Mrs Jemima Babcock was an anxious woman with too many years on her hips. She liked neither the bush nor ghosts, yet here she was in the fading light of a Sunday afternoon, pushing through the scrub with her two reluctant daughters in search of Mr Terry’s Spiritualist Retreat.
When the dense bushland finally gave way to a lush green lawn, Mrs Babcock cried out with relief and, lifting her skirts, trotted at an impressive pace across the lawn towards a large white weatherboard house.
Her daughter, Eleanor, marched silently after her mother, pulling her younger sister behind her. She noted with annoyance that the pathway they had strayed from was now just a few short strides away. Her sister Olive, who had expressed no sensible opinions since leaving Melbourne, simply whimpered as she was dragged up the front steps of the house to the well lit verandah.
All in all, it took the women a full five minutes to travel the short distance from their carriage at the roadside to the door of Mr Terry’s Retreat. Their brief but unexpected detour through the bush had left them quite shaken and they presented an ashen faced proposition to their host when he finally opened the door.
‘My goodness ladies, whatever has happened to you?’
‘Oh Mr Terry, it has been too terrible for words.’ Mrs Babcock cried, throwing herself into Mr Terry’s arms. ‘As soon as we got here, Olive wandered away from the carriage and disappeared. We had to go into that dreadful bush, calling and calling, only to find her sitting amongst the leaves babbling something about the trees. I said, this is not the time for a botanical exploration Olive. We are here about your nerves. But she took no notice, and now I fear something has taken hold of her mind.’
‘Dear Mrs Babcock,’ soothed Mr Terry pulling a twig from her hair, ‘let me bring you all inside and we will find you some blankets and a cup of tea.’
‘Or something a little stronger for me if you don’t mind’, whispered Mrs Babcock. ‘My nerves have completely fallen to pieces.’
William H. Terry was unquestionably Melbourne’s most renown clairvoyant. His Books and Herbal Remedy Store in Collins Street was always busy with devotees of the spiritualist movement and those with a curious nature. The shop also served as the headquarters for the Progressive Spiritualists’ League and hosted a constant stream of international mediums including the astounding Dr Peebles and Mrs Emma Hardinge Britain.
On the last Sunday of every month, Mr Terry hosted a seance group, the Energetic Circle, at his Sandurst home several hours carriage ride from Melbourne. The Circle welcomed anyone interested in spiritualism and, as in the case of the visiting Babcocks, those in search of answers.
Mr Terry guided the women into a large drawing room, handsomely decorated with heavy mahogany furniture and a large Turkey rug. A dozen or so people stood around a piano chatting and drinking sherry. Calling to his housekeeper to fetch blankets and more sherry, Mr Terry sat the women down on comfortable chairs in the middle of the room and turned to his other guests.
‘May I introduce Mrs Babcock and her daughters, Eleanor and Olive, who are visiting us from Adelaide.’
The group made welcoming noises as they moved gently across the room towards the new arrivals.
‘The ladies came to see me in Collins Street on Friday and we spent quite some time discussing remedies for a number of their conditions. I suggested they might benefit from a visit to us this evening. And here they are.’
As the Babcocks settled themselves with their blankets and sherry, the other guests sat around them arranging their chairs into a rough circle. Several conversations began at once as they often do with the middle class.
‘It was only last week that I wrote a piece about your wonderful city for ‘The Argus’, Miss Babcock. In my opinion, your religious architecture is some of the most impressive in the country…’
‘… how could you not have heard about the suffragette outrages in London? Oh my dear they are climbing the telegraph poles and cutting the wires!’
‘… I eventually found a mixture of wormwood and laudanum was the most beneficial for my movements.’
Olive, who had remained aloof from the conversations, suddenly spoke up with such force that she brought the room’s chatter to a halt.
‘They say there are spirits in the trees. Do you think there are spirits in the trees, Mr Terry? I think I saw a spirit in the trees just earlier.’
Mrs Babcock was acutely embarassed by her daughter’s interjection.
‘For heaven’s sake Olive, Mr Terry doesn’t want to hear that nonsense.’
‘Not at all Mrs Babcock,’ Mr Terry replied gently and sitting next to Olive, took her hand. ‘I believe there are spirits everywhere. Why it was in this very room at our last circle, that we were seated just as we are now when we heard a loud tapping noise coming from the table behind you.’
Everyone turned to look at a heavy, polished wooden dining table with several high backed chairs arranged around it.
‘To our amazement, the table rose several inches from the floor and moved over the carpet, landing right where it sits now. You will note, ladies, its unusual positioning over to the far edge of the rug.’
Mrs Babcock and Olive stared at the table, clearly alarmed by its unworldly properties. Eleanor also stared silently but with her gaze directly at Mr Terry.
‘So if the spirits are content to commune with us through a table, Miss Olive, I have no doubt they will also happily occupy the trees.’ Mr Terry finished with a dramatic raise of his eyebrows and a broad smile for Eleanor.
Olive turned to her mother and her bottom lip began to tremble.
‘You see my problem Mr Terry,’ Mrs Babcock said emptying her sherry glass and looking for a refill. ‘Poor Olive is either in the midst of some dreadful preternatural attack or she has completely lost her senses and I fear I am losing mine along with her.’
‘There now, Mrs Babcock’, Mr Terry comforted. ‘The Energetic Circle is regularly visited by benevolent spirits with messages and guidance for those in need. I feel there is a very good chance that you may receive their assistance this evening.’
Mrs Babcock coloured at the thought of communing with the spirit world and immediately agreed that the evening could hold the answer to all their problems. Olive’s pale countenance and Eleanor’s steely glare suggested otherwise.
The group stood and, joining hands, sang ‘Shall We Gather By The River’ accompanied most ably on the piano by Mr Terry’s housekeeper. They then returned to their seats, the curtains were drawn and the séance began.