Tales of the Midnight Club
by C. E. Van Loan
The Midnight Club is the house of
peace and harmony. It is the place where actors of rival
companies meet and pass each other judicious compliments; it
is the place where reporters on rival papers bury their
hammers and forget to refer with proper pride to their past
scoops; it is the neutral ground where all good men are good
friends. There is a rule which provides that the man who
starts any unpleasantness loses ten numbers and must buy the
next two rounds, but this rule has never been enforced,
because it has never been broken.
Mr. Blackwood, of the Belasco,
dropped in the other night just in time to hear Thomas
Oberle close a learned dissertation on mind reading, thought
transference and other occult subjects.
"And that's why I know there's no
fake about it," said Thomas, absent-mindedly pouring half a
bottle of tomato catsup on the white cat's back. The
outraged feline immediately leaped into MacVicars' lap and
shook himself violently, whereat the Irish giant turned a
back flip in a vain endeavor to save his new serge suit. A
new suit is no joke with Mr. McVicars, for the tailors
measure him twice and charge him accordingly.
After Mr. Oberle had been fined
one round of Pilsener for this atrocity and Alphonse had
removed a fair half of the sticky mess from MacVicars'
waistcoat, the culprit proceeded:
"This mind reader was the talk of
Washington--he had 'em all buffaloed! He answered all our
sealed questions, called us out by name and things like
that, you know. He came from India, but he had an English
"Sir Russell Dequi," suggested
Mr. Blackwood, quietly.
"Now, how in the deuce did you
know that?" sputtered Tommy excitedly. "Did you know him?"
"A little over seven thousand
dollars worth," grinned Belasco's manager. "I ought to know
him. I put him in the business."
"Mr. Chairman!" bawled Oberle,
rising and addressing the still fuming MacVicars. "I move
that Mr. Blackwood tell us the true story of the Simla
The motion was seconded with a
rush and carried with a roar, and after Oberle had been
fined one more round on general principles and another one
for taking unwarranted liberties with the house cat, Mr.
Blackwood lighted a nine-inch perfecto and proceeded:
"About five years ago I was in
Washington ahead of a show--"
"How much ahead?" innocently
asked Mestayer, the child wonder.
For this bit of impertinence
Harry was justly fined two oyster stews and a package of
"As I was saying," continued Mr.
Blackwood, "I was in Washington ahead of a very bum comedy
company. They stranded in Baltimore, and though nominally
ahead of them, I found myself behind, if you understand me.
I needed the money.
"Now Washington is the greatest
place in the world for fakes of every kind--fake palmists,
bum mind readers and phony psychists. They're everywhere.
As I was walking down the street one day wondering how long
I could stall my landlord, I saw a sign which said that the
future would be revealed and sealed questions answered for
twenty-five cents. Now it struck me that I would be willing
to give a quarter to see my finish, and I went in. I wrote
my question all right, sealed it, and then the man came back
into the room, smote his forehead with the palm of his hand
and told me exactly what I had written. I had been looking
for some mirror arrangement or other, but there was nothing
of that kind in sight, and I was a trifle dazed.
"I had some talk with the man,
whose name was Simmons--a long thin, cadaverous chap with a
seldom-looking black mustache. I found out
afterward that he used to beat his wife, but that's a
detail. I said to him. 'You've got a good money-making
graft here--why don't you put it on the stage? Why don't
you get hundreds instead of quarters?'
"Simmons pulled me into the back
room and talked a blue streak. That was the very idea he
had been figuring on for months, only he didn't know how to
go about it. He showed me how the whole business was
worked--stuffed bull's head on the wall--bull's eyes were
the biggest magnifying glasses you ever saw in your
life--made a sheet of paper six feet away look as big as a
house. Simmons just ducked into the other room, and while
you were writing your question on the one table in the
reception room, he was on a step ladder with his head poked
through into that bull's head, reading off every letter as
it was put down.
"Simmons was crazy to stage that
act, and as he was a loose, free talker, I made up my mind
to take a chance. Joe Luckett had the Columbia theater on F
Street, and I cracked the scheme to him. Joe had been
putting on a lot of rummy concerts Sunday nights, and I
showed him where we could all make a little money. I booked
my mind reader for a week from Sunday and began to get busy.
I had to furnish the paper, and I finally found an old
darkey with a foot press who was willing to wait a week for
the money. He printed me about a million hand bills
advertising Sir Russell Dequi, the White Mahatma, the Adept
of the Himalayas, the Wonder of the Century.
"Say, we just painted Washington
with those bills. I wasn't a newspaper man once for
nothing, and of all of the boosting you ever saw, those
posters were the limit. Sir Russell Dequi in his great
Simla Seances--thanks to Kipling, a lot of people knew where
Simla was, and were interested right away--Sir Russell
Dequi, a titled English gentleman, famed as the most adept
of the age, would repeat his old world triumphs before a
cultured Washington audience. He would reveal the past,
explain the present and foretell the future. He would
answer sealed questions, and that there might be no
deception--that last was in big type, no
deception--people were urged to write their
questions at home and bring them sealed to the theater. He
would answer all questions relating to love, matrimony,
business, lost treasure, reveal the whereabouts of missing
ones, and everything else I could think of at the time.
"That was a great bill, and the
language of it would have turned a Pike barker green with
envy. Then, just to make the play strong again, I wound up
with press notices from London, Paris, Madrid, Vienna, Hong
Kong and other towns. I had one from the Calcutta Mail and
another from the Simla Advertiser, boosting Sir Russell as
the most wonderful adept in the world. I wrote 'em all in a
hall bedroom in Washington--that's what metropolitan
journalism did for me, gentlemen.
"Well, the first night the
theater was jammed to the roof--those handbills did the
trick. We had a nice program, lecture by the Professor--we
always called Simmons that--then a lot of sleight of hand
tricks which he told the people he had learned from the
Yogis up at the monasteries in Thibet--! I think he called
'em Yogis, but never mind that, it was a good spiel,
anyway--and then the answering of sealed questions. Honest,
that man Simmons was a gold mine! He had more useless
information in him than forty encyclopedias and the way he
shot the bull was a wonder! He sent that crowd home talking
in whispers, and every one of them swearing to come back the
next Sunday night.
"How did he do it? The easiest
thing in the world. He sat on a small elevated platform in
the middle of the stage--no draperies, no curtains, no
deception anywhere. The chair was a plain wooden one so
there could be no deception. We courted investigation on
that no deception gag--in fact, we courted it so strong that
nobody seemed to want to investigate. That chair was just
like all other chairs except that the back of one of the
legs was hollowed out and a simple little tin tube ran up
into the seat and from there to the top of one of the arms.
The rest of that tube went through the stage floor into the
basement, and ended in a big phonograph horn suspended over
"Simmons wore the yellow robes of
the Indian Fakir and on his head he had a smashing big
yellow turban. It hid him completely with the exception of
his eyes, nose and mouth, and that was providential because
he had a couple of phonograph clips in his ears with a
rubber tube running down the back of his neck and from there
down his right sleeve to wrist. When he sat down, he just
rested one hand naturally on the arm of the chair, poked the
rubber tube into the end of the tin one and then he was
ready to hear from the other world.
"How did he get the questions?
Easy again. When the Professor called for volunteers to
collect the sealed envelopes, four of our boosters jumped up
in the front of the house and got busy. They came down the
aisles toward the back of the house and at the head of each
aisle another booster was stationed. These fellows were
always in evening dress, with their overcoats over their
arms. Inside their hats, they had a hundred envelopes or
so, all of them sealed and addressed, but there was nothing
in them. The collectors would stop an instant as if to pick
up another envelope, the transfer would be made, and then
the collectors would carry a lot of dead ones up on the
stage and put them in the wicker basket on the table, where
they were in plain view of the audience every minute of the
time. No deception again, you see.
"While the Professor was handing
out the Simla talk, Joe Luckett and I were down in the
cellar opening those envelopes and planning what talk we
would shoot upstairs to his nibs in the chair.
"I'll never forget a question we
got that first night. It said, 'Where is the purest water
in Washington found?' and it was signed 'Dr. Barton.' I
wanted to throw that one out, but Luckett, who had lived in
Washington all his life and knew that town like a cat knows
a back fence, wouldn't hear of it.
"'There's a well up by the
Convention Hall where the water is said to be absolutely
pure,' said he. 'We'll take a chance.' Then he 'phoned to
the professor that the water question was a good one and for
him to play it up to beat the band. I sneaked upstairs to
watch him. I wish you could have heard Simmons--he was
"'I receive the impression,' said
he, 'that Dr. Barton is present. Will you please stand up,
doctor? Thank you.' The Doctor stood there and looked
foolish and wondered what was coming next.
"'Unless I am mistaken, Doctor,
your question is about water is it not? Ah, I thought so.
You wish to know, as near as I can make out, where the
purest water in Washington is to be found? Ah, yes, quite
"And then that fakir Simmons tore
off a rambling long-winded spiel about different springs,
Carlsbad, Saratoga, every spring you've ever heard of, and
he knew just about enough to get away with the bluff. But
he wound up strong: 'The purest water in Washington,
Doctor, is in a well near Convention Hall on K Street!'
"Dr. Barton got red in the face
and climbed up on his chair. 'This is marvelous!' he
roared, 'Marvelous! The Professor is absolutely
"Now wasn't it lucky that Luckett
knew about that spring?
"One woman wanted to know if she
was to marry again. Luckett looked at the signature and
thought a minute. Then he grabbed the tin horn and began to
"'Here's a beaut, Simmons! Mrs.
Opdyke wants to know if she will marry again. She had a
pretty warm divorce suit about six years ago. Here are the
details.' And when the Professor began to receive
revelations about that divorce suit, Mrs. Opdyke jumped up
and ran screaming from the house. Oh, it made a sensation,
I tell you!
"For six Sundays we packed the
Columbia every time. Raised the price on them after the
second Sunday, but it was 'Standing Room Only' every time.
The papers cut in on it and interviewed Sir Russell Dequi
until he was black in the face. He talked mind currents and
special revelation until the reporters were dizzy and of
course that made the game better every time.
"But it couldn't last forever.
We got ours at last, and this is how it happened. The sixth
performance had all fashionable Washington in the house.
Sir Russell Dequi was the reigning fad. The Professor made
his usual request that the envelopes be collected, and I was
simply paralyzed to see four big Johnnies in evening clothes
tumble out of the stage boxes and bump our boosters out of
the way. They thought it would be a great joke to collect
the cards, and they did it. Our boosters followed them, but
they made a clean sweep and didn't leave a thing. I looked
over at Luckett and he looked back at me and we both knew
that it was all off with the Simla seance. I tried to stop
the man who collected in my aisle and tell him that I would
put the letters on the stage, but he only grinned and said:
"'Oh, I guess not! I'm doing
"Two minutes after I met Luckett
under the stage and he was blue around the nose. He worked
the wireless and told the professor how things stood, and
then I ducked up on the stage to see how Simmons would get
out of it. I was afraid he would be mobbed if he lost his
"Right there was where I
underestimated the Professor--he was a peach if there ever
was one. He made a great business of rubbing his forehead
with his hand, and all the time he was talking he kept
nodding his head like a man dead for sleep. All at once,
right in the middle of a sentence his voice trailed away to
nothing and he did a face fall out of his chair that was a
wonder! It was the finest stage fall I ever saw, and it
ought to be, for it broke the Professor's nose in two
places. But he kept right on rolling until the footlights
stopped him. The house was in an uproar and the first thing
I knew I was out on the stage with my hand raised.
"The plan came to me
like a flash of light. It was a long and desperate chance,
but I had to take it.
"'Ladies and Gentlemen,' I said,
'I implore you to keep your seats. Sir Russell has only
fallen into a trance. As you doubtless know, the Adepts of
the Himalayas go into trances and sometimes remain
unconscious for many days. Sir Russell has been working
very hard of late, and the strain of these performances has
been too much for his nerves. Last week he was in a trance
for eight hours, and this being the second one within ten
days, it is impossible to say when he will awake. Your
money will be returned at the door.'
"Then I gave the orchestra leader
the high sign and he played the loudest march he had in
stock. We got away all right, but the Professor's nerve
smashed along with his nose. We couldn't get him to try it
again in New York, and the last I heard of Simmons he was
revealing futures at twenty-five cents a throw, via the
bull's head. He was a grand fakir, but he lacked ambition.
Let's have another stein all around. Oberle, it's up to
you to buy!"