Portsmouth-based author Diana Bretherick was inspired to write this gripping short story after leading some ‘memory’ sessions at the Portsmouth Central Library drawing on the city’s archive collections. Portsmouth proudly holds the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collection.
A Circle of Souls by Diana Bretherick
They sat in a solemn semi-circle, hands touching lightly, their sweat mingling as anticipation grew. Who would visit from the spirit world that night? Everyone present, Violet noted, had their own part to play, from unquestioning believer to sceptic. The famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was there, like his detective character Sherlock Holmes, to discover the truth. Mr Powell whose lilting Welsh tones were currently wafting around the room, was the medium.
Earlier Violet and Michael, the Portland Hotel’s receptionist and trainee manager respectively, had spent some of the afternoon with Sir Arthur rearranging the furniture in his hotel room ready for the séance.
As they finished, the author smiled warmly and said to Violet:
‘I’ll need an observer. Do you have shorthand?’
‘Well, yes, I do, Sir, but…’ she had looked to Michael. He nodded.
‘That’s fine, Sir. I’ll find someone to cover at reception.’
So, despite her distrust of this new fad for Spiritualism, that evening she found herself watching as Conan Doyle tied the medium Mr Powell to his chair. She was then presented with a small megaphone circled with luminous paint to inspect. Violet had no idea what it was for, but nothing seemed amiss with it, and it was placed with great ceremony next to Mr Powell, whose lilting Welsh tones rang through the room as he enjoined them to form the circle.
The lights went down and the séance began. Violet could hear heavy breathing which seemed to be coming from Mr Powell. He spoke, but gone were the lilting Welsh tones. Instead, a deep, resonant voice announced itself as Black Hawk. He spoke quite cheerfully, Violet thought, notwithstanding the fact he was dead. He was also remarkably well versed in English for an American Indian and had a preoccupation with wigwams.
After he went quiet, the only sound was Mr Powell snoring. The megaphone slowly rose in the dark, the luminous paint glowing as it swooped and circled like an errant sparrow, before vanishing and then reappearing with flowers stuck up the end. At this, Violet had a sudden urge to laugh. Then Black Hawk was back. ‘There is someone here…’
A cold wind blew across Violet’s face. A mantel clock struck repetitively – ding, ding, ding – telling out the time as midnight. At the door she saw a figure. It was Michael. Curiosity had clearly got the better of him considering he wasn’t meant to be working that evening. He frowned as he cast his eyes around the room; then he saw Violet and smiled, making an odd gesture, his hands clasped together, as if he was imploring her to do something. But what she wondered? Help him? It was most peculiar. What was he thinking?
There was a crash and the lights were turned on. A decorative wooden pedestal was on its side in the centre of the semi-circle. Violet looked back to the door. Michael had gone.
‘How are your notes, Miss Pilgrim?’ Sir Arthur asked.
‘It was a little dark, so they may be no more than scribbles.’ She glanced down at her notebook. Written at the top of an otherwise blank page were the words ‘I am the only witness.’
Inspector Harry Fox was unmoved by death. After losing both his wife and son in the last three years he had little space left in his heart for emotion, only cold hard facts. Ironically his pain had made him an excellent detective. Searching for truth through the fog of deception was easier without feeling, whatever the crime.
Today the crime was murder. The dead man lay on his front in a pool of blood, arms placed out to the side in a macabre imitation of a crucifixion. The face was to one side, eyes wide open, cheeks inexplicably covered with grime. The corpse had been found by a kitchen porter in the early hours of the morning, lying near dustbins in an alley way at the back of the Portland Hotel. Harry’s sergeant Sam Tubbs knelt gingerly beside the body and began to search the pockets.
‘Nothing sir, ‘he said. ‘Looks like a robbery.’ Then he lifted something – a pocket watch that had disgorged its glass lens on the ground when the Sergeant flipped its cover. The hands had stopped at exactly midnight.
‘Broken as he fell, Sir? Maybe that’s why the robber didn’t take it.’
‘Maybe.’ But Harry was doubtful. The murder seemed too vicious for that. His suspicion was confirmed when the pathologist had the body turned. There were so many cuts on the torso it was hard to see where one ended and another began.
‘What next, sir? Interviews?’ Tubbs asked.
‘Yes, sergeant. Let’s get started.’
Violet sat in the café, staring out at the sea front. The wind was lively and every now and again the waves crashed against the promenade and seeped onto the pathway forcing people to retreat from the water – the ladies squealing and the gentlemen laughing and offering a hand to pull them clear.
Violet was not amused. Instead she was dazed by a conversation that she couldn’t explain.
‘Miss Pilgrim?’ A familiar Scots burr made her look up.
‘Sir Arthur, I…’
‘May I buy you another cup of tea? That one looks cold.’
‘Well I really should be going…’
‘Surely you have time to keep an old man company for a few moments.’
His blue eyes sparkled and she smiled. ‘I don’t believe you could ever be described as old.’
He ordered their drinks from a star struck waitress and sat down. ‘You left so quickly last night I didn’t get a chance to thank you.’
‘It was my pleasure.’
Sir Arthur laughed. ‘I’m not sure that pleasure quite describes it but I hope you found it interesting.’
Violet hesitated. ‘Sir Arthur…may I ask you something?’
‘Of course…ask away…unless it’s a request for more Holmes stories or to ask me where I get my ideas from.’ He peered at her with mock intensity. ‘No, you look far too intelligent for that.’
‘Do you think there really is an afterlife?’
He peered at her again, thoughtful. ‘Do you, Miss Pilgrim?’
‘I don’t know…well that is to say until last night I would have dismissed it but now…’
‘What decided you? Was it the voice of Black Hawk? He’s an interesting chap, isn’t he? Or was it the pedestal? It took two of us to put it back, you know.’
‘Neither although I did wonder how it was done…No – it was something I saw…or thought I saw but I couldn’t have done…not really…’
‘Miss Pilgrim I have seen many strange things in my life and have tried to judge them scientifically. True, there are frauds pretending to be mediums and preying on the misery of the bereaved…’
‘But Mr Powell is not one of them.’
‘You really believe in spirits?’
Violet got to her feet and shook Sir Arthur’s hand for all she was worth. ‘Thank you…you don’t know what that means… thank you.’ She ran off jamming her hat back on her head and waving goodbye to a bemused Sir Arthur.
Harry glanced down at his watch. Had they been here for only three hours? It felt more like ten. They had found no weapons, no witnesses and no motive to kill Michael, the hotel’s trainee manager. It was frustrating but sometimes that was how it worked out. Not every crime could be solved quickly.
The door crashed open and a young woman rushed in.
‘I have to… talk to you…it’s important.’
She sank onto the seat he offered, taking a moment to catch her breath.
‘The young man who died…he was my colleague…more than that really.’
The girl blushed. ‘No, just friends.’ She held out her hand. ‘I’m Violet Pilgrim…Michael, the dead man…he was murdered.’
Harry took her hand and shook it limply. ‘That much we know.’
‘I wasn’t going to say anything,’ she blurted. ‘I thought you’d think I was foolish or mad or something but Sir Arthur persuaded me… or I should say something he said made me…’
‘Conan Doyle,’ Violet answered as if it was the most natural thing in the world to talk to a detective about the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
‘He wants me to tell you that he doesn’t know who did it or why.’
‘Well that makes two of us. But why should Sir Arthur know anything?’
‘No, not Sir Arthur…Michael…the dead man.’
Harry looked at this strange woman to get the measure of her. Was she playing some elaborate trick? She looked flustered but earnest. He detected no madness and no mockery.
Violet took a deep breath and took off her hat, running exasperated hands through her auburn curls. ‘Michael was murdered. I don’t know the name of his killer but whoever it was wore a gentleman’s cologne called Eau de Vetiver and expensive soft leather gloves.’
‘And how do you know that?’
‘I saw Michael.’
‘Last night. In the séance. He looked in.’
‘What time was that?’ Harry was suddenly alert.
‘Exactly midnight. I know because I heard the clock strike.’
Midnight. The precise time of the murder, judging by the victim’s pocket watch.
‘He spoke to you, did he, Miss?’ he asked trying to hide his disbelief.
‘No – well… yes. There wasn’t time in the séance. But he left me a note. And later he told me.’
Later, thought Harry. How could it have been later unless the pocket watch clue was wrong?
‘When did he tell you?’
‘This morning,’ Violet said, ‘in a café on the seafront.’
Harry sat back, irritated by this hysterical woman – another spiritist who thought she could speak to the dead.
‘I know. It doesn’t make sense to you – or to me for that matter. I didn’t believe in any of this until now! Michael asked me to tell you. The killer took his wallet but this wasn’t a robbery. Look at all those cuts.’
Harry stared at her. How did she know about the cuts? Nothing had been said to the Press.
‘He told me so himself,’ she said, as if she could read his mind. ‘I know you won’t believe me but I had to tell you and now I have.’
Harry thought a moment. Then, half-reluctantly he took out his notebook. Of course, he didn’t believe in this mumbo-jumbo. But at the same time, here was a material fact that as a detective he had to write down, collate and compare with the scant other facts.
Violet had given them something to go on in a case that appeared unsolvable. But explaining to his boss that the testimony of a dead man was all they had was not going to be easy.
And even more troubling, explaining to himself why he was willing to accept the testimony of a dead man in a world he knew was devoid of ghosts and spirits – well, that was even harder still.