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Title: Playing with Fire
Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
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Playing With Fire
Arthur Conan Doyle

I cannot pretend to say what occurred on the 14th of April last at No.
17, Badderly Gardens. Put down in black and white, my surmise might
seem too crude, too grotesque, for serious consideration. And yet that
something did occur, and that it was of a nature which will leave its
mark upon every one of us for the rest of our lives, is as certain as
the unanimous testimony of five witnesses can make it. I will not
enter into any argument or speculation. I will only give a plain
statement, which will be submitted to John Moir, Harvey Deacon, and
Mrs. Delamere, and withheld from publication unless they are prepared
to corroborate every detail. I cannot obtain the sanction of Paul Le
Duc, for he appears to have left the country.

It was John Moir (the well-known senior partner of Moir, Moir, and
Sanderson) who had originally turned our attention to occult subjects.
He had, like many very hard and practical men of business, a mystic
side to his nature, which had led him to the examination, and
eventually to the acceptance, of those elusive phenomena which are
grouped together with much that is foolish, and much that is
fraudulent, under the common heading of spiritualism. His researches,
which had begun with an open mind, ended unhappily in dogma, and he
became as positive and fanatical as any other bigot. He represented in
our little group the body of men who have turned these singular
phenomena into a new religion.

Mrs. Delamere, our medium, was his sister, the wife of Delamere, the
rising sculptor. Our experience had shown us that to work on these
subjects without a medium was as futile as for an astronomer to make
observations without a telescope. On the other hand, the introduction
of a paid medium was hateful to all of us. Was it not obvious that he
or she would feel bound to return some result for money received, and
that the temptation to fraud would be an overpowering one? No
phenomena could be relied upon which were produced at a guinea an
hour. But, fortunately, Moir had discovered that his sister was
mediumistic-in other words, that she was a battery of that animal
magnetic force which is the only form of energy which is subtle enough
to be acted upon from the spiritual plane as well as from our own
material one. Of course, when I say this, I do not mean to beg the
question; but I am simply indicating the theories upon which we were
ourselves, rightly or wrongly, explaining what we saw. The lady came,
not altogether with the approval of her husband, and though she never
gave indications of any very great psychic force, we were able, at
least, to obtain those usual phenomena of message-tilting which are at
the same time so puerile and so inexplicable. Every Sunday evening met
in Harvey Deacon's studio at Badderly Gardens, the next house to the
corner of Merton Park Road.

Harvey Deacon's imaginative work in art would prepare any one to find
that he was an ardent lover of everything which was outr and
sensational. A certain picturesqueness in the study of the occult had
been the quality which had originally attracted him to it, but his
attention was speedily arrested by some of those phenomena to which I
have referred, and he was coming rapidly to the conclusion that what
he had looked upon as an amusing romance and an after-dinner
entertainment was really a very formidable reality. He is a man with a
remarkably clear and logical brain-a true descendant of his ancestor,
the well-known Scotch professor-and he represented in our small circle
the critical element, the man who has no prejudices, is prepared to
follow facts as far as he can see them, and refuses to theorise in
advance of his data. His caution annoyed Moir as much as the latter's
robust faith amused Deacon, but each in his own way was equally keen
upon the matter.

And I? What am I to say that I represented? I was not the devotee. I
was not the scientific critic. Perhaps the best that I can claim for
myself is that I was the dilettante man about town, anxious to be in
the swim of every fresh movement, thankful for any new sensation which
would take me out of myself and open up fresh possibilities of
existence. I am not an enthusiast myself, but I like the company of
those who are. Moir's talk, which made me feel as if we had a private
pass-key through the door of death, filled me with a vague
contentment. The soothing atmosphere of the sance with the darkened
lights was delightful to me. In a word, the thing amused me, and so I
was there.

It was, as I have said, upon the 14th of April last that the very
singular event which I am about to put upon record took place. I was
the first of the men to arrive at the studio, but Mrs. Delamere was
already having had afternoon tea with Mrs. Harvey Deacon. The two
ladies and Deacon himself were standing in front of an unfinished
picture of his upon the easel. I am not an expert in art, and I have
never professed to understand what Harvey Deacon meant by his
pictures; but I could see in this instance that it was all very clever
and imaginative, fairies and animals and allegorical figures of all
sorts. The ladies were loud in their praises, and indeed the colour
effect was a remarkable one.

"What do you think of it, Markham?" he asked.

"Well, it's above me," said I. "These beasts-what are they?"

"Mythical monsters, imaginary creatures, heraldic emblems-a sort of
weird, bizarre procession of them."

"With a white horse in front!"

"It's not a horse," said he, rather testily-which was surprising, for
he was a very good-humoured fellow as a rule, and hardly ever took
himself seriously.

"What is it, then?"

"Can't you see the horn in front? It's a unicorn. I told you they were
heraldic beasts. Can't you recognise one?"

"Very sorry, Deacon," said I, for he really seemed to be annoyed.

He laughed at his own irritation.

"Excuse me, Markham!" said he; "the fact is that I had an awful job
over the beast. All day I have painting him in and painting him out,
and trying to imagine what a real live, ramping unicorn would look
like. At last I got him, as I hoped; so when you failed to recognise
it, it took me on the raw."

"Why, of course it's a unicorn," said I, for he was evidently
depressed at my obtuseness. "I can see the horn quite plainly, but I
never saw a unicorn except beside the Royal Arms, and so I never
thought of the creature. And these others are griffins and
cockatrices, and dragons of sorts?"

"Yes, I had no difficulty with them. It was the unicorn which bothered
me. However, there's an end of it until to-morrow." He turned the
picture round upon the easel, and we all chatted about other subjects.

Moir was late that evening, and when he did arrive he brought with
him, rather to our surprise, a small, stout Frenchman, whom he
introduced as Monsieur Paul Le Duc. I say to our surprise, for we held
a theory that any intrusion into our spiritual circle deranged the
conditions, and introduced an element 'of suspicion. We knew that we
could trust each other, but all our results were vitiated by the
presence of an outsider. However, Moir soon reconciled us to the
innovation. Monsieur Paul Le Due was a famous student of occultism, a
seer, a medium, and a mystic. He was travelling in England with a
letter of introduction to Moir from the President of the Parisian
brothers of the Rosy Cross. What more natural than that he should
bring him to our little sance, or that we should feel honoured by his
presence?

He was, as I have said, a small, stout man, undistinguished in
appearance, with a broad, smooth, clean-shaven face, remarkable only
for a pair of large, brown, velvety eyes, staring vaguely out in front
of him. He was well dressed, with the manners of a gentleman, and his
curious little turns of English speech set the ladies smiling. Mrs.
Deacon had a prejudice against our researches and left the room, upon
which we lowered the lights, as was our custom, and drew up our chairs
to the square mahogany table which stood in the centre of the studio.
The light was subdued, but sufficient to allow us to see each other
quite plainly. I remember that I could even observe the curious, podgy
little square-topped hands which the Frenchman laid upon the table.

"What a fun!" said he. "It is many years since I have sat in this
fashion, and it is to me amusing. Madame is medium. Does madame make
the trance?"

"Well, hardly that," said Mrs. Delamere. "But I am always conscious of
extreme sleepiness."

"It is the first stage. Then you encourage it, and there comes the
trance. When the trance comes, then out jumps your little spirit and
in jumps another little spirit, and so you have direct talking or
writing. You leave your machine to be worked by another. Hein? But
what have unicorns to do with it?"

Harvey Deacon started in his chair. The Frenchman was moving his head
slowly round and staring into the shadows which draped the walls.

"What a fun!" said he. "Always unicorns. Who has been thinking so hard
upon a subject so bizarre?"

"This is wonderful!" cried Deacon. "I have been trying to paint one
all day. But how could you know it?"

"You have been thinking of them in this room.

"Certainly."

"But thoughts are things, my friend. When you imagine a thing you make
a thing. You did not know it, hein? But I can see your unicorns
because it is not only with my eye that I can see." "Do you mean to
say that I create a thing which has never existed by merely thinking
of it?" "But certainly. It is the fact which lies under all other
facts. That is why an evil thought is also a danger."

"They are, I suppose, upon the astral plane?" said Moir.

"Ah, well, these are but words, my friends. They are there-somewhere--
everywhere-I cannot tell myself. I see them. I could touch them."

"You could not make us see them."

"It is to materialise them. Hold! It is an experiment. But the power
is wanting. Let us see what power we have, and then arrange what we
shall do. May I place you as I wish?"

"You evidently know a great deal more about it than we do," said
Harvey Deacon; "I wish that you would take complete control."

"It may he that the conditions are not good. But we will try what we
can do. Madame will sit where she is, I next, and this gentleman
beside me. Meester Moir will sit next to madame, because it is well to
have blacks and blondes in turn. So! And now with your permission I
will turn the lights all out."

"What is the advantage of the dark?" I asked. "Because the force with
which we deal is a vibration of ether and so also is light. We have
the wires all for ourselves now-hein? You will not be frightened in
the darkness, madame? What a fun is such a sance!"

At first the darkness appeared to be absolutely pitchy, but in a few
minutes our eyes became so far accustomed to it that we could just
make out each other's presence-very dimly and vaguely, it is true. I
could see nothing else in the room-only the black loom of the
motionless figures. We were all taking the matter much more seriously
than we had ever done before.

"You will place your hands in front. It is hopeless that we touch,
since we are so few round so large a table. You will compose yourself,
madame, and if sleep should come to you you will not fight against it.
And now we sit in silence and we expect-hein?"

So we sat in silence and expected, staring out into the blackness in
front of us. A clock ticked in the passage. A dog barked
intermittently far away. Once or twice a cab rattled past in the
street, and the gleam of its lamps through the chink in the curtains
was a cheerful break in that gloomy vigil. I felt those physical
symptoms with which previous sances had made me familiar-the coldness
of the feet, the tingling in the hands, the glow of the palms, the
feeling of a cold wind upon the back. Strange little shooting pains
came in my forearms, especially as it seemed to me in my left one,
which was nearest to our visitor-no doubt to disturbance of the
vascular system, but worthy of some attention all the same. At the
same time I was conscious of a strained feeling of expectancy which
was almost painful. From the rigid, absolute silence of my companions
I gathered that their nerves were as tense as my own.

And then suddenly a sound came out of the darkness-a low, sibilant
sound, the quick, thin breathing of a woman. Quicker and thinner yet
it came, as between clenched teeth, to end in a loud gasp with a drill
rustle of cloth.

"What's that? Is all right?" some one asked in the darkness.

"Yes, all is right," said the Frenchman. "It is madame. She is in her
trance. Now, gentlemen, if you will wait quiet you will see something,
I think, which will interest you much."

Still the ticking in the hall. Still the breathing, deeper and fuller
now, from the medium. Still the occasional flash, more welcome than
ever, of the passing lights of the hansoms. What a gap we were
bridging, the half-raised veil of the eternal on the one side and the
cabs of London on the other. The table was throbbing with a mighty
pulse. It swayed steadily, rhythmically, with an easy swooping,
scooping motion under our fingers. Sharp little raps and cracks came
from its substance, file-firing, volley-firing, the sounds of a fagot
burning briskly on a frosty night.

"There is much power," said the Frenchman. "See it on the table!"

I had thought it was some delusion of my own, but all could see it
now. There was a greenish-yellow phosphorescent light-or I should say
a luminous vapour rather than a light-which lay over the surface of
the table. It rolled and wreathed and undulated in dim glimmering
folds, turning and swirling like clouds of smoke. I could see the
white, square-ended hands of the French medium in this baleful light.

"What a fun!" he cried. "It is splendid!"

"Shall we call the alphabet?" asked Moir.

"But no-for we can do much better," said our visitor. "It is but a
clumsy thing to tilt the table for every letter of the alphabet, and
with such a medium as madame we should do better than that."

"Yes, you will do better," said a voice.

"Who was that? Who spoke? Was that you, Markham?"

"No, I did not speak."

"It was madame who spoke."

"But it was not her voice.

"Is that you, Mrs. Delamere?"

"It is not the medium, but it is the power which uses the organs of
the medium," said the strange, deep voice.

"Where is Mrs. Delamere? It will not hurt her, I trust."

"The medium is happy in another plane of existence. She has taken my
place, as I have taken hers."

"Who are you?"

"It cannot matter to you who I am. I am one who has lived as you are
living, and who has died as you will die."

We heard the creak and grate of a cab pulling up door. There was an
argument about the fare, and the cabman grumbled hoarsely down the
street. The green-yellow cloud still swirled faintly over the table,
dull elsewhere, but glowing into a dim luminosity in the direction of
the medium. It seemed to be piling itself up in front of her. A sense
of fear and cold struck into my heart. It seemed to me that lightly
and flippantly we had approached the most real and august of
sacraments, that communion with the dead of which the fathers of the
Church had spoken.

"Don't you think we are going too far? Should we not break up this
sance?" I cried.

But the others were all earnest to see the end of it. They laughed at
my scruples.

"All the powers are made for use," said Harvey Deacon. "If we can do
this, we should do this. Every new departure of knowledge has been
called unlawful in its inception. It is right and proper that we
should inquire into the nature of death."

"It is right and proper," said the voice.

"There, what more could you ask?" cried Moir, who was much excited.
"Let us have a test. Will you give us a test that you are really
there?"

"What test do you demand?"

"Well, now-I have some coins in my pocket. Will you tell me how many?"

"We come back in the hope of teaching and of elevating, and not to
guess childish riddles."

"Ha, ha, Meester Moir, you catch it that time," cried the Frenchman.
"But surely this is very good sense what the Control is saying."

"It is a religion, not a game," said the cold, hard voice.

"Exactly-the very view I take of it," cried Moir. "I am sure I am very
sorry if I have asked a foolish question. You will not tell me who you
are?"

"What does it matter?"

"Have you been a spirit long?"

"Yes."

"How long?"

"We cannot reckon time as you do. Our conditions are different."

"Are you happy?"

"Yes."

"You would not wish to come back to life?"

"No-certainly not."

"Are you busy?"

"We could not be happy if we were not busy."

"What do you do?"

"I have said that the conditions are entirely different."

"Can you give us no idea of your work?"

"We labour for our own improvement and for the advancement of others."
"Do you like coming here to-night?"

"I am glad to come if I can do any good by coming."

"Then to do good is your object?"

"It is the object of all life on every plane."

"You see, Markham, that should answer your scruples."

It did, for my doubts had passed and only interest remained.

"Have you pain in your life?" I asked.

 "No; pain is a thing of the body."

"Have you mental pain?"

"Yes; one may always be sad or anxious."

"Do you meet the friends whom you have known on earth?"

"Some of them."

 "Why only some of them?"

"Only those who are sympathetic."

"Do husbands meet wives?"

"Those who have truly loved."

"And the others?"

"They are nothing to each other."

"There must be a spiritual connection?"

"Of course."

"Is what we are doing right?"

"If done in the right spirit." "What is the wrong spirit?" "Curiosity
and levity." "May harm come of that?" "Very serious harm." "What sort
of harm?"

"You may call up forces over which you have no control."

"Evil forces?"

"Undeveloped forces."

"You say they are dangerous. Dangerous to body or mind?"

"Sometimes to both."

There was a pause, and the blackness seemed to grow blacker still,
while the yellow-green fog swirled and smoked upon the table.

"Any questions you would like to ask, Moir?" said Harvey Deacon.

"Only this-do you pray in your world?"

"One should pray in every world."

"Why?"

"Because it is the acknowledgment of forces outside ourselves." "What
religion do you hold over there?"

"We differ exactly as you do."

"You have no certain knowledge?"

"We have only faith."

"These questions of religion," said the Frenchman, "they are of
interest to you serious English people, but they are not so much fun.
It seems to me that with this power here we might be able to have some
great experience-hein? Something of which we could talk."

"But nothing could be more interesting than this," said Moir.

"Well, if you think so, that is very well," the Frenchman answered,
peevishly. "For my part, it seems to me that I have heard all this
before, and that to-night I should weesh to try some experiment with
all this force which is given to us. But if you have other questions,
then ask them, and when you are finish we can try something more."

But the spell was broken. We asked and asked, but the medium sat
silent in her chair. Only her deep, regular breathing showed that she
was there. The mist still whirled upon the table. "You have disturbed
the harmony. She will not answer."

"But we have learned already all that she can tell-hein? For my part I
wish to see something I have never seen before."

"What then?"

"You will let me try?"

"What would you do?"

"I have said to you that thoughts are things. Now I wish to prove it
to you, and to show you that which is only a thought. Yes, yes, I can
do it and you will see. Now I ask you only to sit still and say
nothing, and keep ever your hands quiet upon the table."

The room was blacker and more silent than ever. The same feeling of
apprehension which had lain heavily upon me at the beginning of the
sance was back at my heart once more. The roots of my hair were
tingling.

"It is working! It is working!" cried the Frenchman, and there was a
crack in his voice as he spoke which told me that he also was strung
to his tightest.

The luminous fog drifted slowly off the table, and wavered and
flickered across the room. There in the farther and darkest corner it
gathered and glowed, hardening down into a shining core-a strange,
shifty, luminous, and yet non-illuminating patch of radiance, bright
itself, but throwing no rays into the darkness. It had changed from a
greenish-yellow to a dusky sullen red. Then round this centre there
coiled a dark, smoky substance, thickening, hardening, growing denser
and blacker. And then the light went out, smothered in that which had
grown round it.

"It has gone."

"Hush-there's something in the room."

We heard it in the corner where the light had been, something which
breathed deeply and fidgeted in the darkness.

"What is it? Le Duc, what have you done?"

"It is all right. No harm will come." The Frenchman's voice was treble
with agitation.

"Good heavens, Moir, there's a large animal in the room. Here it is,
close by my chair! Go away! Go away!"

It was Harvey Deacon's voice, and then came the sound of a blow upon
some hard object. And then . . . And then . . . how can I tell you
what happened then?

Some huge thing hurtled against us in the darkness, rearing, stamping,
smashing, springing, snorting. The table was splintered. We were
scattered in every direction. It clattered and scrambled amongst us,
rushing with horrible energy from one corner of the room to another.
We were all screaming with fear, grovelling upon our hands and knees
to get away from it Something trod upon my left hand, and I felt the
bones splinter under the weight.

"A light! A light!" some one yelled.

"Moir, you have matches, matches!"

"No, I have none. Deacon, where are the matches? For God's sake, the
matches!" "I can't find them. Here, you Frenchman, stop it!"

"It is beyond me. Oh, mon Dieu, I cannot stop it. The door! Where is
the door?"

My hand, by good luck, lit upon the handle as I groped about in the
darkness. The hard-breathing, snorting, rushing creature tore past me
and butted with a fearful crash against the oaken partition. The
instant that it had passed I turned the handle, and next moment we
were all outside, and the door shut behind us. From within came a
horrible crashing and rending and stamping.

"What is it? In Heaven's name, what is it?"

"A horse. I saw it when the door opened. But Mrs. Delamere-?"

"We must fetch her out. Come on, Markham; the longer we wait the less
we shall like it."

He flung open the door and we rushed in. She was there on the ground
amidst the splinters of her chair. We seized her and dragged her
swiftly out, and as we gained the door I looked over my shoulder into
the darkness. There were two strange eyes glowing at us, a rattle of
hoofs, and I had just time to slam the door when there came a crash
upon it which split it from top to bottom. "It's coming through! It's
coming!"

"Run, run for your lives!" cried the Frenchman.

Another crash, and something shot through the riven door. It was a
long white spike, gleaming in the lamplight. For a moment it shone
before us, and then with a snap it disappeared again.

"Quick! Quick! This way!" Harvey Deacon shouted. "Carry her in! Here!
Quick!"

We had taken refuge in the dining-room, and shut the heavy oak door.
We laid the senseless woman upon the sofa, and as we did so, Moir, the
hard man of business, drooped and fainted across the hearth-rug.
Harvey Deacon was as white as a corpse, jerking and twitching like an
epileptic. With a crash we heard the studio door fly to pieces, and
the snorting and stamping were in the passage, up and down, shaking
the house with their fury. The Frenchman had sunk his face on his
hands, and sobbed like a frightened child.

"What shall we do?" I shook him roughly by the shoulder. "Is a gun any
use?"

"No, no. The power will pass. Then it will end."

"You might have killed us all-you unspeakable fool-with your infernal
experiments."

"I did not know. How could I tell that it would he frightened? It is
mad with terror. It was his fault. He struck it."

Harvey Deacon sprang up. "Good heavens!" he cried.

A terrible scream sounded through the house.

"It's my wife! Here, I'm going out. If it's the Evil One himself I am
going out!"

He had thrown open the door and rushed out into the passage. At the
end of it, at the foot of the stairs, Mrs. Deacon was lying senseless,
struck down by the sight which she had seen. But there was nothing
else.

With eyes of horror we looked about us, but all was perfectly quiet
and still. I approached the black square of the studio door, expecting
with every slow step that some atrocious shape would hurl itself out
of it. But nothing came, and all was silent inside the room. Peeping
and peering, our hearts in our mouths, we came to the very threshold,
and stared into the darkness. There was still no sound, but in one
direction there was also no darkness. A luminous, glowing cloud, with
an incandescent centre, hovered in the corner of the room. Slowly it
dimmed and faded, growing thinner and fainter, until at last the same
dense, velvety blackness filled the whole studio. And with the last
flickering gleam of that baleful light the Frenchman broke into a
shout of joy.

"What a fun!" he cried. "No one is hurt, and only the door broken, and
the ladies frightened. But, my friends, we have done what has never
been done before."

"And as far as I can help," said Harvey Deacon, "it will certainly
never be done again."

And that was what befell on the 14th of April last at No. 17 Badderly
Gardens. I began by saying that it would seem too grotesque to
dogmatise as to what it was which actually did occur; but I give my
impressions, our impressions (since they are corroborated by Harvey
Deacon and John Moir), for what they are worth. You may, if it pleases
you, imagine that we were the victims of an elaborate and
extraordinary hoax. Or you may think with us that we underwent a very
real and a very terrible experience. Or perhaps you may know more than
we do of such occult matters, and can inform us of some similar
occurrence. In this latter case a letter to William Markham, 146M. the
Albany, would help to throw a light upon that which is very dark to
us.



THE END



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