Any Spirit You Liked, To Order

"Spirit Photograph" of an affectionate ghost. 1890

“Spirit Photograph” of an affectionate ghost. 1890

A busy day, so I present to you a vintage fiction of a  spirit-summoner and her would-be impresario.


Mr. Aloysius Tappenham of Stamford Road, was a dealer in frauds. It must not be understood from this statement that he was either a company-promoter or the manager of a philanthropic undertaking. On the contrary, he was as honest a man of business as you would find in London, and he  earned his living by discovering and introducing new attractions in the shape of “Wonders,” “Phenomenons,” and so forth. The music-halls were Mr. Tappenham’s best customers, and when he successfully launched a new impostor, he reaped a handsome return in the way of commissions on the salary of the impostor and the profits of the entrepreneur. All his protégés were a success— a fact chiefly to be attributed to his unvarying habit of insisting that he himself should be shown “how it was done.” He promised and observed absolute secrecy; but, as he always said, he could not properly judge of the merit of any particular fraud unless he were allowed a private view of the machinery by which it was worked.  Some few years ago, in the very prime of life and the full tide of a profitable trade, Mr. Tappenham suddenly retired from business. This was the reason:

One day, Mr. Tappenham discovered a treasure in the shape of a very attractive young lady whose name was Hopkins, but who proposed to call herself Mlle. Claire. Claire was hardly suitable to the music-halls; Mr. Tappenham thought that she was above that, and proposed to “run” her himself in Bond Street, on half-profits terms. Her specialty was the production of any spirit you liked to order. She received in a dimly lighted room; you told her who you were and whose spirit you wished to interview, and forthwith, without any nonsense of hand -holding or table-turning, she caused to appear a shadowy yet clearly perceptible figure which was exactly like the person you named, spoke with that person’s voice, and exhibited full — or reasonably full — knowledge of everything which that person, and that person only, might be expected to know.

Mr. Tappenham was much struck with the dexterity of this performance. Of course, when explained, it resolved itself into some clever optical illusion, a little ventriloquism, and a good deal of tact in returning to the inquirer, in another form, information pumped out of him beforehand. The materials were simple, the result was highly artistic, and Mr. Tappenham determined to furnish the only thing needful to set the town aflame with the new marvel — namely, capital. However, before taking the last irreparable step, he decided on a final trial. He prepared the mise-en-scene with due completeness, and invited Mlle. Claire to experiment on himself.

“Consider me as one of the public,” he said,  and give me a hair-raiser.”

Mlle. Claire protested that he was too much behind the scenes; but, on being pressed, she consented to try, and asked Mr. Tappenham to name his spirit.

He thought for a moment, and then said: “When I was a young man, I knew a girl called Nellie Davies — a pretty girl, my dear.  I dare say I didn’t treat her over well; but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s have her.”

Clever little Mlle. Claire asked a question or two — and Mr. Tappenham admired the neat and apparently undesigned nature of her questions — and then set to work, after drawing the curtains a shade closer and turning the light a trifle lower.

Mr. Tappenham sat comfortably in an arm-chair, his hands crossed over his white waistcoat and a smile of satisfaction on his face. Presently the shadowy shape began to form itself a yard or two from Mr. Tappenham.

“Capital, capital!” he chuckled. “That’ll fetch ’em.” The shape grew more definite.

“Will that do?” asked Mlle. Claire, triumphantly; “is it like?”

“I should say it was! Make it speak!”

Mlle. Claire laughed, and, projecting her voice to the shape, began in low, sweet, sad tones: “You summoned me. What do you desire of your dead friend?”

She stopped, laughing again, and said: “It’s no use when you’re up to it beforehand.”

Mr. Tappenham did not answer her. He sat looking at the shape, and seemed to be listening intently.

“Shall I go on?” she inquired.

Mr. Tappenham took no notice.

“What’s the matter with him?” thought Mlle. Claire; “I shan’t go on if he’s not listening.”

Assuming her pretended voice again, she said: “I will try to forgive. Farewell, farewell,” and, with a merry, boisterous laugh, she displaced the arrangement which produced the illusion, and said to Mr. Tappenham:

“Now are you satisfied?”  Then she added, in a tone of surprise: “Whatever is the matter?” For as she looked, the expression of his face changed from attention to surprise, from surprise to uneasiness, He turned to her and said, with a forced smile: “It’s too clever — a sight too clever. That’ll do; stop it, please.”

“Stop it?”

“Yes; I’ve had enough. It’s — it’s damned absurd, but it’s getting on my nerves. Stop it, I say — stop it!” His voice rose at the end almost into a cry.

“Why, I have stopped it this three minutes!” she answered, in surprise.

His eyes had wandered from her again to where the shape bad been; but at her last words, he turned to her again, with a start. “What! No, no. No nonsense! Come, now, be a good girl, and stop it. I’ve had enough.”

“Are you drunk?” asked Mlle. Claire impatiently. “It’s all over.”

“I won’t be made a fool of,” said he angrily. “Stop it, or not a farthing do you get from me.”

“Heaven bless the man, he’s mad!” exclaimed the lady, who began to be a little uncomfortable herself. It is an eerie thing to see a man looking hard at— nothing and listening intently to — nothing.

Suddenly he jumped up and ran toward Mlle.  Claire. He seized her by the arm and cried; “Stop, you little devil, stop! Do you want to madden me? I never did it, I never did. At least I never meant it — so help me God, I never meant it.”

“Mr. Tappenham, you’re dreaming. There’s nothing there. I’m saying nothing.”

“She’s coming, she’s coming,” he cried. “Take her away, take her away.”

Mlle. Claire looked at his face. Then she, too, gave a shriek of fright, and, hiding her face in her hands, sank on the floor sobbing. She saw nothing.

But what was that face looking at?

As for Mr. Tappenham, he fled into the corner of the room. And when Mlle. Claire recovered herself enough to draw back the curtains and let in the blessed sun, he lay on the floor like a man dead.

Mlle. Claire was a good girl. She had a mother and two little brothers to keep; so she stuck to the business. But she never liked it very much after that day. Mr. Tappenham could afford to retire, and he did retire. He lives very quietly and gives large sums in charity. Mlle. Claire knows all the tricks that ever were invented. She is a thorough-going little skeptic, and believes in nothing that she does not see, and in very little of what she does. Therefore, she merely exemplifies feminine illogicality when she thinks to herself, as she can not help thinking now and then:

“I wonder what he did to Nelly Davies?”

She told me about it, and I believed her when she said that she was not playing a trick on Mr. Tappenham.  But perhaps she was deceiving me also; if so, that is an explanation.

I repeated the story to a scientific man. He said that it furnished an interesting instance of the permanence of an optical impression after the removal of the external excitant. That is another explanation.

Or it may have been the working of conscience; that is an explanation in a way, though an improbable one, because, in spite of many opportunities, Mr. Tappenham’s conscience had never given him any inconvenience before. It has since. — St. James’s Gazette.

Sport Royal & Other Stories, Anthony Hope, 1895

Hope was the author of The Prisoner of Zenda, Rupert of Hentzau, and other romances.

If you like Edwardian fiction, you might enjoy my neo-Edwardian short story collection: A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales, available for Kindle and Nook.

I’ll be back on Saturday with more fortean non-fiction.



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