn't shake the notion that if Blossom had succumbed to the 'flu, her mother was the sort to save money by planting her out back some night.
No one would want to meet Blossom under those sorts of circumstances, and most especially not me.
I had just decided that another day would be more convenient when the door before me flew open, and there, on the other side, stood Blossom's mama. She was decked out in her working duds, which were that long purple skirt with silver stars and moons stitched to it, a patched black shirt-waist, and a huge shawl draped over her head with tailing bits that sparkled a little. Her big hoop earrings were the ones that Blossom borrowed sometimes, and also her teeth were in, but her face was still sunken, and her eyes were still black pebbles and now focused on me.
I quailed inwardly as any fellow would at this sight, and I remembered those stories I'd heard about busted bottles and pursuits all the way to the morning milk train. Culps are hard on their menfolk, and no one interested in self-preservation looks to cross Blossom's mama, that is for certain.
"What do you want?" she said.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Culp," I said after a moment, "I don't know if you remember me, but—"
"Armsworth's critter," she cut me off.
"Yes, I'm Alexander," I said. "From over there." I waved in the direction of our house unnecessarily, since she can see it every day and has been there herself. "The reason I'm here is—"
"Wanna peer at yore future?" she said. "Six bits,"
"Er, no, I wanted—"
"Six bits," she repeated sternly, "up front. Tea leaves, cards, or ball."
I hesitated, not sure what I should do. The last time I'd been to Blossom's house I'd gotten snatched bodily up by a spirit, and let's not even go into what occurred in their privy, but these days I lead an ordinary life free of Blossoms, and those sorts of things don't happen to me no more. But I could ask after Blossom while I was here. I dug in my pocket.
"No readin' on the porch," her mama snapped. "Inside!"
As I followed her into the Culp's tumble-down shack, it didn't look no different from the last time. It had the same wood stove, same table, same chairs, same strange stuff hanging down in strings from the rafters. I laid out my six coins on the table, and Blossom's mom's hand shot out like a claw and they disappeared. "Well?" she said. "You want tea?"
I do not trust the tea here, so I sat down gingerly and asked for the cards instead. These were the self-same playing cards that Blossom had been shuffling around that one Halloween for our Haunted House, only more foxed than before. "Say," I said. "About Blossom."
She ignored me and slapped cards down on the table in a spread that didn't look like anything I'd ever seen before. "Lessee," she mumbled finally, peering down at them. "Cards say . . . journey over water."
"Is that right?" I was intrigued in spite of myself. "Where am I headed?"
"Don't say," she said. Then she prodded the cards and peered up at me, and it wasn't a pleasant look if I'm any judge of these things. "But there's a warning, too."
"What . . . sort of warning?" I asked. The moment I asked, I knew I shouldn't have. Fortune-telling is another way of trafficking with the Forces of the Unknown, and by sitting here I had invited trouble in the door, and by asking I had served it up dinner.
"Death," she said with a ring of finality.
I stared. Everyone knows Blossom's mama is canny like a coyote, and in that moment I wondered if this was her way of announcing her plans, and I'd be the dinner. "Whose death?" I croaked.
"Don't say," she said again. Then she smiled and showed me her store teeth. "Be hard to tell anyhow, bein' as you's surrounded by it most days." With that chilling announcement, she whipped a claw over the cards and dragged them into a messy pile that she went on to stack and shuffle. "Yore done," she said, nodding. "Go home."
Or maybe she was telling me something else? "Hold on!" I said. "I came to ask after Blossom. She's been gone from school. All this have anything to do with her?"
She sniffed. "It's yore fortune. That girl's gone. Long gone." She looked at me sourly. "You just now noticin'?"
"Gone, like . . ." I clutched the table. "You mean she went on a trip?"
"She went where she went," Blossom's mama said. "Reading's done; yore late for yore dinner."
With that, she gave me the bum's rush out the door, and slammed it after me, but not before I caught sight of the wall by their door.
Blossom's paw is what she calls a poet at heart with the affliction of itchy feet; my mother says he is a hobo. Her paw doesn't write them because he can't, but he sends them postcards from wherever he's drifted, which Blossom pins up on the wall inside their front door. I'd spotted the newest-looking card was a golden lady with raised arms, holding up a bird on a ball in one hand and a staff in other.
There'd been sketches like that the paper, and I'd heard talk of it while I'd was being towed around Chicago in the wake of my Cousin Elvera Shumate. That statue was to commemorate the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and while my Cousin Elvera insisted that fair could not have been anywhere near as fascinating and modern as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World's Fair of 1904 in St. Louis, she allowed that the statue would look fine and artistical.
That statue was to be ready for the public's admiring eyes in 1918, which was the very year we were in now.
I don't know what Blossom considered worth ditching school for, not when she'd been the contender for some choice academic pins, but I'd wager Chicago was the route she was finding it.
So I told Letty that Blossom was out of town, and I didn't know when she'd be back. Letty continued to fuss over the spectre of Blossom somehow ruining her dance, which would please Blossom no end if she knew. Maybe that was her plan all along, for Blossom has mysterious ways.
In class, eventually Belcher Cunningham got moved up into the seat behind me, and even with his spitballs, my life seemed peaceful by comparison. That was when my mother decided to take up the slack in her line. Ever since that fateful morning when Gladys had ratted me out, my mother had been set on getting me alone.
That was why I'd been spending a lot of time doing business with the Iota Nu Betas in the woods, who were tormenting a few new kids from the freshman class in the usual way. As I had some say this time, I was all for avoiding Old Man Leverette's shotgun. Between them and Letty, and sometimes my homework, I had a busy life to lead and no time to be considering other matters.
I managed to hold out until the school year was nearly over, but my mother had my number, and eventually I was caught.
That morning, I'd answered the call of my stomach and the smell of frying chops, and I had forgotten to come down to breakfast late. "Alexander," my mother said, "About your senior dance."
"What about it?" I'd learned to be wary of where that topic led; I was already planning my escape.
"You'll need a new jacket at least, won't you?"
"What's wrong with my Sunday suit?" I asked.
"That's what you're planning to wear?" she said in shocked tones.
"Well, why not?" I figured I'd just show up, lead Letty around the floor a few times at the Odd Fellows Hall where she'd rented the meeting room by way of the junior class. Then I'd cut out the back soon as I could, as Belcher Cunningham was bringing a bottle of his dad's whiskey and my brother-in-law Lowell Seaforth had promised he would rustle us up some cigars, and we were meeting in the lot behind the Baptist Church for more entertaining pursuits.
"Oh," my mother said, "but for such an important event in your life, a new jacket at least wouldn't be out of place."
"I don't know how it's that important," I said, feeling adrift at sea with both paddles gone.
"Letty Shambaugh is wearing your pin," my mother pointed out. "Your fraternity pin," she added.
"It's actually a secret society," I said. I was pretty certain I'd explained that before.
"You'll both be at the dance, and I have heard tell that her chances are excellent for being elected the May Queen." She clasped her hands. "Oh, Alexander, that would be an ideal time to make your intentions known at last."
"My intentions for what?" I said shiftily, thinking maybe she'd heard about the Baptist Chapel.
"Why," she said, "I'm certain she'd appreciate an opportunity to announce her joy to all your gathered friends." My blank look wasn't the response she seemed to be expecting. She said, "I have been looking forward to having Letty as a member of our family, Alexander."
My dad's coffee cup clinked on the saucer and his newspaper rustled, which I thought meant he might now be attending to the breakfast table in addition to the politics page. My face must have shown how I was feeling, like I'd just now dropped into this conversation myself and everyone was speaking French, which was not a language I'd had in school.
I don't know where my mother got this wild notion that I was fixing to tie the knot with Letty Shambaugh, but it seemed that she had.
My mother frowned. "Alexander?" Because she'd heard that movement of newspaper as well, she called for the reinforcements. "Joseph," she said sternly. "Your son must recognize his obligations."
Dad sighed and lowered his paper. "You'll have to tell me what those are first, Luella."
"Do not pretend that you're not fully aware." She began to fold her napkin stiffly. "Why, if word goes around that our only son is a, a cad, I don't know how any of us will be able to hold our heads up in society," she exclaimed. "Mark my words, we'll be seen as little better than those Hacketts with their wastrel drunkard son. As for that Shambaugh woman . . . I have no words!"
It seemed to me she had words aplenty, and I was relieved when my dad tried, "Now Luella, I don't think it's as bad as—"
"Joseph, you will talk to your son," she decided, tossing her napkin down. As Mother sailed from the table into the hall, she left the two of us sitting there like planks beached after a storm.
We eyed each other warily. "Well, Alexander, it seems we've no choice." My dad is a man of not too many words ordinarily, but he set aside his paper, and drank his coffee, and fortified himself for the task ahead.
In a puzzling situation like this, I was interested in what he might have to say.
"Women," he said, "don't always look at things the same way as us men. We do not always see eye to eye."
"Don't I know it," I said soulfully.
"Now, you'll have to help me out here, Alexander," my dad said. "As I understand this, you gave a girl some sort of fraternity pin."
"It's actually a secret society," I pointed out.
"That everyone appears to know about," he said, nodding. "Your mother thinks that's the first step to marriage."
"That seems to be the short of it," I told him. "I gave Letty that pin when she asked to keep it for me while I was in Chicago. She never gave it back, and it wasn't like I needed it for anything."
"This would be another of those situations where things are viewed different," my dad said, shaking his head. "Just so I'm sure we're clear, we're talking about the Shambaugh's daughter, who is the blonde girl, not the other one?"
I nodded. Then suspicious, I asked, "What other one?"
"The one with the black hair. You went off to London with her. Mrs. Culp's daughter."
"Blossom?" I gaped at him. It beat the devil out of me where he could have picked up an idea like that. "Blossom? She's not even around any more!"
"She's not?" He looked interested. "Well, I didn't know that. Where is she?"
"Chicago, last I heard," I said bitterly. "She took off without a word to anyone. Chicago is like ducking out the back door. I mean, if I was in Chicago, I wouldn't be in this fix."
"Would you like to be?" my dad said.
"Would I like to be what?"
"Well," my dad said, "Lucille got herself married after high school. I take it you're not looking to do the same."
I pondered that deeply for a minute. "Letty's a lot like mother," I said. "So I guess I wouldn't mind much if it came to that."
"Oh, is she now?" my father murmured, tapping his coffee cup. "Alexander, have you been listening at all to what I've been discussing with Lowell over Sunday dinners?"
As I sat on the other side of Mother and Lucille, that would have been impossible, and I pointed that out. "So I do know a lot about spring fashions for hats," I informed him.
My dad had no comment on that. "He's been saying that more conscriptions are coming up, now that we're committed to the war. The next group up would be your age. I believe his reasons for thinking this are good ones." He frowned. "Your number might not come up in the lottery, but there's just as good a chance it might. If you're married, you'd be deferred from that. Has that crossed your mind?"
"So it seems to me like you're going to have to make a decision here," my dad said. "I'll be up front with you. I have no good opinion of the senseless warmongering around here, and I'd rather you didn't get caught up in the military. But in the end you might not have any choice, and you don't strike me as overly committed to the alternative. If I told you I'd pay your way to Chicago, what would be your response?"
"To . . . Chicago?" I echoed.
"You've got a lady or a tiger on your hands, Alexander," he said, sounding so much like Uncle Miles that it made me blink. "If you don't propose to that girl, I guarantee you're never going to hear the end of it from your mother. You know very well how it went with Lucille." I shuddered, recollecting that whole sorry situation. "If you want to take your chances with the military—well, I won't be happy about it, but I'll support you. My thinking is only way you could enlist under your mother's nose would be to take the train up to the city and go straight from there into training." He rubbed his temple and said, "Luella would have to accept it once you were past the point of no return."
I swallowed and wondered how my life had suddenly taken this dark turn. My Great-Uncle Miles Armsworth had never talked much about the war; he called it a good cause, but a fool's errand, and now I was headed for another one. "Think I should graduate first," I said. That was a Monday, and my mother was throwing me a party on Tuesday afternoon; maybe I could make the best of a bad situation. "Then I could catch the milk train on Tuesday before it gets light."
My dad nodded. "I think that may be the first sensible thing I've heard this morning."
My short and not too glorious career in the U.S. Expeditionary Forces ended with a literal and very large bang, the likes of which . . . but I am getting ahead of myself again. First, it started with me sneaking off in the early morning, driven my dad to the station in the Mercer like the devil was on our tail though it was really only my mother, which might have come to the same thing if she'd caught us out.
As it was, we made it there before the Eastern Star Ladies Auxiliary took up their tables by the tracks to cheer on the troop trains that had been coming through daily. "My Uncle Miles might have some words of wisdom for you on this occasion," my dad told me, "but he was a philosopher of original thinking, and I'm just a builder. I think they would have amounted to don't get killed, at any rate."
I nodded, the foolishness of what I was doing suddenly weighing on me. "I'll do my best."
From there, I rode the rails to Chicago to enlist and let the army ship me the rest of the way to Camp Grant to be trained up. This involved a great deal of shouting, and I learned all over again how dress myself in the morning, how to march, how to dig ditches, and how to carry a small elephant on my back in addition to how to take apart a rifle and how to fix a bag over my head to avoid fogs of gas.
I had expected the other fellows from Bluff City to catch me up later, but the Camp was as large as Bluff City and was filled with strangers from all over; I never saw anybody I knew the entire time. I was assigned to the 86th Infantry Division, which was like being an aggy in a sack of marbles--as I came to understand it, we were to be loaned out to anyone who asked a favor and that was wherever the army liked.
Unfortunately for me, where the army liked for my brigade was Europe. Where too many holes had been knocked in the regiments, we were to be their reinforcement fill.
I have not much to say about that trip. The ship was uncomfortably like the Olympic, only this time I was not in first class. There were paying passengers, but us troops didn't see much of them. They stuck to their parts, we stuck to ours, and some stuck to their sick buckets the entire way. Too many guys all crammed together in a space meant for fewer meant taking shifts to get fresh air on the deck. So we played a lot of cards and worked through a lot of drills, and it was not that much different from Camp Grant only now on water.
As for what I saw of France, it was not like we'd learned in school. The view from the train cars or while marching through countryside had mostly been bombed a few notches down from picturesque long before I got there. Our group was handed over to a division from Australia who had set up house on some low hillsides overlooking a wide, thick woods that went on for miles and which was already looking rather ragged.
We were told to mind our manners and their Major, and were left to their tender mercies. They were not so pleased to see us as you might think.
"Let me see if I have this straight," their Major said in his strange accent. "You Yanks are newly trained, have just got off the boat, and have never shot those guns at anyone?" He nodded, and looked cheerful enough. "You will likely get us all killed."
"Yes, sir!" we answered, as we'd been trained to do.
"Very good," he said. "Carry on."
Their humor was hard to parse. But our situation was not as uncomfortable as some. As trenches mazes go, ours was truly palatial. They were wide, with wood planking underfoot to keep us from the mud when it rained, and canvas stretched overhead in parts to keep the sun and rain off overhead. The fire steps were different heights so as you could stand or kneel with your rifle just as you liked. There were rooms dug in at the sides reinforced with beams, and there were even stoves and shelves set up in some of them.
The Australians had given these trenches' original owners the bum's rush not long before we arrived, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who'd spent any time at all in our side's version just why they were ready fight like rabid weasels to keep them.
From the other side of those woods, the Germans reminded us regularly and forcibly that they wanted their trenches back.
"But no, they carn't 'ave 'em, Barking," Private Morrison told me. Because he sounded to my ears like Sybil, one of Blossom's weirder acquaintances from before, I'd taken to setting up my Springfield on the fire step next to him in the afternoons. He was just as pleased to correct my views on many subjects. "We put fair effort in to obtain these 'ere holes in the ground, and we mean to stay. If you lot let us lose 'em, we'll toss you over their wire ourselves."
He also did not mind my unpopular reputation, although he called me 'Barking' like everyone else. How that started was unfair and not my fault.
If I'd given this whole matter any thought at all, which maybe Blossom is right that I do not tend to do, I'd have had second thoughts about coming to a country packed full of new dead people. Spirits aren't all that common, and most people have no problem hightailing it to wherever it is they go right off. But some linger on for their own reasons.
France in those days was not a good place to be for someone like me, which I realize now with the benefit of hindsight.
That had been explained to me by Morrison not very long after I'd arrived. I'd been arguing with a fellow named Kirkland in the camp's kitchen, who'd been criticizing my bean stirring skills, though admittedly they weren't good, and everyone around me had taken to giving us both wild looks.
"What is his problem?" I shouted, waving a spoon. "Why won't he just let it go?"
"Luvaduck!" Morrison said, sighing. "Could be 'cause no one's there, Barkin'. You're over 'ere talking at Kirkland. 'Oo you never met, and 'oo's been dead these three weeks. You need to stop doin' that, mate." He'd patted my shoulder hesitantly. "I'm tellin' you as a friend, one 'oo' is trapped wiv you inna trench. You be makin' folk nervous 'oo' are all armed to the teef."
I guess I should have paid Blossom more mind after all. She'd always insisted I hadn't grown out of nothing.
As the days passed, I became aware that the Unseen knew I could see it, but I was also aware that the army said I had to stay put. Whenever I guessed wrong about the difference, about whether I was talking to a live person or a dead person, the live people around me became unhappy. They also dubbed you "Private Barking Mad."
Other than that, life settled into a routine of being shelled and gassed from the other side of the woods, and bored in the lulls while we waited for orders that took their time arriving. The others were all right fellows for the most part, though in my own trench their family stories usually began, "So me Dad robbed the store," or "When my Grampapa stole the pig," or "Well, my mum was no better than she should be."
When it came time to share a story about my own family, the choice seemed clear. "When my Great-Uncle Miles Armsworth was younger, he lived in a boarding house down in Teutopolis, which is down in the southern part of my state of Illinois," I told them. "He put up at a boarding house where another man lived who was named Cleatus Watts."
It was dark by the time I finished my tale of a man buried alive, and everyone listening had grown pie-eyed and nervous again.
"We've all decided, Barking," Carroll told me later, "that you must come by it honestly." I wasn't sure what that meant, but as I'd always admired my Uncle Miles for his convictions and sturdy character, I took it for a compliment.
The next night I told them another story about my Uncle Miles, this one of Captain Campbell and the Plaquemine Belle, of secret crimes and suicide, which in turn led to the barn he'd had built on the property and to the doomed girl in its loft. The uproar from this story might have put me out of the running for story hour thereafter if it hadn't been for Blossom Culp. She had snuck her way into my story just as she had into the true and actual events.
Everyone wanted to hear more about Blossom. So the next night, I offered up her tale of an icy grave in the North Atlantic. With each successive night, I worked my way through everything that had happened to us after that. By the time I was up to our junior year at Bluff City High School, Blossom somehow had acquired her very own Australian fan club.
I considered that the proof that living upside-down on the underside of the world could permanently impair your judgment.
Fortunately, it was round about this time that it was decided that we needed to go claim those woods below for God and Country.
"All right, you lot, our extraneous Yanks included," the Major told us cheerily. "We have our orders now, so start assembling your kit. We're going for a stroll in yon woods, and over to pay Fritz a visit."
So that is why, the next day, we were crawling out of our trenches and down into the woods, which some would never be leaving. Along with several other fellows, I was darting from tree to tree, clutching my Springfield and thinking to myself how in some respects it didn't look that different from Leverette's woods back home, when I came upon the first roll of barbed-wire. So we settled down flat to stay clear of the automatic fire, and started to cut.
I'd been cutting wire for several minutes when I first started to hear the music, though there was nothing around me to account for it.
No one else appeared to be hearing it, so I paid it no mind, but the tune kept prodding my memory until I placed it at last. It was "Under the Bamboo Tree," which I hadn't heard it in dog's years, not since—and then I looked up and noticed a set of high-button shoes on the far side of the wire. These were attached to a set of skinny legs and a skirt.
A girl with black hair in a pink velvet dress was standing there in the middle of no man's land with her back to me.
Then she turned, and I recognized her at once. Blossom Culp, though much younger than I'd last seen her, was standing opposite me on the other side of the German wire. The get-up she was wearing was one of those outfits Miss Dabney had bought her, the self-same one she'd been wearing that night on the deck of the Olympic.
"Blossom?" I said, too startled to be quiet. The others who were cutting wire stopped and stared at me. They'd been hearing me rattle on about her for a few weeks now, so they recognized the name.
Her round black eyes settled on me and widened even farther. "It's never . . . Alexander Armsworth?"
"What the devil are you doing here?" I hissed at her. We gaped at each other a moment, and I thought to myself that settled it, that there was nowhere on this earth where she could not track me down like a hound.
But then she shivered and began to fade. She said in a wispy voice, "Alexander, you have to leave."
"Blossom, I'm kind of busy just now," I pointed out. "You run along back to the ship."
"Oh, Alexander, why don't you ever listen?" She waved her hands, and I could see through them. "You have to leave! I seen this, don't you remember?
"Seen what, Blossom?"
"The explosion! They've mined underground here—they're about it set it off!"
"Mines?" I said. "Here?" I froze; so did every fellow who'd heard me utter that word.
"Run now!" she shrieked at me.
I didn't stop to think. I was scrambling away, fast as my feet could carry me, and the smarter guys who'd figured I knew something to their advantage were right on my tail when the world around us blew up.
I was sitting on a bed in a hospital ward reading a newspaper when the Major dropped in to check on me. He was looking right smart and a whole less muddy than the last time I'd seen him. Also all his limbs were attached now, which I appreciated as anyone would.
I could pick off my spectacles with my free hand, but managing a salute with my other arm still tied up in the sling was a problem.
"As you were, Barking," the Major said in his cheerful way. "No need for that."
"It's actually Armsworth, sir," I told him.
"Is it?" he gave me a searching look, and when I nodded he said, "Well, Armsworth it is! How are they treating you up here? All right?"
I looked around me and gave his question the consideration it deserved. I was occupying the fifth cot in the row along the wall, and my row and that opposite me under the windows were all occupied by woolen lumps, most of them unmoving this early in the morning, so it was downright peaceful for a change. A few figures dressed in white were already rustling their soft-foot, starchy way through the room, and the one holding the bag of early mail had paused in her distributing to keep a careful eye on me and my visitor.
I guessed it could be a lot worse, and said as such.
"Good, good," the Major said cheerfully, pulling up a visitor's chair. "We might have known Fritz would tunnel some mines under parts of their line. I'm reliably informed that it was you who herded a number of people out of the blast zone."
"Well," I hedged, "that was a tricky situation." Some facts were hard to explain.
"So I gather," he said. "But you arranged for the more, the merrier when it came to digging you out, so I count that as all to the good." As he'd already stopped in with some of the other fellows, he went on to share what he knew of their whereabouts along with some other news. When he'd gotten me all caught up, he said kindly, "I think you'll be missing that leg."
I already missed it; everything below the knee on my left leg was gone by way of a field hospital. "I figure it's a fair trade when the alternative is worse, sir," I said.
"Well, you'd be in a position to know, I think."
"That I am, sir." I nodded.
With that, he patted me on my free arm and said, "Well then, you seem to be in good hands here. You were the last I had to check in on. I'll leave you to it, shall I, Bark— er, Armstrong?"
"Thank you, sir," I said gratefully, because I was. "It was kind of you to think of me, seeing as how we got dropped on you."
"Not at all!" he said. "You were left in my care, private, and when I'm given a job, I see it through."
He sat there smiling benignly for a few more moments until he faded away; he'd completely vanished by the time the sister with the mail bag made it to me. "Well, Alexander?" she said. "You intending to get out of that bed any time soon today? We'll get that sling off, and I got some crutches with your name on 'em as soon as you care to put them to use."
"I'm thinking on it, Blossom," I said, a little irritated. No one back in Bluff City would have known her, all covered in white and cleaned up and starchy for a change, and the outfit only made her pushier, as I could attest. Blossom wore Authority like our teacher Miss Fairweather had worn that monocle, and she was a terrifying presence. As to how she'd gotten here in the first place, I still wasn't clear on that. I could only chalk it up to her bloodhound tendencies when it came to making my life a misery. "You got anything in that bag you're hauling around for me?" I huffed.
"Oh, Alexander, since you're asking so nicely," she said, and in that moment her expression brought to mind cats and canaries, and I don't need to tell you which of those would be me. She was holding out a letter, and I could see the name of the sender and so could she. "Why, here's a letter from Miss Letty Shambaugh!"
I don't have Talents like Blossom's, but it didn't take them to see that Blossom's curving smile was far too pleased. That did not bode well for the contents at all.
Excerpt from George Metcalf, "An Uncommon Household" (ms., ca. 1920)
George Metcalf (1894–1956), a reporter for the Canadian Globe and Mail, enlisted in 1917 but was never mobilized to Europe. He became a London correspondent for his paper, which led to his meeting a number of notable European luminaries of period. Metcalf's papers, including the manuscript of an unpublished memoir of his years in Europe during and after the war, are included among the John Mercer collection at Columbia University.1 As will be evident here, Metcalf took pains to disguise the names of those he mentions in his memoirs.
After the 'alarums and excursions' of the previous night's séance, my new acquaintance Mr Arthur2 was agreeable when I asked to accompany the two of them on another such jaunt. I'd had word of yet another purveyor of spiritual solace in the environs of —— Lane. This lady's services were rather exclusive, I informed him, and she would meet with her clientele by referral and appointment only, and those were dashed difficult to obtain. When I told him who she was, Arthur seemed rather surprised. He told me that he recalled the name from a series of sensationalist news articles before the war, to which he hadn't given much attention at the time. Arthur related what he knew of her as well as my tale of what my friend had experienced at this medium's house to our fellow sufferer of the previous evening, Mr Erik.3 The latter gentleman rang me directly and was quite determined that we should go. 'But we do not want to give her the opportunity to prepare or to look into our backgrounds,' he told me; 'that is precisely what we do not want.'
With that in mind, I asked my friend if he would obtain an entrée to a session for himself and his wife, then allow us to step into their place. As my friend was a true believer, I didn't tell him our true object in attending one of the séances, only that one of our party would be leaving the country so it had to be soon. He was amenable at any rate, and in short order we were booked for the Wednesday next.
That evening, Erik, who was in the habit of disguising himself for such sessions, both his name and his practise of exposing these charlatans had become well known in their circles, settled upon playing the lady. He donned the heavy widow's weeds of an elderly matron, completing his ensemble with a wig, stole, and hat with veil. We both pronounced him unrecognisable. I would not have known him on the street at mid-day, much less in a darkened room. I knew then that we were in for an entertaining evening like no other.
When we arrived by cab at —— Lane, we found it to be a tranquil street of those blocks of narrow adjoining brick homes built in an earlier age and now fallen into a genteel shabbiness. Our destination, in the middle of the block, had heavily curtained windows and peeling paint on the front door. Having been in such homes before, I knew the usual layout of foyer and stairs, alongside which would be the front parlor and more rooms back and above.
At our knock, a startling creature opened the door to us. She was dressed as a maid, conservative dress and apron, but her face, long and narrow and sharp, was of a discomfiting pallor topped by dark, rather knowing eyes. Her hair, piled into a bun atop her head, was so light that it seemed white far in advance of her apparent years. Her vowels, as it turned out, were the purest London back streets.
'You're not the Turners,' she said, eyes examining us narrowly.
'No, they were called away,' I said, 'and I asked if we could come in their stead, rather than letting the session go to waste. Will that be all right, do you think?'
She pursed her lips. 'And three of you no less,' she said. 'Well, it's not up to me, now is it? You'll 'ave to ask 'er 'ighness.'
With that, she helped us divest ourselves of our coats and was attentive if a little too familiar in the process, then ushered us into the parlor where we were to meet the person we had come to see.
'Mr Metcalf, Mrs Erik and Mr Arthur,' she announced, ''oo' are 'ere in plaice of the Turners.' She spun on her heel and stalked off, firmly closing the doors behind her, and everyone in the room studied us for a moment as we studied them in turn.
In addition to the woman we had come to meet, two other clients were already in attendance, a Mr Burdock and a Mrs Guinness.4 The former was a well-dressed, older gentleman of few words when a nod would suffice, whose name was already known to me from certain well-publicised coups in the financial district; the latter was a woman of middle-age and nondescript appearance whose clothing spoke of comfortable means with the greying hair and lined face of premature age.
As for the medium, who was sitting alone on a divan opposite them, Miss Forsythia Smith5 was revealed to be a plain-faced woman of no particular height and slender shape, with thick black hair that had been chopped and ironed into a moddish chin bob after the current fashion. Her clothes likewise were more to the current tastes than those preferred by the other mediums I had observed. That is to say, her dress was black, narrow, and shapeless with beaded accents in dark red, and her hem barely skimmed her narrow, silk-stockinged knees; she had low-heeled, plain black shoes. Her semblance might have been seen in any youthful watering hole save for the heavy brooch fixed near one shoulder, which appeared to be filled with hair flowers in the manner of mourning jewelry of the previous century. She said stiffly with her hands folded in her lap and her chin up as though she had a book balanced precariously upon her head, although she didn't give the impression of discomfort.
'In the place of the Turners?' she said. 'Three of you?' Her voice told us she was an American, which my friend hadn't mentioned.
'Yes, will that be a problem?' I asked quickly. 'Arthur only wished to come along to observe, not to participate.'
She blinked. 'Why, I guess that'd be all right,' she said at last, 'but we'll need another chair at the sitting. Say, Cybella, are you—?'
'Already know that, don't I?' the loud voice responded immediately from the other side of the door to the hall.
'Well, that should be fine then,' Miss Smith said apologetically to Arthur's startled look at the door. She gestured loosely to the remaining chair in the parlor; Erik took this seat, settling his skirts with aplomb while Arthur and I hovered, the odd men out. She told us, 'Of course, I can't guarantee that anything will come of it for you, but that's generally the case.'
'You're saying contact with the spirit world isn't guaranteed?' Erik said, his voice raised an octave into a suitably feminine if low range.
'No, ma'am,' she said, eyeing him with a puzzled expression, 'that's more up to them than it is up to me.'
'Then you don't have a Control,' he said.
She frowned. 'I suppose, in a manner of speaking . . .' she shook her head; 'no, not what's considered a Control.'
I had thought these were disappointing responses for us, but my two companions didn't seem distressed. I wondered how many visits were required and how great an increment of fees to at last achieve a 'contact'.
'So everyone's here now,' she said, spreading her hands, 'we may as well get to it.'
'A moment, if I may,' Arthur said. 'I wondered if you could tell us a little more about yourself. What your history with spiritualism might be.'
'With—' she started. 'You came knowing nothing about me?' She looked at us wonderingly.
'Well,' said Arthur, 'there was the incident involving the sunken ship, which I believe was known by all at the time.' At this, the silent Burdock nodded once.
'Oh, that. That was just an early manifestation of my Powers,' she said, flushing lightly and looking pleased. 'I wasn't—'
'But it was all so extraordinary and so moving,' Mrs Guinness said to her warmly. 'That is where I first read of you as well.'
'Psaw, t'weren't nuthin',' Miss Smith murmured, reddening. Then she cleared her throat, and added, 'I was pretty young at the time.'
'But the articles didn't expand greatly upon your own history, Miss Smith.' Mrs Guinness leaned forward eagerly and Burdock looked acutely interested as well.
'Me?' she said. 'Oh. You want to know about me.'
'Yes,' Burdock said simply. 'You've said little on the subject.'
She smoothed over her dress and said, 'I . . . well, you know I'm not from around these parts.' At that she grinned. 'But I always wanted to see the world, which I come by honest as both my folks have wandering feet. My mama was born with a caul and has gypsy blood in her background, and she can read your future in a spread of cards or a cup of tea. As for myself, I'm ordinary in most respects, but my Talents have got me far enough. I have the Second Sight, and Forces of the Unknown have shown me the past and the future both, and that's not always been of my own choosing, but that's how these things go.'
'You're saying mediumship runs in your family,' Erik said.
'That's what I'm saying.' She nodded. 'I had three . . . wishes when I was young, and one of them was to travel and the other was a chance to put my Second Sight to some use, and I think I now have both.'
She didn't elaborate on the third wish, and it seemed churlish to press that matter. 'So you've come to England?' I prompted.
'I hitched a ride over with the Red Cross during the war,' she said. 'So I come here for my own reasons and to other work that needed doing, but I've stayed on because I feel that here there's open minds to the Unknowable. And there's a need that fits my Gifts.'
'Yes,' Mrs Guinness said softly. 'Forsythia, we are so very thankful that you've . . .'
At the latter woman's words, I felt that old flare of anger at these confidence tricksters who have been fleecing the grieving public. That had driven me to attending their performances initially, and I might have said something to that effect had not Erik smoothly interjected, 'So perhaps we might . . .?'
'Oh, yes, time's getting on,' Miss Smith said, stiffening back to her previous demeanor which had fallen away when speaking of herself. 'Let's move on to the back parlor.'
We moved as a group to the back room, a dim room with heavy wooden paneling on all walls. A round, wooden, uncovered table had been set out surrounded by a suitable number of chairs. In the middle of the table, in pride of place, sat a crystal ball on a stand—although it was not be used for any special purpose during the séance. She waved away Arthur's protest that he merely wished to observe, and he was clearly thrilled when she indicated that he should take one of the seats beside her.
Miss Smith sat in the chair closest to the left wall, and after instructing us all to take hands, threw a voluminous, filmy gauze veil over her head and took Mrs Guinness's hand on her right and Arthur's on her left.
I haven't much to say about the conduct of the séance, as it resembled every other I've described in most respects. The gas lights on the wall were turned down, and candles were lit. Miss Smith's eyes rolled back into her head at one point until only the whites were evident, and her veil took on an eerie glow, which Erik informed me later was devised with an electrical light. There were rappings, and a strong breeze, and at one point the table wobbled underneath our hands. It was a disappointingly standard affair.
Or rather, it had been disappointingly standard up until the point Miss Smith unrolled her eyes and said, in a practical tone, 'Oh, is that right?' She turned to her right. 'Mr Burdock, nothing again tonight. I'm right sorry about that.' At that gentleman's stoic nod, she continued, 'But Mrs Guinness . . .' That lady's hand, held in my own, squeezed painfully at this. 'Mrs Guinness, do you know a lady named Coral Forbes?'
'What?' she said faintly. 'Coral . . . Forbes? I don't . . .' After a few moments, she said, 'There was a girl who worked in a tea-shop near our road,' she said dubiously. 'I believe that was her name.'
Erik slapped his hand on the table. 'Enough,' he said sternly. 'I think we've seen more than enough. You, Miss Smith, are a—'
'Hold it,' she said, glaring at him. 'I know what you're going to say, and we'll deal with that later. Right now, this is Mrs Guinness' time, and it's up to her whether we get this done.'
'Mrs Guinness,' Erik said, 'I assure you that most of what you've witnessed tonight are easily reproducible tricks.' At this, Erik whipped off his hat and veil and told everyone his name. 'I have made a study of these practises as you all know, and nothing I've seen here tonight has even achieved the level of a stage magician's conjuring.'
Miss Smith sighed and adopted a patient expression, and Burdock beside her raised a single expressive eyebrow.
'Erik,' said Arthur said in a doubtful voice, 'I know you mean well—'
'I,' said Mrs Guinness, 'I would like—please, continue,' Mrs Guinness said. 'Miss Smith. If you would.'
'Well,' Miss Smith said, 'if you're sure that's what you want.'
At Mrs Guinness's jerky nod, Erik sat back with a scowl.
'As I was saying—well, there's no gentle way to break this to you, I reckon. Harold says you have a grandkid, and this Coral girl's the mama, and you two should have a talk.'
'I . . . what?' Her hand began to shake. 'Harold? Is he, is he here?'
'He is,' she said firmly. 'He sure took his time about—okay, he's sorry for that. Says him and Coral were making up their minds what to do, but then he ran out of time to do anything. So nowhere in there was a chance to tell you.'
'Harold,' Mrs Guinness said, 'we've, I've been looking—'
'You're not going to find him,' Miss Smith said, 'so there's no point. The letter they sent was correct in the essentials, and no need to go into the particulars.'
'Oh.' After a moment, she said, 'I, I don't know what to say . . . And that shop, it's been closed for over a year. I don't—'
'So where's she now, this Coral?' Miss Smith said, but it wasn't a question directed at Mrs Guinness, who was still reeling. Miss Smith continued on without noticing, 'No? All right, Let's see what kind of Vibrations I can turn up.'
And at that, her eyes rolled back in her head again, and she said, 'Lay it on me. Come on, come on—' As she jerked under her veiling and listed to the side, the temperature in the room dropped abruptly; everyone noticed, shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
Then table before us shuddered, candlesticks and crystal ball shimmying over its surface—followed by the house around us, joining them in a sudden lurch. We could hear the window glass in the front room and metal in the kitchen rattle as though a sizable lorry had just lumbered by, and perhaps it had. 'I can't tell,' Miss Smith mumbled. 'I have no earthly idea where this is. How about the train station? That should have a—oh, there it is! Bedford.' Miss Smith straightened again, and blinked. 'Mrs Guinness, you heard of Bedford?'
'Yes, it's a town—yes.'
'Then there's your answer,' Miss Smith said, smiling. 'Harold says if you'd gotten to know her, you'd have—no, you will like her. And he misses you an awful lot.'
'I miss him,' she said faintly. With no forewarning, she swooned back in her seat.
'Here now!' Miss Smith said, leaping up. 'Cybella! Bring the bottle!'
The sitting degenerated after that with the application of smelling salts, the lingering unanswered questions from Erik, and Arthur hovering and trying to make clear to the distraught Mrs Guinness that he would like to know the results of her inquiry. In the end, Burdock offered to see Mrs Guinness home and the offer was gratefully accepted.
To Erik, Miss Smith said, 'If you all stay after, you can talk to me then.' After we had resumed our seats, Miss Smith bustled about the room, raising the gas lamps, and clearing away the crystal ball. 'My mama always keeps one of these about the place,' she said as though sharing a confidence. 'She says it brings up the tone.'
'Miss Smith,' Erik said, 'you know who I am, and we all know that you are perpetuating a fraud upon the public. You are clearly abusing the public's trust. As I'd said before, everything I witnessed here tonight—including the shaking of the house—could be explained by simple mechanics, misdirection, and showmanship. Although I must say I found the showmanship aspect somewhat lacking.'
'Erik,' Arthur protested.
But Miss Smith readily agreed with him: 'Oh, I realize it could look far more impressive, but there are reasons for—no, wait. I know two mechanically inclined people who'd be very intrigued to hear more on how you'd go about shaking a house, so hold that thought!'
'Miss Smith,' Erik persisted, 'fraud is a crime.'
'Well, in this case, I think it is a matter of definition,' Miss Smith said smartly.
At this point she was interrupted by the reentry of the servant, who announced grandly, 'Tea is served!' She deposited the tray upon the table, a porcelain set decorated with painted castles. Then, to the amazement of all saving Miss Smith, she dropped into one of the vacated chairs from the séance and calmly began to pour. 'Roight. Metcalf, is it? 'Ow do you take yer tea?'
After a few moments to compose myself, I told her, she asked the same question of the others, and proceeded to pour a highly correct tea for us all. Noting my incredulous expression, she said smugly, 'Lor, trained on the White Star Line, I was. Nary a drop spilled, even when them deck's was rollin'.'
'As I suspected, you're another party to this confidence game,' Erik said. 'That was a rather thorough search of our persons out in the hall.'
'You carry off the dress-up well enough,' the servant told him, 'but the facts is clear wiv a feel or two.' She accompanied this statement with wriggling fingers and a truly ghastly grin that left me shuddering.
'This here is Cybella Simpson,'6 Miss Smith told us. 'She has been a great help with setting up our household here.'
'Babes in the woods,' the servant said.
'Cybella, this is Mr—'
'I know 'oo 'e is,' she interrupted. 'And likewise the old party on 'is left. They've been cutting a reg'lar swathe through our competition.'
'You both seem very cool about this,' Erik pointed out. 'And your other associate?'
Arthur and myself looked to him astonished, as the servant agreed, 'Eh, true, the 'ot 'ead's yet to arrive. Talkin' of, when you plannin' to fetch 'is nibs?'
'Oh,' said Miss Smith, 'Ellsworth.'
With that, she rose quickly and crossed to the wall behind were she'd been seated. She pressed against the mullion of one of the panels at chest height. With an clearly audible click, that part of the trim gave way, and the whole section of paneling slid outward, revealing a small, candle-lit chamber. 'Ellsworth,' she said, 'tea's ready.'
'Yes, all right, I'm coming,' said a male voice, immediately recognisable as another American. Then, after some shuffling within the chamber, a youthful man of medium-height in shirt sleeves, with a thatch of blond hair appeared in the aperture. He had a pince-nez perched upon the bridge of his nose and a folded newspaper under his left arm, and the sound of his uneven gait, assisted by the cane clutched in his other hand, revealed that at least one leg was prosthetic.
When his eyes swept over us, and he said, 'What, is everyone staying then?'
'Only Mr Arthur, Mr Erik, and Mr Metcalf,' she told him. 'Which you might have known if you'd been paying attention.' To us, she said, 'Gentlemen, if I may introduce you, here is Mr Ellsworth Armory, late of America as well.'7
'Yeah, pleased to meet you all.' His gaze stopped on Erik and took in his feminine dress; he said, 'Sure enough, Uncle Miles had the right of it after all.' After that mysterious remark, he stumped over to the table and ran a casual hand over Miss Smith's shoulder which she briefly caught before he dropped into the last vacant chair at the table beside her, setting his paper aside. Examining the cups, he said in gloomy tones, 'In a house full of fortune-tellers, you can't get a decent cup of coffee.'
''Er, take what yer offered,' Cybella told him gruffly and slid a cup to him, to which she'd already added sugar lumps and milk. He helped himself to this and his eyes settled on us with a speculative gleam that I'd seen before, and I knew we were moments away from his asking for autographs from my two more famous friends.
'When the Spirit World drops in,' Miss Smith said, lifting her own cup with a pinky extended, 'it makes the public uncomfortable enough. When it takes a form they're not already familiar with, they're not inclined to credit it at all.' She shook her head. 'People expect things to go a certain way, so it's easiest to fit their expectations.'
'And séances is where the money's at,' Cybella muttered.
'Let me see if I understand you correctly,' Erik said. 'You're implying that all this is mere window dressing for something real.'
'Window dressing,' Miss Smith said, brightening. 'I like that. Yes.'
'The rappin' and the tappin' and turnin' tables and the lights, that's all me,' Cybella said proudly, then slid into aggrieved tones. 'An' none of it a proper expression of my talents, oi tell you. Apprenticed wiv the best in the biz, oi did, and my séances had ever-one there keelin' over at table. The Perfesser knew 'is trade, 'e did, though 'e was a roight old b—'
'Well, not everyone appreciates the showier elements,' Miss Smith said quickly. 'I would say Ellsworth's nerves are not what they once were, but they were never very strong to begin with.'
'Hey,' protested the gentleman in question.
'Then you're saying your séances summon nothing,' Arthur said.
'Most who desire to make their thoughts known are here already,' she said. 'I prefer not to . . . call. Not everything that might answer is to our benefit.' She folded her hands. 'I'm sorry. I know why some of you are truly here,' and with this she gave Erik a swift glance, 'and I can only tell you I've given Mr Burdock the same answer. He returns anyway and seems to derive some comfort from the proceedings, but in the case of you three gentlemen, I doubt that would be the case. I'm afraid no other appointments will extended in the future.'
Armoury had been listening to all of this with the air one of distracted, looking first to the cups on the table, then to his companions. Now he blanched and his gaze slowly slid upward to rest beyond our heads. He immediately returned his own cup to its saucer with a clatter. 'Dadnab you, Forsythia Smith,' he muttered lowly. 'You might have said. You know how these gas lights mess me up.'
'Ellsworth?' the lady said, eyes widening.
'Telling me you didn't notice him?' he demanded.
The serving girl Cybella's expression became smug, as we all turned to survey the empty room, and Miss Smith answered slowly, 'No, Ellsworth, I didn't. But I can—'
'Don't bother.' He cut her off brusquely. 'Now see here,' he said, 'why didn't you come back and talk to me before, along with Harold?' We all sat silent and staring at Armoury as he frowned then finally nodded. 'Yeah, all right. I can do that. Cybella, fetch me a pen and paper.'
'Just a tic!' The girl immediately scrambled up from her chair and over to a low cabinet along the wall, returning with a handful of stationery, an inkwell, and a pen. Even as Miss Smith was prying the lid from the inkwell, Armoury was arranging the sheets on his folded newspaper and transferring it to his lap where none could see what he was writing save Miss Smith in the chair beside him.
'So there's a spirit in this room now?' Erik said.
'Something like that,' Armoury shot back, not looking up. Then he said, 'All set. Go on, then.' What followed was a profoundly uncomfortable silence broken only by Armory's occasional mutters to himself. Miss Smith perched on her chair beside him with an interested expression, occasionally drawing filled sheets aside to wave them gently dry or interspersing her own comments. ('That's not how that's spelled,' she'd point out primly, at which Armoury would roll his eyes. 'You can both cut it out. I was never a hand at spelling, unlike some.') At one point he flushed deeply in evident embarrassment ('You sure you want me to—? Yeah, fine, fine,' followed by 'Forsythia, stop reading this!'). It was nothing at all like the trances we had witnessed in other parlors.
'I say,' Arthur ventured, 'is this automatic writing?'
Armoury glanced up. 'Don't I wish,' he said, shaking out his hand. 'Nothing automatic about it.' He dipped his pen in the well, blotted it, and continued.
Erik watched the entire performance with a deeply skeptical air, but it was not until Miss Smith was gently waving the last sheet to dry it that he spoke again.
'So Armoury is the medium,' he said.
'Medium,' Armoury said and snorted inelegantly, straightening the sheets and carefully folding them.
'My own Gifts are of a varied nature, and they are difficult to bring to harness,' Miss Smith said.
'Some are easy enough,' Cybella pointed out blithely with a rap on the table.
'But Ellsworth has always been receptive to the Unseen,' she pronounced proudly. 'Those from the Other Side are aware that he can see them, which is why they are often more anxious to catch his attention for their purposes.' At this, she lifted a hand to finger the heavy brooch pinned on her dress and Armory looked away with a scowl.
'It's not like that,' he said.
'Ellsworth, it is exactly like that,' she insisted.
'I'd like something a little stronger than tea,' Armoury muttered but Miss Smith and the serving girl ignored him, everyone watching instead as he slid the folded sheets across the table. 'Here,' he said, a little gruffly. 'This is for you.'
The letter was before me, and my full name was written on the fold.
I find it impossible to convey the mix of emotions that I was subject to in that moment and as I opened the letter and began to read the unfamiliar, cramped handwriting, which ran to four close pages. Although all situations are different, I believe that all those who attend such sittings with spiritualists feel to some degree the same chaotic blend of fear, hope, regret, and soul-crushing sadness, as well as some tinge of anger at having been brought to this point. The letter began 'Dear Hoss,' and in it he informed me he'd been aware of my actual design in visiting such mediums, and he encouraged me to stop. I will not reveal the other contents of that letter here, but it was beyond any doubt if not his writing his words, my cousin James, with whom I'd grown up, who left me behind when he went over the top on the Somme like so many others.
'Metcalf,' Arthur said. 'May we see it?'
'No,' I told him, 'I apologise, but I'm afraid that wouldn't be . . . it's highly personal.'
'You should be asking questions,' Erik said quickly. 'You shouldn't simply accept—'
'He's gone, isn't he?' I asked Armoury.
'Yeah, after he finished that up, he left,' he said, not looking up from his tea.
'Typical,' I said, shaking my head, and I caught Armoury smiling to himself. 'Said you'd say that,' he told me.
'How did he . . . look?'
'Fine,' he said. 'He looked fine.'
'All right,' I said. 'I am satisfied. Thank you.'
'But—' said Erik. I didn't hear the rest of whatever he'd meant to say because I was already taking my leave. How Arthur and Erik made their own way home I didn't know; our acquaintence was to take a strained quality thereafter.
I returned a week later with a cheque that comprised a substantial part of my bank account, and Miss Smith seemed rather taken aback to see me.
'Oh,' she said, 'but we hadn't intended to—'
'Speak for yerself, 'ighness,' the servant Cybella said. 'Rest of us have to eat, same's anybody.' With that, she snatched up the cheque from the table and marched off into the depths of the house.
Now that I'd paid for services rendered, I felt I could comfortably ask, 'What Armoury does, it's real, isn't it? It's not some sort of trick.'
'Ellsworth?' she said. 'Yes, of course. But he's never been what you'd call pleased about being receptive. Still, he's stuck with it—and for a while here, he's going to keep being busy. The men usually beeline for him over me, so we came up with the arrangement you saw, with him in the next room. He tells me what they've got to say, and he edits out anything he don't want me to hear.' She waved an airy hand. 'I presume it is all the vocabulary of the barber shop. And possibly the spitting, as I doubt even the grave can cure men of that vile habit.'
'So your own . . . talents?'
She smiled. 'Mine do tend to take some odd tacks, and even I am sometimes surprised. But I've never minded, not like him.'
'I see.' I considered that. 'I don't suppose there's any point in—'
'No,' she cut me off severely, 'there isn't.' Her expression was sympathetic but in a polite, clinical fashion that I resented fiercely for a moment until I recalled that, if the stories were true, as a child she'd been carried to the bottom of the ocean on a doomed ship and since that time had witnessed events I could never imagine. My loss was the proverbial drop in the bucket of a life devoted to death. Being who she was, she'd know—and understand—my unasked question far better than I did.
'Mr Metcalf,' she said, 'Ellsworth has finally come to understand that it is wiser to show no fear when confronting the Forces of the Unseen—but that does not mean there is nothing there to fear. The priorities of the Other World are not ours, and you would do well to remember that. As I was telling your friend Mr Erik, I have good reasons for not calling the Spirits to me. Not everything that might answer has my best interests at heart." She added, "I'd advise you to steer clear of séances. Life offers lots more interesting pursuits.'
'Yet you use this, this ability to make money,' I said.
'People give us money whether we ask for it or not,' she pointed out, and with justification given my own purpose in calling on her. 'And I never say no to money—when you've lived without a penny in your pocket, you know the value of one that's been tossed in the gutter.'
'So I'm sure Erik spoke with you about submitting to controlled conditions,' I said. 'That organization's challenge to provide definite proof—the prize money is substantial.'
'Oh, controlled conditions I have done before,' she said easily. 'But Ellsworth would never hold with that. He comes from money, you see, so that doesn't mean all that much to him. The public side does not appeal to him, and he wants to stay clear of it; my pulling us into the papers again could be that last straw on the camel's back.'
She added, 'Ellsworth is the whole point as far as I'm concerned, and keeping him out of trouble is enough for me. So it is fortunate that, like all men, he is so easily led.' She smiled to herself, then continued serenely, 'We'll stick it out here until Ellsworth feels up to moving on. We may as well help people out while we're around.'
Theirs was to be the last sitting of its kind I attended. Arthur and Erik both continued their interest in the spiritualist movement, one a believer and the other a skeptic, but to my knowledge neither man mentioned the séances on —— Lane. When I asked after the trio again many years later, I was told that the house had a different occupant. So I do not know what became of perhaps the only legitimate mediums I have ever met, but I recall that she told me:
'Ellsworth may want to go home eventually, but I'll wager that won't be for a while, as we've been happy enough here. He was the horse led to water, but not even he could keep ignoring that bucket once it was dumped over his head. Taking care of him is the labour of a lifetime for me—but I've always been up to the task.'
1. John Mercer Collection, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler Library, New York, box 15, folder 6. Mercer (1876–1960) was an editor at Doubleday & Sons, the New York publishing house; it is not known how he became acquainted with Metcalf or why Mercer was in possession of his papers. My thanks to Shailaja Ray of Boston University for calling my attention to this handwritten manuscript, the contents of which are currently under review for corroboration.
2. "Mr. Arthur" may be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mystery series and an enthusiast for the spiritualist movement. As mentioned in previous chapters, Doyle was a devotée of séances and spiritualist demonstrations and lectured extensively on the subject. Although it seems reasonable to conclude that Culp would have come to his attention during her brief visit to England in 1913, Doyle never mentioned meeting her during that year or later, and she does not appear in any of his lectures or writings on the subject, so the identification him in this memoir remains tentative.
3. "Mr. Erik" has been tentatively identified as the escape artist and stage magician Harry Houdini (né Erik Weiss), who was an acquaintance of Doyle and a renowned debunker of spiritualists and mediums; he was known for wearing disguises during the latter activities. His book on the subject, A Magician among the Spirits (New York: Harper & Bros., 1924), includes no accounting of Culp among the spiritualists and mediums he exposed in England and the United States.
4. Again, these are not their actual names. The identity of neither person has been established at this time.
5. In all likelihood, "Forsythia Smith" was Blossom Culp (see Chapter 6). I have found no record of her having been in Europe at the time; however, it also should be noted that her autobiographical writings are curiously silent on this period, and there are no records of her whereabouts from 1917 (the last year in which she appeared in a Bluff City High School class photograph) to 1925.
6. "Cybella Simpson" may be Sybil Sykes, aka Madame Sybil, a lesser known spiritualist who practiced in the Bermondsey Road of London from 1913 until her arrest in August 1916; she escaped from police custody shortly after, and there are no further records of her activities. As a known fraudulent medium, she only merited fleeting mention from those writing on the occult during the period.
7. It seems likely that the second medium, "Ellsworth Armory," is Alexander Armsworth of Bluff City, Illinois. Like Culp, no mention of Armsworth appears in either Houdini or Doyle's works on the topic. For more on Armsworth's activities, see, for example, Richard W. Peck, "Spectral Barn Where Dread Visitor Foretells Future Horrors," St. Louis Democrat, November 20, 1913, p. 1, and "Exclusive Photos of Ghost Barn," St. Louis Democrat, November 22, 1913, p. 1; "Angel Warns Bluff City Farmhand of Boating Collision on Snake River," Chicago Daily News, November 24, 1913, p. 15C; Mortimer Brulatour, "Delta Daily Delighted to Return Lost Daughter of New Orleans at Last to Arms of Her Ancestral Home," Delta Daily [New Orleans], November 28, 1913; "Dumaine's Remains or Bluff City Bluff? Tomorrow Will Tell the Tale," editorial, Louisiana Ledger [New Orleans], November 28, 1913. For other less accessible period accounts, see Lowell Seaforth, "Awful Conflagration Claims Crazed Perpetrator," The Pantagraph [Bluff City, Ill.], November 15, 1913, p. 1, 3; Seaforth, "Unseen Hand Guides Youthful Hero," November 15, 1913, p. 1; and Seaforth, "Amory Timmons," obituary, The Pantagraph [Bluff City, Ill.], November 15, 1913, p. 10. See also Burton Mercy, Signs and Wonders: An Overview of Spiritualism in the United States (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 185; Elsie Vandever, Popular Legends and Folklore of Illinois (Bloomington, Ind.: Trickster Press, 1982), pp. 78–84; Judith Hackett, First Families of Bluff City (Bluff City, Ill.: Historical Society, 1979), chapter 3. (The "Ghost Barn" mentioned in these articles still exists and has been featured in many popular articles on Midwestern hauntings, although few appear to have delved into full story connected with the name's provenance.)
Note that none of the works, scholarly or popular, period or modern, that discuss Culp mention Armsworth. Likewise, the period accounts of the Armsworth Ghost Barn make no mention of Culp. As mentioned in Chapter 6, the Culp house was reportedly in an area now known as Bluffleigh Heights, which at the time was called Leverette Woods; it is within walking distance of the former Armsworth house but would not be considered nearby. However, I feel it is reasonable to assume that Culp and Armsworth must have known each other. They were in the same school class in Bluff City, Illinois, and both do appear in the few surviving class pictures. (Many of the old high school's records were destroyed in a fire in 1958.) My thanks to the Bluff City Historical Society and the Bluff City Library Genealogical Section for their assistance and access to their archives.