An Autobiography/Chapter XIV
Out of all this turmoil and stress rose a Brotherhood that had in it the promise of a fairer day. Mr. Stead and I had become close friends—he Christian, I Atheist, burning with one common love for man, one common hatred against oppression. And so in Our Corner for February, 1888, I wrote:—"Lately there has been dawning on the minds of men far apart in questions of theology, the idea of founding a new Brotherhood, in which service of Man should take the place erstwhile given to service of God—a brotherhood in which work should be worship and love should be baptism, in which none should be regarded as alien who was willing to work for human good. One day as I was walking towards Millbank Gaol with the Rev. S.D. Headlam, on the way to liberate a prisoner, I said to him: 'Mr. Headlam, we ought to have a new Church, which should include all who have the common ground of faith in and love for man.' And a little later I found that my friend Mr. W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, had long been brooding over a similar thought, and wondering whether men 'might not be persuaded to be as earnest about making this world happy as they are over saving their souls.' The teaching of social duty, the upholding of social righteousness, the building up of a true commonwealth—such would be among the aims of the Church of the future. Is the hope too fair for realisation? Is the winning of such beatific vision yet once more the dream of the enthusiast? But surely the one fact that persons so deeply differing in theological creeds as those who have been toiling for the last three months to aid and relieve the oppressed, can work in absolute harmony side by side for the one end—surely this proves that there is a bond which is stronger than our antagonisms, a unity which is deeper than the speculative theories which divide."
How unconsciously I was marching towards the Theosophy which was to become the glory of my life, groping blindly in the darkness for that very brotherhood, definitely formulated on these very lines by those Elder Brothers of our race, at whose feet I was so soon to throw myself. How deeply this longing for something loftier than I had yet found had wrought itself into my life, how strong the conviction was growing that there was something to be sought to which the service of man was the road, may be seen in the following passage from the same article:—
"It has been thought that in these days of factories and of tramways, of shoddy, and of adulteration, that all life must tread with even rhythm of measured footsteps, and that the glory of the ideal could no longer glow over the greyness of a modern horizon. But signs are not awanting that the breath of the older heroism is beginning to stir men's breasts, and that the passion for justice and for liberty, which thrilled through the veins of the world's greatest in the past, and woke our pulses to responsive throb, has not yet died wholly out of the hearts of men. Still the quest of the Holy Grail exercises its deathless fascination, but the seekers no longer raise eyes to heaven, nor search over land and sea, for they know that it waits them in the suffering at their doors, that the consecration of the holiest is on the agonising masses of the poor and the despairing, the cup is crimson with the blood of the
"'People, the grey-grown speechless Christ.'
... If there be a faith that can remove the mountains of ignorance and evil, it is surely that faith in the ultimate triumph of Right in the final enthronement of Justice, which alone makes life worth the living, and which gems the blackest cloud of depression with the rainbow-coloured arch of an immortal hope."
As a step towards bringing about some such union of those ready to work for man, Mr. Stead and I projected the Link, a halfpenny weekly, the spirit of which was described in its motto, taken from Victor Hugo: "The people are silence. I will be the advocate of this silence. I will speak for the dumb. I will speak of the small to the great and of the feeble to the strong.... I will speak for all the despairing silent ones. I will interpret this stammering; I will interpret the grumblings, the murmurs, the tumults of crowds, the complaints ill-pronounced, and all these cries of beasts that, through ignorance and through suffering, man is forced to utter ... I will be the Word of the People. I will be the bleeding mouth whence the gag is snatched out. I will say everything." It announced its object to be the "building up" of a "New Church, dedicated to the service of man," and "what we want to do is to establish in every village and in every street some man or woman who will sacrifice time and labour as systematically and as cheerfully in the temporal service of man as others do in what they believe to be the service of God." Week after week we issued our little paper, and it became a real light in the darkness. There the petty injustices inflicted on the poor found voice; there the starvation wages paid to women found exposure; there sweating was brought to public notice. A finisher of boots paid 2s. 6d. per dozen pairs and "find your own polish and thread"; women working for 10-1/2 hours per day, making shirts—"fancy best"—at from 10d. to 3s. per dozen, finding their own cotton and needles, paying for gas, towel, and tea (compulsory), earning from 4s. to 10s. per week for the most part; a mantle finisher 2s. 2d. a week, out of which 6d. for materials; "respectable hard-working woman" tried for attempted suicide, "driven to rid herself of life from want." Another part of our work was defending people from unjust landlords, exposing workhouse scandals, enforcing the Employers' Liability Act, Charles Bradlaugh's Truck Act, forming "Vigilance Circles" whose members kept watch in their own district over cases of cruelty to children, extortion, insanitary workshops, sweating, &c., reporting each case to me. Into this work came Herbert Burrows, who had joined hands with me over the Trafalgar Square defence, and who wrote some noble articles in the Link. A man loving the people with passionate devotion, hating oppression and injustice with equal passion, working himself with remorseless energy, breaking his heart over wrongs he could not remedy. His whole character once came out in a sentence when he was lying delirious and thought himself dying: "Tell the people how I have loved them always."
In our crusade for the poor we worked for the dockers." To-morrow morning, in London alone 20,000 to 25,000 adult men," wrote Sidney Webb, "will fight like savages for permission to labour in the docks for 4d. an hour, and one-third of them will fight in vain, and be turned workless away." We worked for children's dinners. "If we insist on these children being educated, is it not necessary that they shall be fed? If not, we waste on them knowledge they cannot assimilate, and torture many of them to death. Poor waifs of humanity, we drive them into the school and bid them learn; and the pitiful, wistful eyes question us why we inflict this strange new suffering, and bring into their dim lives this new pang. 'Why not leave us alone? 'ask the pathetically patient little faces. Why not, indeed, since for these child martyrs of the slums, Society has only formulas, not food." We cried out against "cheap goods," that meant "sweated and therefore stolen goods." "The ethics of buying should surely be simply enough. We want a particular thing, and we do not desire to obtain it either by begging or by robbery; but if in becoming possessed of it, we neither beg it nor steal, we must give for it something equivalent in exchange; so much of our neighbour's labour has been put into the thing we desire; if we will not yield him fair equivalent for that labour, yet take his article, we defraud him, and if we are not willing to give that fair equivalent we have no right to become the owners of his product."
This branch of our work led to a big fight—a fight most happy in its results. At a meeting of the Fabian Society, Miss Clementina Black gave a capital lecture on Female Labour, and urged the formation of a Consumers' League, pledged only to buy from shops certificated "clean" from unfair wage. H.H. Champion, in the discussion that followed, drew attention to the wages paid by Bryant & May (Limited), while paying an enormous dividend to their shareholders, so that the value of the original £5 shares was quoted at £18 7s. 6d. Herbert Burrows and I interviewed some of the girls, got lists of wages, of fines, &c. "A typical case is that of a girl of sixteen, a piece-worker; she earns 4s. a week, and lives with a sister, employed by the same firm, who 'earns good money, as much as 8s. or 9s. a week.' Out of the earnings 2s. a week is paid for the rent of one room. The child lives only on bread and butter and tea, alike for breakfast and dinner, but related with dancing eyes that once a month she went to a meal where 'you get coffee and bread and butter, and jam and marmalade, and lots of it.'" We published the facts under the title of "White Slavery in London," and called for a boycott of Bryant & May's matches. "It is time some one came and helped us," said two pale-faced girls to me; and I asked: "Who will help? Plenty of people wish well to any good cause; but very few care to exert themselves to help it, and still fewer will risk anything in its support. 'Some one ought to do it, but why should I?' is the ever re-echoed phrase of weak-kneed amiability. 'Some one ought to do it, so why not I?' is the cry of some earnest servant of man, eagerly forward springing to face some perilous duty. Between those two sentences lie whole centuries of moral evolution."
I was promptly threatened with an action for libel, but nothing came of it; it was easier to strike at the girls, and a few days later Fleet Street was enlivened by the irruption of a crowd of match-girls, demanding Annie Besant. I couldn't speechify to match-girls in Fleet Street, so asked that a deputation should come and explain what they wanted. Up came three women and told their story: they had been asked to sign a paper certifying that they were well treated and contented, and that my statements were untrue; they refused. "You had spoke up for us," explained one, "and we weren't going back on you." A girl, pitched on as their leader, was threatened with dismissal; she stood firm; next day she was discharged for some trifle, and they all threw down their work, some 1,400 of them, and then a crowd of them started off to me to ask what to do next. If we ever worked in our lives, Herbert Burrows and I worked for the next fortnight. And a pretty hubbub we created; we asked for money, and it came pouring in; we registered the girls to receive strike pay, wrote articles, roused the clubs, held public meetings, got Mr. Bradlaugh to ask questions in Parliament, stirred up constituencies in which shareholders were members, till the whole country rang with the struggle. Mr. Frederick Charrington lent us a hall for registration, Mr. Sidney Webb and others moved the National Liberal Club to action; we led a procession of the girls to the House of Commons, and interviewed, with a deputation of them, Members of Parliament who cross-questioned them. The girls behaved splendidly, stuck together, kept brave and bright all through. Mr. Hobart of the Social Democratic Federation, Messrs. Shaw, Bland, and Oliver, and Headlam of the Fabian Society, Miss Clementina Black, and many another helped in the heavy work. The London Trades Council finally consented to act as arbitrators and a satisfactory settlement was arrived at; the girls went in to work, fines and deductions were abolished, better wages paid; the Match-makers' Union was established, still the strongest woman's Trades Union in England, and for years I acted as secretary, till, under press of other duties, I resigned, and my work was given by the girls to Mrs. Thornton Smith; Herbert Burrows became, and still is, the treasurer. For a time there was friction between the Company and the Union, but it gradually disappeared under the influence of common sense on both sides, and we have found the manager ready to consider any just grievance and to endeavour to remove it, while the Company have been liberal supporters of the Working Women's Club at Bow, founded by H.P. Blavatsky.
The worst suffering of all was among the box-makers, thrown out of work by the strike, and they were hard to reach. Twopence-farthing per gross of boxes, and buy your own string and paste, is not wealth, but when the work went more rapid starvation came. Oh, those trudges through the lanes and alleys round Bethnal Green Junction late at night, when our day's work was over; children lying about on shavings, rags, anything; famine looking out of baby faces, out of women's eyes, out of the tremulous hands of men. Heart grew sick and eyes dim, and ever louder sounded the question, "Where is the cure for sorrow, what the way of rescue for the world?"
In August I asked for a "match-girls' drawing-room." "It will want a piano, tables for papers, for games, for light literature; so that it may offer a bright, homelike refuge to these girls, who now have no real homes, no playground save the streets. It is not proposed to build an 'institution' with stern and rigid discipline and enforcement of prim behaviour, but to open a home, filled with the genial atmosphere of cordial comradeship, and self-respecting freedom—the atmosphere so familiar to all who have grown up in the blessed shelter of a happy home, so strange, alas! to too many of our East London girls." In the same month of August, two years later, H.P. Blavatsky opened such a home.
Then came a cry for help from South London, from tin-box makers, illegally fined, and in many cases grievously mutilated by the non-fencing of machinery; then aid to shop assistants, also illegally fined; legal defences by the score still continued; a vigorous agitation for a free meal for children, and for fair wages to be paid by all public bodies; work for the dockers and exposure of their wrongs; a visit to the Cradley Heath chain-makers, speeches to them, writing for them; a contest for the School Board for the Tower Hamlets division, and triumphant return at the head of the poll. Such were some of the ways in which the autumn days were spent, to say nothing of scores of lectures—Secularist, Labour, Socialist—and scores of articles written for the winning of daily bread. When the School Board work was added I felt that I had as much work as one woman's strength could do.
Thus was ushered in 1889, the to me never-to-be-forgotten year in which I found my way "Home," and had the priceless good fortune of meeting, and of becoming the pupil of, H.P. Blavatsky. Ever more and more had been growing on me the feeling that something more than I had was needed for the cure of social ills. The Socialist position sufficed on the economic side, but where to gain the inspiration, the motive, which should lead to the realisation of the Brotherhood of Man? Our efforts to really organise bands of unselfish workers had failed. Much indeed had been done, but there was not a real movement of self-sacrificing devotion, in which men worked for Love's sake only, and asked but to give, not to take. Where was the material for the nobler Social Order, where the hewn stones for the building of the Temple of Man? A great despair would oppress me as I sought for such a movement and found it not.
Not only so; but since 1886 there had been slowly growing up a conviction that my philosophy was not sufficient; that life and mind were other than, more than, I had dreamed. Psychology was advancing with rapid strides; hypnotic experiments were revealing unlooked-for complexities in human consciousness, strange riddles of multiplex personalities, and, most startling of all, vivid intensities of mental action when the brain, that should be the generator of thought, was reduced to a comatose state. Fact after fact came hurtling in upon me, demanding explanation I was incompetent to give. I studied the obscurer sides of consciousness, dreams, hallucinations, illusions, insanity. Into the darkness shot a ray of light—A.P. Sinnett's "Occult World," with its wonderfully suggestive letters, expounding not the supernatural but a nature under law, wider than I had dared to conceive. I added Spiritualism to my studies, experimenting privately, finding the phenomena indubitable, but the spiritualistic explanation of them incredible. The phenomena of clairvoyance, clairaudience, thought-reading, were found to be real. Under all the rush of the outer life, already sketched, these questions were working in my mind, their answers were being diligently sought. I read a variety of books, but could find little in them that satisfied me. I experimented in various ways suggested in them, and got some (to me) curious results. I finally convinced myself that there was some hidden thing, some hidden power, and resolved to seek until I found, and by the early spring of 1889 I had grown desperately determined to find at all hazards what I sought. At last, sitting alone in deep thought as I had become accustomed to do after the sun had set, filled with an intense but nearly hopeless longing to solve the riddle of life and mind, I heard a Voice that was later to become to me the holiest sound on earth, bidding me take courage for the light was near. A fortnight passed, and then Mr. Stead gave into my hands two large volumes. "Can you review these? My young men all fight shy of them, but you are quite mad enough on these subjects to make something of them." I took the books; they were the two volumes of "The Secret Doctrine," written by H.P. Blavatsky.
Home I carried my burden, and sat me down to read. As I turned over page after page the interest became absorbing; but how familiar it seemed; how my mind leapt forward to presage the conclusions, how natural it was, how coherent, how subtle, and yet how intelligible. I was dazzled, blinded by the light in which disjointed facts were seen as parts of a mighty whole, and all my puzzles, riddles, problems, seemed to disappear. The effect was partially illusory in one sense, in that they all had to be slowly unravelled later, the brain gradually assimilating that which the swift intuition had grasped as truth. But the light had been seen, and in that flash of illumination I knew that the weary search was over and the very Truth was found.
I wrote the review, and asked Mr. Stead for an introduction to the writer, and then sent a note asking to be allowed to call. I received the most cordial of notes, bidding me come, and in the soft spring evening Herbert Burrows and I—for his aspirations were as mine on this matter—walked from Netting Hill Station, wondering what we should meet, to the door of 17, Lansdowne Road. A pause, a swift passing through hall and outer room, through folding-doors thrown back, a figure in a large chair before a table, a voice, vibrant, compelling, "My dear Mrs. Besant, I have so long wished to see you," and I was standing with my hand in her firm grip, and looking for the first time in this life straight into the eyes of "H.P.B." I was conscious of a sudden leaping forth of my heart—was it recognition?—and then, I am ashamed to say, a fierce rebellion, a fierce withdrawal, as of some wild animal when it feels a mastering hand. I sat down, after some introductions that conveyed no ideas to me, and listened. She talked of travels, of various countries, easy brilliant talk, her eyes veiled, her exquisitely moulded fingers rolling cigarettes incessantly. Nothing special to record, no word of Occultism, nothing mysterious, a woman of the world chatting with her evening visitors. We rose to go, and for a moment the veil lifted, and two brilliant, piercing eyes met mine, and with a yearning throb in the voice: "Oh, my dear Mrs. Besant, if you would only come among us!" I felt a well-nigh uncontrollable desire to bend down and kiss her, under the compulsion of that yearning voice, those compelling eyes, but with a flash of the old unbending pride and an inward jeer at my own folly, I said a commonplace polite good-bye, and turned away with some inanely courteous and evasive remark. "Child," she said to me long afterwards, "your pride is terrible; you are as proud as Lucifer himself." But truly I think I never showed it to her again after that first evening, though it sprang up wrathfully in her defence many and many a time, until I learned the pettiness and the worthlessness of all criticism, and knew that the blind were objects of compassion not of scorn.
Once again I went, and asked about the Theosophical Society, wishful to join, but fighting against it. For I saw, distinct and clear—with painful distinctness, indeed—what that joining would mean. I had largely conquered public prejudice against me by my work on the London School Board, and a smoother road stretched before me, whereon effort to help should be praised not blamed. Was I to plunge into a new vortex of strife, and make myself a mark for ridicule—worse than hatred—and fight again the weary fight for an unpopular truth? Must I turn against Materialism, and face the shame of publicly confessing that I had been wrong, misled by intellect to ignore the Soul? Must I leave the army that had battled for me so bravely, the friends who through all brutality of social ostracism had held me dear and true? And he, the strongest and truest friend of all, whose confidence I had shaken by my Socialism—must he suffer the pang of seeing his co-worker, his co-fighter, of whom he had been so proud, to whom he had been so generous, go over to the opposing hosts, and leave the ranks of Materialism? What would be the look in Charles Bradlaugh's eyes when I told him that I had become a Theosophist? The struggle was sharp and keen, but with none of the anguish of old days in it, for the soldier had now fought many fights and was hardened by many wounds. And so it came to pass that I went again to Lansdowne Road to ask about the Theosophical Society. H.P. Blavatsky looked at me piercingly for a moment. "Have you read the report about me of the Society for Psychical Research?" "No; I never heard of it, so far as I know." "Go and read it, and if, after reading it, you come back—well." And nothing more would she say on the subject, but branched off to her experiences in many lands.
I borrowed a copy of the Report, read and re-read it. Quickly I saw how slender was the foundation on which the imposing structure was built. The continual assumptions on which conclusions were based; the incredible character of the allegations; and—most damning fact of all—the foul source from which the evidence was derived. Everything turned on the veracity of the Coulombs, and they were self-stamped as partners in the alleged frauds. Could I put such against the frank, fearless nature that I had caught a glimpse of, against the proud fiery truthfulness that shone at me from the clear, blue eyes, honest and fearless as those of a noble child? Was the writer of "The Secret Doctrine" this miserable impostor, this accomplice of tricksters, this foul and loathsome deceiver, this conjuror with trap-doors and sliding panels? I laughed aloud at the absurdity and flung the Report aside with the righteous scorn of an honest nature that knew its own kin when it met them, and shrank from the foulness and baseness of a lie. The next day saw me at the Theosophical Publishing Company's office at 7, Duke Street, Adelphi, where Countess Wachtmeister—one of the lealest of H.P.B.'s friends—was at work, and I signed an application to be admitted as fellow of the Theosophical Society.
On receiving my diploma I betook myself to Lansdowne Road, where I found H.P.B. alone. I went over to her, bent down and kissed her, but said no word. "You have joined the Society?" "Yes." "You have read the report?" "Yes." "Well?" I knelt down before her and clasped her hands in mine, looking straight into her eyes. "My answer is, will you accept me as your pupil, and give me the honour of proclaiming you my teacher in the face of the world?" Her stern, set face softened, the unwonted gleam of tears sprang to her eyes; then, with a dignity more than regal, she placed her hand upon my head. "You are a noble woman. May Master bless you."
From that day, the 10th of May, 1889, until now—two years three and half months after she left her body on May 8, 1891—my faith in her has never wavered, my trust in her has never been shaken. I gave her my faith on an imperious intuition, I proved her true day after day in closest intimacy living by her side; and I speak of her with the reverence due from a pupil to a teacher who never failed her, with the passionate gratitude which, in our School, is the natural meed of the one who opens the gateway and points out the path. "Folly! fanaticism!" scoffs the Englishman of the nineteenth century. Be it so. I have seen, and I can wait. I have been told that I plunged headlong into Theosophy and let my enthusiasm carry me away. I think the charge is true, in so far as the decision was swiftly taken; but it had been long led up to, and realised the dreams of childhood on the higher planes of intellectual womanhood. And let me here say that more than all I hoped for in that first plunge has been realised, and a certainty of knowledge has been gained on doctrines seen as true as that swift flash of illumination. I know, by personal experiment, that the Soul exists, and that my Soul, not my body, is myself; that it can leave the body at will; that it can, disembodied, reach and learn from living human teachers, and bring back and impress on the physical brain that which it has learned; that this process of transferring consciousness from one range of being, as it were, to another, is a very slow process, during which the body and brain are gradually correlated with the subtler form which is essentially that of the Soul, and that my own experience of it, still so imperfect, so fragmentary, when compared with the experience of the highly trained, is like the first struggles of a child learning to speak compared with the perfect oratory of the practised speaker; that consciousness, so far from being dependent on the brain, is more active when freed from the gross forms of matter than when encased within them; that the great Sages spoken of by H.P. Blavatsky exist; that they wield powers and possess knowledge before which our control of Nature and knowledge of her ways is but as child's play. All this, and much more, have I learned, and I am but a pupil of low grade, as it were in the infant class of the Occult School; so the first plunge has been successful, and the intuition has been justified. This same path of knowledge that I am treading is open to all others who will pay the toll demanded at the gateway—and that toll is willingness to renounce everything for the sake of spiritual truth, and willingness to give all the truth that is won to the service of man, keeping back no shred for self.
On June 23rd, in a review of "The Secret Doctrine" in the National Reformer, the following passages occur, and show how swiftly some of the main points of the teaching had been grasped. (There is a blunder in the statement that of the seven modifications of Matter Science knows only four, and till lately knew only three; these four are sub-states only, sub-divisions of the lowest plane.)
After saying that the nineteenth-century Englishman would be but too likely to be repelled if he only skimmed the book, I went on: "With telescope and with microscope, with scalpel and with battery, Western Science interrogates nature, adding fact to fact, storing experience after experience, but coming ever to gulfs unfathomable by its plummets, to heights unscalable by its ladders. Wide and masterful in its answers to the 'How?' the 'Why?' ever eludes it, and causes remain enwrapped in gloom. Eastern Science uses as its scientific instrument the penetrating faculties of the mind alone, and regarding the material plane as Maya—illusion—seeks in the mental and spiritual planes of being the causes of the material effects. There, too, is the only reality; there the true existence of which the visible universe is but the shadow.
"It is clear that from such investigations some further mental equipment is necessary than that normally afforded by the human body. And here comes the parting of the ways between East and West. For the study of the material universe, our five senses, aided by the instruments invented by Science, may suffice. For all we can hear and see, taste and handle, these accustomed servitors, though often blundering, are the best available guides to knowledge. But it lies in the nature of the case that they are useless when the investigation is to be into modes of existence which cannot impress themselves on our nerve-ends. For instance, what we know as colour is the vibration frequency of etheric waves striking on the retina of the eye, between certain definite limits—759 trillions of blows from the maximum, 436 trillions from the minimum—these waves give rise in us to the sensation which the brain translates into colour. (Why the 436 trillion blows at one end of a nerve become 'Red' at the other end we do not know; we chronicle the fact but cannot explain it.) But our capacity to respond to the vibration cannot limit the vibrational capacity of the ether; to us the higher and lower rates of vibration do not exist, but if our sense of vision were more sensitive we should see where now we are blind. Following this line of thought we realise that matter may exist in forms unknown to us, in modifications to which our senses are unable to respond. Now steps in the Eastern Sage and says: 'That which you say may be, is; we have developed and cultivated senses as much superior to yours as your eye is superior to that of the jelly-fish; we have evolved mental and spiritual faculties which enable us to investigate on the higher planes of being with as much certainty as you are investigating on the physical plane; there is nothing supernatural in the business, any more than your knowledge is supernatural, though much above that accessible to the fish; we do not speculate on these higher forms of existence; we know them by personal study, just as you know the fauna and flora of your world. The powers we possess are not supernatural, they are latent in every human being, and will be evolved as the race progresses. All that we have done is to evolve them more rapidly than our neighbours, by a procedure as open to you as it was to us. Matter is everywhere, but it exists in seven modifications of which you only know four, and until lately only knew three; in those higher forms reside the causes of which you see the effects in the lower, and to know these causes you must develop the capacity to take cognisance of the higher planes.'"
Then followed a brief outline of the cycle of evolution, and I went on: "What part does man play in this vast drama of a universe? Needless to say, he is not the only living form in a Cosmos, which for the most part is uninhabitable by him. As Science has shown living forms everywhere on the material plane, races in each drop of water, life throbbing in every leaf and blade, so the 'Secret Doctrine' points to living forms on higher planes of existence, each suited to its environment, till all space thrills with life, and nowhere is there death, but only change. Amid these myriads are some evolving towards humanity, some evolving away from humanity as we know it, divesting themselves of its grosser parts. For man is regarded as a sevenfold being, four of these parts belonging to the animal body, and perishing at, or soon after, death; while three form his higher self, his true individuality, and these persist and are immortal. These form the Ego, and it is this which passes through many incarnations, learning life's lesson as it goes, working out its own redemption within the limits of an inexorable law, sowing seeds of which it ever reaps the harvest, building its own fate with tireless fingers, and finding nowhere in the measureless time and space around it any that can lift for it one weight it has created, one burden it has gathered, unravel for it one tangle it has twisted, close for it one gulf it has digged."
Then after noting the approaches of Western Science to Eastern, came the final words: "it is of curious interest to note how some of the latest theories seem to catch glimpses of the occult Doctrines, as though Science were standing on the very threshold of knowledge which shall make all her past seem small. Already her hand is trembling towards the grasp of forces beside which all those now at her command are insignificant. How soon will her grip fasten on them? Let us hope not until social order has been transformed, lest they should only give more to those who have, and leave the wretched still wretcheder by force of contrast. Knowledge used by selfishness widens the gulf that divides man from man and race from race, and we may well shrink from the idea of new powers in Nature being yoked to the car of Greed. Hence the wisdom of those 'Masters,' in whose name Madame Blavatsky speaks, has ever denied the knowledge which is power until Love's lesson has been learned, and has given only into the hands of the selfless the control of those natural forces which, misused, would wreck society."
This review, and the public announcement, demanded by honesty, that I had joined the Theosophical Society, naturally raised somewhat of a storm of criticism, and the National Reformer of June 30th contained the following: "The review of Madame Blavatsky's book in the last National Reformer, and an announcement in the Star, have brought me several letters on the subject of Theosophy. I am asked for an explanation as to what Theosophy is, and as to my own opinion on Theosophy—the word 'theosoph' is old, and was used among the Neo-platonists. From the dictionary its new meaning appears to be, 'one who claims to have a knowledge of God, or of the laws of nature by means of internal illumination.' An Atheist certainly cannot be a Theosophist. A Deist might be a Theosophist. A Monist cannot be a Theosophist. Theosophy must at least involve Dualism. Modern Theosophy, according to Madame Blavatsky, as set out in last week's issue, asserts much that I do not believe, and alleges some things that, to me, are certainly not true. I have not had the opportunity of reading Madame Blavatsky's two volumes, but I have read during the past ten years many publications from the pen of herself, Colonel Olcott, and of other Theosophists. They appear to me to have sought to rehabilitate a kind of Spiritualism in Eastern phraseology. I think many of their allegations utterly erroneous, and their reasonings wholly unsound. I very deeply regret indeed that my colleague and co-worker has, with somewhat of suddenness, and without any interchange of ideas with myself, adopted as facts matters which seem to me to be as unreal as it is possible for any fiction to be. My regret is greater as I know Mrs. Besant's devotion to any course she believes to be true. I know that she will always be earnest in the advocacy of any views she undertakes to defend, and I look to possible developments of her Theosophic views with the very gravest misgiving. The editorial policy of this paper is unchanged, and is directly antagonistic to all forms of Theosophy. I would have preferred on this subject to have held my peace, for the public disagreeing with Mrs. Besant on her adoption of Socialism has caused pain to both; but on reading her article and taking the public announcement made of her having joined the Theosophical organisation, I owe it to those who look to me for guidance to say this with clearness.
"It is not possible for me here to state fully my reasons for joining the Theosophical Society, the three objects of which are: To found a Universal Brotherhood without distinction of race or creed; to forward the study of Aryan literature and philosophy; to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the physical powers latent in man. On matters of religious opinion the members are absolutely free. The founders of the society deny a personal God, and a somewhat subtle form of Pantheism is taught as the Theosophic view of the universe, though even this is not forced on members of the society. I have no desire to hide the fact that this form of Pantheism appears to me to promise solution of some problems, especially problems in psychology, which Atheism leaves untouched.
Theosophy, as its students well know, so far from involving Dualism, is based on the One, which becomes Two on manifestation, just as Atheism posits one existence, only cognisable in the duality force and matter, and as philosophic—though not popular—Theism teaches one Deity whereof are spirit and matter. Mr. Bradlaugh's temperate disapproval was not copied in its temperance by some other Freethought leaders, and Mr. Foote especially distinguished himself by the bitterness of his attacks. In the midst of the whirl I was called away to Paris to attend, with Herbert Burrows, the great Labour Congress held there from July 15th to July 20th, and spent a day or two at Fontainebleau with H.P. Blavatsky, who had gone abroad for a few weeks' rest. There I found her translating the wonderful fragments from "The Book of the Golden Precepts," now so widely known under the name of "The Voice of the Silence." She wrote it swiftly, without any material copy before her, and in the evening made me read it aloud to see if the "English was decent." Herbert Burrows was there, and Mrs. Candler, a staunch American Theosophist, and we sat round H.P.B. while I read. The translation was in perfect and beautiful English, flowing and musical; only a word or two could we find to alter, and she looked at us like a startled child, wondering at our praises—praises that any one with the literary sense would endorse if they read that exquisite prose poem.
A little earlier in the same day I had asked her as to the agencies at work in producing the taps so constantly heard at Spiritualistic Séances. "You don't use spirits to produce taps," she said; "see here." She put her hand over my head, not touching it, and I heard and felt slight taps on the bone of my skull, each sending a little electric thrill down the spine. She then carefully explained how such taps were producible at any point desired by the operator, and how interplay of the currents to which they were due might be caused otherwise than by conscious human volition. It was in this fashion that she would illustrate her verbal teachings, proving by experiment the statements made as to the existence of subtle forces controllable by the trained mind. The phenomena all belonged to the scientific side of her teaching, and she never committed the folly of claiming authority for her philosophic doctrines on the ground that she was a wonder-worker. And constantly she would remind us that there was no such thing as "miracle"; that all the phenomena she had produced were worked by virtue of a knowledge of nature deeper than that of average people, and by the force of a well-trained mind and will; some of them were what she would describe as "psychological tricks," the creation of images by force of imagination, and in pressing them on others as a "collective hallucination"; others, such as the moving of solid articles, either by an astral hand projected to draw them towards her, or by using an Elemental; others by reading in the Astral Light, and so on. But the proof of the reality of her mission from those whom she spoke of as Masters lay not in these comparatively trivial physical and mental phenomena, but in the splendour of her heroic endurance, the depth of her knowledge, the selflessness of her character, the lofty spirituality of her teaching, the untiring passion of her devotion, the incessant ardour of her work for the enlightening of men. It was these, and not her phenomena, that won for her our faith and confidence—we who lived beside her, knowing her daily life—and we gratefully accepted her teaching not because she claimed any authority, but because it woke in us powers, the possibility of which in ourselves we had not dreamed of, energies of the Soul that demonstrated their own existence.
Returning to London from Paris, it became necessary to make a very clear and definite presentment of my change of views, and in the Reformer of August 4th I find the following: "Many statements are being made just now about me and my beliefs, some of which are absurdly, and some of which are maliciously, untrue. I must ask my friends not to give credence to them. It would not be fair to my friend Mr. Bradlaugh to ask him to open the columns of this Journal to an exposition of Theosophy from my pen, and so bring about a long controversy on a subject which would not interest the majority of the readers of the National Reformer. This being so I cannot here answer the attacks made on me. I feel, however, that the party with which I have worked for so long has a right to demand of me some explanation of the step I have taken, and I am therefore preparing a pamphlet dealing fully with the question. Further, I have arranged with Mr. R.O. Smith to take as subject of the lectures to be delivered by me at the Hall of Science on August 4th and 11th 'Why I became a Theosophist.' Meanwhile I think that my years of service in the ranks of the Freethought party give me the right to ask that I should not be condemned unheard, and I even venture to suggest, in view of the praises bestowed on me by Freethinkers in the past, that it is possible that there may be something to be said, from the intellectual standpoint, in favour of Theosophy. The caricatures of it which have appeared from some Freethinkers' pens represent it about as accurately as the Christian Evidence caricatures of Atheism represent that dignified philosophy of life; and, remembering how much they are themselves misrepresented, I ask them to wait before they judge."
The lectures were delivered, and were condensed into a pamphlet bearing the same title, which has had a very great circulation. It closed as follows:—
"There remains a great stumblingblock in the minds of many Freethinkers which is certain to prejudice them against Theosophy, and which offers to opponents a cheap subject for sarcasm—the assertion that there exist other living beings than the men and animals found on our own globe. It may be well for people who at once turn away when such an assertion is made to stop and ask themselves whether they really and seriously believe that throughout this mighty universe, in which our little planet is but as a tiny speck of sand in the Sahara, this one planet only is inhabited by living things? Is all the universe dumb save for our voices? eyeless save for our vision? dead save for our life? Such a preposterous belief was well enough in the days when Christianity regarded our world as the centre of the universe, the human race as the one for which the Creator had deigned to die. But now that we are placed in our proper position, one among countless myriads of worlds, what ground is there for the preposterous conceit which arrogates as ours all sentient existence? Earth, air, water, all are teeming with living things suited to their environment; our globe is overflowing with life. But the moment we pass in thought beyond our atmosphere everything is to be changed. Neither reason nor analogy support such a supposition. It was one of Bruno's crimes that he dared to teach that other worlds than ours were inhabited; but he was wiser than the monks who burned him. All the Theosophists aver is that each phase of matter has living things suited to it, and that all the universe is pulsing with life. 'Superstition!' shriek the bigoted. It is no more superstition than the belief in Bacteria, or in any other living thing invisible to the ordinary human eye. 'Spirit' is a misleading word, for, historically, it connotes immateriality and a supernatural kind of existence, and the Theosophist believes neither in the one nor the other. With him all living things act in and through a material basis, and 'matter' and 'spirit' are not found dissociated. But he alleges that matter exists in states other than those at present known to science. To deny this is to be about as sensible as was the Hindû prince who denied the existence of ice because water, in his experience, never became solid. Refusal to believe until proof is given is a rational position; denial of all outside of our own limited experience is absurd.
"One last word to my Secularist friends. If you say to me, 'Leave our ranks,' I will leave them; I force myself on no party, and the moment I feel myself unwelcome I will go. It has cost me pain enough and to spare to admit that the Materialism from which I hoped all has failed me, and by such admission to bring on myself the disapproval of some of my nearest friends. But here, as at other times in my life, I dare not purchase peace with a lie. An imperious necessity forces me to speak the truth, as I see it, whether the speech please or displease, whether it bring praise or blame. That one loyalty to Truth I must keep stainless, whatever friendships fail me or human ties be broken. She may lead me into the wilderness, yet I must follow her; she may strip me of all love, yet I must pursue her; though she slay me, yet will I trust in her; and I ask no other epitaph on my tomb but
"'SHE TRIED TO FOLLOW TRUTH.'"
Meanwhile, with this new controversy on my hands, the School Board work went on, rendered possible, I ought to say, by the generous assistance of friends unknown to me, who sent me, £150 a year during the last year and a half. So also went on the vigorous Socialist work, and the continual championship of struggling labour movements, prominent here being the organisation of the South London fur-pullers into a union, and the aiding of the movement for shortening the hours of tram and 'bus men, the meetings for which had to be held after midnight. The feeding and clothing of children also occupied much time and attention, for the little ones in my district were, thousands of them, desperately poor. My studies I pursued as best I could, reading in railway carriages, tramcars, omnibuses, and stealing hours for listening to H.P.B. by shortening the nights.
In October, Mr. Bradlaugh's shaken strength received its death-blow, though he was to live yet another fifteen months. He collapsed suddenly under a most severe attack of congestion and lay in imminent peril, devotedly nursed by his only remaining child, Mrs. Bonner, his elder daughter having died the preceding autumn. Slowly he struggled back to life, after four weeks in bed, and, ordered by his physician to take rest and if possible a sea voyage, he sailed for India on November 28th, to attend the National Congress, where he was enthusiastically acclaimed as "Member for India."
In November I argued a libel suit, brought by me against the Rev. Mr. Hoskyns, vicar of Stepney, who had selected some vile passages from a book which was not mine and had circulated them as representing my views, during the School Board election of 1888. I had against me the Solicitor-General, Sir Edward Clarke, at the bar, and Baron Huddleston on the bench; both counsel and judge did their best to browbeat me and to use the coarsest language, endeavouring to prove that by advocating the limitation of the family I had condemned chastity as a crime. Five hours of brutal cross-examination left my denial of such teachings unshaken, and even the pleadings of the judge for the clergyman, defending his parishioners against an unbeliever and his laying down as law that the statement was privileged, did not avail to win a verdict. The jury disagreed, not, as one of them told me afterwards, on the question of the libel, but on some feeling that a clergyman ought not to be mulcted in damages for his over-zeal in defence of his faith against the ravening wolf of unbelief, while others, regarding the libel as a very cruel one, would not agree to a verdict that did not carry substantial damages. I did not carry the case to a new trial, feeling that it was not worth while to waste time over it further, my innocence of the charge itself having been fully proved.
Busily the months rolled on, and early in the year 1890 H.P.Blavatsky had given to her £1,000, to use in her discretion for human service, and if she thought well, in the service of women. After a good deal of discussion she fixed on the establishment of a club in East London for working girls, and with her approval Miss Laura Cooper and I hunted for a suitable place. Finally we fixed on a very large and old house, 193, Bow Road, and some months went in its complete renovation and the building of a hall attached to it. On August 15th it was opened by Madame Blavatsky, and dedicated by her to the brightening of the lot of hardworking and underpaid girls. It has nobly fulfilled its mission for the last three years. Very tender was H.P.B.'s heart to human suffering, especially to that of women and children. She was very poor towards the end of her earthly life, having spent all on her mission, and refusing to take time from her Theosophical work to write for the Russian papers which were ready to pay highly for her pen. But her slender purse was swiftly emptied when any human pain that money could relieve came in her way. One day I wrote a letter to a comrade that was shown to her, about some little children to whom I had carried a quantity of country flowers, and I had spoken of their faces pinched with want. The following characteristic note came to me:—
"MY DEAREST FRIEND,—I have just read your letter to —— and my heart is sick for the poor little ones! Look here; I have but 30s. of my own money of which I can dispose (for as you know I am a pauper, and proud of it), but I want you to take them and not say a word. This may buy thirty dinners for thirty poor little starving wretches, and I may feel happier for thirty minutes at the thought. Now don't say a word, and do it; take them to those unfortunate babies who loved your flowers and felt happy. Forgive your old uncouth friend, useless in this world!
It was this tenderness of hers that led us, after she had gone, to found the "H.P.B. Home for little children," and one day we hope to fulfil her expressed desire that a large but homelike Refuge for outcast children should be opened under the auspices of the Theosophical Society.
The lease of 17, Lansdowne Road expiring in the early summer of 1890, it was decided that 19, Avenue Road should be turned into the headquarters of the Theosophical Society in Europe. A hall was built for the meetings of the Blavatsky Lodge—the lodge founded by her—and various alterations made. In July her staff of workers was united under one roof; thither came Archibald and Bertram Keightley, who had devoted themselves to her service years before, and the Countess Wachtmeister, who had thrown aside all the luxuries of wealth and of high social rank to give all to the cause she served and the friend she loved with deep and faithful loyajty; and George Mead, her secretary and earnest disciple, a man of strong brain and strong character, a fine scholar and untiring worker; thither, too, Claude Wright, most lovable of Irishmen, with keen insight underlying a bright and sunny nature, careless on the surface, and Walter Old, dreamy and sensitive, a born psychic, and, like many such, easily swayed by those around him; Emily Kislingbury also, a studious and earnest woman; Isabel Cooper Oakley, intuitional and studious, a rare combination, and a most devoted pupil in Occult studies; James Pryse, an American, than whom none is more devoted, bringing practical knowledge to the help of the work, and making possible the large development of our printing department. These, with myself, were at first the resident staff, Miss Cooper and Herbert Burrows, who were also identified with the work, being prevented by other obligations from living always as part of the household.
The rules of the house were—and are—very simple, but H.P.B. insisted on great regularity of life; we breakfasted at 8 a.m., worked till lunch at 1, then again till dinner at 7. After dinner the outer work for the Society was put aside, and we gathered in H.P.B.'s room where we would sit talking over plans, receiving instructions, listening to her explanation of knotty points. By 12 midnight all the lights had to be extinguished. My public work took me away for many hours, unfortunately for myself, but such was the regular run of our busy lives. She herself wrote incessantly; always suffering, but of indomitable will, she drove her body through its tasks, merciless to its weaknesses and its pains. Her pupils she treated very variously, adapting herself with nicest accuracy to their differing natures; as a teacher she was marvellously patient, explaining a thing over and over again in different fashions, until sometimes after prolonged failure she would throw herself back in her chair: "My God!" (the easy "Mon Dieu" of the foreigner) "am I a fool that you can't understand? Here, So-and-so"—to some one on whose countenance a faint gleam of comprehension was discernible—"tell these flapdoodles of the ages what I mean." With vanity, conceit, pretence of knowledge, she was merciless, if the pupil were a promising one; keen shafts of irony would pierce the sham. With some she would get very angry, lashing them out of their lethargy with fiery scorn; and in truth she made herself a mere instrument for the training of her pupils, careless what they, or any one else thought of her, providing that the resulting benefit to them was secured. And we, who lived around her, who in closest intimacy watched her day after day, we bear witness to the unselfish beauty of her life, the nobility of her character, and we lay at her feet our most reverent gratitude for knowledge gained, lives purified, strength developed. O noble and heroic Soul, whom the outside purblind world misjudges, but whom your pupils partly saw, never through lives and deaths shall we repay the debt of gratitude we owe to you.
And thus I came through storm to peace, not to the peace of an untroubled sea of outer life, which no strong soul can crave, but to an inner peace that outer troubles may not avail to ruffle—a peace which belongs to the eternal not to the transitory, to the depths not to the shallows of life. It carried me scatheless through the terrible spring of 1891, when death struck down Charles Bradlaugh in the plenitude of his usefulness, and unlocked the gateway into rest for H. P. Blavatsky. Through anxieties and responsibilities heavy and numerous it has borne me; every strain makes it stronger; every trial makes it serener; every assault leaves it more radiant. Quiet confidence has taken the place of doubt; a strong security the place of anxious dread. In life, through death, to life, I am but the servant of the great Brotherhood, and those on whose heads but for a moment the touch of the Master has rested in blessing can never again look upon the world save through eyes made luminous with the radiance of the Eternal Peace.
PEACE TO ALL BEINGS.
- I leave these words as they were written in 1889. I resigned my office in the N.S.S. in 1890, feeling that the N.S.S. was so identified with Materialism that it had no longer place for me.