Belgium and England, 1886–1887
In July 1886, HPB relocated to Ostend, Belgium, and continued writing “The Secret Doctrine.” In early 1887 several English Theosophists urged HPB to come to London to be the center for Theosophical work there. In early March, however, HPB became seriously ill with a kidney infection. Doctors, both Belgian and English, gave her only a short time to live; she drew up a will and made provision for her body. Yet spontaneously overnight she regained her health—having been offered by her Master, she reported, the options of dying or living on to complete “The Secret Doctrine.” In May 1887, assisted by Bertram and Archibald Keightley, she moved to London.17a. Countess Constance Wachtmeister, Oct. 1886–Apr. 1887, Ostend, Belgium [Collated from In Memory 1891, 20; and Wachtmeister 1893, 71–6]
In October, 1886, I [rejoined] HPB in Ostend, and found her settled in comfortable enough quarters; she welcomed me with all the warmth of her genial nature. We recommenced our monotonous but interesting life, the thread being taken up from where it was last broken, and I watched with delight how the piles of manuscript for the SD were increasing. Our near vicinity to England caused people once more to come buzzing round HPB, and we received several visitors.
Towards the end of the winter [March 1887] HPB became very ill.
To my great distress, I now began to notice that [HPB] became drowsy and heavy in the middle of the day, and often was unable to work for an hour together. This increased rapidly, and as the doctor who attended her pronounced it to be an affection of the kidneys, I became alarmed, and sent a telegram to Madame Gebhard to tell her of my apprehensions, and to beg her to come and help me. I was thankful when I received a cordial response to my telegram and knew that in a few hours I should see Madame Gebhard.
When she came, I felt as if a great burden had been lifted off my shoulders. In the meanwhile HPB was getting worse, and the Belgian doctor, who was kindness itself, tried one remedy after another, but with no good result. I began to get seriously alarmed and anxious as to what course I should adopt. HPB was in a heavy, lethargic state, she seemed to be unconscious for hours together, and nothing could rouse or interest her. Finally, a bright inspiration came to me. In the London [Theosophical] group I knew there was a Doctor Ashton Ellis, so I telegraphed to him, described the state that HPB was in, and entreated him to come without delay.
I sat by HPB’s bed that night listening to every sound as I anxiously watched the hours go by, till at last, at 3 a.m., the joyful sound of a bell was heard. I flew to the door, opened it, and the doctor walked in. I eagerly told him all her symptoms, and described the remedies that had been applied, whereupon he went to her and made her drink some medicine that he had brought with him.
The next day there was a consultation between the two doctors. The Belgian doctor said that he had never known a case of a person with the kidneys attacked as HPB’s were, living as long as she had done, and that he was convinced that nothing could save her. Mr. Ellis replied that it was exceedingly rare for anyone to survive so long in such a state. He further told us that he had consulted a specialist before coming to Ostend, who was of the same opinion, but advised that, in addition to the prescribed medicine, he should try massage, so as to stimulate the paralyzed organs.
The night passed quietly, and several times the following day Mr. Ellis [massaged] her until he was quite exhausted; but she got no better, and to my horror I began to detect that peculiar faint odor of death which sometimes precedes dissolution. I hardly dared hope that she would live through the night, and while I was sitting alone by her bedside she opened her eyes and told me how glad she was to die, and that she thought the Master would let her be free at last. Still she was very anxious about her Secret Doctrine. I must be most careful of her manuscripts and hand all over to Col. Olcott with directions to have them printed. She had hoped that she would have been able to give more to the world, but the Master knew best. And so she talked on at intervals, telling me many things. At last she dropped off into a state of unconsciousness, and I wondered how it would all end.
It seemed to me impossible that she should die and leave her work unfinished; and then, again, the Theosophical Society . . . what would become of it? How could it be that the Master who was at the head of that Society would allow it to crumble away? The thought came to me that the Master had told HPB that she was to form a circle of students around her and that she was to teach them. How could she do that if she were to die? And then I opened my eyes and glanced at her and thought, was it possible that she who had slaved, suffered, and striven so hard should be allowed to die in the middle of her work?
None of those who knew her really understood her. Even to me, who had been alone with her for so many months, she was an enigma, with her strange powers, her marvelous knowledge, her extraordinary insight into human nature, and her mysterious life, spent in regions unknown to ordinary mortals, so that though her body might be near, her soul was often away in commune with others.
Such were the thoughts which passed through my mind, as I sat hour after hour that anxious night, watching her as she seemed to be getting weaker and weaker. A wave of blank despondency came over me, as I felt how truly I loved this noble woman, and I realized how empty life would be without her. My whole soul rose in rebellion at the thought of losing her. I gave a bitter cry and knew no more.
When I opened my eyes, the early morning light was stealing in, and a dire apprehension came over me that I had slept, and that perhaps HPB had died during my sleep—died whilst I was untrue to my vigil. I turned round towards the bed in horror, and there I saw HPB looking at me calmly with her clear gray eyes, as she said, “Countess, come here.”
I flew to her side. “What has happened, HPB—you look so different to what you did last night.”
She replied, “Yes, Master has been here; he gave me my choice, that I might die and be free if I would, or I might live and finish The Secret Doctrine. He told me how great would be my sufferings and what a terrible time I would have before me in England (for I am to go there); but when I thought of those students to whom I shall be permitted to teach a few things, and of the Theosophical Society in general, to which I have already given my heart’s blood, I accepted the sacrifice, and now to make it complete, fetch me some coffee and something to eat, and give me my tobacco box.”
I flew off to do her errands and ran to tell Madame Gebhard the good news.17b. Archibald Keightley, Feb.–April 1887, Ostend, Belgium [Keightley 1892, 245–8]
In the early months of 1887 there were some few members of the TS in London who felt that if Theosophy did not receive some vital impulse, the center there would be confined to a few individuals only who were pursuing and would continue to pursue their studies. There were many anxious discussions as to how a vital interest could be awakened in the truths of Theosophy, and how attention should be restored to the ethical philosophy. We all felt that we were working in the dark and that we were ignorant of the real basis upon which the philosophy rested.
Obviously we required a leader who might intelligently direct our efforts. We then determined each separately to write to H. P. Blavatsky, who was then in Ostend, laying before the Founder of the TS and the messenger of the Masters the position as each of us saw it. We asked her to reply in a collective letter giving us advice as to what to do. She replied, however, to each individual, writing letters of eight to twelve pages. The result of this was that we all wrote and asked her to come over and direct our efforts. She had told us that she was writing The Secret Doctrine and must finish that before undertaking other work.
Nevertheless we wrote to her that there was, we believed, urgent need of her directing presence, and that she could finish The Secret Doctrine in London as well as or better than in Ostend. After receiving her reply, which urged objections, Mr. Bertram Keightley went over to Ostend during the latter part of February or beginning of March and talked matters over with her. She agreed to come to London at the end of April provided we would find a house for her somewhere a little out of London in which she could work in peace. Soon after he returned I went over to Ostend rather unexpectedly to myself. I naturally went to call after leaving my luggage at the hotel. Madame Blavatsky received me with the greatest kindness, although previously to that occasion I was almost unknown to her. She insisted that I should transfer my things to her house and stay with her while in Ostend. At that time she was occupying the first floor of the house, with a Swiss maid to wait on her and Countess Wachtmeister to keep her company. I was at once introduced to The Secret Doctrine with a request to read, correct, and excise, a privilege I naturally did not avail myself of.
Madame Blavatsky at that time had never ventured out of her rooms since the previous November, and never came from her writing and bedroom into the dining room until the windows had been closed and the room well warmed. Several attacks of inflammation of the kidneys had warned her that the slightest chill was dangerous to the completion of her work.
At the close of my visit I returned to England with renewed assurances of her arrival on May 1st, and under pledge to return and assist Madame Blavatsky on her journey to London. I had not been in London many hours when one of our members, Dr. Ashton Ellis, received a telegram from Countess Wachtmeister saying, as I recall its tenor, that Madame Blavatsky had had another inflammatory attack on the kidneys, that she was comatose, and that her life was in the utmost danger. Dr. Ellis went over to Ostend and attended her. He told me that he was extremely surprised, and so were the others who know her serious condition, to find her recovering in a few days. Her state then was so critical that she began arranging her affairs before the comatose attack came, burning up papers and having a will drawn up so as to be ready for the end. Later on she told me herself that her life was saved by the direct intervention of her Master. Her endurance manifested itself even at this point, for as soon as she could leave her bed she was at work on The Secret Doctrine.
In the middle of April, Mr. [Bertram] Keightley again went over, and I followed him about the 25th or 26th. We were rather in consternation because Madame Blavatsky said she could not possibly leave in such weather as then prevailed, especially on account of her late serious illness. Her landlord said she must leave, for the rooms were let. Countess Wachtmeister had previously left for Sweden to attend to urgent business affairs there under promise to rejoin Madame Blavatsky in London. Staying in the house with us was a friend of Dr. Ellis who assisted in the removal.
The fated day came, and in place of being bright but cold, as had been the case two days before, the morning proved to be cold and foggy, with a steady drizzling rain falling and penetrating all it touched, the thermometer being about 40 degrees. We fully expected Madame Blavatsky would decline to move, and thought her justified in doing so. Nevertheless she appeared that morning in full marching order, the trunks were packed, and all was ready.
The carriage arrived and Madame Blavatsky was assisted into it, and off it drove to the wharf. It must be remembered that she had not had a window open in her room while she was in it (and would not scarcely allow it open while she was out) for six months. She kept her room at a temperature of over 70 deg., believing that anything under that would kill her. Moreover, she was almost crippled with rheumatism and could hardly walk, and was a constant martyr to sciatica. On getting to the wharf we found the tide low, and in consequence there was only a narrow gangway leading at a very steep incline to the steamer’s deck. Imagine our dismay. Madame Blavatsky, however, said nothing, but simply grasping the rails walked slowly and without assistance to the deck. We then took her to a cabin on deck, where she sank on the sofa and only then betrayed the pain and exhaustion caused by her effort. The journey was uneventful so far as Dover, save that for the first time in her life Mme. Blavatsky knew what the preliminary qualms of seasickness meant and was much puzzled.
At Dover the tide was still lower, and as a result four very stalwart piermen had to carry her to the top. Then came the greatest difficulty, for the platform is low and the English railway carriage steps were high. It required the united efforts of all the party (and the piermen as well) to assist Madame Blavatsky in her crippled state into the carriage. The journey to London was uneventful, and with the help of an invalid chair and a carriage she was safely lodged in the house we had secured for her. Secretly I was afraid the journey would have serious results, but, whatever was the reason, she seemed to enjoy better health for some time after her arrival in England then she had for months previously.
The day after her arrival she was at work on The Secret Doctrine at 7 a.m.7c. Julia W. Keightley (the wife of Archibald Keightley), 1886–1891, Pennsylvania [Wachtmeister 1893, 121–5 ; this article was signed “R.S.” but research indicates that the author was Julia W. Keightley]
Living some thousand miles from England, I never met Madame Blavatsky in person. Like others of my acquaintance, I first heard of [HPB] by coming across the S.P.R. pamphlet denouncing her as an impostor and asserting the Hodgson-Coulomb slander as a true fact.
Soon, however, I began to realize, through my own experience, that she was not what she seemed to be. The evidence I had caused me to ask HPB to teach me; and that fact that I fully trusted in and believed her is precisely what gained for me the fulfillment of my wish. The mental attitude of belief sets up, in our aura and in our inner bodies, magnetic and attractive conditions, very different to those of contraction and densification, which exist where doubt or criticism fill the mind. A literal quickening of my aura and inner body took place. The contraction in which men and women enfold themselves is too little understood. To be known, faith and devotion must first be had.
After HPB accepted me as a pupil, no rules were laid down, no plans formulated. I continued my daily routine, and at night, after I fell into a deep sleep, the new life began. On waking in the morning from a sleep so profound that the attitude of the previous night was still retained, I would vividly remember that I had gone, as it were, to HPB. I had been received in rooms which I could and did describe to those who lived with her—described, even to the worn places or holes in the carpet. On the first occasion of this kind she signified to me her acceptance of me as a pupil. After that, she would receive me in varying fashion, showing me pictures which passed like panoramas across the walls of the room.
At other times, times more rare, I would awake to find her standing at the foot of my bed, and as I leaned upon my elbow, her sign language would begin, the harmonies of Nature would fill the moonlit room, while the wondrous living pictures passed across the wall. All this was perfectly objective to me. I was fully awake to all the surroundings, to all the natural sounds of the night, and I have taken my pet dog into my arms because it shivered and whimpered at sight of her. All the expressions of HPB’s face became familiar to me. I can see her now, her old bedgown—what dingy old gown was ever so cherished?—folded about her, as she opened out space before me, and then, too, expanded into her own real being.
I have hardly more than half a dozen letters from her, and these contain no teaching; they bore upon external theosophic affairs and have this peculiarity. At night she would tell me to advise certain persons of certain things. I would obey, giving her as my authority, and a few days afterwards, but never long enough for the full voyage, would come her letter giving in writing the instructions previously heard at night. Thus I was enabled to prove that I really heard her wish over seas, for always the request concerned some sudden emergency which had just arisen a day, two days at most, before. I was able to check off my experience in this way, as I was also able to speak at times before an event occurred.
- In Memory of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. By Some of Her Pupils. London [?]: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1891. Selection 17a.
- Keightley, Archibald. “From Ostende to London.” The Path (New York) 7 (November 1892): 245–8. Selection 17b.
- 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 17a, 17c.