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   Chapter 5 I No.5

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 19722

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

As the weeks went by Maggie's faint uneasiness disappeared. She was one of those fortunate persons who, possessing what are known as nerves, are aware of the possession, and discount their effects accordingly.

That uneasiness had culminated a few days after Laurie's departure one evening as she sat with the old lady after tea-in a sudden touch of terror at she knew not what.

"What is the matter, my dear?" the old lady had said without warning.

Maggie was reading, but it appeared that Mrs. Baxter had noticed her lower her book suddenly, with an odd expression.

Maggie had blinked a moment.

"Nothing," she said. "I was just thinking of Laurie; I don't know why."

But since then she had been able to reassure herself. Her fancies were but fancies, she told herself; and they had ceased to trouble her. The boy's letters to his mother were ordinary and natural: he was reading fairly hard; his coach was as pleasant a person as he had seemed; he hoped to run down to Stantons for a few days at Christmas. There was nothing whatever to alarm anyone; plainly his ridiculous attitude about Spiritualism had been laid by; and, better still, he was beginning to recover himself after his sorrow in September.

It was an extraordinarily peaceful and uneventful life that the two led together-the kind of life that strengthens previous proclivities and adds no new ones; that brings out the framework of character and motive as dropping water clears the buried roots of a tree. This was all very well for Mrs. Baxter, whose character was already fully formed, it may be hoped; but not so utterly satisfactory for the girl, though the process was pleasant enough.

After Mass and breakfast she spent the morning as she wished, overseeing little extra details of the house-gardening plans, the poultry, and so forth-and reading what she cared to. The afternoon was devoted to the old lady's airing; the evening till dinner to anything she wished; and after dinner again to gentle conversation. Very little happened. The Vicar and his wife dined there occasionally, and still more occasionally Father Mahon. Now and then there were vague entertainments to be patronized in the village schoolroom, in an atmosphere of ink and hair-oil, and a mild amount of rather dreary and stately gaiety connected with the big houses round. Mrs. Baxter occasionally put in appearances, a dignified and aristocratic old figure with her gentle eyes and black lace veil; and Maggie went with her.

The pleasure of this life grew steadily upon Maggie. She was one of that fraction of the world that finds entertainment to lie, like the kingdom of God, within. She did not in the least wish to be "amused" or stimulated and distracted. She was perfectly and serenely content with the fowls, the garden, her small selected tasks, her religion, and herself.

The result was, as it always is in such cases, she began to revolve about three or four main lines of thought, and to make a very fair progress in the knowledge of herself. She knew her faults quite well; and she was not unaware of her virtues. She knew perfectly that she was apt to give way to internal irritation, of a strong though invisible kind, when interruptions happened; that she now and then gave way to an unduly fierce contempt of tiresome people, and said little bitter things that she afterwards regretted. She also knew that she was quite courageous, that she had magnificent physical health, and that she could be perfectly content with a life that a good many other people would find narrow and stifling.

Her own character then was one thing that she had studied-not in the least in a morbid way-during her life at Stantons. And another thing she was beginning to study, rather to her own surprise, was the character of Laurie. She began to become a little astonished at the frequency with which, during a silent drive, or some mild mechanical labor in the gardens, the image of that young man would rise before her.

Indeed, as has been said, she had new material to work on. She had not realized till the affaire Amy that boy's astonishing selfishness; and it became for her a rather pleasant psychological exercise to build up his characteristics into a consistent whole. It had not struck her, till this specimen came before her notice, how generosity and egotism, for example, so far from being mutually exclusive, can very easily be complements, each of the other.

So then she passed her days-exteriorly a capable and occupied person, interested in half a dozen simple things; interiorly rather introspective, rather scrupulous, and intensely interested in the watching of two characters-her own and her adopted brother's. Mrs. Baxter's character needed no dissection; it was a consistent whole, clear as crystal and as rigid.

It was still some five weeks before Christmas that Maggie became aware of what, as a British maiden, she ought, of course, to have known long before-namely, that she was thinking just a little too much about a young man who, so far as was apparent, thought nothing at all about her. It was true that once he had passed through a period of sentimentality in her regard; but the extreme discouragement it had met with had been enough.

Her discovery happened in this way.

Mrs. Baxter opened a letter one morning, smiling contentedly to herself.

"From Laurie," she said. Maggie ceased eating toast for a second, to listen.

Then the old lady uttered a small cry of dismay.

"He thinks he can't come, after all," she said.

Maggie had a moment of very acute annoyance.

"What does he say? Why not?" she asked.

There was a pause. She watched Mrs. Baxter's lips moving slowly, her glasses in place; saw the page turned, and turned again. She took another piece of toast. There are few things more irritating than to have fragments of a letter doled out piecemeal.

"He doesn't say. He just says he's very busy indeed, and has a great deal of way to make up." The old lady continued reading tranquilly, and laid the letter down.

"Nothing more?" asked Maggie, consumed with annoyance.

"He's been to the theatre once or twice.... Dear Laurie! I'm glad he's recovering his spirits."

Maggie was very angry indeed. She thought it abominable of the boy to treat his mother like that. And then there was the shooting-not much, indeed, beyond the rabbits, which the man who acted as occasional keeper told her wanted thinning, and a dozen or two of wild pheasants-yet this shooting had always been done, she understood, at Christmas, ever since Master Laurie had been old enough to hold a gun.

She determined to write him a letter.

When breakfast was over, with a resolved face she went to her room. She would really tell this boy a home-truth or two. It was a-a sister's place to do so. The mother, she knew well enough, would do no more than send a little wail, and would end by telling the dear boy that, of course, he knew best, and that she was very happy to think that he was taking such pains about his studies. Someone must point out to the boy his overwhelming selfishness, and it seemed that no one was at hand but herself. Therefore she would do it.

She did it, therefore, politely enough but unmistakably; and as it was a fine morning, she thought that she would like to step up to the village and post it. She did not want to relent; and once the letter was in the post-box, the thing would be done.

It was, indeed, a delicious morning. As she passed out through the iron gate the trees overhead, still with a few brown belated leaves, soared up in filigree of exquisite workmanship into a sky of clear November blue, as fresh as a hedge-sparrow's egg. The genial sound of cock-crowing rose, silver and exultant, from the farm beyond the road, and the tiny street of the hamlet looked as clean as a Dutch picture.

She noticed on the right, just before she turned up to the village on the left, the grocer's shop, with the name "Nugent" in capitals as bright and flamboyant as on the depot of a merchant king. Mr. Nugent could be faintly descried within, in white shirt-sleeves and an apron, busied at a pile of cheeses. Overhead, three pairs of lace curtains, each decked with a blue bow, denoted the bedrooms. One of them must have been Amy's. She wondered which....

All up the road to the village, some half-mile in length, she pondered Amy. She had never seen her, to her knowledge; but she had a tolerably accurate mental picture of her from Mrs. Baxter's account.... Ah! how could Laurie? How could he...? Laurie, of all people! It was just one more example....

After dropping her letter into the box at the corner, she hesitated for an instant. Then, with an odd look on her face, she turned sharply aside to where the church tower pricked above the leafless trees.

It was a typical little country church, with that odor of the respectable and rather stuffy sanctity peculiar to the class; she had wrinkled her nose at it more than once in Laurie's company. But she passed by the door of it now, and, stepping among the wet grasses, came down the little slope among the headstones to where a very white marble angel clasped an equally white marble cross. She passed to the front of this, and looked, frowning a little over the intolerable taste of the thing.

The cross, she perceived, was wreathed with a spray of white marble ivory; the angel was a German female, with a very rounded leg emerging behind a kind of button; and there, at the foot of the cross, was the inscription, in startling black-









Below, as vivid as the inscription, there stood out the maker's name, and of the town where he lived.


* *

So she lay there, reflected Maggie. It had ended in that. A mound of earth, cracking a little, and sunken. She lay there, her nervous fingers motionless and her stammer silent. And could there be a more eloquent monument of what she was...? Then she remembered herself, and signed herself with the cross, while her lips moved an instant for the repose of the poor girlish soul. Then she stepped up again on to the path to go home.

It was as she came near the church gate that she understood herself, that she perceived why she had come, and was conscious for the first time of her real attitude of soul as she had stood there, reading the inscription, and, in a flash, there followed the knowledge of the inevitable meaning of it all.

In a word it was this.

She had come there, she told herself, to triumph, to gloat. Oh! she spared herself nothing, as she stood there, crimson with shame, to gloat over the grave of a rival. Amy was nothing less than that, and she herself-she, Margaret Marie Deronnais-had given way to jealousy of this grocer's daughter, because ... because ... she had begun to care, really to care, for the man to whom she had written that letter this morning, and this man had scarcely said one word to her, or given her one glance, beyond such as a brother might give to a sister. There was the naked truth.

Her mind fled back. She understood a hundred things now. She perceived that that sudden anger at breakfast had been personal disappointment-not at all that lofty disinterestedness on behalf of the mother that she had pretended. She understood too, now, the meaning of those long contented meditations as she went up and down the garden walks, alert for plantains, the meaning of the zeal she had shown, only a week ago, on behalf of a certain hazel which the gardener wanted to cut down.

"You had better wait till Mr. Laurence comes home," she had said. "I think he once said he liked the tree to be just there."

She understood now why she had been so intuitive, so condemnatory, so critical of the boy-it was that she was passionately interested in him, that it was a pleasure even to abuse him to herself, to call him selfish and self-centered, that all this lofty disapproval was just the sop that her subconsciousness had used to quiet her uneasiness.

Little scenes rose before her-all passed almost in a flash of time-as she stood with her hand on the medieval-looking latch of the gate, and she saw herself in them all as a proud, unmaidenly, pharisaical prig, in love with a man who was not in love with her.

She made an effort, unlatched the gate, and moved on, a beautiful, composed figure, with great steady eyes and well-cut profile, a model of dignity and grace, interiorly a raging, self-contemptuous, abject wretch.

It must be remembered that she was convent-bred.


By the time that Laurie's answer came, poor Maggie had arranged her emotions fairly satisfactorily. She came to the conclusion, arrived at after much heart-searching, that after all she was not yet actually in love with Laurie, but was in danger of being so, and that therefore now that she knew the danger, and could guard against it, she need not actually withdraw from her home, and bury herself in a convent or the foreign mission-field.

She arrived at this astonishing conclusion by the following process of thought. It may be presented in the form of a syllogism.

All girls who are in love regard the beloved as a spotless, reproachless hero.

Maggie Deronnais did not regard Laurie Baxter as a spotless, reproachless hero.

Ergo. Maggie Deronnais was not in love with Laurie Baxter.

Strange as it may appear to non-Catholic readers, Maggie did not confide her complications to the ear of Father Mahon. She mentioned, no doubt, on the following Saturday, that she had given way to thoughts of pride and jealousy, that she had deceived herself with regard to a certain action, done really for selfish motives, into thinking she had done it for altruistic motives, and there she left it. And, no doubt, Father Mahon left it there too, and gave her absolution without hesitation.

Then Laurie's answer arrived, and had to be dealt with, that is, it had to be treated interiorly with a proper restraint of emotions.

"My dear Maggie," he wrote;

Why all this fury? What have I done? I said to mother that I didn't know for certain whether I could come or not, as I had a lot to do. I don't think she can have given you the letter to read, or you wouldn't have written all that about my being away from home at the one season of the year, etc. Of course I'll come, if you or anybody feels like that. Does mother feel upset too? Please tell me if she ever feels that, or is in the least unwell, or anything. I'll come instantly. As it is, shall we say the 20th of December, and I'll stay at least a week. Will that do?



This was a little overwhelming, and Maggie wrote off a penitent letter, refraining carefully, however, from any expressions that might have anything of the least warmth, but saying that she was very glad he was coming, and that the shooting should be seen to.

She directed the letter; and then sat for an instant looking at Laurie's-at the neat Oxford-looking hand, the artistic appearance of the paragraphs, and all the rest of it.

She would have liked to keep it-to put it with half a dozen others she had from him; but it seemed better not.

Then as she tore it up into careful strips, her conscience smote her again, shrewdly; and she drew out the top left-hand drawer of the table at which she sat.

There they were, a little pile of them, neat and orderly. She looked at them an instant; then she took them out, turned them quickly to see if all were there, and then, gathering up the strips of the one she had received that morning, went over to the wood fire and dropped them in.

It was better so, she said to herself.

* * *

The days went pleasantly enough after that. She would not for an instant allow to herself that any of their smoothness arose from the fact that this boy would be here again in a few weeks. On the contrary, it was because she had detected a weakness in his regard, she told herself, and had resolutely stamped on it, that she was in so serene a peace. She arranged about the shooting-that is to say, she informed the acting keeper that Master Laurie would be home for Christmas as usual-all in an unemotional manner, and went about her various affairs without effort.

She found Mrs. Baxter just a little trying now and then. That lady had come to the conclusion that Laurie was unhappy in his religion-certainly references to it had dropped out of his letters-and that Mr. Rymer must set it right.

"The Vicar must dine here at least twice while Laurie is here," she observed at breakfast one morning. "He has a great influence with young men."

Maggie reflected upon a remark or two, extremely unjust, made by Laurie with regard to the clergyman.

"Do you think-do you think he understands Laurie," she said.

"He has known him for fifteen years," remarked Mrs. Baxter.

"Perhaps it's Laurie that doesn't understand him then," said Maggie tranquilly.

"I daresay."

"And-and what do you think Mr. Rymer will be able to do?" asked the girl.

"Just settle the boy.... I don't think Laurie's very happy. Not that I would willingly disturb his mind again; I don't mean that, my dear. I quite understand that your religion is just the one for certain temperaments, and Laurie's is one of them; but a few helpful words sometimes-" Mrs. Baxter left it at an aposiopesis, a form of speech she was fond of.

There was a grain of truth, Maggie thought, in the old lady's hints, and she helped herself in silence to marmalade. Laurie's letters, which she usually read, did not refer much to religion, or to the Brompton Oratory, as his custom had been at first. She tried to make up her mind that this was a healthy sign; that it showed that Laurie was settling down from that slight feverishness of zeal that seemed the inevitable atmosphere of most converts. Maggie found converts a little trying now and then; they would talk so much about facts, certainly undisputed, and for that very reason not to be talked about. Laurie had been a marked case, she remembered; he wouldn't let the thing alone, and his contempt of Anglican clergy, whom Maggie herself regarded with respect, was hard to understand. In fact she had remonstrated on the subject of the Vicar....

Maggie perceived that she was letting her thoughts run again on disputable lines; and she made a remark about the Balkan crisis so abruptly that Mrs. Baxter looked at her in bewilderment.

"You do jump about so, my dear. We were speaking of Laurie, were we not?"

"Yes," said Maggie.

"It's the twentieth he's coming on, is it not?"

"Yes," said Maggie.

"I wonder what train he'll come by?"

"I don't know," said Maggie.

* * *

A few days before Laurie's arrival she went to the greenhouse to see the chrysanthemums. There was an excellent show of them.

"Mrs. Baxter doesn't like them hairy ones," said the gardener.

"Oh! I had forgotten. Well, Ferris, on the nineteenth I shall want a big bunch of them. You'd better take those-those hairy ones. And some maidenhair. Is there plenty?"

"Yes, miss."

"Can you make a wreath, Ferris?"

"Yes, miss."

"Well, will you make a good wreath of them, please, for a grave? The morning of the twentieth will do. There'll be plenty left for the church and house?"

"Oh yes, miss."

"And for Father Mahon?"

"Oh yes, miss."

"Very well, then. Will you remember that? A good wreath, with fern, on the morning of the twentieth. If you'll just leave it here I'll call for it about twelve o'clock. You needn't send it up to the house."

* * *

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