Mystery

Dinner with H.P.B.

By Eileen Kernaghan
5,126 words · 19-minute reading time
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DINNER WITH H.P.B.       

           

This evening the doyenne of the London Theosophical Society had chosen to hold court in her private ground floor rooms. Alexandra, approaching tentatively, found her seated at a large and extraordinarily cluttered desk. Behind her, a bay window with half-drawn curtains looked out into the shadowy park. Every shelf and table in this inner sanctum was heaped with reference books, and more volumes were stacked haphazardly on the floor. As well, Madame Blavatsky had surrounded herself with souvenirs of the years she had spent in the east: a golden Buddha, Benares bronzes, Palghat mats, wall-plaques from Kashmir. The close air of the room held a lingering odour of hashish -- a scent which Alexandra had lately learned to recognize. On one wall, looking curiously out of place was a Swiss cuckoo clock.

            Still more out of place in that fashionably exotic room was Madame Blavatsky herself: a huge, shapeless bulk draped in a baggy black gown girdled with black rope, the hem riding up to reveal grotesquely swollen ankles and feet. Her crinkly grey hair was pulled back into an untidy knot; her massive double-chinned face was deeply pitted and yellow-tinged. Yet what caught and held Alexandra's gaze were the luminous azure eyes that looked out of that ruined face with a shrewd intelligence and an almost hypnotic force of personality.

            "Here is the young lady from Belgium," said the Countess Wachmeister, and she disappeared up the stairs.

            "Where exactly in Belgium?" Nicotine-stained fingers tapped a cigarette into an overflowing ashtray.

            "From Brussels, Madame." Alexandra loathed Brussels. How depressing, she thought, to be introduced as a resident of that grey bourgeois city. She added, "But I was born in Paris, and lived there until I was five."

            "Paris," said Madame Blavatsky, with faint distaste. "I understand they are ruining the view with some sort of enormous metal excrescence."

            "M. Eiffel's tower," said Alexandra, smiling. "Indeed," she added, in her correct but hesitant English, "it is the centre of much controversy. There are those who call it the `junkman's Notre Dame'.

            "Exactly so," said Madame Blavatsky. "And you, Mademoiselle David. Mrs. Morgan tells me you are a student of the occult."

            Alexandra recoiled a little under the intensity of that bright blue gaze; but Madame Blavatsky's expression was unexpectedly benign.

            "It interests me a great deal, that is true."

             "And you plan to make it your career?"

            "Au contraire," said Alexandra. I believe I would like to study medicine, perhaps to become a medical missionary."

              "A doctor -- now there is a worthy undertaking!"

            "It's difficult of course, for a woman..."

            "Flapdoodle!" said H.P.B, fiercely. "These days a woman can do anything she wishes. I myself am a living example of that. Did you know that I fought with the Garibaldi's army at the battle of Mentana, and was wounded five times, and left for dead in a ditch?"

            "I am amazed," murmured Alexandra. And added politely, “I had thought that I might use my skills in the Orient. Even perhaps Tibet."

            "Ah, yes, Tibet," said Madame Blavatsky, with sudden animation. "I myself have travelled extensively in the Forbidden Kingdom."

             Alexandra said nothing. She was trying to imagine those elephantine lower limbs transporting their owner over the Himalayas.

            "But there is the dinner-bell," said H.P.B. "We must see what guests have come to amuse us tonight. Let me have your arm. These stairs are an abomination." And leaning heavily on Alexandra's shoulder, she began her laborious ascent.

            Folding doors opened from the airy drawing room into the dining room, where  gas chandeliers cast a warm glow over a table set for twenty. A dozen or so guests in evening dress were just preparing to sit down.

            Alexandra observed among the female guests a certain individualism of style that verged on the eccentric: stayless, high-waisted Directoire gowns a la Sarah Bernhardt; loose, diaphanous tea-gowns; draped Grecian costumes lavishly embroidered with gold thread. As befitted a young woman of intellectual aspirations and anarchist leanings, Alexandra had dressed in a plain serge skirt, high-collared white blouse and sensible boots. Now she felt like a pigeon which had strayed into a flock of macaws.  

             Madame Blavatsky settled herself at the head of the table, ashtray at hand, and immediately launched into a spirited lecture. "The whole universe is filled with spirits," she declaimed loudly. "It is nonsense to suppose that we are the only intelligent beings in the world. I believe there is latent spirit in all matter." Alexandra found an empty place and sat down.

            A moment later she heard the silvery chime of an invisible bell, and a long-stemmed red rose plummeted onto the table next to her wine-glass. Startled, she stared up at the ceiling.

            "Aha," said the lean, bespectacled gentleman on Alexandra's left hand. He sounded amused. "H.P.B. is up to her parlour tricks again. Doesn't she know we're all thoroughly bored by them?"

            Alexandra pushed the rose nervously to one side, just in time to see a plain white envelope fall with a small thud onto her plate. She thrust her chair back from the table in alarm. Madame Blavatsky, who had ignored the mysterious chimes and the apparently heaven-sent rose, looked straight down the table at Alexandra, and smiled expansively.

            "Look," she said, in her hoarse smoker's voice. "The Mahatma has sent our young guest a letter. You must open it and read it to us, Mademoiselle."

            Inside the envelope was a sheet of shell-pink writing paper with a message in heavy black script: "To Mme. David. Master Koot Hoomi Singh sends a warm welcome to the young visitor from abroad." Where the signature should have been, were some rather badly formed Tibetan symbols.

            "What," said Alexandra to her neighbour, "in the name of Heaven is going on?"

            "You should feel honoured, Mademoiselle. You hold in your hand one of the famous -- or should I say infamous? -- Mahatma letters. According to H.P.B, they are written somewhere in the Himalayas by a mysterious holy man, an initiate of the Brotherhood of the Snowy Range. And delivered, as you observe, by means of the astral post office."

            "What utter nonsense," Alexandra burst out.

            "Quite so," said her neighbour. "But you would be astounded, Mademoiselle, at how many otherwise sensible people have been duped into believing this Mahatma is real."

            Alexandra looked more closely at the writing. The black letters were hastily scrawled, and there was a large inkblot in one corner.

            "But how is the trick done? Do you suppose this could be an instance of telekinesis?"

            "Ah, I see you are familiar with the term."

            "Indeed, we are not entirely cut off from such research on the continent. I have read with great interest the works of Dr. Charles Richet on metapsychics. He cites some fascinating instances of table-tilting, levitation of furniture, music from invisible instruments ... if tables and chairs can drift in mid-air or walk about the room, is a floating letter so astonishing?"

     Her neighbour smiled uncertainly. Clearly, he was struggling to decide whether or not Alexandra spoke in jest.

            "I am a man of science, Mademoiselle. If I am to accept these "miracles" that Madame Blavatsky is thought to perform, they must be subject to scientific proof. I have seen no such evidence."

            "And what branch of science do you study, Monsieur?"

            "I am a zoologist -- forgive me, Mademoiselle, I have not introduced myself, my name is Charles Barker. I lecture in zoology at Cambridge."                      

            "Then, Dr. Barker," said Alexandra. "you will be familiar with the other works of Dr. Charles Richet."

            "I have read his monographs."

            "I too," said Alexandra. "And attended his lectures.

            A heavy-set, rubicund man across the table from Barker set down his glass. "I also have read the work of Dr. Richet. The controlled psychical experiments of a respected physiologist, the editor of Revue Scientifique, are naturally of the greatest interest."

             "Allow me to introduce Dr. Wilfred Forbes-Grant," said Barker. "He is a colleague of mine at Cambridge."

             "And are you a member of the Theosophical Society, Dr. Forbes-Grant?"

             "Most definitely not," said Forbes-Grant, ladling out a generous serving of mulligatawny soup. "Dr. Barker and I are members of the Society for Psychical Research."

            "Or the Spookical Research Society, as H.P.B. would have it," said Barker with a smile. 

            "And what is this Society?" Alexandra sipped her soup. It was excellent.

            "We are a group of likeminded scientists and scholars, dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomena."

            "Par exemple...?"

             "In the main, four areas: astral appearances, transportation of physical substances by occult means, precipitation of letters, and occult sounds and voices. All of which," he added, "Madame Blavatsky lays claim to. And so we are part of a committee formed to look specifically into Madame Blavatsky's psychic abilities."

            "And what has your research shown?"

            "So far, we have reached no firm conclusions. However --" he dropped his voice and leaned in confidentially -- "We are very much inclined to think she is a fraud."

            "On what grounds?"

            "My dear young lady, one scarcely knows where to begin. Her entire history is a series of exaggerations and falsehoods and outrageous behaviour. Take, for example, these letters she insists are written by her "Tibetan Masters" -- blatant forgeries, according to the report prepared for our society by Mr. Richard Hodgson, who travelled to India to interview Madame Blavatsky and investigate her claims. In fact, he suspects she may be a Russian spy. Certainly, she has been shown to be a plagiarist. It seems that in this much-touted book of hers, Isis Unveiled, there are some two thousand passages copied verbatim from other people's books without credit. In his conclusion he describes her as one of the most accomplished, ingenious and interesting imposters in history." 

            People continued to arrive without ceremony in the middle of the soup course. They would find an empty chair, chat for a while, and then leave without waiting for the pudding. There was, as well, a good deal of changing places around the table. Alexandra, who at one moment was deep in conversation with a pale, intense young poet called Willie Yeats, at the next moment found herself talking to Lady Wilde, the mother of Oscar, who seemed convinced she was at a séance. It was all, she thought, very much like Mr. Dodgson's Mad Tea Party.

            Nonetheless, she was encouraged by the lavish display of enticing dishes.

            "Do try this lentil stew,” said Dr. Forbes-Grant, helping himself from the tureen. "And these, I believe, are H.P.B.'s famous curried mussels." He took a modest portion, hesitated, then added another spoonful. "Though of course, this vegetarianism is simply another fraud. The woman was raised on sausage and smoked goose, and until recently insisted that large amounts of meat were essential to her health."

            "Are you fond of shellfish?" asked Alexandra. Madame Blavatsky's misdemeanours had made Dr. Forbes-Grant quite agitated and red in the face. Fearing apoplexy in a gentleman of his age and girth, she thought it wise to change the subject.

            "As a matter of fact, I've always avoided it, on my physician's advice, as I've inherited an unfortunate tendency to gout. But I sampled this special Indian recipe of Madame Blavatsky's a few Saturdays ago, and I declare, it was well worth the risk."

            Alexandra, who had a delicate stomach, tried a cautious forkful of the mussels, and declared them delicious.

            She sat contentedly sipping her wine, and chatting with a bearded student of oriental languages.

            Suddenly, from across the table, came painful sounds of wheezing. Alexandra turned, alarmed, to Dr. Forbes-Grant. He was deeply flushed, and seemed to be having trouble getting his breath.

            "Oh, Monsieur," she cried out, "shall I thump you on the back? Have you a bone stuck in your throat?"

            Dr. Forbes-Grant shook his head in silent anguish. His eyes bulged. "Something .... disagreed ..." he managed to gasp out. Clutching his throat with both hands, he fought desperately for air.

            "Give him room," said Countess Wachmeister, motioning back the other diners, who had half-risen from their seats.

            "Loosen his collar," she told Alexandra, who hastened to obey.

            Forbes-Grant drew an agonized, rattling breath and slipped sideways in his chair. As he fell, one hand struck his empty wineglass and knocked it into Alexandra's lap.

            "Help me," said the Countess. "We must get him to a sofa. And send for Dr. Mennell."           

            Charles Barker and the young poet Willie Yeats sprang to her assistance. Between them they carried Forbes-Grant to a chaise-longue. Suddenly he went into convulsions, his whole body jerking and writhing, limbs flailing. White froth speckled his lips.

            Charles Barker looked up in horror from his colleague's body. "Too late for the doctor," he said in a hushed, shocked voice. "You must send for the police."

            "A murderer has just passed below our windows," remarked Madame Blavatsky, obscurely. They all stared at her.       

#

             "An inspector from Scotland Yard?" Alexandra turned in surprise to the poet George Russell, with whom she was sharing a sofa. "Is this usual, in such cases?"

            "I confess I am scarcely familiar with what is usual in such cases," said Russell, with a trace of irony. "It is not as though they are an everyday occurrence in Dublin literary circles. But I believe discretion is the watchword here. Madame Blavatsky is very much a public figure -- moreover the focus of a great deal of scandal. And some of her guests, as you can see, are influential." As he said this, he nodded in Lady Margot Asquith's direction. She was sitting by the window, elegant in crepe de chine and velvet, looking as though she very much wished to be somewhere else. "If the newspapers get so much as a whiff of this, our little dinner-party will push the Whitechapel affair onto the second page."

            "All except for the Telegraph," said Willie Yeats' dinner partner, a Valkyrian beauty called Maude Gonne. There was amusement in her rich Irish tones. "We can depend on Oscar's brother Willie to see the Telegraph is discreet."

            Inspector Murdoch was a slim, soft-spoken man of middle years. His accent was educated, his manners unobtrusive. A good choice, decided Alexandra. He looked to be the very soul of discretion.

            He addressed his first question to Alexandra: "You were seated across the table from him, Mademoiselle?"

            Alexandra nodded.

            "Can you tell me what you observed just before he collapsed -- what his symptoms appeared to be?"

            "At first I thought he had choked on his food, or was having an asthma attack. But I believe he was also trying to complain of nausea. His face was flushed, and somewhat mottled, as though he were running a fever. Almost at once he began to have extreme difficulty in breathing. This was followed by convulsions, and collapse."

            "Indeed, Mademoiselle," said the Inspector. "You are to be commended on your powers of observation." 

            Madame Blavatsky, an impassive presence at the head of the table, spoke for the first time.  "More flapdoodle," she said emphatically. "It's perfectly clear what happened. A man of his age, and girth -- obviously his heart gave out."

            "I'm sorry to contradict you, Madame," said Murdoch, "but the symptoms this young lady has described do not sound like heart failure, or apoplexy. We shall know more when we have the medical examiner's report. In the meantime, we cannot rule out the possibility of foul play."

            "Are you saying there will be a police investigation? An inquest?"  The speaker was a sharp-faced man of soldierly bearing, with a clipped beard and long, curving moustache. At dinner he had been sitting at H.P.B.'s left hand.

            "It's possible. It will depend on the medical report."

             "I must protest," said the man with the moustache, "in the strongest possible terms. As Madame Blavatsky has just told you, Dr. Forbes-Grant, while apparently vigorous, was by no means a young man; his death, while unfortunate, is quite obviously the result of natural causes. To suggest otherwise, at a public inquiry, would cause irreparable damage to Madame Blavatsky's reputation, and the reputation of the Theosophical Society."

            "Who is that?" whispered Alexandra to her seat-mate.

            "That is H.P.B.'s private secretary, George Mead," replied Russell. "A classics scholar who has taken up Hindu philosophy -- and a bit of a poseur, I gather. Willie Yeats can't abide him -- says he has the intellect of a good size whelk."

            Charles Barker had risen from his chair. With barely repressed fury he said, "Certainly there will have to be an inquest. There is every possible reason to suspect foul play."

            Inspector Murdoch turned to him with an expression of polite interest. "Indeed, sir? How can you be so sure?"

            "How can there be any doubt? Madame Blavatsky has the motive -- who had better reason to revenge herself against the researchers who have revealed her as a charlatan? Who even now are collecting evidence of still worse misdeeds? She has the capability--a woman of dubious morals and outrageous reputation, who smokes and uses foul language, who has lied about every aspect of her history, who even in her own country was the subject of police investigations.... And most importantly -- "here he paused for dramatic effect, and pointed to the door of Madame B's bedroom -- she has the means. On her bedside table is an empty bottle that contained strychnia."

            "The man is a complete idiot," said H.P.B."He's talking about my kidney medicine. You can ask Dr.Mennell, who prescribed it. Constance, fetch this fellow my prescription."

            With a look of sad perplexity, the Countess rose to obey.

            "Nonetheless," persisted Barker, "it is clearly labelled strychnine, and the bottle is empty."

            "But," Alexandra pointed out," we all served ourselves from the same dishes. Dr. Forbes-Grant ate nothing that I did not eat myself."

            "It would be a simple matter," said Barker, "for her to slip the strychnine into Dr. Forbes-Grant's wine-glass. She is, after all a mistress of legerdemain. That is how Mr. Hodgson accounts for the occult phenomena -- the mysterious letters, the objects appearing out of nowhere."

            "But surely you are overlooking the bitterness of strychnine," said one of the poets. "He would immediately have noticed the taste." How was it, Alexandra wondered briefly, that he was able to speak with such authority?

            "Not if he drank it straight down," drawled Margot Asquith unexpectedly from her window seat. "It was after all cheap wine, not the kind one is tempted to sip."

            Barker gave her a look of gratitude. "And remember Madame Blavatsky's words, just as Dr. Forbes-Grant was breathing his last? As I recall, she said, `A murderer has passed below our windows.' Obviously, a tactic to divert suspicion from herself."

            George Mead drew himself up to his full height. His moustache bristled. "Sir, you have gone too far. Am I to understand you are actually accusing Madame Blavatsky of murder?" "I am not the first to do so."

             Murdoch's eyes narrowed. "Indeed? Perhaps you would care to elaborate?"

             "Anyone who has followed Madame Blavatsky's history is familiar with the case. It happened at her sister's country house near St. Petersburg, about thirty years ago. A man had been murdered in a local gin shop, and Madame Blavatsky's father suggested to the police that, using her occult powers, his daughter might help locate the murderer. Curiously enough, she not only named the murderer, but was able to reveal his hiding place. Naturally the St. Petersburg police were anxious to question Madame Blavatsky about her sources; it took some effort on the part of her father, to convince them of her purported innocence."

            "What do you mean, `purported innocence'?” Madame Blavatsky ground her cigarette furiously into a saucer. "If you had followed the case as closely as you say, you would know that his name and his hiding place were revealed through my Ouija board. The spirits themselves provided the answer to the mystery."

            The friction-match shook in her hand as she lit a fresh cigarette. Her heavy face had gone a sickly shade of yellow-grey.  "But why do I bother to defend myself?" she said plaintively. "So much mud has already rained down upon me that I no longer bother to open an umbrella."

            What Alexandra saw before her was not the blustering, arrogant, outrageous figure of the popular press, but a tired, sick old woman, fearfully awaiting the approach of death. She is not a murderer, Alexandra thought with sudden conviction. She is capable of almost anything else, but not of murder.           

            "Perhaps," H.P.B. was saying, with desperate bravado, "if the spirits can find one murderer, they can find another. Constance, fetch the Ouija board."

            "No need, Madame," said Inspector Murdoch, hastily. He motioned to the Countess to sit down. "This is a matter for the civil authorities, I think -- not the astral ones."

            "Then let me consult the Mahatmas," said H.P.B, gazing up at the ceiling with a remote and contemplative expression. 

            "This is outrageous," said Charles Barker. "Ouija boards, Mahatmas..." Just then the Countess ushered in the medical examiner. "At last," said Barker. "Now we will arrive at the truth of the matter."

            "And what that might be?" The medical examiner, Dr. Graves, wore well-cut evening clothes that smelled faintly of cigar-smoke. He looked ill-pleased at being called away from what Alexandra surmised had been an excellent dinner.

            "My colleague," said Barker "has been poisoned. In the bedroom you will find an empty strychnine bottle."

            Dr. Graves raised an ironic eyebrow. "And are you in the habit, sir, of wandering uninvited into your hostess's bedroom?"

            Barker flushed. "The door was ajar. As I passed by I saw the bottle sitting on the bureau, in full view. Under the circumstances I thought it wise to check the label, before anyone saw fit to remove it. As we all observed, Dr. Forbes-Grant was seized with violent convulsions, his lips and face turned blue, he frothed at the mouth, and he apparently died of asphyxiation. I need not remind you, those are precisely the effects of strychnine poisoning."

            "But," said Alexandra, "I believe that to die of strychnine overdose, takes at least an hour. Dr. Forbes-Grant succumbed in a mere matter of minutes."

            The medical examiner held up an impatient hand. "With so much medical expertise at hand," he remarked, "I wonder at the need to call me in at all."

            "Miss..."

            "David," supplied Alexandra, rising from the sofa.

            "Miss David, since I'm told you observed Dr. Forbes-Grant's difficulties from the outset -- and you seem familiar with toxology..."

            "I have made a study of it, but only as an amateur," said Alexandra modestly.

            "Did you observe, in Dr. Forbes-Grant's final moments, the characteristic risus sardonic us of strychnine poisoning?"

            Alexandra shook her head. "And I fear that as to the cause of death, Dr. Barker and I are in serious disagreement. I would like to suggest another less sinister, though equally tragic, explanation."

            At that moment Madame Blavatsky, who had been half-sitting, half-reclining on a chaise longue, gave a kind of strangled groan and toppled sideways. The Countess and George Mead rushed to her assistance. Inspector Murdoch pocketed his notebook and moved quickly to join them.

            "There's no cause for alarm," said the Countess, waving everyone back.  Alexandra saw that in spite of her calm demeanour, all the colour had drained from her face. "A touch of indigestion, nothing more. Mr. Mead, will you fetch me the smelling salts? And then we must put her to bed."

            After a moment H.P.B. rallied. "What a lot of flapdoodle," she muttered, as she tottered out on George Mead's arm, with the Countess following anxiously behind. 

            Alexandra drew Dr. Graves aside. "As you see, Madame Blavatsky is not a young woman, and her health is precarious. She has endured a great deal of late -- there have been slanderous press articles, threatened lawsuits... Mrs. Morgan tells me that on more than one occasion these cruel attacks on her reputation have endangered her life. I fear she may not survive the physical stress, and the humiliation, of an inquest."

            "But Mademoiselle, if there is any indication of unnatural causes..."

            "Hear me out, M'sieu le docteur," said Alexandra. "I am convinced that Dr. Forbes-Grant's death was not unnatural, and that there is no need for a police inquiry."

            "You seem very confident of that, Mme. David."

            "But what evidence is there of foul play?"

            "And your theory, Mademoiselle?"

             "I believe it was the mussels." 

             "Are you saying that the mussels were poisoned, or tainted in some way? But surely others at the table must have eaten them."

            "Indeed, almost everyone, myself included. But when Dr. Forbes-Grant tried to tell me that something had disagreed with him, that is precisely what he meant. He had just eaten a large portion of curried mussels. It's common knowledge that some people react violently, even fatally, to shellfish. I read of a man who almost died from eating a single fresh prawn."

            "But that is nonsense," Charles Barker suddenly burst out. Alexandra realized, too late, that he had been listening intently to their conversation. "Dr. Forbes-Grant and I ate curried mussels in this very house, not three weeks ago, and he suffered no ill effects whatever."

            "I fear, Mademoiselle, that would seem to undermine your theory," said Dr. Graves.

            Alexandra bridled -- suspecting, as she so often did, that she was being patronized. But Dr. Graves was listening attentively, and his expression was serious. Pointedly ignoring Charles Barker, she addressed her remarks to the medical examiner. "Dr. Graves, are you by any chance familiar with the work of Dr. Charles Richet?"

            "No, really, I must protest," said Barker. "A man has been murdered. If we are to waste time listening to more of this spiritualist claptrap..."

            Alexandra gave him a scathing look. "I refer, Dr. Barker, to Dr. Richet's medical research, not to his interest in metempsychosis. In particular, I am thinking of his experiments with sero-therapeutic injections, in which he successfully immunized laboratory animals against infectious disease."

            Dr. Graves nodded. "I understand Dr. Richet is about to publish a paper on his research. I hope to obtain a copy -- his work on immunology has caused quite a stir in the medical community. But what does this have to do with the matter at hand?"

            "Hear me out," said Alexandra. "When you read Dr. Richet's paper, you may well find references to earlier work, by a Dr. Majendie. He too experimented with injecting foreign substances into animals. And he found, curiously enough, that while rabbits suffered no ill effects from a first injection, a second smaller dose, a few days later, often proved fatal." 

            "In other words," said Graves, "they had become sensitized?"

            "Precisely!" cried Alexandra. “Is it not possible, then, that the same might apply to human beings? That a food that was harmless enough when first eaten, might prove deadly when ingested for a second time?"

            The room had fallen silent. Alexandra saw that every eye was riveted upon her. It was a not entirely unpleasant realization.

            "You see," she said, looking squarely at Charles Barker, "the essential point is not that Dr. Forbes-Grant ate mussels tonight, but that he had eaten them before."

                                                                             #

             It was long past midnight, the hour at which Madame Blavatsky had decreed that everyone in her otherwise eccentric household should be in bed. Dr. Forbes-Grant's body had been removed to the morgue, the dinner guests had at last been excused, and Alexandra stood in the quiet dining-room with Inspector Murdoch and the medical examiner.

            "You realize, of course, that I can't promise anything until I have completed my medical report. However, -- based on what you've told me -- I shall be very surprised to find anything suspicious, and therefore it seems unlikely that Madame Blavatsky will have to endure an inquest. Would you agree, Inspector Murdoch?"

            "You'll get no argument from me," Murdoch said. "With this Whitechapel business, we have enough on our plates."

            "I know she will be immensely grateful for that assurance," Alexandra told them.

            The medical examiner looked down at her with a faintly sardonic smile. "From what I've heard of Madame H.P.B, I doubt I will receive any letters of thanks. And in any case, Mademoiselle, it you who deserve her gratitude."     

            At that moment a faint papery rustling, a movement of air like a cool draft in the close hot room, caused them both to glance up.

            "What on earth...?"  Alexandra followed the direction of the medical examiner's startled gaze.

            From somewhere in the shadowy heights above the gaslight, an envelope was spinning slowly downward. Alexandra reached out and caught it as it drifted into reach.

             It smelled of incense -- sandalwood, perhaps, or myrrh. 

              She opened it carefully, drew out a folded sheet of rose-pink paper, glanced down at the heavily inked salutation: "Sister Neophyte, we greet thee." She scanned the hastily scrawled message, and the blotted signature: "Master Koot Hoomi Singh, for The Brotherhood of the Snowy Range."           

            Graves looked inquiringly at Alexandra.

            "A personal greeting," she said. "From the Tibetan Masters, I believe. They convey their gratitude, in most gracious terms. And it seems I am invited to another dinner party."

            "In London, Mademoiselle?"

             Alexandra looked up at him, smiling. "Mais non. In the Himalayas, somewhere south of Lhasa." She folded the letter, returned it to its envelope, and tucked it into her pocket.

             "If I am able to find my own way there."

            "I have no doubt you will, Mademoiselle," said Graves, as he accepted his hat and gloves from the hovering Countess, and turned to go. "I have no doubt at all."

 

This story originally appeared in Crime Through Time II.


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