You will thus understand my surprise when, after I was rescued from the attic in Whitechapel, the police informed that I had a solicitor and that he had secured for me an exit from a lengthy prison sentence. The solicitor, a Mr. Bentley, told me he was employed by another attorney, an American named Olcott. When I asked why me, he said he didn’t know, that he was instructed merely to secure my release, which he did. I was taken under police custody to a steamer ship, which I had never before seen, and placed immediately aboard. There, I was introduced to the Countess Constance Wachtmeister, a drab woman done up to her neck in stiff Victorian dress—all black, including gloves and laced boots. She was, she told me, the personal assistant of “HPB,” which is how Madame Helena Blavatsky preferred to be called, and that by the terms of my release, I was now indentured to the Theosophical Society, who were responsible for my moral welfare. She said it with gravity, and as soon as she finished, without so much as a handshake, I was swept to a small cabin, the door was locked, the ship’s whistle blew, and we set sail for India.
We stopped in Cairo. I have never been so hot. I saw the pyramids and so much more squalor than I had presumed could exist in the world. The British seemed about as interested in their empire as a dog its fleas. But of course in that, they were hardly unique. Within the week, we set sail again from a port in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, despite numerous comings and goings, no one could tell me why I was there. I was given books to read, which I ignored. When Countess Wachtmeister appeared the next day to test my command of their contents, she was positively beside herself with fury that they had been unopened. I tried to explain to her that no one had suggested there would be a test, certainly not the wordless Arab boy who had handed them to me as if they were the plague. I was scolded like a schoolgirl by a woman less than half my age. But I took it in silence. I was a stray, just then passing the straits of the greatest desert in the world. I felt it best to do as I was told—at least until I was in a position not to. I suspect also that I was beginning to learn patience. Constance Wachtmeister was a droll woman, and in that way, her opinion of me didn’t matter in the least. I read the books she provided—even correcting the Latin grammar in one, which seemed to have been written by a four-year-old—and passed her stupid test. (The subjects included, among other things, alchemy and the sacred marriage.)
It was, I later learned, a prerequisite for joining the inner circle of the Theosophical Society, of which I was now a part—whether I wanted to be or not. But it was still several weeks before I met the infamous HPB, who was already at our destination. After landing at Bombay, a great mess of a place, the Countess and I were transferred to a locomotive that took us across the continent to Madras. Some miles outside the city—a journey of several bumpy hours by carriage—was a compound that had recently been built for Madame Blavatsky and her followers, and that is where all of us lived. By the time the Countess Wachtmeister and I arrived, retinue in train, we were exhausted and at each other’s throats. Madras was as sticky as a swamp, and as such, I removed some of the ridiculous outfit in which I had been dressed, an outfit barely fitting the dreary climate of London and certainly not the tropical subcontinent. Although I showed no cleavage, the Countess was aghast at my bare neck. I tried to explain to her that across the whole of Europe a bare neckline was considered quite proper attire for a lady less than forty years before.
It is not the case that manners and mores have gotten uniformly liberal with the centuries. They have waxed and waned unevenly. Concordant with its reputation, the Victorian mind was obsessed with all things proper, but this did not mean an absence of sex. Married couples were expected to engage in the act vigorously and often, in only to populate the Empire. But still, the infamous social repression of the age was not a myth, and it found its fullest and most fecund expression in the Countess Constance Wachtmeister. She was an Englishwoman by upbringing and half by birth. Her father was French, I believe. Her parents died when she was very young and she was raised by her aunt in Surrey. She was married to her cousin, Count Wachtmeister of Sweden, at the ripe age of 27 and moved to that country, where he was Minister of Foreign Affairs. After bearing him a son, her husband died, leaving her a widow at 33. In accordance with tradition, she wore black for the rest of her life. It seemed to infect her. She was not only entirely prudish, she was also relentlessly dour, the kind of woman for whom nothing and no one was ever good enough. When I said we were at each other’s throats, I meant it literally. On more than one occasion, I thought seriously of strangling her, if only to make it impossible for her to speak.
As we approached Ardor House, Madame Blavatsky’s manor, we both bore a long list of grudges against the other, accumulated on the long journey, that we expected the Madame to arbitrate as soon as possible. Alas, she was not home. In her stead, amid the usual, constant menagerie of hangers-on, we found scads of barefoot, dark-skinned workmen hammering up the tile floor. It was a strange sight. Ardor House was brand new, radiant even, having been recently built by the wealthy leader of a sister society in India expressly for our glorious leader, whom he greatly respected. What’s more, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the thing. The floor was a bit stark for my taste, being made of black and white marble tile. But it was perfectly flat and quite cool to the touch.
“Admirable qualities in a floor,“ I told the Countess. “Not a person.”
Apparently, HPB had had a fit at the sight of it, taking it as a great insult. She didn’t set a single foot on it, which means she had not actually entered the white-walled manor that had been built for her and made it clear she never would as long as it required treading such a travesty. Then she left to join the mendicants and gurus perambulating around the town.
The issue, I would come to understand, was doctrinal rather than material. Ardor House had been designed from flag to foundation on the principles of spiritualist magic promulgated by the Society and its cohorts. In the ceiling of the foyer, for example, was a fresco adorned in gold leaf that depicted the fundamental forces of the universe—sun and moon to the north and south, woman to the east, man to the west. In her hands was a chalice. In his, a dagger. To enter the foyer, one had to pass through seven white arches corresponding to the seven faces of the divine. The arches bisected a narrow nursery—it being the tropics, much of the building was open to the air—planted thick like a white witch’s garden. And on it went like that: the grand library was in the shape of a star, the baths were oriented to the poles, crystalline windows in the ceiling traced the path of the sun whose rays seemed to penetrate every corner. If there were shadows in Ardor House, they were faint. The floor, the very ground on which one walked, was checkered to represent the our place in the cosmos, a view that HPB expressly rejected.
Men have always understood—and HPB would’ve agreed—that we can discern the nature of the universe from the facts of our circumstance: that we spend half of each day in darkness, for example, and that correspondingly there is both suffering and joy in the world. For all pre-modern thinkers, it was impossible to conceive of the world as existing anywhere but on the border between great warring realms—stuck, as it were, in the middle. For the Norse, Earth was Midgard, the middle realm, just as in China, it is the Middle Kingdom, with heaven above and darkness below. So, too, in Christianity and Islam. Hence the stark, black-and-white tiles of the floor were the stage on which every drama of the house would take place—a reflection of the universal condition.
Madame Blavatsky asked how anyone could know this. After all, the scholars of antiquity believed that the earth was a bowl or a plate or sometimes a marble covered in a shroud of fixed stars, like a canopy through which holes had been poked so as to let the divine light peek through and remind us even here of the glory of God. Yet, once it was clear that was not the case, that each of those tiny twinkling lights in the sky was not a pinprick but its own distant sun, our ancient conception of ourselves being in the middle of things was never updated. That view was, like that old canopy, fixed in place. It was also, HPB noted, quite psychologically pleasing. Being in the middle suggested that everything was in some way about us, that we were the focus of the great conflict, that we were the star players and the earth the field of sport upon which every gaze in the universe was fixed.
Hardly, she said. The night sky was not a shroud but a seemingly infinite well of darkness—cold and barren and immeasurably vast. We didn’t seem to be in the middle of things at all. We seemed quite far flung in fact. True, our planet was tilted and turned every day between light and dark, which certainly suggested a struggle, a fact born by the common occurrences of suffering and joy. The earth seemed to be neither heaven nor hell, as the old religions assumed. But if our planet were the focus of the conflict, she said, if we were the front of the war, why could we not see the forces of light? Instead, there is only darkness. Darkness on all sides. An immeasurable quantity of it. Our planet was swimming in an ocean of darkness. What’s more, what grace there was seemed only to come by our hand. This, she said, was the problem of evil. It seemed quite direct. Evidence of malice was patent and universal, while evidence of grace was scant and indirect. If the divine were acting on earth, it was only very weakly.
But the crown jewel of her argument was what she called the state of immanent corruption, whereby life survived only by consuming other life. Anything that remained still, that took no act, as the gurus in India urged, inevitably succumbed to rot, and that this applied even to the mountains and rivers. All things not only suffered, they degraded. Where then was the influence of the light? The divine was incorruptible and unchanging. It’s power flowed from itself. Everywhere on earth there were agents of evil. One tripped over them outside the door. Yet, how rare was the saint? How rare were his qualities: knowledge, love, courage, wisdom, and compassion?
The truth, she argued, was that we were not the middle kingdom. We were not the center of everything and never were. Neither was the earth in Hell, which is specifically a house of torture. It was instead in the realm of corruption. It was in the realm of the dark lords. Adrift in some distant corner, we had cast off their shackles some thousands of years before, just as the ancient texts had taught us, but we had not been strong enough to embrace the light, which is why things stand as they do, where the earth spends half of every day in light and half in darkness. But earth is not the focus of the fighting. Earth is not on the front. It is a dismal little planet well behind enemy lines. Which means we are the resistance. And that is why, throughout our history, it has been so easy to question the existence of the divine, for the forces of light do not erupt here as they do elsewhere in existence. Being so far removed, they can do little but slip us help from time to time, as through pinpricks in a canopy.
Although HPB wouldn’t live to see it, science would eventually come to vindicate her view of the universe, at least in its significant facts. Our lady’s views on “immanent corruption” presaged the laws of thermodynamics, which were being formulated at the time but of which she had no knowledge. She also suggested that the distant dots of light in the sky were, like our sun, symbolic of acts of rebellion and that the true nature of a dark universe must be cold, bleak, and unradiant—what we now call dark matter. And in as much as our cold, dark universe had been created—forged was the word she used—by the lords of night as a font of suffering from which they could power their universal aims, that suggested it had a violent beginning, a big bang. This latter observation is especially important since it contradicted the prevailing, chauvinist view of the time that the night sky was the reflection of God: glorious, eternal, infinite, and unchanging.
Such arguments about the fundamental nature of the universe had been raging for decades both between members of the Theosophical Society as well as between the society and its peers. Some of them had gotten quite heated. By the time HPB arrived in India, there was considerable bad blood, and in typical Blavatsky fashion, she would not be bested and took no quarter. To tread that checkered floor, certainly to live on it, was a tacit admission of defeat. She simply walked away.
The Countess and I found her in a cramped apartment in the city lounging on a pillow wearing nothing but a single loose gown.
from the opening of Bright Black, the fifth and final installment of my full-course occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
cover image by Chris Cold