Robert Bell - Stranger than Fiction – 07 I seized it, felt it very sensibly, but it went out like air in my grasp
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Robert Bell, 'Stranger than Fiction', Cornhill Magazine 2 (1860), 211-24.
Hitherto the table has been the principal figure in these scenes; but we will now pass on to a class, or classes, of phenomena in which it becomes subordinate to agencies of a more subtle character. As we advance, mysteries thicken upon us, and allowances must be made for the difficulty of describing incidents beyond the pale of material experiences, without seeming to use the language of fancy or exaggeration. I will include in one seance all the circumstances of this nature which it appears to me desirable to record at present, observing, as before, the most literal accuracy I can in setting them before the reader, and stating nothing that has not actually taken place in my own presence.
Our party of eight or nine assembled in the evening, and the séance commenced about nine o'clock, in a spacious drawing-room, of which it is necessary to give some account in order to render perfectly intelligible what is to follow. In different parts of the room were sofas and ottomans, and in the centre a round table at which it was arranged that the séance should be held. Between this table and three windows, which filled up one side of the room, there was a large sofa. The windows were draped with thick curtains, and protected by spring-blinds. The space in front of the centre window was unoccupied ; but the windows on the right and left were filled by geranium stands.
The company at the table consisted partly of ladies and partly of gentlemen, and amongst the gentlemen was the celebrated Mr. Home. I have no hesitation in mentioning him by name, because he may now be fairly considered public property, and because I have nothing to say of him to which exception can be taken on personal grounds. I might add that there is a special reason, which the reader will presently discover, which leaves me.no choice in the matter.
Concerning this gentleman we must have a few words of preface, before we open our seance.
Perhaps there is no man of our time who is so totally unlike his reputation. You expect to meet a modern Cagliostro, but you find only a very mild specimen of that familiar humanity which you pass every hour in the day with habitual indifference. The disappointment, if it prove to be one in the end, arises from the false expectations created about him by absurd stories, which gather fresh absurdities as they pass from hand to hand. Mr. Home's supernatural power is a current topic in all circles where these phenomena are talked of by people who have never witnessed them. But the truth is, he neither possesses such power, nor pretends to it.
He is no more master of any secrets of the grave than you who read these lines, nor does he pretend to be master of any. He not only cannot call up spirits, as we hear on all sides, but he will tell you that he considers such invocations to be blasphemous. We are bound, at all events, to accept his disclaimer upon points, the maintenance of which would contribute very essentially to the prestige which it is supposed he desires to establish with society.
He is himself exceedingly modest in his self-assertion, considering how sorely he is tempted to put on airs of mystical egotism by the rabid curiosity and gaping credulity with which he is notoriously persecuted.
It is not easy for a man to preserve any simplicity of life and character under such a pressure of wonder and inquiry, especially from people of the highest rank, who seem to be impelled by a much more eager passion for the marvellous than the working bulk of the population —perhaps, because they have more idle time on their hands; and, perhaps, also, because idleness is a great feeder of vague speculations, and of pursuits that look as if they were never to come to an end. To people of this description may be mainly ascribed the paragraph romances we read in the newspapers about Mr. Home, and the criticisms we hear upon him in private.
Turning from gossip to the man, the contrast is impressive. He unreservedly tells you that he is thoroughly impassive in these matters, and that, whatever happens, happens from causes over which he has not the slightest influence. Out of his accumulated stock of observations he has formed a theory, as most people do, consciously or unconsciously, out of their experience ; but that is beside the question of supernatural power, which he is said to assert, but which nobody can more distinctly disavow.
He looks like a man whose life has been passed in a mental conflict.
The expression of his face in repose is that of physical suffering ; but it quickly lights up when you address him, and his natural cheerfulness colours his whole manner. There is more kindliness and gentleness than vigour, in the character of his features ; and the same easy-natured disposition may be traced in his unrestrained intercourse. He is yet so young, that the playfulness of boyhood has not passed away, and he never seems so thoroughly at ease with himself and others as when he is enjoying some light and temperate amusement. He is probably the last person in a room full of people whom you would fix upon as the spiritual confidant of a much more mysterious personage than he is himself, the Emperor Louis Napoleon; and it may be added that you would be as little likely to find out who he is by his conversation as by his appearance, since he rarely speaks on the subject with which his name and career are so closely associated, unless when it is introduced by others.
We will now return to the seance, which commenced in the centre of the room. I pass over the preliminary vibrations to come at once to the more remarkable features of the evening. From unmistakeable indications, conveyed in different forms, the table was finally removed to the centre window, displacing the sofa, which was wheeled away. The deep space between the table and the window was unoccupied, but the rest of the circle was closely packed. Some sheets of white paper, and two or three lead-pencils, an accordion, a small hand-bell, and a few flowers were placed on the table.
Sundry communications now took place, which I will not stop to describe ; and at length an intimation was received, through the usual channel of correspondence, that the lights must be extinguished.
As this direction is understood to be given only when unusual manifestations are about to be made, it was followed by an interval of anxious suspense. There were lights on the walls, mantel-piece, and console table, and the process of putting them out seemed tedious. When the last was extinguished, a dead silence ensued, in which the tick of a watch could be heard.
We must now have been in utter darkness, but for the pale light that came in through the window, and the flickering glare thrown fitfully over a distant part of the room by a fire which was rapidly sinking in the grate. We could see, but could scarcely distinguish our hands upon the table. A festoon of dull gleaming forms round the circle represented what we knew to be our hands. An occasional ray from the window now and then revealed the hazy surface of the white sheets, and the misty bulk of the accordion. We knew where these were placed, and could discover them with the slightest assistance from the gray, cold light of a watery sky.
The stillness of expectation that ensued during the first few minutes of that visible darkness, was so profound that, for all the sounds of life that were heard, it might have been an empty chamber.
The table and the window, and the space between the table and the window, engrossed all eyes. It was in that direction everybody instinctively looked for a revelation. Presently, the tassel of the cord of the spring-blind began to tremble. We could see it plainly against the sky, and attention being drawn to the circumstance, every eye was upon the tassel.
Slowly, and apparently with caution, or difficulty, the blind began to descend ; the cord was evidently being drawn, but the force applied to pull down the blind seemed feeble and uncertain ; it succeeded, however, at last, and the room was thrown into deeper darkness than before.
But our vision was becoming accustomed to it, and masses of things were growing palpable to us, although we could see nothing distinctly.
Several times, at intervals, the blind was raised and pulled down ; but, capricious as the movement appeared, the ultimate object seemed to be to diminish the light.
A whisper passed round the table about hands having been seen or felt. Unable to answer for what happened to others, I will speak only of what I observed myself. The table cover was drawn over my knees, as it was with the others.
I felt distinctly a twitch, several times repeated, at my knee.
It was the sensation of a boy's hand, partly scratching, partly striking and pulling me in play. It went away. Others described the same sensation; and the celerity with which it frolicked, like Puck, under the table, now at one side and now at another, was surprising. Soon after, what seemed to be a large hand came under the table cover, and with the fingers clustered to a point, raised it between me and the table.
Somewhat too eager to satisfy my curiosity, I seized it, felt it very sensibly, but it went out like air in my grasp.
I know of no analogy in connection with the sense of touch by which I could make the nature of that feeling intelligible. It was as palpable as any soft substance, velvet, or pulp ; and at the touch it seemed as solid ; but pressure reduced it to air.