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   Chapter 8 I No.8

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 19313

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Her ladyship told me to show you in here, sir," said the footman at half-past eight on Sunday evening.

Laurie put down his hat, slipped off his coat, and went into the dining room.

The table was still littered with dessert-plates and napkins. Two people had dined there he observed. He went round to the fire, wondering vaguely as to why he had not been shown upstairs, and stood, warming his hands behind him, and looking at the pleasant gloom of the high picture-hung walls.

In spite of himself he felt slightly more excited than he had thought he would be; it was one thing to be philosophical at a prospect of three days' distance; and another when the gates of death actually rise in sight. He wondered in what mood he would see his own rooms again. Then he yawned slightly-and was a little pleased that it was natural to yawn.

There was a rustle outside; the door opened, and Lady Laura slipped in.

"Forgive me, Mr. Baxter," she said. "I wanted to have just a word with you first. Please sit down a moment."

She seemed a little anxious and upset, thought Laurie, as he sat down and looked at her in her evening dress with the emblematic chain more apparent than ever. Her frizzed hair sat as usual on the top of her head, and her pince-nez glimmered at him across the hearthrug like the eyes of a cat.

"It is this," she said hurriedly. "I felt I must just speak to you. I wasn't sure whether you quite realized the ... the dangers of all this. I didn't want you to ... to run any risks in my house. I should feel responsible, you know."

She laughed nervously.

"Risks? Would you mind explaining?" said Laurie.

"There ... there are always risks, you know."

"What sort?"

"Oh ... you know ... nerves, and so on. I ... I have seen people very much upset at séances, more than once."

Laurie smiled.

"I don't think you need be afraid, Lady Laura. It's awfully kind of you; but, do you know, I'm ashamed to say that, if anything, I'm rather bored."

The pince-nez gleamed.

"But-but don't you believe it? I thought Mr. Vincent said-"

"Oh yes, I believe it; but, you know, it seems to me so natural now. Even if nothing happens tonight, I don't think I shall believe it any the less."

She was silent an instant.

"You know there are other risks," she said suddenly.

"What? Are things thrown about?"

"Please don't laugh at it, Mr. Baxter. I am quite serious."

"Well-what kind do you mean?"

Again she paused.

"It's very awful," she said; "but, you know, people's nerves do break down entirely sometimes, even though they're not in the least afraid. I saw a case once-"

She stopped.

"Yes?"

"It-it was a very awful case. A girl-a sensitive-broke down altogether under the strain. She's in an asylum."

"I don't think that's likely for me," said Laurie, with a touch of humor in his voice. "And, after all, you run these risks, don't you-and Mrs. Stapleton?"

"Yes; but you see we're not sensitives. And even I-"

"Yes?"

"Well, even I feel sometimes rather overcome.... Mr. Baxter, do you quite realize what it all means?"

"I think so. To tell the truth-"

He stopped.

"Yes; but the thing itself is really overwhelming.... There's-there's an extraordinary power sometimes. You know I was with Maud Stapleton when she saw her father-"

She stopped again.

"Yes?"

"I saw him too, you know.... Oh! there was no possibility of fraud. It was with Mr. Vincent. It-it was rather terrible."

"Yes?"

"Maud fainted.... Please don't tell her I told you, Mr. Baxter; she wouldn't like you to know that. And then other things happen sometimes which aren't nice. Do you think me a great coward? I-I think I've got a fit of nerves tonight."

Laurie could see that she was trembling.

"I think you're very kind," he said, "to take the trouble to tell me all this. But indeed I was quite ready to be startled. I quite understand what you mean-but-"

"Mr. Baxter, you can't understand unless you've experienced it. And, you know, the other day here you knew nothing at all: you were not conscious. Now tonight you're to keep awake; Mr. Vincent's going to arrange to do what he can about that. And-and I don't quite like it."

"Why, what on earth can happen?" asked Laurie, bewildered.

"Mr. Baxter, I suppose you realize that it's you that they-whoever they are-are interested in? There's no kind of doubt that you'll be the center tonight. And I did just want you to understand fully that there are risks. I shouldn't like to think-"

Laurie stood up.

"I understand perfectly," he said. "Certainly, I always knew there were risks. I hold myself responsible, and no one else. Is that quite clear?"

The wire of the front-door bell suddenly twitched in the hall, and a peal came up the stairs.

"He's come," said the other. "Come upstairs, Mr. Baxter. Please don't say a word of what I've said."

She hurried out, and he after her, as the footman came up from the lower regions.

* * *

The drawing-room presented an unusual appearance to Laurie as he came in. All the small furniture had been moved away to the side where the windows looked into the street, and formed there what looked like an amateur barricade. In the center of the room, immediately below the electric light, stood a solid small round table with four chairs set round it as if for Bridge. There was on the side further from the street a kind of ante-room communicating with the main room by a high, wide archway nearly as large as the room to which it gave access; and within this, full in sight, stood a curious erection, not unlike a confessional, seated within for one, roofed, walled, and floored with thin wood. The front of this was open, but screened partly by two curtains that seemed to hang from a rod within. The rest of the little extra room was entirely empty except for the piano that stood closed in the corner.

There were two persons standing rather disconsolately on the vacant hearthrug-Mrs. Stapleton and the clergyman whom Laurie had met on his last visit here. Mr. Jamieson wore an expression usually associated with funerals, and Mrs. Stapleton's face was full of suppressed excitement.

"Dearest, what a time you've been! Was that Mr. Vincent?"

"I think so," said Lady Laura.

The two men nodded to one another, and an instant later the medium came in.

He was in evening clothes; and, more than ever, Laurie thought how average and conventional he looked. His manner was not in the least pontifical, and he shook hands cordially and naturally, but gave one quick glance of approval at Laurie.

"It struck me as extraordinarily cold," he said. "I see you have an excellent fire." And he stooped, rubbing his hands together to warm them.

"We must screen that presently," he said.

Then he stood up again.

"There's no use in wasting time. May I say a word first, Lady Laura?"

She nodded, looking at him almost apprehensively.

"First, I must ask you gentlemen to give me your word on a certain point. I have not an idea how things will go, or whether we shall get any results; but we are going to attempt materialization. Probably, in any case, this will not go very far; we may not be able to do more than to see some figure or face. But in any case, I want you two gentlemen to give me your word that you will attempt no violence. Anything in the nature of seizing the figure may have very disastrous results indeed to myself. You understand that what you will see, if you see anything, will not be actual flesh or blood; it will be formed of a certain matter of which we understand very little at present, but which is at any rate intimately connected with myself or with someone present. Really we know no more of it than that. We are all of us inquirers equally. Now will you gentlemen give me your words of honor that you will obey me in this; and that in all other matters you will follow the directions of ..." (he glanced at the two ladies)-"of Mrs. Stapleton, and do nothing without her consent?"

He spoke in a brisk, matter-of-fact way, and looked keenly from face to face of the two men as he ended.

"I give you my word," said Laurie.

"Yes; just so," said Mr. Jamieson.

"Now there is one matter more," went on the medium. "Mr. Baxter, you are aware that you are a sensitive of a very high order. Now I do not wish you to pass into trance tonight. Kindly keep your attention fixed upon me steadily. Watch me closely: you will be able to see me quite well enough, as I shall explain presently. Mrs. Stapleton will sit with her back to the fire. Lady Laura opposite, Mr. Jamieson with his back to the cabinet, and you, Mr. Baxter, facing it. (Yes, Mr. Jamieson, you may turn round freely, so long as you keep your hands upon the table.) Now, if you feel anything resembling sleep or unconsciousness coming upon you irresistibly, Mr. Baxter, I wish you just lightly to tap Mrs. Stapleton's hand. She will then, if necessary, break up the circle. Give the signal directly you feel the sensation is really coming on, or if you find it very difficult to keep your attention fixed. You will do this?"

"I will do it," said Laurie.

"Then that is really all."

He moved a step away from the fire. Then he paused.

"By the way, I may as well just tell you our methods. I shall take my place within the cabinet, drawing the curtains partly across at the top so as to shade my face. But you will be able to see the whole of my body, and probably even my face as well. You four will please to sit at the table in the order I have indicated, with your hands resting upon it. You will not speak unless you are spok

en to, or until Mrs. Stapleton gives the signal. That is all. You then wait. Now it may be ten minutes, half an hour, an hour-anything up to two hours before anything happens. If there is no result, Mrs. Stapleton will break up the circle at eleven o'clock, and awaken me if necessary."

He broke off.

"Kindly just examine the cabinet and the whole room first, gentlemen. We mediums must protect ourselves."

He smiled genially and nodded to the two.

Laurie went straight across the open floor to the cabinet. It was raised on four feet, about twelve inches from the ground. Heavy green curtains hung from a bar within. Laurie took these, and ran them to and fro; then he went into the cabinet. It was entirely empty except for a single board that formed the seat. As he came out he encountered the awestruck face of the clergyman who had followed him in dead silence, and now went into the cabinet after him. Laurie passed round behind: the little room was empty except for the piano at the back, and two low bookshelves on either side of the fireless hearth. The window looking presumably into the garden was shuttered from top to bottom, and barred, and the curtains were drawn back so that it could be seen. A cat could not have hidden in the place. It was all perfectly satisfactory.

He came back to where the others were standing silent, and the clergyman followed him.

"You are satisfied, gentlemen?" said the medium, smiling.

"Perfectly," said Laurie, and the clergyman bowed.

"Well, then," said the other, "it is close upon nine."

He indicated the chairs, and himself went past towards the cabinet, his heavy step making the room vibrate as he went. As he came near the door, he fumbled with the button, and all the lights but one went out.

The four sat down. Laurie watched Mr. Vincent step up into the cabinet, jerk the curtains this way and that, and at last sit easily back, in such a way that his face could be seen in a kind of twilight, and the rest of his body perfectly visible.

Then silence came down upon the room.

II

The cat of the next house decided to go a-walking after an excellent supper of herring-heads. He had an appointment with a friend. So he cleaned himself carefully on the landing outside the pantry, evaded a couple of caresses from the young footman lately come from the country, and finally leapt on the window-sill, and sat there regarding the back garden, the smoky wall beyond seen in the light of the pantry window, and the chimney-pots high and forbidding against the luminous night sky. His tail moved with a soft ominous sinuousness as he looked.

Presently he climbed cautiously out beneath the sash, gathered himself for a spring, and the next instant was seated on the boundary wall between his own house and that of Lady Laura's.

Here again he paused. That which served him for a mind, that mysterious bundle of intuitions and instincts by which he reckoned time, exchanged confidences, and arranged experiences, informed him that the night was yet young, and that his friend would not yet be arrived. He sat there so still and so long, that if it had not been for his resolute head and the blunt spires of his ears, he would have appeared to an onlooker below as no more than a humpy finial on an otherwise regularly built wall. Now and again the last inch of his tail twitched slightly, like an independent member, as he contemplated his thoughts.

Overhead the last glimmer of day was utterly gone, and in the place of it the mysterious glow of night over a city hung high and luminous. He, a town-bred cat, descended from generations of town-bred cats, listened passively to the gentle roar of traffic that stood, to him, for the running of brooks and the sighing of forest trees. It was to him the auditory background of adventure, romance, and bitter war.

The energy of life ran strong in his veins and sinews. Once and again as that, which was for him imaginative vision and anticipation, asserted itself, he crisped his strong claws into the crumbling mortar, shooting them, by an unconscious muscular action, from the padded sheaths in which they lay. Once a furious yapping sounded from a lighted window far beneath; but he scorned to do more than turn a slow head in the direction of it: then once more he resumed his watch.

The time came at last, conveyed to him as surely as by a punctual clock, and he rose noiselessly to his feet. Then again he paused, and stretched first one strong foreleg and then the other to its furthest reach, shooting again his claws, conscious with a faint sense of well-being of those tightly-strung muscles rippling beneath his loose striped skin. They would be in action presently. And, as he did so, there looked over the parapet six feet above him, at the top of the trellis up which presently he would ascend, another resolute little head and blunt-spired cars, and a soft indescribable voice spoke a gentle insult. It was his friend ... and, he knew well enough, on some high ridge in the background squatted a young female beauty, with flattened ears and waving tail, awaiting the caresses of the victor.

As he saw the head above him, to human eyes a shapeless silhouette, to his eyes a grey-penciled picture perfect in all its details, he paused in his stretching. Then he sat back, arranged his tail, and lifted his head to answer. The cry that came from him, not yet fortissimo, sounded in human ears beneath no more than a soft broken-hearted wail, but to him who sat above it surpassed in insolence even his own carefully modulated offensiveness.

Again the other answered, this time lifting himself to his full height, sending a message along the nerves of his back that prickled his own skin and passed out along the tail with an exquisite ripple of movement. And once more came the answer from below.

So the preliminary challenge went on. Already in the voice of each there had begun to show itself that faint note of hysteria that culminates presently in a scream of anger and a torrent of spits, leading again in their turn to an ominous silence and the first fierce clawing blows at eyes and ears. In another instant the watcher above would recoil for a moment as the swift rush was made up the trellis, and then the battle would be joined: but that instant never came. There fell a sudden silence; and he, peering down into the grey gloom, chin on paws, and tail twitching eighteen inches behind, saw an astonishing sight. His adversary had broken off in the midst of a long crescendo cry, and was himself crouched flat upon the narrow wall staring now not upwards, but downwards, diagonally, at a certain curtained window eight feet below.

This was all very unusual and contrary to precedent. A dog, a human hand armed with a missile, a furious minatory face-these things were not present to account for the breach of etiquette. Vaguely he perceived this, conscious only of inexplicability; but he himself also ceased, and watched for developments.

Very slowly they came at first. That crouching body beneath was motionless now; even the tail had ceased to twitch and hung limply behind, dripping over the edge of the narrow wall into the unfathomable pit of the garden; and as the watcher stared, he felt himself some communication of the horror so apparent in the other's attitude. Along his own spine, from neck to flank, ran the paralyzing nervous movement; his own tail ceased to move; his own ears drew back instinctively, flattening themselves at the sides of the square strong head. There was a movement near by, and he turned quick eyes to see the lithe young love of his heart stepping softly into her place beside him. When he turned again his adversary had vanished.

* * *

Yet he still watched. Still there was no sound from the window at which the other had stared just now: no oblong of light shone out into the darkness to explain that sudden withdrawal from the fray.

All was as silent as it had been just now; on all sides windows were closed; now and then came a human voice, just a word or two, spoken and answered from one of those pits beneath, and the steady rumble of traffic went on far away across the roofs; but here, in the immediate neighborhood, all was at peace. He knew well enough the window in question; he had leapt himself upon the sill once and again and seen the foodless waste of floor and carpet and furniture within.

Yet as he watched and waited his own horror grew. That for which in men we have as yet no term was strong within him, as in every beast that lives by perception rather than reason; and he too by this strange faculty knew well enough that something was abroad, raying out from that silent curtained unseen window-something of an utterly different order from that of dog or flung shoe and furious vituperation-something that affected certain nerves within his body in a new and awful manner. Once or twice in his life he had been conscious of it before, once in an empty room, once in a room tenanted by a mere outline beneath a sheet and closed by a locked door.

His heart too seemed melted within him; his tail too hung limply behind the stucco parapet, and he made no answering movement to the tiny crooning note that sounded once in his ears.

And still the horror grew....

Presently he withdrew one claw from the crumbling edge, raising his head delicately; and then the other. For an instant longer he waited, feeling his back heave uncontrollably. Then, dropping noiselessly on to the lead, he fled beneath the sheltering parapet, a noiseless shadow in the gloom; and his mate fled with him.

* * *

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