The Theosophical Society in America

HPB at the Lamasery

By H.S. Olcott

[From OLD DIARY LEAVES, I, pages 409-14.]

The routine of our life at the "Lamasery" was the following. We breakfasted at about eight, dined at six, and retired at some small hour in the morning, according to our work and its interruption by visitors. HPB lunched at home and I in town somewhere near my law office.

When we first met, I was a active member of the Lotos Club, but the writing of ISIS put an end, once for all, to my connection with clubs and worldly entanglements in general. After breakfast, I left for my office and HPB set herself for work at the desk. At dinner, more often than not, we had guests, and we had few evenings alone. Even if no visitors dropped in, we usually had somebody stopping with us in our apartment.

Our housekeeping was of the simplest. We drank no wine or spirits and ate but plain food. We had one maid-of-all-work, or rather a procession of them coming and going, for we did not keep one very long. The girl went to her home after clearing away the dinner things, and thenceforward we had to answer the door ourselves.

That was not much, but a more serious affair was to supply tea, with milk and sugar, for a roomful of guests at, say, one A.M., when HPB, with lofty disregard of domestic possibilities, would invite herself to take a cup, and in a large way exclaim, "Let's all have some. What do you say?" It was useless for me to make gestures of dissent. She would pay no attention. After sundry fruitless midnight searches for milk or sugar in the neighborhood, the worm turned, and I put up a notice to this effect:

TEA

Guests will find boiling water and tea in the kitchen, perhaps milk and sugar, and will kindly help themselves.

This was so akin to the Bohemian tone of the whole establishment that nothing was thought of it. It was most amusing later on to see the habitues getting up quietly and going off to the kitchen to brew tea for themselves. Fine ladies, learned professors, famous artists and journalists, all jocosely became members of our "Kitchen Cabinet," as we called it.

HPB had not even a rudimentary notion of housekeeping. Once, wishing boiled eggs, she laid the raw eggs on the live coals! Sometimes our maid would walk off on a Saturday evening and leave us to shift as we might for the day's meals. Did HPB cater and cook? Nay, verily, but her poor colleague. She would either sit and write and smoke cigarettes or come into the kitchen and bother.

In my Diary for 1878, I find this in the entry for April 12, "The servant 'vamoosed the ranch' without preparing dinner; so the Countess L.P. turned in and helped me by making an excellent salad. Besides her, we had O'Donovan to dinner."

He was a rare chap, that Irishman; a sculptor of marked talent, an excellent companion with a dry humor that was irresistible. HPB was very fond of him and him of her. He modeled her portrait from life in a medallion, which was cast in bronze and which is in my possession.

What he may be now I know not, but at that time he was fond of a glass of good whiskey (if any whiskey may be called good), and once made a roomful roar with laughter by a repartee he gave to one of the company present. They were drinking together, and the person in question after tasting his glass, put it down with the exclamation, "Pah! What bad whiskey that is!" O'Donovan, turning to him with solemn gravity, laid a hand upon his arm and said, "Don't, don't say that. There is no BAD whiskey, but some is better than other."

He was a Roman Catholic by birth, though nothing in particular, it appeared, in actual belief. But, seeing how hot and angry HPB would always get when Roman Catholicism was mentioned, he used to pretend that he believed that that creed would eventually sweep Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism from the face of the earth.

Although he played this trick on her twenty times, HPB was invariably caught again in the trap whenever O'Donovan set it for her. She would fume and swear and call him an incurable idiot and other pet names but to no purpose. He would sit and smoke in dignified silence, without changing face, as if he were listening to a dramatic recitation in which the speaker's own feelings had no share.

When she had talked and shouted herself out of breath, he would slowly turn his head towards some neighbor and say, "She speaks well, doesn't she, but she does not believe that. It is only her repartee. She will be a good Catholic some day." Then when HPB exploded at this crowning audacity and made as if to throw something at him, he would slip away to the kitchen and make himself a cup of tea!

I have known him bring friends there just to enjoy this species of bear baiting, but HPB never nourished malice and after relieving herself of a certain number of severe scoldings, would be as friendly as ever with her inveterate teaser.

One of our frequent and most appreciated visitors was Prof. Alexander Wilder, a quaint personality, the type of the very large class of self-educated American yeomanry; men of the forceful quality of the Puritan Fathers; men of brain and thought, intensely independent, very versatile, very honest, very plucky, and patriotic.

Prof. Wilder and I have been friends since before the Rebellion, and I have always held him in the highest esteem. His head is full of knowledge, which he readily imparts to appreciative listeners. He is not a college-bred or city-bred man, I fancy, but if one wants sound ideas upon the migration of races and symbols, the esoteric meaning of Greek philosophy, the value of Hebrew or Greek texts, or the merits and demerits of various schools of medicine, he can give them as well as the most finished graduate.

A tall, lank man of the Lincoln type, with a noble, dome-like head, thin jaws, grey hair, and language filled with quaint Saxon-Americanisms. He used to come and talk by the hour with HPB, often lying recumbent on the sofa, with, as she used to say, "One long leg resting on the chandelier, the other on the mantelpiece." She, as stout as he was thin, as voluble as he was sententious and epigrammatic, smoking innumerable cigarettes, and brilliantly sustaining her share of the conversation.

She got him to write out many of his ideas to use in ISIS UNVEILED and they will be found there quoted. The hours would slip by without notice until he sometimes found himself too late for the last train to Newark and would have to stop in town all night.

I think that, of all our visitors, he cared about the least of all for HPB's psychical phenomena. He believed in their scientific possibility and did not doubt her possession of them, but philosophy was his idol, and the wonders of mediumship and adeptship interested him only in the abstract.