In Würzburg, HPB continued her work on the manuscript of “The Secret Doctrine,” which involved a number of unusual techniques (selection 16a). At the same time, she also received a number of visitors, including Emily Kislingbury and Marie and Gustav Gebhard. In early May, Countess Wachtmeister left Würzburg with Marie Gebhard to visit Franz Hartmann in Austria; at the same time HPB left Würzburg with Miss Kislingbury to spend the summer in Ostend, Belgium. However, Gustav Gebhard persuaded HPB to stop for a visit with him at Elberfeld (a German town in the Ruhr Valley, now incorporated into the city of Wuppertal). HPB was visited there by her sister, Vera Zhelihovsky, and niece, Vera, who was later to marry Charles Johnston (selection 16b).16a. Countess Constance Wachtmeister, January–May 1886, Würzburg, Germany [Wachtmeister 1893, 32–3, 43–5, 49–50, 55–56, 59–61]
One day at this time, when I walked into HPB’s writing room, I found the floor strewn with sheets of discarded manuscript. I asked the meaning of this scene of confusion, and she replied, “Yes, I have tried twelve times to write this one page correctly, and each time Master says it is wrong. I think I shall go mad, writing it so often; but leave me alone, I will not pause until I have conquered it, even if I have to go on all night.”
I brought a cup of coffee to refresh and sustain her, and then left her to prosecute her weary task. An hour later I heard her voice calling me, and on entering found that, at last, the passage was completed to satisfaction, but the labor had been terrible, and the results were often at this time small and uncertain.
As she leant back enjoying her cigarette and the sense of relief from arduous effort, I rested on the arm of her great chair and asked her how it was she could make mistakes in setting down what was given to her. She said: “Well, you see, what I do is this. I make what I can only describe as a sort of vacuum in the air before me, and fix my sight and my will upon it, and soon scene after scene passes before me like the successive pictures of a diorama, or, if I need a reference or information from some book, I fix my mind intently, and the astral counterpart of the book appears, and from it I take what I need. The more perfectly my mind is freed from distractions and mortifications, the more energy and intentness it possesses, the more easily I can do this; but to-day, after all the vexations I have undergone, I could not concentrate properly, and each time I tried I got the quotations all wrong. Master says it is right now, so let us go in and have some tea.”
Living in such close and familiar intercourse with HPB as I did at this time, it naturally happened that I was a witness of many of the phenomena which took place in her vicinity.
There was one occurrence, continuously repeated over a long period, which impressed me very strongly with the conviction that she was watched and cared for by unseen guardians. From the first night that I passed in her room, until the last that preceded our departure from Würzburg, I heard a regularly intermittent series of raps on the table by her bedside. They would begin at ten o’clock each evening, and would continue, at intervals of ten minutes, until six o’clock in the morning. They were sharp, clear raps, such as I never heard at any other time. Sometimes I held my watch in my hand for an hour at a stretch, and always as the minute interval ticked itself out, the rap would come with the most regularity. Whether HPB was awake or asleep mattered nothing to the occurrence of the phenomenon, nor to its uniformity.
When I asked her for an explanation of these raps I was told that it was an effect of what might be called a sort of psychic telegraph which placed her in communication with her Teachers, and that the chelas might watch her body while her astral left it.
Another incident proved to me that there were agencies at work in her neighborhood whose nature and action were inexplicable on generally accepted theories of the constitution and laws of matter.
As I have already remarked, HPB was accustomed to read her Russian newspapers at night after retiring, and it was rarely that she extinguished her lamp before midnight. There was a screen between my bed and this lamp, but, nevertheless, its powerful rays, reflected from the ceiling and the walls, often disturbed my sleep. One night this lamp was burning after the clock had struck one. I could not sleep, and, as I heard by HPB's regular breathing that she slept, I rose, gently walked round to the lamp, and turned it out. There was always a dim light pervading the bedroom, which came from a nightlight burning in the study, the door between that room and the bedroom being kept open. I had extinguished the lamp, and was going back, when it flamed up again, and the room was brightly illuminated. I thought to myself—what a strange lamp, I suppose the spring does not act, so I put my hand again on the spring, and watched until every vestige of flame was extinct, and, even then, held down the spring for a minute. Then I released it and stood for a moment longer watching, when, to my surprise, the flame reappeared and the lamp was burning as brightly as ever. This puzzled me considerably, and I determined to stand there by that lamp and put it out all through the night, if necessary, until I discovered the why and wherefore of its eccentricities. For the third time I pressed the spring and turned it down until the lamp was quite out, and then released it, watching eagerly to see what would take place. For the third time the lamp burned up, and this time I saw a brown hand slowly and gently turning the knob of the lamp. Familiar as I was with the action of astral forces and astral entities on the physical plane, I had no difficulty in coming to the conclusion that it was the hand of a chela, and, surmising that there was some reason why the lamp should remain alight, I returned to my couch. But a spirit of perversity and curiosity dwelt within me that night. I wanted to know more, so l called out, “Madame Blavatsky!” then, louder, “Madame Blavatsky!” and again “Madame Blavatsky!” Suddenly I heard an answering cry: “Oh, my heart! my heart! Countess, you have nearly killed me”; and then again, “My heart! my heart!” I flew to HPB’s bedside. “I was with Master,” she murmured, “why did you call me back?” I was thoroughly alarmed, for her heart fluttered under my hand with wild palpitation.
I gave her a dose of digitalis, and sat beside her until the symptoms had abated and she had become calmer. Then she told me how Colonel Olcott had once nearly killed her in the same way, by calling her back suddenly when her astral form was absent from her body. She made me promise that I would never try experiments with her again, and this promise I readily gave, out of the fullness of my grief and contrition for having caused her such suffering.
We had a small, but very comfortable, apartment in Würzburg; the rooms were of a good size, lofty, and on the ground floor so as to enable HPB to move in and out in comfort. But during all the time that I was with her I could only persuade her to take fresh air three times. She seemed to enjoy these drives, but the trouble and exertion of preparing for them wearied her, and she esteemed them mere loss of time. I was in the habit of going out daily for half an hour, as I felt that both air and exercise were necessary for my health, and I recall a curious incident which happened to me in connection with one of these walks. As I passed a perfumer’s shop, I saw some soap in a glass bowl in the display window. Remembering that I required some, I walked into the shop and chose a piece from the bowl. I saw the shop man wrap paper around it, took the parcel from his hand, put it in my pocket, and continued my walk. When I returned to my apartment I went straight to my room, without first going to see HPB, and took off my hat and cloak. Taking the parcel out of my pocket, I began to unfasten the string and pull off the wrappings, and, as I did so, I perceived a small sheet of folded paper inside. I could not help thinking, how fond people are of advertisements, they even stick them on a cake of soap! But then I suddenly remembered that I had seen the man fasten up the parcel, and that he assuredly had not inserted any. This struck me as strange, and, as the paper had fallen to the ground, I stooped down and picked it up, opened it, and there found a few remarks addressed to me from HPB’s Master in his handwriting, which I had often seen before. They were an explanation of events which had been puzzling me for some days past, and gave me some directions as to my future course of action. This phenomenon was peculiarly interesting to me as having taken place without HPB’s knowledge, and independently of her, for she was writing quite unconcernedly at her table in her writing room at the time.
I have been lingering on many points which have nothing directly to do with the writing of The Secret Doctrine; but it seems to me that by showing some of the details of HPB’s life at that time, one gains a better comprehension of the woman who wrote that stupendous work. Day after day she would sit there writing through all the long hours, and nothing could be more monotonous and wearisome than her life regarded from an outside point of view. But, I suppose, at that time she lived much in the inner world, and there saw sights and visions which compensated for the dreariness of her daily life. She had, however, a distraction of rather a peculiar nature. In front of her writing table, attached to the wall, was a cuckoo clock, and this used to behave in a very extraordinary manner. Sometimes it would strike like a loud gong, then sigh and groan as if possessed, cuckooing in the most unexpected way. Our maid, Louise was very much afraid of it, and told us solemnly one day that she thought the devil was in it. “Not that I believe in the devil,” she said, “but this cuckoo almost speaks to me at times.” And so it did. One evening I went into the room and saw what appeared to me like streams of electric light coming out of the clock in all directions. On telling HPB she replied, “Oh, it is only the spiritual telegraph, they are laying it on stronger tonight on account of tomorrow’s work.” Living in this atmosphere and coming into contact so continually with these, usually unseen, forces, this all seemed the true reality to me, and the outer world was that which appeared vague and unsatisfactory.
But the winter sped by, and the spring came on, and one morning HPB received a letter from a friend of several years’ standing, Miss [Emily] Kislingbury, who wrote that she would come and pay us a visit. At this time, too, we received a visit from Mr. and Madame Gebhard. As we were now in full spring it was time to think of our summer plans, and HPB decided to spend the ensuing summer months at Ostend with her sister and niece.
Madame Gebhard was anxious to make a short stay in Austria and persuaded me to accompany her to Kempten. We made our plans, and began the arduous task of packing. In a few days all HPB’s boxes were corded and locked and the eventful journey was about to begin. Miss Kislingbury was returning to London, and kindly promised to accompany HPB as far as Ostend.
It was always a formidable thing for HPB to travel, and I looked in dismay at the nine packages which were to be placed inside her railway carriage. We started very early to go to the station, and there we seated HPB, surrounded by her numerous belongings, while we tried to make arrangements with the conductor to let her be alone in the compartment with Miss Kislingbury and her maid, Louise. Then began the serious task of piling up all the baggage, consisting of pillows, coverlets, handbags, and the precious box containing the manuscript of Secret Doctrine. Well, poor HPB, who had not been out of her room for weeks, had to walk all along the platform, and this was performed with difficulty. We got her comfortably settled, and were just rejoicing to think that the onerous task was satisfactorily completed, when one of the officials came to the door and began to remonstrate violently against the carriage being crowded with packages. He talked in German, HPB answered in French, and I began to wonder how it would all end, when, fortunately, the whistle was heard and the train began to move out of the station.16b. Vera Johnston (HPB’s niece), June 1886, Elberfeld, Germany [Wachtmeister 1893, 107–8]
In June 1886, I stayed with my aunt in Elberfeld. It was her habit to read out in the afternoon what she had written of The Secret Doctrine in the preceding night.
Generally on coming down in the morning from the bedroom I occupied in the house of Madame Gebhard together with my mother, I found my aunt deep in her work. One day I saw evident traces of perplexity written on her face. Not wishing to disturb her I sat down quietly and waited for her to speak. She remained silent a long time with her eyes fixed on some point on the wall, and with a cigarette between her fingers, as was her custom. At last she called out to me:
“Vera,” she said, “do you think you could tell me what is a pi?”
Rather astonished at such a question, I said I thought a pie was some kind of an English dish.
“Please don't make a fool of yourself,” she said rather impatiently, “don't you understand I address you in your capacity of a mathematical pundit. Come and see this.”
I looked at the page that lay before her on the table, and saw it was covered with figures and calculations, and soon became aware that the formula n = 3.14159 was put down wrongly throughout them all. It was written n = 31.4159. With great joy and triumph I hastened to inform her of her mistake.
“That’s it.” she exclaimed. “This confounded [decimal point] bothered me all the morning. I was rather in a hurry yesterday to put down what I saw, and today at the first glance at the page I intensely but vaguely felt there was something wrong, and do what I could I could not remember where the [decimal point] actually was when I saw this number.”
Knowing very little of Theosophy in general and my aunt’s ways of writing in particular at that time, I of course was greatly struck with her not being able to correct such a slight mistake in the very intricate calculations she had written down with her own hand.
“You are very green,” she said, “if you think that I actually know and understand all the things I write. How many times am I to repeat to you and your mother that the things I write are dictated to me, that sometimes I see manuscripts, numbers, and words before my eyes of which I never knew anything”
- 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. Selections 16a, 16b.