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   Chapter 11 I No.11

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 21061

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The "Cock Inn" is situated in Fleet Street, not twenty yards from Mitre Court and scarcely fifty from the passage that leads down to the court where Mr. James Morton still has his chambers.

It was a convenient place, therefore, for Laurie to lunch in, and he generally made his appearance there a few minutes before one o'clock to partake of a small rump steak and a pewter mug of beer. Sometimes he came alone, sometimes in company; and by a carefully thought out system of tips he usually managed to have reserved for him at least until one o'clock a particular seat in a particular partition in that row of stable-like shelters that run the length of the room opposite the door on the first floor.

On the twenty-third of February, however-it was a Friday, by the way, and boiled plaice would have to be eaten instead of rump steak-he was a little annoyed to find his seat already occupied by a small, brisk-looking man with a grey beard and spectacles, who, with a newspaper propped in front of him, was also engaged in the consumption of boiled plaice.

The little man looked up at him sharply, like a bird disturbed in a meal, and then down again upon the paper. Laurie noticed that his hat and stick were laid upon the adjoining chair as if to retain it. He hesitated an instant; then he slid in on the other side, opposite the stranger, tapped his glass with his knife, and sat down.

When the waiter came, a familiarly deferential man with whiskers, Laurie, with a slight look of peevishness, gave his order, and glanced reproachfully at the occupied seat. The waiter gave the ghost of a shrug with his shoulders, significant of apologetic helplessness, and went away.

A minute later Mr. Morton entered, glanced this way and that, nodding imperceptibly to Laurie, and was just moving off to a less occupied table when the stranger looked up.

"Mr. Morton," he cried, "Mr. Morton!" in an odd voice that seemed on the point of cracking into falsetto. Certainly he was very like a portly bird, thought Laurie.

The other turned round, nodded with short geniality, and slid into the chair from which the old man moved his hat and stick with zealous haste.

"And what are you doing here?" said Mr. Morton.

"Just taking a bite like yourself," said the other. "Friday-worse luck."

Laurie was conscious of a touch of interest. This man was a Catholic, then, he supposed.

"Oh, by the way," said Mr. Morton, "have you-er-" and he indicated Laurie. "No...? Baxter, let me introduce Mr. Cathcart."

For a moment the name meant nothing to Laurie; then he remembered; but his rising suspicions were quelled instantly by his friend's next remark.

"By the way, Cathcart, we were talking of you a week or two ago."

"Indeed! I am flattered," said the old man perkily. Yes, "perky" was the word, thought Laurie.

"Mr. Baxter here is interested in Spiritualism-rump steak, waiter, and pint of bitter-and I told him you were the man for him."

Laurie interiorly drew in his horns.

"A-er-an experimenter?" asked the old man, with courteous interest, his eyes giving a quick gleam beneath his glasses.

"A little."

"Yes. Most dangerous-most dangerous.... And any success, Mr. Baxter?"

Laurie felt his annoyance deepen.

"Very considerable success," he said shortly.

"Ah, yes-you must forgive me, sir; but I have had a good deal of experience, and I must say-You are a Catholic, I see," he said, interrupting himself. "Or a High Churchman."

"I am a Catholic," said Laurie.

"So'm I. But I gave up spiritualism as soon as I became one. Very interesting experiences, too; but-well, I value my soul too much, Mr. Baxter."

Mr. Morton put a large piece of potato into his mouth with a detached air.

It was really rather trying, thought Laurie, to be catechized in this way; so he determined to show superiority.

"And you think it all superstition and nonsense?" he asked.

"Indeed, no," said the old man shortly.

Laurie pushed his plate on one side, and drew the cheese towards him. This was a little more interesting, he thought, but he was still far from feeling communicative.

"What then?" he asked.

"Oh, very real indeed," said the old man. "That is just the danger."

"The danger?"

"Yes, Mr. Baxter. Of course there's plenty of fraud and trickery; we all know that. But it's the part that's not fraud that's-May I ask what medium you go to?"

"I know Mr. Vincent. And I've been to some public séances, too."

The old man looked at him with sudden interest, but said nothing.

"You think he's not honest?" said Laurie, with cool offensiveness.

"Oh, yes; he's perfectly honest," said the other deliberately. "I'll trouble you for the sugar, Mr. Morton."

Laurie was determined not to begin the subject again. He felt that he was being patronized and lectured, and did not like it. And once again the suspicion crossed his mind that this was an arranged meeting. It was so very neat-two days before the séance-the entry of Morton-his own seat occupied. Yet he did not feel quite courageous enough to challenge either of them. He ate his cheese deliberately and waited, listening to the talk between the two on quite irrelevant subjects, and presently determined on a bit of bravado.

"May I look at the Daily Mirror, Mr. Cathcart?" he asked.

"There is no doubt of his guilt," the old man said, as he handed the paper across (the two were deep in a law case now). "I said so to Markham a dozen times-" and so on.

But there was no more word of spiritualism. Laurie propped the paper before him as he finished his cheese, and waited for coffee, and read with unseeing eyes. He was resenting as hard as he could the abruptness of the opening and closing of the subject, and the complete disregard now shown to him. He drank his coffee, still leisurely, and lit a cigarette; and still the two talked.

He stood up at last and reached down his hat and stick. The old man looked up.

"You are going, Mr. Baxter...? Good day.... Well then; and as I was waiting in court-"

Laurie passed out indignantly, and went down the stairs.

So that was Mr. Cathcart. Well, he was thankful he hadn't written to him, after all. He was not his kind in the least.

II

The moment he passed out of the door the old man stopped his fluent talking and waited, looking after the boy. Then he turned again to his friend.

"I'm a blundering idiot," he said.

Mr. Morton sniffed.

"I've put him against me now-Lord knows how; but I've done it; and he won't listen to me."

"Gad!" said Mr. Morton; "what funny people you all are! And you really meant what you said?"

"Every word," said the old man cheerfully.... "Well; our little plot's over."

"Why don't you ask him to come and see you?"

"First," said the old man, with the same unruffled cheerfulness, "he wouldn't have come. We've muddled it. We'd much better have been straightforward. Secondly, he thinks me an old fool-as you do, only more so. No; we must set to work some other way now.... Tell me about Miss Deronnais: I showed you her letter?"

The other nodded, helping himself to cheese.

"I told her that I was at her service, of course; and I haven't heard again. Sensible girl?"

"Very sensible, I should say."

"Sort of girl that wouldn't scream or faint in a crisis?"

"Exactly the opposite, I should say. But I've hardly seen her, you know."

"Well, well.... And the mother?"

"No good at all," said Mr. Morton.

"Then the girl's the sheet anchor.... In love with him, do you know?"

"Lord! How d'you expect me to know that?"

The old man pondered in silence, seeming to assimilate the situation.

"He's in a devil of a mess," he said, with abrupt cheerfulness. "That man Vincent-"

"Well?"

"He's the most dangerous of the lot. Just because he's honest."

"Good God!" broke in the other again suddenly. "Do all Catholics believe this rubbish?"

"My dear friend, of course they don't. Not one in a thousand. I wish they did. That's what's the matter. But they laugh at it-laugh at it!"... His voice cracked into shrill falsetto.... "Laugh at hell-fire.... Is Sunday the day, did you say?"

"He told me the twenty-fifth."

"And at that woman's in Queen's Gate, I suppose?"

"Expect so. He didn't say. Or I forget."

"I heard they were at their games there again," said Mr. Cathcart with meditative geniality. "I'd like to blow up the stinking hole."

Mr. Morton chuckled audibly.

"You're the youngest man of your years I've ever come across," he said. "No wonder you believe all that stuff. When are you going to grow up, Cathcart?"

The old man paid no attention at all.

"Well-that plot's over," he said again. "Now for Miss Deronnais. But we can't stop this Sunday affair; that's certain. Did he tell you anything about it? Materialization? Automatic-"

"Lord, I don't know all that jargon...."

"My dear Morton, for a lawyer, you're the worst witness I've ever-Well, I'm off. No more to be done today."

* * *

The other sat on a few minutes over his pipe.

It seemed to him quite amazing that a sensible man like Cathcart could take such rubbish seriously. In every other department of life the solicitor was an eminently shrewd and sane man, with, moreover, a youthful kind of brisk humor that is perhaps the surest symptom of sanity that it is possible to have.

He had seen him in court for years past under every sort of circumstance, and if it had been required of him to select a character with which superstition and morbid humbug could have had nothing in common, he would have laid his hand upon the senior partner of Cathcart and Cathcart. Yet here was this sane man, taking this fantastic nonsense as if there were really something in it. He had first heard him speak of the subject at a small bachelor dinner party of four in the rooms of a mutual friend; and, as he had listened, he had had the same sensation as one would have upon hearing a Cabinet Minister, let us say, discussing stump-cricket with enthusiasm. Cathcart had said all kinds of things when once he was started-all with that air of businesslike briskness that was so characteristic of him and so disconcerting in such a connection. If he had apologized for it as an amiable weakness, if he had been in the least shamefaced or deprecatory, it would have been another matter; one would have forgiven it as one forgives any little exceptional eccentricity. But to hear him speak of materialization as of a process as normal (though unusu

al) as the production of radium, and of planchette as of wireless telegraphy-as established, indubitable facts, though out of the range of common experience-this had amazed this very practical man. Cathcart had hinted too of other things-things which he would not amplify-of a still more disconcertingly impossible nature-matters which Morton had scarcely thought had been credible even to the darkest medievalists; and all this with that same sharp, sane humor that lent an air of reality to all that he said.

For romantic young asses like Laurie Baxter such things were not so hopelessly incongruous, though obviously they were bad for him; they were all part of the wild credulousness of a religious youth; but for Cathcart, aged sixty-two, a solicitor in good practice, with a wife and two grown-up daughters, and a reputation for exceptionally sound shrewdness-! But it must be remembered he was a Catholic!

So Mr. James Morton sat in the "Cock" and pondered. He was not sorry he had tried to take steps to choke off this young fool, and he was just a little sorry that so far they had failed. He had written to Miss Deronnais in an impulse, after an unusually feverish outburst from the boy; and she, he had learnt later, had written to Mr. Cathcart. The rest had been of the other's devising.

Well, it had failed so far. Perhaps next week things would be better.

He paid his bill, left two pence for the waiter, and went out. He had a case that afternoon.

III

Laurie left chambers as it was growing dark that afternoon, and went back to his rooms for tea. He had passed, as was usual now, an extremely distracted couple of hours, sitting over his books with spasmodic efforts only to attend to them. He was beginning, in fact, to be not quite sure whether Law after all was his vocation....

His kettle was singing pleasantly on the hob, and a tray glimmered in the firelight on the little table, as the woman had left it; and it was not until he had poured himself out a cup of tea that he saw on the white cloth an envelope, directed to him, inscribed "By hand," in the usual handwriting of persons engaged in business. Even then he did not open it at once; it was probably only some note connected with his chief's affairs.

For half an hour more he sat on, smoking after tea, pondering that which was always in his mind now, and dwelling with a vague pleasant expectancy on what Sunday night should bring forth. Mr. Vincent, he knew, was returning to town that afternoon. Perhaps, even, he might look in for a few minutes, if there were any last instructions to be given.

The effect of the medium on the young man's mind had increased enormously during these past weeks. That air of virile masterfulness, all the more impressive because of its extreme quiet assurance, had proved even more deep than had at first appeared.

It is very hard to analyze the elements of a boy's adoration for a solid middle-aged gentleman with a "personality"; yet the thing is an enormously potent fact, and plays at least as big a part in the sub-currents that run about the world as any more normal human emotions. Psychologists of the materialistic school would probably say that it was a survival of the tribe-and-war instinct. At any rate, there it is.

Added to all this was the peculiar relation in which the medium stood to the boy; it was he who had first opened the door towards that strange other world that so persistently haunts the imaginations of certain temperaments; it was through him that Laurie had had brought before the evidence of his senses, as he thought, the actuality of the things of which he had dreamed-an actuality which his religion had somehow succeeded in evading. It was not that Laurie had been insincere in his religion; there had been moments, and there still were, occasionally, when the world that the Catholic religion preached by word and symbol and sacrament, became apparent; but the whole thing was upon a different plane. Religion bade him approach in one way, spiritualism in the other. The senses had nothing to do with one; they were the only ultimate channels of the other. And it is extraordinarily easy for human beings to regard as more fundamentally real the evidence of the senses than the evidence of faith....

Here then were the two choices-a world of spirit, to be taken largely on trust, to be discerned only in shadow and outline upon rare and unusual occasions of exaltation, of a particular quality which had almost lost its appeal; and a world of spirit that took shape and form and practical intelligibility, in ordinary rooms and under very nearly ordinary circumstances-a world, in short, not of a transcendent God and the spirits of just men made perfect, of vast dogmas and theories, but of a familiar atmosphere, impregnated with experience, inhabited by known souls who in this method or that made themselves apparent to those senses which, Laurie believed, could not lie.... And the point of contact was Amy Nugent herself....

As regards his exact attitude to this girl it is more difficult to write. On the one side the human element-those associations directly connected with the senses-her actual face and hands, physical atmosphere and surroundings-those had disappeared; they were dispersed, or they lay underground; and it had been with a certain shock of surprise, in spite of the explanations given to him, that he had seen what he believed to be her face in the drawing-room in Queen's Gate. But he had tried to arrange all this in his imagination, and it had fallen into shape and proportion again. In short, he thought he understood now that it is character which gives unity to the transient qualities of a person on earth, and that, when those qualities disappear, it is as unimportant as the wasting of tissue: when, according to the spiritualists' gospel that character manifests itself from the other side, it naturally reconstitutes the form by which it had been recognized on earth.

Yet, in spite of this sense of familiarity with what he had seen, there had fallen between Amy and himself that august shadow that is called Death.... And in spite of the assurances he had received, even at the hands of his own senses, that this was indeed the same girl that he had known on earth, there was a strange awe mingled with his old rather shallow passion. There were moments, as he sat alone in his rooms at night, when it rose almost to terror; just as there were other moments when awe vanished for a while, and his whole being was flooded with an extraordinary ecstatic semi-earthly happiness at the thought that he and she could yet speak with one another.... Imagine, if you please, a child who on returning home finds that his mother has become Queen, and meets her in the glory of ermine and diadem....

But the real deciding point-which, somehow, he knew must come-the moment at which these conflicting notes should become a chord, was fixed for Sunday evening next. Up to now he had had evidence of her presence, he had received intelligible messages, though fragmentary and half stammered through the mysterious veil, he had for an instant or two looked upon her face; but the real point, he hoped, would come in two days. The public séances had not impressed him. He had been to three or four of these in a certain road off Baker Street, and had been astonished and disappointed. The kind of people that he had met there-sentimental bourgeois with less power of sifting evidence than the average child, with a credulity that was almost supernatural-the medium, a stout woman who rolled her eyes and had damp fat fingers; the hymn-singing, the wheezy harmonium, the amazing pseudo-mystical oracular messages that revealed nothing which a religiose fool could not invent-in fact the whole affair, from the sham stained-glass lamp-shade to the ghostly tambourines overhead, the puerility of the tricks played on the inquirers, and all the rest of it-this seemed as little connected with what he had experienced with Mr. Vincent as a dervish dance with High Mass. He had reflected with almost ludicrous horror upon the impression it would make on Maggie, and the remarks it would elicit.

But this other engagement was a very different matter.

They were going to attempt a further advance. It had, indeed, been explained to him that these attempts were but tentative and experimental; it was impossible to dictate exactly what should fall; but the object on Sunday night was to go a step further, and to bring about, if possible, the materialization process to such a point that the figure could be handled, and could speak. And it seemed to Laurie as if this would be final indeed....

* * *

So he sat this evening, within forty-eight hours of the crisis, thinking steadily. Half a dozen times, perhaps, the thought of Maggie recurred to him; but he was learning how to get rid of that.

Then he took up the note and opened it. It was filled with four pages of writing. He turned to the end and read the signature. Then he turned back and read the whole letter.

* * *

It was very quiet as he sat there thinking over what he had read. The noise of Fleet Street came up here only as the soothing murmur of the sea upon a beach; and he himself sat motionless, the firelight falling upwards upon his young face, his eyes, and his curly hair. About him stood his familiar furniture, the grand piano a pool of glimmering dark wood in the background, the tall curtained windows suggestive of shelter and warmth and protection.

Yet, if he had but known it, he was making an enormous choice. The letter was from the man he had met at midday, and he was deciding how to answer it. He was soothed and quieted by his loneliness, and his irritation had disappeared: he regarded the letter from a youthfully philosophical standpoint, pleased with his moderation, as the work of a fanatic; he was considering only whether he would yield, for politeness' sake, to the importunity, or answer shortly and decisively. It seemed to him remarkable that a mature and experienced man could write such a letter.

At last he got up, went to his writing-table, and sat down. Still he hesitated for a minute; then he dipped his pen and wrote.

When he had finished and directed it, he went back to the fire. He had an hour yet in which to think and think before he need dress. He had promised to dine with Mrs. Stapleton at half-past seven. He had a touch of headache, and perhaps might sleep it off.

* * *

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