Black & White on White paper
THE LAST MIRACLE
Towards the end of May 1900 the writer received as noteworthy a letter and packet of papers as it has been his lot to examine. They came from a good friend of mine, a Dr A. Lister Browne, M.A. Oxon., F.R.C.P., whom, as it happened that for some years I had been living mostly in France, and Browne being in Norfolk, I had not seen during my visits to London. Moreover, as we were both bad correspondents, only three notes had passed between us in the course of those years.
But in the May of 1900 there reached me the letter—and the packet—to which I refer, the packet consisting of four note-books full of shorthand, the letter also pencilled in shorthand, and this letter, together with the note-book marked “I.,” I now publish.
[The note-book marked “II.” has already appeared under the title of “The Lord of the Sea,” and that marked “III.” under the title of “The Purple Cloud,” each in three languages; while that marked “IV.” has been judged unsuitable to publication.]
The following is Browne’s letter:—
“Dear old Man,—I have been thinking of you, wishing that you were here to give me a last squeeze of the hand before I—go. Four days ago I felt a soreness in the throat, so in passing by old Johnson’s surgery at Selbridge, I asked him to have a look at me. He muttered something about membranous laryngitis which made me smile; but by the time I reached home I was hoarse, and not smiling: before night I had stridor. I at once telegraphed to London for Horsford, and he and Johnson have been opening my inside and burning it with the cautery, so I am breathing easier now, and it is wonderful how little I suffer; but I am too old a hand not to know what’s what: the bronchi are involved—too far, and, as a matter of fact, there isn’t any hope. Horsford is still fondly hoping to add me to his successful-tracheotomy statistics; but I have bet him not, and the consolation of my death will be the beating of a specialist in his own line.
“I have been arranging some of my affairs, and remembered these note-books which I intended letting you have long ago; but you know my habit of putting things off, and, moreover, the lady was alive from whose mouth I took down the words. She is now dead, and, as a man of books, you should be interested, if you can manage to read them.
“I am under a little morphia at present, propped up in a nice little state of languor, so I will give you in the old Pitman’s something about her. Her name was Miss Mary Wilson; she was about thirty when I met her, forty-five when she died, and I knew her all those fifteen years. Do you know anything of the philosophy of the hypnotic trance? That was the relation between us—hypnotist and subject. She suffered from tic of the fifth nerve, had had all her teeth drawn before I knew her, and an attempt had been made to wrench out the nerve by the external scission. But it made no difference: all the clocks in purgatory tick-tacked in that poor woman’s jaw, and it was a mercy of Providence that ever she came across me.
“Well, you never knew anyone so weird in appearance as my friend, Miss Wilson. Medicineman as I am, I could never see her without a shock, she so suggested what we call ‘the other world.’ Her brow was lofty, her lips thin, her complexion ashen, and she was execrably emaciated; her eyes were of the hue of mist; at forty her wisp of hair was withered to white.
“She lived almost alone in old Marsham manor-house, five miles from Ash Thomas, and I, just beginning in these parts at the time, soon took up my residence at the manor, she insisting that I should give up myself to her.
“Well, I quickly found that in the state of trance Miss Wilson possessed very queer powers—queer, I mean, not because peculiar to herself in kind, but because so far-reaching in degree. Most people are now talking with an air of discovery about the reporting powers of the mind in its trance state, as though the fact had not been fully known to every old crone since the Middle Ages; but the certainty that someone in a trance in Manchester may tell what is going on in Glasgow was not, of course, left to the discovery of an office in Fleet Street, and the psychical people in establishing the fact for the public have not gone one step towards explaining it.
“But, speaking of poor Miss Wilson, I say that her powers were queer because so special in quantity. I believe it to be a fact that, in general, the powers of trance manifest themselves with respect to space, as distinct from time: the spirit roams in the present, travels over a plain, doesn’t usually astonish one by huge ascents or descents. I fancy that this is so. But Miss Wilson’s gift was queer to this degree, that she travelled in every direction, and easily in all but one, north and south, up and down, in the past, the present, and the future.
“This much I soon got to find out. She would give out a stream of sounds in the trance state—I can hardly call it speech, so murmurous, yet guttural, was the utterance, mixed with puffy breath-sounds at the lips, this state being accompanied by contraction of the pupils, failure of the knee-jerk, rigour, and a rapt expression, so I got into the habit of tarrying for hours by her bedside, fascinated by her, trying to catch the news of those musings which came mounting from her mouth; and in the course of months my ear learned to make out the words: ‘the veil was rent’ for me also, and I was able to follow somewhat the trips of her straying spirit.
“At the end of six months I heard her one day repeat some words which were familiar to me. They were these: ‘Such were the arts by which the Romans extended their conquests, and attained the palm of victory; and the concurring testimony of different authors enables us to describe them with precision….’ I was startled: they are part of Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall,’ which I readily guessed that she had never read.
“I said in a stern voice: ‘Where are you?’
“She replied: ‘Us are in a room, eight hundred miles above. A man is writing. Us are reading.’
“I may tell you two things: first, that in trance she never spoke of herself as ‘I‘ but, for some reason, as ‘us‘: ‘us are,’ she would say, ‘us will’; secondly, that when wandering in the past she represented herself as being above (the earth?), and higher the farther back she went; in describing present events she appears to have felt herself on (the earth); while, as to the future, she always declared that ‘us‘ were so many miles ‘within‘ (the earth).
“To her excursions in this last direction, however, there seemed to exist certain limits: I say seemed, for I can’t be sure, and only mean that she never, in fact, went far in this direction. Three, four thousand ‘miles’ were common figures in her mouth in describing her distance ‘above’; but her distance ‘within’ never got beyond sixty-three. She appeared, in relation to the future, to be like a diver in the sea who, the deeper he dives, finds a more resistant pressure, till at no great depth resistance grows to prohibition, and he can no further dive.
“I am afraid I can’t go on, though I had a good deal to tell you about this lady. During fifteen years, off and on, I sat listening by her couch to her murmurs. At last my ear could catch the meaning of her briefest breath. I heard the ‘Decline and Fall’ almost from beginning to end. Some of her reports were the merest twaddle; over others I have hung in a sweat of interest. About the fifth year it struck me that I might just as well jot down some of her mouthings, and the note-book marked ‘I.’ belongs to the seventh year. Its history is this: I heard her one afternoon murmuring in the tone which she used when reading, asked her where she was, and she replied: ‘Us are forty-five miles within: us read, and another writes’; from which I concluded that she was some forty to sixty years in the future. I believe you may find it curious, if you are able to read my notes.
“But no more of Mary Wilson now, and a little of A. L. Browne, F.R.C.P.!—with a breathing-tube in his trachea, and Eternity under his bed now. Isn’t that a curious beast, my dear boy, the thing you call a ‘modern man’? Is he not? Here am I writing to you about Miss Mary Wilson and her freights of froth, and all the time I know what this frame of mine will be to-morrow night; I know and am not afraid. Am I a saint, then? At least a hero? No, I am a modern man, a know-nothing. The Lord have mercy upon my never-dying soul! if my soul is never-dying, and if … rather a mess.
“Well, no more now. I know you will think of me sometimes. You will have to, by the way, because I am making you one of my executors. ‘A long farewell!’ …”
Here begins the Note-book marked I.”
Categories: The Book Lover