The Freaks of Mayfair

by E.F. Benson

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Chapter Three - Quack-Quack

UNDYING INTEREST IN THINGS ABSTRUSE, experimental, or charlatanish keeps Mrs. Weston perennially young. She has a small pink husband, who desires nothing more of life than to be allowed a room to himself, regular meals, a little walk after lunch followed by a nap at his club, and a quantity of morning and evening papers to read. Indeed it may be said of him that the morning and evening papers were his first day and will certainly be his last, for he is the sort of person who will die suddenly and quietly after dinner in his arm-chair. All those simple needs are easily supplied him, for when, for reasons to be subsequently mentioned, he cannot get regular meals at home he procures them at the Carlton grill-room.

The two have no children, and her husband being so simply provided for, Mrs. Weston has plenty of leisure to pursue her own weird life. She began, as most students of the faddish side of life do, by using her excellent physical health as a starting-point for hypochondria, and proceeded to cure herself of imaginary ailments with such ruthless ferocity that if she had not stopped in time, she might really have become ill. As it was,{50} she arrested her downward course of healing before it had done anything more than make her thin, and took to another fad. But she resumed her pleasant plumpness when she embraced spiritualism, for spiritualism for some obscure reason almost invariably causes people to lay on flesh.

To begin at the beginning of her quackings, she was about thirty when the shattering conviction came over her, after reading a little book about gout, that she entirely consisted of uric acid. This painful self-revelation caused her husband to become a regular habitué of the Carlton grill-room, for he was not strong enough to stand the ideal régime which blasted his once comfortable home. For a day or two he insisted on continuing his suicidal diet, but he found it impossible to enjoy his cutlet when his wife told him that all he ate turned the moment he had swallowed it, into waste products, and that his apparent appetite was merely the result of fermentation. Such news when he was at lunch quite spoiled his pleasure and stopped his fermentation. For herself, she proceeded to obtain body-building materials out of nuts and cheese, and calorics out of the oil with which she soaked the salads that were hoary with vegetable salts. All tea and coffee were, of course, forbidden, since they reeked of purins,{51} while if you drank anything at meals, you might just as well have a glass of prussic acid then and there, in order to get it over quicker. Probably if anyone had told her only to eat between meals, she would have tried that too. But all day the kitchen boiler rumbled with the ebullition of the oceans of hot water that had to be drunk in the middle of the morning and the middle of the afternoon, and before going to bed. It had to be sipped, and since at each sitting a quart or so must be lodged within her, the process was a lengthy one, and she could not get out of doors very much. But exercise and air were provided for by courses of stretchings and bendings and flickings and kickings done by an open window in front of a chart and a looking-glass, followed by spells of complete relaxation (which meant lying down on the floor). Then there were deep-breathing exercises, in which Mrs. Weston had to draw in her breath very slowly, hold it till she got purple in the face and the veins stood out like cords on her benignant forehead, and emit it all in one hurricane-puff. The dizziness and queer sensations that sometimes followed she took to be a proof of how much good it was doing her. Strange hungry-looking visitors used to arrive at queer hours, and talk to their enthralled pupil in an excited manner{52} about arterio-sclerosis, and chromagens, and produce out of their pockets little packets of tough food, tasting of travelling-bags, which they masticated very thoroughly, and which in the space of a square inch contained the nutritive value of eight mutton chops and two large helpings of apple tart. Fortified by this they launched into the functions and derangements of the principal organs of the body, with an almost obscene wealth of detail, while Mrs. Weston used to sit in rapt attention to those sybils and long for dinner time to come in order that she might thwart her uric acid again.

She pursued her meatless course for several weeks with fanatic enthusiasm, and having been perfectly well before, found that, apart from a slight falling away of flesh, her iron constitution stood the strain remarkably well. Then while the nuts were yet in her mouth, so to speak, it struck her that she ought to go in for breathing exercises more thoroughly, and found that they led straight into the lap of the wisdom of the Yogis. This philosophy instantly claimed her whole attention, and she steeped herself in its manuals, and advertised in the Morning Post for a Guru. An individual in a turban answered this in person, but as, after his second visit she found that a valuable ring was missing, which at his bidding she had taken off her finger in order to be less trammelled by material bonds, she decided to be her own Guru, and with the chapter on ‘Postures’ open before her, practised tying herself into knots. Her abstinence from meat came in useful, since a light diet was recommended by her new ideal in life, so also did her practice in deep-breathing, for Pranayama was entirely concerned with that, and when you had mastered Postures and Pranayama you would live in perfect health and vigour, as long as you chose. Again her superb physical health stood her in good stead, and she neither dislocated her limbs from Postures, nor had a single stroke of apoplexy from holding her breath. During the Yogi attack her husband ceased to take his meals at the Carlton grill-room, for he was allowed meat again in moderation. But he always used to go out for a walk when the great breathings began in the middle of the morning, since he hated the idea that in the next room Jane was sitting cross-legged on the floor, exhaling her long-held breath through one nostril while she closed the other with her finger, muttering ‘Om! Om!’ Long periods of absolute silence alternated with these mutterings, and it gave him an uncomfortable{54} feeling to know that Jane was holding her breath all that time. Away from Chesterfield Street the image of her was less vivid, and when he returned for lunch Postures were over too, and though rather stiff and tired, she would declare that she never had known before what real health meant. This was always a pleasant hearing, and he would congratulate her on her convalescence, and instantly repent of his cordiality, because she urged him just to do a couple of Postures a day and see how he felt.

Then a misfortune which within a couple of days she temporarily called the turning-point of her life, befell Mrs. Weston, for she caught a chill (manifestly from posturing on a cold damp day in front of an open window) which indicated its presence by a simultaneous attack of lumbago and a streaming cold in the head. This latter made the inhalation of breath through the nostrils quite impossible, and the former, Postures. So shut out from the practice of Pranayama and Postures, she came winging it back from the East, and, happening to come across a copy of the Christian Science Journal, flew to the bosom of Mrs. Eddy. Her only regret was that she had not left the heathen fold in time to frustrate the false claims of her indisposition, which had taken{55} a firm and painful hold of her, but she had scarcely learned by heart the True Statement of Being when the severity of the symptoms began sensibly to diminish. In point of fact within three days she was perfectly well again, as she might have been all along if she had only known in time that there was no such thing as lumbago. Neither was there such a thing as uric acid or chromagens, and in consequence, since there was nothing to fear from disorders that had no existence, she ordered an excellent dinner that evening, and over ox-tail soup and fish and a roast pheasant, of all of which she ate heartily, she discoursed to her husband on the new truth that had risen like dawn over her previously benighted horizon. But, such is the ingratitude of man, he felt that he would sooner have eaten his dinner in silence at the grill-room than at home to the accompaniment of such preposterous harangues. And when, after dinner, just as he was settling down to a game of patience, Jane asked him to join with her in the recital of the True Statement of Being, he replied with some asperity that a True Statement of Balderdash was a fitter name for such nonsense.

Christian Science made Mrs. Weston brighter and younger and more robust than ever. Being{56} quite convinced that there were no such things as discomfort or evil or disease or death, she recognised with increased vividness that the world was an exceedingly pleasant place, and went about all day with a brilliant smile. This smile became rather hard and fixed when small false claims put in their appearance, as, for instance, when a fish-bone seemingly stuck in her throat, or when, reciting the True Statement of Being as she went upstairs, she forgot the last step and tumbled rather heavily on to her knees. Thus, in the semblance of choking or of agonising pain in the knee-cap, it was necessary to tie the smile on, so to speak, lest the false claim should get a foothold. What made the house more uncomfortable for her husband was that his false claims were ignored also, so that if his study fire was found not to be lit, and the room in consequence like an ice-house, instead of sympathising with him over the carelessness of the housemaid, Jane continued to assure him that there was no such thing as cold, though her teeth were chattering in her head. She got into touch with other sufferers from these cheerful delusions, who seemed to him to resemble gargoyles with their fixed inflexible smiles, and their attitudes of determined hilarity, and the house became a perfect{57} Bedlam of invincible cheerfulness, which was depressing to the last degree. He had a moment of reviving hope when Jane woke one morning with a very plausible claim in a wisdom-tooth, which the uninitiated would have called a raging toothache, and which he hoped might convince her. But learning, by telephone, from a healer that though the pain would certainly vanish with absent treatment, it was permissible to go to a dentist in order to save time, for mere manipulation (in other words having the tooth out), his hopes faded again. Mrs. Eddy herself, it appeared, had consulted a dentist in such circumstances, and Mrs. Weston did the same, and came home, brighter than ever, having had the tooth extracted quite painlessly under laughing-gas. The last thing she had said to herself, so she triumphantly announced, before she went off was that the extraction wouldn’t hurt at all, and it didn’t. The True Statement of Being had scored one triumph the more in completely annihilating not only the sense of pain, but commonsense also.

Now the insidiousness of fads is that they are invariably based on something which is true and reasonable, and thus have an appeal to reasonable persons. In this they are unlike superstitions, for{58} superstition is in its essence unreasonable, and Mrs. Weston would no more have bowed to the new moon (seen not through glass) or turned her money, than she would have been made miserable by breaking a looking-glass. She knew perfectly well that the fact of her seeing the new moon could not affect the prosperity of her investments, while if that amiable satellite had any power over her money it would certainly exercise it whether she curtsied or not. But her embrace of the vegetarian and Christian Science faith was undoubtedly based on reason: it was true that fleshless foods contained less uric acid than sirloin of beef: it was true also that if she or anybody else had a slight headache, that headache would in all probability efface itself quicker if she occupied herself in other matters, and, instead of sitting down to think about her headache denied it in principle by disregarding it. But it is easily possible to stretch a reasonable proposition too far, and make it applicable to things to which it does not apply, and it is exactly here that the faddist begins to differ from reasonable people. A sufficiently excruciating pain cannot be banished from the consciousness, and it is not the slightest use asserting that it does not exist. At this point, with regard to her wisdom-tooth, she{59} became momentarily reasonable again, and had it out with laughing-gas like a sensible person. But then her mind rushed back again, like air into an exhausted receiver, into the vacuum of faddishness, and she became happier and more ridiculous than ever. The effect must never be denied: the faddist while convinced of her fad is extremely cheerful, as is natural to one who has found out and is putting in practice the secret of ideal existence. It made poor Mr. Weston very uncomfortable, but since one of the strongest characteristics of Christian Scientists is their inhuman disregard of other people, she did not take any notice of a little thing like that, and proceeded to make home unhappy with utter callousness.

But it was not her way to attach herself for very long to one creed: she flew, like a bee gathering honey from every flower, to suck the sweetness out of every fad, and presently she turned her volatile mind to the study of the unseen world that she suddenly felt to be surrounding her. Christian Science no doubt had its basis in the unseen, but in its application it was chiefly concerned with bodily ailments and discomforts, and the True Statement of Being harnessed itself, so to speak, to a congested liver or a sore{60} throat. But now she went deeper yet, and took the final plunge of the faddist and the credulous into the sea of spiritualism.

Now in this highly organised city of London, if you want anything you can always get on the track of something of the sort by a few enquiries, and one of Mrs. Weston’s discarded vegetarians introduced her to the celebrated medium, and general fountain-head in the matters of table-turning, crystal-gazing, automatic writing, materialisation, séances, planchettes and auras, the Princess Spookoffski. Nobody could produce positive proof that she was not a Russian Princess, for Russia is a very large place, and has probably many princesses, nor that her companion, a small man with a chin-beard and a positive passion for going into trances, was not a Polish refugee of high birth. This august lady was beginning to do very good business in town, for London, ever Athenian in its desire for some new thing, had just turned its mind to psychical matters, and held séances with quenched lights in the comfortable hour between tea and dinner, and had much helpful converse with the spirits of departed dear ones, and discarnate intelligences, that were not always remarkably intelligent.{61}

Mrs. Weston accordingly went by appointment to the Princess’s flat in a small street off Charing Cross Road, and was received by the Polish refugee of high birth, who conducted her through several small rooms, opening out of each other, to the presence of the sybil. These rooms had a lot of muslin draped about them, and were dimly lit with small oil lamps in front of shrines containing images or portraits hung with faded yellow jasmine of the great spiritual guides from Moses down to Madame Blavatsky, and a faint smell of incense and cigarettes hung about them. In the last of these the Princess was sitting lost in profound meditation. She wore a blue robe, serpents of yellow and probably precious metal writhed up her arm, and she had a fat pasty face with eyebrows so black and abundant as to be wholly incredible. Eventually she raised her head, and with a deep sigh fixed her beady eyes on Mrs. Weston. Then in a throaty voice she said:

‘My child, you ’ave a purple ’alo.’

This was very gratifying, especially when the Princess explained that only the most elect souls have purple halos, and the man with the chin-beard, whom the Princess called Gabriel dear, said that the moment he touched Mrs. Westo{62}n’s hand he knew she had power. Thereupon the Princess’s fingers began to twitch violently, and Gabriel dear, explaining that Raschia, the spirit of an ancient Egyptian priestess, possessed her, brought a writing-pad and a pencil, and the Princess, with Raschia to guide her, dashed off several pages of automatic script. This was written in curious broken English, and the Princess gaily explained that darling Raschia was not very good at English yet, for she was only learning. But the message was quite intelligible, and clearly stated that this new little friend, Mrs. Weston, was a being of the brightest psychical gifts, which must instantly be cultivated. It ended ‘Ta, ta, darlings. Raschia must fly away. God bless you all.’

It was not to be wondered at that after so cordial a welcome, Mrs. Weston joined Princess Spookoffski’s circle, and went there again next day for a regular séance, price two guineas a head. There were four other persons beside the Princess and Gabriel and they all had purple halos, for the Princess was so great an aristocrat in the spiritual world (as well as being a Princess on the mortal plane) that she only ‘took’ purple halos. The room swam with incense, a small musical-box was placed in the middle of the table,{63} and hardly had the lights been put out and the circle made, when Gabriel, who was to be the medium, went off into a deep trance, as his stertorous breathing proved, and the musical-box began to play ‘Lead, kindly Light.’ On which the Princess said—

‘Ah, perhaps the dear Cardinal will come to us. Let us all sing.’

Thereupon they all began helping the Cardinal to come by joining in to the best of their powers, with the gratifying result that before they were half-way through the second verse, a stentorian baritone suddenly joined in too, and that was the Cardinal singing his own hymn. He had a quantity of wholly edifying things to say when the hymn was over, such as ‘beyond the darkness there is light,’ and ‘beyond death there is life,’ and ‘beyond trouble there is peace.’ Having delivered himself of these illuminating truths, he said ‘Good-bye, Benedictine, my children,’ and left the mortal plane. Thereupon there was dead silence again, except for Gabriel’s stertorous breathing.

A perfect tattoo of raps followed, and amid peals of spiritual laughter, Pocky announced that he was coming. Pocky was a dear naughty boy, the Princess explained to Mrs. Weston, so full{64} of fun, and so mischievous, and had been, when on earth, a Hungarian violinist. Pocky’s presence was soon announced by a shrill scream from the lady on Mrs. Weston’s right, who said the naughty boy had given her such a slap. Then he pulled the Princess’s hair, and a voice close to Mrs. Weston said ‘’Ullo, ’ullo, ’ere is a new friend. What a nice lady! Kiss me, ducky,’ and Mrs. Weston distinctly felt a touch on her neck below her ear. Then after another bastinado of raps, Pocky’s face, swathed in white muslin and faintly luminous, appeared above the middle of the table. They had had lovely music that day, he told them, ‘on the other side,’ and Pocky had played to them. If they all said ‘please,’ he would play to them now, and after they had all said ‘please,’ play to them he did on a violin. His tune was faintly reminiscent of a Brahms valse, but as it was a spirit air it could not have been that. Then with a clatter the violin descended on to the middle of the table, and Pocky, after blowing kisses to them all, went away in peals of happy laughter.

Thereafter Mrs. Weston became a prey to psychical things. She gazed into the crystal she purchased from the Princess; she sat for hours, pencil in hand, waiting for automatic script to{65} outline itself on her virgin paper; she took excursions into astrology; she frequented a fashionable palmist, who gave her the most gratifying information about her future, and assured her that marvellous happiness and success would attend her every step in life, so long as she regularly consulted Mrs. Jones, say once a week at seven and sixpence. The Princess and Gabriel gave a séance in Chesterfield Street, and put her into communication with her great-uncle, whose portrait by Lawrence happened to be hung in the hall. The Princess had been struck with this the moment she saw it, for the purpleness of the halo (even in the oil-picture) astonished her, and she asked who that saint was. He had not been recognised as such while on the earth, but no doubt he had learned much afterwards, for his remarks at the séance that evening equalled Cardinal Newman’s for spiritual beauty. To clinch the matter, he materialised at the next séance, and apart from his nose, which certainly did resemble Gabriel’s, his great-niece found that he exactly corresponded with her childish remembrances of him.

For several months these spiritual experiences were a source of great happiness to Mrs. Weston, but, though encouraged to persevere, she{66} could never see anything in her crystal except the distorted reflection of the room, nor would Raschia do anything in the way of automatic script except cover the paper with angled lines which resembled fortifications. Similarly at the séances, Pocky and Uncle Robert and Cardinal Newman did not seem to get on, but remained on their respective levels of mischievousness and saintliness, without any further revelations. Her attendances became less frequent and her crystal grew dusty from disuse, while she found that whether she consulted Mrs. Jones or not, her life moved forward on a quite prosperous course. But fortunately about this time, she encountered a disciple of the Higher Thought, and soared away again into the bright zenith of another enthusiasm, which still at present holds her.

She is one of the happiest freaks in all Mayfair, with never a dull or a despondent moment. The limits of a normal lifetime are not large enough to allow her to exhaust all the quackeries with which from time immemorial the inquisitive sons of men have deluded and delighted themselves, and if she lives till ninety, which is quite probable, she will continue to find fresh outlets for her exuberant credulity. Just now she finds that Higher Thought is much assisted by walking{67} with bare feet through wet grass for a quarter of an hour every morning. The only sufficiently private grass in London is a small sooty patch in her own back-garden. But it is grass, and it is usually wet in the early morning, and she has her bath afterwards.

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