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   Chapter 10 I No.10

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 22013

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Mrs. Baxter possessed one of the two secrets of serenity. The other need not be specified; but hers arose from the most pleasant and most human form of narrow-mindedness. As has been said before, when things did not fit with her own scheme, either they were not things, but only fancies of somebody inconsiderable, or else she resolutely disregarded them. She had an opportunity of testing her serenity on one day early in February.

She rose as usual at a fixed hour-eight o'clock-and when she was ready knelt down at her prie-Dieu. This was quite an elaborate structure, far more elaborate than the devotions offered there. It was a very beautiful inlaid Florentine affair, and had a little shelf above it filled with a number of the little leather-bound books in which her soul delighted. She did not use these books very much; but she liked to see them there. It would not be decent to enter the sanctuary of Mrs. Baxter's prayers; it is enough to say that they were not very long. Then she rose from her knees, left her large comfortable bedroom, redolent with soap and hot water, and came downstairs, a beautiful slender little figure in black lace veil and rich dress, through the sunlight of the staircase, into the dining-room.

There she took up her letters and packets. They were not exciting. There was an unimportant note from a friend, a couple of bills, and a Bon Marché catalogue; and she scrutinized these through her spectacles, sitting by the fire. When she had done she noticed a letter lying by Maggie's place, directed in a masculine hand. An instant later Maggie came in herself, in her hat and furs, a charming picture, fresh from the winter sunlight and air, and kissed her.

While Mrs. Baxter poured out tea she addressed a remark or two to the girl, but only got back those vague inattentive murmurs that are the sign of a distracted mind; and, looking up presently with a sense of injury, noticed that Maggie was reading her letter with extraordinary diligence.

"My dear, I am speaking to you," said Mrs. Baxter, with an air of slightly humorous dignity.

"Er-I am sorry," murmured Maggie, and continued reading.

Mrs. Baxter put out her hand for the Bon Marché catalogue in order to drive home her sense of injury, and met Maggie's eyes, suddenly raised to meet her own, with a curious strained look in them.

"Darling, what is the matter?"

Maggie still stared at her a moment, as if questioning both herself and the other, and finally handed the letter across with an abrupt movement.

"Read it," she said.

It was rather a business to read it. It involved spectacles, a pushing aside of a plate, and a slight turning to catch the light. Mrs. Baxter read it, and handed it back, making three or four times the sound written as "Tut."

"The tiresome boy!" she said querulously, but without alarm.

"What are we to do? You see, Mr. Morton thinks we ought to do something. He mentions a Mr. Cathcart."

Mrs. Baxter reached out for the toast-rack.

"My dear, there's nothing to be done. You know what Laurie is. It'll only make him worse."

Maggie looked at her uneasily.

"I wish we could do something," she said.

"My dear, he'd have written to me-Mr. Morton, I mean-if Laurie had been really unwell. You see he only says he doesn't attend to his work as he ought."

Maggie took up the letter, put it carefully back into the envelope, and went on with breakfast. There was nothing more to be said just then.

But she was uneasy, and after breakfast went out into the garden, spud in hand, to think it all over, with the letter in her pocket.

Certainly the letter was not alarming per se, but per accidens-that is to say, taking into account who it was that had written, she was not so sure. She had met Mr. Morton but once, and had formed of him the kind of impression that a girl would form of such a man in the hours of a week-end-a brusque, ordinary kind of barrister without much imagination and a good deal of shrewd force. It was surely rather an extreme step for a man like this to write to a girl in such a condition of things, asking her to use her influence to dissuade Laurie from his present course of life. Plainly the man meant what he said; he had not written to Mrs. Baxter, as he explained in the letter, for fear of alarming her unduly, and, as he expressly said, there was nothing to be alarmed about. Yet he had written.

Maggie stopped at the lower end of the orchard path, took out the letter, and read the last three or four sentences again:

Please forgive me if you think it was unnecessary to write. Of course I have no doubt whatever that the whole thing is nothing but nonsense; but even nonsense can have a bad effect, and Mr. Baxter seems to me to be far too much wrapped up in it. I enclose the address of a friend of mine in case you would care to write to him on the subject. He was once a Spiritualist, and is now a devout Catholic. He takes a view of it that I do not take; but at any rate his advice could do no harm. You can trust him to be absolutely discreet.

Believe me,

Yours sincerely,

James Morton

It really was very odd and unconventional; and Mr. Morton had not seemed at all an odd or unconventional person. He mentioned, too, a particular date, February 25, as the date by which the medium would have returned, and some sort of further effort was going to be made; but he did not attempt to explain this, nor did Maggie understand it. It only seemed to her rather sinister and unpleasant.

She turned over the page, and there was the address he had mentioned-a Mr. Cathcart. Surely he did not expect her to write to this stranger....

She walked up and down with her spud for another half-hour before she could come to any conclusion. Certainly she agreed with Mr. James Morton that the whole thing was nonsense; yet, further, that this nonsense was capable of doing a good deal of harm to an excitable person. Besides, Laurie obviously had a bad conscience about it, or he would have mentioned it.

She caught sight of Mrs. Baxter presently through the thick hedge, walking with her dainty, dignified step along the paths of the kitchen garden; and a certain impatience seized her at the sight. This boy's mother was so annoyingly serene. Surely it was her business, rather than Maggie's own, to look after Laurie; yet the girl knew perfectly well that if Laurie was left to his mother nothing at all would be done. Mrs. Baxter would deplore it all, of course, gently and tranquilly, in Laurie's absence, and would, perhaps, if she were hard pressed, utter a feeble protest even in his presence; and that was absolutely all....

"Maggie! Maggie!" came the gentle old voice, calling presently; and then to some unseen person, "Have you seen Miss Deronnais anywhere?"

Maggie put the letter in her pocket and hurried through from the orchard.

"Yes?" she said, with a half hope.

"Come in, my dear, and tell me what you think of those new teacups in the Bon Marché catalogue," said the old lady. "There seem some beautiful new designs, and we want another set."

Maggie bowed to the inevitable. But as they passed up the garden her resolution was precipitated.

"Can you let me go by twelve," she said. "I rather want to see Father Mahon about something."

"My dear, I shall not keep you three minutes," protested the old lady.

And they went in to talk for an hour and three-quarters.

II

Father Mahon was a conscientious priest. He said his mass at eight o'clock; he breakfasted at nine; he performed certain devotions till half-past ten; read the paper till eleven, and theology till twelve. Then he considered himself at liberty to do what he liked till his dinner at one. (The rest of his day does not concern us just now.)

He, too, was looking round his garden this morning-a fine, solid figure of a man, in rather baggy trousers, short coat, and expansive waistcoat, with every button doing its duty. He too, like Mr. James Morton, had his beat, an even narrower one than the barrister's, and even better trodden, for he never strayed off it at all, except for four short weeks in the summer, when he hurried across to Ireland and got up late, and went on picnics with other ecclesiastics in straw hats, and joined in cheerful songs in the evening. He was a priest, with perfectly defined duties, and of admirable punctuality and conscientiousness in doing them. He disliked the English quite extraordinarily; but his sense of duty was such that they never suspected it; and his flock of Saxons adored him as people only can adore a brisk, businesslike man with a large heart and peremptory ways, who is their guide and father, and is perfectly aware of it. His sermons consisted of cold-cut blocks of dogma taken perseveringly from sermon outlines and served up Sunday by Sunday with a sauce of a slight and delightful brogue. He could never have kindled the Thames, nor indeed any river at all, but he could bridge them with solid stones; and this is, perhaps, even more desirable.

Maggie had begun by disliking him. She had thought him rather coarse and stupid; but she had changed her mind. He was not what may be called subtle; he had no patience at all with such things as scruples, nuances, and shades of tone and meaning; but if you put a plain question to him plainly, he gave you a plain answer, if he knew it; if not, he looked it up then and there; and that is always a relief in this intricate world. Maggie therefore did not bother him much; she went to him only on plain issues; and he respected and liked her accordingly.

"Good morning, my child," he said in his loud, breezy voice, as he came in to find her in his hideous little sitting-room. "I hope you don't mind the smell of tobacco-smoke."

The room indeed reeked; he had started a cigar, according to rule, as the clock struck twelve, and had left it just now upon a stump outside when his housekeeper had come to announce a visitor.

"Not in the least, thanks, father.... May I sit down? It's rather a long business, I'm afraid."

The priest pulled out an arm-chair covered with horsehair and an antimacassar.

"Sit down, my child."

Then he sat down himself, opposite her, in his trousers at once tight and baggy, with his rather large boots cocked one over the other, and his genial red face smiling at her.

"Now then," he said.

"It's not about myself, father," she began rather hurriedly. "It's about Laurie Baxter. May I begin at the beginning?"

He nodded. He was not sorry to hear something about this boy, whom he didn't like at all, but for whom he knew himself at least partly responsible. The English were bad enough, but English converts were indescribably trying; and Laurie had been on his mind lately, he scarcely knew why.

Then Maggie began at the beginning, and told the whole thing, from Amy's death down to Mr. Morton's letter. He put a question or two to her during her story, looking at her with pressed lips, and

finally put out his hand for the letter itself.

"Mrs. Baxter doesn't know what I've come about," said the girl. "You won't give her a hint, will you, father?"

He nodded reassuringly to her, absorbed in the letter, and presently handed it back, with a large smile.

"He seems a sensible fellow," he said.

"Ah! that's what I wanted to ask you, father. I don't know anything at all about spiritualism. Is it-is it really all nonsense? Is there nothing in it at all?"

He laughed aloud.

"I don't think you need be afraid," he said. "Of course we know that souls don't come back like that. They're somewhere else."

"Then it's all fraud?"

"It's practically all fraud," he said, "but it's very superstitious, and is forbidden by the Church."

This was straight enough. It was at least a clear issue to begin to attack Laurie upon.

"Then-then that's the evil of it?" she said. "There's no real power underneath? That's what Mr. Rymer said to Mrs. Baxter; and it's what I've always thought myself."

The priest's face became theological.

"Let's see what Sabetti says," he said. "I fancy-"

He turned in his chair and fetched out a volume behind him.

"Here we are...."

He ran his finger down the heavy paragraphs, turned a page or two, and began a running comment and translation: "'Necromantia ex'.... 'Necromancy arising from invocation of the dead'.... Let's see ... yes, 'Spiritism, or the consulting of spirits in order to know hidden things, especially that pertain to the future life, certainly is divination properly so called, and is ... is full of even more impiety than is magnetism, or the use of turning tables. The reason is, as the Baltimore fathers testify, that such knowledge must necessarily be ascribed to Satanic intervention, since in no other manner can it be explained.'"

"Then-" began Maggie.

"One moment, my child.... Yes ... just so. 'Express divination'.... No, no. Ah! here we are, 'Tacit divination, ... even if it is openly protested that no commerce with the Demon is intended, is per se grave sin; but it can sometimes be excused from mortal sin, on account of simplicity or ignorance or a lack of certain faith.' You see, my child-" he set the book back in its place "-so far as it's not fraud it's diabolical. And that's an end of it."

"But do you think it's not all fraud, then?" asked the girl, paling a little.

He laughed again, with a resonance that warmed her heart.

"I should pay just no attention to it all. Tell him, if you like, what I've said, and that it's grave sin for him to play with it; but don't get thinking that the devil's in everything."

Maggie was puzzled.

"Then it's not the devil?" she asked-"at least not in this case, you think?"

He smiled again reassuringly.

"I should suspect it was a clever trick," he said. "I don't think Master Laurie's likely to get mixed up with the devil in that way. There's plenty of easier ways than that."

"Do you think I should write to Mr. Cathcart?"

"Just as you like. He's a convert, isn't he? I believe I've heard his name."

"I think so."

"Well, it wouldn't do any harm; though I should suspect not much good."

Maggie was silent.

"Just tell Master Laurie not to play tricks," said the priest. "He's got a good, sensible friend in Mr. Morton. I can see that. And don't trouble your head too much about it, my child."

* * *

When Maggie was gone, he went out to finish his cigar, and found to his pleasure that it was still alight, and after a puff or two it went very well.

He thought about his interview for a few minutes as he walked up and down, taking the bright winter air. It explained a good deal. He had begun to be a little anxious about this boy. It was not that Laurie had actually neglected his religion while at Stantons; he was always in his place at mass on Sundays, and even, very occasionally, on weekdays as well. And he had had a mass said for Amy Nugent. But even as far back as the beginning of the previous year, there had been an air about him not altogether reassuring.

Well, this at any rate was a small commentary on the present situation.... (The priest stopped to look at some bulbs that were coming up in the bed beside him, and stooped, breathing heavily, to smooth the earth round one of them with a large finger.)... And as for this Spiritualistic nonsense-of course the whole thing was a trick. Things did not happen like that. Of course the devil could do extraordinary things: or at any rate had been able to do them in the past; but as for Master Laurie Baxter-whose home was down there in the hamlet, and who had been at Oxford and was now reading law-as for the thought that this rather superior Saxon young man was in direct communication with Satan at the present time-well, that needed no comment but loud laughter.

Yet it was very unwholesome and unhealthy. That was the worst of these converts; they could not be content with the sober workaday facts of the Catholic creed. They must be always running after some novelty or other.... And it was mortal sin anyhow, if the sinner had the faintest idea-

A large dinner-bell pealed from the back door; and the priest went in to roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, apple dumplings, and a single glass of port-wine to end up with.

III

It was strange how Maggie felt steadied and encouraged in the presence of something at least resembling danger. So long as Laurie was merely tiresome and foolish, she distrusted herself, she made little rules and resolutions, and deliberately kept herself interiorly detached from him. But now that there was something definite to look to, her sensitiveness vanished.

As to what that something was, she did not trust herself to decide. Father Mahon had given her a point to work at-the fact that the thing, as a serious pursuit, was forbidden; as to what the reality behind was, whether indeed there were any reality at all, she did not allow herself to consider. Laurie was in a state of nerves sufficiently troublesome to bring a letter from his friend and guide; and he was in that state through playing tricks on forbidden ground; that was enough.

Her interview with Father Mahon precipitated her half-formed resolution; and after tea she went upstairs to write to Mr. Cathcart.

It was an unconventional thing to do, but she was sufficiently perturbed to disregard that drawback, and she wrote a very sensible letter, explaining first who she was; then, without any names being mentioned, she described her adopted brother's position, and indicated his experiences: she occupied the last page in asking two or three questions, and begging for general advice.

* * *

Mrs. Baxter displayed some symptoms after dinner which the girl recognized well enough. They comprised a resolute avoidance of Laurie's name, a funny stiff little air of dignity, and a touch of patronage. And the interpretation of these things was that the old lady did not wish the subject to be mentioned again, and that, interiorly, she was doing her best ignore and forget it. Maggie felt, again, vaguely comforted; it left her a freer hand.

* * *

She lay awake a long time that night.

Her room was a little square one on the top of the stairs, above the smoking-room where she had that odd scene with Laurie a month or so before, and looking out upon the yew walk that led to the orchard. It was a cheerful little place enough, papered in brown, hung all over with water colors, with her bed in one corner; and it looked a reassuring familiar kind of place in the firelight, as she lay open-eyed and thinking.

It was not that she was at all frightened; it was no more than a little natural anxiety; and half a dozen times in the hour or two that she lay thinking, she turned resolutely over in bed, dismissed the little pictures that her mind formed in spite of herself, and began to think of pleasant, sane subjects.

But the images recurred. They were no more than little vignettes-Laurie talking to a severe-looking tall man with a sardonic smile; Laurie having tea with Mrs. Stapleton; Laurie in an empty room, looking at a closed door....

It was this last picture that recurred three or four times at the very instant that the girl was drowsing off into sleep; and it had therefore that particular vividness that characterizes the thoughts when the conscious attention is dormant. It had too a strangely perturbing effect upon her; and she could not imagine why.

After the third return of it her sense of humor came to the rescue: it was too ridiculous, she said, to be alarmed at an empty room and Laurie's back. Once more she turned on her side, away from the firelight, and resolved, if it recurred again, to examine the details closely.

Again the moments passed: thought followed thought, in those quiet waves that lull the mind towards sleep; finally once more the picture was there, clear and distinct.

Yes; she would look at it this time.

It was a bare room, wainscoted round the walls a few inches up, papered beyond in some common palish pattern. Laurie stood in the center of the uncarpeted boards, with his back turned to her, looking, it seemed, with an intense expectation at the very dull door in the wall opposite him. He was in his evening dress, she saw, knee-breeches and buckles all complete; and his hands were clenched, as they hung held out a little from his sides, as he himself, crouching a little, stared at the door.

She, too, looked at the door, at its conventional panels and its brass handle; and it appeared to her as if both he and she were expectant of some visitor. The door would open presently, she perceived; and the reason why Laurie was so intent upon the entrance, was that he, no more than she, had any idea as to the character of the person who was to come in. She became quite interested as she watched-it was a method she followed sometimes when wooing sleep-and she began, in her fancy, to go past Laurie as if to open the door. But as she passed him she was aware that he put out a hand to check her, as if to hold her back from some danger; and she stopped, hesitating, still looking, not at Laurie, but at the door.

She began then, with the irresponsibility of deepening sleep, to imagine instead what lay beyond the door-to perceive by intuitive vision the character of the house. She got so far as understanding that it was all as unfurnished as this room, that the house stood solitary among trees, and that even these, and the tangled garden that she determined must surround the house, were as listening and as expectant as herself and the waiting figure of the boy. Once more, as if to verify her semi-passive imaginative excursion, she moved to the door....

Ah! what nonsense it was. Here she was, wide awake again, in her own familiar room, with the firelight on the walls.

... Well, well; sleep was a curious thing; and so was imagination....

... At any rate she had written to Mr. Cathcart.

* * *

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