The Theosophical Society in America

Esoteric World Chapter 15

Chapter 15

From India to Italy and Germany, 1885

On June 24, 1885, the Society for Psychical Research held a meeting at which Richard Hodgson gave a preliminary report on his investigation of HPB’s phenomena, at which Charles Johnston was present (selection 15a). The vicious attack on H. P. Blavatsky by the Coulombs having affected her health, she left India for Europe, settling first in Italy. In late July 1885, HPB left Italy and after stopping briefly in St. Cergues, Switzerland, arrived in Wurzburg, Germany, toward the middle of August. There she was visited by a number of friends, including the Sinnetts (selection 15b), before she settled down to work on The Secret Doctrine. Late in the year, while writing the new book, she was joined by the Countess Wachtmeister, who became her companion. Their quiet, productive life was interrupted, however, by the arrival on the last day of the year of a copy of the SPR report.

15a. Charles Johnston, June, 1885, London [Johnston 1907, 17–8]

During 1884, the "Society for Psychical Research" had become deeply interested in the phenomena described in The Occult World and in Mme. Blavatsky's magazine, The Theosophist, and had appointed a Committee to investigate these phenomena. A very favorable preliminary report had been issued. It was decided to supplement this preliminary work by further investigation in India, and a young student of psychic phenomena, Mr. Richard Hodgson, was asked to go to India to carry this out.

During this period, events had been happening at Adyar, near Madras, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. While Mme. Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott were absent in Europe, two members of the Society, [Alexis] and [Emma] Coulomb, who had for years been sheltered at the headquarters at Bombay and Madras, were asked to withdraw. There were charges of misappropriation of funds, evil speaking and trickery, which made it inexpedient for them to remain at the central office of the Society in a position of trust.

These two persons presently retaliated by making an attack on Mme. Blavatsky, to which publicity was given by a Madras [Christian] missionary organ, and in which it was asserted that the phenomena described in The Occult World and elsewhere were tricks, and that many of them had been produced by these two members [the Coulombs], who now repented of their misdeeds. Letters were published by them, which they said had been written by Mme. Blavatsky, and which gave color to the charge of fraud; but the originals of these letters were never available for impartial examination, and the alleged copies were full of mistakes, vulgarity and puerility, and bore little resemblance to the genuine letters of the great Theosophical writer.

Mr. Richard Hodgson arrived in India shortly after this attack was made. He found something congenial in the thought and methods of these two retired members who accused themselves of fraud, and he practically adopted their views and pretensions as to the whole of the phenomena he had been sent to investigate. He spent a short time in India, and returned to England early in 1885. Toward the end of June 1885, he read a part of his Report on the phenomena before a meeting of the Society for Psychical Research.

That meeting made an epoch in the attitude of public opinion toward the Theosophical Movement. Never sympathetic, public opinion thereafter became frankly hostile and incredulous. Mme. Blavatsky was treated as an imposter, and her friends as fools. The public accepted Mr. Hodgson’s view without question or examination.

With others, I was present at that fateful meeting. After Mr. Hodgson had read his Report, members of the Committee went among the audience to discuss it. Mr. F. W. H. Myers was one of these. When he asked what impression the meeting had made on me, I remember replying that the whole thing was so scandalously unfair that, had I not been a member of the Theosophical Society, I should have joined it forthwith, on the strength of Mr. Hodgson’s performance.

15b. A. P. Sinnett, Apr.–Oct. 1885, Wurzburg, Germany [Collated from Sinnett 1922, 79, 83; and Sinnett 1886, 302–3]

[Leaving India, Madame Blavatsky] arrived in Naples [Italy] some time in April 1885, and went to a hotel at Torre del Greco, near by. Madame Blavatsky only stayed a few months at Torre Del Greco and then went on to Würzburg [Germany]. My wife and I went to see her at Würzburg in the course of our autumn tour in 1885. She was staying at 6 Ludwigstrasse.

The "Secret Doctrine" was still untouched in September 1885, when my wife and I saw her. We found her settled in an economical way, but in comfort and quietude, cheered just then by the companionship of her aunt, Mme. de Fadeyev. She was naturally seething with indignation at the wrongs she had suffered at the hands of the S.P.R. committee. On the whole, however, she seemed in better health and spirits than we expected, and some premonitory symptoms indicated that the preparation of the "Secret Doctrine" might shortly be set on foot.

A month or so after our return to London in October I received a note from Mme. Blavatsky, in the course of which she wrote:

"I am very busy on ‘Secret D.’ The thing at New York [meaning the circumstances under which Isis Unveiled was written] is repeated—only far clearer and better. I begin to think it shall vindicate us. Such pictures, panoramas, scenes, antediluvian dramas, with all that! Never saw or heard better."

15c. Countess Constance Wachtmeister, Oct.–Dec. 1885, Wurzburg, Germany [Wachtmeister 1893, 16–21, 22–3, 25–6, 32]

In the autumn of 1885, I was making preparations to leave my home in Sweden to spend the winter with some friends in Italy, and incidentally, en route to pay Madame Gebhard a promised visit at her residence in Elberfeld [Germany].

It was while I was engaged in putting my affairs in order, in view of my long absence, that an incident occurred, not indeed singular in my experience, but out of the normal. I was arranging and laying aside the articles I intended to take with me to Italy when I heard a voice saying, "Take that book, it will be useful to you on your journey." I may as well say at once that I have the faculties of clairvoyance and clairaudience rather strongly developed. I turned my eyes on a manuscript volume I had placed among the heap of things to be locked away until my return. Certainly it seemed a singular inappropriate vade mecum for a holiday, being a collection of notes on the Tarot and passages in the Kabbalah that had been compiled for me by a friend. However, I decided to take it with me, and laid the book in the bottom of one of my traveling trunks.

At last the day came for me to leave Sweden, in October 1885, and I arrived at Elberfeld, where I met with a cordial and affectionate greeting from Madame Gebhard. However, the time was drawing near for me to pass on into Italy. My friends never ceased pressing me to join them there, and at last the date of my departure was fixed.

When I told Madame Gebhard that I must leave her in a few days, she spoke to me of a letter she had received from HPB . . . she was ill in body and depressed in mind. Her sole companions were her servant and an Indian gentleman. "Go to her," said Madame Gebhard, "she needs sympathy, and you can cheer her up."

I thought the matter over. Madame Gebhard was genuinely pleased when I made known my decision to her and showed her a letter I had written to "the old lady" in Wurzburg suggesting that if she cared to receive me I would spend a few weeks with her. The letter was dispatched, and we waited eagerly for the reply. When at last it lay upon the breakfast table, there was much excitement in regard to its contents, but anticipation soon turned into consternation on Madame Gebhard’s part and disappointment on mine, when we found nothing more nor less than a polite refusal. Madame Blavatsky was sorry, but she had no room for me; besides, she was so occupied in writing her Secret Doctrine that she had no time to entertain visitors, but hoped we might meet on my return from Italy. After the first natural disappointment, I set my eyes hopefully southward.

My luggage was soon ready, and a cab was actually waiting for me at the door when a telegram was put into my hands containing these words, "Come to Wurzburg at once, wanted immediately—Blavatsky."

It may easily be imagined that this message took me by surprise. There was no resisting and instead of taking my ticket to Rome I took one to Wurzburg.

It was evening when I reached Madame Blavatsky’s lodgings, and as I mounted the stairs my pulse was a little hurried while I speculated upon the reception which awaited me.

Madame Blavatsky’s welcome was a warm one, and after the first few words of greeting, she remarked, "I have to apologize to you for behaving so strangely. I will tell you the truth, which is, that I did not want you. I have only one bedroom here, and I thought that you might be a fine lady and not care to share it with me. My ways are probably not your ways. If you came to me I knew that you would have to put up with many things that might seem to you intolerable discomforts. That is why I decided to decline your offer, and I wrote to you in that sense; but after my letter was posted Master spoke to me and said that I was to tell you to come. I never disobey a word from Master, and I telegraphed at once. Since then I have been trying to make the bedroom more habitable. I have bought a large screen which will divide the room, so that you can have one side and I, the other, and I hope you will not be too uncomfortable."

I replied that whatever the surroundings to which I had been accustomed might have been, I would willingly relinquish them all for the pleasure of her companionship.

I remember very well that it was then, on going into the dining room together to take some tea, that she said to me abruptly, as of something that had been dwelling on her mind.

"Master says you have a book for me of which I am much in need."

"No, indeed," I replied, "I have no books with me."

"Think again," she said, "Master says you were told in Sweden to bring a book on the Tarot and the Kabbalah."

Then I recollected the circumstances that I have related before. From the time I had placed the volume in the bottom of my box it had been out of my sight and out of my mind. Now, when I hurried to the bedroom, unlocked the trunk, and dived to the bottom, I found it in the same corner I had left it when packing in Sweden, undisturbed from that moment to this. But this was not all. When I returned to the dining room with it in my hand, Madame Blavatsky made a gesture and cried, "Stay, do not open it yet. Now turn to page ten and on the sixth line you will find the words . . . ." And she quoted a passage.

I opened the book which, let it be remembered, was no printed volume of which there might be a copy in HPB’s possession, but a manuscript album in which had been written notes and excerpts by a friend of mine for my own use; yet, on the page and at the line she had indicated, I found the very words she had uttered.

When I handed her the book I ventured to ask her why she wanted it.

"Oh," she replied, "for The Secret Doctrine. That is my new work that I am so busily engaged in writing. Master is collecting material for me. He knew you had the book and told you to bring it that it might be at hand for reference."

No work was done that first evening, but the next day I began to realize what the course of HPB’s life was, and what mine was likely to be while I stayed with her.

The description of a single day will serve to give an idea of the routine of her life at this time.

At six o’clock I was awakened by the servant coming with a cup of coffee for Madame Blavatsky, who, after this slight refreshment rose and dressed, and by seven o’clock was at her desk in the sitting room.

She told me that this was her invariable habit, and that breakfast would be served at eight. After breakfast she settled herself at her writing desk and the day’s work began in earnest. At one o’clock dinner was served, whereupon I rang a small hand bell to call HPB. Sometimes she would come in at once; at other times her door would remain closed hour after hour, until our Swiss maid would come to me, almost with tears in her eyes, to ask what was to be done with Madame's dinner, which was either getting cold, or dried up, burnt, and utterly spoiled. At last, HPB would come in weary with so many hours of exhausting labor and fasting; then another dinner would be cooked, or I would send to the Hotel to get her some nourishing food.

At seven o’clock she laid aside her writing, and after tea we would spend a pleasant evening together.

Comfortably seated in her big armchair, HPB used to arrange her cards for a game of Patience, as she said, to rest her mind. It seems as if the mechanical process of laying her cards enabled her mind to free itself from the pressure of concentrated labor during the day’s work. She never cared to talk of Theosophy in the evenings. The mental tension during the day was so severe that she needed above all things rest, and so I procured as many journals and magazines as I could, and from these I would read the articles and passages that I thought most likely to interest and amuse her. At nine o’clock she went to bed, where she would surround herself with her Russian newspapers and read them until a late hour.

It was thus our days passed in the same routine; the only change worth noticing being that sometimes she would leave the door open between her writing room and the dining room where I sat, and then from time to time we would converse together, or I would write letters for her, or discuss the contents of those we had received.

The quiet, studious life continued for some little time, and the work progressed steadily, until, one morning, a thunderbolt descended upon us. Without a word of warning, HPB received a copy of the well-known Report of the Society for Psychical Research. I shall never forget that day nor the look of blank and stony despair that she cast on me when I entered her sitting room and found her with the book open in her hands.

"This," she cried, "is the karma of the Theosophical Society, and it falls upon me. I am the scapegoat. I am made to bear all the sins of the Society, and now that I am dubbed the greatest impostor of the age, and a Russian spy into the bargain, who will listen to me or read The Secret Doctrine? How can I carry on Master’s work? O cursed phenomena, which I only produced to please private friends and instruct those around me. What an awful karma to bear! How shall I live through it? If I die Master’s work will be wasted, and the Society will be ruined!"

In the intensity of her passion at first she would not listen to reason, but turned against me, saying, "Why don't you go? Why don't you leave me? You are a Countess, you cannot stop here with a ruined woman, with one held up to scorn before the whole world, one who will be pointed at everywhere as a trickster and an impostor. Go before you are defiled by my shame."

"HPB," I said, as my eyes met hers with a steady gaze, "you know that Master lives and that he is your Master, and that the Theosophical Society was founded by him. How, then, can it perish? And since I know this as well as you, since for me, now, the truth has been placed beyond the possibility of doubt, how can you for one moment suppose that I could desert you and the cause we both are pledged to serve? Why, if every member of the Theosophical Society should prove traitor to that cause you and I would remain, and would wait and work until the good times come again."

It is little to be wondered at that the progress of The Secret Doctrine was brought to a standstill during these stormy days, and that when at last the work was resumed, the necessary detachment and tranquillity of mind were found hard of attainment.

  • Johnston, Charles. "The Theosophical Movement." The Theosophical Quarterly (New York), 5 (July 1907): 16–26. Selection 15a.
  • Sinnett, A. P., ed. Incidents in the Life of Madame Blavatsky, Compiled from Information Supplied by her Relatives and Friends. London: George Redway, 1886. Reprint New York: Ayer, 1976. Selection 15b.
  • ——. The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe. London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1922. Selection 15b.
  • Wachtmeister, Countess Constance, and others. Reminiscences of H. P. Blavatsky and the Secret Doctrine. London, Theosophical Publishing Society, 1893; 2d ed. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1976. Selection 15c.
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