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ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE

THE SHADOWS ON THE SCREEN

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PART THREE OF THE SERIES "THE UNCHARTED COAST"

First published in The Strand Magazine, May 1920
First book appearance in The Edge Of The Unknown, 1930
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2014
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There is nothing more wonderful, more incredible, and at the same time, as it seems to me, more certain, than that past events may leave a record upon our surroundings which is capable of making itself felt, heard, or seen for a long time afterwards. I have put the impressions in the order of their frequency, for it is more common to feel the past than to hear it and more common to hear it than to see it. Houses which are haunted by vague noises are more common than those which possess apparitions, and families have been persecuted for years by poltergeists who have never once caught a glimpse of their tormentors.

A sensitive mind is easily affected in any place where there has been recent trouble. A lady of my acquaintance called recently upon the matron of a hospital and found that she was not in her room. "Mrs. Dodson has gone out," said the nurse. "Has she had bad news?" "Yes, she has just had a wire that her husband is very ill." How did my friend know that there had been bad news? She felt it by a sinking of her own heart as she entered the room, before the nurse had arrived. "Telepathy!" says the parrot. Well, if telepathy can be stretched to mean that a thought or emotion can not only be flashed from brain to brain, but that it can remain stationary for an hour and then impress itself upon any sensitive who approached it, then I will not quarrel with the word. But if for an hour why not for a year, and if for a year why not for a century? There is a record on the etheric screen so that it may retain indefinitely some intimate and lasting change which marks and can even faintly reproduce the emotion which a human being has endured within it.

I had a friend who lived in a century-old house. His wife, who was sensitive, was continually aware of a distinct push when she came down the stairs, always occurring upon the same step. Afterwards it was discovered that an old lady who had formerly lived in the house received a playful push from some frolicsome child, and lost her balance, falling down the stairs. It is not necessary to believe that some hobgoblin lingered upon that stair continually repeating the fatal action. The probable explanation seems to be that the startled mind of the old woman as she felt herself falling left some permanent effect behind it which could still be discerned in this strange fashion.

But on what could an impression be left? An impression of such a nature becomes a material thing and implies a material nexus, however subtle. So far as we know there are only two things there, the air and the ether. The air is a mobile thing and could not carry a permanent impression. But is the ether a mobile thing? It is pictured as a most delicate medium with vibrating currents flowing in it, but it seems to me that a most tenuous jelly with quivers and thrills would be a closer analogy. We could conceive the whole material universe embedded in and interpenetrated by this subtle material, which would not necessarily change its position since it is too fine for wind or any coarser material to influence it. I feel that I am rushing in where even Lodges fear to tread, but if it should prove to be as I suggest then we should have that permanent screen on which shadows are thrown. The block of ether upon the stairs is the same that it always was, and so conveys the impression from the past.

Invisible air records of this sort would explain many things which are now inexplicable. Men of strong nerve have been known to be terrified in certain localities without being able to give any reason. Some horror of the past, unseen by their eyes, may still have impressed their senses. One does not need to be very psychic to get the same result upon an old battlefield. I am by no means psychic myself, and yet I am conscious, quite apart from imagination, of a curious effect, almost a darkening of the landscape with a marked sense of heaviness, when I am on an old battlefield. I have been particularly conscious of it on the scenes of Hastings and Culloden, two fights where great causes were finally destroyed and where extreme bitterness may well have filled the hearts of the conquered. The shadow still remains. A more familiar example of the same faculty is the gloom which gathers over the mind of even an average person upon entering certain houses. The most rabid agitator need not envy our nobility their stately old castles, for it is happier to spend one's life in the simplest cottage, uncontaminated by psychic disturbance, than to live in the grandest mansion which still preserves the gloomy taints that hang about rooms once perhaps the scene of cruelty or other vices.

If a sensitive is able to feel some record of a past event, then there is evidence that by an extension of this process one who is still more sensitive would actually see the person who left the impression. That it is the actual person in spirit is in most cases utterly incredible to me. That the victim of some century-old villainy should still in her ancient garments frequent in person the scene of her former martyrdom is, indeed, hard to believe. It is more credible, little as we understand the details, that some thought-form is shed and remains visible, at the spot where great mental agony has been endured. "How" and "why" are questions which will be solved by our descendants. If we could conceive that we have form within form like the skins of an onion, that the outer skin should peel off under the influence of emotion and continue a mechanical existence at that spot while the rest of the organism passed on and never even missed it, such a supposition, farcical as it appears, would match the recorded facts better than anything else I know. Each fresh discarded skin of the onion would be a fresh thought-form, and our track through life would be marked in its more emotional crises by a long trail of such forms. Grotesque as the idea may seem, I can confidently say that the true explanation when it arrives will prove to be not less so.

Let us now take some definite examples where this thought-form of the past has manifested itself. I do not know a better case than that which is recorded by the late Miss Goodrich-Freer, a lady who combined a steady nerve and cool judgment with a temperament which was conservative to the point of incredulity. She slept in a room in Hampton Court Palace which had a record of haunting, and she tells us very clearly what occurred. No unprejudiced person could possibly read the original narrative without being absolutely convinced that the facts were even as stated.

It was a small bedroom without curtains, with one door close by the bed. It is characteristic of the lady that she spent her vigil—she had come in the hope of seeing the apparition—by reading Lord Farrer's article, "Shall we degrade our standard of value?" In spite of the reading, or possibly on account of it, she fell asleep, and was awakened some hours later by sounds of movement. It was quite dark, and some detaining force seemed to prevent her from reaching for the matches. A question received no reply. Suddenly there appeared a soft point of light in the gloom, which glowed and spread, until it became the figure of a tall, slight woman, moving slowly across the room. She stopped at the farther side and the observer was able to get a clear view of her profile. "Her face was insipidly pretty, that of a woman from thirty to thirty-five years of age, her figure slight, her dress of a dark soft material, having a full skirt and broad sash or waistband tied high up, a crossed or draped kerchief over the shoulders, sleeves which I noticed fitted very tight below the elbow, and hair which was dressed so as not to lie flat on the head." A second question addressed to this figure produced no effect. She raised her thin white hands, sank upon her knees, buried her face in the palms, and appeared to pray. Then the light went out and the scene was over. The impression left upon the observer's mind by the action and attitude was that of reproach, and yet of gentle resignation. Her own nerves were so entirely unaffected by the incident that she has left it on record that she spent part of the remainder of the night in reading Myers' Drift of Psychical Research. Such an experience, and it is one of a very numerous class, can hardly be explained rationally upon any spiritual or upon any physical basis. Granting the fact, and there is no sane alternative but to grant it, we cannot conceive that this unfortunate woman has really for a century or more occupied herself in walking across a room in which some great trouble may have befallen her in her earth-life. From her appearance one would judge that she was more sinned against than sinning. Why, then, should any just dispensation condemn her to so strange, monotonous, and useless a fate? If we can conceive, however, that it is some shadow of herself which was detached in old days of trouble, and still lingers, then certainly the matter becomes more clear, if she herself is happy elsewhere. Such a shadow, like most psychic phenomena, might well seem luminous to one who, like Miss Goodrich-Freer, had herself some clairvoyant gifts. If you ask, however, why such a thought-form should only come at certain hours, I am compelled to answer that I do not know.

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A similar first-hand example may be drawn from Mrs. Tweedale's book, Ghosts I Have Seen, which, under its popular title, contains a most extraordinary record of actual first-hand psychic experiences. Mrs. Tweedale is an admirable witness, for she, like Miss Goodrich-Freer, is herself clairvoyante, and yet retains a very sane and critical judgment, while her personal reputation and position give us every confidence in her statements. Materialists will never fairly face the obvious alternative that such first- hand accounts either mean that a person of honour has suddenly burst into a perfect orgy of objectless lying, or else that the statements are true. When a clairvoyante can clearly describe her own experiences the book becomes of great value, and I would only name Turvey's Beginnings of Seership among the more recent works as equalling Mrs. Tweedale's in personal knowledge.

The writer at one time lived in an old house in the West End of London. It was a winter night, and she was lying half asleep when she heard a sound as of the crackling of parchment, and opening her eyes she saw a man seated in a chair in front of the fire. He was dressed in a uniform reminiscent of Nelson's days, with brass buttons, wore powdered hair with a black bow, and was staring rigidly into the glow, while he held crumpled up in his right hand some sort of document. He was a stately and handsome figure. For some hours he sat there, the fire gleaming, when it spurted up, upon the buckles and buttons of his dress. Finally, in the small hours of the morning he vanished gradually away. Several times later the lady saw the same apparition, and it might well be argued that it was constantly there, but that its perception depended upon the condition of the clairvoyante. Finally some religious exorcism was performed in the room and the vision was not seen again.

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This case clearly fits itself into the hypothesis advanced here, of a form-picture being thrown out at a time of emotion. The parchment document suggests a will or some other paper of importance which the officer has prepared or received, but which in either case may have caused him so much mental stress as he brooded over it in front of the fire that he threw this permanent record upon the screen of time. The accompaniment of appropriate sound is very general in such cases. Difficult as my hypothesis may seem, we have to remember that the only conceivable other explanations would be either that the man's self was there in front of the fire after a century of spirit- life, or that his thoughts in the spirit-world concerning an episode in his earth-life were so constant and vivid that they conjured up a picture in the room. The latter explanation might be accepted for a single episode, but when it is a constant matter, and when one remembers how many other reminiscences of earth-life such a man must have had, it is difficult to consider it seriously.

An experience which comes under the same heading is narrated by Lady Reay in the same enthralling volume. She was sleeping in an ancient dwelling with a somewhat sinister reputation, so we may admit that her mind was prepared to see a ghost. The actual form of the phantom was so definite, and so exactly similar to that seen by independent witnesses at different times in the same room, that it could hardly be a figment of the brain. She was awakened by moaning. The room was in total darkness, but at one side was a circle of light, like that thrown by a magic lantern. This seems to be the psychic illumination, as seen by Miss Goodrich-Freer in the case already quoted. Several clairvoyants who habitually see it describe it as being of a metallic yellow. In this circle of radiance was seen a woman dressed as in the Tudor period, walking round the apartment, throwing herself occasionally against the wall, like a desperate bird in a cage, and moaning terribly. There was no record, so far as I know, as to who this unhappy lady may have been, but she was seen independently before Lady Reay saw her, but without Lady Reay's knowledge, by Captain Eric Streatfield when he was a little boy. I do not understand how one can disregard such testimony as this. Such incredulity may be described as scientific caution, but to those who are really aware of the weight of evidence now existing, it must appear mere obstinacy and obtuseness. When one thinks of the importance of psychic knowledge, and compares it with that of the bending of the light from the Hyades as it passes the sun, one can but marvel at the want of proportion which exalts the physical while it neglects the spiritual.

An adventure which occurred to a friend of mine seems to come under this heading. His family had rented an old country house in which Nell Gwynne had been kept when she was the mistress of Charles II. One evening, as he descended the stairs, he saw cross the hall a figure which was very like a family nurse, whom we will call "Nannie." He cried out "Nannie!" in surprise and followed her, but could find no trace. Inquiry proved that the servant was not in the house or in the neighbourhood. My friend amused himself by fitting up the house with as many old prints of Nell Gwynne as he could collect. One day his sister visited him, and after inspecting these pictures she exclaimed: "Have you ever observed how like Nell Gwynne is to our Nannie?" There is, of course, a chance of coincidence here, but at least there is a strong suggestion that poor Nell, wearied and miserable, with her heart aching for the bustle of town, cast off some thought-form as a permanent record of her emotion.

In all these cases there has been only one figure thrown upon the screen, but the matter becomes more complex when there is a group. This group consists in many cases of the wronger and the wronged, but as each may have been at the same pitch of emotion at the time of the deed, the theory of thought-forms being shed at such a time is not invalidated—and is, at any rate, more reasonable than to imagine that the guilty murderer and the innocent victim are involved in one common fate, which consists of an endless repetition of the tragedy which they once enacted. Such an idea seems to me a monstrous and unthinkable one.

I would choose as a good example of the composite thought-form one which was recorded some years ago in the Wide World Magazine, which I have every reason to believe is founded on fact, though the name given, Grace Dundas, is a pseudonym, and the events occurred twenty years ago. In this very dramatic case a lady with her children occupied a lonely house upon the Cornish coast, and was much disturbed by a ghostly visitor who passed with a heavy tread up the stairs at a certain hour of the night, disappearing into a panel in the landing. The lady had the courage to lie in wait for him, and perceived him to be a small, aged man in a shabby tweed suit, carrying his boots in his hand. He emitted "a sort of yellow luminous light." This creature ascended at 1 a.m., and emerged again at 4.30, descending the stair with the same audible tread. The lady kept the matter to herself, but a nurse who was brought to tend one of the children came screaming in the middle of the night to say that there was "a dreadful old man" in the house. She had descended to the dining-room to get some water for her patient, and had seen him seated in a chair and taking off his boots. He was seen by his own light, for she had not had time to strike a match. The lady's brother and her husband both corroborated the phenomena, and the latter went very thoroughly into the matter. He found that under the house was a cellar which opened into a cave, up which the water came at full tide. It was an ideal situation for a smuggler. That night the husband and wife kept watch in the cellar, where they saw a very terrible spectacle. In a light resembling that of the moon they were aware of two elderly men engaged in a terrific struggle. One got the other down and killed him, bundling the body through the door into the cave beyond. He then buried the knife with which the deed was done, though curiously enough this detail was only observed by the husband, who actually unearthed a knife afterwards at the spot. Both witnesses then saw the murderer pass them, and they followed him into the dining-room, where he drank some brandy, though this action was seen by the wife and not the husband. He then took off his boots, exactly as the nurse had already described. With his boots in his hand he ascended the stairs and passed through the panel as he had done so often before, the inference being that on each previous occasion the scene in the cellar had preceded his advent.

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Inquiry now showed that many years ago the house had been inhabited by two brothers who amassed considerable wealth by smuggling. They had hoarded their money in partnership, but one of them finally announced his intention of getting married, which involved his drawing his share of the treasure. Soon afterwards this brother disappeared, and it was rumoured that he had gone to sea upon a long voyage. So far as I remember, for I write with only notes of the episode before me, the other brother went mad, and the affair was never cleared up in his lifetime. It should be added that the panel into which the vision disappeared concealed a large cupboard, which might well have been the treasure-house of the establishment. The graphic touch of the boots carried in the hand suggests that there was some housekeeper or other resident who might be disturbed by the sound of the murderer's footsteps.

In this case one can certainly imagine that in so fratricidal a strife there would be a peculiar intensity of emotion on the part of both the actors, which would leave a marked record if anything could do so. That the record was indeed very marked is shown by the fact that the sight was not reserved for people with psychic qualities, like the first two instances here recorded, but that everyone, the husband, the wife, and the nurse all saw the apparition, which must therefore have been particularly solid even after the lapse of so many years. It might, I think, be put forward as a hypothesis supplementary to that of thought-forms thrown off in times of crisis, that the permanency and solidity of the form depend upon the extremity of the emotion.

A second illustration may be drawn from Mrs. Tweedale's reminiscences. I am taking my cases from a limited number of books, for the sake of convenience in reference, but they are typical of very many others. The most absurd of the many absurd charges against Spiritualism is that it has no literature. It has actually a literature with which no other religion could attempt to compare, and it may safely be said that if an assiduous reader were to devour nothing else for fifty years he would be very far from having got to the end of it. Its quality is not on a par with its quantity, but even there I would undertake to name fifty books on the scientific and religious sides of Spiritualism which would outweigh in interest, dignity, and brain-power an equal list from any other philosophy. Yet the public is kept absolutely ignorant of the greater part of these remarkable works, many of which will one day be world-famous. The people who acted and wrote in the Apostolic epoch of the Christian Church little thought how their actions would appear two thousand years later, and certainly the supercilious philosophers and scandalized high priests would have been much astounded to know of the changed values which time has created.

To return, however, to the further illustration, it concerns the doings in a shooting-lodge in Argyllshire, inhabited in 1901 by Major and Mrs. Stewart, the latter being the sister of Mrs. Tweedale. The starting-point of this haunting had been a situation which would form a grim theme for a novelist. An elderly farmer, who was a widower with a grown-up son, married a young girl. His son soon learned to love his stepmother, and the love may have been passionately returned. The result was a struggle in which the son was killed by the father. It is not to be wondered at that so horrible an event should leave a great psychic disturbance behind it, and the lodge was found to be a storm-centre of the unknown forces. The phenomena, which seem to have occurred every night, took the form of loud thuds and crashes, especially in a certain room upon the upper floor, which had probably been a bedroom. Footsteps resounded down the stairs, and upon one occasion the whole terrible fight was enacted in the passage, with all the blows and curses of the infuriated men. The tragedy may well have commenced upstairs, the guilty son have fled to the door, and been overtaken by his father in the hall below. The impressions seem to have been entirely auditory, though a clairvoyant would no doubt have seen the scene even as it occurred. This case closely resembles the last, in that the most furious human passions must have been aroused, so that every condition existed for a permanent psychic record. It should be added that in this latter instance four Pomeranian dogs in the house were reduced to abject terror, showing that there was no hallucination upon the part of the human observers.

In discussing reasons for these and similar phenomena we must not make the mistake of supposing that one single explanation can cover all the range of the facts. To do so would be to court disaster, for someone could at once produce a case which could not be so covered. These instances which have been quoted have all sprung from scenes of emotion, and all represent, as I venture to suggest, mere shadow-forms detached from the real personality. There is another class of case, however, which produces much the same result, since haunting forms are seen, but which differs utterly: in its nature, in that the forms appear to be the actual materialized spirits of the dead held fast by their thoughts and desires to some spot which they have loved upon earth. Such a bondage would probably seem by no means unpleasant to them, and might only mean that in the interval of such duties as they might find awaiting them in a new life they loved to return to the old happy scene of their earth-memories. Thus, Brother John, in The Gate of Remembrance, was an entirely good and happy spirit, and no doubt had his duties elsewhere, yet his great love for Glastonbury Abbey brought him down whenever the interests of the old ruins demanded it. All accounts of the wandering of dead misers and others round the scene of their earthly ambitions would probably come in a lower and less happy degree under the same head. One excellent and typical example of what I mean was the case of the old Kent manor-house as detailed by Mr. Dale Owen.

The narrative concerns Ramhurst Manor House, near Leigh, in Kent, and was compiled in 1857. The house was inhabited by the family of a British general, who were much disturbed by noises at night and other happenings. A clairvoyante young lady, who came as a visitor, was able to give them some information, her experience bearing out the rule already stated, that psychic hearing is easier and more common than psychic sight. She could see where the others could only hear. The ghosts who presented themselves were an elderly couple, dressed as in a bygone age, who actually stood upon the threshold to welcome her. After meeting them several times they spoke to her, and this marks a difference from all the shadow-forms already described, none of which show any sign of individual thought and speech. These old people explained that they had once lived in the Manor House, and that their name on earth was Children. They declared that they had idolized their property, that its improvement was the centre of their thoughts, and that they were now grieved to see that it had passed away to strangers. It was a case where total absorption in an earthly thing, however innocent, had become a fatal bar to spiritual advancement—a danger against which we must all earnestly guard. Their voices as they spoke seemed normal to the young lady, while the point lace upon the beautifully-brocaded dress was imprinted in her memory. The living lady of the house was able soon afterwards to confirm the statement of her clairvoyante friend, for she also saw the female vision with the name, "Dame Children," written above her in letters of phosphoric fire, together with a statement that she was "earth-bound." For some time diligent inquiry could not find any trace of a family of this unusual name having ever occupied the house, but finally a very old woman was found who in her youth had met an aged man who said that in his boyhood he had helped in the kennels of the Children family. Mr. Dale Owen was so interested in the case that he personally investigated it and cross- examined all the witnesses. On asking the young lady whether the ghost had said anything else of an evidential nature, she remembered that Richard was given as the name of the man, and that the date 1753 was associated with his death. Following up his researches, Mr. Dale Owen discovered some account of the Manor House, which concluded with the words: "Richard Children, Esqre., resided here and died possessed of it in 1753, aged eighty-three years. He was succeeded in it by ... George Children who is the present possessor."

This narrative must carry conviction with it to any reasonable mind, though I must refer the reader to Dale Owen's Footfalls for the smaller details which mean so much. It suggests that the whole range of hauntings of this nature spring from undue preoccupation and want of spiritual effort. One such case seems to carry more warning than all the sermons that ever were spoken. At the same time, Providence is not cruel, and, as I have said, the bondage which is formed by earth-thoughts need not really be an unhappy one to those who are held by it.

When separated into the mere shadows or thought-forms on one side, and actual earth-bound spirits on the other, it is not difficult to analyse and understand a large proportion of preternatural happenings. The division is admittedly a temporary hypothesis, but it serves to keep some sort of order in a subject which has until recently been a mad chaos of inexplicable effects without rational cause. Cases will still obtrude themselves, however, which disturb the tidiness of the most well-ordered theories, and I do not know a more baffling one than that which is treated by two English school-mistresses, and admirably described in their little book called An Adventure.

This adventure, shortly told, consisted in the fact that during a visit to Paris they entered the gardens of Versailles in order to see the Grand Trianon, and that while in those gardens they had a most extraordinary experience, which in the case of one of the ladies was repeated with variations upon the occasion of a second visit. They suddenly appeared to be in the gardens as they were a century before, at the time of the French Revolution, and to see, and in some cases actually speak with, gardeners, messengers, and others who were there in the days of Marie Antoinette. So natural was it all, beginning and ending with normal life, that the ladies hardly understood what had happened to them until they began to compare notes, and realized that some of the buildings and garden arrangements which they had seen had not existed within the memory of man. Both ladies carried away a clear remembrance of dignified officials in grey-green coats and small three-cornered hats, of an intensely still landscape, of trees that looked like tapestry, of cloaked, large-hatted figures, of a running messenger who shouted instructions to them, of a long-waisted, full-skirted lady with a pale-green fichu, of a jaunty young footman, and other quite definite details —all this at four o'clock of a summer afternoon. A second visit by one lady alone, some four months later, produced similar effects, differing in detail but not in general character from the first.

Such an experience is so very unlike the vast majority of psychic cases that one is inclined to push it aside. If one cannot get a document into a pigeon-hole, one is too ready with a waste-paper basket, and it is this human tendency which has retarded our advance in this new science. Anyone who carefully reads the narrative of these ladies, and notices the points of resemblance and also the very interesting points of divergence in their stories, cannot fail to take them seriously. It was not imagination or suggestion or, so far as one can judge, hallucination. But what it was, and why by some strange psychic refraction this mirage of the past should be thrown down upon the present, is an insoluble problem. It must at least teach us that, however much our tiny brains may endeavour to comprehend and classify these extraordinary phenomena, there still remain so many unknown causes and unexplained conditions that for many a long year to come our best efforts can only be regarded as well-meant approximations to the truth.


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