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   Chapter 14 I No.14

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 23840

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


As the date approached Maggie felt her anxieties settle down, like a fire, from turbulence to steady flame. On the Sunday she had with real difficulty kept it to herself, and the fringe of the storm of wind and rain that broke over Herefordshire in the evening had not been reassuring. Yet on one thing her will kept steady hold, and that was that Mrs. Baxter must not be consulted. No conceivable good could result, and there might even be harm: either the old lady would be too much or not enough concerned: she might insist on Laurie's return to Stantons, or might write him a cheering letter encouraging him to amuse himself in any direction that he pleased. So Maggie passed the evening in fits of alternate silence and small conversation, and succeeded in making Mrs. Baxter recommend a good long night.

Monday morning, however, broke with a cloudless sky, an air like wine, and the chatter of birds; and by the time that Maggie went to look at the crocuses immediately before breakfast, she was all but at her ease again. Enough, however, of anxiety remained to make her hurry out to the stable-yard when she heard the postman on his way to the back door.

There was one letter for her, in Mr. Cathcart's handwriting; and she opened it rather hastily as she turned in again to the garden.

It was reassuring. It stated that the writer had approached-that was the word-Mr. Baxter, though unfortunately with ill-success, and that he proposed on the following day-the letter was dated on Saturday evening-also to approach Lady Laura Bethell. He felt fairly confident, he said, that his efforts would succeed in postponing, at any rate, Mr. Baxter's visit to Lady Laura; and in that case he would write further as to what was best to be done. In the meanwhile Miss Deronnais was not to be in the least anxious. Whatever happened, it was extremely improbable that one visit more or less to a séance would carry any great harm: it was the habit, rather than the act, that was usually harmful to the nervous system. And the writer begged to remain her obedient servant.

Maggie's spirits rose with a bound. How extraordinarily foolish she had been, she told herself, to have been filled with such forebodings last night! It was more than likely that the séance had taken place without Laurie; and, even at the worst, as Mr. Cathcart said, he was probably only a little more excited than usual this morning.

So she began to think about future arrangements; and by the time that Mrs. Baxter looked benignantly out at her from beneath the Queen Anne doorway to tell her that breakfast was waiting, she was conceiving of the possibility of going up herself to London in a week or two on some shopping excuse, and of making one more genial attempt to persuade Laurie to be a sensible boy again.

During her visit to the fowl-yard after breakfast she began to elaborate these plans.

She was clear now, once again, that the whole thing was a fantastic delusion, and that its sole harm was that it was superstitious and nerve-shaking. (She threw a large handful of maize, with a meditative eye.) It was on that ground and that only that she would approach Laurie. Perhaps even it would be better for her not to go and see him; it might appear that she was making too much of it: a good sensible letter might do the work equally well.... Well, she would wait at least to hear from Mr. Cathcart once more. The second post would probably bring a letter from him. (She emptied her bowl.)

She was out again in the spring sunshine, walking up and down before the house with a book, by the time that the second post was due. But this time, through the iron gate, she saw the postman go past the house without stopping. Once more her spirits rose, this time, one might say, to par; and she went indoors.

Her window looked out on to the front; and she moved her writing-table to it to catch as much as possible of the radiant air and light of the spring day. She proposed to begin to sketch out what she would say to Laurie, and suggest, if he wished it, to come up and see him in a week or two. She would apologize for her fussiness, and say that the reason why she was writing was that she did not want his mother to be made anxious.

"My dear Laurie..."

She bit her pen gently, and looked out of the window to catch inspiration for the particular frame of words with which she should begin. And as she looked an old gentleman suddenly appeared beyond the iron gate, shook it gently, glanced up in vain for a name on the stone posts, and stood irresolute. It was an old trap, that of the front gate; there was no bell, and it was necessary for visitors to come straight in to the front door.

Then, so swiftly that she could not formulate it, an anxiety leapt at her, and she laid her pen down, staring. Who was this?

She went quickly to the bell and rang it; standing there waiting, with beating heart and face suddenly gone white....

"Susan," she said, "there is an old gentleman at the gate. Go out and see who it is.... Stop: if it is anyone for me ... if-if he gives the name of Mr. Cathcart, ask him to be so kind as to go round the turn to the village and wait for me.... Susan, don't say anything to Mrs. Baxter; it may just possibly be bad news."

From behind the curtain she watched the maid go down the path, saw a few words pass between her and the stranger, and then the maid come back. She waited breathless.

"Yes, miss. It is a Mr. Cathcart. He said he would wait for you."

Maggie nodded.

"I will go," she said. "Remember, please do not say a word to anyone. It may be bad news, as I said."

* * *

As she walked through the hamlet three minutes later, she began to recognize that the news must be really serious; and that beneath all her serenity she had been aware of its possibility. So intense now was that anxiety-though perfectly formless in its details-that all other faculties seemed absorbed into it. She could not frame any imagination as to what it meant; she could form no plan, alternative or absolute, as to what must be done. She was only aware that something had happened, and that she would know the facts in a few seconds.

About fifty yards up the turning she saw the old gentleman waiting. He was in his London clothes, silk-hatted and spatted, and made a curiously incongruous picture there in the deep-banked lane that led upwards to the village. On either side towered the trees, still leafless, yet bursting with life; and overhead chattered the birds against the tender midday sky of spring.

He lifted his hat as she came to him; but they spoke no word of greeting.

"Tell me quickly," she said. "I am Maggie Deronnais."

He turned to walk by her side, saying nothing for a moment.

"The facts or the interpretation?" he asked in his brisk manner. "I will just say first that I have seen him this morning."

"Oh! the facts," she said. "Quickly, please."

"Well, he is going to Mr. Morton's chambers this afternoon; he says..."

"What?"

"One moment, please.... Oh! he is not seriously ill, as the world counts illness. He thought he was just very tired this morning. I went round to call on him. He was in bed at half-past ten when I left him. Then I came straight down here."

For a moment she thought the old man mad. The relief was so intense that she flushed scarlet, and stopped dead in the middle of the road.

"You came down here," she repeated. "Why, I thought-"

He looked at her gravely, in spite of the incessant twinkle in his eyes. She perceived that this old man's eyes would twinkle at a death-bed. He stroked his grey beard smoothly down.

"Yes; you thought that he was dead, perhaps? Oh, no. But for all that, Miss Deronnais, it is just as serious as it can be."

She did not know what to think. Was the man a madman himself?

"Listen, please. I am telling you simply the facts. I was anxious, and I went round this morning first to Lady Laura Bethell. To my astonishment she saw me. I will not tell you all that she said, just now. She was in a terrible state, though she did not know one-tenth of the harm-Well, after what she told me I went round straight to Mitre Court. The porter was inclined not to let me in. Well, I went in, and straight into Mr. Baxter's bedroom; and I found there-"

He stopped.

"Yes?"

"I found exactly what I had feared, and expected."

"Oh! tell me quickly," she cried, wheeling on him in anger.

He looked at her as if critically for a moment. Then he went on abruptly.

"I found Mr. Baxter in bed. I made no apology at all. I said simply that I had come to see how he was after the séance."

"It took place, then-"

"Oh! yes.... I forgot to mention that Lady Laura would pay no attention to me yesterday.... Yes, it took place.... Well, Mr. Baxter did not seem surprised to see me. He told me he felt tired. He said that the séance had been a success. And while he talked I watched him. Then I came away and caught the ten-fifty."

"I don't understand in the least," said Maggie.

"So I suppose," said the other dryly. "I imagine you do not believe in spiritualism at all-I mean that you think that the whole thing is fraud or hysteria?"

"Yes, I do," said Maggie bravely.

He nodded once or twice.

"So do most sensible people. Well, Miss Deronnais, I have come to warn you. I did not write, because it was impossible to know what to say until I had seen you and heard your answer to that question. At the same time, I wanted to lose no time. Anything may happen now at any moment.... I wanted to tell you this: that I am at your service now altogether. When-" he stopped; then he began again, "If you hear no further news for the present, may I ask when you expect to see Mr. Baxter again?"

"In Easter week."

"That is a fortnight off.... Do you think you could persuade him to come down here next week instead? I should like you to see him for yourself: or even sooner."

She was still hopelessly confused with these apparent alternations. She still wondered whether Mr. Cathcart were as mad as he seemed. They turned, as the village came in sight ahead, up the hill.

"Next week? I could try," she said mechanically. "But I don't understand-"

He held up a gloved hand.

"Wait till you have seen him," he said. "For myself, I shall make a point of seeing Mr. Morton every day to hear the news.... Miss Deronnais, I tell you plainly that you alone will have to bear the weight of all this, unless Mrs. Baxter-"

"Oh, do explain," she said almost irritably.

He looked at her with those irresistibly twinkling eyes, but she perceived a very steady will behind them.

"I will explain nothing at all," he said, "now that I have seen you, and heard what you think, except this single point. What you have to be prepared for is the news that Mr. Baxter has suddenly gone out of his mind."

It was said in exactly the same tone as his previous sentences, and for a moment she did not catch the full weight of its meaning. She stopped and looked at him, paling gradually.

"Yes, you took that very well," he said, still meeting her eyes steadily. "Stop.... Keep a strong hold on yourself. That is the worst you have to hear, for the present. Now tell me immediately whether you think Mrs. Baxter should be informed or not."

Her leaping heart slowed down into three or four gulping blows at the base of her throat. She swallowed with difficulty.

"How do you know-"

"Kindly answer my question," he said. "Do you think Mrs. Baxter-"

"Oh, God! Oh, God!" sobbed Maggie.

"Steady, steady," said the old man. "Take my arm, Miss Deronnais."

She shook her head, keeping her eyes fixed on his.

He smiled in his grey beard.

"Very good," he said, "very good. And do you think-"

She shook her head again.

"No: not one word. She is his mother. Besides-she is not the kind-she would be of no use."

"Y

es: it is as I thought. Very well, Miss Deronnais; you will have to be responsible. You can wire for me at any moment. You have my address?"

She nodded.

"Then I have one or two things to add. Whatever happens, do not lose heart for one moment. I have seen these cases again and again.... Whatever happens, too, do not put yourself into a doctor's hands until I have seen Mr. Baxter for myself. The thing may come suddenly or gradually. And the very instant you are convinced it is coming, telegraph to me. I will be here two hours after.... Do you understand?"

They halted twenty yards from the turning into the hamlet. He looked at her again with his kindly humorous eyes.

She nodded slowly and deliberately, repeating in her own mind his instructions; and beneath, like a whirl of waters, questions surged to and fro, clamoring for answer. But her self-control was coming back each instant.

"You understand, Miss Deronnais?" he said again.

"I understand. Will you write to me?"

"I will write this evening.... Once more, then. Get him down next week. Watch him carefully when he comes. Consult no doctor until you have telegraphed to me, and I have seen him."

She drew a long breath, nodding almost mechanically.

"Good-bye, Miss Deronnais. Let me tell you that you are taking it magnificently. Fear nothing; pray much."

He took her hand for a moment. Then he raised his hat and left her standing there.

II

Mrs. Baxter was exceedingly absorbed just now in a new pious book of meditations written by a clergyman. A nicely bound copy of it, which she had ordered specially, had arrived by the parcels post that morning; and she had been sitting in the drawing-room ever since looking through it, and marking it with a small silver pencil. Religion was to this lady what horticulture was to Maggie, except of course that it was really important, while horticulture was not. She often wondered that Maggie did not seem to understand: of course she went to mass every morning, dear girl; but religion surely was much more than that; one should be able to sit for two or three hours over a book in the drawing-room, before the fire, with a silver pencil.

So at lunch she prattled of the book almost continuously, and at the end of it thought Maggie more unsubtle than ever: she looked rather tired and strained, thought the old lady, and she hardly said a word from beginning to end.

The drive in the afternoon was equally unsatisfactory. Mrs. Baxter took the book with her, and the pencil, in order to read aloud a few extracts here and there; and she again seemed to find Maggie rather vacuous and silent.

"Dearest child, you are not very well, I think," she said at last.

Maggie roused herself suddenly.

"What, Auntie?"

"You are not very well, I think. Did you sleep well?"

"Oh! I slept all right," said Maggie vaguely.

* * *

But after tea Mrs. Baxter did not feel very well herself. She said she thought she must have taken a little chill. Maggie looked at her with unperceptive eyes.

"I am sorry," she said mechanically.

"Dearest, you don't seem very overwhelmed. I think perhaps I shall have dinner in bed. Give me my book, child.... Yes, and the pencil-case."

Mrs. Baxter's room was so comfortable, and the book so fascinatingly spiritual, that she determined to keep her resolution and go to bed. She felt feverish, just to the extent of being very sleepy and at her ease. She rang her bell and issued her commands.

"A little of the volaille," she said, "with a spoonful of soup before it.... No, no meat; but a custard or so, and a little fruit. Oh! yes, Charlotte, and tell Miss Maggie not to come and see me after dinner."

It seemed that the message had roused the dear girl at last, for Maggie appeared ten minutes later in quite a different mood. There was really some animation in her face.

"Dear Auntie, I am so very sorry.... Yes; do go to bed, and breakfast there in the morning too. I'm just writing to Laurie, by the way."

Mrs. Baxter nodded sleepily from her deep chair.

"He's coming down in Easter week, isn't he?"

"So he says, my dear."

"Why shouldn't he come next week instead, Auntie, and be with us for Easter? You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Very nice indeed, dear child; but don't bother the boy."

"And you don't think it's influenza?" put in Maggie swiftly, laying a cool hand on the old lady's.

She maintained it was not. It was just a little chill, such as she had had this time last year: and it became necessary to rouse herself a little to enumerate the symptoms. By the time she had done, Maggie's attention had begun to wander again: the old lady had never known her so unsympathetic before, and said so with gentle peevishness.

Maggie kissed her quickly.

"I'm sorry, Auntie," she said. "I was just thinking of something. Sleep well; and don't get up in the morning."

Then she left her to a spoonful of soup, a little volaille, a custard, some fruit, her spiritual book and contentment.

Downstairs she dined alone in the green-hung dining-room; and she revolved for the twentieth time the thoughts that had been continuously with her since midday, moving before her like a kaleidoscope, incessantly changing their relations, their shapes, and their suggestions. These tended to form themselves into two main alternative classes. Either Mr. Cathcart was a harmless fanatic, or he was unusually sharp. But these again had almost endless subdivisions, for at present she had no idea of what was really in his mind-as to what his hints meant. Either this curious old gentleman with shrewd, humorous eyes was entirely wrong, and Laurie was just suffering from a nervous strain, not severe enough to hinder him from reading law in Mr. Morton's chambers; and this was all the substratum of Mr. Cathcart's mysteries: or else Mr. Cathcart was right, and Laurie was in the presence of some danger called insanity which Mr. Cathcart interpreted in some strange fashion she could not understand. And beneath all this again moved the further questions as to what spiritualism really was-what it professed to be, or mere superstitious nonsense, or something else.

She was amazed that she had not demanded greater explicitness this morning; but the thing had been so startling, so suggestive at first, so insignificant in its substance, that her ordinary common sense had deserted her. The old gentleman had come and gone like a wraith, had uttered a few inconclusive sentences, and promised to write, had been disappointed with her at one moment and enthusiastic the next. Obviously their planes ran neither parallel nor opposing; they cut at unexpected points; and Maggie had no notion as to the direction in which his lay. All she saw plainly was that there was some point of view other than hers.

So, then, she revolved theories, questioned, argued, doubted with herself. One thing only emerged-the old lady's feverish cold afforded her exactly the opportunity she wished; she could write to Laurie with perfect truthfulness that his mother had taken to her bed, and that she hoped he would come down next week instead of the week after.

After dinner she sat down and wrote it, pausing many times to consider a phrase.

Then she read a little, and soon after ten went upstairs to bed.

III

It was a little before sunset on that day that Mr. James Morton turned down on to the Embankment to walk up to the Westminster underground to take him home. He was a great man on physical exercise, and it was a matter of principle with him to live far from his work. As he came down the little passage he found his friend waiting for him, and together they turned up towards where in the distance the Westminster towers rose high and blue against the evening sky.

"Well?" said the old man.

Mr. Morton looked at him with a humorous eye.

"You are a hopeless case," he said.

"Kindly tell me what you noticed."

"My dear man," he said, "there's absolutely nothing to say. I did exactly what you said: I hardly spoke to him at all: I watched him very carefully indeed. I really can't go on doing that day after day. I've got my own work to do. It's the most utter bunkum I ever-"

"Tell me anything odd that you saw."

"There was nothing odd at all, except that the boy looked tired, as you saw for yourself this morning."

"Did he behave exactly as usual?"

"Exactly, except that he was quieter. He fidgeted a little with his fingers."

"Yes?"

"And he seemed very hard at work. I caught him looking at me once or twice."

"Yes? How did he look?"

"He just looked at me-that was all. Good Lord! what do you want-"

"And there was nothing else-absolutely nothing else?"

"Absolutely nothing else."

"He didn't complain of ... of anything?"

"Lord...! Oh, yes; he did say something about a headache."

"Ah!" The old man leaned forward. "A headache? What kind?"

"Back of his head."

The old man sat back with pursed lips.

"Did he talk about last night?" he went on again suddenly.

"Not a word."

"Ah!"

Mr. Morton burst into a rude uproarious laugh.

"Upon my word!" he said. "I think, Cathcart, you're the most amazingly-"

The other held up a gloved hand in deprecation; but he did not seem at all ruffled.

"Yes, yes; we can take all that as said.... I'm accustomed to it, my dear fellow. Well, I saw Miss Deronnais, as I told you I should in my note.... You're quite right about her."

"Pleased to hear it, I'm sure," said Mr. Morton solemnly.

"She's one in a thousand. I told her right out, you know, that I feared insanity."

"Oh! you did! That's tactful! How did she-"

"She took it admirably."

"And did you tell her your delightful theories?"

"I did not. She will see all that for herself, I expect. Meantime-"

"Oh, you didn't tell me about your interview with Lady Laura."

The old face grew a little grim.

"Ah! that's not finished yet," he said. "I'm on my way to her now. I don't think she'll play with the thing again just yet."

"And the others-the medium, and so on?"

"They will have to take their chance. It's absolutely useless going to them."

"They're as bad as I am, I expect."

The old man turned a sharp face to him.

"Oh! you know nothing whatever about it," he said. "You don't count. But they do know quite enough."

In the underground the two talked no more; but Mr. Morton, affecting to read his paper, glanced up once or twice at the old shrewd face opposite that stared so steadily out of the window into the roaring darkness. And once more he reflected how astonishing it was that anyone in these days-anyone, at least, possessing common sense-and common sense was written all over that old bearded face-could believe such fantastic rubbish as that which had been lately discussed. It was not only the particular points that regarded Laurie Baxter-all these absurd, though disquieting hints about insanity and suicide and the rest of it-but the principles that old Cathcart declared to be beneath-those principles which he had, apparently, not confided to Miss Deronnais. Here was the twentieth century; here was an electric railway, padded seats, and the Pall Mall...! Was further comment required?

The train began to slow up at Gloucester Road; and old Cathcart gathered up his umbrella and gloves.

"Then tomorrow," he said, "at the same time?"

Mr. Morton made a resigned gesture.

"But why don't you go and have it out with him yourself?" he asked.

"He would not listen to me-less than ever now. Good night!"

* * *

The train slid on again into the darkness; and the lawyer sat for a moment with pursed lips. Yes, of course the boy was overwrought: anyone could see that: he had stammered a little-a sure sign. But why make all this fuss? A week in the country would set him right.

Then he opened the Pall Mall again resolutely.

* * *

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