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Dr. Stevenson’s Ghost Jar and the Effects Thereof

Dr. Stevenson’s Ghost Jar and the Effects Thereof 
by Danielle Wrobel

I came of age with the dead and gone. Soon enough, I made them my profession.

In August 1815, when I was but five and nearly a year after my father had been carried off by lockjaw, an Edinburgh physician by the name of Dr Stevenson consulted his assortment of Leyden jars and happened upon the proof of ghosts. He became the very first conjurer.

The physician in Edinburgh presented his results to the Royal Society, to general astonishment. He placed a marionette, the Mankin as he called it, on the table. It was not only the dead who possessed ghosts, he explained, but the living too. Ghosts were conjured not from beyond the veil, but from the walls themselves. Any place that a person dwelt or worked or idled would contain their imprint, as a seal is pressed into wax. The longer the time an individual spent in a place, the stronger the imprint, the finer the conjuring.

He conjured into this little Mankin the spirit of Mr. Tompkins, a long-dead society fellow, who had been quite the dullard but wealthy enough that this was forgiven. Upon being dragged back to the mortal world, amiable Mr. Tompkins immediately declared that he would host several dances, and upon being informed that he was only a foot tall, composed of wood and hinges and that his son had, in any case, already squandered the family fortune, the good fellow became most dejected. The physician in Edinburgh was as yet uncertain of his own skill, and though he promised that Mr Tompkins would, indeed, eventually depart, it was several years until the Mankin stopped sighing about his poor fortune and clattered to the ground. The fellows of the Royal Society agreed that their next conjuration might be less melancholic.

At the time of this discovery, I was living with my mother in her sister’s house, unaware of how Mankins might change my life. My mother had been a nurse in the household of the Earl of Ayelsbury before marrying my father, but she could not find employ in service again. My aunt was a severe woman who attended church daily and disassembled daily on the faults of others but never spoke of my uncle’s nights at the brothels.

Every night my mother sung me a song taught to her by my father, the Cuckoos Nest My mother, who otherwise bent to my aunt so that we might not be forced to a workhouse, only sang it a little quieter. “He only taught me such songs after we had been married,” she told me, as if that might prevent any corruption.

By 1820, as my uncle was appraising me as a quick girl suited for service, industrialists in Manchester announced that they would put the dead to work. They found a work force who needed no rest, no lodgings, no family. Great populations of vagrants grew, and many claimed that they had come upon their own souls, in Mankins at their very own worktops.

Yet, the Mankins granted me reprieve. For although conjuring had been invented by the great lettered men of Edinburgh, it was still a low trade, suitable for the middle classes, and sometimes even women. Men could not always persuade a Mankin with a woman’s soul, but another woman might. I was apprenticed to the foremost female conjurer of the time, Mrs. Edwards. My aunt disapproved of this, but I had salary enough to rent rooms for my mother and myself, and so I no longer cared.

First, I helped repair the Mankins, when an owner had smashed them in a fit of anger, or when one fell from a roof or was caught in a fire, inexplicably. There was an explanation, of course, but we still did not know if the Mankins constituted souls and so we always bewailed how clumsy these Mankins were, how easily they strayed towards destruction. After a while, Mrs Edwards let me aid her and one day when I was not yet fifteen she declared that I was a woman and showed me. I had imagined dark rituals: blood and sulphurous wickedness. I concluded that night wiser, if a little disappointed. Soon I was a full conjurer, specialising in domestics. Years passed, demand grew, and so it was that I found myself a young woman of just twenty on a call to the town house of the Countess of Bath.

I arrived by carriage. Through the narrow streets, little beggar Mankins hopped alongside, eyes painted on their blank wooden faces that were larger than had ever been seen on a living child. Ghoulish tales circulated that these children had been raised and slaughtered, intended as Mankin beggars from the start. They would bring their takings to the master that had murdered them. These rumours I did not credit. They were the stuff of penny dreadfuls believed only by the credulous poor.

My mother questioned me about these children every time I visited her in the sanitorium in Surrey. A nurse had read a report to her, and my mother whispered that I must help these poor children. I explained that I had already written a letter to the Times and so there was little else to be done. Her complaints attracted the attention of the other inmates, the majority of whom came from good households. They shunned my mother, though I paid for her residence in the sanitorium, though I had, on several occasions, passed my card to other patients and staff, which showed an address in Bond Street and should have made them kinder. Her wailing brought on more convulsions of coughing, and only worsened her consumption. I arranged her treatment with the nurses, reminded them of my connections, and left somewhat satisfied.

Despite the clamouring of the beggar Mankins, I arrived in good time. A human servant opened the door and accompanied me to the drawing room to announce me to the Countess.

The mistress of a house is akin to the general of an army, it is said. If so, the household of the Countess of Bath was in rout. It was a hot day, and yet the windows had not been opened. The furniture was dull and unpolished, and the footman moved with an uncorrected insouciance. All this I saw and more. It is the ragged girl in me, to snoop so.

The drawing room, at least, was well maintained. When I entered and was introduced, the Countess allowed me to kiss her hand. She was as tall as myself, though I know that I am little, with a healthy flush to her cheeks and fine dark eyes. She was around a decade older, yet she had a young energy and was too quick to laugh. She wore a dress covered in fine-stitch detail that could not be the work of human hands. Myself, I wore the plain grey of a Conjurer.

I gathered that the Earl had been away on business for nearly a month.

“The awful unrest in the south west,” she said, “and the Earl such a kind and respectable master. I heard only yesterday that another twenty had been slain, including a gentleman farmer and his family. Ah, but you do not wish to hear of such things.”

In truth, I was well-informed of this; the gentleman and his family had been frequent employers of Mankins. I had been advised by colleagues to conceal my tools when travelling through town, for one never knew when one might be assaulted.

“They will be apprehended in good time,” I said.

“As they were at St Peter’s Field,” said the Countess. “All those seditionists, rounded up with such efficiency. It is a shame that Mankins are only drafted into the army in times of desperate need.”

I knew differently. Lord Wellington had consulted several conjurers as to replacing flesh and blood with wood. He took it as a personal affront that the discovery had been made too late for his French campaign. He had asked my colleagues, gentlemen. I would not be asked of my thoughts of war, though for every army there were a thousand washerwomen and cooks who might be replaced. I believed he might think differently when he was unable to set a respectable table.

“A massacre, they called it,” she continued. “They say women were killed, and children. The Mankin did not distinguish.”

That made them little different from the average army officer, in my experience. But I knew of Peterloo; my mother’s cousin had been in attendance and had been slain, either in the charge or the stampede we did not know. But I had heard the Countess’ talk before and recognised it for a test, not sympathy.

“They were warned to disperse,” I replied. “What would they do with a vote, anyway? It would be wasted on them.” I had not attended the funeral. My mother did not yet know. There was no need.

The Countess smiled, freely. Her curious gaze remained on me and I dipped my head. Some overheated authors had included female conjurers in their novels, often as loose souls with excesses that would make Byron blush.

The human servant offered me a cup of tea, heavily sweetened. A little unfashionable; the price of sugar had dropped so much since I was a child that it was no longer a luxury. Compensation after the abolition of slavery throughout the colonies the year previous had been an easy enough matter; for each freed man, the crown offered a Mankin. My former teacher, Mrs Edwards, now occupied herself with that work.

I sipped the tea, politely. The Countess seemed to satisfy her curiosity that I ate and drank like any other being, and thought like a gentlewoman, and her face grew solemn.

“To business,” she said, the Countess and myself proceeded to another room, in which was slumped a female wooden Mankin, dressed in a nanny’s uniform. This was not necessary, as those without proper souls cannot feel the shame of nakedness, but those with means clothed their Mankins.

The imprints felt attraction towards the forms that most reminded them of themselves. Dog spirits sought four-legged creatures, humans sought upright figures. The hierarchy of material was: inanimate such as metal and stone; formerly animate, such as wood or cloth; and, flesh. The greatest Mankin for a man was therefore his own corpse, but for reasons of expense, not least hygiene, this was not done. Wood was standard, asin this case.

The Countess sat beside the Mankin, her fingers at her forehead.

“I’ve had her for years. She was my nanny, growing up. I brought her back, for my own daughter, but this last month she has slowed, and a week ago she stopped. You must return her.”

I saw no obvious signs of physical damage. The Mankin was the work of an artisan, who had taken care to carve in a nose and lips. The model had been fine featured, with a small mouth and a long, straight nose. One did not want to make the Mankins too beautiful. The artisan’s skill was evident in other ways. The Mankin’s eyes were glass and blue. As I loosened the Mankin’s limbs and pried open her chest cavity, I saw that organs had been replicated in leather, and that metal tubes represented the arteries.

The Countess gasped, startling me.

“My apologies,” I said, standing. How crude, to undress a Mankin, to prise off its chest in front of a lady. I was glad of the heat, for at least my cheeks were already red with exertion.

“I can put up a curtain, if you wish to remain in the room.” I wished to tell her to leave so that I might go about my business.

The Countess shook her head. “Nanny Mankin is dear. I wish to be by her side.”

I disassembled the Mankin, and found no defects in it, neither in body nor in the large iron nails driven through its heart and the base of its neck which contained its imprint. I removed these gently, and placed them in the little wooden box.

“Is that where she is kept?” asked the Countess.

“Yes, though the imprint will not stay long if taken from the Mankin. We have a day, or the imprint will disappear, and will not likely return. The nails pin the imprint to the Mankin.”

“And how is that achieved?”

“Have you ever tried to pin a shadow, my lady?”

She shook her head.

“It is as pinning a shadow.”

The Countess looked about the floor, at the limbs that I had labelled and ordered, so as to help with their reassembly. I did not wish to bring back the nanny but be unable to complete my task for want of a screw.

As she remained, I might as well make use of her presence, “And the more one knows of an object, the more one learns of its shadow. Is this Mankin’s originator still living?”

“In truth, I do not know,” replied the Countess. Few employers knew of the fates of their former servants. I had hoped that the original nanny had perished. Most of my work involved imprints of the dead, and they were far easier to coax back into Mankins, for reasons that had not yet been discerned.

“Did this Nanny Mankin exhibit any strange behaviour, prior to slowing?”

“She sang, more often than she used to.” The Countess replied, “Unsuitable songs.”

This, I noted. “And how long was the original in residence at this address?”

“Oh, she never resided here, in life.”

There was the rub. I always asked about my clients in advance, and had learned that the Countess had married the Earl from an estate in Warwickshire. A Mankin who had been taken far from their original imprint had a far greater chance of failure; even worse, for those conjured at a distance. So this childhood nanny was weighed on by a hundred miles or so. No wonder it had broken; it was strange that it had lasted so long at all.

“So she dwelt with you in Warwickshire?”

“That was the home of my first husband. I myself am from Staffordshire. She stayed with him nearly a decade, before leaving to marry.”

This I wrote, too. We Conjurers have a list of questions, learned near by rote, and so I made my next enquiry before truly turning over the meaning of her previous answer.

“And what was this Nanny’s name?”

“Lizzie,” replied the Countess, fondly.

With little thought I replied, “That is the name of my mother.” Then, I placed my notebook on the ground and fell into an armchair.

I lifted myself up quickly. “I am sorry, my lady, a queer turn came upon me.”

The Countess looked at me with sympathy, “I have read,” she said, “that this conjuring takes a heavy toll on those who traffick with those beyond the veil. The female constitution is not always…sufficient”

If I were at my full capacity, I would have sought to correct this, but coward that I am I nodded and said, “It often strikes at unexpected times.”

I had prepared myself for this, of course. It is the lot of any Conjurer, especially one such as myself with family once in service, that they might encounter kith and kin. This, in part, led to my thorough research of clients, so that if any conflict of interest was anticipated, I might ask a colleague to go in my stead. Conjuring a relative is not tasteful, and yet I had neglected this duty recently, busy as I was with my mother’s own illness.

To leave without performing my conjuring duties would besmirch my reputation. I would not mention it to the Countess. This was not my mother, truly. I had not known this girl, who was younger than myself when she left service. My own mother was in a sanitorium, far from London’s miasma, recuperating from a bout of consumption with other ladies of quality.

“As Lizzie…as Nanny Mankin’s imprint is distant, it will be a considerably difficult conjuring. I think she has simply been too far too long. You should consider returning home.”

“Back to Staffordshire?” The Countess laughed, “Yes, to be surrounded by country folk who have not yet even heard of a waltz and believe a ribbon in their hair to be the height of elegance. Or worse, they might be Catholics.”

The Catholics had resolutely opposed the use of Mankins, drawing thousands to their papist cause. One could not take a stroll around the park without seeing some Catholic, a rosary in one hand and an anti-Mankin pamphlet in the other. It was a little exhausting. I was of the Countess’ view on this matter, at least.

“Nanny Mankin has been a great help with the baby, but if she will not work then let it be so.” She frowned, and her anger was as uncontained as her curiosity, “You do not suggest that I relocate for this bundle of twigs?”

No conjurer would make such a suggestion. Perhaps I should ask for the assistance of a colleague, and yet I wondered whether the Countess’ gratitude would be as extravagant as her cruelty. She might tell this tale to her friends, all of whom ran large households, all of whom employed Mankins that would be in need of repair. I might make a donation to the sanitorium, in the name of my mother. Her name would gleam and glitter on the plaque. When she was recovered, I would buy her a new hat and dress, and we would go to the opera together. She would clap her hands together, and spend far too much time commenting the fine details of my toilet. We might even see a new play, The Captain’s Mankin, which dealt with a Mankin stealing the soul of a navy hero with a fine tenor.

“Sorry, my lady. Of course, I will try and bring Eliza back. But, my apologies once more, I must be alone to do so.”

“Ah, the time has come to cross the edge!” she exclaimed, and hurried out of the room.

First, I reassembled the Mankin, taking each of her limbs, polishing them and oiling the joints before screwing them back into place. I tapped out the dents in her insides, and redressed her in her Nanny’s uniform. She did not look much like my mother, this artisan’s Mankin. My mother was round faced, pretty but with a snubbed nose. Her eyes were brown. This Mankin was not her.

The last were the iron nails. They were lighter than they should have been; perhaps the imprint of my mother had already left.

I took out a modified Leyden Jar. Its proper name was the Stevenson Jar, after the Edinburgh physician, but its common name held more sway: the ghost jar. It looked simple enough, a glass jar coated on the inside and outside with tin foil which reached three quarters up from the base of the jar. I took the cork stopper, drove both nails through it and wound wire around these nails so that they would make contact with the inside of the jar, once the lid was inserted.

Then came a necessary moment of inelegance. I took out a rod of glass, and a length of silk, and rubbed the two together with considerable force. I heard the crackle of the rod. Still applying friction, I placed the rod against the glass so that the electricity might be discharged. After a considerable time, I dropped the rod to the ground and surveyed my ghost jar.

There is little to tell between a ghost jar with an imprint and one that has failed. Both will shock one, if touched. I grasped both nails in my hand and the electricity coursed up my arm. My muscles tensed, and so I only gripped harder. My senses shook and tingled and I felt the urgent thumping of my heart. I held on, as all conjurers must.

Something condensed in the jar, born of electricity and memory and the touch of flesh on iron. Even now it was weak. I have seen imprints thick as coal smoke and some that are little more than the glimmer of light on water. Each imprint is different, and this, my mother, was golden and glittering like a tossed coin.

“Now, you must return to those nails,” I said. It is best to begin gentle, when coaxing imprints.

Something flashed within the jar. “Shan’t,” said the imprint, and it spoke as all imprints do, as all Mankins must, without mouth or breath. A young voice, petulant.

“Come now. How will the Countess manage without you?”

“She will find some other. I am too far from home. It hurts.”

“It cannot hurt, you have no body.”

“Been conjurered, have you?” said the voice, and I heard my mother’s scolding when I was not as kind as I should have been. I almost released the nails in my distress.

“I won’t work for the Countess anymore,” she said, “It’s dull. I danced, you know, at last midsummer, with a fine man who said he would take me away.”

“I know,” I said, for it was my father she was recalling. Mankins are thus, slipping between belief that they are who they once were and realisation of their inhuman state. It is best to humour them.

“I wish I knew what had become of him.”

“He married,” I said. “He had a daughter. He died.”

“So it is,” she said. “Do I remember that?”

She couldn’t. “He is not coming back to take you away,” I said, “You are in the Countess’ service, and must stay a while longer.”

“And what of his daughter?”

“His daughter was taken in by relatives, and has become a fine, well-mannered young woman.”

The imprint laughed, and the ghost jar flashed with something like lightening. I flinched back, but kept my grip. “No daughter of that man could be well-mannered! He taught me a song:” She did not wait, but continued on:

“As I was a-walking one morning in May
I met a pretty fair maid and unto her did say:
‘For love I am inclined and I'll tell you my mind
That my inclination lies in your cuckoo's nest.’”

“That is enough,” I said.

My aunt had not been able to stop her singing, and I was not able to stop her this time. As she sang, I thought of cold nights in my aunt’s house, her arms around me, whispering the song into my neck and promising that tomorrow would be fine, and the day after even finer. I thought of her cautious delight, when I told her of my Conjurer’s salary. I thought of her giggles as she sang the song under her breath in the Sanitorium, one eye fixed on the disapproving lady opposite her.

Baseless sentimentality. I did not weep.

I waited for her to finish, and then said, “If you carry on this way, I shall release the nails. If I do so, you will vanish, forever.” A crude tactic, and one I was not fond of using.

“Release the nails, then,” she said.

“That is your decision?”

“The only decision,” said my mother.

I removed one finger at a time from the nails. The imprint juddered and sparkled and grew fainter. Only the tips of my fingers were still connecting when I said, “You do not have a soul. There is nothing beyond, for imprints.”

“You know that? How?” The imprint attempted derision.

“Would it not be better to return, for a few years at least?”

“Do you know there is nothing?”

“Yes. It has been proven.” There was much theological evidence to support this. Imprints were not souls, no matter the skill of their mimicry. They had no awareness beyond what had been captured in the walls and later distilled, and so they were limited to the same range of movements and emotions and without prospects for growth. They were as a clever clock-work contraption: lifelike, but without the spark of the divine human soul that would truly distinguish them.

“You would send me to nothing?” she asked.

“You have asked me to do so.” I said, and started to lift both my hands.

The imprint flashed, and my breath caught as I wondered whether my mother had chosen oblivion. It happened, with the basest imprints driven to despair by their situations. There was only one method to determine my success.

I removed the nails, and hammered them back into the Mankin’s head and chest. For a moment there was stillness.

“Come now,” I said, and the Mankin shuddered and spoke.

“I am here,” it said, “as you wished.”

I called the Countess back into the room. She clapped her hands together and said, “I thank you. Truly, I love Nanny Mankin like a younger sister.”

“And I, you,” said the Mankin, dutifully.

The Countess’ aunt returned with the baby, which she gave over to the care of the Mankin. I was paid my fee, which was generous and would certainly see a bed or two donated in my mother’s name at the Sanitorium. Before I left, I conducted a routine observation of the Mankin about her work; occasionally, a Mankin might be brought from the brink inelegantly, which can make them petulant, and even dangerous. All seemed in order. The Mankin fussed over the baby, and I saw no danger. As my hand was on the door, I heard the first, soft notes of The Cuckoo’s Nest, so quiet and gentle that one could believe it a lullaby.

I laid down my tools for a while after that. My mother and I travelled to Bath for the healing waters. I had savings, and for half a year I was no longer a conjurer but an almost gentlelady. Yet, my history soon became known, and the gentleman and newly-rich merchants who courted me no longer came calling. And what was I to do? I was untrained, in anything else but the dead. I began my work again.

I had a plaque erected at the sanatorium, bearing my mother’s name. She was most pleased with it. In the sunlight it flashes like a tossed coin.

* * *

Danielle has worked as a translator, tutor, and bookseller. She has lived in three countries and is currently based in London, UK. She enjoys loitering around bookshops, pretending that she won’t buy anything until she gets through her to-read pile.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

The best ideas come either when I’ve had no sleep or too much sleep. I watch the news, read articles, and overhear conversations. The fragments bounce around and they collide, occasionally. Sometimes it’s a story and sometimes it’s nonsense, and the only way to tell the difference is to write it and hope for the best.