Etidorhpa - A Friendly Conference
A Friendly ConferenceIt is rare, in our present civilization, to find a man who lives alone. This remark does not apply to hermits or persons of abnormal or perverted mental tendencies, but to the majority of mankind living and moving actively among their fellows, and engaged in the ordinary occupations of humanity. Every man must have at least one confidant, either of his own household, or within the circle of his intimate friends. There may possibly be rare exceptions among persons of genius in statecraft, war, or commerce, but it is doubtful even in such instances if any keep all their thoughts to themselves, hermetically sealed from their fellows. As a prevailing rule, either a loving wife or very near friend shares the inner thought of the most secretive individual, even when secrecy seems an indispensable element to success. The tendency to a free interchange of ideas and experiences is almost universal, instinct prompting the natural man to unburden his most sacred thought, when the proper confidant and the proper time come for the disclosure.
For months I kept to myself the events narrated in the preceding chapter. And this for several reasons: first, the dread of ridicule that would follow the relation of the fantastic occurrences, and the possible suspicion of my sanity, that might result from the recital; second, very grave doubts as to the reality of my experiences. But by degrees self-confidence was restored, as I reasoned the matter over and reassured myself by occasional contemplation of the silvery hair I had coiled in my pocketbook, and which at first I had expected would vanish as did the stranger's knife. There came upon me a feeling that I should see my weird visitor again, and at an early day. I resisted this impression, for it was a feeling of the idea, rather than a thought, but the vague expectation grew upon me in spite of myself, until at length it became a conviction which no argument or logic could shake. Curiously enough, as the original incident receded into the past, this new idea thrust itself into the foreground, and I began in my own mind to court another interview. At times, sitting alone after night, I felt that I was watched by unseen eyes; these eyes haunted me in my solitude, and I was morally sure of the presence of another than myself in the room. The sensation was at first unpleasant, and I tried to throw it off, with partial success. But only for a little while could I banish the intrusive idea, and as the thought took form, and the invisible presence became more actual to consciousness, I hoped that the stranger would make good his parting promise, " I will see you again."
On one thing I was resolved; I would at least be better informed on the subject of hallucinations and apparitions, and not be taken unawares as I had been. To this end I decided to confer with my friend, Professor Chickering, a quiet, thoughtful man, of varied accomplishments, and thoroughly read upon a great number of topics, especially in the literature of the marvelous.
So to the Professor I went, after due appointment, and confided to him full particulars of my adventure. He listened patiently throughout, and when I had finished, assured me in a matter-of-fact way that such hallucinations were by no means rare. His remark was provoking, for I did not expect from the patient interest he had shown while I was telling my story, that the whole matter would be dismissed thus summarily. I said with some warmth:
" But this was not a hallucination. I tried at first to persuade myself that it was illusory, but the more I have thought the experience over, the more real it becomes to me."
" Perhaps you were dreaming," suggested the Professor.
" No," I answered; " I have tried that hypothesis, and it will not do. Many things make that view untenable."
" Do not be too sure of that," he said; " you were, by your own account, in a highly nervous condition, and physically tired. It is possible, perhaps probable, that in this state, as you sat in your chair, you dozed off for a short interval, during which the illusion flashed through your mind."
" How do you explain the fact that incidents occupying a large portion of the night, occurred in an interval which you describe as a flash?"
" Easily enough; in dreams time may not exist: periods embracing weeks or months may be reduced to an instant. Long journeys, hours of conversation, or a multitude of transactions, may be compressed into a term measured by the opening or closing of a door, or the striking of a clock. In dreams, ordinary standards of reason find no place, while ideas or events chase through the mind more rapidly than thought."
" Conceding all this, why did I, considering the unusual character of the incidents, accept them as real, as substantial, as natural as the most commonplace events?"
" There is nothing extraordinary in that," he replied. " In dreams all sorts of absurdities, impossibilities, discordancies, and violation of natural law appear realities, without exciting the least surprise or suspicion. Imagination runs riot and is supreme, and reason for the time is dormant. We see ghosts, spirits, the forms of persons dead or living,- we suffer pain, pleasure, hunger,- and all sensations and emotions, without a moment's question of their reality."
" Do any of the subjects of our dreams or visions leave tangible evidences of their presence?"
" Assuredly not," he answered, with an incredulous, half impatient gesture; " the idea is absurd."
" Then I was not dreaming," I mused.
Without looking at me, the Professor went on: " These false presentiments may have their origin in other ways, as from mental disorders caused by indigestion. Nicolai, a noted bookseller of Berlin, was thus afflicted. His experiences are interesting and possibly suggestive. Let me read some of them to you."
The Professor hereupon glanced over his bookshelf, selected a volume, and proceeded to read:
" I generally saw human forms of both sexes; but they usually seemed not to take the smallest notice of each other, moving as in a market place, where all are eager to press through the crowd; at times, however, they seemed to be transacting business with each other. I also saw several times, people on horseback, dogs, and birds.
" All these phantasms appeared to me in their natural size, and as distinct as if alive, exhibiting different shades of carnation in the uncovered parts, as well as different colors and fashions in their dresses, though the colors seemed somewhat paler than in real nature. None of the figures appeared particularly terrible, comical, or disgusting, most of them being of indifferent shape, and some presenting a pleasant aspect. The longer these phantasms continued to visit me, the more frequently did they return, while at the same time they increased in number about four weeks after they had first appeared. I also began to hear them talk: these phantoms conversed among themselves, but more frequently addressed their discourse to me; their speeches were uncommonly short, and never of an unpleasant turn. At different times there appeared to me both dear and sensible friends of both sexes, whose addresses tended to appease my grief, which had not yet wholly subsided: their consolatory speeches were in general addressed to me when I was alone. Sometimes, however, I was accosted by these consoling friends while I was engaged in company, and not unfrequently while real persons were speaking to me. These consolatory addresses consisted sometimes of abrupt phrases, and at other times they were regularly executed."
Here I interrupted: " I note, Professor, that Mr. Nicolai knew these forms to be illusions."
Without answering my remark, he continued to read:
" There is in imagination a potency far exceeding the fabled power of Aladdin's lamp. How often does one sit in wintry evening musings, and trace in the glowing embers the features of an absent friend? Imagination, with its magic wand, will there build a city with its countless spires, or marshal contending armies, or drive the tempest-shattered ship upon the ocean. The following story, related by Scott, affords a good illustration of this principle:
" `Not long after the death of an illustrious poet, who had filled, while living, a great station in the eyes of the public, a literary friend, to whom the deceased had been well known, was engaged during the darkening twilight of an autumn evening, in perusing one of the publications which professed to detail the habits and opinions of the distinguished individual who was now no more. As the reader had enjoyed the intimacy of the deceased to a considerable degree, he was deeply interested in the publication, which contained some particulars relating to himself and other friends. A visitor was sitting in the apartment, who was also engaged in reading. Their sitting-room opened into an entrance hall, rather fantastically fitted up with articles of armor, skins of wild animals, and the like. It was when laying down his book, and passing into this hall, through which the moon was beginning to shine, that the individual of whom I speak saw right before him, in a standing posture, the exact representation of his departed friend, whose recollection had been so strongly brought to his imagination. He stopped for a single moment, so as to notice the wonderful accuracy with which fancy had impressed upon the bodily eye the peculiarities of dress and position of the illustrious poet. Sensible, however, of the delusion, he felt no sentiment save that of wonder at the extraordinary accuracy of the resemblance, and stepped onward to the figure, which resolved itself as he approached into the various materials of which it was composed. These were merely a screen occupied by great coats, shawls, plaids, and such other articles as are usually found in a country entrance hall. The spectator returned to the spot from which he had seen the illusion, and endeavored with all his power to recall the image which had been so singularly vivid. But this he was unable to do. And the person who had witnessed the apparition, or, more properly, whose excited state had been the means of raising it, had only to return to the apartment, and tell his young friend under what a striking hallucination he had for a moment labored."
Here I was constrained to call the Professor to a halt. " Your stories are very interesting," I said, " but I fail to perceive any analogy in either the conditions or the incidents, to my experience. I was fully awake and conscious at the time, and the man I saw appeared and moved about in the full glare of the gaslight,"
" Perhaps not," he answered; " I am simply giving you some general illustrations of the subject. But here is a case more to the point."
Again he read:
" A lady was once passing through a wood, in the darkening twilight of a stormy evening, to visit a friend who was watching over a dying child. The clouds were thick- the rain beginning to fall; darkness was increasing; the wind was moaning mournfully through the trees. The lady's heart almost failed her as she saw that she had a mile to walk through the woods in the gathering gloom. But the reflection of the situation of her friend forbade her turning back. Fxcited and trembling, she called to her aid a nervous resolution, and pressed onward. She had not proceeded far when she beheld in the path before her the movement of some very indistinct object. It appeared to keep a little distance ahead of her, and as she made efforts to get nearer to see what it was, it seemed proportionally to recede. The lady began to feel rather unpleasantly. There was some pale white object certainly discernible before her, and it appeared mysteriously to float along, at a regular distance, without any effort at motion. Notwithstanding the lady's good sense and unusual resolution, a cold chill began to come over her. She made every effort to resist her fears, and soon succeeded in drawing nearer the mysterious object, when, she was appalled at beholding the features of her friend's child, cold in death, wrapt in its shroud. She gazed earnestly, and there it remained distinct and clear before her eyes. She considered it a premonition that her friend's child was dead, and that she must hasten to her aid. But there was the apparition directly in her path. She must pass it. Taking up a little stick, she forced herself along to the object, and behold, some little animal scampered away. It was this that her excited imagination had transformed into the corpse of an infant in its winding sheet."
I was a little irritated, and once more interrupted the reader warmly: " This is exasperating. Now what resemblance is there between the vagaries of a hysterical, weak-minded woman, and my case?"
He smiled, and again read:
" The numerous stories told of ghosts, or the spirits of persons who are dead, will in most instances be found to have originated in diseased imagination, aggravated by some abnormal defect of mind. We may mention a remarkable case in point, and one which is not mentioned in English works on this subject; it is told by a compiler of Les Causes Celebres. Two young noblemen, the Marquises De Rambouillet and De Precy, belonging to two of the first families of France, made an agreement, in the warmth of their friendship, that the one who died first should return to the other with tidings of the world to come. Soon afterwards De Rambouillet went to the wars in Flanders, while De Precy remained at Paris, stricken by a fever. Lying alone in bed, and severely ill, De Precy one day heard a rustling of his bed curtains, and turning round, saw his friend De Rambouillet, in full military attire. The sick man sprung over the bed to welcome his friend, but the other receded, and said that he had come to fulfill his promise, having been killed on that very day. He further said that it behooved De Precy to think more of the after world, as all that was said of it was true, and as he himself would die in his first battle. De Precy was then left by the phantom; and it was afterward found that De Rambouillet had fallen on that day."
" Ah," I said, " and so the phantom predicted an event that followed as indicated."
" Spiritual illusions," explained the Professor, " are not unusual, and well authenticated cases are not wanting in which they have been induced in persons of intelligence by functional or organic disorders. In the last case cited, the prediction was followed by a fulfillment, but this was chance or mere coincidence. It would be strange indeed if in the multitude of dreams that come to humanity, some few should not be followed by events so similar as to warrant the belief that they were prefigured. But here is an illustration that fits your case: let me read it:
" In some instances it may be difficult to decide whether spectral appearances and spectral noises proceed from physical derangement or from an overwrought state of mind. Want of exercise and amusement may also be a prevailing cause. A friend mentions to us the following case: An acquaintance of his, a merchant, in London, who had for years paid very close attention to business, was one day, while alone in his counting house, very much surprised to hear, as he imagined, persons outside the door talking freely about him. Thinking it was some acquaintances who were playing off a trick, he opened the door to request them to come in, when to his amazement, he found that nobody was there. He again sat down to his desk, and in a few minutes the same dialogue recommenced. The language was very alarming. One voice seemed to say: ` We have the scoundrel in his own counting house; let us go in and seize him. 'Certainly,' replied the other voice, 'it is right to take him; he has been guilty of a great crime, and ought to be brought to condign punishment.' Alarmed at these threats, the bewildered merchant rushed to the door; and there again no person was to be seen. He now locked his door and went home; but the voices, as he thought, followed him through the crowd, and he arrived at his house in a most unenviable state of mind. Inclined to ascribe the voices to derangement in mind, he sent for a medical attendant, and told his case, and a certain kind of treatment was prescribed. This, however, failed; the voices menacing him with punishment for purely imaginary crimes continued, and he was reduced to the brink of despair. At length a friend prescribed entire relaxation from business, and a daily game of cricket, which, to his great relief, proved an effectual remedy. The exercise banished the phantom voices, and they were no more heard."
" So you think that I am in need of out-door exercise?"
" And that my experience was illusory, the result of vertigo, or some temporary calenture of the brain?"
" To be plain with you, yes."
" But I asked you a while ago if specters or phantoms ever leave tangible evidence of their presence." The Professor's eyes dilated in interrogation. I continued: " Well, this one did. After I had followed him out, I found on the table a long, white hair, which I still have," and producing the little coil from my pocket-book, I handed it to him. He examined it curiously, eyed me furtively, and handed it back with the cautious remark:
" I think you had better commence your exercise at once."
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