Silent Meridian by Elizabeth Crowens
Scotland was just barely crawling its way out of the nineteenth century. I was a naïve, but ambitious student studying music at the University of Edinburgh hurrying over to meet Arthur Conan Doyle, the man who would change my life forever.
“John Patrick Scott, sir,” I said as I approached Mr. Doyle, who was already seated at a back corner table where he hoped he wouldn’t be recognized. He had picked the Deacon Brodie, the pub that inspired the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
I extended my hand to greet him and removed my rain-soaked hat, while my overcoat slipped out of my hands and fell on the floor by accident. It was still hard to believe that good fortune had finally brought us together, but we were both nervous.
“The pleasure is all mine.” Doyle responded like a father to his son.
“Mr. Conan Doyle, or should I call you Doctor Doyle?” I said unsure how to address him.
Doyle scrutinized me from top to bottom as he signaled the waiter. “John, call me Arthur,” he said casually, ignoring the tension I couldn’t control.
“Sir, I’m so honored that you agreed to discuss this matter. Perhaps you can enlighten me in a way that I’ve failed to comprehend.”
I wanted to ask him about my unusual turn of events straight away but he caught me off guard and was dead set on pulling me into the swift current of an unexpected conversation.
“Can I assume you believe in the transmigration of souls?” he asked.
“Until now, I haven’t given it a lot of thought,” I said, unsure as to which direction he was leading.
“Did you ever read those books about that Swiss doctor who felt his body and soul had been taken over by a Benedictine monk? That presented a curious case. He claims that he was approached by the spirit of an elderly monk before he died, and that the monk needed to rent his body to continue his spiritual mission.”
“Rent?” I choked in disbelief.
“We truly don’t take anything with us when we pass on, do we? This monk knew that he was dying, and therefore had to replace his physical body with something more youthful and vital.”
“That’s incredible. It debunks the theory that you have to die and be reborn as an infant to carry on your spirit,” I said.
Mr. Doyle had the tinge of excitement in his voice.
“John, here’s another instance. I’ve had my suspicions about a famous musician who had an obsession about a notorious and controversial mystic. You’d surmise by his overwhelming attraction to that person that he might’ve been him in a previous lifetime, but facts were clear that he was born three years before the mystic died. My understanding is that the mystic knew he didn’t have long in his present incarnation. Therefore he made plans for some sort of partial soul transference while he was still alive to imprint his essence upon the child. That would’ve allowed him to carry on and accomplish unfinished business that couldn’t have been executed otherwise. Essentially he had the ability of being two places at once.”
“Sounds more like Spiritualism,” I replied.
“Honestly, John, I don’t think there are any steadfast rules when it comes to this matter. That’s what makes it so intriguing.”
I sensed he had a secret agenda.
Doyle reloaded his churchwarden pipe with fresh tobacco and continued, “This is not at all like anything you’ve ever read from H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. We’re poking holes in every treatise written on the subject— the idea of being able to reincarnate a part of yourself while you are still alive into another soul.”
Our conversation was quickly becoming like a speeding train ready to jump the tracks. Realizing this, Doyle slowed down the pace and took a deep breath. He carefully composed his next statement.
“Fiction it may seem to be but it’s not hocus pocus. Don’t you also find it strange that you somehow found yourself initiated into a mystical order on a commuter train bound from London to Edinburgh when the instigators kept on mistaking you for me? There are no accidents.”
I became silent for a moment, stalling for time as I slowly raised my glass of ale to my lips. As soon as I fished a small red book out of my coat pocket and placed it on the table in front of us Arthur eyed it intently. It had been the source of intrigue that led me to Doyle in the first place and had piqued his curiosity as much as it did mine.
“Could I have done something terrible in my youth that caused this to happen?”
“You have no recollections, John?”
I bit my lip as internal chaos wrested with memories. “I remember so little of my childhood. I wish that I could.”
“You’re a smart young man. I’m sure you’ll come up with a clever deduction.”
Mr. Doyle paused to relight his pipe. He had an unnerving look in his eye, which I vainly tried to read into, but he took me for a spin when he brought up the next topic.
“On another note, John, have you ever considered that people have the capability of communicating without speech, and I’m not talking about writing letters?”
“Imagine communicating by mere thoughts. I’ve always wanted to experiment with someone open to these concepts. God knows—my brothers at the Society for Psychical Research certainly talk enough about it. My wife, Touie, has been an unwilling subject and is not the most objective choice.”
I looked at him, somewhat perplexed. “Are you asking me to accurately guess what you’re thinking?”
“Come now. We’ll play a game. I’ll form an image in my mind, and for the next minute I will try to project it into yours. Clear your thoughts of any distractions and be as receptive as possible,” he explained.
As much as I tried, I couldn’t have been more preoccupied. Images of that fateful event flashed through my brain. Once again, my recollections revealed my rain-soaked train ticket in hand. I kept arguing with the steward that I thought he was putting me in the wrong cabin. An erroneous judgment had been made when three strangers insisted that I was Arthur. He and I couldn’t have been more different in physical appearance. He was a large, athletic man with a distinguished moustache. On the other hand, I had baby smooth skin and couldn’t grow facial hair to save my life. I was nearly twenty years younger and much shorter with wild auburn hair that resembled Maestro Beethoven’s with the exception of premature strands of gray.
It was impossible that I could’ve been mistaken for him, so why was I singled out? Was there laudanum in my brandy? Details spun like a whirlwind. I must’ve been in a drug-induced stupor but I was initiated into some secret Masonic-like society, and when it was all over those mysterious men were gone. What remained were an engraved silver ring on my finger and an ominous red book on the seat beside me.
“Looks like you’ve seen a ghost,” Arthur said breaking my trance. He realized my thoughts had been elsewhere.
“I felt like I had,” I said, barely able to articulate. I tried to tame my wild mane in place. Visions faded in and out. Timelines jumped. So I gulped down another swig of ale to focus on the present.
Arthur leaned in closer. “I can see you’re still worried about that event on the train. Those men have been after me for some time. Why? It’s hard to fathom. I’ll dilly-dally with notions here and there about Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Watson, who fancy themselves as detectives. Me? I’m just a simple doctor and writer with interests in Spiritualism trying to find scientific explanations for the unknown.”
“Arthur, what would anyone want with an unassuming music student like me?”
“Personally, I don’t think this was A Case of Identity,” Arthur replied with a smile.
Obviously he meant to say that my dilemma was not a case of mistaken identity, not the name of one of his famous Sherlock stories. He was pleased that I caught the humor of his play on words.
“Perhaps it has something to do with that book,” he said pointing to the one I had brought.
“I’m concerned that it’s dangerous, that it’s a curse. I wish I had never found it,” I replied as I shoved it back into my pocket and drained my glass.
One week later as I was returning home from school, my landlady, Lydia Campbell, yelled from the kitchen as I trudged my muddied shoes through the front door of her boarding house. “John, a letter from Undershaw arrived for you today! I wonder whom it could be from? You don’t know anyone from Undershaw, do you?”
Oh, yes I did. I snatched the letter and ran upstairs so fast that I nearly tripped on my muffler and fell on my face. I poured myself a glass of port to calm my nerves, doffed my wet garments and sank into my most comfortable brass-studded leather chair that I affectionately called my thinking chair, where I had created many a melody in my head, could think deep thoughts, and drift off to dreamland.
I wholeheartedly enjoyed our conversation at the Deacon Brodie and kept my promise of a prompt reply. By now, you are well aware of the fact that my passion to explore the realms of Spiritualism and related paranormal phenomena far surpasses any personal interests involved with Sherlock Holmes. Public demand for my writing, however, exerts a strain on how much I can overtly reveal to even my most trusted colleagues. Whenever I indulge in any activity, be it a simple séance, investigating a revered medium or attending a meeting of the British Society for Psychical Research, it never fails to raise the eyebrows of my wary publishers and critics. I truly believe in many of these inexplicable accounts. Even my father painted beautiful renditions of fairies, which I trust that he witnessed with his own eyes. The betterment of mankind rests on embracing such theories once they are proven to exist by the scientific community. Thus, I suspect I’ll have to continue more controversial and debatable endeavors in utmost secrecy, or at least for the time being until more evidence can be brought to light.
Since you seem to be an open-minded young man who has already experienced some effects of the preternatural, this is my proposal: At midnight every night, we should conduct a variety of remote operations with the primary purpose of communicating through means of telepathy. Since I have a tendency to travel, we’ll have to make some sort of adjustment to take into account the different time zones. Of course, you must share this secret with nobody. Besides us, only my wife will know, although she will not participate.
When you shared the account of the strange incident onboard that commuter train that was enough to convince me that you would be the perfect partner for this private undertaking. Most assuredly, there was something you had done in the past in the realm of the arcane to warrant that chain of events. That was not mere happenstance, and now since you possess that enigmatic red book, I’m sure it will affect your life in ways that you’ve never imagined.
My intentions have been to also perform similar trial and error enterprises with Harry Houdini, a rising star whose stage performances have been astounding audiences, but his busy schedule has made it nearly impossible so far to coordinate such engagements with any sort of regularity. One of these days we’ll catch up. Meanwhile, I collect whatever news comes from across the herring-pond. I suspect that at one point, he and I will develop a special relationship based on mutual interests.
Regarding the two of us, however, we’ll back up our observations with letters or telegrams as often as possible as proof of results, but those must be destroyed as soon as they are read. Once again, I cannot overemphasize the importance of confidentiality. Whenever we know that we will be otherwise engaged, we should attempt to communicate with each other in spirit to apprise the other of that fact. Regardless, we must keep a faithful agreement, as skill will come with practice.
If you are willing to put aside any apprehensions regarding trains, I’ll pay for you to travel down to Undershaw and visit me on weekends whenever possible. My driver can meet you in London at a pre-arranged time. You’ll stay in one of our guest bedrooms, and as long as you don’t mind the children and can tolerate what our kitchen staff provides, you’ll be well taken care of. That’ll give us the opportunity to expand our repertoire and commence further psychical experimentation with ectoplasm, spirit photography and astral projection. And bring that book. I’d like a chance to look at it.
I’ve also desired a partner to accompany me for ghost sightings and occult investigations. For all we know, with the knowledge gained, we might even break through the barriers of time. That would certainly give Bertie (H.G. Wells) a shock to the senses, proving that his imagination does not merely dwell in the realm of fiction. He and I have been at odds on this topic for years.
Regarding telepathic technique, I can only suggest that you conduct yourself in a way as you see fit. Personally, I don’t believe in things like magical amulets, but if it helps to have an etheric link with me, use this letter you hold in your hand, as it contains my heart, soul and signature with a drop of blood, which I have added to the ink. You might wish to reciprocate.
Let’s raise our glasses to honor the quest of conquering the unknown.
Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur apparently was serious when he first brought up the subject. When he and I left the pub, I really didn’t know what to think. After all, he was a famous author, and I was merely a student. What possessed him to choose me for such an engagement?
I shuffled through my schoolwork to find my pen and ink and a fresh sheet of paper. Blood, I needed blood. Ah, my razor! That would work. I fetched my shaving kit and winced as I drew a few drops. I scribbled a swift, affirmative reply with the blood-tainted ink, mailed the letter the following day, and looked forward to our first otherworldly encounter.
This is the first chapter of Silent Meridian by Elizabeth Crowens. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
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