Stranger Than Fiction
It sat tiny and red-breasted on the branch of an orange tree, watching with beady black eyes as Thomas Lord Lyttelton and two lady companions walked through the conservatory during an after-breakfast stroll on a crisp sunny autumn morning.
Lord Lyttelton leaned on the arm of his companion, Lady Affleck as they walked. He was pale after a long illness and indeed had come to his country home at Epsom on the outskirts of London to rest and convalesce.
Now he seemed to be growing stronger every day and hoped soon to be back at the court of George III – and the notorious pursuits which had made him a legend in London high society. It was the autumn of 1779 and Tom Lyttelton was not yet 40. Having safely survived his illness, he hoped to travel to France for the winter once he grew a little stronger. Already much of his boisterous spirit had returned and his houseguests at Epsom were saying he was almost his normal self.
Then he saw the Robin in his conservatory.a tiny incident, but it was to trigger what has been called one of the most extraordinary predictions in the history of psychical research.
For some reason he decided to catch the tiny bird and after a long chase around then conservatory, finally succeeded.
By now the bird was terrified and Lord Lyttelton’s hands around its frail body were just too much. It died in his grasp, and with a laugh, he let it drop into a nearby pot of ferns and turned in search of some new diversion. The next morning Lord Lyttelton appeared at breakfast pale and haggard. And so apparently distressed that his guests asked anxiously what had happened. At first he avoided their questions but eventually he was persuaded to tell them a strange story. He said that the previous night he had been unable to sleep and in the early hours of the morning heard what sounded like the tapping of a bird’s beak on the window.
“Suddenly I sensed that there was someone in the room. By the light of the moon through a widow I saw a woman dressed in white holding the body of a robin. “She told me to prepare for death as I had only a short time left to live. When I asked how long she said it would be three days and I would die on the hour of 12.”
Lyttelton’s friends refused to take the story seriously, saying that it was obviously a bad dream, caused by eating and drinking too much the previous evening but their host was not amused. “You can scoff,” he said. “But I am certain I will die at midnight on Saturday. I have never been so sure of anything in my life.”
The rest of the morning he spent pacing the garden deep in despair. Then he went indoors to prepare a speech he was due to make on the Irish problem in the House of Lords that evening. It was generally regarded as one of Lord Lyttelton’s finest speeches – well-rehearsed, polished and eloquent. Then he returned to Epsom where he fluctuated between despondency and gaiety.
At dinner on the third day he astonished his friends by what one of them later described as “great wit and vivacity” but it was short-lived and afterwards he relapsed into a deep silence from which none of us could lift him.
“As the evening wore on, he grew restless. He could not sit still but paced relentlessly to and fro, muttering to himself. Every few minutes he would take out his pocket-watch and gaze silently at the time. “We all felt anguished for him but none of us could believe that he would really die as he had forecast. We believed he was still depressed by his illness and was suffering from some sort of temporary delusion.
“When his watch showed half past eleven, Lord Lyttelton got up and went to his room. No one knew that his watch and every clock in the house had secretly been put forward by half an hour by a well-meaning friend who had dismissed the prophesy as nonsense.”
Sitting in bed, watch in hand, Lord Lyttelton awaited the fatal hour. His valet sat with him and together they watched the minutes tick by. When the watch finally recorded midnight, nothing happened. The crisis was over and Lord Lyttelton lay back on his pillows and smiled.
The whole thing was obviously the result of fevered imagination. A friend, sent up by the anxious guests, was greeted by a hearty laugh. “I have cheated the lady in white,” Lord Lyttelton said. “I am not killed off so easily.” And to his valet he said “Get me a glass of champagne.” But when the servant returned to the bedroom with the glass, Lord Lyttelton was lying on the bed, breathing fast and unable to speak. The valet ran for help but it was too late.
A few minutes later Lord Lyttelton was dead, the watch in his hand showing half-past 12. It was still 30 minutes fast. In reality its owner had died on the very stroke of midnight.