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   Chapter 18 I No.18

The Necromancers By Robert Hugh Benson Characters: 26952

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The cocks were crowing from the yards behind the village when Maggie opened her eyes, clear shrill music, answered from the hill as by their echoes, and the yews outside were alive with the dawn-chirping of the sparrows.

She lay there quite quietly, watching under her tired eyelids, through the still unshuttered windows, the splendid glow, seen behind the twisted stems in front and the slender fairy forest of birches on the further side of the garden. Immediately outside the window lay the path, deep in yew-needles, the ground-ivy beyond, and the wet lawn glistening in the strange mystical light of morning.

She had no need to remember or consider. She knew every step and process of the night. That was Laurie who lay opposite in a deep sleep, his head on his arm, breathing deeply and regularly; and this was the little smoking-room where she had seen the cigarettes laid ready against his coming, last night.

There was still a log just alight on the hearth, she noticed. She got out of her chair, softly and stiffly, for she felt intolerably languid and tired. Besides, she must not disturb the boy. So she went down on her knees, and, with infinite craft, picked out a coal or two from the fender and dropped them neatly into the core of red-heat that still smoldered. But a fragment of wood detached itself and fell with a sharp sound; and she knew, even without turning her head, that the boy had awakened. There was a faint inarticulate murmur, a rustle and a long sigh.

Then she turned round.

Laurie was lying on his back, his arms clasped behind his head, looking at her with a quiet meditative air. He appeared no more astonished or perplexed than herself. He was a little white-looking and tired in the light of dawn, but his eyes were bright and sure.

She rose from her knees again, still silent, and stood looking down on him, and he looked back at her. There was no need of speech. It was one of those moments in which one does not even say that there are no words to use; one just regards the thing, like a stretch of open country. It is contemplation, not comment, that is needed.

Her eyes wandered away presently, with the same tranquility, to the brightening garden outside; and her slowly awakening mind, expanding within, sent up a little scrap of quotation to be answered.

"While it was yet early ... there came to the sepulcher." How did it run? "Mary..." Then she spoke.

"It is Easter Day, Laurie."

The boy nodded gently; and she saw his eyes slowly closing once more; he was not yet half awake. So she went past him on tiptoe to the window, turned the handle, and opened the white tall framework-like door. A gush of air, sweet as wine, laden with the smell of dew and spring flowers and wet lawns, stole in to meet her; and a blackbird, in the shrubbery across the garden, broke into song, interrupted himself, chattered melodiously, and scurried out to vanish in a long curve behind the yews. The very world itself of beast and bird was still but half awake, and from the hamlet outside the fence, beyond the trees, rose as yet no skein of smoke and no sound of feet upon the cobbles.

For the time no future presented itself to her. The minutes that passed were enough. She regarded indeed the fact of the old man asleep in the inn, of the old lady upstairs, but she rehearsed nothing of what should be said to them by and by. She did not even think of the hour, or whether she should go to bed presently for a while. She traced no sequence of thought; she scarcely gave a glance at what was past; it was the present only that absorbed her; and even of the present not more than a fraction lay before her attention-the wet lawn, the brightening east, the cool air-those with the joy that had come with the morning were enough.

* * *

Again came the long sigh behind her; and a moment afterwards there was a step upon the floor, and Laurie himself stood by her. She glanced at him sideways, wondering for an instant whether his mood was as hers; and his grave, tired, boyish face was answer enough. He met her eyes, and then again let his own stray out to the garden.

He was the first to speak.

"Maggie," he said, "I think we had best never speak of this again to one another." She nodded, but he went on-

"I understand very little. I wish to understand no more. I shall ask no questions, and nothing need be said to anybody. You agree?"

"I agree perfectly," she said.

"And not a word to my mother, of course."

"Of course not."

* * *

The two were silent again.

And now reality-or rather, the faculties of memory and consideration by which reality is apprehended-were once more coming back to the girl and beginning to stir in her mind. She began, gently now, and without perturbation, to recall what had passed, the long crescendo of the previous months, the gathering mutter of the spiritual storm that had burst last night-even the roar and flare of the storm itself, and the mad instinctive fight for the conscious life and identity of herself through which she had struggled. And it seemed to her as if the storm, like others in the material plane, had washed things clean again, and discharged an oppression of which she had been but half conscious. Neither was it herself alone who had emerged into this "clear shining after rain"; but the boy that stood by her seemed to her to share in her joy. They stood here together now in a spiritual garden, of which this lovely morning was no more than a clumsy translation into another tongue. There stirred an air about them which was as wine to the soul, a coolness and clearness that was beyond thought, in a radiance that shone through all that was bathed within it, as sunlight that filtered through water. She perceived then that the experience had been an initiation for them both, that here they stood, one by the other, each transparent to the other, or, at least, he transparent to her; and she wondered, not whether he would see it as she did, for of that she was confident, but when. For this space of silence she perceived him through and through, and understood that perception was everything. She saw the flaws in him as plainly as in herself, the cracks in the crystal; yet these did not matter, for the crystal was crystal....

So she waited, confident, until he should understand it too.

"But that is only one fraction of what is in my mind-" He broke off.

Then for the first time since she had opened her eyes just now her heart began to beat. That which had lain hidden for so long-that which she had crushed down under stone and seal and bidden lie still-yet that which had held her resolute, all unknown to herself, through the night that was gone-once more asserted itself and waited for liberation.

"Yet how dare I-" began Laurie.

Again she glanced at him, terrified lest that which was in her heart should declare itself too plainly by eyes and lips; and she saw how he still looked across the garden, yet seeing nothing but his own thought written there against the glory of sky and leaf and grass. His face caught the splendor from the east, and she saw in it the lines that would tell always of the anguish through which he was come; and again the terror in her heart leapt to the other side, in spite of her confidence, and bade her fear lest through some mistake, some conventional shame, he should say no more.

Then he turned his troubled eyes and looked her in the face, and as he looked the trouble cleared.

"Why-Maggie!" he said.

* * *

Epilogue

"The worst of it all is," said Maggie, four months later, to a very patient female friend who adored her, and was her confidante just then-"the worst of it is that I'm not in the least sure of what it is that I believe even now."

"Tell me, dear," said the girl.

* * *

The two were sitting out in a delightfully contrived retreat cut out at the lower end of the double hedge. Above them and on two sides rose masses of August greenery, hazel and beech, as close as the roof and walls of a summer-house: the long path ran in green gloom up to the old brick steps beneath the yews: and before the two girls rested the pleasant apparatus of tea-silver, china and damask, all the more delightful from its barbaric contrast with its surroundings.

Maggie looked marvelously well, considering the nervous strain that had come upon her about Easter-time. She had collapsed altogether, it seemed, in Easter week itself, and had been for a long rest-one at her own dear French convent until a week ago, being entirely forbidden by the nuns to speak of her experiences at all, so soon as they had heard the rough outline. Mrs. Baxter had spent the time in rather melancholy travel on the Continent, and was coming back this evening.

"It seems to me now exactly like a very bad dream," said Maggie pensively, beginning to measure in the tea with a small silver scoop. "Oh! Mabel; may I tell you exactly what is in my mind: and then we won't talk of it any more at all?"

"Oh! do," said the girl, with a little comfortable movement.

When the tea had been poured out and the plates set ready to hand, Maggie began.

* * *

"It seems perfectly dreadful of me to have any doubts at all, after all this; but ... but you don't know how queer it seems. There's a kind of thick hedge-" she waved a hand illustratively to the hazels beside her-"a kind of thick hedge between me and Easter-I suppose it's the illness: the nuns tell me so. Well, it's like that. I can see myself, and Laurie, and Mr. Cathcart, and all the rest of them, like figures moving beyond; and they all seem to me to be behaving rather madly, as if they saw something that I can't see.... Oh! it's hopeless....

"Well, the first theory I have is that these little figures, myself included, really see something that I can't now: that there really was something or somebody, which makes them dance about like that. (Yes: that's not grammar; but you understand, don't you?) Well, I'll come back to that presently.

"And my next theory is this ... is this"-Maggie sipped her tea meditatively-"my next theory is that the whole thing was simple imagination, or, rather, imagination acting upon a few little facts and coincidences, and perhaps a little fraud too. Do you know the way, if you're jealous or irritable, the way in which everything seems to fit in? Every single word the person you're suspicious of utters all fits in and corroborates your idea. It isn't mere imagination: you have real facts, of a kind; but what's the matter is that you choose to take the facts in one way and not another. You select and arrange until the thing is perfectly convincing. And yet, you know, in nine cases out of ten it's simply a lie...! Oh! I can't explain all the things, certainly. I can't explain, for instance, the pencil affair-when it stood up on end before Laurie's eyes; that is, if it did really stand up at all. He says himself that the whole thing seems rather dim now, as if he had seen it in a very vivid dream. (Have one of these sugar things?)

"Then there are the appearances Laurie saw; and the extraordinary effect they finally had upon him. Oh! yes; at the time, on the night of Easter Eve, I mean, I was absolutely certain that the thing was real, that he was actually obsessed, that the thing-the Personality, I mean-came at me instead, and that somehow I won. Mr. Cathcart tells me I'm right-Well; I'll come to that presently. But if it didn't happen, I certainly can't explain what did; but there are a good many things one can't explain; and yet one doesn't instantly rush to the conclusion that they're done by the devil. People say that we know very little indeed about the inner working of our own selves. There's instinct, for instance. We know nothing about that except that it is so. 'Inherited experience' is only rather a clumsy phrase-a piece of paper gummed up to cover a crack in the wall.

"And that brings me to my third theory."

Maggie poured out for herself a second cup of tea.

"My third theory I'm rather vague about, altogether. And yet I see quite well that it may be the true one. (Please don't interrupt till I've quite done.)

"We've got in us certain powers that we don't understand at all. For instance, there's thought-projection. There's not a shadow of doubt that that is so. I can sit here and send you a message of what I'm thinking about-oh! vaguely, of course. It's another form of what we mean by Sympathy and Intuition. Well, you know, some people think that haunted houses can be explained by this. When the murder is going on, the murderer and the murdered person are probably fearfully excited-anger, fear, and so on. That means that their whole being is stirred up right to the bottom, and that their hidden powers are frightfully active. Well, the idea is that these hidden powers are almost like acids, or gas-Hudson tells us all about that-and that they can actually stamp themselves upon the room to such a degree that when a sympathetic person comes in, years afterwards, perhaps, he sees the whole thing just as it happened. It acts upon his mind first, of course, and then outwards through the senses-just the reverse order to that in which we generally see things.

"Well-that's only an illustration. Now my idea is this: How do we know whether all the things that happened, from the pencil and the rappings and the automatic writing, right up to the appearances Laurie

saw, were not just the result of these inner powers.... Look here. When one person projects his thought to another it arrives generally like a very faint phantom of the thing he's thinking about. If I'm thinking of the ace of hearts, you see a white rectangle with a red spot in the middle. See? Well, multiply all that a hundred times, and one can just see how it might be possible that the thought of ... of Mr. Vincent and Laurie together might produce a kind of unreal phantom that could even be touched, perhaps.... Oh! I don't know."

Maggie paused. The girl at her side gave an encouraging murmur.

"Well-that's about all," said Maggie slowly.

"But you haven't-"

"Why, how stupid! Yes: the first theory.... Now that just shows how unreal it is to me now. I'd forgotten it.

"Well, the first theory, my dear brethren, divides itself into two heads-first the theory of the spiritualists, secondly the theory of Mr. Cathcart. (He's a dear, Mabel, even though I don't believe one word he says.)

"Well, the spiritualist theory seems to me simple R.-O.-T.-rot. Mr. Vincent, Mrs. Stapleton, and the rest, really think that the souls of people actually come back and do these things; that it was, really and truly, poor dear Amy Nugent who led Laurie such a dance. I'm quite, quite certain that that's not true whatever else is.... Yes, I'll come to the coincidences presently. But how can it possibly be that Amy should come back and do these things, and hurt Laurie so horribly? Why, she couldn't if she tried. My dear, to be quite frank, she was a very common little thing: and, besides, she wouldn't have hurt a hair of his head.

"Now for Mr. Cathcart."

There was a long pause. A small cat stepped out suddenly from the hazel tangle behind and eyed the two girls. Then, quite noiselessly, as it caught Maggie's eye, it opened its mouth in a pathetic curve intended to represent, an appeal.

"You darling!" cried Maggie suddenly; seized a saucer, filled it with milk, and set it on the ground. The small cat stepped daintily down, and set to work.

"Yes?" said the other girl tentatively.

"Oh! Mr. Cathcart.... Well, I must say that his theory fits in with what Father Mahon says. But, you know, theology doesn't say that this or that particular thing is the devil, or has actually happened in any given instance-only that, if it really does happen, it is the devil. Well, this is Mr. Cathcart's idea. It's a long story: you mustn't mind.

"First, he believes in the devil in quite an extraordinary way.... Oh! yes, I know we do too; but it's so very real indeed with him. He believes that the air is simply thick with them, all doing their very utmost to get hold of human beings. Yes, I suppose we do believe that too; but I expect that since there are such a quantity of things-like bad dreams-that we used to think were the devil, and now only turn out to be indigestion, that we're rather too skeptical. Well, Mr. Cathcart believes both in indigestion, so to speak, and the devil. He believes that those evil spirits are at us all the time, trying to get in at any crack they can find-that in one person they produce lunacy-I must say it seems to me rather odd the way in which lunatics so very often become horribly blasphemous and things like that-and in another just shattered nerves, and so on. They take advantage, he says, of any weak spot anywhere.

"Now one of the easiest ways of all is through spiritualism. Spiritualism is wrong-we know that well enough; it is wrong because it's trying to live a life and find out things that are beyond us at present. It's 'wrong' on the very lowest estimate, because it's outraging our human nature. Yes, Mabel, that's his phrase. Good intentions, therefore, don't protect us in the least. To go to séances with good intentions is like ... like ... holding a smoking-concert in a powder-magazine on behalf of an orphan asylum. It's not the least protection-I'm not being profane, my dear-it's not the least protection to open the concert with prayer. We've got no business there at all. So we're blown up just the same.

"The danger...? Oh! the danger's this, Mr. Cathcart says. At séances, if they're genuine, and with automatic handwriting and all the rest, you deliberately approach those powers in a friendly way, and by the sort of passivity which you've got to get yourself into, you open yourself as widely as possible to their entrance. Very often they can't get in; and then you're only bothered. But sometimes they can, and then you're done. It's particularly hard to get them out again.

"Now, of course, no one in his senses-especially decent people-would dream of doing all this if he knew what it all meant. So these creatures, whatever they may be, always pretend to be somebody else. They're very sharp: they can pick up all kinds of odds and ends, little tricks, and little facts; and so, with these, they impersonate someone whom the inquirer's very fond of; and they say all sorts of pious, happy little things at first in order to lead them on. So they go on for a long time saying that religion's quite true. (By the way, it's rather too odd the way in which the Catholic Church seems the one thing they don't like! You can be almost anything else, if you're a spiritualist; but you can't be a Catholic.) Generally, though, they tell you to say your prayers and sing hymns. (Father Mahon the other day, when I was arguing with him about having some hymns in church, said that heretics always went in for hymns!) And so you go on. Then they begin to hint that religion's not worth much; and then they attack morals. Mr. Cathcart wouldn't tell me about that; but he said it got just as bad as it could be, if you didn't take care."

Maggie paused again, looking rather serious. Her voice had risen a little, and a new color had come to her face as she talked. She stooped to pick up the saucer.

"Dearest, had you better-"

"Oh! yes: I've just about done," said Maggie briskly. "There's hardly any more. Well, there's the idea. They want to get possession of human beings and move them, so they start like that.

"Well; that's what Mr. Cathcart says happened to Laurie. One of those Beasts came and impersonated poor Amy. He picked up certain things about her-her appearance, her trick of stammering, and of playing with her fingers, and about her grave and so on: and then, finally, made his appearance in her shape."

"I don't understand about that," murmured the girl.

"Oh! my dear, I can't bother about that now. There's a lot about astral substance, and so on. Besides, this is only what Mr. Cathcart says. As I told you, I'm not at all sure that I believe one word of it. But that's his idea."

Maggie stopped again suddenly, and leaned back, staring out at the luminous green roof of hazels above her. The small cat could be discerned half-way up the leafy tunnel swaying its body in preparation for a pounce, while overhead sounded an agitated twittering. Mabel seized a pebble, and threw it with such success that the swaying stopped, and a reproachful cat-face looked round at her.

"There!" said Mabel comfortably; and then, "Well, what do you really think?"

Maggie smiled reflectively.

"That's exactly what I don't know myself in the very least. As I said, all this seems to me more like a dream-and a very bad one. I think it's the ... the nastiest thing," she added vindictively, "that I've ever come across; I don't want to hear one word more about it as long as I live."

"But-"

"Oh, my dear, why can't we be all just sensible and normal? I love doing just ordinary little things-the garden, and the chickens, and the cat and dog and complaining to the butcher. I cannot imagine what anybody wants with anything else. Yes; I suppose I do, in a sort of way, believe Mr. Cathcart. It seems to me, granted the spiritual world at all-which, naturally, I do grant-far the most intelligent explanation. It seems to me, intellectually, far the most broad-minded explanation; because it really does take in all the facts-if they are facts-and accounts for them reasonably. Whereas the subjective-self business-oh, it's frightfully clever and ingenious-but it does assume such a very great deal. It seems to me rather like the people who say that electricity accounts for everything-electricity! And as for the imagination theory-well, that's what appeals to me now, emotionally-because I happen to be in the chickens and butcher mood; but it doesn't in the least convince me. Yes; I suppose Mr. Cathcart's theory is the one I ought to believe, and, in a way, the one I do believe; but that doesn't in the least prevent me from feeling it extraordinarily unreal and impossible. Anyhow, it doesn't matter much."

Again she leaned back comfortably, smiling to herself, and there was a long silence.

It was a divinely beautiful August evening. From where they sat little could be seen except the long vista of the path, arched with hazels, whence the cat had now disappeared, ending in three old brick steps, wide and flat, lichened and mossed, set about with flower-pots and leading up to the yew walk. But the whole air was full of summer sound and life and scent, heavy and redolent, streaming in from the old box-lined kitchen-garden on their right beyond the hedge and from the orchard on the left. It was the kind of atmosphere suggesting Nature in her most sensible mood, full-blooded, normal, perfectly fulfilling her own vocation; utterly unmystical, except by very subtle interpretation; unsuggestive, since she was already saying all that could be said, and following out every principle by which she lived to the furthest confine of its contents. It presented the same kind of rounded-off completion and satisfactoriness as that suggested by an entirely sensuous and comfortable person. There were no corners in it, no vistas hinting at anything except at some perfectly normal lawn or set garden, no mystery, no implication of any other theory or glimpse of theory except that which itself proclaimed.

Something of its air seemed now to breathe in Maggie's expression of contentment, as she smiled softly and happily, clasping her arms behind her head. She looked perfectly charming, thought Mabel; and she laid a hand delicately on her friend's knee, as if to share in the satisfaction-to verify it by participation, so to speak.

"It doesn't seem to have done you much harm," she said.

"No, thank you; I'm extremely well and very content. I've looked through the door once, without in the least wishing to; and I don't in the least want to look again. It's not a nice view."

"But about-er-religion," said the younger girl rather awkwardly.

"Oh! religion's all right," said Maggie. "The Church gives me just as much of all that as is good for me; and, for the rest, just tells me to be quiet and not bother-above all, not to peep or pry. Listeners hear no good of themselves: and I suppose that's true of the other senses too. At any rate, I'm going to do my best to mind nothing except my own business."

"Isn't that rather unenterprising?"

"Certainly it is; that's why I like it.... Oh! Mabel, I do want to be so absolutely ordinary all the rest of my life. It's so extremely rare and original, you know. Didn't somebody say that there was nothing so uncommon as common sense? Well, that's what I'm going to be. A genius! Don't you understand?-the kind that is an infinite capacity for taking pains, not the other sort."

"What is the other sort?"

"Why, an infinite capacity for doing without them. Like Wagner, you know. Well, I wish to be the Bach sort-the kind of thing that anyone ought to be able to do-only they can't."

Mabel smiled doubtfully.

"Lady Laura was saying-" she began presently.

Maggie's face turned suddenly severe.

"I don't wish to hear one word."

"But she's given it up," cried the girl. "She's given it up."

"I'm glad to hear it," said Maggie judicially. "And I hope now that she'll spend the rest of her days in sackcloth-with a scourge," she added. "Oh, did I tell you about Mrs. Nugent?"

"About the evening Laurie came home? Yes."

"Well, that's all right. The poor old dear got all sorts of things on her mind, when it leaked out. But I talked to her, and we went up together and put flowers on the grave, and I said I'd have a mass said for Amy, though I'm sure she doesn't require one. The poor darling! But ... but ... (don't think me brutal, please) how providential her death was! Just think!"

"Mrs. Baxter's coming home by the 6.10, isn't she?"

Maggie nodded.

"Yes; but you know you mustn't say a word to her about all this. In fact she won't have it. She's perfectly convinced that Laurie overworked himself-Laurie, overworked!-and that that was just all that was the matter with him. Auntie's what's called a sensible woman, you know, and I must say it's rather restful. It's what I want to be; but it's a far-off aspiration, I'm afraid, though I'm nearer it than I was."

"You mean she doesn't think anything odd happened at all?"

"Just so. Nothing at all odd. All very natural. Oh, by the way, Laurie swears he never put his nose inside her room that night, but I'm absolutely certain he did, and didn't know it."

"Where is Mr. Lawrence?"

"Auntie made him go abroad."

"And when does he come back?"

There was a perceptible pause.

"Mr. Lawrence comes back on Saturday evening," said Maggie deliberately.

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