New York City, 1849
They closed the window curtains and waited for the ghost to arrive.
"Are you prepared to see your husband now?"
The widow nodded once, twisting her thin silver wedding band. "I do not know what to say," she whispered, and then smiled just a little. "We were married for eight years, and now I do not know what to say."
Celia Thomason placed her hand on the young widow's wrist. "I understand, Mrs. Jenson. But your husband will be the same man, maintain the same character as he did before his passing. You needn't be shy."
"Don't people get better?" She cleared her throat once. "What I mean is, after they have passed over, don't they become kinder and more God-fearing?"
Even in the plush, cool dimness of the front room parlor, with the heavy green draperies blocking the late-afternoon sun, muffling the sounds of brisk footsteps and rolling carriages and clip-clopping horses, Celia could see glintings of white in the widow's hair. Yet she could not possibly have reached thirty -- perhaps she was even younger than Celia herself.
Her eyes, though, were old and tired, a flat gray framed by lids of dry crepe, her thin lips pallid and taut. Chronological years were meaningless to a woman who had labored hard her entire life, only to be forced into more dire circumstances now.
It had been several months since her husband perished in an appalling accident. A longshoreman, he was unloading great juke sacks of coffee, each one weighing hundreds of pounds. Apparently he had not realized how precariously balanced the highest sack was, and when he tripped, the entire pile tumbled onto him, leaving his wife and three children nearly penniless.
With what small funds remained, Mrs. Jenson had come to Celia Thomason, noted spiritualist, to seek advice from her late husband. Most of the city knew of Miss Thomason's remarkable skills. At a time when spiritualists were pitching tents, collecting money, and fleeing by dawn, Celia Thomason was solid, permanent. After all, she worked from her aunt's respectable brick home just off Washington Square, and had been conducting séances for almost four months. Thus she had stability and longevity on her side.
"Sometimes souls do become kinder after they have passed. Now close your eyes, Mrs. Jenson," Celia instructed. Hesitantly, the woman complied. "We must think of your husband, the best elements of his character. Think of his smile."
The widow tilted her head, then after a few moments, shook it. "To tell you the truth, Hiram didn't much take to smiling on a regular basis. When he did smile, why I knew he had been sipping from the jug again."
"I see." Celia patted the woman's hand. "Then imagine his kindness to your children, his tenderness towards the babies."
The widow leaned forward, her brow drawn in concentration. The seconds seemed to yawn with the wait as Mrs. Jenson searched her memory. Finally she sighed. "Miss Thomason, try as I might, I can't recall any such moments. Poor Hiram suffered terribly from the bilious colic, and he thought the children made it worse, what with their noise and racket-making and all."
"I see. Well, then think of his tenderness towards you. When you were courting, and he was a romantic young man in love and..."
The widow shook her head again, eyes still dutifully closed. "He wasn't ever much on tenderness, Miss Thomason. Or romantic. I thought that would come in time, after we married, but...well. All that came were the children. No, Hiram had many good qualities, but he was not what one would call a tender man."
"Then dwell on those good qualities. Think of them one by one."
The widow nodded eagerly, then her face fell slowly. "Let me think," she began.
"As a provider?" Celia offered. "He was a good provider for his family, was he not?"
"Hiram could have been a good provider had he applied himself," the widow said softly. "But he wasn't much on business. More often than not I had to take the coins from his pockets at night when he came home after..." Her face reddened even in the darkness. "After a hard day of work, he said a man deserved a strong drink or two. So I would take the coins and use them to help with the eggs. I sell eggs and sometimes butter, you see, and more and more, we had to rely on the egg money."
"Of course." Celia squeezed her hand. "Then think of him at church, standing beside you and the children and...Is anything wrong?"
"Well, Miss Thomason, the only time I recall Hiram at church was a few months ago."
"Then think of that image!" Celia cried, relieved. "Think of him..."
"It was his funeral."
"But he was handsome, I will admit, in his clean shirt and all."
"Indeed. Well, then, is that how you would prefer to think of him?"
"I suppose so." She bit her lower lip. "His shirt was so nice and clean. His face was shaved so close it almost shined. I don't reckon his fingernails had ever been so tidy."
"Then let's imagine your Hiram all clean and shaved, shall we?"
The widow nodded and closed her eyes even tighter in concentration.
They sat in silence for a few moments, the outside street sounds a faraway din. The widow seemed to relax, adjusting to having her eyes closed, being in a strange parlor with plush carpet beneath her feet and the smooth mahogany table wood beneath her hands.
"Now I will summon my spirit guides," Celia instructed. "Hopefully they will help you communicate with your husband. Are you ready, Mrs. Jenson?"
The other woman nodded. "Yes, yes. I believe so."
"Very well. Keep your eyes closed while I reach out to the other side."
For more long moments both women remained silent. Then finally Celia's spoke in a much-altered voice, a deeper register with flat inflections, a peculiar monotone. It was a mechanical-sounding voice, as if operated by the gears of a clock. "The spirits are gathering now. They are bringing him, your husband..."
She jumped. "Is he here? Is he in this room?"
"Yes. Yes. The spirits say yes." She maintained the strange tone. "He is here to help you."
"Can you see him?" Her voice was rising. "Can I look?"
"No. Do not look now. But he's beside you, and the spirits say he is gentle and loving."
"Yes. It is Hiram."
"I'm so sorry about the shoes, Hiram!" The widow spoke into the air, winding her black-edged handkerchief into a knot. "Please don't be angry. I just want to make sure you're not angry, that you won't haunt me or the children. It wasn't our fault, the shoes!"
"Oh, he's not angry!" Celia rushed. Then she returned to the mechanical voice. "No. He wishes to convey that he is pleased. Wait a moment." As if listening to ghostly voices, she paused, then continued. "He is happy about the shoes."
"He is? About the shoes?" For the first time a note of skepticism crept into her voice. She stiffened and opened her eyes, glancing around the parlor. "Where is he, then? I don't see him. We were married for eight years, Miss Thomason. Why can I not see him?"
Celia's expression remained blank, her eyes wide and unblinking. "The spirits say you were not ready yet for the glorious vision. But do not fear. Your husband will soon make himself known to you."
Then there was a noise, soft at first. "What's that?" The widow looked around the darkened room, to the settee, the wing chairs, the tea table. The somber wood trim added to the general feeling of fashionable gloom and clutter. Then she glanced toward the fireplace, cold and bare in spite of the November chill outside. Fires were never used during sessions, it was explained to the clients, as the crackling interfered with Miss Thomason's communication with those beyond.
Mrs. Jenson had located the source of the noise. A delicate blue and white porcelain vase on the mantelpiece was rocking back and forth, evenly, rhythmically. As she watched, her eyes widened. "What is that?"
The widow gaped. "What's he doing?" Dropping her voice, her chin quivered. "What's he going to do?"
"He wants you to know he's here."
She swallowed, eyes riveted to the vase. And then in a flash, the vase popped off the mantelpiece, shattering on the glazed brick below.
"Oh Lordy!" The young widow jumped to her feet. At that moment a violin resting on a wing chair seemed to rise forward, as if it would have stood up and marched off the chair. Instead, the bow that had been beside it began to hover, then saw against the strings. A scratchy tune was heard, and Celia took hold of the woman's hand to keep her from fleeing.
"Please, let me go!" She tried to yank her hand away, but Celia tightened her grasp.
Then she stopped and listened, her face melting from panic to puzzlement, then to recognition. "Miss Thomason, that was Hiram's favorite tune! I don't know the name of it, but he sometimes whistled it when he came home late at night."
"He wishes you to receive a message." Celia's voice, calm and commanding, rose above the uncertain squeaks of the violin.
Mrs. Jenson glanced away from the instrument for a moment as her eyes widened, staring at nothing, her brow lined in confusion. Then she looked nervously to the side, left and right, as if expecting something unpleasant to happen.
Celia did not outwardly react to her client's expression, but it was one she knew all too well. She had seen the same controlled stare, the sudden rigid tension, on women young and old, members of respected society as well as those who dwelled on the outskirts of town. Their social status mattered not. It was all the same, no matter who they were or how grand or humble their lives.
Like so many others, the young widow was every bit as terrified of her husband in death as she had been in life.
"What? What does he want?" Mrs. Jenson's roughened hand began to tremble.
Celia smiled, dropping the mechanical voice as she again spoke in her own warm tone. "He longs for you to be happy," she said simply.
"Hiram? You sure you got the right spirit?"
"He says he's sorry, so very sorry for all of the grief he caused you," she continued.
"He does?" Her voice was a mere sketch.
"Although he seldom told you, Mrs. Jenson, he loved you and the children very much. And he was proud of what you were able to do with the butter and egg business."
"He was?" Slowly she sank back into the chair. "He never told me, not any of that."
"Well, he wants you to know now just how he felt. And there is something else, something he wishes me to convey to you most urgently. He wants you to remarry. He says there is a man..."
"No! That isn't true! I was always faithful to Hiram!"
"Of course you were! He knows that, Mrs. Jenson! He's always known that. But he believes you can find happiness with..." Celia closed her large, deeply set eyes. She paused for a moment, as if waiting for a phantom voice to give her the name. Then slowly she opened her eyes and looked directly into the widow's face. "He wants you to marry someone named John Tudlow."
All color drained from Mrs. Jenson's face. Her lips were white as she placed trembling fingertips against her cheek, as if reassuring herself this was real.
"Mr. Tudlow, he owns a dairy farm over in Brooklyn," she whispered. "He's been most kind to me and the children, buying our eggs for more money than they're worth. He even taught Seth, my oldest boy, how to whittle." She seemed to be speaking to herself as she sank back into the chair. "He's been most kind."
"Well, your husband says you should marry him. He'll take care of you and the children."
Mrs. Jenson remained motionless for a long while, and the color gradually returned to her face. And for the first time that afternoon -- perhaps in a very long time -- she smiled.
"Hiram's not mad?"
"Of course not. He wants you to be content and for the children to thrive. That is his deepest wish."
"Mr. Tudlow." She smiled, and then with an almost girlish giggle, she leaned toward Celia. "He's very handsome, Mr. Tudlow is. Not in a boisterous way, but he's quiet and kind. And he's taken the temperance pledge, he does not touch spirits of any kind."
"No spirits, Mrs. Jenson? Then you had better not tell him of this visit." The violin had settled back against the chair, and all was quiet in the parlor.
Mrs. Jenson gave Celia a blank look, then, slowly, she smiled again. "I understand! That was a jest -- spirits and spirits!"
"Mrs. Jenson." Now Celia could not hide her pleasure. "I do believe you're going to be just fine."
The widow rose to her feet and looked around the room. "This is a lovely parlor, Miss Thomason. A very lovely parlor indeed. I've often wished for curtains on my own windows. Perhaps soon, quite soon." Then she straightened and opened a small drawstring bag tied to her wrist. "I don't have much, but here it is, all of the money that..."
"No," Celia lowered her voice. "No, please, Mrs. Jenson. I don't want any of your money."
"Please. Keep it for you and the children. And maybe you could buy yourself a pretty new bonnet, or those curtains."ar
"But I thought..."
"Never mind what you thought." Celia pulled the drawstring tightly and pushed it gently back to the widow. "Just remember that you deserve happiness, and if you find it, well, that will be reward enough for both me and your late husband."
Dumbfounded, Mrs. Jenson allowed Celia to lead her by the elbow through the parlor and into the hallway. It wasn't until Celia opened the front door and the brisk autumn wind splayed across their faces that Mrs. Jenson stopped abruptly. The trees in Washington Square opened their leaves to the breeze, brilliant shades of copper and gold, and some children were playing ring around the rosie, hands clasped as they sang and laughed in a merry circle. A man and woman, their age impossible to determine, stood on the far edge of the square, heads leaning so close they were almost touching, and he took her hand and drew it to his lips.
The widow turned to Celia, her eyes searching. And suddenly she smiled. "Bless you, Miss Thomason." She squeezed her hand, and after a moment's hesitation, she wrapped her thin arm around Celia's shoulder in an awkward embrace. "Bless you." And then, as if embarrassed, she scurried down the front steps and onto the street, never looking back, clutching her black shawl about her shoulders, her head erect.
Celia watched the retreating figure as she crossed the square and wondered if she would ever see Mrs. Jenson again, or if she would move happily to the countryside of Brooklyn and start a new life.
Standing on the steps of the brick town house, Celia Thomason was a striking presence. Her very appearance was vexing to her Aunt Prudence, who had fervently hoped her niece would grow into a fetchingly short, plump woman with curves, preferably in the right places, and curls, preferably blond. Coincidentally, much as Prudence herself had been in her youth.
But Celia, who had lived with her aunt since the age of eight, had instead become a tall, slender young woman with thick reddish brown hair and brown eyes that seemed too large and too knowing for a twenty-six-year-old spinster. Growing up with such unfashionable physical characteristics had been a most unattractive act of defiance on Celia's part. And it was not as if there was nothing to be done about her appearance. To alleviate, if not rectify, the dismal situation, Aunt Pru had tried to convince Celia to sleep in curling rags, to hunch over to minimize her height, and to pad her figure with horsehair or cushions, even India rubber "hips."
"You have such a dainty waist," Aunt Pru would sigh. "But how can one see such a waist without a little help? Think of the padding as signposts, my dear. So that gentlemen can know where to look."
"Oh, Aunt Pru, if they don't know where to look by now, I can't help them. And I refuse to become a human road map."
According to Aunt Pru, as long as she remained unrepentantly tall and lanky, she would remain woefully single. What Aunt Pru did not know was that Celia had become determined to avoid marriage. Her experiences in the past few months had all but confirmed what she had long suspected, that only the rare marriage was a happy one. If no man wished to marry her as she was, well, that suited her quite nicely, thank you.
And in spite of her unfashionable figure, she'd had offers from several men. But most of them were widowers with a houseful of ill-behaved children. Celia knew very well that a wife was a less-expensive proposition than a housekeeper and governess. And once married, a wife could seldom leave, unlike a paid employee. No, Celia found nothing charming in the institution of marriage. Perhaps for other women, but not for Celia.
She stepped back into the house, closing the front door behind her as she rubbed her upper arms. Some good had been done during that last session, she thought to herself. The poor woman might find a measure of joy. That was a satisfying notion to Celia.
In the parlor she pushed back one of the thick drapes, allowing the misty white sunlight to fill that corner of the room. Now that light streamed into the room, the air of gloom lifted, making the parlor comfortable and inviting.
There was a rustling in the fireplace. Celia, consumed with the task of tying back the other side of the curtain, did not bother to glance over her shoulder as a large, booted foot emerged from the fireplace. There it dangled for a few moments, twisting at the ankle, followed by dust and grime and another large foot to match the first.
"Miss Thomason," came a muffled male voice, hollow as if from a great distance. "Can you lend a hand?"
She finished the tie with a satisfied pat and turned to the fireplace. "Certainly, Patrick." The sight was absurd, two feet hanging toes-outward from the chimney, and for a moment she grinned as the feet made a vague pedaling motion. Then with sure hands she pulled on both boots, and in an instant Patrick Higgens slid into the parlor.
"Sorry, Miss." He brushed the chimney dust from his shoulders. "So, did she enjoy today's show?"
Celia cringed at the words. "Yes, well."
A panel behind the chair with the violin popped open. Aunt Prudence, her head a mass of steel gray ringlets, smiled. "What did we get, my dear? That one was worth five dollars."
"Ah, more than that! Ten, at the very least." Patrick, a sturdy young man with a face full of freckles, crossed his arms. "That was the right song, wasn't it, Miss Thomason?"
"Yes, it was the right song, Patrick. At least Mrs. Jenson thought so, and that is all that matters. Thank you."
"I was a bit concerned, Miss. You see, my sources told me that was the late Hiram Jenson's favorite tune, but they had only heard him with his fancy lady. It's called 'Slap the...' " His face reddened and he halted midsentence. Clearing his throat with a rolled fist at his mouth, he looked at both women and continued. "Whist, I thought. What if she's never heard the song, his wife? But she had heard it. Perhaps not the words, mind you, but the tune seemed to go well enough."
"Patrick, you were brilliant!" Aunt Pru patted the lad's shoulder. "And the bit about the dairy farmer, well. It was fortune itself that guided you to the corner that day, when the dairy farmer discussed marriage to the Widow Jenson with his friend. Nothing short of brilliant!"
Both Patrick and Aunt Pru beamed at each other for a few moments, savoring the triumph, as if waiting for a round of applause. They almost missed Celia's demure exit.
"Celia?" Aunt Pru called. "How much did we make on this one?"
"Well," she began, not looking at the pair as they stood together.
"How much?" Aunt Pru repeated.
Celia did not answer.
"She's done it again, Mrs. Cooper." Patrick whistled through his teeth. "She's done it again."
"Celia." Aunt Pru spoke the name as an accusation.
Celia shrugged. "She's a poor widow with children." Unable to look them in the eyes, she began to rearrange the crystal brandy decanter on a side table and brush imaginary dust from the lip of a sparkling glass. "They live near the Five Points, on the very edge of that terrible place, with the ruffian gangs and the pigs running wild."
There was a silence from the other two, and Celia realized she had failed to make an impact. "She's a poor widow with children," she repeated.
"She won't be a poor widow for long, now that she has her sights set on that Brooklyn dairy farmer. Now that we supplied her with a gentle push. That alone should be worth something." Aunt Pru placed her hands on ample hips upholstered in black damask. "Honestly, Celia, what are you thinking? This is the fifth time this week you have refused to accept fees from our clients."
Patrick shook his head. "And to think of all that work, wasted. And me in that cold dark chimney with the bellows, making the vase dance a jig."
"But it wasn't wasted, don't you see? This poor woman has slaved her entire life. Now her mind is at ease, and she'll find contentment. The children will be cared for, children who have known nothing but hunger and fear. She never would have made herself happy without some encouragement. Isn't that payment enough?"
The expressions on Patrick and Aunt Pru's faces made it clear that no, indeed, that was not payment enough. Patrick shook his head once more and left the room, mumbling something in Gaelic. Aunt Pru waited until he was gone before facing her niece.
"We cannot live on air, my dear," she said to her niece. "When your uncle was alive, rest his soul, we had the luxury of not having to think about where our next meal came from. But, Celia, all of that has changed. While your uncle has provided for us quite handsomely, we must add to that sum in order to maintain the house."
Celia nodded, holding a passive expression as her aunt continued her monologue about responsibility and their future. She had perfected her speech over the past few months, so now it was a smoothly pat recitation punctuated by occasional hand-wringing and one or two sad tilts of her head.
Part of Celia listened with detached wonder. Poor Aunt Prudence had no idea how dire their circumstances really were. Yes, Uncle James, the sweetest and kindest of men, had indeed shielded them from all matters of finance. He kept them ignorant of financial reality. As they nursed him through his long, final illness, he had grasped her hand when they were alone and tried to speak, but his voice would not come. Instead of words, his efforts had formed wheezes and coughs.
But soon enough she learned what he had been trying to say. The information had been delivered not from gentle Uncle James, but from the three rough-looking men who appeared on the doorstep the very day of his funeral.
Their message had been quite simple. Uncle James had borrowed money -- a lot of money -- during the last years of his life. According to the toughest-looking of the three filthy brutes on the doorstep, a beefy man with a nose like an onion bulb covered with splotches and dots, Uncle James had gambled heavily on anything and everything, from international matters (he bet England would become the next state) to more local concerns (that Jeb Hankins's rooster could learn to talk).
Unfortunately, Uncle James was not a very astute speculator, and soon he was depending on these suspicious characters to lend him enough to keep up the household, to pay the servants, and above all, to keep his beloved Prudence from knowing the truth.
The end result was that if the estate -- meaning Aunt Pru and Celia herself -- did not repay his various loans in full by the fifteenth of December, they would all be destitute. The onion-nosed man had even waved the deed to the house under her chin for effect.
They had searched for that deed before her uncle had died. Now she knew why it was not to be found.
As much of a shock as that information had been to Celia, who kept Aunt Pru from hearing the men, the real surprise came when they informed her how much was owed.
By mid-December, they had to repay twenty-one thousand dollars. Cash. The vile man in the center showed her a contract, signed in the undeniable spidery hand of Uncle James. He had agreed to the sum, and to the fifty percent per annum interest.
It was now November, and Celia had less than a month to find twenty-one thousand dollars.
Unless Celia could find a way to repay the sum, everyone in the household -- from the servants and their families to Celia and Aunt Prudence -- would be destitute. She couldn't even attempt to sell some of the more valuable items in the house, for they were all accounted for in the contract he had signed.
Dear, sweet Uncle James, with his wispy white hair and his gentle blue eyes, always fastidious in his white starched stock and old-fashioned jacket, had bartered away their future on the off-chance that a rooster could talk.
From the moment Celia had heard the truth, she had decided two things. One, no matter what, she must do her very best to prevent Aunt Pru from knowing the truth about her husband. In her grief, the one fact that had been a constant source of comfort to her aunt had been the untarnished memory of James Cooper. Celia would not take that away from Aunt Pru. Not ever.
The second thing Celia had decided was that she would do everything possible to come up with the money. Perhaps she could do it, and the servants would never know, and Aunt Pru could rest easy in the notion that Uncle James had provided well for them before his death.
Beyond reaching the goal of twenty-one thousand dollars, Celia had no thoughts.
It hadn't seemed such an impossible task to accomplish six months earlier, when Uncle James first passed away. Initially she had been stunned -- he had been a father to her since her own parents' death almost twenty years before. Although he had been ill for several years, the notion of Uncle James's being absent was quite overwhelming. Then she shook herself out of her sorrow and set about doing anything she could to make money, from taking in sewing to writing articles for the New York Daily Dispatch under the name of Cecil Thomason. She even baked pies to sell, much to Aunt Pru's amusement.
The grand irony was that she was successful at everything she attempted -- except making enough money to pay off the men. Her sewing was praised, her articles printed in full, and her pies became the mainstay at several fashionable levees. She was even informed that Mayor Caleb Woodhull had admired her apple pie served at a tea honoring heroes of the Mexican War.
But her total profits, the five cents here, the twenty cents there, an occasional few dollars, were all absorbed by the household like drops of water in an ocean. It meant nothing, did nothing to help.
Then, just when she was at her wit's end, something miraculous happened.
Aunt Prudence was entertaining some of her friends, mostly widows, all sitting primly with their tepid tea and lukewarm conversation. Celia stepped into the parlor, her hands still slick from working the crust on her latest batch of pies, and offered the women fresh cups of tea.
As usual, Mrs. Wheelen was discussing her favorite topic -- illness and death.
"And I warned him," she stated in a hushed voice, as if the subject of her discussion was but a few yards away. "I told him he had something of the egg eye about him."
"The egg eye?" Celia repeated, unable to keep the mirth from her voice.
"Yes indeed. It is more of a hard-boiled egg eye, you see, all popped out and yellow." Mrs. Wheelen savored her words like a chef tasting the most sublime of delicacies.
"Heavens!" Mrs. Jarvis cried, her hand with its fingerless lace gloves covering her mouth. "How very unpleasant!"
"Unpleasant it may be." Mrs. Wheelen enjoyed a theatrical sip of her tea, pinkie finger waving in barely harnessed glee, before handing the empty cup to Celia. "The point is, within two days he was dead."
Celia reached for the cup, and the instant she touched it, it flew across the room.
There was a collective gasp.
"That was him!" Mrs. Wheelen's own eyes grew wide. "That was Old Ben! He said just before he expired that he would come back to see me!"
"The blacksmith?" Aunt Pru had winked at Celia. "Now why on earth would Old Ben the blacksmith come all this way just to visit you, Mrs. Wheelen?"
"But it was him! Haven't you heard about the goings-on with those Fox sisters upstate?"
Of course they had all heard. Everyone knew about Margaret and Katie Fox, young girls who were able to summon spirits at will. Those who attended their sessions swore the otherworldly tappings were genuine, that remarkable messages were being sent in code to the sisters, and from the sisters to the grieving survivors of those who has passed from this earth.
In this age of spectacular discoveries, from Mr. Morse and his telegraph machine to the harnessing of electricity, this seemed to be the most amazing feat of all. At last, death would no longer mean an end to joy. Finally man -- or, rather, two farm girls -- had conquered eternity itself.
Their fame had spread like a thunderbolt in the past year, and numbered amongst their ardent supporters were some of the greatest thinkers of the day, including Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. No one was immune to the universal lure of communicating with the dead. No one could fail to be moved by the promise of immortal love.
Now that interest had been piqued, and the Fox sisters were unable to see everyone who longed for their services, others began to rouse spirits, for a hefty fee. There were posters pasted on every wooden fence and free brick wall, advertisements in most every publication, offering the services of the newly named spiritualists.
Celia reached over to Mrs. Timmons's cup, and that, too, leapt from her hand. She was about to apologize -- clearly, the shortening left on her hand from the just-finished piecrust had caused the cups to fall.
But the words never left her lips. Or perhaps they had -- it was impossible to tell. There had been a veritable cacophony of noise -- shrill, excited. The subdued parlor of the late James Cooper became a torrid world of exclamation points and shouts.
Mrs. Timmons began to sob, stating that she would pay ten dollars -- anything -- to hear one last word from her dear George. Another voice, it had been impossible to locate the source in the hectic din, was crying out to a lost child.
Several servants entered, one with a dripping wood bucket of water -- assuming that the only event that could cause such a commotion would be a swiftly moving fire. But Celia had led the women from the parlor in a frenzy, bonnets still on the chairs, tables overturned, bits of cake and dainties crushed into the carpet.
The three servants scratched their heads, righted the furniture, and removed the broken cups and saucers before they left.
Celia stood, dumbfounded, in the empty parlor with her aunt, teapot still in her hand.
Aunt Prudence seemed equally dumbfounded, until she asked a simple, fateful question.
"Dearest." She turned slowly to Celia. "Exactly how much did Mrs. Timmons say she would pay to speak to her late husband?"
Thus Celia Thomason, noted spiritualist, came into existence.
Finally, Aunt Prudence finished her sermon on responsibility and the virtues of hard work and perseverance. Celia glanced over her aunt's shoulder, where the daguerreotype of Uncle James was propped in its ornate gold frame. How much had that vanity cost? At the time he had complained about sitting still for so long during the exposure, of the vile chemical smells in Matthew Brady's studio on Broadway and Fulton Street. And even then he had been borrowing money from those men hand over fist, money that would go to pay the photographer at fifty percent interest. Even then he had set into motion the means of their ruin. Sweet, kind, oblivious Uncle James.
Yes, they had been successful with the spiritualist business, presenting Celia as the genuine article. It had started gradually, first with Mrs. Timmons. Word spread throughout the area, and soon people were coming from all over to seek the aid of Celia Thomason, and they always paid cash for the privilege. Not that she ever asked for it. The grateful customers simply expected to reimburse the fetching Celia and her thoroughly respectable aunt for their ministrations.
But Celia was far from comfortable with the business. There was an unmistakable air of deceit whenever someone would hand her the money, and she always wanted to push it back. Until that moment in the session, she could almost justify their unintentional trade, for she saw the relief in people's eyes, the tension leave their body as they heard their loved ones who had passed over were happy and content and returning their love threefold. The séances offered a chance to say a final good-bye, to utter words that were unspoken, to right petty or enormous wrongs.
Aunt Prudence went so far as to call their sessions "grief-reducers." She even maintained that most of their customers knew the tricks. Deep down they realized the sessions were fraudulent, but their overwhelming desire to believe kept them coming. Again and again individuals of the highest social rank as well as the more humble would return to Celia with further questions, more words they wished to share with those gone from this world.
Sometimes Celia wondered if she could really summon spirits. With the ardent thanks of comforted clients still ringing in her ears, she sometimes lay in her own bed, hoping to rouse her parents, dead now these twenty years. Maybe she could do it, she would whisper, closing her eyes and clutching a blanket in her fists. Please, please come to me, she would pray. Please, Mother, please, Father. I miss you. I cannot recall your features. Please come to me.
Then she would open her eyes and see nothing except the bedroom, if there was a full moon to illuminate. If not, she would see nothing but dark shadows that she could wish to be almost anything she pleased. Surely if she had any genuine talent, she could have seen her parents, or received one last message from beyond.
No, she was a fraud. There was nothing magic about her, no special talents sent from above or below or sideways or anyplace else for that matter. It was Celia and the clients in a darkened parlor, and from there it was nothing but trickery mingled with hopes.
And their trickery had required help. The task of transforming a pleasant room into a veritable theater of the dead took ingenuity and a lot of hard work. They soon learned that their own household staff could assist during the sessions.
The servants had thoroughly enjoyed the change of pace, especially Patrick, who proved to be surprisingly creative in devising an intricate pulley system to manipulate objects such as musical instruments, bric-a-brac, and occasionally one of the more spry maids swathed in yards of gauzy, ghostly white cloth. One maid, Ginny, made an especially convincing child due to her tiny stature, while Hannah excelled at women of every age and young men.
Patrick prided himself in the knowledge that from behind hidden panels or within the chimney he could make virtually anything fly with the finesse and elegance of a master puppeteer. It was a matter of honor, and the more challenging the assignment -- the infant twins, for example -- the more impressive his results.
Aunt Prudence had experimented with lanterns and slides, flickering images to project on walls or the ceiling. But those methods failed when the paper slides caught on fire, leaving one man to assume his gentle, God-fearing mother had been consumed by the flames of Hades. It took all of Celia's considerable diplomatic skills to coax him back to the table and believe that his elderly mother was, in fact, with the angels in heaven enjoying a festive bonfire.
The sleight of hand only took them so far, however. She needed more substantial information once the flash and brilliance of Patrick's show faded. For it was later, when the customers thought over what had happened, that they needed solid information upon which to cling. They craved tidbits to prove that what had happened was real, to mull over in the darkness of their own rooms and grant comfort in the cold of the night.
So it was Celia herself who orchestrated what she began to consider the most duplicitous deception of all -- the Green Book. It started as a ledger of names and relations of the first clients gathered in the most obvious of ways, from the graveyard. Celia herself had gone to the Timmons plot and jotted down names and dates to help lend authenticity to the first sessions. The first Green Book expanded to include tavern gossip, newspaper clippings, information gathered from family Bibles when Aunt Prudence visited friends. They followed individuals to learn daily habits, gently pumped innkeepers and merchants with such a delicate touch they never realized how much information they were giving, if any. There were six Green Books now, all bursting with such details and personal information that they could become blackmailers if all else failed.
Indeed, all else had failed.
Yes, they had been successful. But because of the cost of their "productions" -- the materials needed, the extra wages paid to the servants -- Celia had been able to save only four hundred thirty-eight dollars. It was a terrific sum, to be sure. But not nearly enough to cover the twenty-one thousand due in a matter of weeks.
So it made no difference if Mrs. Jenson kept her few dollars. Celia would have to reveal the truth to Aunt Prudence and the servants soon enough. In the meantime, perhaps she could do some good yet, comfort a few more grieving individuals.
For in a matter of days, she would be unable to help anyone, including herself.
Aunt Prudence was waiting for a response to her sermon. Celia took a deep breath. Maybe she should tell her now, give her aunt a chance to reconcile the future, grim as it might be.
Celia was about to speak when there was a powerful rap on the front door.
"Good heavens." Aunt Prudence frowned, turning toward the mantel clock. "Do we have a five-fifteen?"
"No, we do not," Celia replied. "Mrs. Jenson was our last of the day."
She looked at her aunt in the unguarded moment of confusion. When had she grown so old? Her valiant attempts at holding on to youth were no longer effective, the artificial gaiety, the girlish curls of gray. Celia felt her throat tighten at the thought of telling her the truth. How horrible to be the emissary of such news. Celia's future was ruined, to be sure. But her aunt -- it would mean the death of her future, but more devastating, the death of her belief in Uncle James.
A second knock was even more forceful, rattling the windows on the side of the door.
"Whoever it is seems to be using a tree trunk instead of the brass knocker." Celia smiled to her aunt. Aunt Prudence smiled back, and Celia touched her hand. "Please, Aunt Pru, you deserve a cup of tea. I'll get the door."
"Yes, well. Thank you, my dear." Aunt Prudence patted her niece's hand in return, and went toward the sitting room for her tea, relief etched on her plump face.
Perhaps they would be saved, Celia thought as she watched her aunt leave the parlor. Perhaps something miraculous would occur. Perhaps they would be saved.
Celia straightened and walked toward the front door, smoothing her hair and wondering who on earth could be on the other side.
She pulled the door open, anxious to avoid another set of ear-splitting explosions. For a moment she just blinked, for before her was perhaps the largest human she had ever beheld. He was facing away from her, and all she saw was an expanse of back covered with a dark green, two-tiered cloak which was flapping in the wind. He was tall as well as broad, and for a moment she just gaped at the sheer size of the man, almost monstrous, almost nonhuman.
Then he turned on his polished heels. "I am here to see Miss Thomason," he announced in a deep voice.
Celia opened her mouth to speak, but for the very first time in her life, no sound issued forth.
For the man on her steps was handsome beyond words. And he was also, just as clearly, full of barely restrained rage.
Copyright © 1999 by Judith O'Brien