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   Chapter 3 I No.3

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 14621

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Lady Laura Bethell, spinster, had just returned to her house in Queen's Gate, with her dearest friend, Mrs. Stapleton, for a few days of psychical orgy. It was in her house, as much as in any in London, that the modern prophets were to be met with-severe-looking women in shapeless dresses, little men and big, with long hair and cloaks; and it was in her drawing-room that tea and Queen cakes were dispensed to inquirers, and papers read and discussed when the revels were over.

Lady Laura herself was not yet completely emancipated from what her friends sometimes called the grave-clothes of so-called Revelation. To her it seemed a profound truth that things could be true and untrue simultaneously-that what might be facts on This Side, as she would have expressed it, might be falsehoods on the Other. She was accustomed, therefore, to attend All Saints', Carlton Gardens, in the morning, and psychical drawing-rooms or halls in the evening, and to declare to her friends how beautifully the one aspect illuminated and interpreted the other.

For the rest, she was a small, fair-haired woman, with penciled dark eyebrows, a small aquiline nose, gold pince-nez, and an exquisite taste in dress.

The two were seated this Tuesday evening, a week after Mrs. Stapleton's visit to the Stantons, in the drawing-room of the Queen's Gate house, over the remnants of what corresponded to five-o'clock tea. I say "corresponded," since both of them were sufficiently advanced to have renounced actual tea altogether. Mrs. Stapleton partook of a little hot water out of a copper-jacketed jug; her hostess of boiled milk. They shared their Plasmon biscuits together. These things were considered important for those who would successfully find the Higher Light.

At this instant they were discussing Mr. Vincent.

"Dearest, he seems to me so different from the others," mewed Lady Laura. "He is such a man, you know. So often those others are not quite like men at all; they wear such funny clothes, and their hair always is so queer, somehow."

"Darling, I know what you mean. Yes, there's a great deal of that about James Vincent. Even dear Tom was almost polite to him: he couldn't bear the others: he said that he always thought they were going to paw him."

"And then his powers," continued Lady Laura-"his powers always seem to me so much greater. The magnetism is so much more evident."

Mrs. Stapleton finished her hot water.

"We are going on Sunday?" she said questioningly.

"Yes; just a small party. And he comes here tomorrow, you remember, just for a talk. I have asked a clergyman I know in to meet him. It seems to me such a pity that our religious teachers should know so little of what is going on."

"Who is he?"

"Oh, Mr. Jamieson ... just a young clergyman I met in the summer. I promised to let him know the next time Mr. Vincent came to me."

Mrs. Stapleton murmured her gratification.

These two had really a great deal in common besides their faith. It is true that Mrs. Stapleton was forty, and her friend but thirty-one; but the former did all that was possible to compensate for this by adroit toilette tactics. Both, too, were accustomed to dress in soft materials, with long chains bearing various emblems; they did their hair in the same way; they cultivated the same kinds of tones in their voices-a purring, mewing manner-suggestive of intuitive kittens. Both alike had a passion for proselytism. But after that the differences began. There was a deal more in Mrs. Stapleton besides the kittenish qualities. She was perfectly capable of delivering a speech in public; she had written some really well-expressed articles in various Higher periodicals; and she had a will-power beyond the ordinary. At the point where Lady Laura began to deprecate and soothe, Mrs. Stapleton began to clear decks for action, so to speak, to be incisive, to be fervent, even to be rather eloquent. She kept "dear Tom," the Colonel, not crushed or beaten, for that was beyond the power of man to do, but at least silently acquiescent in her program: he allowed her even to entertain her prophetical friends at his expense, now and then; and, even when among men, refrained from too bitter speech. It was said by the Colonel's friends that Mrs. Colonel had a tongue of her own. Certainly, she ruled her house well and did her duty; and it was only because of her husband's absence in Scotland that during this time she was permitting herself the refreshment of a week or two among the Illuminated.

At about six o'clock Lady Laura announced her intention of retiring for her evening meditation. Opening out of her bedroom was a small dressing-room that she had fitted up for this purpose with all the broad suggestiveness that marks the Higher Thought: decked with ornaments emblematical of at least three religions, and provided with a faldstool and an exceedingly easy chair. It was here that she was accustomed to spend an hour before dinner, with closed eyes, emancipating herself from the fetters of sense; and rising to a due appreciation of that Nothingness that was All, from which All came and to which it retired.

"I must go, dearest; it is time."

A ring at the bell below made her pause.

"Do you think that can be Mr. Vincent?" she said, pleasantly apprehensive. "It's not the right day, but one never knows."

A footman's figure entered.

"Mr. Baxter, my lady.... Is your ladyship at home?"

"Mr. Baxter-"

Mrs. Stapleton rose.

"Let me see him instead, dearest.... You remember ... from Stantons."

"I wonder what he wants?" murmured the hostess. "Yes, do see him, Maud; you can always fetch me if it's anything."

Then she was gone. Mrs. Stapleton sank into a chair again; and in a minute Laurie was shaking hands with her.

Mrs. Stapleton was accustomed to deal with young men, and through long habit had learned how to flatter them without appearing to do so. Laurie's type, however, was less familiar to her. She preferred the kind that grow their hair rather long and wear turn-down collars, and have just found out the hopeless banality of all orthodoxy whatever. She even bore with them when they called themselves unmoral. But she remembered Laurie, the silent boy at lunch last week, she had even mentioned him to Lady Laura, and received information about the village girl, more or less correct. She was also aware that he was a Catholic.

She gave him her hand without rising.

"Lady Laura asked me to excuse her absence to you, Mr. Baxter. To be quite truthful, she is at home, but had just gone upstairs for her meditation."

"Indeed!"

"Yes, you know; we think that so important, just as you do. Do sit down, Mr. Baxter. You have had tea?"

"Yes, thanks."

"I hope she will be down before you go. I don't think she'll be very long this evening. Can I give her any message, Mr. Baxter, in case you don't see her?"

Laurie put his hat and stick down carefully, and crossed his legs.

"No; I don't think so, thanks," he said. "The fact is, I came partly to find out your address, if I might."

Mrs. Stapleton rustled and rearranged herself.

"Oh! but that's charming of you," she said. "Is there anything particular?"

"Yes," said Laurie slowly; "at least it seems rather particular to me. It's what you w

ere talking about the other day."

"Now how nice of you to say that! Do you know, I was wondering as we talked. Now do tell me exactly what is in your mind, Mr. Baxter."

Mrs. Stapleton was conscious of a considerable sense of pleasure. Usually she found this kind of man very imperceptive and gross. Laurie seemed perfectly at his ease, dressed quite in the proper way, and had an air of presentableness that usually only went with Philistinism. She determined to do her best.

"May I speak quite freely, please?" he asked, looking straight at her.

"Please, please," she said, with that touch of childish intensity that her friends thought so innocent and beautiful.

"Well, it's like this," said Laurie. "I've always rather disliked all that kind of thing, more than I can say. It did seem to me so-well-so feeble, don't you know; and then I'm a Catholic, you see, and so-"

"Yes; yes?"

"Well, I've been reading Mr. Stainton Moses, and one or two other books; and I must say that an awful lot of it seems to me still great rubbish; and then there are any amount of frauds, aren't there, Mrs. Stapleton, in that line?"

"Alas! Ah, yes!"

"But then I don't know what to make of some of the evidence that remains. It seems to me that if evidence is worth anything at all, there must be something real at the back of it all. And then, if that is so, if it really is true that it is possible to get into actual touch with people who are dead-I mean really and truly, so that there's no kind of doubt about it-well, that does seem to me about the most important thing in the world. Do you see?"

She kept her eyes on his face for an instant or two. Plainly he was really moved; his face had gone a little white in the lamplight and his hands were clasped tightly enough over his knee to whiten the knuckles. She remembered Lady Laura's remarks about the village girl, and understood. But she perceived that she must not attempt intimacy just yet with this young man: he would resent it. Besides, she was shrewd enough to see by his manner that he did not altogether like her.

She nodded pensively once or twice. Then she turned to him with a bright smile. "I understand entirely," she said. "May I too speak quite freely? Yes? Well, I am so glad you have spoken out. Of course, we are quite accustomed to being distrusted and feared. After all, it is the privilege of all truth-seekers to suffer, is it not? Well, I will say what is in my heart.

"First, you are quite right about some of our workers being dishonest sometimes. They are, Mr. Baxter, I have seen more than one, myself, exposed. But that is natural, is it not? Why, there have been bad Catholics, too, have there not? And, after all, we are only human; and there is a great temptation sometimes not to send people away disappointed. You have heard those stories, I expect, Mr. Baxter?"

"I have heard of Mr. Eglinton."

"Ah! Poor Willie.... Yes. But he had great powers, for all that.... Well, but the point you want to get at is this, is it not? Is it really true, underneath it all? Is that it?"

Laurie nodded, looking at her steadily. She leaned forward.

"Mr. Baxter, by all that I hold most sacred, I assure you that it is, that I myself have seen and touched ... touched ... my own father, who crossed over twenty years ago. I have received messages from his own lips ... and communications in other ways too, concerning matters only known to him and to myself. Is that sufficient? No"; (she held up a delicate silencing hand) "... no, I will not ask you to take my word. I will ask you to test it for yourself."

Laurie too leaned forward now in his low chair, his hands clasped between his knees.

"You will-you will let me test it?" he said in a low voice.

She sat back easily, pushing her draperies straight. She was in some fine silk that fell straight from her high slender waist to her copper-colored shoes.

"Listen, Mr. Baxter. Tomorrow there is coming to this house certainly the greatest medium in London, if not in Europe. (Of course we cannot compete with the East. We are only children beside them.) Well, this man, Mr. Vincent-I think I spoke of him to you last week-he is coming here just for a talk to one or two friends. There shall be no difficulty if you wish it. I will speak to Lady Laura before you go."

Laurie looked at her without moving.

"I shall be very much obliged," he said. "You will remember that I am not yet in the least convinced? I only want to know."

"That is exactly the right attitude. That is all we have any right to ask. We do not ask for blind faith, Mr. Baxter-only for believing after having seen."

Laurie nodded slowly.

"That seems to me reasonable," he said.

There was silence for a moment. Then she determined on a bold stroke.

"There is someone in particular-Mr. Baxter-forgive me for asking-someone who has passed over-?"

She sank her voice to what she had been informed was a sympathetic tone, and was scarcely prepared for the sudden tightening of that face.

"That is my affair, Mrs. Stapleton."

Ah well, she had been premature. She would fetch Lady Laura, she said; she thought she might venture for such a purpose. No, she would not be away three minutes. Then she rustled out.

Laurie went to the fire to wait, and stood there, mechanically warming his hands and staring down at that sleeping core of red coal.

He had taken his courage in both hands in coming at all. In spite of his brave words to Maggie, he had been conscious of a curious repulsion with regard to the whole matter-a repulsion not only of contempt towards the elaborate affectations of the woman he had determined to consult. Yet he had come.

What he had said just now had been perfectly true. He was not yet in the least convinced, but he was anxious, intensely and passionately anxious, goaded too by desire.

Ah! surely it was absurd and fantastic-here in London, in this century. He turned and faced the lamp-lit room, letting his eyes wander round the picture-hung walls, the blue stamped paper, the Empire furniture, the general appearance of beautiful comfort and sane modern life. It was absurd and fantastic; he would be disappointed again, as he had been disappointed in everything else. These things did not happen-the dead did not return. Step by step those things that for centuries had been deemed evidence of the supernatural, one by one had been explained and discounted. Hypnotism, water divining, witchcraft, and the rest. All these had once been believed to be indisputable proofs of a life beyond the grave, of strange supernormal personalities, and these, one by one, had been either accounted for or discredited. It was mad of him to be alarmed or excited. No, he would go through with it, expecting nothing, hoping nothing. But he would just go through with it to satisfy himself....

The door opened, and the two ladies came in.

"I am delighted that you called, Mr. Baxter; and on such an errand!"

Lady Laura put out a hand, tremulous with pleasure at welcoming a possible disciple.

"Mrs. Stapleton has explained-" began Laurie.

"I understand everything. You come as a skeptic-no, not as a skeptic, but as an inquirer, that is all that we wish.... Then tomorrow, at about half-past four."

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