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   Chapter 17 I No.17

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 26163

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The little inner hall looked very quiet and familiar as Maggie Deronnais stood on the landing, passing through her last struggle with herself before the shock of battle. The stairs went straight down, with the old carpet, up and down which she had gone a thousand times, with every faint patch and line where it was a little worn at the edges, visible in the lamplight from overhead; and she stared at these, standing there silent in her white dress, bare-armed and bare-necked, with her hair in great coils on her head, as upright as a lance. Beneath lay the little hall, with the tiger-skin, the red-papered walls, and a few miscellaneous things-an old cloak of hers she used on rainy days in the garden, a straw hat of Laurie's, and a cap or two, hanging on the pegs opposite. In front was the door to the outer hall, to the left, that of the smoking-room. The house was perfectly quiet. Dinner had been cleared away already through the hatch into the kitchen passage, and the servants' quarters were on the other side of the house. No sound of any kind came from the smoking-room; not even the faint whiff of tobacco-smoke that had a way of stealing out when Laurie was smoking really seriously within.

She did not know why, she had stopped there, half-way down the stairs.

She had dined from a tray in her own room, as she had said; and had been there alone ever since, for the most part at her prie-Dieu, in dead silence, conscious of nothing connected, listening to the occasional tread of a maid in the hall beneath, passing to and from the dining-room. There she had tried to face the ordeal that was coming-the ordeal, at the nature of which even now she only half guessed, and she had realized nothing, formed no plan, considered no eventuality. Things were so wholly out of her experience that she had no process whereby to deal with them. Just two words came over and over again before her consciousness-Courage and Love.

She looked again at the door.

Laurie was there, she said. Then she questioned herself. Was it Laurie...?

"He is there, underneath," she whispered to herself softly; "he is waiting for me to help him." She remembered that she must make that act of faith. Yet was it Laurie who had looked in at his mother's door...? Well, the door was locked now. But that secretive visit seemed to her terrible.

What, then, did she believe?

She had put that question to herself fifty times, and found no answer. The old man's solution was clear enough now: he believed no less than that out of that infinitely mysterious void that lies beyond the veils of sense there had come a Personality, strong, malignant, degraded, and seeking to degrade, seizing upon this lad's soul, in the disguise of a dead girl, and desiring to possess it. How fantastic that sounded! Did she believe it? She did not know. Then there was the solution of a nervous strain, rising to a climax of insanity. This was the answer of the average doctor. Did she believe that? Was that enough to account for the look in the boy's eyes? She did not know.

She understood perfectly that the fact of herself living under conditions of matter made the second solution the more natural; yet that did not content her. For her religion informed her emphatically that discarnate Personalities existed which desired the ruin of human souls, and, indeed, forbade the practices of spiritualism for this very reason. Yet there was hardly a Catholic she knew who regarded the possibility in these days as more than a theoretical one. So she hesitated, holding her judgment in suspense. One thing only she saw clearly, and that was that she must act as if she believed the former solution: she must treat the boy as one obsessed, whether indeed he were so or not. There was no other manner in which she could concentrate her force upon the heart of the struggle. If there were no evil Personality in the affair, it was necessary to assume one.

And still she waited.

There came back to her an old childish memory.

Once, as a child of ten, she had had to undergo a small operation. One of the nuns had taken her to the doctor's house. When she had understood that she must come into the next room and have it done, she had stopped dead. The nun had encouraged her.

"Leave me quite alone, please, Mother, just for one minute. Please don't speak. I'll come in a minute."

After a minute's waiting, while they looked at her, she had gone forward, sat down in the chair and behaved quite perfectly. Yes; she understood that now. It was necessary first to collect forces, to concentrate energies, to subdue the imagination: after that almost anything could be borne.

So she stood here now, without even the thought of flight, not arguing, not reassuring herself, not analyzing anything; but just gathering strength, screwing the will tight, facing things.

And there was yet another psychological fact that astonished her, though she was only conscious of it in a parenthetical kind of way, and that was the strength of her feeling for Laurie himself. It seemed to her curious, when she considered it, how the horror of that which lay over the boy seemed, like death itself, to throw out as on a clear background the best of himself. His figure appeared to her memory as wholly good and sweet; the shadows on his character seemed absorbed in the darkness that lay over him; and towards this figure she experienced a sense of protective love and energy that astonished her. She desired with all her power to seize and rescue him.

Then she drew a long steady breath, thrust out her strong white hand to see if the fingers trembled; went down the stairs, and, without knocking, opened the smoking-room door and went straight in, closing it behind her. There was a screen to be passed round.

She passed round it.

And he sat there on the couch looking at her.

II

For the first instant she remained there standing motionless; it was like a declaration of war. In one or two of her fragmentary rehearsals upstairs she had supposed she would say something conventional to begin with. But the reality struck conventionality clean out of the realm of the possible. Her silent pause there was as significant as the crouch of a hound; and she perceived that it was recognized to be so by the other that was there. There was in him that quick, silent alertness she had expected: half defiant, half timid, as of a fierce beast that expects a blow.

Then she came a step forward and sideways to a chair, sat down in it with a swift, almost menacing motion, and remained there still looking.

This is what she saw:

There was the familiar background, the dark paneled wall, the engraving, and the shelf of books convenient to the hand; the fire was on her right, and the couch opposite. Upon the couch sat the figure of the boy she knew so well.

He was in the same suit in which he had traveled; he had not even changed his shoes; they were splashed a little with London mud. These things she noticed in the minutes that followed, though she kept her eyes upon his face.

The face itself was beyond her power of analysis. Line for line it was Laurie's features, mouth, eyes and hair; yet its signification was not Laurie's. One that was akin looked at her from out of those windows of the soul-scrutinized her cautiously, questioningly, and suspiciously. It was the face of an enemy who waits. And she sat and looked at it.

A full minute must have passed before she spoke. The face had dropped its eyes after the first long look, as if in a kind of relaxation, and remained motionless, staring at the fire in a sort of dejection. Yet beneath, she perceived plainly, there was the same alert hostility; and when she spoke the eyes rose again with a quick furtive attentiveness. The semi-intelligent beast was soothed, but not yet reassured.

"Laurie?" she said.

The lips moved a little in answer; then again the face glanced down sideways at the fire; the hands dangled almost helplessly between the knees.

There was an appearance of weakness about the attitude that astonished and encouraged her; it appeared as if matters were not yet consummated. Yet she had a sense of nausea at the sight....

"Laurie?" she said again suddenly.

Again the lips moved as if speaking rapidly, and the eyes looked up at her quick and suspicious.

"Well?" said the mouth; and still the hands dangled.

"Laurie," she said steadily, bending all her will at the words, "you're very unwell. Do you understand that?"

Again the noiseless gabbling of the lips, and again a little commonplace sentence, "I'm all right."

His voice was unnatural-a little hoarse, and quite toneless. It was as a voice from behind a mask.

"No," said Maggie carefully, "you're not all right. Listen, Laurie. I tell you you're all wrong; and I've come to help you as well as I can. Will you do your best? I'm speaking to you, Laurie ... to you."

Every time he answered, the lips flickered first as in rapid conversation-as of a man seen talking through a window; but this time he stammered a little over his vowels.

"I-I-I'm all right."

Maggie leaned forward, her hands clasped tightly, and her eyes fixed steadily on that baffling face.

"Laurie; it's you I'm speaking to-you.... Can you hear me? Do you understand?"

Again the eyes rose quick and suspicious; and her hands knit yet more closely together as she fought down the rising nausea. She drew a long breath first; then she delivered a little speech which she had half rehearsed upstairs. As she spoke he looked at her again.

"Laurie," she said, "I want you to listen to me very carefully, and to trust me. I know what is the matter with you; and I think you know too. You can't fight-fight him by yourself.... Just hold on as tightly as you can to me-with your mind, I mean. Do you understand?"

For a moment she thought that he perceived something of what she meant: he looked at her so earnestly with those odd questioning eyes. Then he jerked ever so slightly, as if some string had been suddenly pulled, and glanced down again at the fire....

"I ... I ... I'm all right," he said.

It was horrible to see that motionlessness of body. He sat there as he had probably sat since entering the room. His eyes moved, but scarcely his head; and his hands hung down helplessly.

"Laurie ... attend ..." she began again. Then she broke off.

"Have you prayed, Laurie...? Do you understand what has happened to you? You aren't really ill-at least, not exactly, but-"

Again those eyes lifted, looked, and dropped again.

It was piteous. For the instant the sense of nausea vanished, swallowed up in emotion. Why ... why, he was there all the while-Laurie ... dear Laurie....

With one motion, swift and impetuous, she had thrown herself forward on to her knees, and clasped at the hanging hands.

"Laurie! Laurie!" she cried. "You haven't prayed ... you've been playing, and the machinery has caught you. But it isn't too late! Oh, God! it's not too late. Pray with me! Say the Our Father...."

Again slowly the eyes moved round. He had started ever so little at her rush, and the seizing of his hands; and now she felt those hands moving weakly in her own, as of a sleeping child who tries to detach himself from his mother's arms.

"I ... I ... I'm all-"

She grasped his hands more fiercely, staring straight up into those strange piteous eyes that revealed so little, except formless commotion and uneasiness.

"Say the Our Father with me. 'Our Father-'"

Then his hands tore back, with a movement as fierce as her own, and the eyes blazed with an unreal light. She still clung to his wrists, looking up, struck with a paralysis of fear at the change, and the furious hostility that flamed up in the face. The lips writhed back, half snarling, half smiling....

"Let go! let go!" he hissed at her. "What are you-"

"The Our Father, Laurie ... the Our-"

He wrenched himself backwards, striking her under the chin with his knee. The couch slid backwards a foot against the wall, and he was on his feet. She remained terror-stricken, shocked, looking up at the dully flushed face that glared down on her.

"Laurie! Laurie...! Don't you understand? Say one prayer-"

"How dare you?" he whispered; "how dare you-"

She stood up suddenly-wrenching her will back to self-command. Her breath still came quick and panting; and she waited until once more she breathed naturally. And all the while he stood looking down at her with eyes of extraordinary malevolence.

"Well, will you sit quietly and listen?" she said. "Will you do that?"

Still he stared at her, with lips closed, breathing rapidly through his nostrils. With a sudden movement she turned and went to her chair, sat down and waited.

He still watched her; then, with his eyes on her, with movements as of a man in the act of self-defense, wheeled out the sofa to its place, and sat down. She waited till the tension of his figure seemed to relax again, till the quick glances at her from beneath drooping

eyelids ceased, and once more he settled down with dangling hands to look at the fire. Then she began again, quietly and decisively.

"Your mother isn't well," she said. "No ... just listen quietly. What is going to happen tomorrow? I'm speaking to you, Laurie to you. Do you understand?"

"I'm all right," he said dully.

She disregarded it.

"I want to help you, Laurie. You know that, don't you? I'm Maggie Deronnais. You remember?"

"Yes-Maggie Deronnais," said the boy, staring at the fire.

"Yes, I'm Maggie. You trust me, don't you, Laurie? You can believe what I say? Well, I want you to fight too. You and I together. Will you let me do what I can?"

Again the eyes rose, with that odd questioning look. Maggie thought she perceived something else there too. She gathered her forces quietly in silence an instant or two, feeling her heart quicken like the pulse of a moving engine. Then she sprang to her feet.

"Listen, then-in the name of Jesus of Nazareth-"

He recoiled violently with a movement so fierce that the words died on her lips. For one moment she thought he was going to spring. And again he was on his feet, snarling. There was silence for an interminable instant; then a stream of words, scorching and ferocious, snarled at her like the furious growling of a dog-a string of blasphemies and filth.

Just so much she understood. Yet she held her ground, unable to speak, conscious of the torrent of language that swirled against her from that suffused face opposite, yet not understanding a tenth part of what she heard.

... "In the name of..."

On the instant the words ceased; but so overpowering was the venom and malice of the silence that followed that again she was silent, perceiving that the utmost she could do was to hold her ground. So the two stood. If the words were horrible to hear, the silence was more horrible a thousand times; it was as when a man faces the suddenly opened door of a furnace and sees the white cavern within.

He was the first to speak.

"You had better take care," he said.

III

She scarcely knew how it was that she found herself again in her chair, with the figure seated opposite.

It seemed that the direct assault was useless. And indeed she was no longer capable of making it. The nausea had returned, and with it a sensation of weakness. Her knees still were lax and useless; and her hand, as she turned it on the chair-arm, shook violently. Yet she had a curious sense of irresponsibility: there was no longer any terror-nothing but an overpowering weakness of reaction.

She sat back in silence for some minutes, looking now at the fire too, now at the figure opposite, noticing, however, that the helplessness seemed gone. His hands dangled no longer; he sat upright, his hands clasped, yet with a curious look of stiffness and unnaturalness.

Once more she began deliberately to attempt to gather her forces; but the will, it appeared, had lost its nervous grasp of the faculties. It had no longer that quick grip and command with which she had begun. Passivity rather than activity seemed her strength....

Then suddenly and, as it appeared, inevitably, without movement or sound, she began internally to pray, closing her eyes, careless, and indeed unfearing. It seemed her one hope. And behind the steady movement of her will-sufficient at least to elicit acts of petition-her intellect observed a thousand images and thoughts. She perceived the silence of the house and of the breathless spring night outside; she considered Mr. Cathcart in the inn across the road, Mrs. Baxter upstairs: she contemplated the future as it would be on the morrow-Easter Day, was it not?-the past, and scarcely at all the present. She relinquished all plans, all intentions and hopes: she leaned simply upon the supernatural, like a tired child, and looked at pictures.

* * *

In remembering it all afterwards, she recalled to herself the fact that this process of prayer seemed strangely tranquil; that there had been in her a consciousness of rest and recuperation as marked as that which a traveler feels who turns into a lighted house from a stormy night. The presence of that other in the room was not even an interruption; the nervous force that the other had generated just now seemed harmless and ineffective. For a time, at least, that was so. But there came a moment when it appeared as if her almost mechanical and rhythmical action of internal effort began to grip something. It was as when an engine after running free clenches itself again upon some wheel or cog.

The moment she was aware of this, she opened her eyes; and saw that the other was looking straight at her intently and questioningly. And in that moment she perceived for the first time that her conflict lay, not externally, as she had thought, but in some interior region of which she was wholly ignorant. It was not by word or action, but by something else which she only half understood that she was to struggle....

She closed her eyes again with quite a new kind of determination. It was not self-command that she needed, but a steady interior concentration of forces.

She began again that resolute wordless play of the will-dismissing with a series of efforts the intellectual images of thought-that play of the will which, it seemed, had affected the boy opposite in a new way. She had no idea of what the crisis would be, or how it would come. She only saw that she had struck upon a new path that led somewhere. She must follow it.

Some little sound roused her; she opened her eyes and looked up.

He had shifted his position, and for a moment her heart leapt with hope. For he sat now leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, and his head in his hands, and in the shaded lamplight it seemed that he was shaking.

She too moved, and the rustle of her dress seemed to reach him. He glanced up, and before he dropped his head again she caught a clear sight of his face. He was laughing, silently and overpoweringly, without a sound....

For a moment the nausea seized her so fiercely that she gasped, catching at her throat; and she stared at that bowed head and shaking shoulders with a horror that she had not felt before. The laughter was worse than all: and it was a little while before she perceived its unreality. It was like a laughing machine. And the silence of it gave it a peculiar touch.

She wrestled with herself, driving down the despair that was on her. Courage and love.

Again she leaned back without speaking, closing her eyes to shut out the terror, and began desperately and resolutely to bend her will again to the task.

Again a little sound disturbed her.

Once more he had shifted his position, and was looking straight at her with a curious air of detached interest. His face looked almost natural, though it was still flushed with that forced laughter; but the mirth itself was gone. Then he spoke abruptly and sharply, in the tone of a man who speaks to a tiresome child; and a little conversation followed, in which she found herself taking a part, as in an unnatural dream.

"You had better take care," he said.

"I am not afraid."

"Well-I have warned you. It is at your own risk. What are you doing?"

"I am praying."

"I thought so.... Well, you had better take care."

She nodded at him; closed her eyes once more with new confidence, and set to work.

After that a series of little scenes followed, of which, a few days later, she could only give a disconnected account.

She had heard the locking of the front door a long while ago; and she knew that the household was gone to bed. It was then that she realized how long the struggle would be. But the next incident was marked in her memory by her hearing the tall clock in the silent hall outside beat one. It was immediately after this that he spoke once more.

"I have stood it long enough," he said, in that same abrupt manner.

She opened her eyes.

"You are still praying?" he said.

She nodded.

He got up without a word and came over to her, leaning forward with his hands on his knees to peer into her face. Again, to her astonishment, she was not terrified. She just waited, looking narrowly at the strange person who looked through Laurie's eyes and spoke through his mouth. It was all as unreal as a fantastic dream. It seemed like some abominable game or drama that had to be gone through.

"And you mean to go on praying?"

"Yes."

"Do you think it's the slightest use?"

"Yes."

He smiled unnaturally, as if the muscles of his mouth were not perfectly obedient.

"Well, I have warned you," he said.

Then he turned, went back to his couch, and this time lay down on it flat, turning over on his side, away from her, as if to sleep. He settled himself there like a dog. She looked at him a moment; then closed her eyes and began again.

* * *

Five minutes later she understood.

The first symptom of which she was aware was a powerlessness to formulate her prayers. Up to that point she had leaned, as has been said, on an enormous Power external to herself, yet approached by an interior way. Now it required an effort of the will to hold to that Power at all. In terms of space, let it be said that she had rested, like a child in the dark, upon Something that sustained her: now she was aware that it no longer sustained her; but that it needed a strong continuous effort to apprehend it at all. There was still the dark about her; but it was of a different quality-it cannot be expressed otherwise-it was as the darkness of an unknown gulf compared to the darkness of a familiar room. It was of such a nature that space and form seemed meaningless....

The next symptom was a sense of terror, comparable only to that which she had succeeded in crushing down as she stood on the stairs four or five hours before. That, however, had been external to her; she had entered it. Now it had entered her, and lay, heavy as pitch, upon the very springs of her interior life. It was terror of something to come. That which it heralded was not yet come: but it was approaching.

The third symptom was the approach itself-swift and silent, like the running of a bear; so swift that it was upon her through the dark before she could stir or act. It came upon her, in a flash at the last; and she understood the whole secret.

It is possible only to describe it as, afterwards, she described it herself. The powerlessness and the terror were no more than the far-off effect of its approach; the Thing itself was the center.

Of that realm of being from which it came she had no previous conception: she had known evil only in its effects-in sins of herself and others-known it as a man passing through a hospital ward sees flushed or pale faces, or bandaged wounds. Now she caught some glimpse of its essence, in the atmosphere of this bear-like thing that was upon her. As aches and pains are to Death, so were sins to this Personality-symptoms, premonitions, causes, but not Itself. And she was aware that the Thing had come from a spiritual distance so unthinkable and immeasurable, that the very word distance meant little.

Of the Presence itself and its mode she could use nothing better than metaphors. But those to whom she spoke were given to understand that it was not this or that faculty of her being that, so to speak, pushed against it; but that her entire being was saturated so entirely, that it was but just possible to distinguish her inmost self from it. The understanding no longer moved; the emotions no longer rebelled; memory simply ceased. Yet through the worst there remained one minute, infinitesimally small spark of identity that maintained "I am I; and I am not that." There was no analysis or consideration; scarcely even a sense of disgust. In fact for a while there was a period when to that tiny spot of identity it appeared that it would be an incalculable relief to cease from striving, and to let self itself be merged in that Personality so amazingly strong and compelling, that had precipitated itself upon the rest.... Relief? Certainly. For though emotion as most men know it was crushed out-that emotion stirred by human love or hatred-there remained an instinct which strove, which, by one long continuous tension, maintained itself in being.

For the malignity of the thing was overwhelming. It was not mere pressure; it had a character of its own for which the girl afterwards had no words. She could only say that, so far from being negation, or emptiness, or non-being, it had an air, hot as flame, black as pitch, and hard as iron.

That then was the situation for a time which she could only afterwards reckon by guesswork; there was no development or movement-no measurable incidents; there was but the state that remained poised; below all those comparatively superficial faculties with which men in general carry on their affairs-that state in which two Personalities faced one another, welded together in a grip that lay on the very brink of fusion....

* * *

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