Does the spirit world really contain "familiars" — spectres, which, some claim, attach themselves for eternity to some luckless individual? Psychical research is full of alleged instances in which familiars in the form of animals, birds or humans are supposed to haunt their victims, often never leaving their side.
One of the most puzzling and perhaps best-documented cases of a familiar is what has become known as the mystery of the man in brown. It is a hard-to-believe story, but there are testimonies from at least a dozen people who swear that it would seem to be true.
The late Sir Clive Gresham, a prewar industrialist who died in 1944, left a detailed account of an experience he had in 1913 which apparently convinced him that familiars do exist. The account remains in the family archives but has been quoted in a variety of books and papers on the subject and some years ago I was allowed to see it and take a copy of it.
The story starts in the prewar French Riviera where Sir Clive and other members of the wealthy social set, invariably spent their winters. In those golden days, Nice was the haunt of rich social butterflies who flew south each autumn to escape the drab cold of the English winter.
There they mixed with the cream of European society – the Rothschilds, the Galitzines, Don Carlos of Spain, Count Schehpfskoi, confidante of the Czar. And into this glittering company in the last winter before the war to end wars came Prince Valori.
He was 50, fat, rich and decadent, a relative of the Italian royal family, a lover of opera and, it was alleged, deeply involved in witchcraft and black magic of the most corrupt kind. In his account, Sir Clive recalled: "It seemed I was always meeting Prince Valori at the operas, at cards, at the races or the promenade. But where ever I saw him, a man in a brown suit was always by his side.
"I first noticed him at the opera leaning on the back of the prince's chair in a private box he was sharing with some friends when I was invited to the box to take drink during the interval. He was a strange sinister-looking person, very thin and dressed entirely in dark brown
"He didn't speak and what struck me as rather strange was that the prince, who was normally very sociable, didn't introduce him to anyone. Indeed, no one but me seemed to notice that he was there...
"Then one evening at the casino in Nice I was speaking to a friend whom I knew had a deep interest in the occult and happened to mention the strange man who was constantly at Prince Valori's side, and immediately the man exclaimed: 'Can you see him?'
"When I said: 'I can. Why not?' my friend replied: 'Not many people can. He is not of this world...' He then explained to me just what 'a familiar' was to those who believed in the paranormal and said that according to rumour, the prince acquired the man in the brown suit after a black mass ceremony in Lutzei.
"Apparently from then on, there was nothing the prince could do to rid himself of this spectre, which was with him night and day. Not surprisingly, I was astonished by this story and didn't really believe it. Two days later I was lunching in the Hotel Vosege with my sister-in-law and saw Prince Valori three tables away with the man in brown standing near his chair." I said to my companion: 'You see that man standing next to Prince Valori? They say he is not human.' She said: 'What man. There is no one near the prince except a waiter.'"
But it seems Sir Clive was not the only person to see the man in brown. Lady Violet Tweedale, who claimed to be something of an authority on psychic phenomena, also claimed to be able to see him and was determined to ask the prince about him.
She later wrote in a volume of reminiscences: "One morning I met the prince alone on the Promenade Des Anglais. After a little conversation I said to him: 'Who is that brown man who has been with you lately?'
"A change came over his face