When Julius Caesar landed at Adrumetum in Africa, he tripped and fell on his face. This would have been considered a fatal omen by his army, but with admirable presence of mind he exclaimed, "Thus I take possession of thee, O Africa." When William the Conqueror leaped upon the shore at Bulverhythe, he fell on his face, and a great cry went forth that it was an ill omen; but the Duke exclaimed, "I have taken seisin of this land with both my hands."
Stumbling and falling, as omens, have what may be called a natural basis in thought, for, as in the cases just mentioned, there is a keen attention directed to the initial stages of any enterprise; even to-day the sudden shining of the sun on a hitherto cloudy day has been known to be taken as a good augury by people who are celebrating the foundation stone-laying of a new church; and although the visitation of a thunderstorm would not make them think the Deity was angry, they are quite ready to accept what seems like a happy circumstance. Falling, in other connections, has the significance that it has in the case of personal falls. This is seen in what may be called picture omens.
Archbishop Laud, not long before the disastrous circumstances happened which hastened his tragical end, on entering his study one day, found his picture at full length on the floor, the string which held it fastened to the wall having snapped. The sight of this struck the prelate with such an awing sense of the probability of his fate, that from that moment he never enjoyed a moment's peace. It, moreover, brought back to his mind a disaster that had occurred to one of his boats on the very day of his translation to the See of Canterbury, which sank with his coaches and horses into the Thames. The Duke of Buckingham was struck by an occurrence of a similar kind: he found his picture in the council chamber fallen out of its frame. This accident, in that age of omens, was looked upon with a considerable degree of awe.
The logic of these situations seems to be that a fall of any kind is, if not a catastrophe in itself, the outward sign of one that is to come. When Laud found every picture hanging and intact except his own, it was natural that he should inquire why this should be so; and in days when the superstitious mind was cultivated, one can realise how serious reflections would arise and fears assert themselves. In some parts of England the sudden and unexplained falling of window blinds is regarded in the same prophetic light. As a superstition, it is to be accounted for on the same psychological basis, namely, that a fall, sudden and unexpected, strikes the mind by that very reason as the act of some unseen agency. In these enlightened days the falling window blind causes, for the most part, no more thought than a passing complaint on the workmanship of the house furnisher; but with ignorant and superstitious people, on the eternal look-out for signs, it will act as it did in the past: something is going to happen. When Mungo Park took his leave of Sir Walter Scott, prior to his second and fatal expedition to Africa, his horse stumbled on crossing a ditch which separated the moor from the road. "I am afraid," said Scott, "this is a bad omen." Park answered, smiling, "Omens follow them who look to them," and striking spur into his horse, galloped off. Scott never saw him again.
This is the kind of story which keeps the superstition pot a-boiling. The fearful reader says, "Ah! he defied the omen, and Scott never saw him again." But how many people have died tragically who never stumbled, either on foot or when on horseback?