Monday, April 13, 2015

“The Penhale Broadcast” by Jack Snow

From Dark Music and Other Spectral Tales

All arrangements were completed for the strangest and most unusual radio broadcast ever conceived.
WXAT, New York key station of a coast-to-coast chain of ninety some radio stations, was ready to broadcast the voice of a woman, dead for fifteen years.
Sonya Parrish had died at the height of an operatic career without parallel in musical annals. Her path of glory had led her to the thrones of European monarchs. It had brought her the laudations of the severest music critics. And, most important of all, it had showered her with the adulation of the general public. When she died in 1919, she was an international favorite. Every civilized nation in the world had mourned her passing with a sincerity that was in itself a remarkable tribute to her art and personal charm. Dignified, lovely and gifted, Sonya Parrish was one of the few to whom the word, genius, was correctly applied.
And now, after fifteen years of silence—a silence that was sealed by the grave—it was said that Sonya Parrish would sing again; that her lovely voice would rise sweet and clear in Gounod’s inspired “Ave Maria,” and mourn plaintively through the haunting beauty of Wagner’s “Traume.”
WXAT and its affiliated stations publicized the broadcast months previous to the memorable night when it was scheduled to go on the air. It was an experiment, the network officials admitted. There was a possibility that it might not be a success. But they believed it would be. Sonya Parrish—living or dead—was not the sort of artist to disappoint an audience. And this would be an audience of entire nations—uncounted millions—waiting to hear the long-stilled voice of the great soprano. Short wave broadcast would carry the program to South America and European stations for re-broadcast. The whole world would be a world of ears, a world of hushed voices, waiting for that one voice from the beyond. And Sonya Parrish, station officials believed, would not fail to sing for those hushed, awed listeners.
A brief newspaper clipping from Penhale, an obscure Connecticut town, was the first in the series of incidents which led to the plans for the incredible broadcast. By the merest chance, the clipping had come to the attention of a high official of WXAT. The item told, half-humorously in a self-consciously reportorial style, of the strange singing which had been heard recently in the graveyard at Pen-hale. The clipping proceeded to link the ghostly singing with the grave of Sonya Parrish, whose body had been interred in the humble cemetery fifteen years ago. Penhale had been Sonya’s early home and now she lay buried there, beside her father and mother. It was her voice that had been heard.
The WXAT official put the notice aside with mild curiosity. Several weeks passed. Then this same official’s attention had been caught by an article in a New York tabloid. It was the Penhale reporter’s story re-told more ambitiously and lavishly illustrated with photographs of the late Sonya Parrish. The article was further embellished with the work of an imaginative artist who pictured Sonya, radiantly lovely and sad, singing triumphantly against the gruesome background of the Penhale graveyard. It was this vivid picture, stirring his imagination, which sent the WXAT official off on an investigation which was eventually to lead to plans for the broadcast.
Slipping quietly away from New York, the official motored to Penhale and spent some time questioning the villagers. He found it to be an established and accepted belief that Sonya Parrish sang almost nightly in the graveyard. He had been invited to hear her. And he had gone, half-amused at his own credulity, to the graveyard. At midnight, the hour when Sonya was said to sing, he had heard it himself. He had started violently at the first note. It was Sonya Parrish’s voice! There was no denying it! There was no other voice in the world—or out of it—like that one. He had listened, enraptured, the first tremor of fear quickly displaced by the magical beauty of the voice that held him spellbound. It was Sonya Parrish! No one could deny it! The radio official hadn’t slept the rest of the night. Early in the morning he motored back to New York in record time. In a few weeks plans for the amazing broadcast were announced.
At first the public laughed at the announcements. It was some publicity stunt to introduce a new singer. It was merely a scheme to gain the public’s attention and columns of priceless publicity for WXAT and its stations. Of course they could broadcast the voice of Sonya Parrish—hadn’t she made scores of phonograph records? But the network officials vigorously denied these charges. No records would be used. This was no stunt. In an effort to convince the public of the sincerity of the venture, the radio officials invited the co-operation of several celebrated psychologists and investigators of psychical phenomena. With the names of these well known men of science back of it, the venture assumed solemnity and dignity in the layman’s mind, and much of the public jeering and ridiculing of the proposed broadcast subsided. Thus, the almost magical power of the mere mention of the name of Science to render logical in the public mind the most extravagant project.
The broadcast was set for the night of August 30th. At five minutes before midnight, the remote control line from Penhale would be plugged into the key station WXAT in New York, and the announcer would open the broadcast. Five minutes later—at midnight—it was hoped that the voice of Sonya Parrish would bridge the gap of fifteen years of death and sing again.
Adrian Ramsey, gifted young announcer of WXAT and winner of the coveted gold medal diction award from the Academy of Arts and Letters for two successive years, was assigned to handle the broadcast. It was arranged that Ramsey would be alone in the graveyard beside the great monolith which marked the hallowed ground in which the body of Sonya Parrish lay resting.
A slender cable, extending from Ramsey’s microphone to a point just outside the graveyard gate, connected the microphone with an amplifying system, operated by WXAT engineers. Telephone wires would then carry the broadcast to the local telephone exchange in Penhale, from which point it would be dispatched by long distance telephone lines to WXAT in New York, and thence by radio to the listening world.
It was decided that no one was to be in the graveyard but Ramsey, as it had been found that the singing was always clearest when the cemetery was nearly deserted. On several evenings, following the wide-spread publicizing of the phenomena, curious crowds had collected in the graveyard, and as a result there had been no singing. Upon formulating its plans for the broadcast, WXAT had secured permission from the Penhale authorities to station a strict guard about the cemetery after nightfall. On the night of the broadcast, it was planned to double the guard.
At last the great night arrived. Long before midnight, practically every radio receiver in the United States was tuned to WXAT and its network of stations. Foreign listeners awaited the short wave re-broadcast, which would reach them through their local stations. Heretofore neglected radios suddenly loomed as instruments of the utmost importance, and became the center of interest of excited groups of listeners.
Adrian Ramsey stood just outside the gate of the gloomy little Penhale graveyard. It was 11:30. In just twenty-five minutes he would walk into the shadows of those trees alone—and take his solitary position before the microphone, which had been set up hours previous beside the grave of Sonya Parrish, the greatest singer the world had ever known.
In spite of his training in the commercial world of radio, Adrian was an artist with an artist’s temperament. While he was possessed of a naturally keen and vivid imagination, he wasn’t the nervous type, nor likely to become easily excited—radio announcers can’t afford to—yet he was conscious of a mounting tenseness and an eerie sense of the unreal. Certainly no man had ever been assigned to a stranger duty—to announce to an audience of uncounted millions the singing of a woman, fifteen years dead!
Adrian glanced at the slender gold watch on his wrist. Ten minutes till twelve. It was time he took his place at the microphone. A small group of WXAT officials and technicians stood about, talking in lowered tones.
Everything’s ready, Ramsey,” said a tall dark man. He was Turner, program director of WXAT. “We have men stationed every few feet about the place. You won’t be disturbed.” The program director paused. Then, placing his hand on Adrian’s shoulder, he added quietly, “It’s got to work.” In those four words he expressed the fear that haunted every member of the WXAT staff.
It’s got to work!” If it didn’t, there would be no choice but to return the control to New York and proceed with the blaring of a night club orchestra. WXAT and its great nation-wide network of stations would be the laughing stock of the world. It didn’t matter that every item of publicity had carried a clause stating that the broadcast was an experiment--a great experiment—and there was a possibility, through no default of the network, that the experiment would fail. All that and the fact that the chain officials were courageous enough to attempt so unusual a broadcast would quickly be lost sight of in the torrent of jeering and ridicule which would follow the unsuccessful venture. The rival network would see to that!
And so, there is small wonder that misgivings and last minute doubts crowded into Adrian Ramsey’s mind, as he walked silently through the Penhale graveyard to the tomb of Sonya Parrish.
There was the microphone. He could see it gleaming in the moonlight. Cold, polished steel—an electric ear—insensible to the drama of the moment, waiting only to pick up and record with mechanical precision whatever sounds chanced to strike and agitate its sensitive diaphragm.
Arriving at the microphone, Adrian looked about him. He might be the only human being within miles—so silent, so lonely was the spot. He felt as if he were the only person on earth—save Sonya Parrish. There was her grave, a rounded mound of sod, silver-black in the moonlight, and at its head—the monolith, whitely gleaming and drenched with the rays of the moon that filtered through the leaves of a great elm tree. On either side of the imposing monument were the humble stones marking the resting places of Sonya Parrish’s New England forebears.
Adrian Ramsey consulted his watch again. One minute more. Then he would be on the air. During the first few minutes, he would picture the eerie scene about him, and tell something of the greatness that had been Sonya Parrish’s. Then at midnight—
Now that the actual moment for action had arrived, Adrian was cool and collected. He forgot his doubts. He thought only of his part of the broadcast. Intently his eyes followed his stop watch. Slowly it neared the sixty mark—fifteen seconds—ten seconds—five seconds—11:55. A tiny amber signal light on the microphone stand glowed dully.
Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen of the radio audience.” It was the cultured and flawlessly correct voice of Adrian Ramsey. He might have been speaking from the luxurious studios in New York, announcing a routine program, surrounded by every refinement of modern civilization. His diction was perfect. His carefully modulated voice was calm and controlled.
For five minutes Adrian talked. He pictured in vivid simple phrases the humble little village graveyard, where this first broadcast of its kind ever attempted was taking place. He read the inscription from the monolith that surmounted Sonya Parrish’s resting place. He spoke of the hardy New England forebears of this great woman, all of whom lay buried here. He recalled Sonya’s early life, her singing as a child in the village choir, and later her great gift of artistry which had carried her across the ocean to study under the tutelage of European masters. He pictured her triumphs in Continental capitals, the multitudes of Berlin, Paris, Vienna, London, worshiping at her feet. His voice rose as he graphically portrayed her triumphal return to her native shores and her sensational debut with the Metropolitan Opera Company. Then followed her long and full years of glorious singing, her concert tours in which she had swept over the land like a great wave of melody and song—this had been before the days of radio.
Then in lowered tones, Adrian spoke compassionately of the lingering illness which had stricken the singer, when she was at the heights of her powers and fame. He told of her death and of how every nation of the world had paid sorrowful homage to the memory of the great woman whose voice was stilled. Adrian paused. Then in a few words he told of the singing in the graveyard and of the plans of WXAT which had culminated in this memorable experiment. In closing, he expressed the hope that the radio audience would be considerate of the spirit in which the experiment had been attempted, and, if it failed, would think rather of the noble motives which had inspired the venture, than of its failure.
It was intensely moving. Millions heard Adrian’s voice. Millions were thrilled by it. The glowing tones—the dramatic phrasing—the supreme significance of the moment.
Again Adrian paused. He himself had been carried away. He trembled slightly. Even as he paused, a sound rose above the night silence and the monotonous chirruping of the crickets. It was the bell of the village church of Penhale tolling the hour of midnight. The vibrations carried clear and pure through the summer night. The microphone was hearing it, even as he was, Adrian knew. What better introduction to what was to follow than the eerie tolling of that distant bell?
Adrian listened, himself spellbound. Eight—nine—ten—eleven—twelve. Breathlessly Adrian counted them off. Then he moved closer to the microphone.
It is midnight, Ladies and Gentlemen,” he spoke in a subdued voice, little more than a whisper. “If Sonya Parrish can hear my voice, she will come now, and sing for the millions who are listening throughout the world.” Adrian stepped back from the microphone and waited. Tiny beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead. There was nothing more he could do. His part was finished.
In New York excited groups of apartment dwellers clustered about loudspeakers. The ticking of millions of Gotham’s clocks was suddenly, and perhaps for the first time, audible. In restaurants and places of entertainment, all music and talking stopped. No one stirred. New York was an ear.
Across the Middle West there were lights in the living rooms of farm homes at an hour when the occupants were customarily long abed. Hard-working farmers and their wives and families grouped tensely about loudspeakers—waiting. The bass of frogs sounded from nearby pools and streams, and the faint night wind set home-fashioned draperies fluttering in windows that looked out onto spreading fields and well-tended farm lands.
In the South, the moon shone down on wide acres of cotton, white and rolling, like the foam-crested waves of the sea. In humble cabins, far back from the deserted highways, cheap radio receivers inspired a reverent silence. A silence, breathless with the mingled emotions born in the superstitious hearts of the colored folk to whom all this was as a miracle that had passed so many long centuries ago in ancient Jerusalem, pervaded the tiny dwellings. In the mansions of the South, the fine old aristocratic families—last of the Barons of the soil—gathered in the ancestral halls to listen and wait.
On the plains of the West, cattle herders and ranchers sat on their rude bunks, their eyes mesmerized by illuminated dials. Occasionally the stillness was broken by the lonely cry of a coyote.
And in the Far West, up and down the great Pacific coast line with its string of thriving cities, millions more listened and waited, silently enduring the emptiness of those few moments that was like the emptiness that stretches into eternity.
In foreign lands, encircling the globe, the picture was the same. The world was an ear—a vast, multitudinous ear, an ear that listened tensely, hoping for a merest shred of the assurance that had been sought since the birth of the race—the assurance that death holds something more than the grave.
And then, into that ear, softly at first, softly and with incredible sweetness, flowed the unforgettable voice of Sonya Parrish. The world’s heart stopped beating for a moment, as it listened. The voice sounded on. It was “Solvejg’s Song” from the “Peer Gynt Suite.” Delicately lovely, rising at one moment to rich crescendos of warm beauty, and descending the next to notes of minor plaintiveness that pierced the heart with wistful beauty, the melody wavered and waned across the night air.
This was no hoax. This was Parrish—Sonya Parrish, the incomparable! Many older listeners, recalling the occasions when they had been thrilled by this sublime voice in concert halls and opera houses, listened awe-struck. Tears welled to their eyes.
A warm note of thanks swept through hearts separated by thousands of miles, linking them in a common tide of thanksgiving. There was no more distance—no more space—no more loneliness—even no more death—the impossible had happened—Sonya Parrish was singing again!
The last note of the incredible singing wavered into silence. Then came the voice of Adrian Ramsey. But it was a different Adrian Ramsey who spoke. He, too, had been touched and exalted by the magic that had happened. His voice was vibrant and rich with the strange heady excitement of the moment. He was speaking:
Sonya Parrish has sung,” a slight tremble in his voice betrayed his emotion. “Sonya Parrish has sung for the greatest audience ever assembled. As I look about me, I bow my head in humility. Never was mortal man favored with such a sight. I see the world’s immortals gathered in this little graveyard to pay homage to the divine artistry of Sonya Parrish. There—not twenty paces from me—stands great Caesar with his Roman court. And there—resplendent in the many-colored robes of the Orient—Marco Polo, the dreamer and adventurer. And there kindly-visaged Shakespeare, mightiest of all the men of letters. His keen eyes gleam with heart-felt appreciation of the artistry he has just witnessed. And there is another divine woman, whose memory the world cherishes—the great Bernhardt, more magnetic and lovely than words can tell. Her eyes are moist with tears, a beautiful tribute to Sonya Parrish’s art.”
In New York, the WXAT official, who had conceived the broadcast, started. This was carrying the thing a little too far! Even he had been moved by the almost unbelievable success of the weird venture, but Ramsey was going too far. What did he mean? There was no way to stop him now. The official listened again. Ah, Sonya Parrish was singing once more! He listened, enchanted. God! Never had there been such singing as this! The beauty was heart-wringing. It was almost a relief when it wavered into silence.
Ramsey was speaking again. The official listened. “Sonya Parrish has sung again,” came the voice from the loudspeaker. “She will sing no more tonight. For those who have assembled here she has displayed the magic of her great art. I bow my head in the glory of the moment in which I am permitted to speak. Such glory has never before come to man. I am humble before the multitude that is Sonya Parrish’s audience.” Ramsey paused, then continued in a voice that was curiously subdued. “And reverently, worshipfully I speak of One who has lately joined the multitude. For Him the great ones made way as for a King. He is garbed simply in a white robe that falls from His shoulders. A circlet of thorns crowns His head. His eyes are kind and gentle and more wise than—”
There was silence. Quickly the announcer in the New York studios stepped to the microphone and made the customary station identification and the concluding announcement for the program.
The broadcast had been a superb success! It was perfect—save for Ramsey’s odd behavior. The man had obviously broken down, a prey to a bad attack of nerves. But even the official of WXAT couldn’t find it in his heart to censure him. He was much too elated with the amazing success of the broadcast. And Ramsey’s position had undoubtedly been a difficult one. An iron man might have faltered.
At the Penhale graveyard, the little group of station officials and technicians, who had listened breathlessly, just outside the cemetery, with ear-phones clasped to their heads, turned from their equipment and gazed at one another. They breathed a sigh of relief. It was over. It had been a success—more of a success than they had dared hope for. And Ramsey—what an ordeal it must have been for him! Alone there in the graveyard with that singing!
They started along the white-pebbled path of the graveyard to meet Ramsey and congratulate him on the splendid broadcast. But Ramsey wasn’t in sight. They could distinguish the gleaming white marble that marked the grave of Sonya Parrish. Still, Ramsey was nowhere to be seen. Then one of the engineers, who was in the lead, shouted and broke into a run. In a few moments they were all standing before the grave of Sonya Parrish. There was the microphone with the familiar call letters, WXAT, across its top. At the base of the instrument, lay the body of Adrian Ramsey. He was dead.
In his eyes shone the light of a greater glory than any living man had ever before looked upon.