Monday, September 22, 2008

Blood is Thicker than Water: Forte Vs Broadstead Part 1

Chapter 3: In Which Two Eminent Scientists Discuss the Supernatural

Abigail and I had comparatively simple living arrangements to those we were used to in Abernathie. We occupied a set of rooms in the American quarter. The care of our household was given to a woman of color, Sarah Bolivier, who had once served Laura’s family. She was somewhat shocked with Abby’s abruptness and my collection of occult books, but I was personally shocked by the chicken’s foot she wore around her neck. The talon, she informed me, was to keep away evil spirits. I was not surprised. If I were an evil spirit, I’d stay away from a chicken foot as well. Sarah kept it out of sight at my request when she worked in the front rooms, but she displayed it in the kitchen, where I caught a glimpse of it once or twice.

Our riverboat journey had been normal in its last days. Father Stewart and I did not have a chance to speak much, for Abigail was being more attentive than I wished. He did, however, mention to me that he try to contact me and explain. Perhaps an occultist like me would care to rendezvous at the Forte/Broadstead debate?

Upon delving into the papers, I discovered exactly what the Forte/Broadstead debate was. Forte was a professor of scientific spiritualism (whatever that meant—I’m sure he must have made it up), and Professor Broadstead was a Cambridge naturalist whose hobby it was to debunk supernatural occurrences. Some soul of show business leanings obviously had paired these two on a lecture circuit that was to circulate the U.S.

My plans to escape to the debate undetected by my niece were not meant to be. When asked how I would spend my Friday night, I mentioned that I had an engagement which would hardly interest her, a debate on the occult. She seemed disinterested in it, until I mentioned the names of Forte and Broadstead. Then Abigail began laughing, and asked if she could bring a friend. In spite of my every argument to convince her that the debate would drive her out of her mind with tedium, she would come. That is how I came to find myself at the New Orleans town hall with Abigail and Juliet Armstrong. Miss Armstrong was an instructor of Abigail’s at Miss Pettijohn’s, and Abigail said she had a strong interest in debunking. I rather thought Miss Armstrong a bit short on brain power, because she gazed raptly at the platform, especially when J. Hamish Broadstead came onto the stage.

Broadstead was a short, paunchy man whose eyes were almost invisible behind his glasses. He was most likely around my age—past the prime of his life—but since he was an academician, this age suited him. The brick and ivy of an old college emanated from him, and he needed to stand on a pile of dusty books just so he could see over his podium. Waiting for the debate, he pursed his lips and ran his hands nervously along the sides of the podium.

An older gentleman with a French accent introduced the opponents. “Professor Broadstead is a well-known debunker, having written several books on the nonexistence of the spiritual,” the French man concluded. Then the mediator directed our attention to Forte.

Forte was Broadstead’s perfect opposite, and not only in viewpoint. Seeing the tall lanky Forte and the butterball Broadstead on stage together reminded me of the humorous sketches of the Lincoln/Douglas debate the Abernathie Courier had run years ago. Forte sported a devilish Van Dyke beard. He actually made eye contact with Abigail and smiled at her roguishly. She batted her eyelids in return and I did not know who the bigger flirt was. Forte’s attitude was confident; Broadstead waited for the debate to begin with reserve.

The respectable Frenchman had finished his introductions. “Professor Broadstead will assume the anti-spiritual side of the debate. Mr. Forte will be pro-occult.”

Forte cleared his throat and motioned the Frenchman to him. He whispered in the Frenchman’s ear. Then the Frenchman spoke again. “My mistake. Professor Forte, PhD, will speak after Professor Broadstead.” Broadstead snorted; Forte winked at a young woman in the front row. He clasped his own arms in the victor’s fashion and shook them above his head.

Broadstead straightened his short waistcoat, through which his stomach threatened to poke. Then he glanced at his notes, pushed his glasses higher on his nose and began. “New Orleans. I am glad to be in New Orleans tonight. It is a city of mystery. Caught up in the very essence of what is both spiritual and paranormal. There are events in this city, which claim the inability to be explained. People claim to see their loved ones at séances, women cast charms on their rivals, glyphs and wards abound in the city, the list is endless of what occurs here. And why shouldn’t that list continue? People will believe the inexplicable as long as they have no explanation.

“I can understand why we have no explanation. Perhaps because we choose not to. We wish to remain in the safe, dark superstition of our ancestors. We wish not to change, nor to confront the truth. And this we should not do! For now, in the age of science, we must confront truth. Truth can explain the inexplicable. If science is used on this superstition, it evaporates into nothing. Practitioners of charms become those who prey on the emotions of others. Dead spirits become the rigged tricks of pseudo-mediums. My friends,” here Broadstead paused to bring his point home, “we must assume responsibility for our own lives, ideas, and emotions. We must come out of that superstitious dark place. We must realize there is a rational explanation for everything."

I felt a tug at my elbow. Father Stewart sat beside me. “He’s a windbag,” the priest commented, “but this one’s worse.”

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