It's Beltane Eve 1932, late and dark with a feeble last crescent moon, when two women alight at St Denys station on their way back from Christchurch. The Dolphin is in darkness as they cut through the garden, the dog not even stirring at the sound of the whistle as the train, which has stopped at every station, pulls away, into the stygian gloom that will eventually lead it to London. Turning right on the main road, they see the welcoming lights of a detached house still burning. They call gently, before unlocking the door and entering. Two men are waiting impatiently.
It's late: we were getting worried; what happened?
Nothing, except that the train stopped everywhere and took forever. Where is Beaulieu Road station anyway? Clearly nowhere near Beaulieu. Drinks are called for, I think.
They retire to the drawing room and mix a round of Gimlets. The women sip and sigh contentedly.
So, what were they like, the Christchurch lot?
Oh, very jolly folk, very skilled, experienced with Sullivan's Rosicrucian system. There were about a dozen as well as us. The old girl comes over just as she did in her letters.
She led the meditation?
Yes, she's very good. Better than us, I think. They've got "Twilight on the Threshold" and I think they've got it cracked.
I'm still working on it myself, so don't tell me.
Anyway, we're going back for the next one the twenty-eighth. You should both come with us.
I think we should, if they're better than us. I'll have to finish "Twilight" first, though, or it'll spoil the plot.
It is now officially Beltane, so the four retire to don robes, then return to the dining room for a group meditation, before finally retiring.
On the last Saturday in May, the twenty-eighth, the four are gathered at a photographer's shop in the city, near to Central Station. A study of Bradshaws has revealed that the fast service to Christchurch will stop only at Brockenhurst, and that a later train is available, allowing some time for socialising after the meeting. There is small talk as they walk down Water Lane, tickets already purchased, with five minutes to spare before there is a train whistle from the tunnel. They board the train, the women pointing out Beaulieu Road as the train flashes through it, and then they're in Christchurch.
The front bar of the pub is fairly full of a mixture of labourers and other men who have just finished their working week, someone their way home, others out for the evening. The four attract little attention, though, as they make their way to the snug: the group is well known and treated with respect. In the snug, several people are waiting the old girl is chatting with two younger women; there are three smartly dressed men and another in work clothes with an immaculately pressed shirt and polished boots. Introductions are made, and repeated as further members arrive. The assembly then opens in the usual manner, and the rite begins. This group is indeed somewhat better than the Southampton people, but then there are more of them and they've had more practice. With sixteen, they soon build up a good head of steam and the atmosphere positively crackles. There's almost a sense of relief as the rite draws to a close.
The discussion topic is once again "Twilight", the next instalment of the course having only just arrived. It is, as the Southampton group had all worked out, a mental initiation, several stages of clearing the mind. The old girl leads the group through it in a guided meditation and it makes more sense out loud. The participants feel themselves becoming more tranquil with each challenge, and at the end there's a feeling of walking through something curtains perhaps into the sunlight. The assembly closes, then there's socialising over a drink, idle chatter about jobs, the journey over and so on. The Southampton group will definitely be regulars from now on.
On Monday afternoon, a letter is delivered to the Osborne Road house. It is brief and to the point:
"That is so good as a meditation that I think it deserves more. But I don't know if Sullivan intended that, because it won't fit the Crotona rituals. I don't want to upset anyone here, but you're new. Perhaps you'd be prepared to help me to try it as a real ritual on its own."
Of course the group would be flattered. A further exchange of letters arranges that they will hold the rite at the old girl's house on the Friday before Lammas, so that they can stay overnight, see something of Christchurch and then attend the Crotona meeting the following night. The younger of the Southampton women will take the part of the initiand, with the old girl being the summoner and the other three providing the challenges.
At the June meeting, the old girl draws the young woman aside and they chat briefly. The latter crosses to the bar to refresh her gin, and sips reflectively, then turns, and almost imperceptibly, nods. Outside, the old girl reaches into her car and hands each of them a package. Robes, she explains, courtesy of the drama group. Two packages remain in the car.
On Friday 29 July 1932, the four once again travel across the forest, greens and browns making an impressionist painting as the train rattles along the now-familiar line. At Christchurch, they hire a taxi to take them to the old girl's address, a sense of anticipation building. They take tea on the lawn, watching the sun set in a riot of reds and oranges. Then they go inside and to their rooms to robe.
The drawing room has been cleared of furniture and the old girl places the three challengers in order round the walls, then opens the door and calls the initiand forward. She begins the rite and the initiand replies, then steps in, standing in the centre with legs slightly apart and arms outstretched, facin to the left. The old girl closes the door: the atmosphere crackles just as it does at Crotona meetings. Slightly unsteadily at first, but building in confidence, a man issues the first challenge, and the initiand responds, passing the first challenge. She turns clockwise and for the second challenge, issued by he other woman. The tension gives a sense of power that, in all honesty, isn't even present at the Crotona meetings, let alone in Southampton.
The third challenge gives a sense of pressing against some sort of veil even more intense than at the guided meditation. Just before the end of her last speech, the young woman moves her hands to her shoulders, loosening two ties and, as she utters the final words, letting the robe fall to the floor. Beneath it she is naked. Now initiate, she raises her hands, the old girl's words dissipating the power. The initiate moves to each of the others in turn, kissing them and closing the rite.
They move through to the dining room where drinks and biscuits await them. The old girl makes coffee - she seems to be the only one aware that the initiate is still naked. She smiles. This is a group.
By December, there have been several developments. A new couple, friends of the old colonel, have moved down from London to join the Crotona Fellowship. A romance has developed between the young woman and the younger of the Southampton men; Sullivan's next episode, "The Dragon and the Elementals" has arrived and, unknown to the others, the old girl has written to Sullivan explaining about the ritual and asking permission to form a study group within the fellowship. This is not unheard of and Sullivan has, after some thought, granted permission, partly on the basis that they'll probably do it anyway.
The Crotona Fellowship meet on New Year's Eve. Later there will be a private party at the pub, in deference to the legal limits on alcohol sales introduced as a 'temporary' measure during the Great War, and the Southampton party will stay over, For now, though, following the rite, there's a long discussion of "The Dragon and the Elementals", the oddest part of the correspondence course so far. At about eleven, preparations for the party begin. The new couple are in workday clothes and seem slightly uncomfortable, though no-one else minds.
The man in work-clothes sits with his wife and sips his pint thoughtfully. He works with heavy horses and his wife is a clairvoyant of whom the old girl is quite fond. Both of them country-born, they nonetheless met in London after the war, both members of a co-masonry lodge. Discovering a mutual interest in, and knowledge of, folk-magic, their relationship deepened and after a couple of years they married. They have recently moved to the Forest at the suggestion of the old colonel, to manage his horses, because the colonel remembered the man's almost magical skills in that area.
Less than twenty years ago, serving under the old colonel, he survived the freezing hell that was Arras, but he thinks he's more afraid now than he was then. Then, there wasn't time to think. He kisses his wife on the cheek before rising and approaching the old girl to take the plunge before he has time to change his mind.
You'll be needing one extra.
I beg your pardon?
You'll be needing six or more. You've the two youngsters for the Prince and Princess, blue and green are obvious, you're silver. You need a gold and although it's presumptuous we - my wife and I - would like you to consider me.
Is it that obvious?
I don't think any of the others have spotted it yet, but they will. It was obvious to us at Lammas. We're pretty certain that you tried the "Twilght" initiation as a real physical ritual.
Yes, we did.
Does Sullivan know?
Yes, he's given me permission to form a study group.
And we think, from the way that the two youngsters are making eyes at each other, that the young woman was the initiand and the ritual worked. Was she naked?
At the end, yes.
Then she'll have no problem being so again. And, since it's a sacred marriage, my wife says that she should wear red garters. Or at least so her grandmother told her.
Then although I'll need to consult the rest, I think I have my King. And provisionally, I salute you.
Whatever the result, Our Queen, We salute you.
She goes off to mingle, but with the major objective of getting each of the inner group alone for a few minutes. As the chimes of Big Ben rang out on the wireless, and the words of Auld Lang Syne faded, kisses are passed around, including, much to their surprise, the landlord and landlady. The future Prince and Princess, though trying to be restrained, actually broke the bounds of propriety, even for those days heady days after The War, but no-one gave any sign of noticing. The King and Queen exchanged kisses that were slightly less chaste than circumstances dictated. Again, No-one seemed to notice.
It's agreed. I salute you, my King.
Then Beltane would be good - very appropriate, in fact, if the folk-tales from round here are accurate. to be believed. The Crotona Fellowship will meet on the Saturday, we should do the ritual on Sunday night. That'll give you time to arrange the choreography - and to initiate us.
It is Beltane Eve 1933, and last night the Crotona Fellowship met. It was an exciting meeting, more powerful than ever as the group continues to bond together. The old girl knew that her experiences with her study group were improving her abilities in the Crotona Fellowship rites and in guided meditations, but she allowed herself a small pang of regret during the discussion and general merry-making afterwards. Tonight, however, six people meet together at her house and the time for regret is long past. The drawing room is again cleared of furniture and the rite is about to begin.
Four people in coloured robes stand against the four walls, with the clairvoyant in one corner and the young man in a white robe kneeling, back to the centre, facing her. The young woman, similarly clad, kneels in the centre, facing them. Lacking their theatrical stageequipment, including a dragon, based on a local tale, they will use the most powerful magical tools available - their minds - with two exceptions. For the transformation the clairvoyant has a chalice, an unlit candle, and matches. As the rite begins, the earth is sick and the two of the coloured robed members speak to the King.
The King weighs their advice and then instructs the Queen, who in turn commands the clairvoyant, who lifts the chalice and kisses the young man, who rises, and lets his cloak fall to the floor. She holds the chalice to his lips and he drinks, returns the favour, and then visits each of the directions in turn. He takes the final sip, then places the chalice in front of the Queen. The clairvoyant lights the candle. Then the young man to the centre and kisses the young woman, who rises as if from sleep and drops her own robe. Naked, they embrace, make their responses to questioning from the Queen and finally leave the room. They climb the stairs together: it is Beltane and tonight the horse-whisperer and the clairvoyant will occupy the fifth bedroom, where the young woman slept last time.
Downstairs, there is a barely suppressed urge to applaud, the happy tension adding to the already almost visible power as the rite continues. The King thanks the Queen and the others in turn. Through their combined powers the spell is broken, and soon, very soon, the Prince and Princess will complete the curing of the world, supported by the less explicit end of the rite downstairs. As above, so below. At the end of the rite, the remaining five retire to the dining room, where the customary biscuits are accompanied by a bottle of Champagne, on ice. There are smiles and kisses all round. Upstairs, there is no need of champagne.
It is 1934, and in Liverpool a morose Gerald Sullivan is half-way down his second pint of bitter in a bar round the corner from the printing shop as his confidant arrives, carrying his own pint to the table.
Well, if it wasn't a foregone conclusion at the summer gathering, it is now. This last letter from the old girl. They've change the initiation to match the marriage, they're adding new elements into the scheme to mark various festivals
But the Crotona Fellowship was stronger than ever when we were down there. And they're not interfering with that - you should be pleased. Isn't what's happening exactly what you described in "Brother Adamson"?
Yes, it's strong, and yes it's what I've wanted ever since I wrote "Pythagoras", but I'm losing control.
Well, you have two choices: Either concentrate on the group up here and the correspondence course, or we move to Christchurch.
It is 1939, and there is an uneasy truce between the old girl and Sullivan, who has moved down to the coast. The Crotona Fellowship is stronger than ever but he thinks it may be about to implode. For the moment, though, he is content.
The 'study group' is now so close-knit that their existence is obvious even to the least observant of the Fellowship. The young couple, now conventionally and legally married, and with their first child almost a year old, only attend occasionally, but look forward to reports from the other Southampton members. With its increased proiminence, however, the group has grown, with the addition of, amongst others, a woman friend of the old girl's the naturist group of which they are both members, and a local publisher. The liturgy has changed over the years the original shock of nudity has metamorphosed into a fairly standard transition from robed to naked by some members during the ritual and the mixture of robed and naked figures, which produces arousal and sexual tension, which in turn can be consciously manipulated into power.
A retired gentleman has recently moved into the area, joining the naturist club and the theatre group. From his performance in "The Demon Monk", it's clear that he has a flair for drama and ritual, and he's also a naturist. He knows a lot about magic from his time abroad, and the old girl's friend is helping him write a novel. The two have fallen deeply in love, which is inconvenient in the extreme because both of them are married. He has asked about the 'study group', but hasn't pressed the point. She, however, clearly has a vested interest.
I think we should invite him to join, and so do the others. After all, we had that vision of a witch being burned at the stake, and the name matches well: we normally follow clues like that.
But he knows us I can't see how the initiation will work.
He mostly knows us from the club. Perhaps he won't recognise us with our clothes on.