The death of Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, which took place - at Paris - towards the end of last November, recalls a host of old memories, and, as it is unlikely that they will be put otherwise on record, I am making these rough notes concerning them for the information of occult readers. They are of necessity personal in nature on both sides. It was in or about 1883 - when I, as a young man, was haunting the British Museum, trying many paths of search - that I observed continually the lean figure of a fellow-student frequenting the Reading-Room and pursuing kindred quests. He was, I am afraid, in very narrow circumstances and was a much more faithful visitor than myself, even in those days. He might be found in the early morning and still late in the evening. The closing time was then 7 or 8 p.m., according to the season, and at those hours he would be seen struggling with mammoth collections of books towards the central counter. I got to know that they were occult books, like my own gatherings, though I kept these within the limits of possible reference in the day's course. It must be confessed that I grew curious as to the identity of this strange person, with rather fish-like eyes, and more especially as to what he was after. Some other melancholy votary of that sanctuary made us known to one another in the end, and he proved to be S.L. Mathers, for the MacGregor prefix had not as yet been adopted. I suppose that we must have spoken of occult books or subjects in one of the corridors, for he said to me in a hushed voice and with somewhat awful accent: "I am a Rosicrucian and a Freemason; therefore I can speak of some things, but of others I cannot speak." I was a younger man than he and a beginner in occult paths, but I remember being amused in two ways - firstly, because I had not been seeking information and, secondly, because - little as I knew at that period about the Rosy Cross and its Brethren - I was very certain that real membership would not have been so ready to parade the fact. However, we got slightly acquainted, and the more I saw of him the more eccentric he proved to be. I remember comparing him in my mind to a combination of Don Quixote and Hudibras, but with a vanity all his own. He would accost me suddenly, to deliver the inspirations of the moment. One of them concerned his great military ardour and his intention to join the French Zouaves in Africa, that he might spend "the rest of his life in fighting, and all that sort of thing." However, the months wore on, and he remained a denizen of the Reading-Room. I met him one morning wearing a scarlet tie, to which he pointed proudly because it was assumed as a symbol of his fighting instincts, which he had proved unable to gratify in any more practical manner. We encountered on another occasion, he staggering as usual under a load of books, and he said: "I have clothed myself with hieroglyphics as with a garment," so I inferred that he was then deep in Egyptology. He had a natural faculty for suggesting in his mystery-language that he had a most profound acquaintance with any subject he took up, and it went a long way with the unversed.
I came across him also occasionally at various occult gatherings of an informal kind - gatherings of people "interested" and mostly of people agape. One met him afterwards in Miss Bergson's society, and it was understood that they had designed to marry. He was at work on Kabalism about 1885 and subsequently translated some texts of the Zohar from the Latin version of Rosenroth. They appeared under the title of The Kabbalah Unveiled, his introduction to which offered marked testimony to a serious study of the arbitrary part of Kabalism - things like gematria and notaricon - but his rendering from the Latin was criticized at great length and in unsparing terms by a writer in The Theosophist. I believe that he replied by affirming that at just those points of alleged mistranslation he had collated the Latin with the original Chaldee texts. But his acquaintance with these can be judged by the fact that he termed Isaac de Loria's treatise De Revolutionibus Animarum a part of the Zohar. It was written some three hundred years later than the latest date to which the most drastic judgement refers that monumental work.
A little earlier than the period of his translation, Mathers had been and remained very active in a certain Rosicrucian Society, which became somewhat too well known afterwards as the Esoteric Order of the G.D. He claimed in a law case long after that he was the chief and head of the Rosicrucian Order; but from the Hermetic Society in question it is known that he was cut off by a large majority vote about 1901. Returning to the earlier period, a time came when Mathers married Miss Bergson, who survives him, and is the sister of Henri Bergson, the now world-famous French philosopher. He was appointed soon after the curator of the Horniman Museum, but the arrangement came to an end in something under two years. A little later Mathers and his wife migrated to Paris, where he continued to live for the most part. Presently he assumed the title of Comte de Glenstrae, affirming that it had been conferred on an ancestor by King James II. At the Arsenal Library in Paris he came upon the French manuscript of a magical ritual by Abramelin the Mage, which purported to be of Hebrew origin, but betrayed itself on every leaf. The attribution was, however, accepted by Mathers, who was of an utterly uncritical mind. He translated it into English and it appeared in a sumptuous form. In addition to this he translated the Clavicula Salomonis (Key of Solomon the King) from originals found in the British Museum, and wrote a booklet on the Tarot.
When he translated his ménage to Paris my acquaintance with Mathers came practically to a close, but the tales told concerning him were many and strange. He established a branch of the occult society which I have mentioned and various occult notabilities of France looked in and looked out again. He was a firm believer in the destiny of the Stuart dynasty to regain the throne of England, and rumour accredited him with Young Turkey plottings - conspiracy for the sake of conspiracy, as W. B. Yeats once said about him. I believe that he knew evil days, poor fellow, and tried to retrieve his fortunes in various ways. He had a Temple of Isis at the French Exhibition, and I have even heard of Tarot fortune-telling at Dieppe - to which I hope that he was not really reduced. He had unfortunately no inclination to earn a competency in the ordinary walks of life.
Amidst many weaknesses he possessed of course his good points, a certain sincerity in his occultism - amidst several queer devices - and a considerable fund of undigested learning.