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   Chapter 13 I No.13

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 18170

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The weather forecasts had been in the right; and the few that struggled homewards that night from church fought against a south-west wind that tore, laden with driving rain, up the streets and across the open spaces, till the very lights were dimmed in the tall street lamps and shone only through streaming panes that seemed half opaque with mist and vapor. In Queen's Gate hardly one lighted window showed that the houses were inhabited. So fierce was the clamor and storm of the broad street that men made haste to shut out every glimpse of the night, and the fanlights above the doors, or here and there a line of brightness where some draught had tossed the curtains apart, were the only signs of human life. Outside the broad pavements stared like surfaces of some canal, black and mirror-like, empty of passengers, catching every spark or hint of light from house and lamp, transforming it to a tall streak of glimmering wetness.

The housekeeper's room in this house on the right was the more delightful from the contrast. It was here that the august assembly was held every evening after supper, set about with rigid etiquette and ancient rite. Its windows looked on to the little square garden at the back, but were now tight shuttered and curtained; and the room was a very model of comfort and warmth. Before the fire a square table was drawn up, set out with pudding and fruit, for it was here that the upper servants withdrew after the cold meat and beer of the servants' hall, to be waited upon by the butler's boy: and it was round this that the four sat in state-housekeeper, butler, lady's maid, and cook.

It was already after ten o'clock; and Mr. Parker was permitted to smoke a small cigar. They had discussed the weather, the sermon that Miss Baker had heard in the morning, and the prospects of a Dissolution; and they had once more returned to the mysteries that were being enacted upstairs. They were getting accustomed to them now, and there was not a great deal to say, unless they repeated themselves, which they had no objection to do. Their attitude was one of tolerant skepticism, tempered by an agreeable tendency on the part of Miss Baker to become agitated after a certain point. Mr. Vincent, it was generally conceded, was a respectable sort of man, with an air about him that could hardly be put into words, and it was thought to be a pity that he lent himself to such superstition. Mrs. Stapleton had been long ago dismissed as a silly sort of woman, though with a will of her own; and her ladyship, of course, must have her way; it could not last long, it was thought.

But young Mr. Baxter was another matter, and there was a deal to say about him. He was a gentleman-that was certain; and he seemed to have sense; but it was a pity that he was so often here now on this business. He had not said one word to Mr. Parker this evening as he took off his coat; Mr. Parker had not thought that he looked very well.

"He was too quiet-like," said the butler.

As to the details of the affair upstairs-these were considered in a purely humorous light. It was understood that tables danced a hornpipe, and that tambourines were beaten by invisible hands; and it was not necessary to go further into principles, particularly since all these things were done by machinery at the Egyptian Hall. Faces also, it was believed, were seen looking out of the cabinet which Mr. Parker had once more helped to erect this morning; but these, it was explained, were "done" by luminous paint. Finally, if people insisted on looking into causes, Electricity was a sufficient answer for all the rest. No one actually suggested water-power.

As for human motives, these were not called in question at all. It appeared to amuse some people to do this kind of thing, as others might collect old china or practice the cotillion. There it was, a fact, and there was no more to be said about it. Old Lady Carraden, where Mr. Parker had once been under-butler, had gone in for pouter pigeons; and Miss Baker had heard tell of a nobleman who had a carpenter's shop of his own.

These things were so, then; and meantime here was a cigar to be smoked by Mr. Parker, and a little weak tea to be taken by the three ladies.

It was about a quarter-past ten when a reversion was made to the weather. Within here all was supremely comfortable. A black stuff mat, with a red fringed border, lay before the blazing fire, convenient to the feet; the heavy red curtains shut out the darkness, and where the glass cases of china permitted it, large photographs of wedding groups and the houses of the nobility hung upon the walls. A King Charles' spaniel, in another glass case, looked upon the company with an eternal snarl belied by the mildness of his brown eyes; and, corresponding to him on the other side of the fire, a numerous family of humming-birds, a little dusty and dim, poised perpetually above the flowers of a lichened tree, with a flaming sunset to show them up.

But, without, the wind tore unceasingly, laden with rain, through the gusty darkness of the little garden, and, in the pauses, the swift dripping from the roof splashed and splashed upon the paved walk. It was a very wild night, as Mr. Parker observed four times: he only hoped that no one would require a hansom cab. He had been foolish enough to take the responsibility tonight of letting the guests out himself, and of allowing William to go to bed when he wished. And these were late affairs, seldom over before eleven, and often not till nearly midnight.

Mrs. Martin, in her blouse, moved a little nearer the fire, and said she must be off soon to bed; Mrs. Mayle, in her black silk, added that there was no telling when her ladyship would get to bed, what with Mrs. Stapleton and all, and commiserated Miss Baker; Miss Baker moaned a little in self-pity; and Mr. Parker remarked for the fifth time that it was a wild night. It was an astonishingly serene and domestic atmosphere: no effort of imagination or wit was required from anybody; it was enough to make observations when they occurred to the brain, and they would meet with a tranquil response.

As half-past ten tinkled out from the little yellow marble clock on the mantelpiece-it had been won by Mrs. Mayle's deceased husband in a horticultural exhibition-Mrs. Martin said that she must go and have a look at the scullery to see that all was as it should be; there was no knowing with these girls nowadays what they might not leave undone; and Mrs. Mayle preened herself gently with the thought that her responsibilities were on a higher plane. Mr. Parker made a courteous movement as if to rise, and remained seated, as the cook rustled out. Miss Baker sighed again as she contemplated the long conversation that might take place between the two ladies upstairs before she could get her mistress to bed.

Once more the tranquil atmosphere settled down on the warm room; the brass lamp burned brightly with a faint and reassuring smell of paraffin; the fire presented a radiant cavern of red coals fringed by dancing flames; and Mr. Parker leaned forwards to shake off the ash of his cigar.

Then, on a sudden, he paused, for from the passage outside came the passionless tinkle of an electric bell-then another, and another, and another, as if some person overhead strove by reiteration on that single note to cry out some overwhelming need.

II

Overhead in the great empty drawing-room the noise of the wind and rain, the almost continuous spatter on the glass, and the long hooting of the gusts, had been far more noticeable than in the basement beneath. Below stairs the company had been natural and normal, talking of this and that, in a brightly lighted room, dwelling only on matters that fell beneath the range of their senses, lulled by warmth and food and cigar-smoke into a kind of rapt self-contemplation. But up here, in the gloom, lighted only on this occasion by a single shaded candle, in a complete interior silence, three persons had sat round a table for more than an hour, striving by passivity and a kind of indescribable concentration to ignore all that was presented by the senses, and to await some movement from that which lies beyond them.

Lady Laura had sat down that night in a state of mind which she could not analyze. It was not that her anxieties had been lulled so much as counterbalanced; they were still there, at once poignant and heavy, but on the other side there had been the assured air of the medium, his reasonableness and his personality, as well as the enthusiasm of her friend, and her astonished remonstrances. She had decided to acquiesce, not because she was satisfied, but because on the whole anxiety was outweighed by confidence. She could not have taken action under such circumstances, but she could at least refrain from it.

Laurie, as Mr. Parker had noticed, had been "quiet-like"; he had said very little indeed, but a nervous strain was evident in the brightness of his eyes; but in answer to a conventional inquiry he had declared himself extrem

ely well. Mr. Vincent had looked at him for just an instant longer than usual as he shook hands, but he said nothing. Mrs. Stapleton had made an ecstatic remark or two on the envy with which she regarded the boy's sensitive faculties.

At the beginning of the séance the medium had repeated his warnings as to Laurie's avoiding of trance, and had added one or two other precautions. Then he had gone into the cabinet; the fire had been pressed down under ashes, and a single candle lighted and placed behind the angle of the little adjoining room in such a position that its shaded light fell upon the cabinet only and the figure of the medium within.

* * *

When the silence became fixed, Lady Laura for the first time perceived the rage of wind and rain outside. The very intensity of the interior stillness and the rapture of attention emphasized to an extraordinary degree the windy roar without. Yet the silence seemed to her, now as always, to have a peculiar faculty of detaching the psychical from the physical atmosphere. In spite of the batter of rain not ten feet away, the sighing between the shutters, and even the lift now and again of the heavy curtains in the draught, she seemed to herself as remote from it as does a man crouching in the dark under some ruin feel himself at an almost infinite distance from the pick and the hammer of the rescuers. These were in one world, she in another.

For over an hour no movement was made. She herself sat facing the fire, Laurie on her left looking towards the cabinet with his back to the windows, Mrs. Stapleton opposite to her.

An endless procession of thoughts defiled before her as she sat, yet these too were somewhat remote-far up, so to speak, on the superficies of consciousness: they did not approach that realm of the will poised now and attentive on another range of existence. Once and again she glanced up without moving her head at the three-quarter profile on her left, at the somewhat Zulu-like outline opposite to her; then down again at the polished little round table and the six hands laid upon it. And meanwhile her brain revolved images rather than thoughts, memories rather than reflections-vignettes, so to speak,-old Mr. Cathcart in his spats and frock-coat, the look on the medium's face, there and gone again in an instant as he had heard the stranger's name; the carved oak stalls of the chancel towards which she had faced this morning, the look of the park, the bloom upon the still leafless trees, the radiance of the blue spring sky....

It must have been, she thought, after a little over an hour that the first expected movement made itself felt-a long trembling shudder through the wood beneath her hands, followed by a strange sensation of lightness, as if the whole table rose a little from the floor. Then, almost before the movement subsided, a torrent of little taps poured itself out, as delicate and as swift and, it seemed, as perfectly calculated, as the rapping of some minute electric hammer. This was new to her, yet not so unlike other experiences as to seem strange or perturbing in any way.... Again she bent her attention to the table as the vibration ceased.

There followed a long silence.

It must have been about ten minutes later that she became aware of the next phenomenon; and her attention had been called to it by a sudden noiseless uplifting of the profile on her left. She turned her face to the cabinet and looked; and there, perfectly discernible, was some movement going on between the curtains. For the moment she could see the medium clearly, his arms folded, indicated by the white lines of his cuffs across his breast, his head sunk forward in deep sleep; and at the next instant the curtains flapped two or three times, as if jerked from within, and finally rested completely closed.

She glanced quickly at the boy on her left, and in the diffused light from the other room could see him distinctly, his eyes open and watching, his lips compressed as if in some tense effort of self-control.

When she looked at the cabinet again she could see that some movement had begun again behind the curtains, for these swayed and jerked convulsively, as if some person with but little room was moving there. And she could hear now, as the gusts outside lulled for a moment, the steady rather stertorous breathing of the medium. Then once again the wind gathered strength outside; the rain tore at the glass like a streaming handful of tiny pebbles, and the great curtains at her side lifted and sighed in the draught through the shutters.

When it quieted again the breathing had become a measured moaning, as that which a dreaming dog emits at the end of each expiration; and she herself drew a long trembling breath, overwhelmed by the sense of some struggle in the room such as she had not experienced before.

It was impossible for her to express this even to herself; yet the perception was clear-as clear as some presentment of the senses. She knew during those moments, as she watched the swaying curtains of the cabinet in the shaded light that fell upon them, and heard now and again that low moan from behind them, that some kind of stress lay upon something that was new to her in this connection. For the time she forgot her undertone of anxiety as to this boy at her side, and a curious terrified excitement took its place. Once, even then, she glanced at him again, and saw the motionless profile watching, always watching....

Then in an instant the climax came, and this is what she saw.

* * *

The commotion of the curtains ceased suddenly, and they hung in straight folds from roof to floor of the little cabinet. Then they gently parted-she saw the long fingers that laid hold of them-and the form of a person came out, descended the single step, and stood on the floor before her eyes, in the plain candlelight, not four steps away.

It was the figure of a young girl, perfectly formed in all its parts, swathed in some light stuff resembling muslin that fell almost to the feet and shrouded the upper part of the head. Her hands were clasped across her breast, her bare feet were visible against the dark floor, and her features were unmistakably clear. There was a certain beauty in the face-in the young lips, the open eyes, and the dark lines of the brows over them; and the complexion was waxen, clear as of a blonde. But, as the observer had noticed before on the three or four occasions on which she had seen these phenomena, there was a strange mask-like set of the features, as if the life that lay behind them had not perfectly saturated that which expressed it. It was something utterly different from the face of a dead person, yet also not completely alive, though the eyes turned a little in their sockets, and the young down-curved lips smiled. Behind her, plain between the tossed-back curtains, was the figure of the medium sunk in sleep.

And so for a few seconds the apparition remained.

It seemed to the watcher that during those seconds the whole world was still. Whether in truth the wind had dropped, or whether the absorbed attention perceived nothing but the marvel before it, yet so it seemed. Even the breathing of the medium had stopped; Lady Laura heard only the ticking of the watch upon her own wrist.

Then, as once more a gust tore up from the south-west, the figure moved forward a step nearer the table, coming with a motion as of a living person, causing, it even appeared, that faint vibration on the floor as of a living body.

She stood so near now, though with her back to the diffused light of the ante-room, that her features were more plain than before-the stained lips, the open eyes, the shadow beneath the nostrils and chin, even the white fingers clasped across the breast. There was none of that vague mistiness that had been seen once before in that room; every line was as clear-cut as in the face of a living person; even the swell of the breast beneath the hands, the slender sloping shoulders, the long curved line from hip to ankle, all were real and discernible. And once again the staring eyes of the watcher took in, and her mind perceived, that slight mask-like look on the pretty appealing face.

Once again the figure came forward, straight on to the table; and then, so swift that not a motion or a word could check it, the catastrophe fell.

There was a violent movement on Lady Laura's left hand, a chair shot back and fell, and with a horrible tearing cry from the throat, the boy dashed himself face forwards across the table, snatched at and for an instant seized something real and concrete that stood there; and as the two women sprang up, losing sight for an instant of the figure that had been there a moment ago, the boy sank forward, moaning and sobbing, and a crash as of a heavy body falling sounded from the cabinet.

For a space of reckonable time there was complete silence. Then once more a blast of wind tore up from the south-west, rain shattered against the window, and the house vibrated to the shock.

* * *

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