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[left margin] 4 [/leftmargin] THE ARGONAUT. [right margin] MARCH 24, 1888. [/right margin]
[column one] A MODERN PROTEUS.
Some Account of a Mysterious Gift of Personation.
BY ROBERT DUNCAN MILNE.
It is now little more than a week ago since a company of gentlemen were sitting and talking in a certain room in a certain club - I am not at liberty to say which - in this city. The company numbered some eight or ten persons, three of whom were strangers. I forget how the conversation turned upon the mysterious and occult - I think, however, now that I consider the whole matter calmly, that the subject was led up to, with a definite purpose, by one of the gentlemen present, who had, as it turned out, a vert definite object in doing so. At any rate, the topic is one possessing a certain charm for the average human mind, and each of the company was contributing his quotum of information, or idea, to the general fund.
"Now, take your theosophists," said Robson; "if one can only credit what they claim, they must be possessed of powers which ought to make them masters of any situation, either for good or evil. But what have they done, practically in either direction?"
"But then," objected Harding, "one of the conditions of acquirinh control over matter, it must be remembered, is a course of training which practically robs them of the desire to use that control."
"And," put in Thurman, "this course of training is said to so elevate the moral and intellectual nature, as to render an adept incapable of doing an evil action."
"Madam Blavatsky," remarked the cynical Cook, "is, I suppose, a case in point. I am of opinion, for one, that all of her miracles were well-arranged and preconcerted tricks."
"Whatever may be the case with Madam Blavatsky, gentlemen," put in one of the strangers who had been introduced as a Mr. Wharncliffe, "I do not think that anyone who has visited India, and seen the performances of the native jugglers, can apply the same strictures to them. I have myself been witness of some most strange and unaccountable feats in that mysterious country."
The speaker was a tall, dark, fine-looking, bearded man, of perhaps forty or thereabouts, on whose skin tropical suns had evidently done their work, of a rather grave and serious aspect, and distinguished air. Beyond these features, which are not so rare as to be extraordinary among polished and travelled gentlemen of any country in the world, there was another, which at once withdrew him from the conventional type I have depicted. That was the eye. It was an eye with a bright, black, dazzling pupil, which would have served to render its own singular in any company. It was an eye, too, that seemed to lack, when I first saw it, what I shall term soul, and depth, and calm. Not that it was forbidding, but, on the contrary, attractive, and the longer I looked at it, the more pleasant and attractive did it seem to become.
"My friend, Mt. Wharncliffe, here" explained Harding, who had introduced him, himself a member of a large mercantile house, "is recently from the East, and can give us, I doubt not, some interesting points on the occult from his own personal experience."
The stranger waved his hand deprecatingly, and assured us that his knowledge was confined merely to what he had seen. He was prepared, he said, to philosophize upon causes.
"You have, all of you," he went on, "doubtless read of - perhaps some of you have seen - those feats or tricks of legerdemain, performed commonly by Hindoo jugglers of the better sort; such as planting a seed in a flower-pot, wherefrom rises a plant before your eyes; producing bowls of water, when there was apparently no possible place of concealment for objects of such dimensions; and all this with no stage paraphernalia, such as our modern conjurors, who imitate these tricks, have ready to ther hand, but simply upon the open ground, the spectators standing round. But perhaps, the most marvelous of these tricks, or deceptions," he preceeded, "is that in which the juggler plants a wooden pole in the soil, up which he successively sends a cat, a monkey, and several other small animals, each of which disappears on reaching the top - vanishes, so to speak, into thin air. Not a vestige of them is afterward seen"
"May it not be, " suggested some one, "that this miraculous effect is produced by exerting some sort of influence, akin to mesmeric, upon the eyes of the spectators? That the juggler really sends no animals at all up his pole, but merely makes the spectators think he does."
"Just like that power," remarked some one else, "with which some mediæval necromancers were supposed to have been gifted. Scott uses it, if I remember right, in his 'Lay of the Last Minstrel' - the glamour, I think it was called. the Lady of Branksome sends some one she does not wish to be recognized from the castle - or was it the hobgoblin, Gilpin? - but anyhow, as he passes the warder at the gate, he casts the 'glamour' over him, and the warder avers that nothing passed the gate but 'a wisp of hay'."
"But admitting the possibility of the existence of such a power," said a materialistic doctor, who was present, "upon what form of matter would it be exerted? On the rays of light before they reached the retina, so as to cause them to project a false picture there? or on the substance of the retina itself? or on the optic nerve, so as to cause it to transmit a false message to the brain? or upon neither light rays, nor retina, nor optic nerve, but upon the brain itself, causing it thereby to substitute an image of its own creation, as in the case of a lunatic, or of some one else's creation, as in the case of a mesmerized subject, for the true image which it was physically incapable of perceiving?"
"The latter, I think, would be the most reasonable solution of the problem," observed Harding, "always admitting, as you say, that the power exists."
"If it does not exist," objected another, "what are we to think of the scores of independent witnesses - gentlemen of unimpeachable veracity - who testify to the vagaries of the [/column one]
[column two] Hindoo and his pole? We can not believe them all to have been duped by some cunning trick of legerdemain, for those who have given accounts of it were mostly men fully alive to the possibilities of the juggler's art. Equally difficult is it to comprehend by what power a simultaneous, and precisely similar, hallucination could be produced, upon say a score of spectators, by some extraordinary psychic influence. True, hallucinations of this very nature may be produced, or are said to be produced, upon a whole squad of mesmerized subjects at once. But the witnesses of the Hindoo's feats were not mesmerized. They were matter-of-fact every-day people, in full possession of their sober senses, at any rate upon every other point but this. Were they, then, put under the mesmeric influence of the Hindoo in this single and solitary particular? And, if such were the case, is it reasonable to suppose that any one possessed of such a mysterious and valuable power, would not turn it to better account than in picking up chance coins as a wandering juggler? I confess I do not see my way clear to accepting this view of the question yet."
"I think, gentlemen, I can give a little reminiscence which may, perhaps, serve to throw some light upon this matter," said a voice in somewhat diffident, hesitating tones, which were more noticeable as they broke the pause which had succeeded the argument of the last speaker.
I turned like the rest to see who had spoken, as the voice was unfamiliar. It was a middle-sized, gray-haired, and gray-whiskered old gentleman, with a benevolent aspect, who beamed modestly at us through his spectacles, and like Harding's friend, Wharncliffe, had been brought to the club that evening by one of the members, I forget which, and introduced to us as Mr. Johnson, a retired merchant, who had come to California with the object of securing a home for himself and family in his later days.
"I hardly know, gentlemen, whether I am justified," resumed Mr. Johnson, with an apologetic air, "in taking part in the discussion of a subject of which I know so little, and have myself no personal experience. What I purpose telling you, if you will allow me, are the experiences of another, and you must judge for yourselves as to what they are worth. I should not, in fact, have intruded them at all upon your notice, had they not seemed to me to be peculiarly apposite to the present discussion. If you care to hear them, I shall be proud to serve you, and I can confidently assure you that the recital will not take long."
We encouragingly gave assent to Mr. Johnson, who thereupon told the following story:
The scene of my part of the experience, gentlemen, if it can be called a part at al, was laid in the celebrated prison of Auburn, which is , as you are aware, one of the princial reformatories of New York State. I have for considerable time past held, and in fact still hold contacts, for supplying a certain line of commodities to the prison, and as my business naturally took me there upon occasion, I as naturally became acquainted with many of the officials connected with the institution.
About five or six months ago, while there to transact some business, which I found would entail my waiting for an hour or two, owing to the absence of the person it was necessary for me to see, and while sauntering around to kill time, I fell into conversation with Captain Coulter, the well-known detective officer, who propsed that we should make a tour of the prison, he volunteering to be guide. While I flatter myself that I have no taste for spectacles of misery, yet having nothing better to do, I gladly availed myself of the kind offer of my able mentor, and an able mentor he proved himself to be.
We passed through gallery after gallery, till we arrived at a portion where the securities seemed to be extra strong. The structure of the cells, fortified as they were by all the skill that can be brought to bear upon steel and iron, seemed to offer an impassable barrier to the criminals confined within, however daring and ingenious they might be. The cells situated in that part of the building, my guide explained, were reserved for the most dangerous and desperate class of criminals.
At length we paused before one of the most forbidding of the sepulchre-like tenements and the captain asked me to look through the little square orifice in the door, which seemed to serve at once for the passage of food, air, and light to the wretched prisoners inside. I did so, and crouching in a corner I beheld a grey and repulsive-looking man, his hair and beard long, unkempt, and straggling. He took not the least notice our presence, though he must have been, I think, aware of it. I was unprepared, however, for the - as I thought - heartless conduct of my guide, the more so, as he had spoken kindly and sympathetically to many of the prisoners we had passed, to some of whom, I am almost sure, I observed him passing money, though so quietly that it could scarcely be perceived. Unaccustomed as I am to the use of slang language, and averse as I am to the medium of its delivery, even in recounting it, truth compels me to say that upon the occasion Captain Coulter, after stepping up to the orifice before referred to, and actually making mouths at the poor, cowering wretch within, said:
"Come, brace up, old man. None of these fakes. You can't play it on me. Why can't you give us something better than that? Make yourself Jay Gould, or Russell Sage, for instance. Have some style about you."
I confess I was shocked at this heartless tirade against an old and defenseless prisoner, who, however, took not the least notice of us, and presently we passed on.
"That," said the detective, "is the most dangerous, the most elusive, and the most inexplicable criminal that it ever has been my good or bad luck to come across. I saw you were surprised by the way I treated him, but if you knew about him what I know, you wouldn't think so."
I became interested to know what could have given this apparently innocuous old man such distinction in the detective's eyes, and upon our return to the officers' quarters, as I had still some time to spare, I reverted to the subject, and questioned my friend regarding him, and what he had done to make him such an object of official aversion, and to necessitate his subjection to such rigorous treatment. [/column two]
[column three] "What has he done?" returned the captain, testily; "the question should rather be, what has he not done? The Lord only knows what unknonw villainies, with his peculiar powers, and his peculiar opportunities for mischief, that man, if he can be called a man, has perpetrated. His is the most extraordinary and incomprehensible case that has ever come under my notice," he continued, shaking his head. "Nobody can make head or tail of it. No one really believes me, when I tell them what has come under my notice. They imagine that I am laboring under a delusion, and had it not been for a piece of peculiar good fortune, and , I may add, some very hard and close work of my own -" ("You see, gentlemen," remarked Mr. Johnson, parenthetically, "the whole affair impressed me so much, that having naturally a good memory, and my friends being pleased to credit me with being something of a raconteur, I am enabled to give you the story pretty much as Captain Coulter gave it me") -"the fellow never would have been brought to justice at all. Even whenI had him 'dead to rights,' as we call it, he would have escaped, if I had not nailed him by a ruse. Would you believe it, if I told you," here, the captain sunk his voice almost to a whisper, and spoke slowly and impressively, at the same time looking me straight in the eyes, "would you believe that that old man you saw in the felon's cell is no more old than I am - at least, such is my firm conviction - and I am only forty-five? Would you believe that that man possesses the miraculous faculty of changing his appearance at will, not by clever manipulation of disguises, like your ordinary cracksman, or even like some members of my won profession, but by some mysterious power which seems to be innate in him? Would you believe that that gret and decrepit old man, if he were once outside his cell, could and would walk coolly and easily out of jail, under the noses of all the wardens and officers of the prison; yes, even under my own nose, did I not possess an infallible mode of detecting him and compelling him to resume his natural form. Yes, sir, he could walk out of that prison in the semblance of the warden himself if he so desired - at least, that is my firm conviction, though, unfortunately,it is nobody else's. Well, I hope they will not find out its truth some day to their cost."
I did not know, gentlemen, what to make of these words. Here was one of the most astute members of the metropolitan detective force, a man whose reputation and whose deeds put him at the head of his profession, giving expression to a theory so utterly at variance with common sense, that I did not know what to think.
"He would have to be a very skillful actor and possess something of a wardrobe to do such a thing," I at last ventured to say.
"That is what they all say," returned the captain, impatiently. "That is the way they all account for this man's powers - if, in fact, they give him credit for any; for there are many members of the police, and many reputable citizens outside, who still consider him a victim of mistaken identity; and, as I said before, had it not been for the direct testimony I was able to produce, together with my own unimpeachable reputation, this incomprehnsible villain would never have been convicted."
"But what did he do?" I asked; "what was the charge against him? and of what crime is he now convicted?"
"Grand larceny," returned my friend, "and, thanks to me, he has got the full extent of the law. His time will not be out for a good many years yet, and, by that time, I hope to be able to restrain him in confinement by some means or other, by convincing the public of his true nature. He will, at any rate, be kept under surveillance."
"But surely," I said, "what he is enduring now is very rigorous treatment for such a comparatively simple offense as grand larceny."
"My only object is to prevent his escape," explained the captain. "Apart from his being subjected to such confinement, his treatment in the matter of everything else is on a par with that of criminals of his own class. I have been the means of putting him where he is, and consider that I was perfectly justified in doing so."
I shuddered to think of the misery in store for any one who might be so unfortunate as to incur the displeasure of Captain Coulter, and wondered whether, after all, the prisoner I had seen might not owe his wretched condition to some delusion on the part of the great detective himself; the brightest minds, it is said, are sometimes subject to such.
"But the best thing I can do is to give you a brief history of the case," continued the captain, "and then you can judge for yourself. Something over a year ago, I received a letter from old Mr. Chisholm, senior partner of the well-known banking-house of Chisolm, Moffat & Co., requesting me to call upon him immediately, and, as it was after banking hours when I received the dispatch, I concluded to call at his house. I found the old gentleman in a very perturbed state of mind. he told me that his bank had been robbed that forenoon in a very mysterious manner. He had stepped out, as was his custom, about eleven o'clock, and while he was absent, a person, got up to resemble himself, had used this disguise to secure a considerable sum of money. It was Mr. Chisholm's custom to leave the bank at eleven o'clock, and to be gone for about half an hour. So methodical was he in this respect that the clerks were surprised when, scarcely two minutes after he had left, he returned, and walking to his private office, immediately summoned his confidential clerk by bell. He then told him to bring him five thousand dollars in gold, in two bags. The clerk returned with the money, which Mr. Chisholm then put in his coat-tail pockets, a bag in each pocket, and immediately left the bank. Though the proceeding was somewhat unusual, and though Mr. Chisholm had forgotten to leave a memorandum of the sum drawn, nothing more was thought of it. He again returned at his customary hour, and it was not until the day's balance was being made up that the teller reminded him of the morning's incident. To say that Mr. Chisholm and his clerks were surprised is to give no expression to the general state of feeling, Mr. Chisholm affirming that he had not returned to the bank, as was stated, and had drawn no money that day, while the clerks were as positive that he had; two of them averring they had seen him receive the money and put it in his pocket. It then dawned upon him that he had been so
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