The Purple Cloud

by M.P. Shiel

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About three months ago—that is to say, toward the end of May of this year of 1900—the writer whose name appears on the title-page received as noteworthy a letter, and packet of papers, as it has been his lot to examine. They came from a very good friend of mine, whose name there is no reason that I should now conceal—Dr. Arthur Lister Browne, M.A. (Oxon.), F.R.C.P. It happened that for two years I had been spending most of my time in France, and as Browne had a Norfolk practice, I had not seen him during my visits to London. Moreover, though our friendship was of the most intimate kind, we were both atrocious correspondents: so that only two notes passed between us during those years.

Till, last May, there reached me the letter—and the packet—to which I refer. The packet consisted of four note-books, quite crowded throughout with those giddy shapes of Pitman's shorthand, whose ensemble so resembles startled swarms hovering in flighty poses on the wing. They were scribbled in pencil, with little distinction between thick and thin strokes, few vowels: so that their slow deciphering, I can assure the reader, has been no holiday. The letter also was pencilled in shorthand; and this letter, together with the second of the note-books which I have deciphered (it was marked 'III.'), I now publish.

[I must say, however, that in some five instances there will occur sentences rather crutched by my own guess-work; and in two instances the characters were so impossibly mystical, that I had to abandon the passage with a head-ache. But all this will be found immaterial to the general narrative.]

The following is Browne's letter:

'DEAR OLD SHIEL,—I have just been lying thinking of you, and wishing that you were here to give one a last squeeze of the hand before I—"go": for, by all appearance, "going" I am. Four days ago, I began to feel a soreness in the throat, and passing by old Johnson's surgery at Selbridge, went in and asked him to have a look at me. He muttered something about membranous laryngitis which made me smile, but by the time I reached home I was hoarse, and not smiling: before night I had dyspnoca and laryngeal stridor. I at once telegraphed to London for Morgan, and, between him and Johnson, they have been opening my trachea, and burning my inside with chromic acid and the galvanic cautery. The difficulty as to breathing has subsided, and it is wonderful how little I suffer: but I am much too old a hand not to know what's what: the bronchi are involved—too far involved—and as a matter of absolute fact, there isn't any hope. Morgan is still, I believe, fondly dwelling upon the possibility of adding me to his successful-tracheotomy statistics, but prognosis was always my strong point, and I say No. The very small consolation of my death will be the beating of a specialist in his own line. So we shall see.

'I have been arranging some of my affairs this morning, and remembered these notebooks. I intended letting you have them months ago, but my habit of putting things off, and the fact that the lady was alive from whom I took down the words, prevented me. Now she is dead, and as a literary man, and a student of life, you should be interested, if you can manage to read them. You may even find them valuable.

'I am under a little morphia at present, propped up in a nice little state of languor, and as I am able to write without much effort, I will tell you in the old Pitman's something about her. Her name was Miss Mary Wilson; she was about thirty when I met her, forty-five when she died, and I knew her intimately all those fifteen years. Do you know anything about the philosophy of the hypnotic trance? Well, that was the relation between us—hypnotist and subject. She had been under another man before my time, but no one was ever so successful with her as I. She suffered from tic douloureux of the fifth nerve. She had had most of her teeth drawn before I saw her, and an attempt had been made to wrench out the nerve on the left side by the external scission. But it made no difference: all the clocks in hell tick-tacked in that poor woman's jaw, and it was the mercy of Providence that ever she came across me. My organisation was found to have almost complete, and quite easy, control over hers, and with a few passes I could expel her Legion.

'Well, you never saw anyone so singular in personal appearance as my friend, Miss Wilson. Medicine-man as I am, I could never behold her suddenly without a sensation of shock: she suggested so inevitably what we call "the other world," one detecting about her some odour of the worm, with the feeling that here was rather ghost than woman. And yet I can hardly convey to you the why of this, except by dry details as to the contours of her lofty brow, meagre lips, pointed chin, and ashen cheeks. She was tall and deplorably emaciated, her whole skeleton, except the thigh-bones, being quite visible. Her eyes were of the bluish hue of cigarette smoke, and had in them the strangest, feeble, unearthly gaze; while at thirty-five her paltry wisp of hair was quite white.

'She was well-to-do, and lived alone in old Wooding Manor-house, five miles from Ash Thomas. As you know, I was "beginning" in these parts at the time, and soon took up my residence at the manor. She insisted that I should devote myself to her alone; and that one patient constituted the most lucrative practice which I ever had.

'Well, I quickly found that, in the state of trance, Miss Wilson possessed very remarkable powers: remarkable, I mean, not, of course, because peculiar to herself in kind, but because they were so constant, reliable, exact, and far-reaching, in degree. The veriest fledgling in psychical science will now sit and discourse finically to you about the reporting powers of the mind in its trance state—just as though it was something quite new! This simple fact, I assure you, which the Psychical Research Society, only after endless investigation, admits to be scientific, has been perfectly well known to every old crone since the Middle Ages, and, I assume, long previously. What an unnecessary air of discovery! The certainty that someone in trance in Manchester can tell you what is going on in London, or in Pekin, was not, of course, left to the acumen of an office in Fleet Street; and the society, in establishing the fact beyond doubt for the general public, has not gone one step toward explaining it. They have, in fact, revealed nothing that many of us did not, with absolute assurance, know before.

'But talking of poor Miss Wilson, I say that her powers were remarkable, because, though not exceptional in genre, they were so special in quantity,—so "constant," and "far-reaching." I believe it to be a fact that, in general, the powers of trance manifest themselves more particularly with regard to space, as distinct from time: the spirit roams in the present—it travels over a plain—it does not usually attract the interest of observers by great ascents, or by great descents. I fancy that is so. But Miss Wilson's gift was special to this extent, that she travelled in every direction, and easily in all but one, north and south, up and down, in the past, the present, and the future.

This I discovered, not at once, but gradually. She would emit a stream of sounds in the trance state—I can hardly call it speech, so murmurous, yet guttural, was the utterance, mixed with puffy breath-sounds at the languid lips. This state was accompanied by an intense contraction of the pupils, absence of the knee-jerk, considerable rigor, and a rapt and arrant expression. I got into the habit of sitting long hours at her bed-side, quite fascinated by her, trying to catch the import of that opiate and visionary language which came puffing and fluttering in deliberate monotone from her lips. Gradually, in the course of months, my ear learned to detect the words; "the veil was rent" for me also; and I was able to follow somewhat the course of her musing and wandering spirit.

At the end of six months I heard her one day repeat some words which were familiar to me. They were these: "Such were the arts by which the Romans extended their conquests, and attained the palm of victory; and the concurring testimony of different authors enables us to describe them with precision..." I was startled: they are part of Gibbon's "Decline and Fall," which I easily guessed that she had never read.

I said in a stern voice: "Where are you?"

She replied, "Us are in a room, eight hundred and eleven miles above. A man is writing. Us are reading."

I may tell you two things: first, that in trance she never spoke of herself as "I," nor even as "we," but, for some unknown reason, in the objective way, as "us": "us are," she would say—"us will," "us went"; though, of course, she was an educated lady, and I don't think ever lived in the West of England, where they say "us" in that way; secondly, when wandering in the past, she always represented herself as being "above" (the earth?), and higher the further back in time she went; in describing present events she appears to have felt herself on (the earth); while, as regards the future, she invariably declared that "us" were so many miles "within" (the earth).

To her excursions in this last direction, however, there seemed to exist certain fixed limits: I say seemed, for I cannot be sure, and only mean that, in spite of my efforts, she never, in fact, went far in this direction. Three, four thousand "miles" were common figures on her lips in describing her distance "above"; but her distance "within" never got beyond sixty-three. Usually, she would say twenty, twenty-five. She appeared, in relation to the future, to resemble a diver in the deep sea, who, the deeper he strives, finds a more resistant pressure, till, at no great depth, resistance becomes prohibition, and he can no further strive.

'I am afraid I can't go on: though I had a good deal to tell you about this lady. During fifteen years, off and on, I sat listening by her dim bed-side to her murmuring trances! At last my expert ear could detect the sense of her faintest sigh. I heard the "Decline and Fall" from beginning to end. Some of her reports were the most frivolous nonsense: over others I have hung in a horror of interest. Certainly, my friend, I have heard some amazing words proceed from those wan lips of Mary Wilson. Sometimes I could hitch her repeatedly to any scene or subject that I chose by the mere exercise of my will; at others, the flighty waywardness of her spirit eluded and baffled me: she resisted—she disobeyed: otherwise I might have sent you, not four note-books, but twenty, or forty. About the fifth year it struck me that it would be well to jot down her more connected utterances, since I knew shorthand.

The note-book marked "I.," 1 which seems to me the most curious, belongs to the seventh year. Its history, like those of the other three, is this: I heard her one afternoon murmuring in the intonation used when reading; the matter interested me; I asked her where she was. She replied: "Us are forty-five miles within: us read, and another writes"; from which I concluded that she was some fifteen to thirty years in the future, perusing an as yet unpublished work. After that, during some weeks, I managed to keep her to the same subject, and finally, I fancy, won pretty well the whole work. I believe you would find it striking, and hope you will be able to read my notes.

'But no more of Mary Wilson now. Rather let us think a little of A.L. Browne, F.R.C.P.!—with a breathing-tube in his trachea, and Eternity under his pillow...' [Dr. Browne's letter then continues on a subject of no interest here.]

[The present writer may add that Dr. Browne's prognosis of his own case proved correct, for he passed away two days after writing the above. My transcription of the shorthand book marked 'III.' I now proceed to give without comment, merely reminding the reader that the words form the substance of a book or document to be written, or to be motived (according to Miss Wilson) in that Future, which, no less than the Past, substantively exists in the Present—though, like the Past, we see it not. I need only add that the title, division into paragraphs, &c., have been arbitrarily contrived by myself for the sake of form and convenience.]

1 [This I intend to publish under the title of 'The Last Miracle; 'II.' will bear that of 'The Lord of the Sea'; the present book is marked 'III.' The perusal of 'IV.' I have yet finished, but so far do not consider it suitable for publication.]

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