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The Seance

Edited by Ronald Downing ©

"Good afternoon, Dr. Watson," said Mrs. Hudson, our landlady, as she entered our chambers. "Mr. Holmes has received some post at last, but it is only one letter and a strange one at that!"

Following Mrs. Hudson's exit, I knocked eagerly on Holmes's bedroom door and called "There is an unusual letter for you in the afternoon post." I heard a muffled sound but nothing intelligible. "Your name and the address on the envelope consist of snippets from a newspaper and under the address is pasted the single word INVITATION, followed by a question mark." This time I heard no sound at all and my spirits sank.

Holmes had retired to his room seven days previously and had eaten only three meals since that time. Otherwise, he survived on beverages and, I regret to say, cocaine. His work as a consulting detective during early 1889 was sporadic; often too many cases and sometimes none at all. No one had contacted him by post or in person with a case worthy of his attention for the past ten days and Holmes could not bear the inactivity. The cocaine had increased his depression and I suspected that his usage was higher than in the past. I worried about the possibility of permanent addiction.

With a sudden surge of emotion, I heard a weak voice ask me to push the envelope under the door. This was the first sign of interest that I had observed from Holmes in many days and I complied immediately. Silence again; then the door opened slowly and Sherlock Holmes appeared, leaning feebly on the frame.

His seclusion had taken its toll and I cried out in dismay at his condition. After assisting him to his usual armchair and ringing Mrs. Hudson for a bowl of broth, I made it clear to my friend that I was deeply concerned and would personally guide his recovery. Holmes held up the envelope for me to take but I refused to do so until he had finished the broth. Then, at his further urging, I withdrew a single sheet of paper and read the following message that, again, was made up of characters cut from a newspaper:

OD9N ZET AEWZT CSNT ZSZF HEED Z MZRO ZZ ANR MOULA 2 EEEE FLLN

From the manner in which Holmes's attention was riveted on the page I was holding, it was clear that this coded message had piqued his interest sufficiently to entice him from his room.

Even in bad health, Holmes was methodical. "Examine the paper and the envelope for clues," he said in a thin voice. I did so, but with little success. They were both of a cheap variety that were widely available and there was no watermark on the paper. The postmark on the envelope was London, western division, and it was posted on the previous day. It appeared that the letters and numbers had been cut from the Times while the paste used to affix them was, from the lingering smell, in common use.

As I returned the message, I mentioned these few findings to Holmes and steadied myself against his usual gentle derision. His gaunt face was without expression as he turned the items round in his hands and, to my elation, he found nothing to add to my appraisal. "Watson, the person who sent this has a keen intellect and undoubtedly a mathematical bent. If it were not that Moriarty is deceased, I would have suspected his hand in this."

Holmes was now feeling tired and I insisted on medical treatment followed by several hours of sleep. The next morning, in between my ministrations, he started work on the code. Initially, his ability to concentrate was nowhere near normal and he often dozed after a few minutes of thought.

On the next day he was nearer to being his old self and it was with the greatest relief that I reached the conclusion that his cocaine usage could probably be brought under control. Holmes informed me during the afternoon that he had deciphered the coded message although he felt that he should have solved it sooner.

"The major clue is that there are 48 characters. That suggests, for example, that the characters should first be written down in six rows of eight and in the order they appear in the message, but ignoring spaces." He then showed me the following diagram:



0 D 9 N Z E T A

E W Z T C S N T

Z S Z F H E E D

Z M Z R O Z Z A

N R M O U L A 2

E E E E F L L N

"Each Z represents a space between words. That is the reason for their frequent occurrence. The decoded message is read diagonally starting with the top right-hand corner. The first diagonal is the single letter A, the second is TT, and the third gives END followed by a Z at the start of the following diagonal. Hence, the first word is ATTEND and the complete message is:

ATTEND SEANCE 29TH AND FOLLOW RULES OF MME RENEE

As you know," said Holmes with a smile of satisfaction, "I have attended several seances in disguise in an attempt to rid London of those charlatans, the fake mediums, who prey upon the innocent. I have met with some success, although one medium did seem to be genuine in her belief. I have heard interesting tales of Mme. Renee, but have had nothing to do with her as yet. I do not know what the message means when it refers to her rules."

"I can help you there," I offered, "since I have followed the newspaper accounts and her advertising displays with interest. Although she does grant private seances, her method of attracting clients is to hold large public seances at seven on the last Friday night of each month in the Old Hall off Oxford Street. Her rules have raised much interest. They simply require each member of the audience to write the name of the person they wish to contact on a slip of paper and conceal it about their person before they set off for the Old Hall. She has had remarkable success in divining those names."

"I think, Watson, that the time has come for me to cease being an armchair lounger. I plan to go to the public seance tomorrow, the 29th, and I expect to add a rule or two of my own. It could prove to be an entertaining evening and I would be pleased to have your company."

Holmes threw himself into this small adventure with obvious relish. With a great display of secrecy, he drew the window blinds and sat at the dining table to write the name of the deceased person he wished to contact. He folded the paper and placed it in an envelope. Then he sealed it with wax and applied a signet that he kept on the top shelf of the bookcase. Finally, he hid the envelope in his cigar case.

We set forth the following afternoon with over two hours to spare. Holmes was discreet in his choice of hansom and our first destination was the Hotel Metropole. We took an empty lift to the second floor and then walked down the service stairs to the housekeeping area. We exited by the rear loading deck and caught a second cab. Still enjoying himself, Holmes repeated a variation of this strategy at a different hotel and, in a third cab, gave the driver an address in Montague Street. "This is where I had my lodgings before I met you," he said when we arrived and entered a medium sized room. "The rent is very low and I keep it as a place to don my disguises. If you change into these clothes that I fear have seen better days and sit yourself here, I will make you up first." Fifteen minutes later I hardly recognized myself in the mirror. Holmes then surpassed himself with his own disguise. We had been transformed into two villainous seafaring types and it would be impossible for anyone to recognize us at the seance.

We walked several streets away before hailing a final cab and we arrived at Old Hall with twenty minutes to spare. The price of the admission ticket was reasonable and we chose two seats halfway down the centre aisle with a good view of the stage. The seating gradually filled and the doors were closed promptly at seven. The curtains parted to disclose a well-lit stage that was entirely devoid of furniture, certainly not what I had expected.

A pleasant looking middle-aged woman, whom I assumed to be the medium, Mme. Renee, stood in the centre of the stage. Gradually, the audience became silent and she began to speak in a well-modulated voice with very little trace of an accent. "Thank you for coming here tonight. I will try to help several of you to contact your dear departed but the strain is great and I can only help a few at this meeting. If you are not chosen, please contact me at the address shown on the ticket you were given on the way in and I will arrange for a private seance. Now, if there is a red-coloured circle on your ticket and you wish to contact a deceased friend or relative, please stand up." Holmes's ticket did have a red circle and he stood in an ungainly stance that was in keeping with his disguise. Three other members of the audience stood also.

The lights in the Hall remained fully lit and the medium asked one of the persons standing, a woman with a baby in her arms, whether she carried the name of the deceased on her person. When she answered in the affirmative, the medium concentrated and then announced not only the name of the deceased, but the woman's name also! At the request of the medium, the woman passed her previously-concealed paper to other members of the audience for verification. The audience applauded with enthusiasm. The next two persons standing were handled in the same manner. Then it was Holmes's turn as he stood there in his effective disguise.

"I sense that you have written a short message as well as the name of the deceased. Yes, you have written 'If you are genuine, put me in contact with my late uncle Aldous Pendleton.' However, you seem to have forgotten your uncle's name. It was Percy, was it not? Please pass your message to other members of the audience so that they may confirm that I have read it correctly."

The effect on Holmes was all that she and her audience could have wished. His mouth stood open for several seconds before he recollected his senses and closed it firmly. However, it flew open again when the medium said, as if in passing as he sat down, "Montague Street is dangerous at night Mr. Holmes; I trust that you will exercise care."

The medium then announced that she would endeavour to contact the four deceased persons in turn. After she had summoned the first three dear departed to the accompaniment of many gasps of astonishment from the audience, it was Holmes's turn once more.

"Percy Pendleton, there is someone here who wishes to hear from you." Her voice then took on a remarkably deep tone as she stood there with a far away look in her eyes. "Sherlock, I used to dandle you on my knee when you were a boy; you and your beloved cloth giraffe! We often played Police and Crooks - you were always the Police - in your secret play area. Madame is tired and I cannot stay but there is a man who badly needs your help; his name is Morton." The voice died away to an inaudible whisper and the medium recovered herself but looked exhausted. She reiterated her willingness to be contacted for a private consultation, the curtain closed to loud applause, and the seance was at an end.

We managed to hail a cab, doffed our disguises without incident, and returned to Baker Street. On the way, Holmes gave voice to his thoughts regarding the seance. "I thought that it was well presented and gave the appearance of propriety. Since I was given a ticket with a red circle, I must have been identified as I entered the Hall, although I am presently at a loss to understand how since I took every precaution. The other three persons with marked tickets were presumably in the pay of the medium. I confess to not understanding how the medium knew of my childhood. My affection for the Police and Crooks game in the area of the woods that I called my own was known only to uncle Percy, I believe, and I have never discussed the cloth giraffe with anyone."

Early the next morning Holmes set off for Scotland Yard to visit Inspector Morton, having previously telephoned to confirm that the latter could see him. On his return, Holmes was full of sympathy for Morton and his excessive case load. "When I offered to assist him in any way, he was extremely grateful. He has given me details of three cases that have puzzling features and which interest me exceedingly. I have returned here to consult my reference books and will then go back to the Yard."

"I regret that I must handle these cases without your help Watson, but you would probably welcome a rest from your recent exertions. That reminds me, I must send a warm note of thanks to my brother Mycroft before I leave. I assume that it was he who worked out the scheme to pull me out of the doldrums and my cocaine stupor. No doubt he also furnished the coded message. Your part in this subterfuge, my dear fellow, was to read what I had hidden in my cigar case while I slept, make your notes, and then reseal my writing in an identical envelope. Later, while you waited for me to don my disguise, you added a note regarding Montague Street. At the entrance to Old Hall, you identified yourself secretly and pointed me out to the man issuing tickets. You also passed your notes to him which he, in turn, gave to the medium. She, of course, had been contacted by Mycroft and given the details of my childhood. No doubt she was rewarded well for her part in the proceedings. Finally, I suspect that you contacted Morton and arranged for him to pass several cases to me. I also suspect that you asked him to suppress a few clues to make the cases more challenging!"

I did not confirm Holmes's assertions, but I failed to hold back a hint of a satisfied smile. Holmes just nodded and continued.

"I must say, Watson, that you played your part well and you and Mycroft have earned my eternal gratitude. In my room, you will find my cocaine bottle and syringe. I trust that you will dispose of them safely and that I will not use their like again."

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