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Chapter XI. — Cross My Palm

page 141

Chapter XI.
Cross My Palm

In the beginning, there was a coloured lady who on one occasion, being exasperated beyond all reasonable bounds, pursued a Wellington police matron with a knife. In the end (following upon a long succession of old women who peered in tea-cups and crystal balls) there was Claude Dolores (nee Maclaughlin), and the little hands that left their impress in wet plaster, at those seances held in my own abode.

But having more or less run the gamut of New Zealand's “psychics”—known to the police as fortune-tellers—I can't honestly say that I ever met one who wasn't, in greater or lesser degree, a fraud.

Truth had the idea of an article about Wellington fortune-tellers. It was to be called “The Road to En-dor”: cribbed title, but sounds well. Naturally there had to be a little murk and mystery thrown in, for which the coloured lady was handy.

She lived in a funny little side-street, advertised herself, Madame What-Not, Psychic, by a cardboard notice outside her domain. Most fortune-tellers who really make the thing a serious profession do the same. There are police and magistrates and fines, but even in New Zealand the police have to go big-game hunting sometimes, leaving the coast clear for the small fry. There's an occasional round-up, a fine now and again, but New Zealand boasts numerous old ladies who have practically grown up, undisturbed, in their occupation.

I have never elsewhere seen so many black cats congregated together under one roof as in the abode page 142 of this, my first woman of mystery. Black cats simply eddied from the shadows. The little house was redolent of them. Perhaps they were familiar spirits.… Anyhow, it was impossible to sit down in the ante-chamber without coming about feet of coiled cathood.

Madame would interview only one at a time. The door of the inner chamber was locked. Mysterious mutterings went on. She was a tall, grim-looking person of a violent purple hue, with wildly frizzled tresses and an opthalmic goitre. However, she administered “spiritual healing” to others less gifted.

When I went into the chamber of mystery, I was very favourably impressed. I mean, it did have the makings of a good story. The blinds, dusty Venetian ones, were closely drawn, and heavy curtains plunged the room into a darkness perfumed with the awful reek of some cheap incense. In the middle of the floor smouldered a little old-fashioned charcoal brazier. Feeling rather like a subject for the attentions of the crematorium, I advanced, and sepulchral tones bade me be seated and give Madame my hands. She seized them in a mouse-trap grip, went straight into a trance. If you have ever gazed into the whites of a coloured lady's eyes, with a charcoal brazier smouldering viciously alongside and strange words—I don't mean improper ones, merely that “gift of tongues” business again—bubbling up in the darkness, you will quite understand that the age of adventure is none so dead.

Madame told me that I would secure my divorce without difficulty and obtain custody of the children. A wedding ring and a worried look were responsible for this bit of information.… The fortune-teller's idea of marriage is much like the French epigram-matist's: “Matrimony is to most people like a well to frogs: those who are out are trying to get in, and those who are in are trying to get out.”

Madame was an enthusiast on the subject of that page 143 much-discussed young man, Khrisnamurti, Mrs. Annie Besant's Messiah. The Khrisnamurti philosophy received much attention in a little Star of the East journal, copies of which bestrewed the queer old house. At that time, the Messiah's star was slightly under a cloud, it being popular rumour, and published in Truth, that he had more or less shot from his orbit, disappearing in Paris with a lady of the light brigade. He has since reappeared on the philosophical horizon, more glorious than before: and if his European garb gave an aspect of “shocking tameness” to his platform appearances in 1934 in New Zealand, the Messiah had none the less simple and effective things to say. His most gallant and attractive champion, as far as New Zealand is concerned, was, to my mind, a tiny, grey-haired, pink-cheeked lady who combined a “undies” salon with a book shop. “The Little Lovely Shop” was her name for it—and it was no exaggeration. In one window appeared the daintiest of flimsy underthings: in the other were the works of Khrisnamurti. I asked her what on earth led her to couple the twain. “My dear,” she said, “They're both foundations, if of a different sort.” If Khrisnamurti ever received a better compliment than that, I would very much like to hear it. The lady of the “Little Lovely Shop” was the ex-wife of one of New Zealand's best-known “brass hats.” She had spent years in India, there come in contact with the Khrisnamurti following.

I'm afraid that the black witch's parlour wasn't so charming a setting for the works of the Messiah. It was entertaining, though, and I saw it again by grotesque flickering light in the eventide, for Madame gave her spiritual healing classes after nightfall.

Moreover, they were crowded.

You were expected to hand up some little personal article… a handkerchief if you were discreet, a ring or watch if you were one of those lily-white page 144 trusting souls. Madame, having handled the same, went into trance and called up spirits for you. You couldn't see or hear them, the phantom remaining

“A kind of mental mist
That doesn't either matter or exist,”

but Madame could, and gave you messages. If you couldn't recognize Fred, Annie, Lulu or Bettina among the corpses of your acquaintance, they were docketed “Ancient friends of the family,” and gently ushered back into oblivion.

The spiritual healing consisted largely in a very awful commentary on the “stummick”: the human interior is not at all a nice thing when handled as Madame handled it.

But curiosity, boredom, gullibility, a morbid appetite for the mystic, keep these parlours full, and, as each entrant pays from half-a-crown upwards per visit, and overhead expenses are restricted to an occasional police court fine, there's a living in it.

Without any guide or initiate to help you along, you can find out Wellington's crystal-gazing sanctums for yourself. Many of them are round about the Chinese quarter—near, if not in, the streets where at nights you can hear the Chinese fiddles wailing with the queer toneless, tuneless zest of a music old and strange. I've never met a Celestial mystic: the Chinese in New Zealand are singularly good at minding their own business. Should such a man of mystery ever arise among them, he'd make a fortune and his prices would be prohibitive. But the Chinese quarter in most cities suffers from its hangers-on. Auckland's pakapoo dens receive such loving care from the police for much the same reason. No harm in a friendly all-Chinese game of fantan or pakapoo — and ninety-nine games out of a hundred are “on the level”—but the drawing of the tickets induces whites of the very worst class to make the site thereof their little home away from home.

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Most of the fortune-tellers are harmless enough. Not all. A few are ambitious swindlers. Others, in the question-and-answer game which is part of the performance, naturally collect interesting information. At least two women (neither of them Wellingtonians), were known to combine abortion with their lighter professional duties.

Sometimes there's a tragic touch in this queer game, as in most others. There was one woman, a rather smart little parlour her locale, and a deftly-shuffled pack of cards her means of foretelling the future. She had an abrupt manner and bright orange hair.… . She wasn't “written up,” though, for her particular interest in the risky profession was to keep a son, dying of consumption, in every comfort. He was not aware of his mother's means of livelihood.

And some of them are rather dears: ancient, graceless, ready for a friendly chat over a cup of tea: and so lavish with the number of “young men” the future offers you, served hot on toast! You come to scoff: you remain (well, I did, once), playing sentimental Irish ditties on a piano in shocking need of artificial dentures.

They have, when you get them on the public platform, absolutely no faint, far-off glimmering of a sense of humour. His Majesty's Birthday Eve: scene, a little Spiritualistic hall in Wellington: the medium, in a tone of awed veneration: “Ladies and gentlemen, we 'ave distinguished company. 'Er Majesty Queen Victoria is with us to-night.” Can't you hear poor Queen Victoria's agonized: “We are not amused?”

It was whilst prospecting that I found Dolores, far out in Sandringham, Auckland. His house was distinguished by a gold-lettered, glass-covered plate, and he arrived in a motor-car—“Lizzie” by genus, and about 1924 vintage. Still, it went.

I had heard of him only by rumour. 'Twas said that passengers from the Mariposa and Monterey, page 146 on landing, made a bee-line for his abode, and that some big business men in the city took no serious step without consulting him first. (I do think, however, that we'd have had a bumper crop of bankruptcies even without this.) He was not the first “medium” for whom I've heard occult insight into business affairs claimed. A woman seer, whose haunt was on The Terrace, Wellington, had a similar reputation: she turned out too dull and dismal a fraud to be worth even dishonourable mention. But masculine mystics are few and far between in New Zealand, and Dolores sounded intriguing.

Dolores' favourite method of “reading”—5/- a time—was to invite his clients to write questions inside an envelope, seal it down, place it on a table before him. He then answered the questions.

(If you want to do this as a parlour trick, you can, with the aid of the spirits… Pure alcohol is best, though benzine is equally efficacious if rather potent of smell. A cottonwool pad, soaked in the usual lotion and held in the palm of the hand, renders an envelope transparent. The alcohol evaporates quickly enough. The medium naturally handles the envelope for a few minutes in taking it from the client and placing it in position. Added to which, Dolores' first breakaway from “the trivial round, the common task” was in childhood, when he made platform appearances acting as assistant to a conjurer, so palming was not exactly outside his province.)

I have, however, met people who have written their messages in obscure foreign languages, and received intelligible and intelligent answers from Dolores. And more people who have locked their sealed envelopes up in safes, opened them to find mysterious communications pencilled therein. Others, again, have seen Dolores floating in mid-air —levitation, this is called—and have carried on prolonged conversation with him whilst he rested against the ceiling. At least one Auckland woman page 147 will take oath that she has handled a large mass of ectoplasm, quite a foot in diameter, which made its appearance from Dolores' shoulder during a seance. It sounds unpleasant but interesting. However, as every magistrate knows, so many women will take oath on so many extraordinary things that it is not absolutely necessary to take every statement unreservedly to one's bosom. For my own part, I have never been able to persuade Dolores to float in midair, even to ascend an inch above the ground, nor has he obligingly furnished any display of ectoplasm. I did meet a lady medium more obliging in the latter direction. She produced ectoplasm, yards of it. Those who cut off a small portion of it in the darkness of a seance were amazed, even after it had been definitely ascertained that ectoplasm has precisely the same chemical composition as ordinary butter-muslin, to discover how many yards the medium had succeeded in swathing around her abdomen.

However, herewith regarding Dolores the plain statement of one of the believers (female): “If he and Jesus Christ was in business in the same street, it's Jesus would have to shut up shop. What's He ever done that Dolores can't?” A unique viewpoint.

The first little afternoon session was entertaining enough, especially when Dolores discovered strong indications of psychic power in my innocent self, and suggested an immediate course of lessons, himself as instructor. (He does this to every woman client, and not a few of them fall for it.) The quaint part of the proposal was this: I was, as a spiritual sacrifice, to hand over a £5 note. Dolores was to burn it in my presence, thereby demonstrating that I had given up something in order to become a seer. He, of course, would make nothing out of the transaction!

Even before I had ascertained the bit of his history connected with conjuring, this little detail seemed to have a very, very ancient and fishlike odour about it. However, not having so many £5 page 148 notes to burn, I passed up a golden opportunity of becoming a seer.

Everyone in Auckland was not so hard-hearted. There was the lady of the diamond ring. Dolores, beholding it at a seance, informed her that it was too tight: the spirits would stretch it for her if she handed it over. She did. The spirits were in a frisky mood. It took a threat of legal action to get back the diamond from the etheric plane.

There is a good deal that is pathetic in the history of the lad who is described, according to taste, as an expert plucker of pigeons, and as New Zealand's great “physical medium.” (The latter opinion is not simply that of the credulous and ignorant. Dolores had many others on his visiting list, and one of his staunchest champions was connected with the celebrated French Society of Psychic Research.) His home, a little poorly-furnished and highly odoriferous house in Belgium Street, was not exactly a paradise for any young man of ambition and imagination.

He was tripped up by the police for a rather callous fraud practised on a woman — neither his first nor his last effort in this direction. Though she prosecuted him in the end, it was only as a last resort, and he was given every possible opportunity to refund the money. Though, curiously enough, his years as an established “medium” in the Sandringham haven seemed quite lacking in interest to the Auckland police, he was not a “smash hit” with Magistrate F. K. Hunt, a portly gentleman whose aspect is not that of the psychically sensitive or overimaginative. A curtain lecture and a few months in Mount Eden were Mr. Hunt's prescription.

The next phase of the Dolores epic should properly be named “A Macpherson to the Rescue.”

Margaret Macpherson—aforetime mentioned as editor of a little paper in the wild north, but then living in Auckland—heard about Dolores from me. She had the sort of faith that would move mountains, if not Mount Eden, and was prepared to exer- page 149 cise it on behalf of a multitude of causes, being strongly in sympathy with Mr. Dallimore and even preserving a soft spot for Mr. Kimbel. To the prison went Margaret, and there began an association which lasted as far as an extremely promising contract in London—even if the lights of that wicked city proved a bit too fierce for the mediumistic powers of the Auckland lad.

Dolores had never been without sympathetic advisers, but Mrs. Macpherson made a stout effort to take him in hand. Moreover, I am certain that she herself believed in his gifts. She has remarkable business capacity, got in touch with societies and celebrities overseas, and in Auckland put Dolores through his paces at a much smarter trot than that nonchalant youth had ever attempted before.

Some of the last Auckland seances took place in my own abode—then a tiny dug-out in a Princes Street boarding-house. Mrs. Macpherson and her youthful sculptor son were the only two guests known to me personally, and, needless to say, these particular demonstrations were experiments, not occasions for the raking in of lucre, filthy or otherwise.

Unlike his clumsier confreres, Dolores certainly didn't come laden with butter-muslin “tricks of the trade.” His only cabinet was a curtained wardrobe, thoroughly inspected by all present before he there deposited himself. Two stalwart males grasped his wrists. He demanded that the light be switched off for a second. When it was turned up, lo, a coatless Dolores. It wasn't a trick coat, and the bodyguard swore that never for one instant had they relinquished hold of his arms …. which you may believe or not, according to taste.

One girl who attended a Dolores seance had the rather nice experience of being showered with flowers from the unseen. No bouquets were scattered in my domain, but I still have a little brass bell (material value about 1/6) which likewise appeared page 150 from nowhere—or from a special hip pocket—and rang violently in token that the “spirits” were all present and correct.

Dolores boasts a spirit control, name of Carlo. (Carlo is bad enough as a name, but better than the Red Indian, Persian and Thibetan ones hurled at you at most spiritualistic conclaves, especially as these Lost Tribes all speak in such damned bad Cockney.) Carlo, considered as a spirit, could have been worse. He was jovial but not vulgar. He did a bit of cheekpatting to demonstrate his ectoplasmic presence, and, much to my relief, was neither soapy nor slippery—to all appearances a perfectly normal hand.

The star turn of the evening, from the spectacular point of view, was the matter of the wet plaster and the imprinted hands.

The plaster came from the Elam School of Arts and was rolled out, wet and smooth, in the presence of all in the room. Then it was placed, not in the cabinet with the medium, but at the other end of the room. The lights were switched off for a moment. When they were turned on again, the plaster bore the imprint of several hands—one large, obviously masculine, one a child's.

I would be prepared to swear that Dolores could not possibly have touched the plaster. To do so, he would have had to emerge from the wardrobe, pass a circle of five people, crawl either under or over a bed without being seen or heard, imprint hands, neither of them his own, in the plaster, and return to his original position — all in the space of two minutes.

Some may know a scientific way of doing it: I can't claim to be among them. I merely say that the thing, stated exactly as it happened, was extraordinary and interesting, and that on this account alone I am exceedingly glad that Dolores has departed from an Auckland slum to a city where he may at least subject his gift— or smart footwork — to investigation.

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There was one other thing: coincidence, as everything is in these odd byways of the shadow world.

“Carlo,” who, by the way, conversed in a gruff voice and the usual broken English (but, yes, we had all heard of ventriloquism), was in festive mood and started throwing things hither and thither. That damage wasn't done to my landlady's priceless old late Victorian bric-à-brac was more by bad luck than by good management. Just one book out of hundreds, a slim little green one, had the signature on its fly-leaf of a friend dead years ago.… It was that book that “Carlo” removed from the bookshelf, laid on my knee. Dolores was in high fettle. He intended to give a demonstration of levitation next time.… He would produce photographs of the dead out of the void.…

When next I saw him, he was most undeniably pickled. He invited me to attend a levitation display, at which flashlight photographs were to be taken, at his own home in Belgium Street. I accepted with the high resolve of she who will try anything once.… Came the dawn — apparently. Came also a telephone ring, and a much-subdued little Dolores at the other end explaining that he didn't feel quite up to levitating. I never saw him again, though I was tempted to wave good-bye when the English boat drew out, carrying a twenty-one-year-old conjurer, fraud, ex-convict, and, yes, unexplained puzzle, away “to find a name or a grave. He will find one soon, no doubt.”

Mrs. Macpherson had worked the oracle—an oracle not unconnected with the name of one of the famous Northcliffe journals. Herself voyaging to England, she sought out journalistic powers-that-were and explained all about the need for removing the New Zealand bushel from the Dolores beacon. She secured for him a £1,000 contract, with an additional allowance of £250 for travelling expenses. I have seen this document—relic of a brief but bright run in London.

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On the morning before he sailed, Dolores was again charged in the police court, this time over a matter of an unpaid debt. His old acquaintance, Mr. Hunt, ordered him to pay up or spend a further rest-cure where “no telephone communicates with his cell.” The young medium's protests about his English prospects were unavailing.

But somebody paid his debt and he departed, Mrs. Macpherson's young son with him as travelling companion. His first London seances were promising, though given in appalling circumstances, in the noise and clatter of a metropolitan newspaper office.

The first lap on the way to fame and fortune passed, he was caught out in trickery. Mrs. Macpherson not only admitted that her protegé and his “Carlo” were alike unreliable, but, on returning to New Zealand, wrote him up in most adverse—and, to my mind, frankly disloyal — terms. Not unnaturally, the failure which put the £1,000 contract, and others even more promising, once and for all out of the question, were most disappointing to a champion who had worked hard and long for him, and also for her own interests.

That Dolores tries to fool all the people some of the time is not to be questioned: yet—like many others—I have the tiniest entering crack of a doubt as to whether he tries all the time. His friends say that London air agrees with him, and that in the old fortune-telling way of grubbing along, he does well enough. They ask and expect no more. That seems to me a little unfair. But for the time being, at all events, Dolores disappears into the limbo of forgotten stars.

Three lawyers were his last Auckland clients, paying £1 apiece, at the wharf itself, for a “reading.” Indeed, the general incapacity of that excellent profession in New Zealand seems to indicate the need for a little supernatural assistance now and then.

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The promising name Lily Hope was attached to the lady materialising medium of the little Belgium Street “Church of the Golden Light.”

Spiritualistic temples and churches are exceptions to the rule which (except in the Unitarian Church) disbars women from leadership. A fat lady who went into trances (if a medium shuts her eyes and wobbles, you are supposed to accept that as a trance, though your spirit may long to try what would happen if you stuck a pin in her), presided on the platform. I do think the way the mediums, when in trances, can remonstrate with the public about the scanty collections handed over is too touching for mere words.

Lily Hope is middle-aged, good-tempered, rather pleasant-looking: henna'd hair, a lined and worried face, but no unkindliness therein. The “materialising” takes place in complete darkness, in a little room to which you are only admitted by invitation. But seekers don't find invitations difficult to procure. The old “cross my palm” question arises again. Anything less than half a crown is considered despicable: not only is the collection taken up ere the fun begins, but it's counted. The jingle of silver coins in a back room, and the comments of the stoutish party who had performed the platform trances, were the prelude to our entry into the unknown. At least thirty people were present, and there were more men among them than women. I have always held that men are the sentimental sex, anyhow.

It would have been endurable, had not the dead husband of one unfortunate lady appeared and sung bass voice songs in a husky contralto: likewise had not my aged aunt, appearing in ectoplasmic form, refused to say so much as a kindly word, merely nodding vigorously in response to questions. And at that, my aged aunt was a most frightful liar: she nodded in all the wrong places, acknowledging the existence and good wishes of relatives about whom page 154 she can have known little or nothing, seeing that I invented them on the spur of the moment.

She was an unpleasant-looking old party, with cheesecloth draperies swathed in the latest shroud effect round a tallow-coloured face. It was not impossible, after the meeting, to discover a door leading put of the cabinet used by the medium. Useful either as a fire exit or a spook escape.

The odd thing was that precisely the same apparition was claimed by various other sitters as husband, child, or friend. Theoretically, one inspected only one's own apparition. But an advantage of the inky darkness was that one could move without being seen—although after a time the “spirits” possessed the stoutish trance lady again, and complained bitterly of restlessness not acceptable in the best, or even in the worst, spiritualistic circles. We all had to sing hymns, and did, much out of tune. This “helps the spirits to come through.” God help Beethoven, should anyone ever see fit to summon him out of the vasty deeps.

Personally, I found the Lily Hope seances farcical. Others went home very happy, and one quite husky young man arose in mid-circle and made an earnest if incoherent speech, explaining that now he knew the facts of spiritualism, he felt “quite different.”

Type questions: “Is that you, Elsie?” “Well, Mother, are you happy over there?” It gives a spirit so little scope for originality.

It would be quite unfair, by the way, to say that Lily Hope and the score or so who claim similar manifestations—more in the decent obscurity provided by half-crown collections than in any really serious attempt to exploit the public—are the best New Zealand can do.

I know a little Englishwoman, wasted with illness, with the long unhappiness of a tragic life indomitably borne. Her one solace and the key to her page 155 secret room of happiness is an absolute belief in the truth of “manifestations” given her by a young girl, adopted, by reason of her psychic power, into a wealthy Wairarapa family. She speaks of the laughing voices of children… . . many voices, and heard in the grace of light, not in squalid darkness of a slum hovel.

But that is no part of the “Cross My Palm” story. It is a secret quest, on which the spirit must travel alone. Perhaps there is a light at the other end of the tunnel. At all events, I know some very courageous people who believe so.

The Message.

There is no time for visiting the dead—
Besides, they are so many. If you tried
To shutter half your days in cypress glooms
Learning the old faint hopes of lonely tombs,
Still, days being brief, you must needs leave unread
The dream of one lost snowdrop at your side.

This is enough. The days brimmed blue for them.
Sometimes the most forgotten drained that cup.
Sometimes an evening's misty diadem
Of consummate pearl lifted the stilled heart up—
Ah, more than yours can be, who bring but pity
Into that silent and sufficing city.
So frail a moon hung once. If you would give
Peace to the dead, go hence, learn how to live.