The Catalan Spiritualist Jotim had still been hiding from the church’s spies when he arranged to meet the American doctor Wallace in, of all places, the Café del Principe, right across from the convent in the center of Madrid.
The Café del Principe was small shabby locale with pinewood tables and wicker chairs. But in the winter they served punch, barley water and sarsaparilla, in the summer their famous sorbets, and all year long one could gaze out their windows in hopes of catching sight of one the Sister of Contemplation entering or leaving the convent of the order of the Barefoot Carmelites.
Not many people know that the Café del Principe, precisely because it was so small, was the first cafe in Madrid to follow the Parisian fashion of lining the interior walls with mirrors. These mirrors lent the café an illusory infinity, while also permitting its male clientele to gaze not only at their beautiful companions, but also (perhaps especially) at themselves sitting next to beautiful companions. But though these mirrors enhanced the light, exposing everyone to everyone, they also drew the patrons’ gaze away from the northwest corner of the bar: ever since the mirrors ahd been installed, no one in the café had ever once thought to glance over at the table in the corner.
It was the corner table of absolute liberty.
Over the years, it had come to be one the preferred meeting point for the myriad subspecies of dissidents and radicals that inhabited the fringes of the imperial capital. Napoleonistas, nacionalistas, imperialistas, pragmatistas, absolutistas, monarquistas, Carlistas, and progresistas had all in turn partaken of sarsaparillas and Barley waters on the corner table. On this particular night, however, the barley waters imbibed by two men who considered themselves mere Free Thinkers and Men of Reason, but who belonged to that great community known (and reviled) as Espiritualistas.
Hidden by the mirrors and the smoke of cigars, tonight Wallace and Jotim will communicate with the Spirits. Jotim lives here. Wallace brings with him news from their brethren in Boston and, more to Jotim’s surprise than his displeasure, his fourteen-year-old daughter, a delicate girl with golden hair and marble skin and bright blue eyes, though tonight rather reddened by smoke and lack of sleep.
In preparation for the session, the two men become caught up in an impassioned discussion of the nature of the soul and how best to speak with it. Wallace’s daughter Magdalena eventually falls asleep on the table, knocking the tripod onto the floor.
Jotim, infuriated and alarmed, rebukes Wallace for bringing her to their serious philosophical gathering, and Wallace turns to chastise her, when suddenly she sits up, stiff as a telegraph pole. Her eyes turn black as coals, a strange glow, like dappled moonlight, appears on her arms and neck, and there falls from her mouth a great quantity of white foam that future generations would call ectoplasm, but which her father, now alarmed, believes to be the symptom of a poison, and decries this base and malicious Catholic treachery. Jotim and leans over to clasp the girl to his breast so that she might die in his arms, when she begins to rap, with irregular pauses, long and short, her fist upon the table, steadily, never once looking down. Wallace records her taps, and begins to translate them into words: “The Catalan Spiritualist Jotim had still been in hiding from the Catholic spies when he arranged to meet the American doctor Wallace in the Café del Principe. The Café del Principe was small shabby locale with pinewood tables and wicker chairs….”
They order sorbets and take a seat in the corner. Jotim asks Wallace why he has brought this lovely and delicate child. Surely she ought to be home, reading fairy-tales.
The girl responds that she does not like fairy-tales. She prefers the kinds of stories her father tells her, “because they are terrible,” she says, “and because they are true.”
“With what innocent purity and simplicity speaks the girl-child!” exclaims Jotim. “And her face is as beautiful as her spirit is pure!”
“The body is only the leaf of the tree of life,” observes Wallace, rather curtly. “Moreover, Magdalena is present because you specified that the magnetic activation of the communicative device requires three people, at least one of whom is an innocent. And I see you have brought no one.”
“Trustworthy innocents are increasingly difficult to find in Madrid,” sighs Jotim.
“Magdalena is as quiet as the grave,” says Wallace. “She will not betray us to the Catholics, and her innocence may even protect us, should we be accosted by…impure spirits.”
Jotim shows Wallace the brass tripod they will use to communicate with the spirits.
“Placing a hand on the top, like so,” he says, “one evokes a spirit, and when one of the tripod legs lift up, any one of the three may ask the spirits any questions they please.”
Jotim and Wallace then fall to discussing this tripod’s history, its magnetic properties and the best way to position it, and whether any ritual need be performed in doing so, and once signs were received, what system to use to interpret them.
“In order to understand the spirit’s replies,” affirms Jotim, “each leg must be given a number between one and three, each number corresponding to nine letters of the alphabet, which are also given numbers, the spirit thereby revealing which letters it wishes to name in order to form the words.”
“But if we are magnetizing the spirit tripod, why not communicate via the electrical telegraphic code of Mr. Morse?” asks Wallace. “Surely it would be faster and more accurate.”
Jotim is scandalized. “The eternal spirits would hardly communicate with us like common American train operators! Only the basest of materialists would propose such a system!”
“Ah, so you are familiar with the Mr. Morse’s wonderful system?” asks Wallace, delighted, for he is something of an enthusiast of long-distance communication.
“More or less,” remarks Jotim dismissively, which they both know means no, not at all.
Wallace sighs. “I am most distressed to see an intelligent man like yourself so quick to dismiss something that he knows nothing at all about. We might at least conduct an experiment, evoking their names with the code and seeing if they respond.”
But neither Jotim nor Wallace is certain if spirits have names, if they are earthly names or spirit names, if it is blasphemous to evoke them, or if their names change, or for that matter if after bodily death the opinions and ideas of the spirits change once they return to a state of Spirithood, and then they fall to discussing whether or not animals have spirits, why Spirits must act secretly, why some children can communicate directly with spirits, and why do babies cry when they are born, and is rebellion part of the natural law, and finally if any man can detain the march of human progress, and here they desist, for both of them agree that the march of human progress is impossible to detain.