Beulah  (1919) 
by Alice Hegan Rice

From Harper's Magazine, Aug 1919



MRS. GRIBBEN had been dead all of three weeks, yet Mr. Gribben was still visiting her grave daily and watering it with his tears. This amazing and uncharacteristic behavior on the part of Bentville's leading citizen led to endless conjecture. The more charitable argued that perhaps the old skinflint had lavished all the kindness and goodwill which he had withheld from mankind in general on the secluded invalid who had been little more than a name in the community for the past ten years. The more cynical insisted that any man who has to be restrained from leaping into the open grave of one wife is pretty apt to be standing at the altar with another before the year is out.

The only person who could have thrown any light on the situation was Beulah Jones, and Beulah had the Sphinx outclassed in the matter of reticence. She was a poor relation of the late Mrs. Gribben's, and for many years had borne the domestic burdens of the farm, taken care of the invalid, and served as a sort of lightning-rod that attracted all the prying comments and caustic queries directed at the family, and conducted them safely into oblivion.

The mere sight of her sweeping snow off the Gribbens's porch ought to have been sufficient to discourage anybody from inquiring within about anything. Her face and figure resembled a jig-saw puzzle that has been put together by an amateur. A pair of non-commital eyes of slightly different size and color stood guard over a nose that was really too small to look after itself, and farther south-to be exact, southwest-on her facial map lay a mouth that only opened when it had to, and usually shut in somebody's face. In appearance and action she announced to the world that she was quite prepared to live without it, and she wished the compliment returned.

Notwithstanding these inhospitable signs, the strange lady in the fur coat, struggling up the road with a suit-case, turned in at the gate.

"Was I given the correct information when I was informed that this was the road to Bentville?" she asked, fixing Beulah with a pair of deep-set, melancholy eyes.

Beulah, after due consideration, evidently saw no reason for denying the fact, and nodded shortly.

"And how much farther is it to the town?" questioned the stranger, pressing a bangled hand to a chained bosom.

"It might be a mile or so," said Beulah.

The lady cast her eyes upward as if calling Heaven to witness her discomfiture. "A mile! Impossible! I wrote the hotel to have a conveyance at the Junction, and nobody was there. I shall have to come in and decide what's the best thing to do."

Now nobody in the county would have taken such a liberty, but the strange lady swept majestically past Beulah and through the open door.

"Is the lady of the house at home?" she asked.

"I hope so," said Beulah. "She's in heaven." This remark, instead of giving offense, as was intended, awoke a lively interest.

"Really!" said the visitor, taking her seat on the horse- hair sofa and sweeping the comfortable room with an appraising look. "Very recent, I judge, from the wreath over the portrait. An invalid, I see, from the wheel-chair. How sad! Left a husband and children, I suppose?"

The supposition was allowed to remain suspended in mid-air while Beulah savagely brushed up the snow the stranger had tracked in.

"So much sickness and death all over the country," continued the unwelcome guest, fingering the black-bordered notes of condolence that lay on the table near her. "I hope your town has not suffered many such losses."

"No more 'n it could afford," said Beulah.

The visitor observed her with growing disfavor. "I don't suppose you have any way of getting me to town, or of sending for a conveyance to come for me?"

"No," said Beulah, firmly.

"Then," said the stranger, sighing deeply and rising, "I shall be obliged to walk. I shall leave my suit-case here, and send back for it. See that the man gets it when he comes." Then, as she started off the porch, she added, as an afterthought, "By the way, what is the name?"

"Whose name?"

"The name of the—person who lives here?"

Thus cornered, Beulah gave up the secret as a miser parts with gold. For a moment she watched the mysterious figure as it passed down to the road; then she hastened to put up the windows to let out the pungent odor of sandalwood that filled the air. As she moved about she stumbled over the suit-case, and in picking it up noticed the name "Surelle" painted in bold letters on the end of it.

That evening, supper, which of late had been eaten amid encircling gloom, was enlivened by conversation.

"There is to be a séance at the hall to-night at eight-fifteen," announced Mr. Gribben, who always spoke with the frightful solemnity and dreadful accuracy of one who is under oath.

"A spirit séance?" asked Beulah, incredulously.

"Yes; Mrs. Bullock and Miss Wilson saw this woman in Louisville and they claim she can talk with the dead. She has sent me a complimentary ticket for to-night, and I am going."

Beulah's mouth opened and shut twice, but she held her counsel.

"The woman's name is Surelle," continued Mr. Gribben. "Madame Surelle. She's a writer and a speaker and the president of a society called The International Psychic Seekers. Mrs. Bullock showed me a number of newspaper pieces about her. I am going to see if she can get a message for me from Martha."

Beulah flung herself into the kitchen and brought back a plate of hot biscuits, which she presented at his head as if it had been a pistol. Verbal comment on her part was wholly superfluous. Every twitch of her shoulders expressed scorn, every curl of her lip contempt, for the subject under discussion.

"I shall go with an open mind," announced Mr. Gribben, judiciously balancing his fork on his finger as if it were the scales of justice. "If she proves her claims, I shall uphold her. If she proves an impostor, I shall ruthlessly expose her. She will not be able to fool me."

Beulah watched him don his widower's weeds and start forth in the buggy behind old Kitty to solve the problem of immortality. At eleven o'clock when he returned she was waiting up for him, and she saw at a glance that the verdict was in favor of the spirits. His long, square face with its long, square beard wore a look of mystified elation.

"A most remarkable experience!" he said, pulling up a chair beside hers and warming his hands at the stove. "In less than five minutes after entering the hall I was singled out as the most psychic person present. Before the performance was over I had direct and unmistakable communication with Aunt Maria Blankenbaker!"

"Why wasn't it from Martha?" asked Beulah.

"It was," he announced, triumphantly, "a message from her through Aunt Maria. Aunt Maria said Martha had been sick so long before she died that she didn't feel up to coming to a public meeting, but would try to come if I arranged a séance at home."

"That's funny," Beulah said. "Aunt Maria and Martha must have made up in the other world; they weren't speaking in this one. You surely ain't fixing to have a private meeting?"

"I am. Madam Surelle is going to try to stay over and give me a private séance here to-morrow afternoon."

"Here!" Beulah's voice rose in tragic protest. "Who is coming?"

"Only Madam Surelle and myself, and of course I shall want you to be around somewhere."

"Well, I should hope so!" said Beulah, snatching up a candle and stalking off to bed without so much as a good-night."

The next afternoon Mr. Gribben drove Madame Surelle out from town at the appointed hour and she and Beulah met as if for the first time.

She was much more imposing than upon the former occasion, being swathed in shabby black velvet and an unmistakable aura of mystery. On her forefinger was a large green scarab, and on her breast a silver swastika. She surveyed the world from her deep-set, tragic eyes from under a coil of black hair that sadly needed renovating. Distributing her wraps impartially about the room, she sighed deeply, as if it were a great effort for her to bring her esoteric mind to bear upon mundane things.

"And now," she said, "I will ask you for a small, light table."

Mr. Gribben looked at Beulah and Beulah looked out of the window.

"I think this one will serve," said Madame, languidly sweeping the family Bible and the tray of condolences on to the floor. "And I should like the shades drawn. We must create an atmosphere, you know. Our departed friends are sensitive to heat and light, but impervious to noises. There-that will do nicely, thank you."

She took her seat with her back to the window and Mr. Gribben sat facing her; they both looked at Beulah.

"Aren't you going to join us, Mrs. Jones?" asked Madame Surelle.

"Miss Jones," Beulah corrected, without moving.

"Beulah, draw up your chair to the table," commanded Mr. Gribben. "I want you to see for yourself the truth of this business."

Thus admonished, Beulah took her place between them, gingerly placing her clean, work-coarsened hands on the table touching Madame Surelle's shapely, if soiled, ones.

"If there are any spirits present," said the medium, in an invoking voice, closing her eyes and swaying slightly, "will they indicate it by the usual method?"

Now Madame Surelle may have obeyed the Biblical instruction in not letting her left hand know what her right hand did, but Beulah's left hand knew.

She felt a distinct pull from those jeweled fingers touching hers, and, without a moment's hesitation, she pulled in the opposite direction.

This too ample assistance seemed to embarrass the spirits, and after a few feeble gyrations on the part of the table it became stationary.

Madame Surelle cleared her throat. "Perhaps there is some spirit present who would prefer to write a message. If so, indicate it by rapping."

From below the table came three distinct raps.

Mr. Gribben raised his bent head and challenged Beulah to doubt her own senses. "This is only the beginning," he said. "You'll see!"

Writing-material having been produced, they once more sat in solemn conclave. Presently the pencil in Madame Surelle's fingers began to dance upon the paper; it waltzed up one side and tangoed down the other, and in a final transport flew out of her hand.

She smiled tolerantly: "The spirits are so playful at times. I have had them tease me like this for half an hour. Sometimes if I ask a question it calms them. Let me see— Will the spirits tell us who Mr. Gribben was in a former reincarnation?"

The pencil twisted backward, described a circle, then wrote in small letters, "He was a king in Babylon, and she was his Christian slave."

"Who was?" demanded Beulah, off her guard, and in an instant the pencil had flourished off the letters "y-o-u."

"Don't mind them," said Madame Surelle; "they are still teasing. Such naughty spirits to-day. There are little vagrants who wait around to get false messages through. I'll ask my control Amenophis, to drive them away."

The pencil promptly assumed another angle and wrote in a bold back hand, "Amenophis says to tell John Anthony to take the pencil."

"Why that's my name!" said Mr. Gribben, excitedly. "What shall I do?"

"Just hold it lightly in your hand, thus, and I will place my fingers under your wrist like this. Give your other hand to Mrs. Jones."

"Miss Jones," corrected Beulah, with a look of fury.

For some time nothing happened. Then, oh, so slowly, the pencil moved, creeping uncertainly over the paper in long, feeble letters until it had written the one word, "Martha."

"She's weak because she has been gone such a short time," explained Madame Surelle, "and, besides, the right of way is always given to the spirit who has been there longest. My control is Amenophis III, one of the Pharaohs, you remember, and yet he very seldom keeps me waiting. He can get a message through when half a dozen others may be waiting."

Mr. Gribben was divided between amazement at his own performance and admiration for one who could command the services of a Pharaoh, and speak with authority about the traffic laws of the other world. But he had no time to dwell upon such things, for again he felt his hand gliding over the paper.

"It says," translated Madame Surelle, "'Martha hears your dear voice in death as she heard it in life.'"

Something very like a giggle escaped from Beulah. "Martha Gribben was deaf for ten years before she died," she said.

Mr. Gribben's hand trembled on the paper, then traveled back slowly and put a "not" after the "it."

"Beulah!" he demanded, excitedly. "Did you see that? Do you believe me when I tell you that I did not write that word?"

"I do," said Beulah, with a significant glance at Mrs. Surelle's fingers under his wrist.

Madam Surelle made an imperative motion for silence. "Amenophis wishes to write. I can always feel his presence. Give me the pencil."

She closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and apparently surrendered herself to the departed Pharaoh. For ten minutes her hand dashed across the paper with lightning speed, covering sheet after sheet with bold, back-handed writing. Then she gave a sigh of exhaustion and the pencil fell from her hand.

"Take it and read it," she said, weakly, to Mr. Gribben. "It's all for you. I have no idea what it says."

Mr. Gribben reverently collected the scattered sheets and, putting up a shade, read aloud:

"It is ordained that you should know that during your waking hours you function through your astral body plus your physical body, the latter being surrounded and interpenetrated by the matter of the former. When you fall asleep the dense body is left behind. You then function through your astral body alone, which is what the miscalled 'dead' are also doing. The living and the dead are therefore together again. If you wish to commune with your dear departed, you can do so through astral experiences, popularly known as dreams."

Mr. Gribben and Beulah exchanged glances of profound bewilderment, then they looked at the medium, who still sat with head back and closed eyes as if her recent round with Pharaoh had been a bit too much for her. Even Beulah's face expressed credulity. It was evidently harder for her to believe that Madame Surelle's fuzzy brain had evolved such a message than to believe it came from another world.

"How do you go about it?" asked Mr. Gribben, studying the paper. "How do you understand about astral experiences and dreams?"

Madame Surelle roused herself with an effort. "It is really too long to go into here. If you are interested you can find the truth set forth in my Mystic Veil. By buying it you become a member of the National Psychic Seekers, and you are entitled not only to all their publications, but to their advice and aid in interpreting any messages you may write in the future."

'But I don't think I could ever do anything without you," said Mr. Gribben.

Madame Surelle regarded him earnestly. "How can you doubt? To whom did the first message come last night? Who else in Bentville has been able to do automatic writing? I tell you, you are psychic to your finger-tips!"

Mr. Gribben looked at the above-mentioned finger-tips and shook his head doubtfully, whereupon Madame Surelle tried another tack.

"I suppose you know that all things are numbers. Numbers control our lives. Pythagoras taught us that. Now in what year were you born? Eighteen-sixty-three? Add those figures and they make eighteen, a multiple of three. What month? March! The third month. Your name, James Gribben, twelve letters, multiple of three. As I suspected, you are a perfect three."

Mr. Gribben looked pleased. He hadn't the slightest idea what it was all about, but to be a perfect anything flattered his vanity.

"Do you mean that's my lucky number?" he asked.

"Far more than that," said Madame Surelle. "It is your destiny. A little observation will prove to you that the figure three controls all you do. I knew you were either a perfect three or a perfect seven when I saw your face in the audience last night. Once having seen it, I could see nothing else."

Beulah put up the other shade and began to straighten the furniture, but Madame Surelle still leaned on her elbows and gazed into Mr. Gribben's eyes.

"You must not falter on the very threshold of achievement," she urged. "You must practise automatic writing every night and send us the results, however unintelligible they appear to you. The spirits are fond of writing in strange tongues; they sometimes write backward, or upside down. Our experts will interpret these messages for a small sum, and you will be surprised often at the results. I beseech you not to listen to any discouragement in your investigation of this mighty truth. It is a debt you owe to science. You will promise me to persevere?"

Mr. Gribben yielded to the spell of those pale, insistent eyes and promised. He also bought a copy of The Mystic Veil, at a price that sent Beulah into the kitchen in a towering rage.

From behind the door she watched Mr. Gribben help Madame into her coat; from the window she saw him assist her gallantly into the buggy, and then jump in beside her and gather up the reins.

"I've seen folks before get spry off of spirits," she observed, sarcastically, as she gathered up the sage counsels of Amenophis III and shoved them into the stove.

From that time on Mr. Gribben was firmly committed to spiritualism. Once a thing received his sanction it became sacred to him. There was never a twilight-time of misgiving in his mind; it was either day or night. A thing was either so or it was not so, and he always knew without a shadow of misgiving which it was. When Beulah offered a few caustic comments he promptly put her in her place, in that mental limbo to which he invariably relegated feminine intellects.

"This is something you know nothing whatever about," he told her. "If you are not willing to help me in my experiments, I will find somebody who is."

Thereupon Beulah, who had long ago discovered that non-resistance was her deadliest weapon, held her own counsel and obediently assisted at the nightly sittings.

Notwithstanding the fact that Mr. Gribben was much more interested in experimenting than in theorizing, he made valiant efforts to read The Mystic Veil. Every night he required Beulah to read it to him, and even when he nodded at his post, she kept doggedly on, familiarizing herself with every phase of spiritual communication. After the reading he would sit for hours, waiting for the table to move. This happened seldom. To be sure, it sometimes rose languidly on two legs, and on one memorable occasion it stood on one. But for the most part it performed its spiritualistic duties in a perfunctory way that showed plainly its heart was not in its work.

Things would have been discouraging indeed had it not been for the automatic writing. From the first night the pencil in Mr. Gribben's hand wandered obligingly over the paper, making feeble hieroglyphics which he duly forwarded to the Society of Psychic Seekers. A tremendous impetus was given to his enthusiasm when he received his first report and found that he had written a message in Coptic! The translation read:

My strength grows with each summons to the earth world. Soon I will join thee in the astral body.

Beulah studied the paper skeptically. "How do you suppose Martha knew how to write that foreign language?" she asked.

"The same way I did!" retorted Mr. Gribben. "It's a miracle I can do anything, with you throwing cold water at every turn. I wonder when Madame Surelle is coming back this way. I've a notion to write and ask her."

Beulah gave him a swift look of apprehension. The next day she began a little psychic research on her own behalf.

A few nights later, as they again sat facing each other across the small table, nothing short of Omniscience could have divined what was going on behind her placid features. No memories of times past or hopes of times to come lit up her leaden eyes. But when Mr. Gribben's "moving fingers writ, and having writ, moved on," and neither he nor she could read a word of it, she put forth a firm hand and laid it on Mr. Gribben's wrist.

"I might try doing what she did," she said, tentatively.

"Why, I never thought of that," confessed Mr. Gribben, pleased at this first evidence of sympathetic interest on her part. "Just put your two fingers under my wrist, like that."

For a moment they sat immovable; then the pencil began to move, slowly but with precision, in even lines from the right side of the paper to the left, until the sheet was covered.

Mr. Gribben studied the result carefully. "It don't spell a thing, but it looks like it ought to. I'm going to send it on to the society first thing to-morrow. Something will come of this, you'll see."

Beulah made no comment, but for the next week she watched the mail-box with unusual interest, and when the rural-delivery postman left a letter addressed to Mr. Gribben she promptly opened it, read the contents, and, re-gumming the envelope, put it back in the box.

"What did I tell you?" asked Mr. Gribben, triumphantly, that night at supper. "The society reports that that message was a first-class specimen of mirror writing. It says all I got to do is to hold it up before a looking-glass and I can read it for myself. They want to write me up for their paper and put my photograph in. They say they haven't had such a remarkable case in years. I told you it was something remarkable when I wrote it."

"What does it say?" asked Beulah, peering over his shoulder as he held the paper before the mirror.

"Well, that first word is 'Martha,' plain as day, and the next one— Here! Lemme see-" He adjusted his spectacles and proceeded with some difficulty:

"'Martha-don't-need-a-nother-medium. She will write-to you-direct. She says-for you-to have-the house painted.'"

Mr. Gribben's jaw dropped with astonishment. "Did you ever see anything to beat that? It might have been Martha in the flesh speaking those words. You know there ain't any use denying the fact that Martha was a jealous-feeling woman. It was exactly like her to get nervous about that Madame Surelle."

Beulah took the paper and studied it before the glass. "It ain't a bit like her handwriting," she objected.

"Well, do you reckon you could write natural if you was doing it upside down and hindside front? You wouldn't believe your eyes if you was to see her hand on the paper. I wish I never had to talk to you about these things!"

But, greatly as he objected to Beulah's skepticism, he had to depend upon her for co-operation. Together they established a communication with the departed Martha that revolutionized the entire household. A deep concern for domestic affairs wholly lacking to her in life seemed to possess Martha in the spirit world. She insisted on the house being painted, on the fences being mended; she even concerned her astral mind with old Kitty and the decrepit buggy.

"But you surely ain't going to do everything she tells you!" protested Beulah.

"I am," said Mr. Gribben. "There's no living woman whose advice I'd give a copper cent for, but when one comes back from the dead and tells me that if I don't spend my money while I am living that Tom Gribben's children are going to squander it in riotous living when I'm dead, why, I listen to her. What do you reckon it will cost to paint the house?"

The next few months were so much taken up in carrying out Martha's numerous suggestions that there was little time left for further investigations. Beulah indulged in a perfect orgy of house-cleaning. She had never before had a free hand in this supreme event of the year, and she made the most of her opportunity. The farm-house blossomed with the fruit-trees, and even Mr. Gribben showed signs of second blooming. He bought a new suit, and had his beard trimmed, and even made dark inquiries concerning sage tea.

"I'm thinking something of going over to Claytown to camp-meeting this spring," he confided to Beulah.

"Mrs. Bullock and Miss Wilson asked me if you was setting out," Beulah replied, meekly.

Now Mr. Gribben, like most crusty, domineering men, was very sensitive to criticism, and this remark had the desired effect of driving him back to the cemetery and the séances. Following a suggestion in The Mystic Veil, he bought a double slate and, tying it securely with a knot of his own invention, put it in the table-drawer. Two nights later he untied the string and opened the slate. In the middle appeared the following letters:


"It's in cipher!" cried Mr. Gribben, excitedly. "Get The Magic Veil and see what it says about ciphers."

Beulah obediently brought out the large volume and turned to the chapter and read:

"It is a favorite device of the spirits to hide a message in a jumble of letters. The key to this is to be found in a magic number that unlocks the mystery. Try odd numbers first, as, for instance, every third letter, or fifth letter, or seventh."

"Let us try three," suggested Mr. Gribben. "She said I was a Perfect Three. Put 'em down while I call out."

Together they counted out the third letters and there lay the message revealed:


Mr. Gribben uttered an exclamation of almost profane amazement. "I don't know which to be the most surprised at," he said, "that the spirits could untie that knot, or that Martha could work out all that letter business! It is the most astounding thing I ever witnessed!"

The next day he handed over to Beulah the key to Martha's wardrobe, and also a box containing her cameo pin and camel's-hair shawl. "They were hers to give away in life, and they are hers to give away in death," he declared, magnanimously.

After that Beulah blossomed with the rest. She had fallen heir, not only to Martha's clothes, but to all her personal possessions, among which was an elaborate brown coiffure known as a transformation. That it justified its name was demonstrated on Beulah's first Sunday in her new apparel.

"I never would have known you!" Mr. Gribben declared, "The clothes look familiar, of course, but you look different. What have you done to yourself?"

"Just what every other woman does," said Beulah.

So impressed was he by her improved appearance that he offered to take her to church with him.

"No," said Beulah, firmly, "I can't afford to take any risks. I shouldn't be surprised if people was talking already."

"About us?" asked Mr. Gribben, aghast.

Beulah nodded. "I been thinking that maybe I ought to be going on back to Locust, though land knows I'd hate to."

"That's not to be thought of!" cried Mr. Gribben, in instant alarm. "Why, who do you suppose I'd ever get to look after the farm the way you do?"

"Well, a unmarried person can't take no risks," said Beulah.

The matter evidently weighed upon Mr. Gribben, and his anxiety deepened as Beulah's hints of departure recurred at shorter intervals. He worked himself into quite a perturbed state about it, and even sank to picturing his forlorn condition in case she left him.

"I am going to see if I can't get some advice from Martha," he said one day at noon. "You have supper early and we'll call up the spirits."

That night they sat for a long time at the little table, waiting for some response from the unpunctual Martha. Mr. Gribben's hand wandered over the paper in meaningless hieroglyphics until he grew impatient.

"I get sick of all this Coptic!" he said. "I wish it would go on and write English. You put your fingers under my wrist; that sort of concentrates things."

Beulah did as she was bidden, and straightway the pencil wrote:

See Isaiah, 62: 4.

Mr. Gribben reached for the Bible, and, turning to the passage, read:

"Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married."

Mr. Gribben closed the book and looked at Beulah. "Thy land shall be called Beulah, and thy land shall be married," he repeated, slowly. "Surely you ain't thinking of getting married, Beulah Jones?"

"Why not?" said Beulah, with a toss of the late Mrs. Gribben's transformation.

The rest of the evening Mr. Gribben appeared lost in abstraction; from time to time he cast surreptitious glances at Beulah as she moved about the dining-room, and once he got out the Bible and reread the passage in Isaiah.

"Beulah!" he broke forth, at last, "I don't know what on earth we been thinking about all this time. It's just come to me what Martha means. She wants you and me to get married and go on living here just like we are. It's as plain as the nose on your face, and yet I never saw it till this minute. Talk about your spirit control! Why, if ever a man was led into a thing, I was led into this!"

And Beulah looked at him and smiled one of her rare smiles which somehow reconciled all those misfit features, but, according to her custom, she said nothing.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.