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In the month of February, 1873, there was a party of friends assembled at the house of Miss Elizabeth Philip, in
Gloucester Crescent, and I was introduced to Mr. Henry Dunphy of the Morning Post, both of them since gone to join the great majority. Mr. Dunphy soon got astride of his favorite hobby of Spiritualism, and gave me an interesting account of some of the seances he had attended. I had heard so many clever men and women discuss the subject before, that I had begun to believe on their authority that there must be “something in it”, but I held the opinion that sittings in the dark must afford so much liberty for deception, that I would engage in none where I was not permitted the use of my eyesight.
I expressed myself somewhat after this fashion to Mr. Dunphy. He replied: “Then the time has arrived for you to investigate Spiritualism, for I can introduce you to a medium who will show you the faces of the dead.”
This proposal exactly met my wishes, and I gladly accepted it. Annie Thomas (Mrs. Pender Cudlip,) the novelist, who is an intimate friend of mine, was staying with me at the time and became as eager as I was to investigate the phenomena. We took the address Mr. Dunphy gave us of Mrs. Holmes, the American medium, then visiting
, and lodging in London Old Quebec Street, Portman Square, but we refused his introduction, preferring to go incognito.
Accordingly, the next evening, when she held a public seance, we presented ourselves at Mrs. Holmes’ door ; and having first removed our wedding-rings, and tried to look as virginal as possible, sent up our names as Miss Taylor and Miss Turner.
I am perfectly aware that this medium was said afterwards to be untrustworthy. So may a servant who was perfectly honest, whilst in my service, leave me for a situation where she is detected in theft. That does not alter the fact that she stole nothing from me. I do not think I know a single medium of whom I have nor (at some time or other) heard the same thing, and I do not think I know a single woman whom I have not also, at some time or other, heard scandalized by her own sex, however pure and chaste she may imagine the world holds her. The question affects me in neither case. I value my acquaintances for what they are to me, not for what they may be to others; and I have placed trust in my media from what I individually have seen and heard, and proved to be genuine in their presence, and not from what others may imagine they have found out about them. It is no detriment to my witness that the media I sat with cheated somebody else, either before or after. My business was only to take care that I was not cheated, and I have never, in Spiritualism, accepted anything at the hands of others that I could not prove for myself.
Mrs. Holmes did not receive us very graciously on the present occasion. We were strangers to her – probably sceptics, and she eyed us rather coldly. It was a bitter night, and the snow lay so thick upon the ground that we had some difficulty in procuring a hansom to take us from Bayswater to
Old Quebec Street. No other visitors arrived, and after a little while Mrs. Holmes offered to return our money (ten shillings), as she said if she did sit with us, there would probably be no manifestations on account of the inclemency of the weather. (Often since then I have proved her assertion to be true, and found that any extreme of heat or cold is liable to make a seance a dead failure). But Annie Thomas had to return to her home in Torquay on the following day, and so we begged the medium to try at least to show us something, as we were very curious on the subject.
I am not quite sure what I expected or hoped for on this occasion. I was full of curiosity and anticipation, but I am sure that I never thought I should see any face which I could recognize as having been on earth. We waited till in hopes that a circle would be formed; but as no one else came, Mrs. Holmes consented to sit with us alone, warning us, however, several times to prepare for a disappointment. The lights were therefore extinguished, and we sat for the usual preliminary dark séance, which was good, perhaps, but has nothing to do with a narrative of facts, proved to be so. When it concluded, the gas was re-lit and we sat for “Spirit Faces”.
There were two small rooms connected by folding doors. Annie Thomas and I were asked to go into the back room; to lock the door communicating with the landings, and secure it with our own seal, stamped upon a piece of tape stretched across the opening; to examine the window and bar the shutter inside; to search the room thoroughly; in fact, to see that no one was concealed in it – and we did all this as a matter of business.
When we had satisfied ourselves that no one could enter from the back, Mr. and Mrs. Holmes, Annie Thomas, and I were seated on four chairs in the front room, arranged in a row before the folding doors, which were opened, and a square of black calico fastened across the aperture from one wall to the other. In this piece of calico was cut a square hole about the size of an ordinary window, at which we were told the spirit faces (if any) would appear. There was no singing, nor noise of any sort made to drown the sounds of preparation, and we could have heard even a rustle in the next room.
Mr. and Mrs. Holmes talked to us of their various experiences, until – we were almost tired of waiting – something white and indistinct like a cloud of tobacco smoke, or a bundle of gossamer, appeared and disappeared again.
“They are coming! I am glad!” said Mrs. Holmes. “I didn’t think we should get anything to-night…”
My friend and I were immediately on the tiptoe of expectation. The white mass advanced and retreated several times, and finally settled before the aperture and opened in the middle, when a female face was distinctly to be seen above the black calico.
What was our amazement to recognize the features of Mrs. Thomas, Annie Thomas’ mother!
(Here I should tell my readers that Annie’s father, who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and captain of the coastguard at Morston in
, had been a near neighbor and great friend of my father. Captain Marryat, and their children, had associated like brothers and sisters. I had therefore known Mrs. Thomas well, and recognized her at once, as, of course, did her daughter. The witness of two people is considered sufficient in law. It ought to be accepted by society.) Norfolk
Poor Annie was very much affected, and talked to her mother in the most incoherent manner. The spirit did not appear able to answer in words, but she bowed her head or shook it, according as she wished to say “yes” or “no”. I could not help feeling awed at the appearance of the dear old lady, but the only thing that puzzled me was the cap she wore, which was made of white net, quilled closely round her face, and unlike any I had ever seen her wear in life.
I whispered this to Annie, and she replied at once: “It is the cap she was buried in…”
Mrs. Thomas had possessed a very pleasant but very uncommon looking face, with bright black eyes, and a complexion of pink and white like that of a child. It was some time before Annie could be persuaded to let her mother go, but the next face that presented itself astonished her quite as much, for she recognized it as that of Captain Gordon, a gentleman whom she had known intimately and for a length of time. I had never seen Captain Gordon in the flesh, but I had heard of him, and knew he had died from a sudden accident. All I saw was the head of a goodlooking, fair, young man, and not feeling any personal interest in his appearance, I occupied the time during which my friend conversed with him about olden days, by minutely examining the working of the muscles of his throat, which undeniably stretched when his head moved. As I was doing so, he leaned forward, and I saw a dark stain, which looked like a clot of blood, on his fair hair, on the left side of the forehead.
“Annie! What did Captain Gordon die of?” I asked.
“He fell from a railway carriage,” she replied, “and struck his head upon the line.”
I then pointed out to her the blood upon his hair…
Several other faces appeared, which we could not recognize. At last came one of a gentleman,
apparently moulded like a bust in plaster of Paris. He had a kind of smoking cap upon the head, curly hair, and a beard, but from being perfectly colorless, he looked so unlike nature, that I could not trace a resemblance to any friend of mine, though he kept on bowing in my direction, to indicate that I knew, or had known him. I examined this face again and again in vain. Nothing in it struck me as familiar, until the mouth broke into a grave, amused smile at my perplexity. In a moment I recognized it as that of my dear old friend, John Powles, whose history I shall relate in extenso further on.
I exclaimed: “Powles!”
And I sprang towards him, but with my hasty action the figure disappeared.
I was terribly vexed at my imprudence, for this was the friend of all others I desired to see, and I sat there, hoping and praying the spirit would return, but it did not.
Annie Thomas’ mother and friend both came back several times; indeed, Annie recalled Captain Gordon so often, that on his last appearance the power was so exhausted, his face looked like a faded sketch in water-colors… but “Powles” had vanished altogether.
The last face we saw that night was that of a little girl, and only her eyes and nose were visible, the rest of her head and face being enveloped in some white flimsy material like muslin. Mrs. Holmes asked her for whom she came, and she intimated that it was for me. I said she must be mistaken, and that I had known no one in life like her. The medium questioned her very closely, and tried to put her “out of court”, as it were. Still, the child persisted that she came for me.
Mrs. Holmes said to me: “Cannot you remember anyone of that age connected with you in the spirit world? No cousin, nor niece, nor sister, nor the child of a friend?”
I tried to remember, but I could not, and answered: “No! No child of that age!”
She then addressed the little spirit: “You have made a mistake. There is no one here who knows you. You had better move on.”
So the child did move on, but very slowly and reluctantly. I could read her disappointment in her eyes, and after she had disappeared, she peeped round the corner again and looked at me, longingly.
This was “Florence” – my dear lost child (as I then called her), who had left me as a little infant of ten days old, and whom I could not at first recognize as a young girl of ten years. Her identity, however, has been proved to me since, beyond all doubt, as will be seen in the chapter which relates my reunion with her, and is headed “My Spirit Child”.
Thus ended the first séance at which I ever assisted, and it made a powerful impression upon my mind. Mrs. Holmes, in bidding us good-night, said: “You two ladies must be very powerful mediums. I never held so successful a seance with strangers in my life before.”
This news elated us – we were eager to pursue our investigations, and were enchanted to think we could have seances at home, and as soon as Annie Thomas took up her residence in
, we agreed to hold regular meetings for the purpose. London
This was the seance that made me a student of the psychological phenomena, which the men of the nineteenth century term Spiritualism. Had it turned out a failure, I might now have been as most men are. Quien sabe? As it was, it incited me to go on and on, until I have seen and heard things which at that moment would have seemed utterly impossible to me. And I would not have missed the experience I have passed through for all the good this world could offer me…
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