SEREPHINA

Excerpt from The Seance Secret by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2023)

Footsteps sounded in the hallway. The parlor’s double doors opened with a flourish, swinging so wide they nearly banged against the wall. At the same time, the chandelier dimmed, leaving only the table lamps for illumination.

A woman stepped toward them. Her frame was not large, but she seemed to fill the doorway, and in the ambient light, her figure seemed to glow. She wore a high-collared gown in a steely blue color that accentuated her ruddy blonde hair, and rings bejeweled her fingers. At her bosom, she held a book. Perhaps a bible, Jo thought.

Her intense, dark-eyed gaze shifted purposefully from one woman to the next. When her eyes settled on Jo, she found herself wanting to turn from the weight of her gaze. Pale and moon-faced, the stranger’s countenance was striking if not exactly pretty. She had something of an ageless look about her, but if pressed, Jo would have guessed her to be perhaps ten years older than herself.

“Ladies,” Gladys Hamilton said. “Allow me to present Miss Serephina Spencer, our medium for tonight’s proceedings.”

Looking straight ahead, Serephina sashayed to the head of the table. Without smiling or speaking, she sat, placing the book on the tabletop. Jo saw it was leather-bound, its title embossed in gold: The Key of Solomon.

Jo expected the doors to swing shut. Instead, Dorinda’s father, Baxter Hamilton, rushed into the parlor. Under one arm, he held a tripod. With his other arm, he carried a wooden box camera.

“Ah, there you are, Baxter,” Gladys said. “I feared you’d forgotten my request.”

“I know better than to neglect a request from you, darling.” A small man with big ideas, Baxter had reminded Jo of an elf when she was young. She’d since learned that his puckish appearance belied a ruthless streak when it came to business dealings.

Several feet from the table, he set down his camera and tripod. “We’re to have our photograph taken?” Jo asked.

“For posterity,” Gladys said.

“Father loves his photography,” Dorinda said. “He has captured some striking images of me. You remember that tunnel that was to be built between our houses, Jo?”

“So we could run back and forth no matter the weather,” Jo said. “But it was never finished.”

“Makes the perfect darkroom.” Baxter had his tripod set up and was fastening his camera to it.

“Father wants to teach me to develop pictures. But those chemicals smell simply dreadful.” Dorinda wrinkled her nose.

Bending over the camera, Baxter squinted into the viewfinder. “Everyone, look this way. Mrs. Bailey, I need you to lean a bit to your right, please. And Miss Spencer, if you’ll be so kind as to lean a tad to your left. Now, you must all sit very still for the flash.”

He took what looked like a small pistol from his pocket.

“I hope you don’t intend to shoot us all,” Eleanor said. “Else we’ll have to get my husband involved.”

Baxter grinned. “No bullets. Just a bit of flash powder. Now, ladies, on the count of three. One, two, and three.”

Jo froze in place, maintaining an appropriately serious expression. There was a popping sound as the flint struck the flash powder. A burnt metal smell tickled her nose. As Baxter ducked beneath the black cloth attached to the camera box, she struggled not to sneeze. “Hold it, hold it,” he said. “No one move.”

A moment later, he popped his head up from beneath the cloth. “Very good, ladies. I’ll get this developed before your next gathering.”

“Perhaps there will be a spirit image on the photograph,” Gladys said. “What do you think, Serephina?”

“I’ve witnessed some rather striking spirit images in my day,” Serephina said. It was the first time she’d spoken. Until now, she’d been observing the guests. A person’s mannerisms might reveal things about them a medium could use to her advantage, Jo thought.

Baxter folded up the camera’s bellows, latched it into its case, and tucked the tripod under his arm again. “I’ll leave you ladies to your spirits,” he said as he left the room, closing the doors behind him.

“Shall we begin?” Serephina said, her gaze shifting again from one woman to the next as they nodded.

“Very well.” The medium sat up straight, her hands flat on the table. “Ladies, the realm of human customs and institutions has been fearfully shaken. The spirit of our present day goes forth from the ashes of the past. Images of another life overwhelm even our most learned scientists. Ancient wonders are re-enacted before our very eyes.”

“Oh, I do hope so.” Dorinda pressed her hands together as if in supplication.

Serephina’s faint smile was her only acknowledgment of Dorinda’s enthusiasm. “Allow me to explain how I operate as a medium,” she continued. “There are persons whose nervous systems act as conductors for the spirits, granting them power. In the vicinity of such a person, the spirits show themselves. I am such a person.”

What a heyday Dr. Julian would have with such a claim, Jo thought. Along with excessive novel reading and imprudent spending, overzealous spiritualism was grounds for a woman to be committed to his asylum. But if Serephina Spencer had ever been threatened with such a consequence, she certainly didn’t show it. She exuded confidence.

“From childhood, I have heard voices and seen spirits,” she said. “My mother tried to convince me these were the workings of my imagination. But I knew better. One evening, a school friend invited me to her house. With her, her parents, and myself, a seance was arranged. Commencing in what I later learned was the usual way, we lowered the gas and began to sing. We placed our hands atop a table such as this one. Soon it began to move about. Then the rappings commenced.”

Eleanor leaned forward, rapt with attention. “Shall we sing tonight?”

“We shall. But first, we must invoke the Arts using this grimoire.” Serephina touched her long index finger to the leather cover of the book before her.

“A grimoire,” Dorinda said. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“A grimoire is a volume in which the wisdom of the ages is gathered, having been transcribed centuries ago and handed down to us.” Serephina opened the book’s cover to a place marked by a thin gold star set in a golden circle. She placed the star in her palm, where it fit rather nicely, and held it out for the women to see. Jo tried to make out the engravings on the metal, but the light was too dim.

“Behold the golden pentacle. The sun rules over gold, and so we rely on this symbol to reduce the spirits to obedience.” When all had gotten a look, Serephina placed the pentacle on the table in front of her. “From the wisdom of Solomon, let us invoke our prayer.”

She flipped the page. “I beseech Thee, O Lord God, the All Powerful and the All Merciful,” she read from the grimoire. “Bless this Circle, and all this place, and all those who are therein, that Thou wilt grant unto us, who serve Thee, and rehearse nothing but the wonders of Thy law, a good Angel for our Guardian. Remove from us every adverse power. Preserve us from evil and from trouble. Grant that we may rest in this place in all safety, through Thee, O Lord, who livest and reignest unto the Age of the Ages.”

“Amen,” Gladys said.

“Dorinda, please latch the doors,” Serephina said. “The spirits we summon must not be allowed to wander freely.”

Leaping from her chair, Dorinda hurried to turn the bolt, securing the doors.

“Gladys, the lamps. They must be turned to their lowest possible setting. The spirits may use particles collected from my form to show themselves. Light prevents them from holding those particles in their compact state.”

As if she were the maid, Gladys did Serephina’s bidding, turning down the gas. The light from the table lamps grew so faint that Jo could barely make out the shape of her own hands on the tabletop.

In a clear, strong voice, Serephina began to sing. They all joined in the familiar hymn.

In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore;

In the sweet by and by,

We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

We shall sing on that beautiful shore

The melodious songs of the blest;

And our spirits shall sorrow no more-

Not a sigh for the blessing of rest.

 

Silence fell over the room. Jo glanced at the head of the table. In the dim light, she could barely make out Serephina’s pale, round face.

“Speak to us, O Spirits,” the medium commanded, her voice loud and forceful. Then she slumped forward, her forehead striking the table.

“She’s gone into a trance,” Dorinda whispered.

A knocking sounded, as if someone was at the parlor’s doors. Then the sound shifted. Knock, knock, knock. Jo listened hard, trying to distinguish where the sound came from next. Beneath the table? No, the corner cabinet. Knock, knock, knock. No, the far window.

Then came a woman’s voice, shrill and thin. “I am Katie King, bringing word from the departed.”

“Have you word from my sister?” Gladys Hamilton spoke softly, as if taking care not to offend the spirit.

Beneath their hands, the table wobbled side to side, then lifted. “It’s come off the floor,” Amity whispered.

Squinting into the darkness, Jo looked down. As best she could tell, the table’s legs were hovering inches above the carpet. She pulled back in her seat, trying to look discreetly beneath the table to see by what mechanism the medium might be performing this feat. Before she could get a good look, the table settled back down, resuming its normal position.

“Doris wants you to know she is well,” said the voice identified as Katie King’s.

Gladys gasped. “You know her name. My sister. My dear, departed sister. She died when she was nine. Oh, Doris, how I’ve missed you. Such fast friends we were, even if we bickered now and then.”

“She knows you got…” Katie’s voice trailed off. “The message is difficult to discern. You got what she’d asked for.”

“A pony!” Gladys said. “Doris wanted one, but Father gave it to me because I was the oldest.”

“She’s growing faint,” Katie said. “Hard to make out what she’s saying. Something about a coverlet on your bed.”

“The one our mother made.” Wonder filled Gladys’s voice. “But that was after Doris was gone.”

“She looks in on you now and again,” Katie said. “She’s glad to see you’ve married so well. And….and…” The shrill, thin voice trailed off.

Softly, Mrs. Hamilton began to sob. “Doris. Oh, Doris. Stay. Please stay. All these many years you’ve been away. All these years.”

A beat of silence followed. “A song,” Dorinda said. “We must have another song.”

Beside Jo, Amity began to sing. She’d always had a lovely voice.

Shall we gather at the river,

Where bright angel feet have trod;

With its crystal tide forever

Flowing by the —

 

“Another is speaking,” the Katie voice interrupted. “Her name…she says her name is Zelda.”

As best she could in the dark, Jo glanced from face to face, trying to read the reactions.

“Zelda is waiting,” Katie said shrilly. “She wishes to be acknowledged.”

More silence. Then, in a still, small voice, Eleanor spoke up. “Zelda is…was my mother.”

“Zelda thanks you for remembering. You have pleased her, even as you disappointed her in life.”

“I didn’t mean to.” Eleanor’s voice quavered.

“Now she wishes to beg your forgiveness.”

Eleanor clutched her pendant. No, not her pendant, Jo thought. Stella’s. “My forgiveness? But why?”

from The Seance Secret: Book Three of The Tidewater Chronicles

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