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   Chapter 6 I No.6

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 28213

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Laurie was sitting in his room after breakfast, filling his briar pipe thoughtfully, and contemplating his journey to Stantons.

It was more than six weeks now since his experience in Queen's Gate, and he had gone through a variety of emotions. Bewildered terror was the first, a nervous interest the next, a truculent skepticism the third; and lately, to his astonishment, the nervous interest had begun to revive.

At first he had been filled with unreasoning fear. He had walked back as far as the gate of the park, hardly knowing where he went, conscious only that he must be in the company of his fellows; upon finding himself on the south side of Hyde Park Corner, where travelers were few, he had crossed over in nervous haste to where he might jostle human beings. Then he had dined in a restaurant, knowing that a band would be playing there, and had drunk a bottle of champagne; he had gone to his rooms, cheered and excited, and had leapt instantly into bed for fear that his courage should evaporate. For he was perfectly aware that fear, and a sickening kind of repulsion, formed a very large element in his emotions. For nearly two hours, unless three persons had lied consummately, he-his essential being, that sleepless self that underlies all-had been in strange company, had become identified in some horrible manner with the soul of a dead person. It was as if he had been informed some morning that he had slept all night with a corpse under his bed. He woke half a dozen times that night in the pleasant curtained bedroom, and each time with the terror upon him. What if stories were true, and this Thing still haunted the air? It was remarkable, he considered afterwards, how the sign which he had demanded had not had the effect for which he had hoped. He was not at all reassured by it.

Then as the days went by, and he was left in peace, his horror began to pass. He turned the thing over in his mind a dozen times a day, and found it absorbing. But he began to reflect that, after all, he had nothing more than he had had before in the way of evidence. An hypnotic sleep might explain the whole thing. That little revelation he had made in his unconsciousness, of his sitting beneath the yews, might easily be accounted for by the fact that he himself knew it, that it had been a deeper element in his experience than he had known, and that he had told it aloud. It was no proof of anything more. There remained the rapping and what the medium had called his "appearance" during the sleep; but of all this he had read before in books. Why should he be convinced any more now than he had been previously? Besides, it was surely doubtful, was it not, whether the rapping, if it had really taken place, might not be the normal cracks and sounds of woodwork, intensified in the attention of the listeners? or if it was more than this, was there any proof that it might not be produced in some way by the intense will-power of some living person present? This was surely conceivable-more conceivable, that is, than any other hypothesis.... Besides, what had it all got to do with Amy?

Within a week of his original experience, skepticism was dominant. These lines of thought did their work by incessant repetition. The normal life he lived, the large, businesslike face of the lawyer whom he faced day by day, a theatre or two, a couple of dinners-even the noise of London streets and the appearance of workaday persons-all these gradually reassured him.

When therefore he received a nervous little note from Lady Laura, reminding him of the séance to be held in Baker Street, and begging his attendance, he wrote a most proper letter back again, thanking her for her kindness, but saying that he had come to the conclusion that this kind of thing was not good for him or his work, and begging her to make his excuses to Mr. Vincent.

A week or two passed, and nothing whatever happened. Then he heard again from Lady Laura, and again he answered by a polite refusal, adding a little more as to his own state of mind; and again silence fell.

Then at last Mr. Vincent called on him in person one evening after dinner.

* * *

Laurie's rooms were in Mitre Court, very convenient to the Temple-two rooms opening into one another, and communicating with the staircase.

He had played a little on his grand piano, that occupied a third of his sitting-room, and had then dropped off to sleep before his fire. He awakened suddenly to see the big man standing almost over him, and sat up confusedly.

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Baxter; the porter's boy told me to come straight up. I found your outer door open."

Laurie hastened to welcome him, to set him down in a deep chair, to offer whisky and to supply tobacco. There was something about this man that commanded deference.

"You know why I have come, I expect," said the medium, smiling.

Laurie smiled back, a little nervously.

"I have come to see whether you will not reconsider your decision."

The boy shook his head.

"I think not," he said.

"You found no ill effects, I hope, from what happened at Lady Laura's?"

"Not at all, after the first shock."

"Doesn't that reassure you at all, Mr. Baxter?"

Laurie hesitated.

"It's like this," he said; "I'm not really convinced. I don't see anything final in what happened."

"Will you explain, please?"

Laurie set the results of his meditations forth at length. There was nothing, he said, that could not be accounted for by a very abnormal state of subjectivity. The fact that this ... this young person's name was in his mind ... and so forth....

"... And I find it rather distracting to my work," he ended. "Please don't think me rude or ungrateful, Mr. Vincent."

He thought he was being very strong and sensible.

The medium was silent for a moment.

"Doesn't it strike you as odd that I myself was able to get no results that night?" he said presently.

"How? I don't understand."

"Why, as a rule, I find no difficulty at all in getting some sort of response by automatic handwriting. Are you aware that I could do nothing at all that night?"

Laurie considered it.

"Well," he said at last, "this may sound very foolish to you; but granting that I have got unusual gifts that way-they are your own words, Mr. Vincent-if that is so, I don't see why my own concentration of thought, or hypnotic sleep or trance or whatever it was-might not have been so intense as to-"

"I quite see," interrupted the other. "That is, of course, conceivable from your point of view. It had occurred to me that you might think that.... Then I take it that your theory is that the subconscious self is sufficient to account for it all-that in this hypnotic sleep, if you care to call it so, you simply uttered what was in your heart, and identified yourself with ... with your memory of that young girl."

"I suppose so," said Laurie shortly.

"And the rapping, loud, continuous, unmistakable?"

"That doesn't seem to me important. I did not actually hear it, you know."

"Then what you need is some unmistakable sign?"

"Yes ... but I see perfectly that this is impossible. Whatever I said in my sleep, either I can't identify it as true, in which case it is worthless as evidence, or I can identify it, because I already know it, and in that case it is worthless again."

The medium smiled, half closing his eyes.

"You must think us very childish, Mr. Baxter," he said.

He sat up a little in his chair; then, putting his hand into his breast pocket, drew out a note-book, holding it still closed on his knee.

"May I ask you a rather painful question?" he said gently.

Laurie nodded. He felt so secure.

"Would you kindly tell me-first, whether you have seen the grave of this young girl since you left the country; secondly, whether anyone happens to have mentioned it to you?"

Laurie swallowed in his throat.

"Certainly no one has mentioned it to me. And I have not seen it since I left the country."

"How long ago was that?"

"That was ... about September the twenty-seventh."

"Thank you...!" He opened the note-book and turned the pages a moment or two. "And will you listen to this, Mr. Baxter?-'Tell Laurie that the ground has sunk a little above my grave; and that cracks are showing at the sides.'"

"What is that book?" said the boy hoarsely.

The medium closed it and returned it to his pocket.

"That book, Mr. Baxter, contains a few extracts from some of the things you said during your trance. The sentence I have read is one of them, an answer given to a demand made by me that the control should give some unmistakable proof of her identity. She ... you hesitated some time before giving that answer."

"Who took the notes?"

"Mrs. Stapleton. You can see the originals if you wish. I thought it might distress you to know that such notes had been taken; but I have had to risk that. We must not lose you, Mr. Baxter."

Laurie sat, dumb and bewildered.

"Now all you have to do," continued the medium serenely, "is to find out whether what has been said is correct or not. If it is not correct, there will be an end of the matter, if you choose. But if it is correct-"

"Stop; let me think!" cried Laurie.

He was back again in the confusion from which he thought he had escaped. Here was a definite test, offered at least in good faith-just such a test as had been lacking before; and he had no doubt whatever that it would be borne out by facts. And if it were-was there any conceivable hypothesis that would explain it except the one offered so confidently by this grave, dignified man who sat and looked at him with something of interested compassion in his heavy eyes? Coincidence? It was absurd. Certainly graves did sink, sometimes-but ... Thought-transference from someone who noticed the grave...? But why that particular thought, so vivid, concise, and pointed...?

If it were true...?

He looked hopelessly at the man, who sat smoking quietly and waiting.

And then again another thought, previously ignored, pierced him like a sword. If it were true; if Amy herself, poor pretty Amy, had indeed been there, were indeed near him now, hammering and crying out like a child shut out at night, against his own skeptical heart ... if it were indeed true that during those two hours she had had her heart's desire, and had been one with his very soul, in a manner to which no earthly union could aspire ... how had he treated her? Even at this thought a shudder of repulsion ran through him.... It was unnatural, detestable ... yet how sweet...! What did the Church say of such things...? But what if religion were wrong, and this indeed were the satiety of the higher nature of which marriage was but the material expression...?

The thoughts flew swifter than clouds as he sat there, bewildering, torturing, beckoning. He made a violent effort. He must be sane, and face things.

"Mr. Vincent," he cried.

The kindly face turned to him again.

"Mr. Vincent...."

"Hush, I quite understand," said the fatherly voice. "It is a shock, I know; but Truth is a little shocking sometimes. Wait. I perfectly understand that you must have time. You must think it all over, and verify this. You must not commit yourself. But I think you had better have my address. The ladies are a little too emotional, are they not? I expect you would sooner come to see me without them."

He laid his card on the little tea-table and stood up.

"Good-night, Mr. Baxter."

Laurie took his hand, and looked for a moment into the kind eyes. Then the man was gone.

II

That was a little while ago, now, and Laurie sitting over breakfast had had time to think it out, and by an act of sustained will to suspend his judgment.

He had come back again to the state I have described-to nervous interest-no more than that. The terror seemed gone, and certainly the skepticism seemed gone too. Now he had to face Maggie and his mother, and to see the grave....

Somehow he had become more accustomed to the idea that there might be real and solid truth under it all, and familiarity had bred ease. Yet there was nervousness there too at the thought of going home. There were moods in which, sitting or walking alone, he passionately desired it all to be true; other moods in which he was acquiescent; but in both there was a faint discomfort in the thought of meeting Maggie, and a certain instinct of propitiation towards her. Maggie had begun to stand for him as a kind of embodiment of a view of life which was sane, wholesome, and curiously attractive; there was a largeness about her, a strength, a sense of fresh air that was delightful. It was that kind of thing, he thought, that had attracted him to her during this past summer. The image of Amy, on the other hand, more than ever now since those recent associations, stood for something quite contrary-certainly for attractiveness, but of a feverish and vivid kind, extraordinarily unlike the other. To express it in terms of time, he thought of Maggie in the morning, and of Amy in the evening, particularly after dinner. Maggie was cool and sunny; Amy suited better the evening fever and artificial light.

And now Maggie had to be faced.

First he reflected that he had not breathed a hint, either to her or his mother, as to what had passed. They both would believe that he had dropped all this. There would then be no arguing, that at least was a comfort. But there was a curious sense of isolation and division between him and the girl.

Yet, after all, he asked himself indignantly, what affair was it of hers? She was not his confessor; she was just a convent-bred girl who couldn't understand. He would be aloof and polite. That was the attitude. And he would manage his own affairs.

He drew a few brisk draughts of smoke from his pipe and stood up. That was settled.

* * *

It was in this determined mood then that he stepped out on to the platform at the close of this wintry day, and saw Maggie, radiant in furs, waiting for him, with her back to the orange sunset

.

These two did not kiss one another. It was thought better not. But he took her hand with a pleasant sense of welcome and home-coming.

"Auntie's in the brougham," she said. "There's lots of room for the luggage on the top.... Oh! Laurie, how jolly this is!"

It was a pleasant two-mile drive that they had. Laurie sat with his back to the horses. His mother patted his knee once or twice under the fur rug, and looked at him with benevolent pleasure. It seemed at first a very delightful home-coming. Mrs. Baxter asked after Mr. Morton, Laurie's coach, with proper deference.

But places have as strong a power of retaining associations as persons, and even as they turned down into the hamlet Laurie was aware that this was particularly true just now. He carefully did not glance out at Mr. Nugent's shop, but it was of no use. The whole place was as full to him of the memory of Amy-and more than the memory, it seemed-as if she was still alive. They drew up at the very gate where he had whispered her name; the end of the yew walk, where he had sat on a certain night, showed beyond the house; and half a mile behind lay the meadows, darkling now, where he had first met her face to face in the sunset, and the sluice of the stream where they had stood together silent. And all was like a landscape seen through colored paper by a child, it was of the uniform tint of death and sorrow.

Laurie was rather quiet all that evening. His mother noticed it, and it produced a remark from her that for an instant brought his heart into his mouth.

"You look a little peaked, dearest," she said, as she took her bedroom candlestick from him. "You haven't been thinking any more about that Spiritualism?"

He handed a candlestick to Maggie, avoiding her eyes.

"Oh, for a bit," he said lightly, "but I haven't touched the thing for over two months."

He said it so well that even Maggie was reassured. She had just hesitated for a fraction of a second to hear his answer, and she went to bed well content.

Her contentment was even deeper next morning when Laurie, calling to her through the cheerful frosty air, made her stop at the turning to the village on her way to church.

"I'm coming," he said virtuously; "I haven't been on a weekday for ages."

They talked of this and that for the half-mile before them. At the church door she hesitated again.

"Laurie, I wish you'd come to the Protestant churchyard with me for a moment afterwards, will you?"

He paled so suddenly that she was startled.

"Why?" he said shortly.

"I want you to see something."

He looked at her still for an instant with an incomprehensible expression. Then he nodded with set lips.

When she came out he was waiting for her. She determined to say something of regret.

"Laurie, I'm dreadfully sorry if I shouldn't have said that.... I was stupid.... But perhaps-"

"What is it you want me to see?" he said without the faintest expression in his voice.

"Just some flowers," she said. "You don't mind, do you?"

She saw him trembling a little.

"Was that all?"

"Why yes.... What else could it be?"

They went on a few steps without another word. At the church gate he spoke again.

"Its awfully good of you, Maggie ... I ... I'm rather upset still, you know; that's all."

He hurried, a little in front of her, over the frosty grass beyond the church; and she saw him looking at the grave very earnestly as she came up. He said nothing for a moment.

"I'm afraid the monument's rather ... rather awful.... Do you like the flowers, Laurie?"

She was noticing that the chrysanthemums were a little blackened by the frost; and hardly attended to the fact that he did not answer.

"Do you like the flowers?" she said again presently.

He started from his prolonged stare downwards.

"Oh yes, yes," he said; "they're ... they're lovely.... Maggie, the grave's all right, isn't it: the mound, I mean?"

At first she hardly understood.

"Oh yes ... what do you mean?"

He sighed, whether in relief or not she did not know.

"Only ... only I have heard of mounds sinking sometimes, or cracking at the sides. But this one-"

"Oh yes," interrupted the girl. "But this was very bad yesterday.... What's the matter, Laurie?"

He had turned his face with some suddenness, and there was in it a look of such terror that she herself was frightened.

"What were you saying, Maggie?"

"It was nothing of any importance," said the girl hurriedly. "It wasn't in the least disfigured, if that-"

"Maggie, will you please tell me exactly in what condition this grave was yesterday? When was it put right?"

"I ... I noticed it when I brought the chrysanthemums up yesterday morning. The ground was sunk a little, and cracks were showing at the sides. I told the sexton to put it right. He seems to have done it.... Laurie, why do you look like that?"

He was staring at her with an expression that might have meant anything. She would not have been surprised if he had burst into a fit of laughter. It was horrible and unnatural.

"Laurie! Laurie! Don't look like that!"

He turned suddenly away and left her. She hurried after him.

On the way to the house he told her the whole story from beginning to end.

III

The two were sitting together in the little smoking-room at the back of the house on the last night of Laurie's holidays. He was to go back to town next morning.

Maggie had passed a thoroughly miserable week. She had had to keep her promise not to tell Mrs. Baxter-not that that lady would have been of much service, but the very telling would be a relief-and things really were not serious enough to justify her telling Father Mahon.

To her the misery lay, not in any belief she had that the spiritualistic claim was true, but that the boy could be so horribly excited by it. She had gone over the arguments again and again with him, approving heartily of his suggestions as to the earlier part of the story, and suggesting herself what seemed to her the most sensible explanation of the final detail. Graves did sink, she said, in two cases out of three, and Laurie was as aware of that as herself. Why in the world should not this then be attributed to the same subconscious mind as that which, in the hypnotic sleep-or whatever it was-had given voice to the rest of his imaginations? Laurie had shaken his head. Now they were at it once more. Mrs. Baxter had gone to bed half an hour before.

"It's too wickedly grotesque," she said indignantly. "You can't seriously believe that poor Amy's soul entered into your mind for an hour and a half in Lady Laura's drawing-room. Why, what's purgatory, then, or heaven? It's so utterly and ridiculously impossible that I can't speak of it with patience."

Laurie smiled at her rather wearily and contemptuously.

"The point," he said, "is this: Which is the simplest hypothesis? You and I both believe that the soul is somewhere; and it's natural, isn't it, that she should want-oh! dash it all! Maggie, I think you should remember that she was in love with me-as well as I with her," he added.

Maggie made a tiny mental note.

"I don't deny for an instant that it's a very odd story," she said. "But this kind of explanation is just-oh, I can't speak of it. You allowed yourself that up to this last thing you didn't really believe it; and now because of this coincidence the whole thing's turned upside down. Laurie, I wish you'd be reasonable."

Laurie glanced at her.

She was sitting with her back to the curtained and shuttered window, beyond which lay the yew-walk; and the lamplight from the tall stand fell full upon her. She was dressed in some rich darkish material, her breast veiled in filmy white stuff, and her round, strong arms lay, bare to the elbow, along the arms of her chair. She was a very pleasant wholesome sight. But her face was troubled, and her great serene eyes were not so serene as usual. He was astonished at the persistence with which she attacked him. Her whole personality seemed thrown into her eyes and gestures and quick words.

"Maggie," he said, "please listen. I've told you again and again that I'm not actually convinced. What you say is just conceivably possible. But it doesn't seem to me to be the most natural explanation. The most natural seems to me to be what I have said; and you're quite right in saying that it's this last thing that has made the difference. It's exactly like the grain that turns the whole bottle into solid salt. It needed that.... But, as I've said, I can't be actually and finally convinced until I've seen more. I'm going to see more. I wrote to Mr. Vincent this morning."

"You did?" cried the girl.

"Don't be silly, please.... Yes, I did. I told him I'd be at his service when I came back to London. Not to have done that would have been cowardly and absurd. I owe him that."

"Laurie, I wish you wouldn't," said the girl pleadingly.

He sat up a little, disturbed by this very unusual air of hers.

"But if it's all such nonsense," he said, "what's there to be afraid of?"

"It's-it's morbid," said Maggie, "morbid and horrible. Of course it's nonsense; but it's-it's wicked nonsense."

Laurie flushed a little.

"You're polite," he said.

"I'm sorry," she said penitently. "But you know, really-"

The boy suddenly blazed up a little.

"You seem to think I've got no heart," he cried. "Suppose it was true-suppose really and truly Amy was here, and-"

A sudden clear sharp sound like the crack of a whip sounded from the corner of the room. Even Maggie started and glanced at the boy. He was dead white on the instant; his lips were trembling.

"What was that?" he whispered sharp and loud.

"Just the woodwork," she said tranquilly; "the thaw has set in tonight."

Laurie looked at her; his lips still moved nervously.

"But-but-" he began.

"Dear boy, don't you see the state of nerves-"

Again came the little sharp crack, and she stopped. For an instant she was disturbed; certain possibilities opened before her, and she regarded them. Then she crushed them down, impatiently and half timorously. She stood up abruptly.

"I'm going to bed," she said. "This is too ridiculous-"

"No, no; don't leave me ... Maggie ... I don't like it."

She sat down again, wondering at his childishness, and yet conscious that her own nerves, too, were ever so slightly on edge. She would not look at him, for fear that the meeting of eyes might hint at more than she meant. She threw her head back on her chair and remained looking at the ceiling. But to think that the souls of the dead-ah, how repulsive!

Outside the night was very still.

The hard frost had kept the world iron-bound in a sprinkle of snow during the last two or three days, but this afternoon the thaw had begun. Twice during dinner there had come the thud of masses of snow falling from the roof on to the lawn outside, and the clear sparkle of the candles had seemed a little dim and hazy. "It would be a comfort to get at the garden again," she had reflected.

And now that the two sat here in the windless silence the thaw became more apparent every instant. The silence was profound, and the little noises of the night outside, the drip from the eaves slow and deliberate, the rustle of released leaves, and even the gentle thud on the lawn from the yew branches-all these helped to emphasize the stillness. It was not like the murmur of day; it was rather like the gnawing of a mouse in the wainscot of some death chamber.

It requires almost superhumanly strong nerves to sit at night, after a conversation of this kind, opposite an apparently reasonable person who is white and twitching with terror, even though one resolutely refrains from looking at him, without being slightly affected. One may argue with oneself to any extent, tap one's foot cheerfully on the floor, fill the mind most painstakingly with normal thoughts; yet it is something of a conflict, however victorious one may be.

Even Maggie herself became aware of this.

It was not that now for one single moment she allowed that the two little sudden noises in the room could possibly proceed from any cause whatever except that which she had stated-the relaxation of stiffened wood under the influence of the thaw. Nor had all Laurie's arguments prevailed to shake in the smallest degree her resolute conviction that there was nothing whatever preternatural in his certainly queer story.

Yet, as she sat there in the lamplight, with Laurie speechless before her, and the great curtained window behind, she became conscious of an uneasiness that she could not entirely repel. It was just physical, she said; it was the result of the change of weather; or, at the most, it was the silence that had now fallen and the proximity of a terrified boy.

She looked across at him again.

He was lying back in the old green arm-chair, his eyes rather shadowed from the lamp overhead, quite still and quiet, his hands still clasping the lion bosses of his chair-arms. Beside him, on the little table, lay his still smoldering cigarette-end in the silver tray....

Maggie suddenly sprang to her feet, slipped round the table, and caught him by the arm.

"Laurie, Laurie, wake up.... What's the matter?"

A long shudder passed through him. He sat up, with a bewildered look.

"Eh? What is it?" he said. "Was I asleep?"

He rubbed his hands over his eyes and looked round.

"What is it, Maggie? Was I asleep?"

Was the boy acting? Surely it was good acting! Maggie threw herself down on her knees by the chair.

"Laurie! Laurie! I beg you not to go to see Mr. Vincent. It's bad for you.... I do wish you wouldn't."

He still blinked at her a moment.

"I don't understand. What do you mean, Maggie?"

She stood up, ashamed of her impulsiveness.

"Only I wish you wouldn't go and see that man. Laurie, please don't."

He stood up too, stretching. Every sign of nervousness seemed gone.

"Not see Mr. Vincent? Nonsense; of course I shall. You don't understand, Maggie."

* * *

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