Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Charles Lever > Text of Old Conjurors And The New

An essay by Charles Lever

The Old Conjurors And The New

Title:     The Old Conjurors And The New
Author: Charles Lever [More Titles by Lever]

As there are few better tests of the general health of an individual than in the things he imagines to be injurious to him, so there is no surer evidence of the delicate condition of a State than in the character of those who are assumed to be dangerous to it. Now, after all that has been said of Rome and the corruptions of Roman government, I do not know anything so decidedly damnatory as the fact, to which allusion was lately made in Parliament, that the Papal Government had ordered Mr Home, the spiritualist, to quit the city and the States of his Holiness, and not to return to them.

In what condition, I would ask, must a country be when such a man is regarded as dangerous? and in what aspect of his character does the danger consist?

Do we want ghosts or spirits to reveal to us any more of the iniquities of that State than we already know? Is there a detail of its corrupt administration that the press of Europe has not spread broadcast over the world? What could Mr Home and all his spirits tell us of peculation, theft, subornation, bigotry, and oppression, that the least observant traveller has not brought home with him?

And then, as to the man himself, how puerile it is to give him this importance! The solitary bit of cleverness about him is his statement that he has no control whatever over the spirits that attend him. Asking him not to summon them, is pretty like asking Mr Windham not to send for his creditors. They come pretty much as they like, and probably their visits are about equally profitable.

In this respect Home belongs to a very low order of his art. When Bosco promises to make a bouquet out of a mouse-trap, or Houdin engages to concoct a batter-pudding in your hat, each keeps his word. There is no subterfuge about the temper the spirits may happen to be in, or of their willingness or unwillingness to present themselves. The thing is done, and we see it--or we think we see it, which comes much to the same.

With this provision of escape Mr Home secures himself against all failure. Should, for instance, the audience prove to be of a more discriminating and observant character than he liked or anticipated, and the exhibition in consequence be rendered critical, all he had to do was, to aver that the spirits would not come; it was no breakdown on _his_ part Homer was sulky, or Dante was hipped, or Lord Bacon was indisposed to meet company, and there was the end of it. You were invited to meet celebrities, but it was theirs to say if they would present themselves.

On the other hand, when the proper element of credulity offered--when the seance was comprised of the select few, emotional, sensitive, and hysterical as they ought to be--when the nervous lady sat beside the timid gentleman, and neuralgia confronted confirmed dyspepsia--the artist could afford to be daring, and might venture on flights that astounded even himself. What limit is there, besides, to contagional sympathy? Look at the crowded theatre, with its many-minded spectators, and see how one impulse, communicated occasionally by a hireling, will set the whole mass in a ferment of enthusiastic delight. Mark, too, how the smile, that plays like an eddy on a lake, deepens into a laugh, and is caught up by another and another, till the whole storm breaks out in a hearty ocean of merriment. These, if you like, are spirits; but the great masters of them are not men like Mr Home--they have ever been, and still are, of a very different order. Shakespeare and Moliere and Cervantes knew something of the mode to summon these imps, and could make them come at their bidding besides.

Was it--to come back to what I started with--was it in any spirit of rivalry that the Papal Government drove Mr Home out of Home? Was it that, assuming to have a monopoly in the wares he dealt in, they would not stand a contraband trade? If so, their ground is at least defensible; for what chance of attraction would there be for the winking Virgin in competition with him who could "make a young lady ascend to the ceiling, and come slowly down like a parachute!"--a spiritual fact I have heard from witnesses who really, so far as character went, might challenge any incredulity.

If the Cardinals were jealous of the Conjuror, the thing is intelligible enough, and one must feel a certain degree of sympathy with the old-established firm that had spent such enormous sums, and made such stupendous preparations, when a pretender like this could come into competition with them, without any other properties than could be carried conveniently about him.

But let us be practical The Pope's Government demanded of Mr Home that he should have no dealings with the Evil One during his stay at Rome. Now, I ask, what should we say of the efficacy of our police system if we were to hear that the Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard lived in nightly terror of the pickpockets who frequented that quarter, and came to Parliament with a petition to accord him some greater security against their depredations? Would not the natural reply be an exclamation of astonishment that he who could summon to his aid every alphabetical blue-coat that ever handled a truncheon, should deem any increased security necessary to his peace? And so, would I ask, of what avail these crowds of cardinals--these regiments of monsignori--these battalions of bishops, Arch and simple?--of what use all the incense and these chanted litanies, these eternal processions, and these saintly shin-bones borne in costly array--if one poor mortal, supposed to live on visiting terms with the Evil One, can strike such terror into the whole army led on by Infallibility?

If I had been possessed of any peculiar dread of coming unexpectedly on the Devil--as the old ladies of New York used to feel long ago about suddenly meeting with the British army--I should certainly have comforted myself by the thought that I could always go and sit down on the steps of the Vatican. It would immediately have occurred to me, that as Holyrood offers its sanctuary against the sheriff, the Quirinal would be the sure retreat against Old Nick; and I have even pictured to myself the rage of his disappointed malice as he saw me sheltering safely beneath a protection he dared not invade. And now I am told to relinquish all the blessed enjoyment of this immunity; that the Pope and the Cardinals and Antonelli himself are not a whit better off than the rest of us; that if Mr Home gets into Rome, there is nothing to prevent his having the Devil at his tea-parties. What an ignoble confession is this! Who will step forward any longer and contend that this costly system is to be maintained, and all these saintly intercessors to be kept on the most expensive of all pension-lists, if a poor creature like Home can overthrow it all?

Can any one conceive such a spectacle as these gorgeous men of scarlet and purple cringing before this poor pretender, and openly avowing before Europe that there is no peace for them till he consents to cross the Tiber?

Why--I speak, of course, in the ignorance of a laic--but, I ask, why not fumigate him and cleanse him? When I saw him last, the process would not have been so supererogatory. Why not exorcise and defy him? Why not say, Come, and bring your friend if you dare; you shall see how we will treat you. Only try it It is what we have been asking for nigh two thousand years. Let the great culprit step forward and plead to his indictment.

I can fancy the Pope saying this--I can picture to myself the proud attitude of the Pontiff declaring, "I have had enough of these small devilries, like Louis Napoleon and Victor Emmanuel--I am sick of Mazzini and his petty followers. Let us deal with the chief of the gang at once; if we cannot convict him, he will be at least open to a compromise." This, I say, I can comprehend; but it is clear and clean beyond me that he should shirk the interview, and own he was afraid of it. It would not surprise me to-morrow to hear that Lord Derby dreaded the Radicals, and actually feared the debating powers of "Mr Potter of the Strikes."

[The end]
Charles Lever's Essay: The Old Conjurors And The New