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   Chapter 12 I No.12

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 21679

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Lady Laura crossed the road by Knightsbridge Barracks and turned again homewards through the Park.

It was one of those days that occasionally fall in late February which almost cheer the beholder into a belief that spring has really begun. Overhead the sky was a clear pale blue, flecked with summer-looking clouds, gauzy and white; beneath, the whole earth was waking drowsily from a frost so slight as only to emphasize the essential softness of the day that followed: the crocuses were alight in the grass, and an indescribable tint lay over all that had life, like the flush in the face of an awakening child. But these days are too good to last, and Lady Laura, who had looked at the forecast of a Sunday paper, had determined to take her exercise immediately after church.

She had come out not long before from All Saints'; she had listened to an excellent though unexciting sermon and some extremely beautiful singing; and even now, saturated with that atmosphere and with the soothing physical air in which she walked, her anxieties seemed less acute. There were enough of her acquaintances, too, in groups here and there-she had to bow and smile sufficiently often-to prevent these anxieties from reasserting themselves too forcibly. And it may be supposed that not a creature who observed her, in her exceedingly graceful hat and mantle, with her fair head a little on one side, and her gold-rimmed pince-nez delicately gleaming in the sunlight, had the very faintest suspicion that she had any anxieties at all.

Yet she felt strangely unwilling even to go home.

The men were to set about clearing the drawing-room while she was at church; and somehow the thought that it would be done when she got home, that the temple would, so to speak, be cleared for sacrifice, was a distasteful one.

She did not quite know when the change had begun; in fact, she was scarcely yet aware that there was a change at all. Upon one point only her attention fixed itself, and that was the increasing desire she felt that Laurie Baxter should go no further in his researches under her auspices.

Up to within a few weeks ago she had been all ardor. It had seemed to her, as has been said, that the apparent results of spiritualism were all to the good, that they were in no point contrary to the religion she happened to believe-in fact, that they made real, as does an actual tree in the foreground of a panorama, the rather misty sky and hills of Christianity. She had even called them very "teaching."

It was about eighteen months since she had first taken this up under the onslaught of Mrs. Stapleton's enthusiasm; but things had not been as satisfactory as she wished, until Mr. Vincent had appeared. Then indeed matters had moved forward; she had seen extraordinary things, and the effect of them had been doubled by the medium's obvious honesty and his strong personality. He was to her as a resolute priest to a timid penitent; he had led her forward, supported by his own conviction and his extremely steady will, until she had begun to feel at home in this amazing new world, and eager to make proselytes.

Then Laurie had appeared, and almost immediately a dread had seized her that she could neither explain nor understand. She had attempted a little tentative conversation on the point with dearest Maud, but dearest Maud had appeared so entirely incapable of understanding her scruples that she had said no more. But her inexplicable anxiety had already reached such a point that she had determined to say a word to Laurie on the subject. This had been done, without avail; and now a new step forward was to be made.

* * *

As to of what this step consisted she was perfectly aware.

The "controls," she believed-the spirits that desired to communicate-had a series of graduated steps by which the communications could be made, from mere incoherent noises (as a man may rap a message from one room to another), through appearances, also incoherent and intangible, right up to the final point of assuming visible tangible form, and of speaking in an audible voice. This process, she believed, consisted first in a mere connection between spirit and matter, and finally passed into an actual assumption of matter, molded into the form of the body once worn by the spirit on earth. For nearly all of this process she had had the evidence of her own senses; she had received messages, inexplicable to her except on the hypothesis put forward, from departed relations of her own; she had seen lights, and faces, and even figures formed before her eyes, in her own drawing-room; but she had not as yet, though dearest Maud had been more fortunate, been able to handle and grasp such figures, to satisfy the sense of touch, as well as of sight, in proof of the reality of the phenomenon.

Yes; she was satisfied even with what she had seen; she had no manner of doubt as to the theories put before her by Mr. Vincent; yet she shrank (and she scarcely knew why) from that final consummation which it was proposed to carry out if possible that evening. But the shrinking centered round some half-discerned danger to Laurie Baxter rather than to herself.

* * *

It was these kinds of thoughts that beset her as she walked up beneath the trees on her way homewards-checked and soothed now somewhat by the pleasant air and the radiant sunlight, yet perceptible beneath everything. And it was not only of Laurie Baxter that she thought; she spared a little attention for herself.

For she had begun to be aware, for the first time since her initiation, of a very faint distaste-as slight and yet as suggestive as that caused by a half-perceived consciousness of a delicately disagreeable smell. There comes such a moment in the life of cut flowers in water, when the impetus of growing energy ceases, and a new tone makes itself felt in their scent, of which the end is certain. It is not sufficient to cause the flowers to be thrown away; they still possess volumes of fragrance; yet these decrease, and the new scent increases, until it has the victory.

So it was now to the perceptions of this lady. Oh! yes. Spiritualism was very "teaching" and beautiful; it was perfectly compatible with orthodox religion; it was undeniably true. She would not dream of giving it up. Only it would be better if Laurie Baxter did not meddle with it: he was too sensitive.... However, he was coming that evening again.... There was the fact.

* * *

As she turned southwards at last, crossing the road again towards her own street, it seemed to her that the day even now was beginning to cloud over. Over the roofs of Kensington a haze was beginning to make itself visible, as impalpable as a skein of smoke; yet there it was. She felt a little languid, too. Perhaps she had walked too far. She would rest a little after lunch, if dearest Maud did not mind; for dearest Maud was to lunch with her, as was usual on Sundays when the Colonel was away.

As she came, slower than ever, down the broad opulent pavement of Queen's Gate, through the silence and emptiness of Sunday-for the church bells were long ago silent-she noticed coming towards her, with a sauntering step, an old gentleman in frock coat and silk hat of a slightly antique appearance, spatted and gloved, carrying his hands behind his back, as if he were waiting to be joined by some friend from one of the houses. She noticed that he looked at her through his glasses, but thought no more of it till she turned up the steps of her own house. Then she was startled by the sound of quick footsteps and a voice.

"I beg your pardon, madam ..."

She turned, with her key in the door, and there he stood, hat in hand.

"Have I the pleasure of speaking to Lady Laura Bethell?"

There was a pleasant brisk ring about his voice that inclined her rather favorably towards him.

"Is there anything.... Did you want to speak to me...? Yes, I am Lady Laura Bethell."

"I was told you were at church, madam, and that you were not at home to visitors on Sunday."

"That is quite right.... May I ask...?"

"Only a few minutes, Lady Laura, I promise you. Will you forgive my persistence?"

Yes; the man was a gentleman; there was no doubt of that.

"Would not tomorrow do? I am rather engaged today."

He had his card-case ready, and without answering her at once, he came up the steps and handed it to her.

The name meant nothing at all to her.

"Will not tomorrow...?" she began again.

"Tomorrow will be too late," said the old gentleman. "I beg of you, Lady Laura. It is on an extremely important matter."

She still hesitated an instant; then she pushed the door open and went in.

"Please come in," she said.

She was so taken aback by the sudden situation that she forgot completely that the drawing-room would be upside down, and led the way straight upstairs; and it was not till she was actually within the door, with the old gentleman close on her heels, that she saw that, with the exception of three or four chairs about the fire and the table set out near the hearthrug, the room was empty of furniture.

"I forgot," she said; "but will you mind coming in here.... We ... we have a meeting here this evening."

She led the way to the fire, and at first did not notice that he was not following her. When she turned round she saw the old gentleman, with his air of antique politeness completely vanished, standing and looking about him with a very peculiar expression. She also noticed, to her annoyance, that the cabinet was already in place in the little ante-room and that his eyes almost immediately rested upon it. Yet there was no look of wonder in his face; rather it was such a look as a man might have on visiting the scene of a well-known crime-interest, knowledge, and loathing.

"So it is here-" he said in quite a low voice.

Then he came across the room towards her.

II

For an instant his bearded face looked so strangely at her that she half moved towards the bell. Then he smiled, with a little reassuring gesture.

"No, no," he said. "May I sit down a moment?"

She began hastily to cover her confusion.

"It is a meeting," she said, "for this evening. I am sorry-"

"Just so," he said. "It is about that that I have come."

"I beg your pardon...?"

"Please sit down, Lady Laura.... May I say in a sentence what I have come to say?"

This seemed a very odd old man.

"Why, yes-" she said.

"I have come to beg you not to allow Mr. Baxter to enter the house.... No, I have no authority from anyone, least of all from Mr. Baxter. He has no idea that I have come. He would think it an unwarrantable piece of impertinence."

"Mr. Cathcart ... I-I cannot-"

"Allow me," he said, with a little compelling gesture that silenced her. "I have been asked to interfere by

a couple of people very much interested in Mr. Baxter; one of them, if not both, completely disbelieves in spiritualism."

"Then you know-"

He waved his hand towards the cabinet.

"Of course I know," he said. "Why, I was a spiritualist for ten years myself. No, not a medium; not a professional, that is to say. I know all about Mr. Vincent; all about Mrs. Stapleton and yourself, Lady Laura. I still follow the news closely; I know perfectly well-"

"And you have given it up?"

"I have given it up for a long while," he said quietly. "And I have come to ask you to forbid Mr. Baxter to be present this evening, for-for the same reason for which I have given it up myself."

"Yes? And that-"

"I don't think we need go into that," he said. "It is enough, is it not, for me to say that Mr. Baxter's work, and, in fact, his whole nervous system, is suffering considerably from the excitement; that one of the persons who have asked me to do what I can is Mr. Baxter's own law-coach: and that even if he had not asked me, Mr. Baxter's own appearance-"

"You know him?"

"Practically, no. I lunched at the same table with him on Friday; the symptoms are quite unmistakable."

"I don't understand. Symptoms?"

"Well, we will say symptoms of nervous excitement. You are aware, no doubt, that he is exceptionally sensitive. Probably you have seen for yourself-"

"Wait a moment," said Lady Laura, her own heart beating furiously. "Why do you not go to Mr. Baxter himself?"

"I have done so. I arranged to meet him at lunch, and somehow I took a wrong turn with him: I have no tact whatever, as you perceive. But I wrote to him on Friday night, offering to call upon him, and just giving him a hint. Well, it was useless. He refused to see me."

"I don't see what I-"

"Oh yes," chirped the old gentleman almost gaily. "It would be quite unusual and unconventional. I just ask you to send him a line-I will take it myself, if you wish it-telling him that you think it would be better for him not to come, and saying that you are making other arrangements for tonight."

He looked at her with that odd little air of birdlike briskness that she had noticed in the street; and it pleasantly affected her even in the midst of the uneasiness that now surged upon her again tenfold more than before. She could see that there was something else behind his manner; it had just looked out in the glance he had given round the room on entering; but she could not trouble at this moment to analyze what it was. She was completely bewildered by the strangeness of the encounter, and the extraordinary coincidence of this man's judgment with her own. Yet there were a hundred reasons against her taking his advice. What would the others say? What of all the arrangements ... the expectation...?

"I don't see how it's possible now," she began. "I think I know what you mean. But-"

"Indeed, I trust you have no idea," cried the old gentleman, with a queer little falsetto note coming into his voice-"no idea at all. I come to you merely on the plea of nervous excitement; it is injuring his health, Lady Laura."

She looked at him curiously.

"But-" she began.

"Oh, I will go further," he said. "Have you never heard of-of insanity in connection with all this? We will call it insanity, if you wish."

For a moment her heart stood still. The word had a sinister sound, in view of an incident she had once witnessed; but it seemed to her that some meaning behind, unknown to her, was still more sinister. Why had he said that it might be "called insanity" only...?

"Yes.... I-I have once seen a case," she stammered.

"Well," said the old gentleman, "is it not enough when I tell you that I-I who was a spiritualist for ten years-have never seen a more dangerous subject than Mr. Baxter? Is the risk worth it...? Lady Laura, do you quite understand what you are doing?"

He leaned forward a little; and again she felt anxiety, sickening and horrible, surge within her. Yet, on the other hand....

The door opened suddenly, and Mr. Vincent came in.

III

There was silence for a moment; then the old gentleman turned round, and in an instant was on his feet, quiet, but with an air of bristling about his thrust-out chin and his tense attitude.

Mr. Vincent paused, looking from one to the other.

"I beg your pardon, Lady Laura," he said courteously. "Your man told me to wait here; I think he did not know you had come in."

"Well-er-this gentleman..." began Lady Laura. "Why, do you know Mr. Vincent?" she asked suddenly, startled by the expression in the old gentleman's face.

"I used to know Mr. Vincent," he said shortly.

"You have the advantage of me," smiled the medium, coming forward to the fire.

"My name is Cathcart, sir."

The other started, almost imperceptibly.

"Ah! yes," he said quietly. "We did meet a few times, I remember."

Lady Laura was conscious of distinct relief at the interruption: it seemed to her a providential escape from a troublesome decision.

"I think there is nothing more to be said, Mr. Cathcart.... No, don't go, Mr. Vincent. We had finished our talk."

"Lady Laura," said the old gentleman with a rather determined air, "I beg of you to give me ten minutes more private conversation."

She hesitated, clearly foreseeing trouble either way. Then she decided.

"There is no necessity today," she said. "If you care to make an appointment for one day next week, Mr. Cathcart-"

"I am to understand that you refuse me a few minutes now?"

"There is no necessity that I can see-"

"Then I must say what I have to say before Mr. Vincent-"

"One moment, sir," put in the medium, with that sudden slight air of imperiousness that Lady Laura knew very well by now. "If Lady Laura consents to hear you, I must take it on myself to see that nothing offensive is said." He glanced as if for leave towards the woman.

She made an effort.

"If you will say it quickly," she began. "Otherwise-"

The old gentleman drew a breath as if to steady himself. It was plain that he was very strongly moved beneath his self-command: his air of cheerful geniality was gone.

"I will say it in one sentence," he said. "It is this: You are ruining that boy between you, body and soul; and you are responsible before his Maker and yours. And if-"

"Lady Laura," said the medium, "do you wish to hear any more?"

She made a doubtful little gesture of assent.

"And if you wish to know my reasons for saying this," went on Mr. Cathcart, "you have only to ask for them from Mr. Vincent. He knows well enough why I left spiritualism-if he dares to tell you."

Lady Laura glanced at the medium. He was perfectly still and quiet-looking, watching the old man curiously and half humorously under his heavy eyebrows.

"And I understand," went on the other, "that tonight you are to make an attempt at complete materialization. Very good; then after tonight it may be too late. I have tried to appeal to the boy: he will not hear me. And you too have refused to hear me out. I could give you evidence, if you wished. Ask this gentleman how many cases he has known in the last five years, where complete ruin, body and soul-"

The medium turned a little to the fire, sighing as if for weariness: and at the sound the old man stopped, trembling. It was more obvious than ever that he only held himself in restraint by a very violent effort: it was as if the presence of the medium affected him in an extraordinary degree.

Lady Laura glanced again from one to the other.

"That is all, then?" she said.

His lips worked. Then he burst out-

"I am sick of talking," he cried-"sick of it! I have warned you. That is enough. I cannot do more."

He wheeled on his heel and went out. A minute later the two heard the front door bang.

She looked at Mr. Vincent. He was twirling softly in his strong fingers a little bronze candlestick that stood on the mantelpiece: his manner was completely unconcerned; he even seemed to be smiling a little.

For herself she felt helpless. She had taken her choice, impelled to it, though she scarcely recognized the fact, by the entrance of this strong personality; and now she needed reassurance once again. But before she had a word to say, he spoke-still in his serene manner.

"Yes, yes," he said. "I remember now. I used to know Mr. Cathcart once. A very violent old gentleman."

"What did he mean?"

"His reasons for leaving us? Indeed I scarcely remember. I suppose it was because he became a Catholic."

"Was there nothing more?"

He looked at her pleasantly.

"Why, I daresay there was. I really can't remember, Lady Laura. I suppose he had his nerves shaken. You can see for yourself what a fanatic he is."

But in spite of his presence, once more a gust of anxiety shook her.

"Mr. Vincent, are you sure it's safe-for Mr. Baxter, I mean?"

"Safe? Why, he's as safe as any of us can be. We all have nervous systems, of course."

"But he's particularly sensitive, isn't he?"

"Indeed, yes. That is why even this evening he must not go into trance. That must come later, after a good training."

She stood up, and came herself to stand by the mantelpiece.

"Then really there's no danger?"

He turned straight to her, looking at her with kind, smiling eyes.

"Lady Laura," he said, "have I ever yet told you that there was no danger? I think not. There is always danger, for every one of us, as there is for the scientist in the laboratory, and the engineer in his machinery. But what we can do is to reduce that danger to a minimum, so that, humanly speaking, we are reasonably and sufficiently safe. No doubt you remember the case of that girl? Well, that was an accident: and accidents will happen; but do me the justice to remember that it was the first time that I had seen her. It was absolutely impossible to foresee. She was on the very edge of a nervous breakdown before she entered the room. But with regard to Mr. Baxter, I have seen him again and again; and I tell you that I consider him to be running a certain risk-but a perfectly justifiable one, and one that is reduced to a minimum, if I did not think that we were taking every precaution, I would not have him in the room for all the world.... Are you satisfied, Lady Laura?"

Every word he said helped her back to assurance. It was all so reasonable and well weighed. If he had said there was no danger, she would have feared the more, but his very recognition of it gave her security. And above all, his tranquility and his strength were enormous assets on his side.

She drew a breath, and decided to go forward.

"And Mr. Cathcart?" she asked.

He smiled again.

"You can see what he is," he said. "I should advise you not to see him again. It's of no sort of use."

* * *

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