Project Canterbury

The Unseen World; Communications with It, Real or Imaginary

By John Mason Neale

London: Joseph Masters, 1853.

Night II. Of aerial apparitions.

Sophron. It would be a curious subject of inquiry, why the inhabitants of mountainous regions are so much more given to believe in tales of supernatural incident, than those who live in the flatter and tamer parts of the same country.

Eupeithes. The habit of constant communion with nature in her deepest solitude has a necessary tendency to make the mind reverential. With such beauty and majesty continually before the eye, it seems almost to follow, that the power which made and sustains all these things must be also recognized; a kind of perpetual converse with the unseen world is maintained; and, where nothing of human [21/22] littleness may be visible in the course of a long day, the traveller naturally turns his thought to those unseen companions whom he believes to be journeying with him. So much for the moral grounds. Then for the physical; the wonderful phenomena of light and shade; the extraordinary sounds which are familiar to mountain ears; the opening out of a new kind of landscape, fantastical beyond the wildest valleys of earth--I mean cloud scenery; the hours of intense stillness; the clearness and brightness of the atmosphere; the lightness of the air; the necessity of observing those little signs of approaching tempest which a common eye and ear would fail to catch; all these things may he, in part, the cause of this--superstitious, to use the modern phrase--feeling in mountaineers.

Sophron. And not only so; but there is no doubt that constant association with magnificent scenes calls out all the affections of the mind in their full force. Wilberforce, I think, somewhere remarks, that he always seemed to love his friends better in a mountainous country than any where else; and doubtless it was more than seeming.

Eupeithes. Sailors also, who, though in a different manner, are conversant with the most sublime scenes, are naturally credulous of supernatural tales. And it is curious that, both in their case and in that of mountaineers, this feeling should be united with great physical courage; whereas soldiers who are, in peace, usually immured in towns, and, in war, are most commonly located in flat and uninteresting countries, are given to scepticism rather than superstition.

Eusebia. Yet sometimes they will exhibit great sensitiveness to natural scenery. The German troops, who, in the rising of 1745, were advancing on Inverness, could hardly be prevailed on to enter the pass of Killicrankie, so terrified were they at the stupendous height of its mountains.

Eupeithes. Closely connected with this is the almost invincible desire which many persons feel to precipitate themselves from the summit of a high place. There is a precipice in Sky where tourists are usually held by their guides, lest its dizzy height should induce them to throw themselves over.

Theodora. I should think it probable that some, at least, of the suicides committed from the top of the [22/23] Monument, were the effect of the same feeling. In cases where the person who thus destroyed himself was actuated by no known cause, and appeared in good spirits at the time of his ascent, it is not only most charitable to suppose, that he should have been carried) away by the frantic desire that most persons, in a slight degree, have felt, but really also most likely.

Sophron. It is well known that there are places in the Alps, and in the Andes, where such panics are not unusual, and where they are almost certain death. The only remedy in such cases is, to look up; and if you can do that steadily for a few moments you are saved.

Eupeithes. Yes; if it is into the clear blue open sky; but (I can speak from my own experience) there are cases where the looking up makes bad worse. If a precipice towers above you on one side, while it yawns beneath you on the other, the additional height does but distress you the more; and if, besides this, light fleecy clouds are flitting rapidly over the summit, it is dizzy work indeed.

Eusebia. It must be:--it turns the brain to stand, on a March day, at the bottom of a church tower, and, looking up steadily to the vane, to watch it as the clouds drive past it. To do so without feeling giddy requires a very steady head.

Eupeithes. I believe that people with the strongest nerves have the most dreadful fits of panic when they have them at all. I have wandered far and wide in the most precipitous places of mountains, and never felt it but once. I had a mind to try if the Pico do Cidrao, one of the loftiest and, at the same time, steepest mountains of Madeira, could not be scaled from the Pico dos Arrieiros. It was a fine day in spring: we tethered our horses on the Arrieiros, and then, with our mountain poles and a shepherd for guide, we committed ourselves to the narrow isthmus that joins the two mountains. Narrow it is; for on either side it slopes down almost perpendicularly into an abyss of some two thousand feet, while, at the top, it is in many places not more than eight feet broad, and its material is crumbling scoria. Indeed, so thin is it, that it vibrates or seems to vibrate in a heavy gale. When we had accomplished half the distance, we sat down to rest, and gaze at the wonderful chasms which opened below us. Seeing a small crack in the earth, I [23/24] looked down into that, and lo! the opposite chasm was distinctly visible through it. At last, however, up ladders of rock, assisted by the shepherd's banisters of roughly-spun rope, round corners where you trusted yourself to the young oak or the sapling til, and hung for a moment over a depth that it makes my blood run cold to recollect,--now creeping along this side of the isthmus, now working like worms along that, we stood under the shadow of the great Cidrão itself. Here, on a little platform of turf, my friend sat down, weary and sick at heart, while I resolved, with a good courage, still to follow my guide. On we went: the path was a ledge of about eighteen inches,--a steep precipice above, a steep precipice below,--all bare rock,--no twining root or friendly twig to give the hand a firm, nor even an imaginary hold. Just then the northern gale swept a mass of clouds into the abyss, and it seemed as if we were walking along the edge of the world. I began to feel a little uncomfortable, when my guide, by way of consoling me, wrenched a large rock from its place, and hurled it downwards into the clouds. I lost it in that soft bed; but half a minute afterwards its crash came up from beneath, echoed from crag to crag, and seeming as if it came from another world. Oh, I shall never forget that moment! My brain seemed to turn round, my limbs to have no power of support, and I felt that horrible desire of leaping after the rock, the descent of which I had just witnessed. That was my only panic, and I thought it would have been my first and last.

Theodora. This, and cases like this, are the most undoubted instances where the influence of external nature has a visible and physical effect. The great question is, to what immediate cause are we to attribute it?

Sophron. If you ask my opinion, I have long believed it to be the immediate effect of temptation. The name, panic, proves that the spirits who were supposed to haunt wild, and lonely scenery, were also supposed to be gifted with an extraordinary influence over the mind; just as in Gothic lore fairies were endowed with the same power of depriving their unwelcome visitants of reason. Now, that the evil spirits by which we are surrounded should delight in making God's works, which in themselves are very good, occasions of misery [24/25] to man, is extremely likely in itself, and consonant with all analogy. We do not remember, or we will not believe, that the presence of Christians must make an inroad on the powers of darkness; that they cannot exercise the same influence over mankind in such regions, as in wild and lonely mountains, which Holy Church can scarcely be said to have vindicated to herself; almost inaccessible to man; intended, to the end of the world, to be none of his, to whomsoever else they may be given. Take another illustration. By general consent there is an intrinsic connection between night and evil. All nations have then thought wicked spirits to have most power: at nightfall it is that, by universal agreement of mankind, appearances from the other world do almost always occur; and every one must have felt how inimitably true is Shakspere,--

"Good things of day begin to droop and drouse,
While night's fell agents to their prey do rouse."

It is from a natural horror of the dark that children will cry in it; and the nearer that men approach to a state of nature, the more do they shrink from it, as from an evil thing. You may get over your dislike to it, and so you may to any other ill object; but from the beginning of the world, allegorically and physically, it has been connected with the idea of sin. A deed of darkness, and powers of darkness, carry their meaning in their face. Now, it is in its solitude, its negative of life and action, its separation of man from man, its individualizing human beings, by keeping each from aiding or being aided by his brother,--all the features, in short, in which night is evil, that it resembles the lonely scenes of which we speak. True, there is a brighter side to the picture. Angels may delight in solitudes unstained by sin; and peaks like those of Chimboraço and Himalaya may be, could we only hear it, vocal with the songs of the just made perfect. But still, it is a solemn thought that the doom has been once spoken, which, till the regeneration of the heavens and earth by fire, must remain in some sense in force: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake." The Church, we know, has a power of reversing this curse; but till she has blessed, it remains, and must remain. The sorest temptations which the history of the Church can recount, have [25/26] taken place in the desert; also, I grant you, some of the most glorious victories. We must expect the one, we may hope for the other.

Eupeithes. It seems to me that it is very difficult to carry on such speculations without falling into one of two dangers,--pantheism or materialism. A pantheist will grant all you have been saying; lie, too, will speak of the ministry of angels, and, perhaps, the assaults of less happy spirits; but then his angels will be the sweet whisper of the wind, the bright contrasts of light and shade, the dewy forest, or the glorious landscape; while his evil spirits are but the natural effects of gloomy valleys and frowning rocks; of barren wastes and desolate sands. This doctrine we all reject with horror. But, then, is it not to materialize our notions of the blessed angels, to imagine them to take delight in earthly beauty,--they who have so glorious a land of their own? And, again, is it not to undervalue the strength of our ghostly enemies, to imagine them desirous, or standing in need, of physical advantages of situation?

Sophron. I think not. Call to mind only the analogy between the revelation that we have of heaven, and the nature, as we know it, of this earth. In the first place, none can deny, that after the resurrection and the final judgment, the just made perfect will not be, as angels, simply spiritual essences, but be endowed, as when on earth, with material bodies. Now, material beings necessarily presuppose a material locality: material sight would be simply useless, unless there were material substances to see; material hearing, unless there were material sounds to hear. This obviates one great objection to what I am saying; that the whole apocalyptic description is only the lowering of heavenly ideas to earthly minds. If a merely spiritual state were being described, doubtless it would so be; but when (to say the least) much that is material must be mixed up with it, the argument vanishes. Consider, again, the remarkable terms in which the abode of the elect is mentioned, after the final doom: "a new heaven and a new earth." And lest any one should think that this is a merely casual expression of S. John, (granting that such things might be,) S. Peter also, and Isaiah, speak of "new heavens and a new earth." If, now, there were no analogy between the old [26/27] and the new, between the first and the second, earth, to what purpose this particular and thrice-repeated expression? And most remarkably is it said, "there was no more sea." There is therefore so strong a resemblance between the two earths, that the absence of the sea in the second is thought a point worthy of note. Therefore, all the varieties of natural beauty except this, it may be presumed, still will exist. If of one thing in a series it be recorded that it is abolished, the natural presumption about the others is, that they remain. And, in the mystical descriptions of heaven with which Holy Scripture abounds, we find frequent reference to the other most remarkable components of earthly scenery. To trees; for there is the Tree of Life: to mountains; for there is the utmost bound of the Everlasting Hills: to lakes; for there the glorious Lord will be a place of broad streams: to rivers; for there is the River of the Water of Life. Surely it is impossible to believe that these things are purely metaphorical? Nor can it even be said that the expressions are used in a Sacramental sense. How is it possible to imagine immaterial beauty, which bears a close analogy to material, and yet is fitted for material beings? And if not, the closeness of the similitude between heaven and earth is only to be understood by those Blessed Ones who know even as they are known.

Theodora. Hence, then, you would conclude that, if the souls of the righteous may after the general resurrection find their happiness increased by a beauty in all points like the beauty of earth, differing from it only in transfiguration or beatification, not in spiritualization,--which souls, nevertheless, are not material, though acting through a material medium, and are not impaired in vigour by their connection with that medium, but, on the contrary, derive fresh happiness and excellence from their union, or rather re-union with it,--then, at this present time, angelic spirits may well be supposed to delight in earthly and material loveliness, and that without any materialization of our notion of those pure and bodiless essences.

Sophron. Such is the inference I would draw; and with what sanctity does it invest the beauty of this world! "Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels," may thus be true of man, not only as regards his own nature, [27/28] but in some degree also as taken in reference to the physical substances by which he is surrounded, and with which he is brought into contact. That is one branch of our difficulty. Now let us consider the other, with reference to evil spirits. Can it be denied that solitude has always exposed those who have sought it to fiercer temptations? And have they not, as S. Antony, obtained the greater glory in overcoming them? Even our Blessed LORD Himself was led up into the wilderness, before He was assaulted by our great enemy. And in such desolate and gloomy places did the demoniacs live;--"always he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying and cutting himself with stones." Nor must we pass over the fact, that the swine, when permitted to be possessed, were violently hurried down a steep place into the sea: as if, by a remarkable analogy, with the desire, of self-destruction, to which we have just been alluding.

Theodora. We may draw, then, two conclusions from what has been said. The one, that in scenes of desolation and loneliness the mind would be most likely to be open to supernatural impressions; the other, that in the same scenes such impressions would be most likely to be conveyed to the mind.

Sophron. We shall find that this is well borne out by experience, and that, in many ways, such supernatural impressions may be traced, and have been recorded.

Eupeithes. Another observation should also be made; namely, that it is in these very situations that we may most often be at a loss to determine whether an appearance be supernatural, or whether it can be explained on any known principle.

Sophron. I grant you it is just here that physical phenomena are likely to be most strange. Let us endeavour to remember a few examples.

Eupeithes. The lights which are sometimes seen in lonely places are very curious. It is well known that in a crossroad, near, I think, Lostwithiel, in Cornwall, there is a stationary light which always kindles itself at night, at the same height from the ground, of the same colour, form, and size; neither is there any discoverable physical reason, such as a grotto, or chasm, whence gas might issue, by which the phenomenon can be explained. It is also well known, that [28/29] on the wildest heights and headlands of Madeira, at night, but especially on stormy nights, lights are seen to glance up and down the most inaccessible precipices, where the foot of man never has been, nor ever, till the general doom, will be; leaping from crag to crag over intervening ravines and chines: sometimes almost mingling with the sea rocks, sometimes shooting up to the very brow of the cliff. The fishermen believe them to be tormented souls, thus working out part of their punishment, and testify great horror at the apparition.

Sophron. Such lights have also been observed in places where they would least have been expected. There is a bedroom in Lulworth Castle, in Dorsetshire, where, on a particular spot on the wall, a pale phosphoric light is always to be seen, when the windows are darkened. I have heard, that to wake in the stillness of the night, and to see this pale light glaring quietly on you, is a most unpleasant thing. And so the proprietors thought; for they had the wall pulled down, and rebuilt, but to no effect: the light appeared again, and is to be seen there to this day.

Eupeithes. A man that shall travel much in the Highlands, must be hard of belief indeed, if he do not give credit to the tales which he hears of corpse lights. The belief is strongest in the Hebrides; that a light of about the brightness and apparent diameter of a horn lantern may be seen, occasionally, to move along the road which leads to the church, sometimes stopping, and never going fast. Along this same road, within a few days, a funeral, they say, is certain to pass.

Eusebia. I will give you a curious instance of these lights. A minister of the Scotch establishment, on his way home one evening, leant on the wall of the churchyard, to admire the beauty of the twilight lake that stretched at his feet. On a sudden, two small lights rose from a particular spot in the churchyard, crossed the lake, entered a hamlet on the other side, stayed there some short time, and then returned in company with a much larger light, and sank into the ground at the place whence they had risen. The worthy minister went into the churchyard, threw some stones on the spot to mark it, and next morning inquired of the clerk if he remembered having interred any one there. The man answered, that, many years before, he had buried two little [29/30] children, whose father, a blacksmith, was still alive, though an old man, and resided in the hamlet beyond the lake. Scarcely had the minister received this information, when he was summoned to attend the death-bed of this same blacksmith, who had been seized with paralysis, and who was shortly afterwards buried in the same grave with his children.

Theodora. So also the Dee has acquired the epithet of "the holy," because it is said that, whenever a Christian is drowned in its waters, a light appears above the place where his body lies, till it is recovered.

Sophron. That reminds one of the story of S. John Nepomucene. He, you know, was flung over the bridge at Prague, by order of King Wenceslaus, to whom he had refused to reveal the confession of the Queen. Over his body, it is said, starlike lights appeared on the face of the water: it was recovered by the canons, and buried in the Cathedral; and the place is marked, and the stars are represented, on the battlements of the bridge.

Eupeithes. Mr. Dendy, in his very interesting Philosophy of Mystery, tells us, that some years ago, the inhabitants of Borthwen, near Barmouth, were surprised by seeing, one night, a number of lights dancing over the estuary of their river. Gradually all disappeared but one, and that one settled on a boat then, with its owner, in the stream. A few days afterwards, her owner was lost in her.

Theodora. Mr. Davis, of Generglyn, writing to Baxter in 1656, assures him that corpse candles were very common in the counties of Caermarthen, Cardigan, and Pembroke. "If," says he, "it be a little candle, pale or bluish, then follows the corpse either of some abortive or some infant; if a big one, then the corpse of some one come to age; if there be seen two or three, or more, some big, some small, then so many and such corpses together." He gives the following instance:--"Being about the age of fifteen, dwelling at Llanylar, late at night, some neighbours saw one of these, candles hovering up and down the river bank, until they were weary in beholding it: at last they left it so, and went to bed. A few weeks after came a proper damsel from Montgomeryshire, to see her friends, who dwelt on the other side of that river Ystwith, and thought to ford the river at the very place where the light was seen. Being dissuaded by [30/31] some lookers on (some, it is most likely, of those that saw the light) to adventure on the water, which was high, by reason of a flood, she walked up and down along the river bank, even where, and even as, the aforesaid candle did, waiting for the falling of the water, which at last she took; but too soon for her,--for she was drowned therein." This same Mr. Davis, who was Rector, it would seem, of Generglyn, mentions another anecdote in the same letter. "Some thirty or forty years since, my wife's sister, being nurse to Baronet Rudd's three children, and the Lady Comptroller of the house, going late into the chamber where the maid-servants lay, saw no less than five of these lights together. It happened a while after, the chamber being newly plastered, and a grate of coal-fire therein kindled to hasten the drying of the plaster, that five of the maid-servants went to bed as they were wont, but (as it fell out) too soon; for in the morning they were found dead, being suffocated in their sleep by the steam from the new-tempered lime and coal. This was at Llangadden, in Caermarthenshire." A much more modern instance is this. A poor woman, living in Northamptonshire, had been aroused one dark winter's morning, by her husband leaving home for his work. She was dressing herself slightly, preparatory to going down and lighting the fire, when she observed a strange and supernaturally bright light, as of a small globe of fire, shining on the bed. She describes the brilliancy and beauty of the light to have been beyond all expression. She fancied it might have been a gleam of the moon, and went to the window to look; but there was no moon, and the sky outside the window was as dark as possible. Still in the room gleamed this light, and she noticed the threads and pattern of the counterpane, which were made plainly visible by it; she was much frightened, and went down stairs, nor dared she return again till day had broken. She fully expected that some evil was to come; and when, in the autumn of that year, her husband died, rather suddenly, she felt that she had been prepared by this wonderful and unearthly light.

Sophron. No one, that has not seen it, can imagine how precisely the motions of the appearance called Jack-a-Lantern, or Will-o'-the-Wisp, resemble those of a man with a lantern. On a wide moor, sometimes it will seem to run [31/32] very fast in a straight line,--then it will stop, as if perplexed, and move a few yards backwards and forwards, a little higher or a little lower, as if the person that carried it were doubtful of his way,--then, as having found it, off goes the light again, keeping the same height from the ground, and, as it were, held steadily. It is almost impossible to believe it other than it seems, till (if you are acquainted with the ground) you observe that it has crossed a piece of water, or some quagmire that you know to be impassable, and there ends the deception. In Ireland, when these Fairy Men, (as they are called,) appear, the peasants make the sign of the Cross, and turn their cloaks; the latter a superstition for which I cannot account. Sometimes, however, these Will-o'-the-Wisps are stationary. I have myself seen one that would make a very pretty picture: standing on a rustic bridge that crosses a puny stream near its source, where ashes and willows bend over the well-head that bubbles up at a little distance, and the long grass and the red sorrel skirt its clear basin, making a little nook or shrine for the birth-place of the stream, I have seen on a dark and cloudy night a perfect little sun, shooting out its rays on all sides, and hanging immediately over the fountain. The effect of this fairy light on the dewy leaves that dipped themselves in the water, on the old moss-covered bridge, and on the ripples of the stream itself, was very lovely.

Eupeithes. Of a less innocent kind was the celebrated Harlech meteor of 1694. Between Harlech and the Caernarvonshire side of the Traeth Bychan, intervenes a low range of marsh land, running up some way into the country. Just before Christmas, 1693, a pale blue light was observed to come across the sea, apparently from the Caernarvonshire coast, and moving slowly from one part of the neighbouring country to another, to fire all the hay-ricks and some of the barns which it approached. It never appeared but at night. At first the country people were terrified at it; at length, taking courage, they ventured boldly close to it, and sometimes into it, to save, if it might be, their hay. As summer came on, instead of appearing almost every night, its visits were confined to once or twice a week, and almost always on Saturday or Sunday. It now began to cease from firing ricks, but was hurtful in another manner; for it poisoned [32/33] all the grass on which it rested, and a great mortality of cattle and sheep ensued. At length it was traced to a place palled Morvabychan, in Caernarvonshire, a sandy and marshy bay, about nine miles distant from Harlech, Storm or fine weather seemed to make no difference to this meteor; but any loud noise, as shouting, firing guns, blowing horns, appeared to prevent its doing mischief. It was seen for the last time in the August of 1694.

Eusebia. We must not forget, among the aerial apparitions which have been most noted, those well-attested instances of fiery armies combating in the air, which have preceded battles. Night after night, before the destruction of Jerusalem, armies were seen fighting in the clouds: no one can doubt that this was one of the many signs by which the capture of that city was foretold.

Eupeithes. The night before the battle of Ivry, not only was the combat of two armies seen, in a kind of halo of clouds; but the respective lines of the Leaguers and the Royalists, nay, even the persons of the principal chiefs, could be recognized; and the white horse on which Henry IV. did such deeds of valour was distinguished and observed. And this apparition was visible to thousands at the same time.

Theodora. Something similar is said to have occurred before the persecution of the Waldenses, in the seventeenth century. Armies were then seen in the clouds; strange luminous appearances were observed over the churches; the bells rang without mortal hands; and a blue lambent flame hung over the churchyards.

Eupeithes. I will read you, out of Fox, the signs and prodigies which happened before the massacre in the Valteline:

"The Protestants having appointed guards and sentinels in the steeples of the churches of the Valteline, besides others which were commanded to watch in certain places, to give the sign by fire, to the intent that the whole valley, being warned partly by the beacons, partly by the sound of the bells, might together be ready on the sudden to take arms for their defence against the Spaniard, if he should make any incursion upon the valley. About the calends of May, 1620, in Soudres, the foresaid sentinels reported, that in a night, as they watched, they heard, in the church of [S.] Gervase, a murmuring as it were of many persons, with [33/34] great earnestness and vehemency of arguing and contesting among themselves; and from the church there shined upwards through the steeple a great brightness, insomuch as the sentinels lighted their torches, and assembled themselves to go down into the church to see what the matter might be. But as they were descending down the stairs, their lights were put out; and returning afresh to light their torches, they were put out again with greater strength, and with much astonishment and trembling; and the brightness which filled the church suddenly vanished. The weights also of the great clock fell down, and they heard about ten knells of a bell, in such manner as it useth to ring to give the alarm; the which was heard by very many.

"Likewise in Tyrane there were heard the like knells by the great bell, and the magistrate commanded them suddenly to go and know the cause; but he found that it was not done by the act of men; and instantly the servants running from the belfry, and diligently attending to see this business, they discerned a thing like a cat to descend down into the place.

"Signs and prodigies heard and seen in the Valteline after the massacre, as hath been affirmed by divers persons of credit, being departed from the said valley, and lying in the Valteline after the massacre. In the Protestant church, and principally in Teglio and Tyrane, a voice hath been heard to cry, 'Woe, woe, woe unto you. The vengeance of God is upon you for the blood of the innocent.'

"Moreover, there was heard the bell of the evangelic church of Tyrane to ring even at the same time that the sermon was used to be; and in that church a voice was heard, like the voice of Signor Antonio Basso, who sometimes had been there a minister, and was murdered in the said place, as if himself had been preaching in the same place.

"In Soudres there was seen to descend an army from the mountains, every way furnished; which sight was the cause that many took their flight and departed out of Soudres; but suddenly this apparition vanished like a cloud. The which struck a great terror into the minds of the people, insomuch that many departed out of the valley, as men that feared a castigation and punishment from heaven." [Fox, vol. iii. p. 406.]

[35] Sophron. On the night succeeding the bombardment of Acre, in 1839, coruscations, like hieroglyphics, were seen by the English crew, on the mountains to the east of that town. This appears to bear some resemblance to the preceding accounts. [Williams's Jerusalem, p. 179.]

Eupeithes. But the most remarkable, and at the same time one of the most apparently useless apparitions of this kind, occurred at Boulogne a few years since. I have it from an eye-witness. An English family, resident there during the summer, were walking on the terrace before their house one afternoon, watching the coming on of a magnificent thunderstorm, and, as was natural, the conversation turned on tempests. Some one having mentioned the celebrated storm of Nov. 26, 1703, some of its disastrous effects were related. The storm meanwhile came on, and as it was unaccompanied by rain, the party still continued out of doors. All at once, an exclamation from one of the children caused them to look up; and there, through a kind of broken ellipse of clouds, they saw, in fiery characters, the numbers, 1703. Nor (as one might say with good S. Cyril yesterday) did the phenomenon vanish at once. It remained steady long enough to enable my informants to attempt a sketch of it. And afterwards, when several members of the party were requested to sketch it from memory, they all formed the numerals in the same way, thus--


the 3 being of the old-fashioned kind. So wonderful a story I should not have ventured to relate to you, were I not perfectly well acquainted with those to whom it happened; and, from the number of concurrent witnesses, it is as impossible that they should have been deceived themselves, as that they should attempt to deceive others.

Sophron. We shall have, ere long, to consider the question of the general uselessness of apparitions, and whether any argument can be drawn against their credibility on that score. Your story is certainly a curious one, however. Among aerial apparitions, we must not forget the remarkable occurrence which preceded the battle of Campo d'Ourique. Count Affonso was warned by a vision, the night [35/36] before this great engagement, which arrested for ever the Moorish dominion in Portugal, that if he went forth when the bell sounded for mass on the following morning, he should receive a sign of his success from God. As his host numbered but ten thousand men, while that of the infidels was computed at three hundred thousand, he felt that he could scarcely be saved, unless by a miraculous interference. He went forth at the appointed signal. It was a cloudy sunrise, and he gazed in vain expectation for some few moments. At length a whirlwind seemed to arise in the east; the clouds were heaped and whirled together in all manner of fantastical shapes; and gradually a space of clear blue sky presented itself in the midst of them. In this the Count beheld the Crucified SAVIOUR, and all the Host of Heaven encircling Him with adoration. And at the same time a voice was heard promising him victory over his foes, the royal title, and a succession of sixteen generations to inherit his throne. This story has been critically examined by Padre Antonio Pereira, a scholar of great and deserved eminence in antiquities, as well as in ecclesiastical literature; and the result of his inquiry is, that there are not sufficient grounds in the arguments of objectors to make its credibility at all doubtful.

Theodora. Such appearances as those of the great spectre of the Brocken, though strictly natural, must have a most supernatural effect.

Eupeithes. They must: I have been witness to one such on a smaller scale. I was standing with a friend on an African mountain, and gazing into an abyss or crater that lay stretched at our feet. It was filled with white, foam-like clouds, piled up orderlessly one on the other. As we looked, the sun came out overhead, and we saw far below us a vast shadow of ourselves, the head encircled with a white nimbus, like the glory that surrounds the heads of the beatified. Near the same spot, a traveller, shortly before, had seen himself and his horse reflected in the same manner, the nimbus surrounding the animal and its rider.

Sophron. Another kind of these aerial appearances is spoken of in Germany and in Scotland. In Argyllshire there is a belief, that towards nightfall an armed band will be seen occasionally, riding full-speed along the almost [36/37] precipitous sides of mountains, accessible, perhaps, to the goat, or to the well-trained mountaineer, but which it would be certain death to horse and rider to ascend. And, as we all know, a belief of the same kind prevails in the Harzforest, that in the stillness of those vast solitudes a sound will sometimes be heard of a hunter's chase,--the baying of hounds, the clatter of steeds, the cheering of riders, the winding of horns; all gradually growing louder and nearer, and then, by the same gradual steps, dying off into stillness, as if the chase were gone by.

Theodora. One can wonder at nothing in such deep forest solitudes in the way of imaginary (if imaginary) sounds. Can anything material be more like spiritual melody than the sighing of a pine-grove in the summer air--the "soul-like sound" of Coleridge? It seems so to realize and to illustrate that noble description in Holy Scripture where David is forbidden to go forth against the Philistines till he hears "the sound of a going in the tops of the mulberry trees;" as if then an angelic battalion was marching forth to battle in his behalf.

Eupeithes. I remember that, on a winter afternoon, at that most lovely of times, a frosty sunset, I was descending one of the hills near the border of Surrey and Sussex. There was no sensible breeze; and, as I wound down into the valley, the evening sky, here and there ruffled into billows of grey splendour, the motionless leaves that strewed my path, and the silence of approaching night, were very solemn. Presently I reached a spot where, on my left hand, was a deep cutting through sandstone; and at the top of the bank three firs, with not a single branch along their straight stems, threw up their heads into the twilight air. And from that far-off tuft of branches there came down such faint and sweet melody, that I could only think, with Dr. Donne, "LORD, LORD, what delights must Thou have prepared for Thy servants in heaven, if Thou providest such ravishing music for bad men on earth!"

Eusebia. The astonishingly supernatural effect of wind is no where more curious than in ranges of open downs, such as lie between Christchurch Twynam, and Wimborne Minster, which are dotted here and there with aged thorns or stunted oaks. As you stand at the bottom of the hill, all [37/38] may be silent; presently you hear an old thorn near the summit rushing and roaring in the gale; then one a hundred yards to your right will creak its branches together, and rustle more loudly; then a solitary oak to your left: as if each in its turn took up a conversation with the breeze, and complained of its hard usage.

Eupeithes. There is nothing more overpowering in the way of sound than the continual roar of a stream over a bed of rocks, as you pursue your solitary way up a mountain glen. It is amusing at first; then it becomes irksome; then, as you get further and further from the abodes of man, and the precipices grow wilder, and the mountains darker, there is something perfectly awful in the voice of the stream; nor can I conceive any thing more likely to deprive a man of his senses than continual exposure to such a sound in such a scene.

Eusebia. We were to talk, I think, of those cases in which storms and hurricanes have been supposed to prefigure any great change, more especially the death of illustrious men.

Sophron. There are some well-known instances of this: Oliver Cromwell's birth, for example, was attended by a tremendous tempest; so, also, was his death. And there is a curious example of a similar kind in the Irish annals. In 1343, on the 13th of July, Sir Ralph Ufford came to Dublin as Lord Chief Justice of Ireland. The weather, which had been remarkably fine that summer, immediately became foul, and continued so during the whole time that he held that office. He oppressed the native Irish; he robbed Clergy and laity; he did injustice to rich and poor. After nearly three years' ill government, he died universally hated; and no sooner was he dead, than the tempestuous weather ceased, and the three years' continued wet was changed to a cloudless season.

Eupeithes. We are told that at Zurich, in the year 1280, while a sermon was being delivered at the shrine of SS. Felix and Regula, the patrons of the church, a tremendous clap of thunder was heard in a clear sky, and that some few days after, the greater part of the city was consumed by an accidental fire, and the inhabitants were put under the ban of the empire. In. the year 1440, a similar clap of thunder [38/39] was heard in the same town, and was followed shortly after by the civil war which Zurich carried on for more than seven years against the other cantons.

Sophron. I remember also that, before the battle fought between the Swiss troops and the Dauphin's army, during the time of the Council of Basle, under the walls of that city, for several nights, strange noises are said to have been heard round and upon the spot of the future engagement, the cries of warriors, and the shock of armies. [Felix Malleolus, de Nobilit. cap. 26. 33.]

Eupeithes. Voices, too, heard in lonely places, are frequently recorded. At the moment that Leo of Constantinople was slain, the crew of a ship at sea heard the words, "This night hath Leo been murdered." What more magnificent, too, than the voice which echoed from the deep solitude of the Holy of Holies, at that last Pentecost, "Let us depart hence!"

Theodora. The Arabs believe that, in the Wilderness of Sin, at the time of matins, a bell may be heard as if summoning to prayer; and that this has been the case ever since the Crusades.

Sophron. If from this we turn our attention to celestial phenomena, properly so called, we shall find no small weight of Scriptural authority for expounding them, as being connected in some mysterious manner with "the changes and chances of this mortal life." It can hardly be without some further intent than that of a mere metaphor, that signs in the sun, and moon, and stars are so often coupled with distress of nations, with wars and rumours of wars. "The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven shall be shaken." "And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring." And again, how often in the Apocalypse: "The sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig-tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind." And again, "The third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars: so as the third part of them was darkened." And in [39/40] accordance with all this, we know it to have been the opinion of the medieval Church, that the Last Judgment would be preceded by fifteen days of peculiar celestial prodigies.

Eupeithes. That comets have appeared before great events is a thing which is hardly capable of proof, because it will be immediately and most truly answered, that some of the most remarkable comets have announced nothing at all. I am not aware that the comet of 1680 is capable of explanation in the way of prophecy, nor is that of 1843. The former of these had appeared thrice before within the annals of history. It was the same that was seen immediately after the death of Julius Caesar; that appeared again in the reign of Justinian, before one of the most terrific plagues which history records; that a third time manifested itself during the heat of the Crusades. All these three apparitions have not unnaturally been connected with the remarkable events by which they were attended; not to mention that a previous appearance of the same comet very probably accompanied, if it did not occasion, the flood.

Sophron. At the same time you must allow that a very large proportion of comets have, in a most signal manner, been connected with historic events. Those of 538 and 945 preceded the greatest famines which history records. Those of 64 and 1298 were heralds of fearful earthquakes. Those of 983, 1254, 1268, 1530, of great inundations. Those of 603, 626, 745, were precursors of plagues; while the great comet of 1347, which was visible all over Europe, was immediately followed by the most tremendous visitation that ever befel the earth,--I mean the Black Death: it lasted three years, and was computed to carry off one man out of every three. If one says that there is, perhaps, a natural connection in all these instances between the sign and the thing signified, at all events the case cannot be so with respect to wars and change of dynasties. Yet we find the comet of 726, immediately preceding the victory of Charles Martel over the Saracens, which put an end to the further advance of Mahometanism in Western Europe; and that of 1240, announcing the conquests of Tamerlane. The comet of 336 before our LORD, was held to foretell the [40/41] destruction of the Persian Empire; that of A.D. 70, the fall of Jerusalem; that of 570, the overthrow of the Lombards; that of 632, the conquest of Persia by the Saracens; that of 800, the empire of Charlemagne; that of 1201, the Latin conquest of Constantinople. And the occurrence of a comet before the death of a famous King, has almost passed into a proverb. The comet of 14, before the death of Augustus; of 363, before that of Julian the apostate; of 454, before that of Theodosius; of 571, before that of Alborin, king of the Lombards; of 837, before that of Pepin; of 1301, that of Andrew, King of Hungary; and I might go on almost endlessly.

"When beggars die, there are no comets seen,
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."

Eusebia. And (what must have been at least as striking as the comets then seen) you should notice the remarkable paleness of the sun which accompanied those of Julius Caesar and Justinian.

Theodora. Again, we are told that the comet which appeared before the great plague of London was sickly and ghastly; that its motion was slow, and that it glared with a death-like paleness; whereas that which preceded the Fire, was of a bright fiery radiance, rapid in its course, angry looking, and very terrible. It was reported, also, to hang like a drawn sword over the devoted city.

Eupeithes. That, however, can hardly fail to be fancied by any spectator. I was in Portugal when the great comet of 1843 appeared, which you here in England scarcely saw; but there it was magnificent, and I should think nearly equal to that of 1680. I can assure you that to see it night after night hang over the city in which I was living, quite gave the idea of the sword of Divine vengeance threatening it.

Sophron. After all, what more astonishing in the belief that comets should prefigure danger, than in that, which we know to be the fact, that certain phases of the moon, or crises of the revolution of the earth, do not only prefigure, but actually occasion, changes in the condition of human bodies? We all know that, in dying persons, if the hours [41/42] of twelve, three, six, or nine be passed, we expect the sufferer to linger on to the next critical period. At the same time, also, the crises of diseases generally occur; and sailors have a belief, if a comrade is dying, that he cannot pass till the time of high water. Again, it is also clear, that the change of the moon has a great influence on the symptoms of madmen: who will venture to explain why?

Eusebia. It is getting late; and we are approaching a very interesting part of our subject: shall we postpone it till to-morrow night?

Sophron. We will do so.

Project Canterbury