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The Mysterious Occurrence In Piccadilly
I really never felt so profoundly ashamed of myself in my whole life as
when my father-in-law, Professor W. Bryce Murray, of Oriel College,
Oxford, sent me the last number of the Proceedings of the Society for
the Investigation of Supernatural Phenomena. As I opened the pamphlet, a
horrible foreboding seized me that I should find in it, detailed at full
length, with my name and address in plain printing (not even asterisks),
that extraordinary story of his about the mysterious occurrence in
Piccadilly. I turned anxiously to page 14, which I saw was neatly folded
over at the corner; and there, sure enough, I came upon the Professor's
remarkable narrative, which I shall simply extract here, by way of
introduction, in his own admirable and perspicuous language.
"I wish to communicate to the Society," says my respected relation, "a
curious case of wraiths or doubles, which came under my own personal
observation, and for which I can vouch on my own authority, and that of
my son-in-law, Dr. Owen Mansfield, keeper of Accadian Antiquities at the
British Museum. It is seldom, indeed, that so strange an example of a
supernatural phenomenon can be independently attested by two trustworthy
scientific observers, both still living.
"On the 12th of May, 1873- I made a note of the circumstance at the
time, and am therefore able to feel perfect confidence as to the strict
accuracy of my facts--I was walking down Piccadilly about four o'clock
in the afternoon, when I saw a simulacrum or image approaching me from
the opposite direction, exactly resembling in outer appearance an
undergraduate of Oriel College, of the name of Owen Mansfield. It must
be carefully borne in mind that at this time I was not related or
connected with Mr. Mansfield in any way, his marriage with my daughter
having taken place some eleven months later: I only knew him then as a
promising junior member of my own College. I was just about to approach
and address Mr. Mansfield, when a most singular and mysterious event
took place. The simulacrum appeared spontaneously to glide up towards me
with a peculiarly rapid and noiseless motion, waved a wand or staff
which it bore in its hands thrice round my head, and then vanished
hastily in the direction of an hotel which stands at the corner of
Albemarle Street. I followed it quickly to the door, but on inquiry of
the porter, I learned that he himself had observed nobody enter. The
simulacrum seems to have dissipated itself or become invisible suddenly
in the very act of passing through the folding glass portals which give
access to the hotel from Piccadilly.
"That same evening, by the last post, I received a hastily-written note
from Mr. Mansfield, bearing the Oxford postmark, dated Oriel College, 5
p.m., and relating the facts of an exactly similar apparition which had
manifested itself to him, with absolute simultaneity of occurrence. On
the very day and hour when I had seen Mr. Mansfield's wraith in
Piccadilly, Mr. Mansfield himself was walking down the Corn Market in
Oxford, in the direction of the Taylor Institute. As he approached the
corner, he saw what he took to be a vision or image of myself, his
tutor, moving towards him in my usual leisurely manner. Suddenly, as he
was on the point of addressing me with regard to my Aristotle lecture
the next morning, the image glided up to him in a rapid and evasive
manner, shook a green silk umbrella with a rhinoceros-horn handle three
times around his head, and then disappeared incomprehensibly through the
door of the Randolph Hotel. Returning to college in a state of
breathless alarm and surprise, at what he took to be an act of incipient
insanity or extreme inebriation on my part, Mr. Mansfield learnt from
the porter, to his intense astonishment, that I was at that moment
actually in London. Unable to conceal his amazement at this strange
event, he wrote me a full account of the facts while they were still
fresh in his memory: and as I preserve his note to this day, I append a
copy of it to my present communication, for publication in the Society's
"There is one small point in the above narrative to which I would wish
to call special attention, and that is the accurate description given by
Mr. Mansfield of the umbrella carried by the apparition he observed in
Oxford. This umbrella exactly coincided in every particular with the one
I was then actually carrying in Piccadilly. But what is truly
remarkable, and what stamps the occurrence as a genuine case of
supernatural intervention, is the fact that Mr. Mansfield could not
possibly ever have seen that umbrella in my hands, because I had only
just that afternoon purchased it at a shop in Bond Street. This, to my
mind, conclusively proves that no mere effort of fancy or visual
delusion based upon previous memories, vague or conscious, could have
had anything whatsoever to do with Mr. Mansfield's observation at least.
It was, in short, distinctly an objective apparition, as distinguished
from a mere subjective reminiscence or hallucination."
As I laid down the Proceedings on the breakfast table with a sigh, I
said to my wife (who had been looking over my shoulder while I read):
"Now, Nora, we're really in for it. What on earth do you suppose I'd
Nora looked at me with her laughing eyes laughing harder and brighter
than ever. "My dear Owen," she said, putting the Proceedings promptly
into the waste paper basket, "there's really nothing on earth possible
now, except to make a clean breast of it."
I groaned. "I suppose you're right," I answered, "but it's a precious
awkward thing to have to do. However, here goes." So I sat down at once
with pen, ink, and paper at my desk, to draw up this present narrative
as to the real facts about the "Mysterious Occurrence in Piccadilly."
In 1873 I was a fourth-year man, going in for my Greats at the June
examination. But as if Aristotle and Mill and the affair of Corcyra were
not enough to occupy one young fellow's head at the age of twenty-three,
I had foolishly gone and fallen in love, undergraduate fashion, with the
only really pretty girl (I insist upon putting it, though Nora has
struck it out with her pen) in all Oxford. She was the daughter of my
tutor, Professor Bryce Murray, and her name (as the astute reader will
already have inferred) was Nora.
The Professor had lost his wife some years before, and he was left to
bring up Nora by his own devices, with the aid of his sister, Miss Lydia
Amelia Murray, the well-known advocate of female education, woman's
rights, anti-vaccination, vegetarianism, the Tichborne claimant, and
psychic force. Nora, however, had no fancy for any of these multifarious
interests of her aunt's: I have reason to believe she takes rather after
her mother's family: and Miss Lydia Amelia Murray early decided that she
was a girl of no intellectual tastes of any sort, who had better be
kept at school at South Kensington as much as possible. Especially did
Aunt Lydia hold it to be undesirable that Nora should ever come in
contact with that very objectionable and wholly antagonistic animal, the
Oriel undergraduate. Undergraduates were well known to laugh openly at
woman's rights, to devour underdone beefsteaks with savage persistence,
and to utter most irreverent and ribald jests about psychic force.
Still, it is quite impossible to keep the orbit of a Professor's
daughter from occasionally crossing that of a stray meteoric
undergraduate. Nora only came home to Oxford in vacation time: but
during the preceding Long I had stopped up for the sake of pursuing my
Accadian studies in a quiet spot, and it was then that I first quite
accidentally met Nora. I was canoeing on the Cherwell one afternoon,
when I came across the Professor and his daughter in a punt, and saw the
prettiest girl in all Oxford actually holding the pole in her own pretty
little hands, while that lazy old man lolled back at his ease with a
book, on the luxurious cushions in the stern. As I passed the punt, I
capped the Professor, of course, and looking back a minute later I
observed that the pretty daughter had got her pole stuck fast in the
mud, and couldn't, with all her force, pull it out again. In another
minute she had lost her hold of it, and the punt began to drift of
itself down the river towards Iffley.
Common politeness naturally made me put back my canoe, extricate the
pole, and hand it as gracefully as I could to the Professor's daughter.
As I did so, I attempted to raise my straw hat cautiously with one hand,
while I gave back the pole with the other: an attempt which of course
compelled me to lay down my paddle on the front, of the canoe, as I
happen to be only provided with two hands, instead of four like our
earlier ancestors. I don't know whether it was my instantaneous
admiration for Nora's pretty blush, which distracted my attention from
the purely practical question of equilibrium, or whether it was her own
awkwardness and modesty in taking the pole, or finally whether it was my
tutor's freezing look that utterly disconcerted me, but at any rate,
just at that moment, something unluckily (or rather luckily) caused me
to lose my balance altogether. Now, everybody knows that a canoe is very
easily upset: and in a moment, before I knew exactly where I was, I
found the canoe floating bottom upward about three yards away from me,
and myself standing, safe and dry, in my tutor's punt, beside his pretty
blushing daughter. I had felt the canoe turning over as I handed back
the pole, and had instinctively jumped into the safer refuge of the
punt, which saved me at least the ignominy of appearing before Miss Nora
Murray in the ungraceful attitude of clambering back, wet and dripping,
into an upset canoe.
The inexorable logic of facts had thus convinced the Professor of the
impossibility of keeping all undergraduates permanently at a safe
distance: and there was nothing open for him now except resignedly to
acquiesce in the situation so created for him. However much he might
object to my presence, he could hardly, as a Christian and a gentleman,
request me to jump in and swim after my canoe, or even, when we had at
last successfully brought it alongside with the aid of the pole, to seat
myself once more on the soaking cushions. After all, my mishap had come
about in the endeavour to render him a service: so he was fain with what
grace he could to let me relieve his daughter of the pole, and punt him
back as far as the barges, with my own moist and uncomfortable bark
trailing casually from the stern.
As for Nora, being thus thrown unexpectedly into the dangerous society
of that gruesome animal, the Oriel undergraduate, I think I may venture
to say (from my subsequent experience) that she was not wholly disposed
to regard the creature as either so objectionable or so ferocious as she
had been previously led to imagine. We got on together so well that I
could see the Professor growing visibly wrathful about the corners of
the mouth: and by the time we reached the barges, he could barely be
civil enough to say Good morning to me when we parted.
An introduction, however, no matter how obtained, is really in these
matters absolutely everything. As long as you don't know a pretty girl,
you don't know her, and you can't take a step in advance without an
introduction. But when once you do know her, heaven and earth and
aunts and fathers may try their hardest to prevent you, and yet whatever
they try they can't keep you out. I was so far struck with Nora, that I
boldly ventured whenever I met her out walking with her father or her
aunt, to join myself to the party: and though they never hesitated to
show me that my presence was not rapturously welcomed, they couldn't
well say to me point-blank, "Have the goodness, Mr. Mansfield, to go
away and not to speak to me again in future." So the end of it was, that
before the beginning of October term, Nora and I understood one another
perfectly, and had even managed, in a few minutes' tete-a-tete in the
parks, to whisper to one another the ingenuous vows of sweet seventeen
When the Professor discovered that I had actually written a letter to
his daughter, marked "Private and Confidential," his wrath knew no
bounds. He sent for me to his rooms, and spoke to me severely. "I've
half a mind, Mansfield," he said, "to bring the matter before a college
meeting. At any rate, this conduct must not be repeated. If it is,
Sir,"--he didn't finish the sentence, preferring to terrify me by the
effective figure of speech which commentators describe as an
aposiopesis: and I left him with a vague sense that if it was repeated
I should probably incur the penalties of praemunire (whatever they may
be), or be hanged, drawn, and quartered, with my head finally stuck as
an adornment on the acute wings of the Griffin, vice Temple Bar
Next day, Nora met me casually at a confectioner's in the High, where I
will frankly confess that I was engaged in experimenting upon the
relative merits of raspberry cream and lemon water ices. She gave me her
hand timidly, and whispered to me half under her breath, "Papa's so
dreadfully angry, Owen, and I'm afraid I shall never be able to meet you
any more, for he's going to send me back this very afternoon to South
Kensington, and keep me away from Oxford altogether in future." I saw
her eyes were red with crying, and that she really thought our little
romance was entirely at an end.
"My darling Nora," I replied in an undertone, "even South Kensington is
not so unutterably remote that I shall never be able to see you there.
Write to me whenever you are able, and let me know where I can write to
you. My dear little Nora, if there were a hundred papas and a thousand
Aunt Lydias interposed in a square between us, don't you know we should
manage all the same to love one another and to overcome all
Nora smiled and half cried at once, and then discreetly turned to order
half a pound of glace cherries. And that was the last that I saw of her
for the time at Oxford.
During the next term or two, I'm afraid I must admit that the relations
between my tutor and myself were distinctly strained, so much so as
continually to threaten the breaking out of open hostilities. It wasn't
merely that Nora was in question, but the Professor also suspected me of
jeering in private at his psychical investigations. And if the truth
must be told, I will admit that his suspicions were not wholly without
justification. It began to be whispered among the undergraduates just
then that the Professor and his sister had taken to turning
planchettes, interrogating easy-chairs, and obtaining interesting
details about the present abode of Shakespeare or Milton from
intelligent and well-informed five-o'clock tea-tables. It had long been
well known that the Professor took a deep interest in haunted houses,
considered that the portents recorded by Livy must have something in
them, and declared himself unable to be sceptical as to facts which had
convinced such great men as Plato, Seneca, and Samuel Johnson. But the
table-turning was a new fad, and we noisy undergraduates occasionally
amused ourselves by getting up an amateur seance, in imitation of the
Professor, and eliciting psychical truths, often couched in a
surprisingly slangy or even indecorous dialect, from a very lively
though painfully irreverent spirit, who discoursed to us through the
material intervention of a rickety what-not. However, as the only
mediums we employed were the very unprofessional ones of two plain
decanters, respectively containing port and sherry, the Professor (who
was a teetotaler, and who paid five guineas a seance for the services
of that distinguished psychical specialist, Dr. Grade) considered the
interesting results we obtained as wholly beneath the dignity of
scientific inquiry. He even most unworthily endeavoured to stifle
research by gating us all one evening when a materialized spirit,
assuming the outer form of the junior exhibitioner, sang a comic song of
the period in a loud voice with the windows open, and accompanied itself
noisily with a psychical tattoo on the rickety what-not. The Professor
went so far as to observe sarcastically that our results appeared to him
to be rather spirituous than spiritual.
On May 11, 1873 (I will endeavour to rival the Professor in accuracy and
preciseness), I got a short note from dear Nora, dated from South
Kensington, which I, too (though not from psychical motives), have
carefully preserved. I will not publish it, however, either here or in
the Society's Proceedings, for reasons which will probably be obvious to
any of my readers who happen ever to have been placed in similar
circumstances themselves. Disengaging the kernel of fact from the
irrelevant matter in which it was imbedded, I may state that Nora wrote
me somewhat to this effect. She was going next day to the Academy with
the parents of some schoolfellow; could I manage to run up to town for
the day, go to the Academy myself, and meet her "quite accidentally, you
know, dear," in the Water-colour room about half-past eleven?
This was rather awkward; for next day, as it happened, was precisely the
Professor's morning for the Herodotus lecture; but circumstances like
mine at that moment know no law. So I succeeded in excusing myself from
attendance somehow or other (I hope truthfully) and took the nine a.m.
express up to town. Shortly after eleven I was at the Academy, and
waiting anxiously for Nora's arrival. That dear little hypocrite, the
moment she saw me approach, assumed such an inimitable air of infantile
surprise and innocent pleasure at my unexpected appearance that I
positively blushed for her wicked powers of deception.
"You here, Mr. Mansfield!" she cried in a tone of the most apparently
unaffected astonishment, "why, I thought it was full term time; surely
you ought to be up at Oriel."
"So I am," I answered, "officially; but in my private capacity I've come
up for the day to look at the pictures."
"Oh, how nice!" said that shocking little Nora, with a smile that was
childlike and bland. "Mr. Mansfield is such a great critic, Mrs.
Worplesdon; he knows all about art, and artists, and so on. He'll be
able to tell us which pictures we ought to admire, you know, and which
aren't worth looking at. Mr. Worplesdon, let me introduce you; Mrs.
Worplesdon--Miss Worplesdon. How very lucky we should have happened to
come across you, Mr. Mansfield!"
The Worplesdons fell immediately, like lambs, into the trap so
ingenuously spread for them. Indeed, I have always noticed that
ninety-nine per cent. of the British public, when turned into an
art-gallery, are only too glad to accept the opinion of anybody
whatsoever, who is bold enough to have one, and to express it openly.
Having thus been thrust by Nora into the arduous position of critic by
appointment to the Worplesdon party, I delivered myself ex cathedra
forthwith upon the merits and demerits of the entire exhibition; and I
was so successful in my critical views that I not only produced an
immense impression upon Mr. Worplesdon himself, but also observed many
ladies in the neighbourhood nudge one another as they gazed intently
backward and forward between wall and catalogue, and heard them whisper
audibly among themselves, "A gentleman here says the flesh tones on that
shoulder are simply marvellous;" or, "That artist in the tweed suit
behind us thinks the careless painting of the ferns in the foreground
quite unworthy of such a colourist as Daubiton." So highly was my
criticism appreciated, in fact, that Mr. Worplesdon even invited me to
lunch with Nora and his party at a neighbouring restaurant, where I
spent the most delightful hour I had passed for the last half-year, in
the company of that naughty mendacious little schemer.
About four o'clock, however, the Worplesdons departed, taking Nora with
them to South Kensington; and I prepared to walk back in the direction
of Paddington, meaning to catch an evening train, and return to Oxford.
I was strolling in a leisurely fashion along Piccadilly towards the
Park, and looking into all the photographers' windows, when suddenly an
awful apparition loomed upon me--the Professor himself, coming round the
corner from Bond Street, folding up a new rhinoceros-handled umbrella as
he walked along. In a moment I felt that all was lost. I was up in town
without leave; the Professor would certainly see me and recognize me; he
would ask me how and why I had left the University, contrary to rules;
and I must then either tell him the whole truth, which would get Nora
into a fearful scrape, or else run the risk of being sent down in
disgrace, which might prevent me from taking a degree, and would at
least cause my father and mother an immense deal of unmerited trouble.
Like a flash of lightning, a wild idea shot instantaneously across my
brain. Might I pretend to be my own double? The Professor was profoundly
superstitious on the subject of wraiths, apparitions, ghosts,
brain-waves, and supernatural appearances generally; if I could only
manage to impose upon him for a moment by doing something outrageously
uncommon or eccentric, I might succeed in stifling further inquiry by
setting him from the beginning on a false track which he was naturally
prone to follow. Before I had time to reflect upon the consequences of
my act, the wild idea had taken possession of me, body and soul, and had
worked itself out in action with all the rapidity of a mad impulse. I
rushed frantically up to the Professor, with my eyes fixed in a vacant
stare on a point in space somewhere above the tops of the chimney-pots:
I waved my stick three times mysteriously around his head; and then,
without giving him time to recover from his surprise or to address a
single word to me, I bolted off in a Red Indian dance to the nearest
There was an hotel there, which I had often noticed before, though I had
never entered it; and I rushed wildly in, meaning to get out as best I
could when the Professor (who is very short-sighted) had passed on along
Piccadilly in search of me. But fortune, as usual, favoured the bold.
Luckily, it was a corner house, and, to my surprise, I found when I got
inside it, that the hall opened both ways, with a door on to the side
street. The porter was looking away as I entered; so I merely ran in of
one door and out of the other, never stopping till I met a hansom, into
which I jumped and ordered the man to drive to Paddington. I just caught
the 4.35 to Oxford, and by a little over six o'clock I was in my own
rooms at Oriel.
It was very wrong of me, indeed; I acknowledge it now; but the whole
thing had flashed across my undergraduate mind so rapidly that I carried
it out in a moment, before I could at all realize what a very foolish
act I was really committing. To take a rise out of the Professor, and to
save Nora an angry interview, were the only ideas that occurred to me at
the second: when I began to reflect upon it afterwards, I was conscious
that I had really practised a very gross and wicked deception. However,
there was no help for it now; and as I rolled along in the train to
Oxford, I felt that to save myself and Nora from utter disgrace, I must
carry the plot out to the end without flinching. It then occurred to me
that a double apparition would be more in accordance with all recognized
principles of psychical manifestation than a single one. At Reading,
therefore, I regret to say, I bought a pencil, and a sheet of paper, and
an envelope; and before I reached Oxford station, I had written to the
Professor what I now blush to acknowledge as a tissue of shocking
fables, in which I paralleled every particular of my own behaviour to
him by a similar imaginary piece of behaviour on his part to me, only
changing the scene to Oxford. It was awfully wrong, I admit. At the
time, however, being yet but little more than a schoolboy, after all, I
regarded it simply in the light of a capital practical joke. I informed
the Professor gravely how I had seen him at four o'clock in the Corn
Market, and how astonished I was when I found him waving his green silk
umbrella three times wildly, around my head.
The moment I arrived at Oxford, I dashed up to college in a hansom, and
got the Professor's address in London from the porter. He had gone up to
town for the night, it seemed, probably to visit Nora, and would not be
back in college till the next morning. Then I rushed down to the
post-office, where I was just in time (with an extra stamp) to catch the
last post for that night's delivery. The moment the letter was in the
box, I repented, and began to fear I had gone too far: and when I got
back to my own rooms at last, and went down late for dinner in hall, I
confess I trembled not a little, as to the possible effect of my quite
too bold and palpable imposition.
Next morning by the second post I got a long letter from the Professor,
which completely relieved me from all immediate anxiety as to his
interpretation of my conduct. He rose to the fly with a charming
simplicity which showed how delighted he was at this personal
confirmation of all his own most cherished superstitions. "My dear
Mansfield," his letter began, "now hear what, at the very self-same hour
and minute, happened to me in Piccadilly." In fact, he had swallowed the
whole thing entire, without a single moment's scepticism or hesitation.
From what I heard afterwards, it was indeed a lucky thing for me that I
had played him this shocking trick, for Nora believes he was then
actually on his way to South Kensington on purpose to forbid her most
stringently from holding any further communication with me in any way.
But as soon as this mysterious event took place, he began to change his
mind about me altogether. So remarkable an apparition could not have
happened except for some good and weighty reason, he argued: and he
suspected that the reason might have something to do with my intentions
towards Nora. Why, when he was on his way to warn her against me, should
a vision, bearing my outer and bodily shape, come straight across his
path, and by vehement signs of displeasure, endeavour to turn him from
his purpose, unless it were clearly well for Nora that my attentions
should not be discouraged?
From that day forth the Professor began to ask me to his rooms and
address me far more cordially than he used to do before: he even, on the
strength of my singular adventure, invited me to assist at one or two of
his psychical seances. Here, I must confess, I was not entirely
successful: the distinguished medium complained that I exerted a
repellent effect upon the spirits, who seemed to be hurt by my want of
generous confidence in their good intentions, and by my suspicious habit
of keeping my eyes too sharply fixed upon the legs of the tables. He
declared that when I was present, an adverse influence seemed to pervade
the room, due, apparently, to my painful lack of spiritual sympathies.
But the Professor condoned my failure in the regular psychical line, in
consideration of my brilliant success as a beholder of wraiths and
visions. After I took my degree that summer, he used all his influence
to procure me the post of keeper of the Accadian Antiquities at the
Museum, for which my previous studies had excellently fitted me: and by
his friendly aid I was enabled to obtain the post, though I regret to
say that, in spite of his credulity in supernatural matters, he still
refuses to believe in the correctness of my conjectural interpretation
of the celebrated Amalekite cylinders imported by Mr. Ananias, which I
have deciphered in so very simple and satisfactory a manner. As
everybody knows, my translation may be regarded as perfectly certain, if
only one makes the very modest assumption that the cylinders were
originally engraved upside down by an Aztec captive, who had learned
broken Accadian, with a bad accent, from a Chinese exile, and who
occasionally employed Egyptian hieroglyphics in incorrect senses, to
piece out his own very imperfect idiom and doubtful spelling of the
early Babylonian language. The solitary real doubt in the matter is
whether certain extraordinary marks in the upper left-hand corner of the
cylinder are to be interpreted as accidental scratches, or as a picture
representing the triumph of a king over seven bound prisoners, or,
finally, as an Accadian sentence in cuneiforms which may be translated
either as "To the memory of Om the Great," or else as "Pithor the High
Priest dedicates a fat goose to the family dinner on the 25th of the
month of mid winter." Every candid and unprejudiced mind must admit that
these small discrepancies or alternatives in the opinions of experts can
cast no doubt at all upon the general soundness of the method employed.
But persons like the Professor, while ready to accept any evidence at
all where their own prepossessions are concerned, can never be induced
to believe such plain and unvarnished statements of simple scientific
However, the end of it all was that before I had been a month at the
Museum, I had obtained the Professor's consent to my marriage with Nora:
and as I had had Nora's own consent long before, we were duly joined
together in holy matrimony early in October at Oxford, and came at once
to live in Hampstead. So, as it turned out, I finally owed the sweetest
and best little wife in all Christendom to the mysterious occurrence in
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