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   Chapter 16 I No.16

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 30131

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"When is he coming?" asked Mrs. Baxter with a touch of peevishness, as she sat propped up in her tall chair before the bedroom fire.

"He will be here about six," said Maggie. "Are you sure you have finished?"

The old lady turned away her head from the rice pudding in a kind of gesture of repulsion. She was in the fractious period of influenza, and Maggie had had a hard time with her.

Nothing particular had happened for the last ten days. Mrs. Baxter's feverish cold had developed, and she was but now emerging from the nightdress and flannel-jacket stage to that of the petticoat and dressing-gown. It was all very ordinary and untragic, and Maggie had had but little time to consider the events on which her subconscious attention still dwelt. Mr. Cathcart had had no particular news to give her. Laurie, it seemed, was working silently with his coach, talking little. Yet the old man did not for one instant withdraw one word that he had said. Only, in answer to a series of positive inquiries from the girl two days before, he had told her to wait and see him for herself, warning her at the same time to show no signs of perturbation to the boy.

And now the day was come-Easter Eve, as it happened-and she would see him before night. He had sent no answer to her first letter; then, finally, a telegram had come that morning announcing his train.

She was wondering with all her might that afternoon as to what she would see. In a way she was terrified; in another way she was contemptuous. The evidence was so extraordinarily confused. If he were in danger of insanity, how was it that. Mr. Cathcart advised her to get him down to a house with only two women and a few maids? Who was there besides this old gentleman who ever dreamed that such a danger was possible? How, if it was so obvious that she would see the change for herself, was it that others-Mr. Morton, for example-had not seen it too? More than ever the theory gained force in her mind that the whole thing was grossly exaggerated by this old man, and that all that was the matter with Laurie was a certain nervous strain.

Yet, for all that, as the afternoon closed in, she felt her nerves tightening. She walked a little in the garden while the old lady took her nap; she came in to read to her again from the vellum-bound little book as the afternoon light began to fade. Then, after tea, she went under orders to see for herself whether Laurie's room was as it should be.

It struck her with an odd sense of strangeness as she went in; she scarcely knew why; she told herself it was because of what she had heard of him lately. But all was as it should be. There were spring flowers on the table and mantelshelf, and a pleasant fire on the hearth. It was even reassuring after she had been there a minute or two.

Then she went to look at the smoking-room where she had sat with him and heard the curious noise of the cracking wood on the night of the thaw, when the boy had behaved so foolishly. Here, too, was a fire, a tall porter's chair drawn on one side with its back to the door, and a deep leather couch set opposite. There was a box of Laurie's cigarettes set ready on the table-candles, matches, flowers, the illustrated papers-yes, everything.

But she stood looking on it all for a few moments with an odd emotion. It was familiar, homely, domestic-yet it was strange. There was an air of expectation about it all.... Then on a sudden the emotions precipitated themselves in tenderness.... Ah! poor Laurie....

* * *

"It is all perfectly right," she said to the old lady.

"Are the cigarettes there?"

"Yes: I noticed them particularly."

"And flowers?"

"Yes, flowers too."

"What time is it, my dear? I can't see."

Maggie peered at the clock.

"It's just after six, Auntie. Will you have the candles?"

The old lady shook her head.

"No, my dear: my eyes can't stand the light. Why hasn't the boy come?"

"Why, it's hardly time yet. Shall I bring him up at once?"

"Just for two minutes," sighed the old lady. "My head's bad again."

"Poor dear," said Maggie.

"Sit down, my dearest, for a few minutes. You'll hear the wheels from here.... No, don't talk or read."

There, then, the two women sat waiting.

* * *

Outside the twilight was falling, layer on layer, over the spring garden, in a great stillness. The chilly wind of the afternoon had dropped, and there was scarcely a sound to be heard from the living things about the house that once more were renewing their strength. Yet over all, to the Catholic's mind at least, there lay a shadow of death, from associations with that strange anniversary that was passing, hour by hour....

As to what Maggie thought during those minutes of waiting, she could have given afterwards no coherent description. Matters were too complicated to think clearly; she knew so little; there were so many hypotheses. Yet one emotion dominated the rest-expectancy with a tinge of fear. Here she sat, in this peaceful room, with all the homely paraphernalia of convalescence about her-the fire, the bed laid invitingly open with a couple of books, and a reading-lamp on the little table at the side, the faint smell of sandalwood; and before the fire dozed a peaceful old lady full too of gentle expectation of her son, yet knowing nothing whatever of the vague perils that were about him, that had, indeed, whatever they were, already closed in on him.... And that son was approaching nearer every instant through the country lanes....

She rose at last and went on tiptoe to the window. The curtains had not yet been drawn, and she could see in the fading light the elaborate ironwork of the tall gate in the fence, and the common road outside it, gleaming here and there in puddles that caught the green color from the dying western sky. In front, on the lawn on this side, burned tiny patches of white where the crocuses sprouted.

As she stood there, there came a sound of wheels, and a carriage came in sight. It drew up at the gate, and the door opened.

II

"He is come," said the girl softly, as she saw the tall ulstered figure appear from the carriage. There was no answer, and as she went on tiptoe to the fire, she saw that the old lady was asleep. She went noiselessly out of the room, and stood for an instant, every pulse racing with horrible excitement, listening to the footsteps and voices in the hall. Then she drew a long trembling breath, steadied herself with a huge effort of the will, and went downstairs.

"Mr. Laurie's gone into the smoking-room, miss," said the servant, looking at her oddly.

He was standing by the table as she went in; so much she could see: but the candles were unlighted, and no more was visible of him than his outline against the darkening window.

"Well, Laurie?" she said.

"Well, Maggie," said his voice in answer. And their hands met.

Then in an instant she knew that something was wrong. Yet at the moment she had not an idea as to what it was that told her that. It was Laurie's voice surely!

"You're all in the dark," she said.

There was no movement or word in answer. She passed her hand along the mantelpiece for the matches she had seen there just before; but her hand shook so much that some little metal ornament fell with a crash as she fumbled there, and she drew a long almost vocal breath of sudden nervous alarm. And still there was no movement in answer. Only the tall figure stood watching her it seemed-a pale luminous patch showing her his face.

Then she found the matches and struck one; and, keeping her face downcast, lighted, with fingers that shook violently, the two candles on the little table by the fire. She must just be natural and ordinary, she kept on telling herself. Then with another fierce effort of will she began to speak, lifting her eyes to his face as she did so.

"Auntie's just fallen..." (her voice died suddenly for an instant, as she saw him looking at her)-then she finished-"just fallen asleep. Will ... you come up presently ... Laurie?"

Every word was an effort, as she looked steadily into the eyes that looked so steadily into hers.

It was Laurie-yes-but, good God...!

"You must just kiss her and come away," she said, driving out the words with effort after effort. "She has a bad headache this evening.... Laurie-a bad headache."

With a sudden twitch she turned away from those eyes.

"Come, Laurie," she said. And she heard his steps following her.

They passed so through the inner hall and upstairs: and, without turning again, holding herself steady only by the consciousness that some appalling catastrophe was imminent if she did not, she opened the door of the old lady's room.

"Here he is," she said. "Now, Laurie, just kiss her and come away."

"My dearest," came the old voice from the gloom, and two hands were lifted.

Maggie watched, as the tall figure came obediently forward, in an indescribable terror. It was as when one watches a man in a tiger's den.... But the figure bent obediently, and kissed.

Maggie instantly stepped forward.

"Not a word," she said. "Auntie's got a headache. Yes, Auntie, he's very well; you'll see him in the morning. Go out at once, please, Laurie."

Without a word he passed out, and, as she closed the door after him, she heard him stop irresolute on the landing.

"My dearest child," came the peevish old voice, "you might have allowed my own son-"

"No, no, Auntie, you really mustn't. I know how bad your head is ... yes, yes; he's very well. You'll see him in the morning."

And all the while she was conscious of the figure that must be faced again presently, waiting on the landing.

"Shall I go and see that everything's all right in his room?" she said. "Perhaps they've forgotten-"

"Yes, my dearest, go and see. And send Charlotte to me."

The old voice was growing drowsy again.

Maggie went out swiftly without a word. There again stood the figure waiting. The landing lamp had been forgotten. She led the way to his room.

"Come, Laurie," she said. "I'll just see that everything's all right."

She found the matches again, lighted the candles, and set them on his table, still without a look at that face that turned always as she went.

"We shall have to dine alone," she said, striving to make her voice natural, as she reached the door.

Then once more she raised her eyes to his, and looked him bravely in the face as he stood by the fire.

"Do just as you like about dressing," she said. "I expect you're tired."

She could bear it no more. She went out without another word, passed steadily across the length of the landing to her own room, locked the door, and threw herself on her knees.

III

She was roused by a tap on the door-how much later she did not know. But the agony was passed for the present-the repulsion and the horror of what she had seen. Perhaps it was that she did not yet understand the whole truth. But at least her will was dominant; she was as a man who has fought with fear alone, and walks, white and trembling, yet perfectly himself, to the operating table.

She opened the door; and Susan stood there with a candle in one hand and a scrap of white in the other.

"For you, miss," said the maid.

Maggie took it without a word, and read the name and the penciled message twice.

"Just light the lamp out here," she said. "Oh ... and, by the way, send Charlotte to Mrs. Baxter at once."

"Yes, miss..."

The maid still paused, eyeing her, as if with an unspoken question. There was terror too in her eyes.

"Mr. Laurie is not very well," said Maggie steadily. "Please take no notice of anything. And ... and, Susan, I think I shall dine alone this evening, just a tray up here will do. If Mr. Laurie says anything, just explain that I am looking after Mrs. Baxter. And.... Susan-"

"Yes, miss."

"Please see that Mrs. Baxter is not told that I am not dining downstairs."

"Yes, miss."

Maggie still stood an instant, hesitating. Then a thought recurred again.

"One moment," she said.

She stepped across the room to her writing-table, beckoning the maid to come inside and shut the door; then she wrote rapidly for a minute or so, enclosed her note, directed it, and gave it to the girl.

"Just send up someone at once, will you, with this to Father Mahon-on a bicycle."

When the maid was gone, she waited still for an instant looking across the dark landing, expectant of some sound or movement. But all was still. A line of light showed only under the door where the boy who was called Laurie Baxter stood or sat. At least he was not moving about. There in the darkness Maggie tested her power of resisting panic. Panic was the one fatal thing: so much she understood. Even if that silent door had opened, she knew she could stand there still.

She went back, took a wrap from the chair where she had tossed it down on coming in from the garden that afternoon, threw it over her head and shoulders, passed down the stairs and out through the garden once more in the darkness of the spring evening.

All was quiet in the tiny hamlet as she went along the road. A blaze of light shone from the tap-room window where the fathers of families were talking together, and within Mr. Nugent's shuttered shop she could see through the doorway the grocer himself in his shirt-sleeves, shifting something on the counter. So great was the tension to which she had strung herself that she did not even envy the ordinariness of these people: they appeared to be in some other world, not attainable by herself. These were busied with domestic affairs, with beer or cheese or gossip. Her task was of another kind: so much she knew; and as to what that task was, she was about to learn.

As she turned the corner, the figure she expected was waiting there; and she could see in the deep twilight that he lifted his hat to her. She went straight up to him.

"Yes," she said, "I have seen for myself. You are right so far. Now tell me what to do."

It was no time for conventionality. She did not ask why the solicitor was there. It was enough that he had come.

"Walk this way then with me," he said. "Now tell me what you have seen."

"I have seen a change I cannot describe at all. It's just someone else-not Laurie at all. I don't understand it in the least. But I just want to know what to do. I have written to Father Mahon to come."

He was silent for a step or two.

"I cannot tell you what to do. I must leave that to yourself. I can only tell you what not to do."

"Very well."

"Miss Deronnais, you are magnificent...! There, it is said. Now then. You must not get excited or frightened whatever happens. I do not believe that you are in any danger-not of the ordinary kind, I mean. But if you want me, I shall be at the inn. I have taken rooms there for a night or so. And you must not yield to him interiorly. I wonder if you understand."

"I think I shall understand soon. At present I understand nothing. I have said I cannot din

e with him."

"But-"

"I cannot ... before the servants. One of them at least suspects something. But I will sit with him afterwards, if that is right."

"Very good. You must be with him as much as you can. Remember, it is not the worst yet. It is to prevent that worst happening that you must use all the power you've got."

"Am I to speak to him straight out? And what shall I tell Father Mahon?"

"You must use your judgment. Your object is to fight on his side, remember, against this thing that is obsessing him. Miss Deronnais, I must give you another warning."

She bowed. She did not wish to use more words than were necessary. The strain was frightful.

"It is this: whatever you may see-little tricks of speech or movement-you must not for one instant yield to the thought that the creature that is obsessing him is what he thinks it is. Remember the thing is wholly evil, wholly evil; but it may, perhaps, do its utmost to hide that, and to keep up the illusion. It is intelligent, but not brilliant; it has the intelligence only of some venomous brute in the slime. Or it may try to frighten you. You must not be frightened."

She understood hints here and there of what the old man said-enough, at any rate, to act.

"And you must keep up to the utmost pitch your sympathy with him himself. You must remember that he is somewhere there, underneath, in chains; and that, probably, he is struggling too, and needs you. It is not Possession yet: he is still partly conscious.... Did he know you?"

"Yes; he just knew me. He was puzzled, I think."

"Has he seen anyone else he knows?"

"His mother ... yes. He just knew her too. He did not speak to her. I would not let him."

"Miss Deronnais, you have acted admirably.... What is he doing now?"

"I don't know. I left him in his room. He was quite quiet."

"You must go back directly.... Shall we turn? I don't think there's much more to say just now."

Then she noticed that he had said nothing about the priest.

"And what about Father Mahon?" she said.

The old man was silent a moment.

"Well?" she said again.

"Miss Deronnais, I wouldn't rely on Father Mahon. I've hardly ever met a priest who takes these things seriously. In theory-yes, of course; but not in concrete instances. However, Father Mahon may be an exception. And the worst of it is that the priesthood has enormous power, if they only knew it."

The tinkle of a bicycle bell sounded down the road behind them. Maggie wheeled on the instant, and caught the profile she was expecting.

"Is that you?" she said, as the rider passed.

The man jumped off, touched his hat, and handed her a note. She tore it open, and glanced through it in the light of the bicycle lamp. Then she crumpled it up and threw it into the ditch with a quick, impatient movement.

"All right," she said. "Good night."

The gardener mounted his bicycle again and moved off.

"Well?" said the old man.

"Father Mahon's called away suddenly. It's from his housekeeper. He'll only be back in time for the first mass tomorrow."

The other nodded, three or four times, as if in assent.

"Why do you do that?" asked the girl suddenly.

"It is what I should have expected to happen."

"What! Father Mahon?-Do you mean it ... it is arranged?"

"I know nothing. It may be coincidence. Speak no more of it. You have the facts to think of."

About them as they walked back in silence lay the quiet spring night. From the direction of the hamlet came the banging of a door, then voices wishing good night, and the sound of footsteps. The steps passed the end of the lane and died away again. Over the trees to the right were visible the high twisted chimney of the old house where the terror dwelt.

"Two points then to remember," said the voice in the darkness-"Courage and Love. Can you remember?"

Maggie bowed her head again in answer.

"I will call and ask to see you as soon as the household is up. If you can't see me, I shall understand that things are going well-or you can send out a note to me. As for Mrs. Baxter-"

"I shall not say one word to her until it becomes absolutely necessary. And if-"

"If it becomes necessary I will wire for a doctor from town. I will undertake all the preliminary arrangements, if you will allow me."

Ten steps before the corner they stopped.

"God bless you, Miss Deronnais. Remember, I am at the inn if you need me."

IV

Mrs. Baxter dined placidly in bed at about half-past seven; but she was more sleepy than ever when she had done. She was rash enough to drink a little claret and water.

"It always goes straight to my head, Charlotte," she explained. "Well, set the book-no, not that one-the one bound in white parchment.... Yes, just so, down here; and turn the reading lamp so that I can read if I want to.... Oh! ask Miss Maggie to tap at my door very softly when she comes out from dinner. Has she gone down yet?"

"I think I heard her step just now, ma'am."

"Very well; then you can just tell Susan to let her know. How was Mr. Laurie looking, Charlotte?"

"I haven't seen him, ma'am."

"Very well. Then that is all, Charlotte. You can just look in here after Miss Maggie and settle me for the night."

Then the door closed, and Mrs. Baxter instantly began to doze off.

She was one of those persons whose moments between sleeping and waking, especially during a little attack of feverishness, are occupied in contemplating a number of little vivid pictures of all kinds that present themselves to the mental vision; and she saw as usual a quantity of these, made up of tiny details of the day that was gone, and of other details markedly unconnected with it. She saw for example little scenes in which Maggie and Charlotte and medicine bottles and Chinese faces and printed pages of a book all moved together in a sort of convincing incoherence; and she was just beginning to lose herself in the depths of sleep, and to forget her firm resolution of reading another page or so of the book by her side, when a little sound came, and she opened, as she thought, her eyes.

Her reading lamp cast a funnel of light across her bed, and the rest of the room was lit only by the fire dancing in the chimney. Yet this was bright enough, she thought at the time, to show her perfectly distinctly, though with shadows fleeting across it, her son's face peering in at the door. She thought she said something; but she was not sure afterwards. At any rate, the face did not move; and it seemed to her that it bore an expression of such extraordinary malignity that she would hardly have known it for her son's. In a sudden panic she raised herself in bed, staring; and as the shadows came and went, as she stared, the face was gone again. Mrs. Baxter drew a quick breath or two as she looked; but there was nothing. Yet again she could have sworn that she heard the faint jar of the closing door.

She reached out and put her hand on the bell-string that hung down over her bed. Then she hesitated. It was too ridiculous, she told herself. Besides, Charlotte would have gone to her room.

But the fear did not go immediately; though she told herself again and again that it was just one of those little waking visions that she knew so well.

She lay back on the pillow, thinking.... Why, they would have reached the fish by now. No; she would tell Maggie when she came up. How Laurie would laugh tomorrow! Then, little by little, she dozed off once more.

* * *

The next thing of which she was aware was Maggie bending over her.

"Asleep, Auntie dear?" said the girl softly.

The old lady murmured something. Then she sat up, suddenly.

"No, my dear. Have you finished dinner?"

"Yes, Auntie."

"Where's Laurie? I should like to see him for a minute."

"Not tonight, Auntie; you're too tired. Besides, I think he's gone to the smoking-room."

She acquiesced placidly.

"Very well, dearest.... Oh! Maggie, such a queer thing happened just now-when you were at dinner."

"Yes?"

"I thought I saw Laurie look in, just for an instant. But he looked awful, somehow. It was just one of my little waking visions I've told you of, I suppose."

The girl was silent; but the old lady saw her suddenly straighten herself.

"Just ask him whether he did look in, after all. It may just have been the shadow on his face."

"What time was it?"

"About ten past eight, I suppose, dearest. You'll ask him, won't you?"

"Yes, Auntie.... I think I'd better lock your door when I go out. You won't fancy such things then, will you?"

"Very well, dearest. As you think best."

The old voice was becoming sleepy again: and Maggie stood watching a moment or two longer.

"Send Charlotte to me, dearest.... Good night, my pet.... I'm too sleepy again. My love to Laurie."

"Yes, Auntie."

The old lady felt the girl's warm lips on her forehead. They seemed to linger a little. Then Mrs. Baxter lost herself once more.

IV

The public bar of the Wheatsheaf Inn was the scene this evening of a lively discussion. Some thought the old gentleman, arrived that day from London, to be a new kind of commercial traveler, with designs upon the gardens of the gentry; others that he was a sort of scientific collector; others, again, that he was a private detective; and since there was no evidence at all, good or bad, in support of any one of these suggestions, a very pretty debate became possible.

A silence fell when his step was heard to pass down the stairs and out into the street, and another half an hour later when he returned. Then once more the discussion began.

At ten o'clock the majority of the men moved out into the moonlight to disperse homewards, as the landlord began to put away the glasses and glance at the clock. Overhead the lighted blind showed where the mysterious stranger still kept vigil; and over the way, beyond the still leafless trees, towered up the twisted chimneys of Mrs. Baxter's house. No word had been spoken connecting the two, yet one or two of the men glanced across the way in vague surmise.

Nearly a couple of hours later the landlord himself came to the door to give the great Mr. Nugent himself, with whom he had been sitting in the inner parlor, a last good-night, and he too noticed that the bedroom window was still lighted up. He jerked his finger in the direction of it.

"A late old party," he said in an undertone.

Mr. Nugent nodded. He was still a little flushed with whisky and with his previous recountings of what would have happened if his poor daughter had lived to marry the young squire, of his (Mr. Nugent's) swift social advancement and its outward evidences, and of the hobnobbing with the gentry that would have taken place. He looked reflectively across at the silhouette of the big house, all grey and silver in the full moon. The landlord followed the direction of his eyes; and for some reason unknown to them both, the two stood there silent for a full half-minute. Yet there was nothing exceptional to be seen.

Immediately before them, across the road, rose the high oak paling that enclosed the lawn on this side, and the immense limes that towered, untrimmed and undipped, in delicate soaring filigree against the peacock sky of night. Behind them showed the chimneys, above the dusky front of red-brick and the parapet. The moon was not yet full upon the house, and the windows glimmered only here and there, in lines and sudden patches where they caught the reflected light.

Yet the two looked at it in silence. They had seen such a sight fifty times before, for the landlord and the other at least twice a week spent such an evening together, and usually parted at the door. But they stood here on this evening and looked.

All was as still as a spring night can be. Unseen and unheard the life of the earth streamed upwards in twig and blade and leaf, pushing on to the miracle of the prophet Jonas, to be revealed in wealth of color and scent and sound a fortnight later. The wind had fallen; the last doors were shut, and the two figures standing here were as still as all else. To neither of them occurred even the thinnest shadow of a suspicion as to the cause that held them here-two plain men-in silence, staring at an old house-not a thought of any hidden life beyond that of matter, that life by which most men reckon existence. For them this was but one more night such as they had known for half a century. There was a moon. It was fine. That was Mrs. Baxter's house. This was the village street:-that was the sum of the situation....

Mr. Nugent moved off presently with a brisk air, bidding his friend good night, and the landlord, after another look, went in. There came the sound of bolts and bars, the light in the window of the parlor beside the bar suddenly went out, footsteps creaked upstairs; a door shut, and all was silence.

Half an hour later a shadow moved across the blind upstairs: an arm appeared to elongate itself; then, up went the blind, the window followed it, and a bearded face looked out into the moonlight. Behind was the table littered with papers, for Mr. Cathcart, laborious even in the midst of anxiety, had brought down with him for the Sunday a quantity of business that could not easily wait; and had sat there patiently docketing, correcting, and writing ever since his interview in the lane nearly five hours before.

Even now his face seemed serene enough; it jerked softly this way and that, up the street and down again; then once more settled down to stare across the road at the grey and silver pile beyond the trees. Yet even he saw nothing there beyond what the landlord had seen. It stood there, uncrossed by lights or footsteps or sounds, keeping its secret well, even from him who knew what it contained.

Yet to the watcher the place was as sinister as a prison. Behind the solemn walls and the superficial flash of the windows, beneath the silence and the serenity, lay a life more terrible than death, engaged now in some drama of which he could not guess the issue. A conflict was proceeding there, more silent than the silence itself. Two souls fought for one against a foe of unknown strength and unguessed possibilities. The servants slept apart, and the old mistress apart, yet in one of those rooms (and he did not know which) a battle was locked of which the issue was more stupendous than that of any struggle with disease. Yet he could do nothing to help, except what he already did, with his fingers twisting and gripping a string of beads beneath the window-sill. Such a battle as this must be fought by picked champions; and since the priesthood in this instance could not help, a girl's courage and love must take its place.

From the village above the hill came the stroke of a single bell; a bird in the garden-walk beyond the paling chirped softly to his mate; then once more silence came down upon the moonlit street, the striped shadows, the tall house and trees, and the bearded face watching at the window.

* * *

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