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As the speaker stood on the tiger-skin hearth-rug droning on about hypnotism and reincarnation, Claude D'Arnot contemplated the gaslight's gleam on the man's bald head and gold-rimmed spectacles. "Recently I recovered the buried memories of a gifted subject who had served as a priestess in the temple of Dagon on the island-continent of Mu before its cataclysmic destruction…"
Claude, bored with the speech, let his eyes wander to the fur rug, complete with tail, paws, and head. His sympathies lay with the tiger, a solitary predator vastly outnumbered by both its natural prey and the human interlopers.
He shifted his attention to his own quarry, the medium, Violet, beside him on the divan. Flushing beneath his scrutiny, the young woman met his eyes for a second, then looked back at the speaker. Claude sensed Violet's skepticism–no wonder, considering her own role in the group–as well as her lack of interest in the lecture. She's disturbed about something. She radiated unease, reinforcing the message Claude read in her depressed skin temperature, erratic pulse, and shadowed aura.
Could this be the opening I've waited for? He'd watched her for weeks, his desire mounting, but he'd held back. He wanted more from her than a casual supper engagement. Why? What makes this one different from any other human female?
The medium's friend Harriet Harmon, seated on Claude's left, showed greater enthusiasm for the saga of ancient Mu, as did the other dozen or so people grouped around the drawing room. Miss Harmon leaned over to whisper in Claude's ear, "Isn't this fascinating?"
"Indeed," hemurmured, waving away a maid who hovered nearby, offering a refill of his sherry.
Fascinating drivel. Among the countless people he'd mesmerized during his lifetime, not one had dropped a hint of a previous existence. But he had joined the Esoteric Order of Leviathan for entertainment, not its intellectual resources. More importantly, these occult societies made excellent hunting grounds. Women enthralled with the supernatural could easily be seduced into "ritual blood-sharing," so long as he clouded their minds to obscure the one-sided nature of the "sharing."
Claude had dabbled in several such cults, including that unsavory young fellow Crowley's circle, and the Leviathan devotees peddled the most imaginative brand of drivel he'd encountered. As far as he could untangle the threads of their doctrine, they taught that when the Elder Gods broke through from the void beyond the stars to lay waste the Earth, their faithful servants, as sole survivors, would be transformed into powerful inhuman creatures and rule the world. Those who had died before the glorious conquest would enjoy reincarnation in similarly monstrous guise. Why not? Sounds more exciting than a cloud-paved heaven with perpetual harp music. All the religions practiced by ephemerals struck Claude, who wavered between deism and frank agnosticism, as equally silly anyway.
A patter of applause interrupted his thoughts. The High Archon of the Order took the speaker's place in front of the hearth. "Thank you, Professor Rinaldo, for that most enlightening presentation. That concludes the public portion of this week's convocation." He chanted a benediction in what he claimed to be ancient Sumerian. For all Claude knew, it might be; it resembled no language he'd ever heard.
The Archon, a bony middle-aged man, clean-shaven except for a bushy mustache that matched his tufted eyebrows, wore an aquamarine robe and a bronze pectoral set with semiprecious stones. A bronze circlet of similar design adorned his high forehead and abundant iron-gray hair. Though he made cryptic claims to an aristocratic bloodline, the Archon was actually a former stage magician named Matthew McFadden. Claude had satisfied his curiosity on this and other points–for instance, the medium's identity as McFadden's orphaned niece, Violet Cade–the first night they'd met, afterwards making the cult leader forget the conversation. Not that Claude disapproved of the spiritualist; as a former actor and something of a trickster himself, he could appreciate a clever charlatan.
While the maid cleared away the sherry decanters and trays of sweet biscuits, the butler ushered the guests to the front hall. Claude, along with Professor Rinaldo and Miss Harmon, had the privilege of staying for the medium's private performance, the weekly seance. During that first interview with McFadden, he'd implanted an impression of himself as a scholar of the occult who deserved a place in the Order's inner circle.
Standing, Violet said to Claude, "Will you be joining us as usual, Mr. D'Arnot?"
He heard an atypical strain in her voice. Yes, something's bothering her tonight. Clad in a loose, white robe, with her chestnut hair unbound, showing golden highlights in the lamp's glow, she looked ethereally delicate. Claude knew the appearance belied the facts; she managed McFadden's correspondence and financial affairs as well as any hired secretary could have. Despite her cheerful cooperation in her uncle's spiritualist schemes, in other matters she retained her innocence. Claude suspected she had no idea of the erotic symbolism of the bronze ankh pendant she wore.
Her fleeting blush, evoked by his intent gaze, stirred his appetite. He had to restrain himself from touching her by a stern reminder that he had no socially acceptable excuse for doing so.
"You know I wouldn't miss it." He said more quietly, "Miss Cade, you seem troubled. Can I help?"
Violet's aura darkened, her smile fading. "There's no need." She cast a nervous glance toward her uncle, making his farewells to the uninitiated. "There's nothing wrong."
Without directly challenging the lie, Claude whispered, "Please keep in mind, if I can offer you any assistance, simply ask."
McFadden walked over to her. "Come along, Violet. It's past time to begin the sitting."
Violet flinched, though her uncle spoke softly. "Yes, I suppose so."
I've never seen her reluctant to participate before, Claude thought. And what has the man done to her? His own indignation at the idea of her being hurt surprised him. Feeling possessive about the girl already? Not a good sign.
McFadden headed for his study, where the "sittings" took place. Rinaldo, the hypnotist, followed, with Miss Harmon close behind. She said over her shoulder to Violet, "I can't wait–this is going to be so exciting."
The medium still hung back, gazing unhappily at her friend. So that's part of it. It's Miss Harmon's first time, and Violet has scruples about tricking her. Claude wondered why he didn't find Harriet Harmon irresistible; traits such as her intelligence and eccentricity usually appealed to him. She made a living as a journalist, scandalous enough in itself. She wore her own version of the Bloomer costume, a long tunic over billowy trousers, which most other suffragettes had abandoned. She openly advocated free love and quoted from the poetry of Baudelaire and Swinburne. Having attended one meeting of the Esoteric Order of Leviathan to write them up for the Society for Psychical Research, she'd lingered as, if not a convert, at least a sympathizer.
Copyright © 2003 by Margaret L. Carter
Posted November 28, 2010
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