He was astonished that he was not more excited. He asked himself again whether he really believed it; he compared his belief in it with his belief in the existence of New Zealand. Yes, if that were belief, he had it. But the excitement of doubt was gone, as no doubt it was gone when New Zealand became a geographical expression.
He was astonished at its naturalness—at the extraordinary manner in which, when once the evidence had been seen and the point of view grasped, the whole thing fell into place. It seemed to him as if he must have known it all his life; yet, he knew, six months ago he had hardly known more than that there were upon the face of the earth persons called Spiritualists, who believed, or pretended to believe, what he then was quite sure was fantastic nonsense. And now he was, to all intents, one of them....
He was being drawn forward, it seemed, by a process as inevitable as that of spring or autumn; and, once he had yielded to it, the conflict and the excitement were over. Certainly this made very few demands. Christianity said that those were blessed who had not seen and yet believed; Spiritualism said that the only reasonable belief was that which followed seeing.
So then Laurie sat and meditated.
Once or twice that evening he looked round him tranquilly without a touch of that terror that had seized him in the smoking-room at home.
If all this were true—and he repeated to himself that he knew it was true—these presences were about him now, so why was it that he was no longer frightened?
He looked carefully into the dark corner behind him, beyond the low jutting bookshelf, in the angle between the curtained windows, at his piano, glossy and mysterious in the gloom, at the door half-open into his bedroom. All was quiet here, shut off from the hum of Fleet Street; circumstances were propitious. Why was he not frightened...? Why, what was there to frighten him? These presences were natural and normal; even as a Catholic he believed in them. And if they manifested themselves, what was there to fear in that?
He looked steadily and serenely; and as he looked, like the kindling of a fire, there rose within him a sense of strange exaltation.
"Amy," he whispered.
But there was no movement or hint.
Laurie smiled a little, wearily. He felt tired; he would sleep a little. He beat out his pipe, crossed his feet before the fire, and closed his eyes.
There followed that smooth rush into gulfs of sleep that provides perhaps the most exquisite physical sensation known to man, as the veils fall thicker and softer every instant, and the consciousness gathers itself inwards from hands and feet and limbs, like a dog curling himself up for rest; yet retains itself in continuous being, and is able to regard its own comfort. All this he remembered perfectly half an hour later; but there followed in his memory that inevitable gap in which self loses itself before emerging into the phantom land of dreams, or returning to reality.
But that into which he emerged, he remembered afterwards, was a different realm altogether from that which is usual—from that country of grotesque fancy and jumbled thoughts, of thin shadows of truth and echoes from the common world where most of us find ourselves in sleep.
His dream was as follows:—
He was still in his room, he thought, but no longer in his chair. Instead, he stood in the very center of the floor, or at least poised somewhere above it, for he could see at a glance, without turning, all that the room contained. He directed his attention—for it was this, rather than sight, through which he perceived—to the piano, the chiffonier, the chairs, the two doors, the curtained windows; and finally, with scarcely even a touch of surprise, to himself still sunk in the chair before the fire. He regarded himself with pleased interest, remembering even in that instant that he had never before seen himself with closed eyes....
All in the room was extraordinarily vivid and clear-cut. It was true that the firelight still wavered and sank again in billows of soft color about the shadowed walls, but the changing light was no more an interruption to the action of that steady medium through which he perceived than the movement of summer clouds across the full sunlight. It was at that moment that he understood that he saw no longer with eyes, but with that faculty of perception to which sight is only analogous—that faculty which underlies and is common to all the senses alike.
His reasoning powers, too, at this moment, seemed to have gone from him like a husk. He did not argue or deduce; simply he understood. And, in a flash, simultaneous with the whole vision, he perceived that he was behind all the slow processes of the world, by which this is added to that, and a conclusion drawn; by which light travels, and sounds resolve themselves and emotions run their course. He had reached, he thought, the ultimate secret.... It was This that lay behind everything.
Now it is impossible to set down, except progressively, all this sum of experiences that occupied for him one interminable instant. Neither did he remember afterwards the order in which they presented themselves; for it seemed to him that there was no order; all was simultaneous.
But he understood plainly by intuition that all was open to him. Space no longer existed for him; nothing, to his perception, separated this from that. He was able, he saw, without stirring from his attitude to see in an instant any place or person towards which he chose to exercise his attention. It seemed a marvelously simple point, this—that space was little more than an illusion; that it was, after all, nothing else but a translation into rather coarse terms of what may be called "differences." "Here" and "There" were but relative terms; certainly they corresponded to facts, but they were not those facts themselves.... And since he now stood behind them he saw them on their inner side, as a man standing in the interior of a globe may be said to be equally present to every point upon its surface.
The fascination of the thought was enormous; and, like a child who begins to take notice and to learn the laws of extension and distance, so he began to learn their reverse. He saw, he thought (as he had seen once before, only, this time, without the sense of movement), the interior of the lighted drawing room at home, and his mother nodding in her chair; he directed his attention to Maggie, and perceived her passing across the landing toward the head of the stairs with a candle in her hand. It was this sight that brought him to a further discovery, to the effect that time also was of very nearly no importance either; for he perceived that by bending his attention upon her he could restrain her, so to speak, in her movement. There she stood, one foot outstretched, the candle flame leaning motionless backward; and he knew too that it was not she who was thus restrained, but that it was the intensity and directness of his thought that fixed, so to say, in terms of eternity, that instant of time....
So it went on; or, rather, so it was with him. He pleased himself by contemplating the London streets outside, the darkness of the garden in some square, the interior of the Oratory where a few figures kneeled—all seen beyond the movements of light and shadow in this clear invisible radiance that was to his perception as common light to common eyes. The world of which he had had experience—for he found himself unable to see that which he had never experienced—lay before his will like a movable map: this or that person or place had but to be desired, and it was present.
And then came the return; and the Horror....
He began in this way.
He understood that he wished to awake, or, rather, to be reunited with the body that lay there in deep sleep before the fire. He observed it for a moment or two, interested and pleased, the face sunk a little on the hand, the feet lightly crossed on the fender. He looked at his own profile, the straight nose, the parted lips through which the breath came evenly. He attempted even to touch the face, wondering with gentle pleasure what would be the result....
Then, suddenly, an impulse came to him to enter the body, and with the impulse the process, it seemed, began.
That process was not unlike that of falling asleep. In an instant perception was gone; the lighted room was gone, and that obedient world which he had contemplated just now. Yet self-consciousness for a while remained; he still had the power of perceiving his own personality, though this dwindled every moment down to that same gulf of nothingness through which he had found his way.
But at the very instant in which consciousness was passing there met him an emotion so fierce and overwhelming that he recoiled in terror back from the body once more and earth-perceptions; and a panic seized him.
It was such a panic as seizes a child who, fearfully courageous, has stolen at night from his room, and turning in half-simulated terror finds the door fast against him, or is aware of a malignant presence come suddenly into being, standing between himself and the safety of his own bed.
On the one side his fear drove him onwards; on the other a Horror faced him. He dared not recoil, for he understood where security lay; he longed, like the child screaming in the dark and beating his hands, to get back to the warmth and safety of bed; yet there stood before him a Presence, or at the least an Emotion of some kind, so hostile, so terrible, that he dared not penetrate it. It was not that an actual restraint lay upon him: he knew, that is, that the door was open; yet it needed an effort of the will of which his paralysis of terror rendered him incapable....
The tension became intolerable.
"O God ... God ... God...." he cried.
And in an instant the threshold was vacated; the swift rush asserted itself, and the space was passed.
* * * * *
Laurie sat up abruptly in his chair.
Mr. Vincent was beginning to think about going to bed. He had come in an hour before, had written half a dozen letters, and was smoking peacefully before the fire.
His rooms were not remarkable in any way, except for half a dozen objects standing on the second shelf of his bookcase, and the selection of literature ranged below them. For the rest, all was commonplace enough; a mahogany knee-hold table, a couple of easy chairs, much worn, and a long, extremely comfortable sofa standing by itself against the wall with evident signs, in its tumbled cushions and rubbed fabric, of continual and frequent use. A second door gave entrance to his bedroom.
He beat out his pipe slowly, yawned, and stood up.
It was at this instant that he heard the sudden tinkle of the electric bell in the lobby outside, and, wondering at the interruption at this hour, went quickly out and opened the door on to the stairs.
"Mr. Baxter! Come in, come in; I'm delighted to see you."
Laurie came in without a word, went straight up to the fire-place, and faced about.
"I'm not going to apologize," he said, "for coming at this time. You told me to come and see you at any time, and I've taken you at your word."
The young man had an odd embarrassed manner, thought the other; an air of having come in spite of uneasiness; he was almost shamefaced.
The medium impelled him gently into a chair.
"First a cigarette," he said; "next a little whisky, and then I shall be delighted to listen.... No; please do as I say."
Laurie permitted himself to be managed; there was a strong, almost paternal air in the other's manner that was difficult to resist. He lit his cigarette, he sipped his whisky; but his movements were nervously quick.
"Well, then...." and he interrupted himself. "What are those things, Mr. Vincent?" He nodded towards the second shelf in the bookcase.
Mr. Vincent turned on the hearthrug.
"Those? Oh! those are a few rather elementary instruments for my work."
He lifted down a crystal ball on a small black polished wooden stand and handed it over.
"You have heard of crystal-gazing? Well, that is the article."
"Is that crystal?"
"Oh no: common glass. Price three shillings and sixpence."
Laurie turned it over, letting the shining globe run on to his hand.
"And this is—" he began.
"And this," said the medium, setting a curious windmill-shaped affair, its sails lined with looking-glass, on the little table by the fire, "this is a French toy. Very elementary."
Mr. Vincent wound a small handle at the back of the windmill to a sound of clockwork, set it down again, and released it. Instantly the sails began to revolve, noiseless and swift, producing the effect of a rapidly flashing circle of light across which span lines, waxing and waning with extraordinary speed.
"It's a little machine for inducing sleep. Oh! I haven't used that for months. But it's useful sometimes. The hypnotic subject just stares at that steadily.... Why, you're looking dazed yourself, already, Mr. Baxter," smiled the medium.
He stopped the mechanism and pushed it on one side.
"And what's the other?" asked Laurie, looking again at the shelf.
The medium, with quite a different air, took down and set before him an object resembling a tiny heart-shaped table on three wheeled legs, perhaps four or five inches across. Through the center ran a pencil perpendicularly of which the point just touched the tablecloth on which the thing rested. Laurie looked at it, and glanced up.
"Yes, that's Planchette," said the medium.
"For ... for automatic writing?"
The other nodded.
"Yes," he said. "The experimenter puts his fingers lightly upon that, and there's a sheet of paper beneath. That is all."
Laurie looked at him, half curiously. Then with a sudden movement he stood up.
"Yes," he said. "Thank you. But—"
"Please sit down, Mr. Baxter.... I know you haven't come about that kind of thing. Will you kindly tell me what you have come about?"
He, too, sat down, and, without looking at the other, began slowly to fill his pipe again, with his strong capable fingers. Laurie stared at the process, unseeing.
"Just tell me simply," said the medium again, still without looking at him.
Laurie threw himself back.
"Well, I will," he said. "I know it's absurdly childish; but I'm a little frightened. It's about a dream."
"That's not necessarily childish."
"It's a dream I had tonight—in my chair after dinner."
* * * * *
Then Laurie began.
For about ten minutes he talked without ceasing. Mr. Vincent smoked tranquilly, putting what seemed to Laurie quite unimportant questions now and again, and nodding gently from time to time.
"And I'm frightened," ended Laurie; "and I want you to tell me what it all means."
The other drew a long inhalation through his pipe, expelled it, and leaned back.
"Oh, it's comparatively common," he said; "common, that is, with people of your temperament, Mr. Baxter—and mine.... You tell me that it was prayer that enabled you to get through at the end? That is interesting."
"But—but—was it more than fancy—more, I mean, than an ordinary dream?"
"Oh, yes; it was objective. It was a real experience."
"Mr. Baxter, just listen to me for a minute or two. You can ask any questions you like at the end. First, you are a Catholic, you told me; you believe, that is to say, among other things, that the spiritual world is a real thing, always present more or less. Well, of course, I agree with you; though I do not agree with you altogether as to the geography and—and other details of that world. But you believe, I take it, that this world is continually with us—that this room, so to speak, is a great deal more than that of which our senses tell us that there are with us, now and always, a multitude of influences, good, bad, and indifferent, really present to our spirits?"
"I suppose so," said Laurie.
"Now begin again. There are two kinds of dreams. I am just stating my own belief, Mr. Baxter. You can make what comments you like afterwards. The one kind of dream is entirely unimportant; it is merely a hash, a rechauffee, of our own thoughts, in which little things that we have experienced reappear in a hopeless sort of confusion. It is the kind of dream that we forget altogether, generally, five minutes after waking, if not before. But there is another kind of dream that we do not forget. It leaves as vivid an impression upon us as if it were a waking experience—an actual incident. And that is exactly what it is."
"I don't understand."
"Have you ever heard of the subliminal consciousness, Mr. Baxter?"
The medium smiled.
"That is fortunate," he said. "It's being run to death just now.... Well, I'll put it in an untechnical way. There is a part of us, is there not, that lies below our ordinary waking thoughts—that part of us in which our dreams reside, our habits take shape, our instincts, intuitions, and all the rest, are generated. Well, in ordinary dreams, when we are asleep, it is this part that is active. The pot boils, so to speak, all by itself, uncontrolled by reason. A madman is a man in whom this part is supreme in his waking life as well. Well, it is through this part of us that we communicate with the spiritual world. There are, let us say, two doors in it—that which leads up to our senses, through which come down our waking experiences to be stored up; and—and the other door...."
The medium hesitated.
"Well," he said, "in some natures—yours, for instance, Mr. Baxter—this door opens rather easily. It was through that door that you went, I think, in what you call your 'dream.' You yourself said it was quite unlike ordinary dreams."
"And I am the more sure that this is so, since your experience is exactly that of so many others under the same circumstances."
Laurie moved uncomfortably in his chair.
"I don't quite understand," he said sharply. "You mean it was not a dream?"
"Certainly not. At least, not a dream in the ordinary sense. It was an actual experience."
"But—but I was asleep."
"Certainly. That is one of the usual conditions—an almost indispensable condition, in fact. The objective self—I mean the ordinary workaday faculties—was lulled; and your subjective self—call it what you like—but it is your real self, the essential self that survives death—this self, simply went through the inner door, and—and saw what was to be seen."
Laurie looked at him intently. But there was a touch of apprehension in his face, too.
"You mean," he said slowly, "that—that all I saw—the limitations of space, and so forth—that these were facts and not fancies?"
"Certainly. Doesn't your theology hint at something of the kind?"
Laurie was silent. He had no idea of what his theology told him on the point.
"But why should I—I of all people—have such an experience?" he asked suddenly.
The medium smiled.
"Who can tell that?" he said. "Why should one man be an artist, and another not? It is a matter of temperament. You see you've begun to develop that temperament at last; and it's a very marked one to begin with. As for—"
Laurie interrupted him.
"Yes, yes," he said. "But there's another point. What about that fear I had when I tried to—to awaken?"
There passed over the medium's face a shade of gravity. It was no more than a shade, but it was there. He reached out rather quickly for his pipe which he had laid aside, and blew through it carefully before answering.
"That?" he said, with what seemed to the boy an affected carelessness. "That? Oh, that's a common experience. Don't think about that too much, Mr. Baxter. It's never very healthy—"
"I am sorry," said Laurie deliberately. "But I must ask you to tell me what you think. I must know what I'm doing."
The medium filled his pipe again. Twice he began to speak, and checked himself; and in the long silence Laurie felt his fears gather upon him tenfold.
"Please tell me at once, Mr. Vincent," he said. "Unless I know everything that is to be known, I will not go another step along this road. I really mean that."
The medium paused in his pipe-filling.
"And what if I do tell you?" he said in his slow virile voice. "Are you sure you will not be turned back?"
"If it is a well-known danger, and can be avoided with prudence, I certainly shall not turn back."
"Very well, Mr. Baxter, I will take you at your word.... Have you ever heard the phrase, 'The Watcher on the Threshold'?"
Laurie shook his head.
"No," he said. "At least I don't think so."
"Well," said the medium quietly, "that is what we call the Fear you spoke of.... No; don't interrupt. I'll tell you all we know. It's not very much."
He paused again, stretched his hand for the matches, and took one out. Laurie watched him as if fascinated by the action.
Outside roared Oxford Street in one long rolling sound as of the sea; but within here was that quiet retired silence which the boy had noticed before in the same company. Was that fancy, too, he wondered...?
The medium lit his pipe and leaned back.
"I'll tell you all we know," he said again quietly. "It's not very much. Really the phrase I used just now sums it up pretty well. We who have tried to get beyond this world of sense have become aware of certain facts of which the world generally knows nothing at all. One of these facts is that the door between this life and the other is guarded by a certain being of whom we know really nothing at all, except that his presence causes the most appalling fear in those who experience it. He is set there—God only knows why—and his main business seems to be to restrain, if possible, from re-entering the body those who have left it. Just occasionally his presence is perceived by those on this side, but not often. But I have been present at death-beds where he has been seen—"
"Oh! yes. Seen by the dying person. It is usually only a glimpse; it might be said to be a mistake. For myself I believe that that appalling terror that now and then shows itself, even in people who do not fear death itself, who are perfectly resigned, who have nothing on their conscience,—well, personally, I believe the fear comes from a sight of this—this Personage."
Laurie licked his dry lips. He told himself that he did not believe one word of it.
"And ... and he is evil?" he asked.
The other shrugged his shoulders.
"Isn't that a relative term?" he said. "From one point of view, certainly; but not necessarily from all."
"And ... and what's the good of it?"
The medium smiled a little.
"That's a question we soon cease to ask. You must remember that we hardly know anything at all yet. But one thing seems more and more certain the more we investigate, and that is that our point of view is not the only one, nor even the principal one. Christianity, I fancy, says the same thing, does it not? The 'glory of God,' whatever that may be, comes before even the 'salvation of souls.'"
Laurie wrenched his attention once more to a focus.
"Then I was in danger?" he said.
"Certainly. We are always in danger—"
"You mean, if I hadn't prayed—"
"Ah! that is another question.... But, in short, if you hadn't succeeded in getting past—well, you'd have failed."
Again there fell a silence.
It seemed to Laurie as if his world were falling about him. Yet he was far from sure whether it were not all an illusion. But the extreme quietness and confidence of this man in enunciating these startling theories had their effect. It was practically impossible for the boy to sit here, still nervous from his experience, and hear, unmoved, this apparently reasonable and connected account of things that were certainly incomprehensible on any other hypothesis. His remembrance of the very startling uniqueness of his dream was still vivid.... Surely it all fitted in ... yet....
"But there is one thing," broke in the medium's quiet voice. "Should you ever experience this kind of thing again, I should recommend you not to pray. Just exercise your own individuality; assert yourself; don't lean on another. You are quite strong enough."
"I mean exactly what I say. What is called Prayer is really an imaginative concession to weakness. Take the short cut, rather. Assert your own—your own individuality."
Laurie changed his attitude. He uncrossed his feet and sat up a little.
"Oh! pray if you want to," said the medium. "But you must remember, Mr. Baxter, that you are quite an exceptional person. I assure you that you have no conception of your own powers. I must say that I hope you will take the strong line." He paused. "These seances, for instance. Now that you know a little more of the dangers, are you going to turn back?"
His overhung kindly eyes looked out keenly for an instant at the boy's restless face.
"I don't know," said Laurie; "I must think...."
He got up.
"Look here, Mr. Vincent," he said, "it seems to me you're extraordinarily—er—extraordinarily plausible. But I'm even now not quite sure whether I'm not going mad. It's like a perfectly mad dream—all these things one on the top of the other."
He paused, looking sharply at the elder man, and away again.
Laurie began to finger a pencil that lay on the chimney-shelf.
"You see what I mean, don't you?" he said. "I'm not disputing—er—your point of view, nor your sincerity. But I do wish you would give me another proof or two."
"You haven't had enough?"
"Oh! I suppose I have—if I were reasonable. But, you know, it all seems to me as if you suddenly demonstrated to me that twice two made five."
"But then, surely no proof—"
"Yes; I know. I quite see that. Yet I want one—something quite absolutely ordinary. If you can do all these things—spirits and all the rest—can't you do something ever so much simpler, that's beyond mistake?"
"Oh, I daresay. But wouldn't you ask yet another after that?"
"I don't know."
"Or wouldn't you think you'd been hypnotized?"
Laurie shook his head.
"I'm not a fool," he said.
"Then give me that pencil," said the medium, suddenly extending his hand.
Laurie stared a moment. Then he handed over the pencil.
On the little table by the arm-chair, a couple of feet from Laurie, stood the whisky apparatus and a box of cigarettes. These the medium, without moving from his chair, lifted off and set on the floor beside him, leaving the woven-grass surface of the table entirely bare. He then laid the pencil gently in the center—all without a word. Laurie watched him carefully.
"Now kindly do not speak one word or make one movement," said the man peremptorily. "Wait! You're perfectly sure you're not hypnotized, or any other nonsense?"
"Just go round the room, look out of the window, poke the fire—anything you like."
"I'm satisfied," said the boy.
"Very good. Then kindly watch that pencil."
The medium leaned a little forward in his chair, bending his eyes steadily upon the little wooden cylinder lying, like any other pencil, on the top of the table. Laurie glanced once at him, then back again. There it lay, common and ordinary.
For at least a minute nothing happened at all, except that from the intentness of the elder man there seemed once more to radiate out that curious air of silence that Laurie was beginning to know so well—that silence that seemed impenetrable to the common sounds of the world and to exist altogether independent of them. Once and again he glanced round at the ordinary-looking room, the curtained windows, the dull furniture; and the second time he looked back at the pencil he was almost certain that some movement had just taken place with it. He resolutely fixed his eyes upon it, bending every faculty he possessed into one tense attitude of attention. And a moment later he could not resist a sudden movement and a swift indrawing of breath; for there, before his very eyes, the pencil tilted, very hesitatingly and quiveringly, as if pulled by a spider's thread. He heard, too, the tiny tap of its fall.
He glanced at the medium, who jerked his head impatiently, as if for silence. Then once more the silence came down.
A minute later there was no longer the possibility of a doubt.
There before the boy's eyes, as he stared, white-faced, with parted lips, the pencil rose, hesitated, quivered; but, instead of falling back again, hung so for a moment on its point, forming with itself an acute angle with the plane of the table in an entirely impossible position; then, once more rising higher, swung on its point in a quarter circle, and after one more pause and quiver, rose to its full height, remained poised one instant, then fell with a sudden movement, rolled across the table and dropped on the carpet.
The medium leaned back, drawing a long breath.
"There," he said; and smiled at the bewildered young man.
"But—but—" began the other.
"Yes, I know," said the man. "It's startling, isn't it? and indeed it's not as easy as it looks. I wasn't at all sure—"
"But, good Lord, I saw—"
"Of course you did; but how do you know you weren't hypnotized?"
Laurie sat down suddenly, unconscious that he had done so. The medium put out his hand for his pipe once more.
"Now, I'm going to be quite honest," he said. "I have quite a quantity of comments to make on that. First, it doesn't prove anything whatever, even if it really happened—"
"Even if it—!"
"Certainly.... Oh, yes; I saw it too; and there's the pencil on the floor"—he stooped and picked it up.
"But what if we were both hypnotized—both acted upon by self-suggestion? We can't prove we weren't."
Laurie was dumb.
"Secondly, it doesn't prove anything, in any case, as regards the other matters we were speaking of. It only shows—if it really happened, as I say—that the mind has extraordinary control over matter. It hasn't anything to do with immortality, or—or spiritualism."
"Then why did you do it?" gasped the boy.
"Merely fireworks ... only to show off. People are convinced by such queer things."
Laurie sat regarding, still with an unusual pallor in his face and brightness in his eyes. He could not in the last degree put into words why it was that the tiny incident of the pencil affected him so profoundly. Vaguely, only, he perceived that it was all connected somehow with the ordinariness of the accessories, and more impressive therefore than all the paraphernalia of planchette, spinning mirrors, or even his own dreams.
He stood up again suddenly.
"It's no good, Mr. Vincent," he said, putting out his hand, "I'm knocked over. I can't imagine why. It's no use talking now. I must think. Good night."
"Good night, Mr. Baxter," said the medium serenely.
"Her ladyship told me to show you in here, sir," said the footman at half-past eight on Sunday evening.
Laurie put down his hat, slipped off his coat, and went into the dining room.
The table was still littered with dessert-plates and napkins. Two people had dined there he observed. He went round to the fire, wondering vaguely as to why he had not been shown upstairs, and stood, warming his hands behind him, and looking at the pleasant gloom of the high picture-hung walls.
In spite of himself he felt slightly more excited than he had thought he would be; it was one thing to be philosophical at a prospect of three days' distance; and another when the gates of death actually rise in sight. He wondered in what mood he would see his own rooms again. Then he yawned slightly—and was a little pleased that it was natural to yawn.
There was a rustle outside; the door opened, and Lady Laura slipped in.
"Forgive me, Mr. Baxter," she said. "I wanted to have just a word with you first. Please sit down a moment."
She seemed a little anxious and upset, thought Laurie, as he sat down and looked at her in her evening dress with the emblematic chain more apparent than ever. Her frizzed hair sat as usual on the top of her head, and her pince-nez glimmered at him across the hearthrug like the eyes of a cat.
"It is this," she said hurriedly. "I felt I must just speak to you. I wasn't sure whether you quite realized the ... the dangers of all this. I didn't want you to ... to run any risks in my house. I should feel responsible, you know."
She laughed nervously.
"Risks? Would you mind explaining?" said Laurie.
"There ... there are always risks, you know."
"Oh ... you know ... nerves, and so on. I ... I have seen people very much upset at seances, more than once."
"I don't think you need be afraid, Lady Laura. It's awfully kind of you; but, do you know, I'm ashamed to say that, if anything, I'm rather bored."
The pince-nez gleamed.
"But—but don't you believe it? I thought Mr. Vincent said—"
"Oh yes, I believe it; but, you know, it seems to me so natural now. Even if nothing happens tonight, I don't think I shall believe it any the less."
She was silent an instant.
"You know there are other risks," she said suddenly.
"What? Are things thrown about?"
"Please don't laugh at it, Mr. Baxter. I am quite serious."
"Well—what kind do you mean?"
Again she paused.
"It's very awful," she said; "but, you know, people's nerves do break down entirely sometimes, even though they're not in the least afraid. I saw a case once—"
"It—it was a very awful case. A girl—a sensitive—broke down altogether under the strain. She's in an asylum."
"I don't think that's likely for me," said Laurie, with a touch of humor in his voice. "And, after all, you run these risks, don't you—and Mrs. Stapleton?"
"Yes; but you see we're not sensitives. And even I—"
"Well, even I feel sometimes rather overcome.... Mr. Baxter, do you quite realize what it all means?"
"I think so. To tell the truth—"
"Yes; but the thing itself is really overwhelming.... There's—there's an extraordinary power sometimes. You know I was with Maud Stapleton when she saw her father—"
She stopped again.
"I saw him too, you know.... Oh! there was no possibility of fraud. It was with Mr. Vincent. It—it was rather terrible."
"Maud fainted.... Please don't tell her I told you, Mr. Baxter; she wouldn't like you to know that. And then other things happen sometimes which aren't nice. Do you think me a great coward? I—I think I've got a fit of nerves tonight."
Laurie could see that she was trembling.
"I think you're very kind," he said, "to take the trouble to tell me all this. But indeed I was quite ready to be startled. I quite understand what you mean—but—"
"Mr. Baxter, you can't understand unless you've experienced it. And, you know, the other day here you knew nothing at all: you were not conscious. Now tonight you're to keep awake; Mr. Vincent's going to arrange to do what he can about that. And—and I don't quite like it."
"Why, what on earth can happen?" asked Laurie, bewildered.
"Mr. Baxter, I suppose you realize that it's you that they—whoever they are—are interested in? There's no kind of doubt that you'll be the center tonight. And I did just want you to understand fully that there are risks. I shouldn't like to think—"
Laurie stood up.
"I understand perfectly," he said. "Certainly, I always knew there were risks. I hold myself responsible, and no one else. Is that quite clear?"
The wire of the front-door bell suddenly twitched in the hall, and a peal came up the stairs.
"He's come," said the other. "Come upstairs, Mr. Baxter. Please don't say a word of what I've said."
She hurried out, and he after her, as the footman came up from the lower regions.
* * * * *
The drawing-room presented an unusual appearance to Laurie as he came in. All the small furniture had been moved away to the side where the windows looked into the street, and formed there what looked like an amateur barricade. In the center of the room, immediately below the electric light, stood a solid small round table with four chairs set round it as if for Bridge. There was on the side further from the street a kind of ante-room communicating with the main room by a high, wide archway nearly as large as the room to which it gave access; and within this, full in sight, stood a curious erection, not unlike a confessional, seated within for one, roofed, walled, and floored with thin wood. The front of this was open, but screened partly by two curtains that seemed to hang from a rod within. The rest of the little extra room was entirely empty except for the piano that stood closed in the corner.
There were two persons standing rather disconsolately on the vacant hearthrug—Mrs. Stapleton and the clergyman whom Laurie had met on his last visit here. Mr. Jamieson wore an expression usually associated with funerals, and Mrs. Stapleton's face was full of suppressed excitement.
"Dearest, what a time you've been! Was that Mr. Vincent?"
"I think so," said Lady Laura.
The two men nodded to one another, and an instant later the medium came in.
He was in evening clothes; and, more than ever, Laurie thought how average and conventional he looked. His manner was not in the least pontifical, and he shook hands cordially and naturally, but gave one quick glance of approval at Laurie.
"It struck me as extraordinarily cold," he said. "I see you have an excellent fire." And he stooped, rubbing his hands together to warm them.
"We must screen that presently," he said.
Then he stood up again.
"There's no use in wasting time. May I say a word first, Lady Laura?"
She nodded, looking at him almost apprehensively.
"First, I must ask you gentlemen to give me your word on a certain point. I have not an idea how things will go, or whether we shall get any results; but we are going to attempt materialization. Probably, in any case, this will not go very far; we may not be able to do more than to see some figure or face. But in any case, I want you two gentlemen to give me your word that you will attempt no violence. Anything in the nature of seizing the figure may have very disastrous results indeed to myself. You understand that what you will see, if you see anything, will not be actual flesh or blood; it will be formed of a certain matter of which we understand very little at present, but which is at any rate intimately connected with myself or with someone present. Really we know no more of it than that. We are all of us inquirers equally. Now will you gentlemen give me your words of honor that you will obey me in this; and that in all other matters you will follow the directions of ..." (he glanced at the two ladies)—"of Mrs. Stapleton, and do nothing without her consent?"
He spoke in a brisk, matter-of-fact way, and looked keenly from face to face of the two men as he ended.
"I give you my word," said Laurie.
"Yes; just so," said Mr. Jamieson.
"Now there is one matter more," went on the medium. "Mr. Baxter, you are aware that you are a sensitive of a very high order. Now I do not wish you to pass into trance tonight. Kindly keep your attention fixed upon me steadily. Watch me closely: you will be able to see me quite well enough, as I shall explain presently. Mrs. Stapleton will sit with her back to the fire. Lady Laura opposite, Mr. Jamieson with his back to the cabinet, and you, Mr. Baxter, facing it. (Yes, Mr. Jamieson, you may turn round freely, so long as you keep your hands upon the table.) Now, if you feel anything resembling sleep or unconsciousness coming upon you irresistibly, Mr. Baxter, I wish you just lightly to tap Mrs. Stapleton's hand. She will then, if necessary, break up the circle. Give the signal directly you feel the sensation is really coming on, or if you find it very difficult to keep your attention fixed. You will do this?"
"I will do it," said Laurie.
"Then that is really all."
He moved a step away from the fire. Then he paused.
"By the way, I may as well just tell you our methods. I shall take my place within the cabinet, drawing the curtains partly across at the top so as to shade my face. But you will be able to see the whole of my body, and probably even my face as well. You four will please to sit at the table in the order I have indicated, with your hands resting upon it. You will not speak unless you are spoken to, or until Mrs. Stapleton gives the signal. That is all. You then wait. Now it may be ten minutes, half an hour, an hour—anything up to two hours before anything happens. If there is no result, Mrs. Stapleton will break up the circle at eleven o'clock, and awaken me if necessary."
He broke off.
"Kindly just examine the cabinet and the whole room first, gentlemen. We mediums must protect ourselves."
He smiled genially and nodded to the two.
Laurie went straight across the open floor to the cabinet. It was raised on four feet, about twelve inches from the ground. Heavy green curtains hung from a bar within. Laurie took these, and ran them to and fro; then he went into the cabinet. It was entirely empty except for a single board that formed the seat. As he came out he encountered the awestruck face of the clergyman who had followed him in dead silence, and now went into the cabinet after him. Laurie passed round behind: the little room was empty except for the piano at the back, and two low bookshelves on either side of the fireless hearth. The window looking presumably into the garden was shuttered from top to bottom, and barred, and the curtains were drawn back so that it could be seen. A cat could not have hidden in the place. It was all perfectly satisfactory.
He came back to where the others were standing silent, and the clergyman followed him.
"You are satisfied, gentlemen?" said the medium, smiling.
"Perfectly," said Laurie, and the clergyman bowed.
"Well, then," said the other, "it is close upon nine."
He indicated the chairs, and himself went past towards the cabinet, his heavy step making the room vibrate as he went. As he came near the door, he fumbled with the button, and all the lights but one went out.
The four sat down. Laurie watched Mr. Vincent step up into the cabinet, jerk the curtains this way and that, and at last sit easily back, in such a way that his face could be seen in a kind of twilight, and the rest of his body perfectly visible.
Then silence came down upon the room.
The cat of the next house decided to go a-walking after an excellent supper of herring-heads. He had an appointment with a friend. So he cleaned himself carefully on the landing outside the pantry, evaded a couple of caresses from the young footman lately come from the country, and finally leapt on the window-sill, and sat there regarding the back garden, the smoky wall beyond seen in the light of the pantry window, and the chimney-pots high and forbidding against the luminous night sky. His tail moved with a soft ominous sinuousness as he looked.
Presently he climbed cautiously out beneath the sash, gathered himself for a spring, and the next instant was seated on the boundary wall between his own house and that of Lady Laura's.
Here again he paused. That which served him for a mind, that mysterious bundle of intuitions and instincts by which he reckoned time, exchanged confidences, and arranged experiences, informed him that the night was yet young, and that his friend would not yet be arrived. He sat there so still and so long, that if it had not been for his resolute head and the blunt spires of his ears, he would have appeared to an onlooker below as no more than a humpy finial on an otherwise regularly built wall. Now and again the last inch of his tail twitched slightly, like an independent member, as he contemplated his thoughts.
Overhead the last glimmer of day was utterly gone, and in the place of it the mysterious glow of night over a city hung high and luminous. He, a town-bred cat, descended from generations of town-bred cats, listened passively to the gentle roar of traffic that stood, to him, for the running of brooks and the sighing of forest trees. It was to him the auditory background of adventure, romance, and bitter war.
The energy of life ran strong in his veins and sinews. Once and again as that, which was for him imaginative vision and anticipation, asserted itself, he crisped his strong claws into the crumbling mortar, shooting them, by an unconscious muscular action, from the padded sheaths in which they lay. Once a furious yapping sounded from a lighted window far beneath; but he scorned to do more than turn a slow head in the direction of it: then once more he resumed his watch.
The time came at last, conveyed to him as surely as by a punctual clock, and he rose noiselessly to his feet. Then again he paused, and stretched first one strong foreleg and then the other to its furthest reach, shooting again his claws, conscious with a faint sense of well-being of those tightly-strung muscles rippling beneath his loose striped skin. They would be in action presently. And, as he did so, there looked over the parapet six feet above him, at the top of the trellis up which presently he would ascend, another resolute little head and blunt-spired cars, and a soft indescribable voice spoke a gentle insult. It was his friend ... and, he knew well enough, on some high ridge in the background squatted a young female beauty, with flattened ears and waving tail, awaiting the caresses of the victor.
As he saw the head above him, to human eyes a shapeless silhouette, to his eyes a grey-penciled picture perfect in all its details, he paused in his stretching. Then he sat back, arranged his tail, and lifted his head to answer. The cry that came from him, not yet fortissimo, sounded in human ears beneath no more than a soft broken-hearted wail, but to him who sat above it surpassed in insolence even his own carefully modulated offensiveness.
Again the other answered, this time lifting himself to his full height, sending a message along the nerves of his back that prickled his own skin and passed out along the tail with an exquisite ripple of movement. And once more came the answer from below.
So the preliminary challenge went on. Already in the voice of each there had begun to show itself that faint note of hysteria that culminates presently in a scream of anger and a torrent of spits, leading again in their turn to an ominous silence and the first fierce clawing blows at eyes and ears. In another instant the watcher above would recoil for a moment as the swift rush was made up the trellis, and then the battle would be joined: but that instant never came. There fell a sudden silence; and he, peering down into the grey gloom, chin on paws, and tail twitching eighteen inches behind, saw an astonishing sight. His adversary had broken off in the midst of a long crescendo cry, and was himself crouched flat upon the narrow wall staring now not upwards, but downwards, diagonally, at a certain curtained window eight feet below.
This was all very unusual and contrary to precedent. A dog, a human hand armed with a missile, a furious minatory face—these things were not present to account for the breach of etiquette. Vaguely he perceived this, conscious only of inexplicability; but he himself also ceased, and watched for developments.
Very slowly they came at first. That crouching body beneath was motionless now; even the tail had ceased to twitch and hung limply behind, dripping over the edge of the narrow wall into the unfathomable pit of the garden; and as the watcher stared, he felt himself some communication of the horror so apparent in the other's attitude. Along his own spine, from neck to flank, ran the paralyzing nervous movement; his own tail ceased to move; his own ears drew back instinctively, flattening themselves at the sides of the square strong head. There was a movement near by, and he turned quick eyes to see the lithe young love of his heart stepping softly into her place beside him. When he turned again his adversary had vanished.
* * * * *
Yet he still watched. Still there was no sound from the window at which the other had stared just now: no oblong of light shone out into the darkness to explain that sudden withdrawal from the fray.
All was as silent as it had been just now; on all sides windows were closed; now and then came a human voice, just a word or two, spoken and answered from one of those pits beneath, and the steady rumble of traffic went on far away across the roofs; but here, in the immediate neighborhood, all was at peace. He knew well enough the window in question; he had leapt himself upon the sill once and again and seen the foodless waste of floor and carpet and furniture within.
Yet as he watched and waited his own horror grew. That for which in men we have as yet no term was strong within him, as in every beast that lives by perception rather than reason; and he too by this strange faculty knew well enough that something was abroad, raying out from that silent curtained unseen window—something of an utterly different order from that of dog or flung shoe and furious vituperation—something that affected certain nerves within his body in a new and awful manner. Once or twice in his life he had been conscious of it before, once in an empty room, once in a room tenanted by a mere outline beneath a sheet and closed by a locked door.
His heart too seemed melted within him; his tail too hung limply behind the stucco parapet, and he made no answering movement to the tiny crooning note that sounded once in his ears.
And still the horror grew....
Presently he withdrew one claw from the crumbling edge, raising his head delicately; and then the other. For an instant longer he waited, feeling his back heave uncontrollably. Then, dropping noiselessly on to the lead, he fled beneath the sheltering parapet, a noiseless shadow in the gloom; and his mate fled with him.
Laurie turned slowly over in bed, drew a long breath, expelled it, and, releasing his arms from the bed-clothes, sat up. He switched on the light by his bed, glanced at his watch, switched off the light, and sank down again into the sheets. He need not get up just yet.
Then he remembered.
When an event of an entirely new order comes into experience, it takes a little time to be assimilated. It is as when a large piece of furniture is brought into a room; all the rest of the furniture takes upon itself a different value. A picture that did very well up to then over the fire-place must perhaps be moved. Values, relations, and balance all require readjustment.
Now up to last night Laurie had indeed been convinced, in one sense, of spiritualistic phenomena; but they had not yet for him reached the point of significance when they affected everything else. The new sideboard, so to speak, had been brought into the room, but it had been put temporarily against the wall in a vacant space to be looked at; the owner of the room had not yet realized the necessity of rearranging the whole. But last night something had happened that changed all this. He was now beginning to perceive the need of a complete review of everything.
As he lay there, quiet indeed, but startlingly alert, he first reviewed the single fact.
* * * * *
About an hour or so had passed away before anything particular happened. They had sat there, those four, in complete silence, their hands upon the table, occasionally shifting a little, hearing the sound of one another's breathing or the faint rustle of one of the ladies' dresses, in sufficient light from the screened fire and the single heavily shaded electric burner to recognize faces, and even, after the first few minutes, to distinguish small objects, or to read large print.
For the most part Laurie had kept his eyes upon the medium in the cabinet. There the man had leaned back, plainly visible for the most part, with even the paleness of his face and the dark blot of his beard clearly discernible in the twilight. Now and then the boy's eyes had wandered to the other faces, to the young clergyman's opposite downcast and motionless, with a sort of apprehensive look and a determination not to give way—to the three-quarter profiles of the two women, and the gleam of the pince-nez below Lady Laura's frizzed hair.
So he had sat, the thoughts at first racing through his brain, then, as time went on, moving more and more slowly, with his own brain becoming ever more passive, until at last he had been compelled to make a little effort against the drowsiness that had begun to envelop him. He had had to do this altogether three or four times, and had even begun to wonder whether he should be able to resist much longer, when a sudden trembling of the table had awakened him, alert and conscious in a moment, and he had sat with every faculty violently attentive to what should follow.
That trembling was a curious sensation beneath his hands. At first it was no more than might be caused by the passing of a heavy van in the street; only there was no van. But it had increased, with spasms and recoils, till it resembled a continuous shudder as of a living rigid body. It began also to tilt slightly this way and that.
Now all this, Laurie knew well, meant nothing at all—or rather, it need not. And when the movement passed again through all the reverse motions, sinking at last into complete stillness, he was conscious of disappointment. A moment later, however, as he glanced up again at the medium in the cabinet, he drew his breath sharply, and Mr. Jamieson, at the sound, wheeled his head swiftly to look.
There, in the cabinet, somewhere overhead behind the curtain, a faint but perfectly distinct radiance was visible. It was no more than a diffused glimmer, but it was unmistakable, and it shone out faintly and clearly upon the medium's face. By its light Laurie could make out every line and every feature, the drooping clipped moustache, the strong jutting nose, the lines from nostril to mouth, and the closed eyes. As he watched the light deepened in intensity, seeming to concentrate itself in the hidden corner at the top. Then, with a smooth, steady motion it emerged into full sight, in appearance like a softly luminous globe of a pale bluish color, undefined at the edges, floating steadily forward with a motion like that of an air balloon, out into the room. Once outside the cabinet it seemed to hesitate, hanging at about the height of a man's head—then, after an instant, it retired once more, re-entered the cabinet, disappeared in the direction from which it had come, and once more died out.
Well, there it had been; there was no doubt about it.... And Laurie was unacquainted with any mechanism that could produce it.
The clergyman too had seemed affected. He had watched, with turned-back head, the phenomenon from beginning to end, and at the close, with a long indrawing of breath, had looked once at Laurie, licked his dry lips with a motion that was audible in that profound silence, and once more dropped his eyes. The ladies had been silent, and all but motionless throughout.
Well, the rest had happened comparatively quickly.
Once more, after the lapse of a few minutes, the radiance had begun to reform; but this time it had emerged almost immediately, diffused and misty like a nebula; had hung again before the cabinet, and then, with a strange, gently whirling motion, had seemed to arrange itself in lines and curves.
Gradually, as he stared at it, it had begun to take the shape and semblance of a head, swathed in drapery, with that same drapery, hanging, as it appeared in folds, dripping downwards to the ground, where it lost itself in vagueness. Then, as he still stared, conscious of nothing but the amazing fact, features appeared to be forming—first blots and lines as of shadow, finally eyes, nose, mouth, and chin as of a young girl....
A moment later there was no longer a doubt. It was the face of Amy Nugent that was looking at him, grave and steady—as when he had seen it in the moonlight above the sluice—and behind, seen half through the strange drapery, and half apart from it, a couple of feet behind, the face of the sleeping medium.
At that sight he had not moved nor spoken, it was enough that the fact was there. Every power he possessed was concentrated in the one effort of observation....
He heard from somewhere a gasping sigh, and there rose up between him and the face the figure of the clergyman, with his head turned back staring at the apparition, and one hand only on the table, yet with that hand so heavy upon it that the whole table shuddered with his shudder.
There was a movement on the left, and he heard a fierce feminine whisper—
"Sit down, sir; sit down this instant...."
When the clergyman had again sunk down into his seat with that same strong shudder, the luminous face was already incoherent; the features had relapsed again into blots and shadows, the drapery was absorbing itself upwards into the center from which it came. Once more the nebula trembled, moved backwards, and disappeared. The next instant the radiance went out, as if turned off by a switch. The medium groaned gently and awoke.
Well, that had ended it. Laurie scarcely remembered the talking that followed, the explanations, the apologies, the hardly concealed terror of the young clergyman. The medium had come out presently, dazed and confused. They had talked ... and so forth. Then Laurie had come home, still trying to assimilate the amazing fact, of which he said that it could make no difference—that he had seen with his own eyes the face of Amy Nugent four months after her death.
Now here he was in bed on the following morning, trying to assimilate it once more.
* * * * *
It seemed to him as if sleep had done its work—that the subconscious intelligence had been able to take the fact in—and that henceforth it was an established thing in his experience. He was not excited now, but he was intensely and overwhelmingly interested. There the thing was. Now what difference did it make?
First, he understood that it made an enormous difference to the value of the most ordinary things. It really was true—as true as tables and chairs—that there was a life after this, and that personality survived. Never again could he doubt that for one instant, even in the gloomiest mood. So long as a man walks by faith, by the acceptance of authority, human or Divine, there is always psychologically possible the assertion of self, the instinct that what one has not personally experienced may just conceivably be untrue. But when one has seen—so long as memory does not disappear—this agnostic instinct is an impossibility. Every single act therefore has a new significance. There is no venture about it any more; there is, indeed, very little opportunity for heroism. Once it is certain, by the evidence of the senses, that death is just an interlude, this life becomes merely part of a long process....
Now as to the conduct of that life—what of religion? And here, for a moment or two, Laurie was genuinely dismayed. For, as he looked at the Catholic religion, he perceived that the whole thing had changed. It no longer seemed august and dominant. As he contemplated himself as he had been at Mass on the previous morning, he seemed to have been rather absurd. Why all this trouble, all this energy, all these innumerable acts and efforts of faith? It was not that his religion seemed necessarily untrue; it was certainly possible for a man to hold simultaneously Catholic and spiritualistic beliefs; there had not been a hint last night against Christianity, and yet, in the face of this evidence of the senses, Catholicism seemed a very shadowy thing. It might well be true, as any philosophy may be true, but—did it matter very much? To be enthusiastic about it was the frenzy of an artist, who loves the portrait more than the original—and possibly a very misleading and inadequate portrait. Laurie had seen for himself the original last night; he had seen a disembodied soul in a garb assumed for the purpose of identification.... Did he need, then, a "religion?" Was not his experience all-sufficing....?
Then suddenly all speculation fled away in the presence of the personal element.
Three days ago he had contemplated the thought of Amy with comparative indifference. She had been to him lately little more than a "test case" of the spiritual world, clothed about with the memory of sentiment. Now once more she sprang into vivid vital life as a person. She was not lost; his relations with her were not just incidents of the past; they were as much bound up with the present as courtship has a continuity with married life. She existed—her very self—and communication was possible between them....
Laurie rolled over on to his back. The thought was violently overwhelming; there was a furious, absorbing fascination in it. The gulf had been bridged; it could be bridged again. Even if tales were true, it could be bridged far more securely yet. It was possible that the phantom he had seen could be brought yet more forward into the world of sense, that he could touch again with his very hand a tabernacle enclosing her soul. So far spiritualism had not failed him; why should he suspect it of failure in the future? It had been done before; it could, and should, be done again. Besides, there was the pencil incident....
He threw off the clothes and sprang out of bed. It was time to get up; time to begin again this fascinating, absorbingly interesting earthly life, which now had such enormous possibilities.
The rooms of Mr. James Morton were conveniently situated up four flights of stairs in one of those blocks of buildings, so mysterious to the layman, that lie not a very long way from Charing Cross. There is a silence always here as of college life, and the place is frequented by the same curious selections from the human race as haunt University courts. Here are to be seen cooks, aged and dignified men, errand-boys, and rather shabby old women.
The interior of the rooms, too, is not unlike that of an ordinary rather second-rate college; and Mr. James Morton's taste did not redeem the chambers in which he sat. From roof to floor the particular apartment in which he sat was lined with bookshelves filled with unprepossessing volumes and large black tin boxes. A large table stood in the middle of the room, littered with papers, with bulwarks of the same kind of tin boxes rising at either end.
Mr. Morton himself was a square-built man of some forty years, clean-shaven, and rather pale and stout, with strongly marked features, a good loud voice, and the pleasant, brusque manners that befit a University and public school man who has taken seriously to business.
Laurie and he got on excellently together. The younger man had an admiration for the older, whose reputation as a rather distinguished barrister certainly deserved it, and was sufficiently in awe of him to pay attention to his directions in all matters connected with law. But they did not meet much on other planes. Laurie had asked the other down to Stantons once, and had dined with him three or four times in return. And there their acquaintance found its limitations.
This morning, however, the boy's interested air, with its hints of suppressed excitement and his marked inattention to the books and papers which were his business, at last caused the older man to make a remark. It was in his best manner.
"What's the matter, eh?" he suddenly shot at him, without prelude of any kind.
Laurie's attention came back with a jump, and he flushed a little.
"Oh!—er—nothing particular," he murmured. And he set himself down to his books again in silence, conscious of the watchful roving eye on the other side of the table.
About half-past twelve Mr. Morton shut his own book with a slap, leaned back, and began to fill his pipe.
"Nothing seems very important," he said.
As the last uttered word had been spoken an hour previously, Laurie was bewildered, and looked it.
"It won't do, Baxter," went on the other. "You haven't turned a page an hour this morning."
Laurie smiled doubtfully, and leaned back too. Then he had a spasm of confidence.
"Yes. I'm rather upset this morning," he said. "The fact is, last night..."
Mr. Morton waited.
"Well?" he said. "Oh! don't tell if me you don't want to."
Laurie looked at him.
"I wonder what you'd say," he said at last.
The other got up with an abrupt movement, pushed his books together, selected a hat, and put it on.
"I'm going to lunch," he said. "Got to be in the Courts at two; and...."
"Oh! wait a minute," said Laurie. "I think I want to tell you."
"Well, make haste." He stood, in attitude to go.
"What do you think of spiritualism?"
"Blasted rot," said Mr. Morton. "Anything more I can do for you?"
"Do you know anything about it?"
"No. Don't want to. Is that all?"
"Well, look here;" said Laurie.... "Oh! sit down for two minutes."
* * * * *
Then he began. He described carefully his experiences of the night before, explaining so much as was necessary of antecedent events. The other during the course of it tilted his hat back, and half leaned, half sat against a side-table, watching the boy at first with a genial contempt, and finally with the same curious interest that one gives to a man with a new disease.
"Now, what d'you make of that?" ended Laurie, flushed and superb.
"D'you want to know?" came after a short silence.
"What I said at the beginning, then."
"Blasted rot," said Mr. Morton again.
Laurie frowned sharply, and affected to put his books together.
"Of course, if you take it like that," he said. "But I don't know what respect you can possibly have for any evidence, if...."
"My dear chap, that isn't evidence. No evidence in the world could make me believe that the earth was upside down. These things don't happen."
"Then how do you explain...?"
"I don't explain," said Mr. Morton. "The thing's simply not worth looking into. If you really saw that, you're either mad or else there was a trick.... Now come along to lunch."
"But I'm not the only one," cried Laurie hotly.
"No, indeed you're not.... Look here, Baxter, that sort of thing plays the devil with nerves. Just drop it once and for all. I knew a chap once who went in for all that. Well, the end was what everybody knew would happen...."
"Yes?" said Laurie.
"Went off his chump," said the other briefly. "Nasty mess all over the floor. Now come to lunch."
"Wait a second. You can't argue from particulars to universals. Was he the only one you ever knew?"
The other paused a moment.
"No," he said. "As it happens, he wasn't. I knew another chap—he's a solicitor.... Oh! by the way, he's one of your people—a Catholic, I mean."
"Well, what about him?" "Oh! he's all right," admitted Mr. Morton, with a grudging air. "But he gave it up and took to religion instead."
"Yes? What's his name?"
He glanced up at the clock.
"Good Lord," he said, "ten to one."
Then he was gone.
* * * * *
Laurie was far too exalted to be much depressed by this counsel's opinion; and had, indeed, several minutes of delightful meditation on the crass complacency of a clever man when taken off his ground. It was deplorable, he said to himself, that men should be so content with their limitations. But it was always the way, he reflected. To be a specialist in one point involved the pruning of all growth on every other. Here was Morton, almost in the front rank of his particular subject, and, besides, very far from being a bookworm; yet, when taken an inch out of his rut, he could do nothing but flounder. He wondered what Morton would make of these things if he saw them himself.
In the course of the afternoon Morton himself turned up again. The case had ended unexpectedly soon. Laurie waited till the closing of the shutters offered an opportunity for a break in the work, and once more returned to the charge.
"Morton," he said, "I wish you'd come with me one day."
The other looked up.
"To see for yourself what I told you."
Mr. Morton snorted abruptly.
"Lord!" he said, "I thought we'd done with that. No, thank you: Egyptian Hall's all I need."
Laurie sighed elaborately.
"Oh! of course, if you won't face facts, one can't expect...."
"Look here, Baxter," said the other almost kindly, "I advise you to give this up. It plays the very devil with nerves, as I told you. Why, you're as jumpy as a cat yourself. And it isn't worth it. If there was anything in it, why it would be another thing; but...."
"I ... I wouldn't give it up for all the world," stammered Laurie in his zeal. "You simply don't know what you're talking about. Why ... why, I'm not a fool ... I know that. And do you think I'm ass enough to be taken in by a trick? And as if a trick could be played like that in a drawing-room! I tell you I examined every inch...."
"Look here," said Morton, looking curiously at the boy—for there was something rather impressive about Laurie's manner—"look here; you'd better see old Cathcart. Know him...? Well, I'll introduce you any time. He'll tell you another tale. Of course, I don't believe all the rot he talks; but, at any rate, he's sensible enough to have given it all up. Says he wouldn't touch it with a pole. And he was rather a big bug at it in his time, I believe."
Laurie sneered audibly.
"Got frightened, I suppose," he said. "Of course, I know well enough that it's rather startling—"
"My dear man, he was in the thick of it for ten years. I'll acknowledge his stories are hair-raising, if one believed them; but then, you see—"
"What's his address?"
Morton jerked his head towards the directories in the bookshelf.
"Find him there," he said. "I'll give you an introduction if you want it. Though, mind you, I think he talks as much rot as anyone—"
"What does he say?"
"Lord!—I don't know. Some theory or other. But, at any rate, he's given it up."
Laurie pursed his lips.
"I daresay I'll ask you some time," he said. "Meanwhile—"
"Meanwhile, for the Lord's sake, get on with that business you've got there."
* * * * *
Mr. Morton was indeed, as Laurie had reflected, extraordinarily uninterested in things outside his beat; and his beat was not a very extended one. He was a quite admirable barrister, competent, alert, merciless and kindly at the proper times, and, while at his business, thought of hardly anything else at all. And when he was not at his business, he threw himself with equal zest into two or three other occupations—golf, dining out, and the collection of a particular kind of chairs. Beyond these things there was for him really nothing of value.
But, owing to circumstances, his beat had been further extended to include Laurie Baxter, whom he was beginning to like extremely. There was an air of romance about Laurie, a pleasant enthusiasm, excellent manners, and a rather delightful faculty of hero-worship. Mr. Morton himself, too, while possessing nothing even resembling a religion, was, like many other people, not altogether unattracted towards those who had, though he thought religiousness to be a sign of a slightly incompetent character; and he rather liked Laurie's Catholicism, such as it was. It must be rather pleasant, he considered (when he considered it at all), to believe "all that," as he would have said.
So this new phase of Laurie's interested him far more than he would have allowed, so soon as he became aware that it was not merely superficial; and, indeed, Laurie's constant return to the subject, as well as his air of enthusiastic conviction, soon convinced him that this was so.
Further, after a week or two, he became aware that the young man's work was suffering; and he heard from his lips the expression of certain views that seemed to the elder man extremely unhealthy.
For example, on a Friday evening, not much afterwards, as Laurie was putting his books together, Mr. Morton asked him where he was going to spend the week-end.
"Stopping in town," said the boy briefly.
"Oh! I'm going to my brother's cottage. Care to come? Afraid there's no Catholic church near."
"That wouldn't deter me," he said. "I've made up my mind—"
"Oh, it doesn't matter," said Laurie. "No—thanks awfully, but I've got to stop in town."
"Lady Laura's again?"
"Same old game?"
Laurie sat down.
"Look here," he said, "I know you don't mean anything; but I wish you'd understand."
The boy's face flushed with sudden nervous enthusiasm.
"Do you understand," he said, "that this is just everything to me? Do you know it's beginning to seem to me just the only thing that matters? I'm quite aware that you think it all the most utter bunkum; but, you see, I know it's true. And the whole thing is just like heaven opening.... Look here ... I didn't tell you half the other day. The fact is, that I was just as much in love with this girl as—as a man could be. She died; and now—"
"Look here, what were you up to last Sunday?"
Laurie quieted a little.
"You wouldn't understand," he said.
"Have you done any more of that business?"
"Well—thinking you saw her—All right, seeing her, if you like."
The boy shook his head.
"No. Vincent's away in Ireland. We've been going on other lines."
"Tell me; I swear I won't laugh."
"All right; I don't care if you do.... Well, automatic handwriting."
"Well, I go into trance, you see, and—"
"Good Lord, what next?"
"And then this girl writes through my hand," said Laurie deliberately, "when I'm unconscious. See?"
"I see you're a damned young fool," said Morton seriously.
"But if it's all rot, as you think?"
"Of course it's all rot! Do you think I believe for one instant—" He broke off. "And so's a nervous breakdown all rot, isn't it, and D.T.? They aren't real snakes, you know."
Laurie smiled in a superior manner.
"And you're getting yourself absorbed in all this—"
Laurie looked at him with a sudden flash of fanaticism.
"I tell you," he said, "that it's all the world to me. And so would it be to you, if—"
"Oh, Lord! don't become Salvation Army.... Seen Cathcart yet?"
"No. I haven't the least wish to see Cathcart."
Morton rose, put his pens in the drawer, locked it; slid half a dozen papers into a black tin box, locked that too, and went towards his coat and hat, all in silence.
As he went out he turned on the threshold.
"When's that man coming back from Ireland?" he said.
"Who? Vincent? Oh! another month yet. We're going to have another try when he comes."
"Try? What at?"
"Materialization," said Laurie. "That's to say—"
"I don't want to know what the foul thing means."
He still paused, looking hard at the boy. Then he sniffed.
"A young fool," he said. "I repeat it.... Lock up when you come.... Good night."
Mrs. Baxter possessed one of the two secrets of serenity. The other need not be specified; but hers arose from the most pleasant and most human form of narrow-mindedness. As has been said before, when things did not fit with her own scheme, either they were not things, but only fancies of somebody inconsiderable, or else she resolutely disregarded them. She had an opportunity of testing her serenity on one day early in February.
She rose as usual at a fixed hour—eight o'clock—and when she was ready knelt down at her prie-Dieu. This was quite an elaborate structure, far more elaborate than the devotions offered there. It was a very beautiful inlaid Florentine affair, and had a little shelf above it filled with a number of the little leather-bound books in which her soul delighted. She did not use these books very much; but she liked to see them there. It would not be decent to enter the sanctuary of Mrs. Baxter's prayers; it is enough to say that they were not very long. Then she rose from her knees, left her large comfortable bedroom, redolent with soap and hot water, and came downstairs, a beautiful slender little figure in black lace veil and rich dress, through the sunlight of the staircase, into the dining-room.
There she took up her letters and packets. They were not exciting. There was an unimportant note from a friend, a couple of bills, and a Bon Marche catalogue; and she scrutinized these through her spectacles, sitting by the fire. When she had done she noticed a letter lying by Maggie's place, directed in a masculine hand. An instant later Maggie came in herself, in her hat and furs, a charming picture, fresh from the winter sunlight and air, and kissed her.
While Mrs. Baxter poured out tea she addressed a remark or two to the girl, but only got back those vague inattentive murmurs that are the sign of a distracted mind; and, looking up presently with a sense of injury, noticed that Maggie was reading her letter with extraordinary diligence.
"My dear, I am speaking to you," said Mrs. Baxter, with an air of slightly humorous dignity.
"Er—I am sorry," murmured Maggie, and continued reading.
Mrs. Baxter put out her hand for the Bon Marche catalogue in order to drive home her sense of injury, and met Maggie's eyes, suddenly raised to meet her own, with a curious strained look in them.
"Darling, what is the matter?"
Maggie still stared at her a moment, as if questioning both herself and the other, and finally handed the letter across with an abrupt movement.
"Read it," she said.
It was rather a business to read it. It involved spectacles, a pushing aside of a plate, and a slight turning to catch the light. Mrs. Baxter read it, and handed it back, making three or four times the sound written as "Tut."
"The tiresome boy!" she said querulously, but without alarm.
"What are we to do? You see, Mr. Morton thinks we ought to do something. He mentions a Mr. Cathcart."
Mrs. Baxter reached out for the toast-rack.
"My dear, there's nothing to be done. You know what Laurie is. It'll only make him worse."
Maggie looked at her uneasily.
"I wish we could do something," she said.
"My dear, he'd have written to me—Mr. Morton, I mean—if Laurie had been really unwell. You see he only says he doesn't attend to his work as he ought."
Maggie took up the letter, put it carefully back into the envelope, and went on with breakfast. There was nothing more to be said just then.
But she was uneasy, and after breakfast went out into the garden, spud in hand, to think it all over, with the letter in her pocket.
Certainly the letter was not alarming per se, but per accidens—that is to say, taking into account who it was that had written, she was not so sure. She had met Mr. Morton but once, and had formed of him the kind of impression that a girl would form of such a man in the hours of a week-end—a brusque, ordinary kind of barrister without much imagination and a good deal of shrewd force. It was surely rather an extreme step for a man like this to write to a girl in such a condition of things, asking her to use her influence to dissuade Laurie from his present course of life. Plainly the man meant what he said; he had not written to Mrs. Baxter, as he explained in the letter, for fear of alarming her unduly, and, as he expressly said, there was nothing to be alarmed about. Yet he had written.
Maggie stopped at the lower end of the orchard path, took out the letter, and read the last three or four sentences again:
Please forgive me if you think it was unnecessary to write. Of course I have no doubt whatever that the whole thing is nothing but nonsense; but even nonsense can have a bad effect, and Mr. Baxter seems to me to be far too much wrapped up in it. I enclose the address of a friend of mine in case you would care to write to him on the subject. He was once a Spiritualist, and is now a devout Catholic. He takes a view of it that I do not take; but at any rate his advice could do no harm. You can trust him to be absolutely discreet.
Believe me, Yours sincerely, James Morton
It really was very odd and unconventional; and Mr. Morton had not seemed at all an odd or unconventional person. He mentioned, too, a particular date, February 25, as the date by which the medium would have returned, and some sort of further effort was going to be made; but he did not attempt to explain this, nor did Maggie understand it. It only seemed to her rather sinister and unpleasant.
She turned over the page, and there was the address he had mentioned—a Mr. Cathcart. Surely he did not expect her to write to this stranger....
She walked up and down with her spud for another half-hour before she could come to any conclusion. Certainly she agreed with Mr. James Morton that the whole thing was nonsense; yet, further, that this nonsense was capable of doing a good deal of harm to an excitable person. Besides, Laurie obviously had a bad conscience about it, or he would have mentioned it.
She caught sight of Mrs. Baxter presently through the thick hedge, walking with her dainty, dignified step along the paths of the kitchen garden; and a certain impatience seized her at the sight. This boy's mother was so annoyingly serene. Surely it was her business, rather than Maggie's own, to look after Laurie; yet the girl knew perfectly well that if Laurie was left to his mother nothing at all would be done. Mrs. Baxter would deplore it all, of course, gently and tranquilly, in Laurie's absence, and would, perhaps, if she were hard pressed, utter a feeble protest even in his presence; and that was absolutely all....
"Maggie! Maggie!" came the gentle old voice, calling presently; and then to some unseen person, "Have you seen Miss Deronnais anywhere?"
Maggie put the letter in her pocket and hurried through from the orchard.
"Yes?" she said, with a half hope.
"Come in, my dear, and tell me what you think of those new teacups in the Bon Marche catalogue," said the old lady. "There seem some beautiful new designs, and we want another set."
Maggie bowed to the inevitable. But as they passed up the garden her resolution was precipitated.
"Can you let me go by twelve," she said. "I rather want to see Father Mahon about something."
"My dear, I shall not keep you three minutes," protested the old lady.
And they went in to talk for an hour and three-quarters.
Father Mahon was a conscientious priest. He said his mass at eight o'clock; he breakfasted at nine; he performed certain devotions till half-past ten; read the paper till eleven, and theology till twelve. Then he considered himself at liberty to do what he liked till his dinner at one. (The rest of his day does not concern us just now.)
He, too, was looking round his garden this morning—a fine, solid figure of a man, in rather baggy trousers, short coat, and expansive waistcoat, with every button doing its duty. He too, like Mr. James Morton, had his beat, an even narrower one than the barrister's, and even better trodden, for he never strayed off it at all, except for four short weeks in the summer, when he hurried across to Ireland and got up late, and went on picnics with other ecclesiastics in straw hats, and joined in cheerful songs in the evening. He was a priest, with perfectly defined duties, and of admirable punctuality and conscientiousness in doing them. He disliked the English quite extraordinarily; but his sense of duty was such that they never suspected it; and his flock of Saxons adored him as people only can adore a brisk, businesslike man with a large heart and peremptory ways, who is their guide and father, and is perfectly aware of it. His sermons consisted of cold-cut blocks of dogma taken perseveringly from sermon outlines and served up Sunday by Sunday with a sauce of a slight and delightful brogue. He could never have kindled the Thames, nor indeed any river at all, but he could bridge them with solid stones; and this is, perhaps, even more desirable.
Maggie had begun by disliking him. She had thought him rather coarse and stupid; but she had changed her mind. He was not what may be called subtle; he had no patience at all with such things as scruples, nuances, and shades of tone and meaning; but if you put a plain question to him plainly, he gave you a plain answer, if he knew it; if not, he looked it up then and there; and that is always a relief in this intricate world. Maggie therefore did not bother him much; she went to him only on plain issues; and he respected and liked her accordingly.
"Good morning, my child," he said in his loud, breezy voice, as he came in to find her in his hideous little sitting-room. "I hope you don't mind the smell of tobacco-smoke."
The room indeed reeked; he had started a cigar, according to rule, as the clock struck twelve, and had left it just now upon a stump outside when his housekeeper had come to announce a visitor.
"Not in the least, thanks, father.... May I sit down? It's rather a long business, I'm afraid."
The priest pulled out an arm-chair covered with horsehair and an antimacassar.
"Sit down, my child."
Then he sat down himself, opposite her, in his trousers at once tight and baggy, with his rather large boots cocked one over the other, and his genial red face smiling at her.
"Now then," he said.
"It's not about myself, father," she began rather hurriedly. "It's about Laurie Baxter. May I begin at the beginning?"
He nodded. He was not sorry to hear something about this boy, whom he didn't like at all, but for whom he knew himself at least partly responsible. The English were bad enough, but English converts were indescribably trying; and Laurie had been on his mind lately, he scarcely knew why.
Then Maggie began at the beginning, and told the whole thing, from Amy's death down to Mr. Morton's letter. He put a question or two to her during her story, looking at her with pressed lips, and finally put out his hand for the letter itself.
"Mrs. Baxter doesn't know what I've come about," said the girl. "You won't give her a hint, will you, father?"
He nodded reassuringly to her, absorbed in the letter, and presently handed it back, with a large smile.
"He seems a sensible fellow," he said.
"Ah! that's what I wanted to ask you, father. I don't know anything at all about spiritualism. Is it—is it really all nonsense? Is there nothing in it at all?"
He laughed aloud.
"I don't think you need be afraid," he said. "Of course we know that souls don't come back like that. They're somewhere else."
"Then it's all fraud?"
"It's practically all fraud," he said, "but it's very superstitious, and is forbidden by the Church."
This was straight enough. It was at least a clear issue to begin to attack Laurie upon.
"Then—then that's the evil of it?" she said. "There's no real power underneath? That's what Mr. Rymer said to Mrs. Baxter; and it's what I've always thought myself."
The priest's face became theological.
"Let's see what Sabetti says," he said. "I fancy—"
He turned in his chair and fetched out a volume behind him.
"Here we are...."
He ran his finger down the heavy paragraphs, turned a page or two, and began a running comment and translation: "'Necromantia ex'.... 'Necromancy arising from invocation of the dead'.... Let's see ... yes, 'Spiritism, or the consulting of spirits in order to know hidden things, especially that pertain to the future life, certainly is divination properly so called, and is ... is full of even more impiety than is magnetism, or the use of turning tables. The reason is, as the Baltimore fathers testify, that such knowledge must necessarily be ascribed to Satanic intervention, since in no other manner can it be explained.'"
"Then—" began Maggie.
"One moment, my child.... Yes ... just so. 'Express divination'.... No, no. Ah! here we are, 'Tacit divination, ... even if it is openly protested that no commerce with the Demon is intended, is per se grave sin; but it can sometimes be excused from mortal sin, on account of simplicity or ignorance or a lack of certain faith.' You see, my child—" he set the book back in its place "—so far as it's not fraud it's diabolical. And that's an end of it."
"But do you think it's not all fraud, then?" asked the girl, paling a little.
He laughed again, with a resonance that warmed her heart.
"I should pay just no attention to it all. Tell him, if you like, what I've said, and that it's grave sin for him to play with it; but don't get thinking that the devil's in everything."
Maggie was puzzled.
"Then it's not the devil?" she asked—"at least not in this case, you think?"
He smiled again reassuringly.
"I should suspect it was a clever trick," he said. "I don't think Master Laurie's likely to get mixed up with the devil in that way. There's plenty of easier ways than that."
"Do you think I should write to Mr. Cathcart?"
"Just as you like. He's a convert, isn't he? I believe I've heard his name."
"I think so."
"Well, it wouldn't do any harm; though I should suspect not much good."
Maggie was silent.
"Just tell Master Laurie not to play tricks," said the priest. "He's got a good, sensible friend in Mr. Morton. I can see that. And don't trouble your head too much about it, my child."
* * * * *
When Maggie was gone, he went out to finish his cigar, and found to his pleasure that it was still alight, and after a puff or two it went very well.
He thought about his interview for a few minutes as he walked up and down, taking the bright winter air. It explained a good deal. He had begun to be a little anxious about this boy. It was not that Laurie had actually neglected his religion while at Stantons; he was always in his place at mass on Sundays, and even, very occasionally, on weekdays as well. And he had had a mass said for Amy Nugent. But even as far back as the beginning of the previous year, there had been an air about him not altogether reassuring.
Well, this at any rate was a small commentary on the present situation.... (The priest stopped to look at some bulbs that were coming up in the bed beside him, and stooped, breathing heavily, to smooth the earth round one of them with a large finger.)... And as for this Spiritualistic nonsense—of course the whole thing was a trick. Things did not happen like that. Of course the devil could do extraordinary things: or at any rate had been able to do them in the past; but as for Master Laurie Baxter—whose home was down there in the hamlet, and who had been at Oxford and was now reading law—as for the thought that this rather superior Saxon young man was in direct communication with Satan at the present time—well, that needed no comment but loud laughter.
Yet it was very unwholesome and unhealthy. That was the worst of these converts; they could not be content with the sober workaday facts of the Catholic creed. They must be always running after some novelty or other.... And it was mortal sin anyhow, if the sinner had the faintest idea—
A large dinner-bell pealed from the back door; and the priest went in to roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, apple dumplings, and a single glass of port-wine to end up with.
It was strange how Maggie felt steadied and encouraged in the presence of something at least resembling danger. So long as Laurie was merely tiresome and foolish, she distrusted herself, she made little rules and resolutions, and deliberately kept herself interiorly detached from him. But now that there was something definite to look to, her sensitiveness vanished.
As to what that something was, she did not trust herself to decide. Father Mahon had given her a point to work at—the fact that the thing, as a serious pursuit, was forbidden; as to what the reality behind was, whether indeed there were any reality at all, she did not allow herself to consider. Laurie was in a state of nerves sufficiently troublesome to bring a letter from his friend and guide; and he was in that state through playing tricks on forbidden ground; that was enough.
Her interview with Father Mahon precipitated her half-formed resolution; and after tea she went upstairs to write to Mr. Cathcart.
It was an unconventional thing to do, but she was sufficiently perturbed to disregard that drawback, and she wrote a very sensible letter, explaining first who she was; then, without any names being mentioned, she described her adopted brother's position, and indicated his experiences: she occupied the last page in asking two or three questions, and begging for general advice.
* * * * *
Mrs. Baxter displayed some symptoms after dinner which the girl recognized well enough. They comprised a resolute avoidance of Laurie's name, a funny stiff little air of dignity, and a touch of patronage. And the interpretation of these things was that the old lady did not wish the subject to be mentioned again, and that, interiorly, she was doing her best ignore and forget it. Maggie felt, again, vaguely comforted; it left her a freer hand.
* * * * *
She lay awake a long time that night.
Her room was a little square one on the top of the stairs, above the smoking-room where she had that odd scene with Laurie a month or so before, and looking out upon the yew walk that led to the orchard. It was a cheerful little place enough, papered in brown, hung all over with water colors, with her bed in one corner; and it looked a reassuring familiar kind of place in the firelight, as she lay open-eyed and thinking.
It was not that she was at all frightened; it was no more than a little natural anxiety; and half a dozen times in the hour or two that she lay thinking, she turned resolutely over in bed, dismissed the little pictures that her mind formed in spite of herself, and began to think of pleasant, sane subjects.
But the images recurred. They were no more than little vignettes—Laurie talking to a severe-looking tall man with a sardonic smile; Laurie having tea with Mrs. Stapleton; Laurie in an empty room, looking at a closed door....
It was this last picture that recurred three or four times at the very instant that the girl was drowsing off into sleep; and it had therefore that particular vividness that characterizes the thoughts when the conscious attention is dormant. It had too a strangely perturbing effect upon her; and she could not imagine why.
After the third return of it her sense of humor came to the rescue: it was too ridiculous, she said, to be alarmed at an empty room and Laurie's back. Once more she turned on her side, away from the firelight, and resolved, if it recurred again, to examine the details closely.
Again the moments passed: thought followed thought, in those quiet waves that lull the mind towards sleep; finally once more the picture was there, clear and distinct.
Yes; she would look at it this time.
It was a bare room, wainscoted round the walls a few inches up, papered beyond in some common palish pattern. Laurie stood in the center of the uncarpeted boards, with his back turned to her, looking, it seemed, with an intense expectation at the very dull door in the wall opposite him. He was in his evening dress, she saw, knee-breeches and buckles all complete; and his hands were clenched, as they hung held out a little from his sides, as he himself, crouching a little, stared at the door.
She, too, looked at the door, at its conventional panels and its brass handle; and it appeared to her as if both he and she were expectant of some visitor. The door would open presently, she perceived; and the reason why Laurie was so intent upon the entrance, was that he, no more than she, had any idea as to the character of the person who was to come in. She became quite interested as she watched—it was a method she followed sometimes when wooing sleep—and she began, in her fancy, to go past Laurie as if to open the door. But as she passed him she was aware that he put out a hand to check her, as if to hold her back from some danger; and she stopped, hesitating, still looking, not at Laurie, but at the door.
She began then, with the irresponsibility of deepening sleep, to imagine instead what lay beyond the door—to perceive by intuitive vision the character of the house. She got so far as understanding that it was all as unfurnished as this room, that the house stood solitary among trees, and that even these, and the tangled garden that she determined must surround the house, were as listening and as expectant as herself and the waiting figure of the boy. Once more, as if to verify her semi-passive imaginative excursion, she moved to the door....