OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series (1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
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THE early story of the Theosophical Society is almost told. Little remains for me but to complete my first series of reminiscences, with some sketches of our social life in New York, up to the time of our embarkation for India.
From the close of 1876 to that of 1878, the Theosophical Society as a body was comparatively inactive: its By-laws became a dead letter, its meetings almost ceased. Its few public appearances have been described above, and the signs of its growing influence are found in the increase of the Founders’ home and foreign correspondence, their controversial articles in the press, the establishment of Branch societies at London and Corfu, and the opening up of relations with sympathisers in India and Ceylon.
The influential Spiritualists who joined us at first had all withdrawn; our meetings in a hired room—the Mott Memorial Hall, in Madison Avenue, New York—were
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discontinued; the fees formerly exacted upon entrance of members were abolished, and the Society’s maintenance devolved entirely upon us two. Yet the idea was never more vigorous, nor the movement more full of vitality, than when it was divested of its external corporateness, and its spirit was compressed into our brains, hearts, and souls. Our Headquarters’ life was ideal throughout those closing years. United in devotion to a common cause, in daily intercourse with our Masters, absorbed in altruistic thoughts, dreams, and deeds, we two existed in that roaring metropolis as untouched by its selfish rivalries and ignoble ambitions as though we occupied a cabin by the seaside, or a cave in the primeval forest. I am not exaggerating when I say that a more unworldly tone would not be found in any other home in New York. The social distinctions of our visitors were left outside our threshold; and rich or poor, Christian, Jew, or Infidel, learned or unlearned, our visitors received the same hearty welcome and patient attention to their questions upon religious and other subjects. H. P. B. was born so great an aristocrat as to be at ease in the highest society, and so thorough a democratic altruist as to give cordial hospitality to the humblest caller.
One of the best read of our guests in Greek philosophy was a working house-painter, and I well remember how gladly H. P. B. and I signed his application-form as his sponsors and welcomed him into membership. Without a single exception those who published accounts of their
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visits to “The Lamasery”—as we humorously called our humble suite of rooms—declared that their experience had been novel and out of the usual course. Most of them wrote about H. P. B. in terms of exaggerated praise or wonder. In appearance there was not a shade of the ascetic about her: she neither meditated in seclusion, practised austerities in regimen, denied herself to the frivolous and worldly-minded, nor selected her company. Her door was open to all, even to those whom she knew meant to write about her with pens over which she could have no control. Often they lampooned her, but if the articles were witty, she used to enjoy them with me to the fullest extent.
Among our constant visitors was Mr. Curtis, one of the cleverest reporters on the New York press, and later, a member of our Society. He made yards of good “copy” out of the Lamasery, sometimes sober, sometimes farcical, but always bright and smart. He led us into a nice trap one evening: taking us off to a circus where, he said, two Egyptian jugglers were exhibiting certain marvels that might be ascribed to a knowledge of sorcery, but which, at any rate, he wished us to see and pronounce upon as experts in the uncanny. We listened to the voice of the syren and went. The show proved to be common-place and the Egyptians bona fide French men, with whom we had a long talk in the Manager’s office between “acts”. They had not even seen an Egyptian magician of the real sort described by Mr. Lane in his well-known work. On leaving the place I condoled
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with Curtis on the barrenness of his experiment, but he sent us into fits of laughter by replying that, on the contrary, he now had a free hand and could supply all needed facts to make a sensational article. He did. The next day’s World contained an account headed “Theosophs at the Circus”, in which our stale talk with the two Frenchmen was converted into a highly mystical interview, accompanied by no end of weird phenomena, of spectral apparitions, apports, and disappearances; the whole description proving, if not the reporter’s veracity, at least, his fertile fancy. Another time he brought us a paper giving an account of the night-walking of the ghost of a defunct night-watchman, along the wharves of a certain district on the East side of the city, and begged us to go and see the phantom: the police, he said, were all agog, and the inspector of that district had made all preparations to have it seized that night. Forgetting our circus experience, again we accepted. It was a rather bleak starlit night, and we sat for hours well wrapped, on a pile of lumber, by the river side, beguiling the time with smoking and chaff with a score of newspaper reporters detailed to describe the events of the night. But “Old Shep” did not manifest his disreputable eidôlon that time, and in due course we returned to our Lamasery vexed at the waste of a whole evening. The next day’s papers, to our ineffable disgust, paraded us as a couple of crack-brained persons who had expected the impossible, and half conveying the idea that we had kept “Old Shep” away to cheat
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the reporters of their lawful prey! We even got into the illustrated papers, and I have preserved in our Scrap-Book a picture representing us two, and the worshipful company of reporters as “Members of the Theosophical Society watching for Old Shep’s ghost.” Fortunately, the portraits of H. P. B. and myself looked no more like us than like the Man in the Moon.
One evening Curtis was present when the Countess Paschkoff was relating an adventure she had with H. P. B. in the Libanus, she speaking in French and I translating into English. The tale was so weird and interesting that he asked permission to print it, and this being granted, it duly appeared in his paper. As it exemplifies the theory of the latency in the âkâúa of pictures of human events and the power of calling them out which may be attained, I will quote a portion of it in this place, leaving the responsibility for the facts with the fair narrator:
“The Countess Paschkoff spoke again, and again Colonel Olcott translated for the reporter. . . . I was once travelling between Baalbec and the river Orontes, and in the desert I saw a caravan. It was Mme. Blavatsky’s. We camped together. There was a great monument standing there near the village of El Marsum. It was between the Libanus and the Anti-Libanus. On the monument were inscriptions that no one could ever read. Mme. Blavatsky could do strange things with the spirits, as I knew, and I asked her to find out what the
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monument was. We waited until night. She drew a circle and we went in it. We built a fire and put much incense on it. Then she said many spells. Then we put on more incense. Then she pointed with her wand at the monument and we saw a great ball of white flame on it. There was a sycamore tree near by; we saw many little flames on it. The jackals came and howled in the darkness a little way off. We put on more incense. Then Mme. Blavatsky commanded the spirit to appear of the person to whom the monument was reared. Soon a cloud of vapour arose and obscured the little moonlight there was. We put on more incense. The cloud took the indistinct shape of an old man with a beard, and a voice came, as it seemed, from a great distance, through the image. He said the monument was once the altar of a temple that had long disappeared. It was reared to a god that had long since gone to another world. “Who are you? ” asked Mme. Blavatsky, “I am Hiero, one of the priests of the temple”, said the voice. Then Mme. Blavatsky ordered him to show us the place as it was when the temple stood. He bowed, and for one instant we had a glimpse of the temple and of a vast city filling the plain as far as the eye could reach. Then it was gone, and the image faded away.” 1
About the end of 1877, or beginning of 1878, we were visited by the Hon. John L. O’Sullivan, an American
1N. Y. World of 21st of April, 1878, article entitled “Ghost Stories Galore.”
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diplomat and an ardent Spiritualist, who was passing through New York on his way from London to San Francisco. He was kindly received by H. P. B. and stoutly defended his beliefs against her attacks. Some instructive phenomena were done for him, which he subsequently described in the Spiritualist for February 8, 1878, in the following terms:
“She had been toying with an oriental chaplet, in a lacquer cup or bowl, the aromatic wooden beads of which, strung together, were of about the size of a large marble, and copiously carved all round. A gentleman present took the chaplet in his hands, admired the beads and asked if she would not give him one of them. ‘Oh, I hardly like to break it’, she observed. But she took it presently, and resumed her playing with it in the lacquer bowl. My eyes were fixed upon them, under the full blaze of a large lamp just above her table. It soon became manifest that they were growing in number under her fingers as she handled them, till the bowl became nearly full. She presently lifted out of it the chaplet, leaving a considerable number of loose beads, of which she said he might take what he wanted. I have ever since regretted that I had not the presence of mind, or the venturesomeness, to ask for some for myself. I am sure she would have given them freely, for she is all kindness, as well as, apparently, a woman of all knowledge. My presumption about the beads thus created under our eyes was that they were ‘apports’, brought in by spirits, in compliance with her wish or will. I believe (though
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not quite certain) that her idea, and Olcott’s is that these phenomena are produced in some way by a great brother ‘adept’ in Thibet—the same one from whose old spinnet I was made to hear in the air overhead (as I have before mentioned, and as many other friends had done before) the faint but clear tinkling music which I was told came, borne on a current of ‘astral fluid,’ from Thibet; to which home of her heart Madame Blavatsky said she was going back (never again to leave it), after she should have completed her mission, task, and business which was chiefly that of publishing her book.
“Another case of fabrication of material objects out of apparently nothing. Coming in late one afternoon to her little parlour, where she usually spent seventeen hours out of the twenty-four at her writing-table, I found Colonel Olcott with her, occupied in correcting her earlier proof-sheets. I had by this time become somewhat intimate with her and Olcott, for both of whom I shall always retain a strong attachment as well as profound respect. He told me how there had taken place that afternoon one of those ‘little incidents’ (as he calls them) which were of constant occurrence there. There had been a group of visitors, and an animated discussion on the comparative civilisation of the ancient Orient and modern West.
“The subject came up of the tissues fabricated in the one and the other. Madame Blavatsky is an enthusiast on the Orient side of this dispute. She suddenly put her hand to her neck and drew forth from her ample
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bosom (from beneath the old dressing-gown, which is the only garb in which I have seen her), a handkerchief of silk crape, with a striped border, very like what is called ‘carton crape,’ and asked whether occidental looms produced anything superior to that. They assured me (and I have ample warrant for believing them) that it had not been there before that moment. It was in smooth, fresh folds, and the conversation had arisen accidentally. I admired it, recognised in time the peculiar sickly sweet and pungent odour which attends all these ‘apports’ from Far Cathay (including the beads above mentioned), and observed the peculiar signature on one edge of the hand-kerchief, which I had seen on various objects, and which I was told was the name (in pre-Sanskrit characters) of a great brother ‘Adept’ in Thibet to whom, by the way, she says she is very far inferior. When we were afterwards summoned to their very simple repast (to which had been added a hospitable bottle of wine for me, though they never touch it), she remarked to Olcott: ‘Give me that handkerchief.’ He gave it to her, out of the sheet of letter-paper in which he had carefully folded it in its smooth unruffled condition. She at once made a careless twist of it and tied it round her neck. When we returned from the dining-room to her warmer snuggery of a parlour, she took it off and threw it on the table by her side. I remarked, ‘You treat it in a very unceremonious fashion. Will you give that one to me?’—‘Oh, certainly if you would like to have it’; and she tossed it over to me. I smoothed out its creases as well
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as I could, again wrapped it in a sheet of paper, and put it in my breast pocket. Later on, as I was taking my departure, and we were all on foot: she said: ‘Oh, just give me that handkerchief for a moment.’ Of course I obeyed. She turned her back to me for an instant or two, and then, turning again to me, she held out two handkerchiefs, one in each hand, saying: ‘Take whichever you please; I thought that perhaps you might prefer this one (handing me the new one) since you have seen it come.’ Of course I did so, and after travelling about fifteen miles by rail that night, I gave it to the lady best entitled to receive a favour thus conferred upon me by another lady, which latter lady, by the way, claims to be a septuagenarian, though looking only about forty. When I left America, a few days afterwards, the handkerchief had not yet melted away, nor wafted back to Thibet, on a ‘current of astral fluid’. I should add that the second handkerchief was a perfect facsimile of the first, down to every detail of the name in ancient oriental characters; which, by the way, was evidently written or painted in some black pigment or ink, not stamped mechanically.”
My recollection of the handkerchief incident differs slightly from Mr. O’Sullivan’s narrative. The original specimen was made out of nothing—to use the faulty common expression, for something never was nor could be made out of nothing, theologists to the contrary notwithstanding—during a conversation between H. P. B. and our friend Monsieur Herrisse of the Haytian
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Legation. He had said that a relative of his had brought back from China some fine crape handkerchiefs which Western looms had not yet equalled. She thereupon produced a handkerchief of the same description and asked M. Herrisse if that was what he meant, to which he assented. I took possession of it, and, at the interview with Mr. O’Sullivan, mentioned the incident and showed him the article, whereupon he asked H.P.B. to give it him. She did so, and when I humorously said she had no right to give away my property without my consent, she said I was not to mind, as she would give me another. At that moment we were called to dinner and were moving towards the door, when she bade Mr. O’Sullivan lend her the handkerchief for a moment. Standing as we were together, she turned her back for an instant, wheeled back again with a duplicate handkerchief in each hand, one of which she gave Mr. O’Sullivan, the other myself. Returning from the dining-room and resuming our former seats, she felt a cold draft from the partly opened window behind her chair and asked me for something to put on her neck. I gave her my magic handkerchief, which she loosely put about her neck and went on talking. Observing that the ends were not long enough to be properly twisted, I got a pin and wanted her to let me fasten them; but she exclaimed, “Bother you and your pins; here take back your handkerchief!” at the same time jerking it from her neck and throwing it at me. At the same instant we saw a second copy of the original still about her
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neck, and O’Sullivan starting forward and reaching out his hand, said: “that one—please give me that one, for I saw it formed under my own eyes!” She good-naturedly gave it him, and the one he had was restored to her and the conversation proceeded. The original one made in Herrisse’s presence I have still in my possession, the second one my sister has.
I have thought it worth while to tell this story and others still to come, to show the nature of proofs she constantly afforded us of her wonder-working power in those early New York days, before there were missionaries encamped across her path, and it was worth their while to invent, purchase, or honestly come by evidence or enlist witnesses to cast doubt upon her personal character. If nothing else had subsequently been given me, those early phenomena would have fixed forever my belief in her possession of certain of the Siddhis, and made me very wary about discrediting her teachings on the psycho-dynamical laws behind them. It was not at long intervals, but frequently, that her friends and other visitors had this cumulative evidence that the psychically-endowed child of Sarotow had grown into the mysterious woman of 1875, without losing one of the supernormal faculties of her youth, but, on the contrary, had expanded and infinitely strengthened and augmented them. These incidents gave to her salon a facinating attractiveness that was offered by no other in New York. Her personality, not the Theosophical Society, was the magnet of attraction, and she revelled in the excitement of the
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entourage. So miscellaneous was it, such a mixture of music, metaphysics, Orientalism, and local gossip, that I cannot give a better idea of it than by saying it was like the contents of Isis Unveiled, than which no literary product is a greater conglomerate.