Ah! what nonsense it was. Here she was, wide awake again, in her own familiar room, with the firelight on the walls.
... Well, well; sleep was a curious thing; and so was imagination....
... At any rate she had written to Mr. Cathcart.
The "Cock Inn" is situated in Fleet Street, not twenty yards from Mitre Court and scarcely fifty from the passage that leads down to the court where Mr. James Morton still has his chambers.
It was a convenient place, therefore, for Laurie to lunch in, and he generally made his appearance there a few minutes before one o'clock to partake of a small rump steak and a pewter mug of beer. Sometimes he came alone, sometimes in company; and by a carefully thought out system of tips he usually managed to have reserved for him at least until one o'clock a particular seat in a particular partition in that row of stable-like shelters that run the length of the room opposite the door on the first floor.
On the twenty-third of February, however—it was a Friday, by the way, and boiled plaice would have to be eaten instead of rump steak—he was a little annoyed to find his seat already occupied by a small, brisk-looking man with a grey beard and spectacles, who, with a newspaper propped in front of him, was also engaged in the consumption of boiled plaice.
The little man looked up at him sharply, like a bird disturbed in a meal, and then down again upon the paper. Laurie noticed that his hat and stick were laid upon the adjoining chair as if to retain it. He hesitated an instant; then he slid in on the other side, opposite the stranger, tapped his glass with his knife, and sat down.
When the waiter came, a familiarly deferential man with whiskers, Laurie, with a slight look of peevishness, gave his order, and glanced reproachfully at the occupied seat. The waiter gave the ghost of a shrug with his shoulders, significant of apologetic helplessness, and went away.
A minute later Mr. Morton entered, glanced this way and that, nodding imperceptibly to Laurie, and was just moving off to a less occupied table when the stranger looked up.
"Mr. Morton," he cried, "Mr. Morton!" in an odd voice that seemed on the point of cracking into falsetto. Certainly he was very like a portly bird, thought Laurie.
The other turned round, nodded with short geniality, and slid into the chair from which the old man moved his hat and stick with zealous haste.
"And what are you doing here?" said Mr. Morton.
"Just taking a bite like yourself," said the other. "Friday—worse luck."
Laurie was conscious of a touch of interest. This man was a Catholic, then, he supposed.
"Oh, by the way," said Mr. Morton, "have you—er—" and he indicated Laurie. "No...? Baxter, let me introduce Mr. Cathcart."
For a moment the name meant nothing to Laurie; then he remembered; but his rising suspicions were quelled instantly by his friend's next remark.
"By the way, Cathcart, we were talking of you a week or two ago."
"Indeed! I am flattered," said the old man perkily. Yes, "perky" was the word, thought Laurie.
"Mr. Baxter here is interested in Spiritualism—rump steak, waiter, and pint of bitter—and I told him you were the man for him."
Laurie interiorly drew in his horns.
"A—er—an experimenter?" asked the old man, with courteous interest, his eyes giving a quick gleam beneath his glasses.
"Yes. Most dangerous—most dangerous.... And any success, Mr. Baxter?"
Laurie felt his annoyance deepen.
"Very considerable success," he said shortly.
"Ah, yes—you must forgive me, sir; but I have had a good deal of experience, and I must say—You are a Catholic, I see," he said, interrupting himself. "Or a High Churchman."
"I am a Catholic," said Laurie.
"So'm I. But I gave up spiritualism as soon as I became one. Very interesting experiences, too; but—well, I value my soul too much, Mr. Baxter."
Mr. Morton put a large piece of potato into his mouth with a detached air.
It was really rather trying, thought Laurie, to be catechized in this way; so he determined to show superiority.
"And you think it all superstition and nonsense?" he asked.
"Indeed, no," said the old man shortly.
Laurie pushed his plate on one side, and drew the cheese towards him. This was a little more interesting, he thought, but he was still far from feeling communicative.
"What then?" he asked.
"Oh, very real indeed," said the old man. "That is just the danger."
"Yes, Mr. Baxter. Of course there's plenty of fraud and trickery; we all know that. But it's the part that's not fraud that's—May I ask what medium you go to?"
"I know Mr. Vincent. And I've been to some public seances, too."
The old man looked at him with sudden interest, but said nothing.
"You think he's not honest?" said Laurie, with cool offensiveness.
"Oh, yes; he's perfectly honest," said the other deliberately. "I'll trouble you for the sugar, Mr. Morton."
Laurie was determined not to begin the subject again. He felt that he was being patronized and lectured, and did not like it. And once again the suspicion crossed his mind that this was an arranged meeting. It was so very neat—two days before the seance—the entry of Morton—his own seat occupied. Yet he did not feel quite courageous enough to challenge either of them. He ate his cheese deliberately and waited, listening to the talk between the two on quite irrelevant subjects, and presently determined on a bit of bravado.
"May I look at the Daily Mirror, Mr. Cathcart?" he asked.
"There is no doubt of his guilt," the old man said, as he handed the paper across (the two were deep in a law case now). "I said so to Markham a dozen times—" and so on.
But there was no more word of spiritualism. Laurie propped the paper before him as he finished his cheese, and waited for coffee, and read with unseeing eyes. He was resenting as hard as he could the abruptness of the opening and closing of the subject, and the complete disregard now shown to him. He drank his coffee, still leisurely, and lit a cigarette; and still the two talked.
He stood up at last and reached down his hat and stick. The old man looked up.
"You are going, Mr. Baxter...? Good day.... Well then; and as I was waiting in court—"
Laurie passed out indignantly, and went down the stairs.
So that was Mr. Cathcart. Well, he was thankful he hadn't written to him, after all. He was not his kind in the least.
The moment he passed out of the door the old man stopped his fluent talking and waited, looking after the boy. Then he turned again to his friend.
"I'm a blundering idiot," he said.
Mr. Morton sniffed.
"I've put him against me now—Lord knows how; but I've done it; and he won't listen to me."
"Gad!" said Mr. Morton; "what funny people you all are! And you really meant what you said?"
"Every word," said the old man cheerfully.... "Well; our little plot's over."
"Why don't you ask him to come and see you?"
"First," said the old man, with the same unruffled cheerfulness, "he wouldn't have come. We've muddled it. We'd much better have been straightforward. Secondly, he thinks me an old fool—as you do, only more so. No; we must set to work some other way now.... Tell me about Miss Deronnais: I showed you her letter?"
The other nodded, helping himself to cheese.
"I told her that I was at her service, of course; and I haven't heard again. Sensible girl?"
"Very sensible, I should say."
"Sort of girl that wouldn't scream or faint in a crisis?"
"Exactly the opposite, I should say. But I've hardly seen her, you know."
"Well, well.... And the mother?"
"No good at all," said Mr. Morton.
"Then the girl's the sheet anchor.... In love with him, do you know?"
"Lord! How d'you expect me to know that?"
The old man pondered in silence, seeming to assimilate the situation.
"He's in a devil of a mess," he said, with abrupt cheerfulness. "That man Vincent—"
"He's the most dangerous of the lot. Just because he's honest."
"Good God!" broke in the other again suddenly. "Do all Catholics believe this rubbish?"
"My dear friend, of course they don't. Not one in a thousand. I wish they did. That's what's the matter. But they laugh at it—laugh at it!"... His voice cracked into shrill falsetto.... "Laugh at hell-fire.... Is Sunday the day, did you say?"
"He told me the twenty-fifth."
"And at that woman's in Queen's Gate, I suppose?"
"Expect so. He didn't say. Or I forget."
"I heard they were at their games there again," said Mr. Cathcart with meditative geniality. "I'd like to blow up the stinking hole."
Mr. Morton chuckled audibly.
"You're the youngest man of your years I've ever come across," he said. "No wonder you believe all that stuff. When are you going to grow up, Cathcart?"
The old man paid no attention at all.
"Well—that plot's over," he said again. "Now for Miss Deronnais. But we can't stop this Sunday affair; that's certain. Did he tell you anything about it? Materialization? Automatic—"
"Lord, I don't know all that jargon...."
"My dear Morton, for a lawyer, you're the worst witness I've ever—Well, I'm off. No more to be done today."
* * * * *
The other sat on a few minutes over his pipe.
It seemed to him quite amazing that a sensible man like Cathcart could take such rubbish seriously. In every other department of life the solicitor was an eminently shrewd and sane man, with, moreover, a youthful kind of brisk humor that is perhaps the surest symptom of sanity that it is possible to have.
He had seen him in court for years past under every sort of circumstance, and if it had been required of him to select a character with which superstition and morbid humbug could have had nothing in common, he would have laid his hand upon the senior partner of Cathcart and Cathcart. Yet here was this sane man, taking this fantastic nonsense as if there were really something in it. He had first heard him speak of the subject at a small bachelor dinner party of four in the rooms of a mutual friend; and, as he had listened, he had had the same sensation as one would have upon hearing a Cabinet Minister, let us say, discussing stump-cricket with enthusiasm. Cathcart had said all kinds of things when once he was started—all with that air of businesslike briskness that was so characteristic of him and so disconcerting in such a connection. If he had apologized for it as an amiable weakness, if he had been in the least shamefaced or deprecatory, it would have been another matter; one would have forgiven it as one forgives any little exceptional eccentricity. But to hear him speak of materialization as of a process as normal (though unusual) as the production of radium, and of planchette as of wireless telegraphy—as established, indubitable facts, though out of the range of common experience—this had amazed this very practical man. Cathcart had hinted too of other things—things which he would not amplify—of a still more disconcertingly impossible nature—matters which Morton had scarcely thought had been credible even to the darkest medievalists; and all this with that same sharp, sane humor that lent an air of reality to all that he said.
For romantic young asses like Laurie Baxter such things were not so hopelessly incongruous, though obviously they were bad for him; they were all part of the wild credulousness of a religious youth; but for Cathcart, aged sixty-two, a solicitor in good practice, with a wife and two grown-up daughters, and a reputation for exceptionally sound shrewdness—! But it must be remembered he was a Catholic!
So Mr. James Morton sat in the "Cock" and pondered. He was not sorry he had tried to take steps to choke off this young fool, and he was just a little sorry that so far they had failed. He had written to Miss Deronnais in an impulse, after an unusually feverish outburst from the boy; and she, he had learnt later, had written to Mr. Cathcart. The rest had been of the other's devising.
Well, it had failed so far. Perhaps next week things would be better.
He paid his bill, left two pence for the waiter, and went out. He had a case that afternoon.
Laurie left chambers as it was growing dark that afternoon, and went back to his rooms for tea. He had passed, as was usual now, an extremely distracted couple of hours, sitting over his books with spasmodic efforts only to attend to them. He was beginning, in fact, to be not quite sure whether Law after all was his vocation....
His kettle was singing pleasantly on the hob, and a tray glimmered in the firelight on the little table, as the woman had left it; and it was not until he had poured himself out a cup of tea that he saw on the white cloth an envelope, directed to him, inscribed "By hand," in the usual handwriting of persons engaged in business. Even then he did not open it at once; it was probably only some note connected with his chief's affairs.
For half an hour more he sat on, smoking after tea, pondering that which was always in his mind now, and dwelling with a vague pleasant expectancy on what Sunday night should bring forth. Mr. Vincent, he knew, was returning to town that afternoon. Perhaps, even, he might look in for a few minutes, if there were any last instructions to be given.
The effect of the medium on the young man's mind had increased enormously during these past weeks. That air of virile masterfulness, all the more impressive because of its extreme quiet assurance, had proved even more deep than had at first appeared.
It is very hard to analyze the elements of a boy's adoration for a solid middle-aged gentleman with a "personality"; yet the thing is an enormously potent fact, and plays at least as big a part in the sub-currents that run about the world as any more normal human emotions. Psychologists of the materialistic school would probably say that it was a survival of the tribe-and-war instinct. At any rate, there it is.
Added to all this was the peculiar relation in which the medium stood to the boy; it was he who had first opened the door towards that strange other world that so persistently haunts the imaginations of certain temperaments; it was through him that Laurie had had brought before the evidence of his senses, as he thought, the actuality of the things of which he had dreamed—an actuality which his religion had somehow succeeded in evading. It was not that Laurie had been insincere in his religion; there had been moments, and there still were, occasionally, when the world that the Catholic religion preached by word and symbol and sacrament, became apparent; but the whole thing was upon a different plane. Religion bade him approach in one way, spiritualism in the other. The senses had nothing to do with one; they were the only ultimate channels of the other. And it is extraordinarily easy for human beings to regard as more fundamentally real the evidence of the senses than the evidence of faith....
Here then were the two choices—a world of spirit, to be taken largely on trust, to be discerned only in shadow and outline upon rare and unusual occasions of exaltation, of a particular quality which had almost lost its appeal; and a world of spirit that took shape and form and practical intelligibility, in ordinary rooms and under very nearly ordinary circumstances—a world, in short, not of a transcendent God and the spirits of just men made perfect, of vast dogmas and theories, but of a familiar atmosphere, impregnated with experience, inhabited by known souls who in this method or that made themselves apparent to those senses which, Laurie believed, could not lie.... And the point of contact was Amy Nugent herself....
As regards his exact attitude to this girl it is more difficult to write. On the one side the human element—those associations directly connected with the senses—her actual face and hands, physical atmosphere and surroundings—those had disappeared; they were dispersed, or they lay underground; and it had been with a certain shock of surprise, in spite of the explanations given to him, that he had seen what he believed to be her face in the drawing-room in Queen's Gate. But he had tried to arrange all this in his imagination, and it had fallen into shape and proportion again. In short, he thought he understood now that it is character which gives unity to the transient qualities of a person on earth, and that, when those qualities disappear, it is as unimportant as the wasting of tissue: when, according to the spiritualists' gospel that character manifests itself from the other side, it naturally reconstitutes the form by which it had been recognized on earth.
Yet, in spite of this sense of familiarity with what he had seen, there had fallen between Amy and himself that august shadow that is called Death.... And in spite of the assurances he had received, even at the hands of his own senses, that this was indeed the same girl that he had known on earth, there was a strange awe mingled with his old rather shallow passion. There were moments, as he sat alone in his rooms at night, when it rose almost to terror; just as there were other moments when awe vanished for a while, and his whole being was flooded with an extraordinary ecstatic semi-earthly happiness at the thought that he and she could yet speak with one another.... Imagine, if you please, a child who on returning home finds that his mother has become Queen, and meets her in the glory of ermine and diadem....
But the real deciding point—which, somehow, he knew must come—the moment at which these conflicting notes should become a chord, was fixed for Sunday evening next. Up to now he had had evidence of her presence, he had received intelligible messages, though fragmentary and half stammered through the mysterious veil, he had for an instant or two looked upon her face; but the real point, he hoped, would come in two days. The public seances had not impressed him. He had been to three or four of these in a certain road off Baker Street, and had been astonished and disappointed. The kind of people that he had met there—sentimental bourgeois with less power of sifting evidence than the average child, with a credulity that was almost supernatural—the medium, a stout woman who rolled her eyes and had damp fat fingers; the hymn-singing, the wheezy harmonium, the amazing pseudo-mystical oracular messages that revealed nothing which a religiose fool could not invent—in fact the whole affair, from the sham stained-glass lamp-shade to the ghostly tambourines overhead, the puerility of the tricks played on the inquirers, and all the rest of it—this seemed as little connected with what he had experienced with Mr. Vincent as a dervish dance with High Mass. He had reflected with almost ludicrous horror upon the impression it would make on Maggie, and the remarks it would elicit.
But this other engagement was a very different matter.
They were going to attempt a further advance. It had, indeed, been explained to him that these attempts were but tentative and experimental; it was impossible to dictate exactly what should fall; but the object on Sunday night was to go a step further, and to bring about, if possible, the materialization process to such a point that the figure could be handled, and could speak. And it seemed to Laurie as if this would be final indeed....
* * * * *
So he sat this evening, within forty-eight hours of the crisis, thinking steadily. Half a dozen times, perhaps, the thought of Maggie recurred to him; but he was learning how to get rid of that.
Then he took up the note and opened it. It was filled with four pages of writing. He turned to the end and read the signature. Then he turned back and read the whole letter.
* * * * *
It was very quiet as he sat there thinking over what he had read. The noise of Fleet Street came up here only as the soothing murmur of the sea upon a beach; and he himself sat motionless, the firelight falling upwards upon his young face, his eyes, and his curly hair. About him stood his familiar furniture, the grand piano a pool of glimmering dark wood in the background, the tall curtained windows suggestive of shelter and warmth and protection.
Yet, if he had but known it, he was making an enormous choice. The letter was from the man he had met at midday, and he was deciding how to answer it. He was soothed and quieted by his loneliness, and his irritation had disappeared: he regarded the letter from a youthfully philosophical standpoint, pleased with his moderation, as the work of a fanatic; he was considering only whether he would yield, for politeness' sake, to the importunity, or answer shortly and decisively. It seemed to him remarkable that a mature and experienced man could write such a letter.
At last he got up, went to his writing-table, and sat down. Still he hesitated for a minute; then he dipped his pen and wrote.
When he had finished and directed it, he went back to the fire. He had an hour yet in which to think and think before he need dress. He had promised to dine with Mrs. Stapleton at half-past seven. He had a touch of headache, and perhaps might sleep it off.
Lady Laura crossed the road by Knightsbridge Barracks and turned again homewards through the Park.
It was one of those days that occasionally fall in late February which almost cheer the beholder into a belief that spring has really begun. Overhead the sky was a clear pale blue, flecked with summer-looking clouds, gauzy and white; beneath, the whole earth was waking drowsily from a frost so slight as only to emphasize the essential softness of the day that followed: the crocuses were alight in the grass, and an indescribable tint lay over all that had life, like the flush in the face of an awakening child. But these days are too good to last, and Lady Laura, who had looked at the forecast of a Sunday paper, had determined to take her exercise immediately after church.
She had come out not long before from All Saints'; she had listened to an excellent though unexciting sermon and some extremely beautiful singing; and even now, saturated with that atmosphere and with the soothing physical air in which she walked, her anxieties seemed less acute. There were enough of her acquaintances, too, in groups here and there—she had to bow and smile sufficiently often—to prevent these anxieties from reasserting themselves too forcibly. And it may be supposed that not a creature who observed her, in her exceedingly graceful hat and mantle, with her fair head a little on one side, and her gold-rimmed pince-nez delicately gleaming in the sunlight, had the very faintest suspicion that she had any anxieties at all.
Yet she felt strangely unwilling even to go home.
The men were to set about clearing the drawing-room while she was at church; and somehow the thought that it would be done when she got home, that the temple would, so to speak, be cleared for sacrifice, was a distasteful one.
She did not quite know when the change had begun; in fact, she was scarcely yet aware that there was a change at all. Upon one point only her attention fixed itself, and that was the increasing desire she felt that Laurie Baxter should go no further in his researches under her auspices.
Up to within a few weeks ago she had been all ardor. It had seemed to her, as has been said, that the apparent results of spiritualism were all to the good, that they were in no point contrary to the religion she happened to believe—in fact, that they made real, as does an actual tree in the foreground of a panorama, the rather misty sky and hills of Christianity. She had even called them very "teaching."
It was about eighteen months since she had first taken this up under the onslaught of Mrs. Stapleton's enthusiasm; but things had not been as satisfactory as she wished, until Mr. Vincent had appeared. Then indeed matters had moved forward; she had seen extraordinary things, and the effect of them had been doubled by the medium's obvious honesty and his strong personality. He was to her as a resolute priest to a timid penitent; he had led her forward, supported by his own conviction and his extremely steady will, until she had begun to feel at home in this amazing new world, and eager to make proselytes.
Then Laurie had appeared, and almost immediately a dread had seized her that she could neither explain nor understand. She had attempted a little tentative conversation on the point with dearest Maud, but dearest Maud had appeared so entirely incapable of understanding her scruples that she had said no more. But her inexplicable anxiety had already reached such a point that she had determined to say a word to Laurie on the subject. This had been done, without avail; and now a new step forward was to be made.
* * * * *
As to of what this step consisted she was perfectly aware.
The "controls," she believed—the spirits that desired to communicate—had a series of graduated steps by which the communications could be made, from mere incoherent noises (as a man may rap a message from one room to another), through appearances, also incoherent and intangible, right up to the final point of assuming visible tangible form, and of speaking in an audible voice. This process, she believed, consisted first in a mere connection between spirit and matter, and finally passed into an actual assumption of matter, molded into the form of the body once worn by the spirit on earth. For nearly all of this process she had had the evidence of her own senses; she had received messages, inexplicable to her except on the hypothesis put forward, from departed relations of her own; she had seen lights, and faces, and even figures formed before her eyes, in her own drawing-room; but she had not as yet, though dearest Maud had been more fortunate, been able to handle and grasp such figures, to satisfy the sense of touch, as well as of sight, in proof of the reality of the phenomenon.
Yes; she was satisfied even with what she had seen; she had no manner of doubt as to the theories put before her by Mr. Vincent; yet she shrank (and she scarcely knew why) from that final consummation which it was proposed to carry out if possible that evening. But the shrinking centered round some half-discerned danger to Laurie Baxter rather than to herself.
* * * * *
It was these kinds of thoughts that beset her as she walked up beneath the trees on her way homewards—checked and soothed now somewhat by the pleasant air and the radiant sunlight, yet perceptible beneath everything. And it was not only of Laurie Baxter that she thought; she spared a little attention for herself.
For she had begun to be aware, for the first time since her initiation, of a very faint distaste—as slight and yet as suggestive as that caused by a half-perceived consciousness of a delicately disagreeable smell. There comes such a moment in the life of cut flowers in water, when the impetus of growing energy ceases, and a new tone makes itself felt in their scent, of which the end is certain. It is not sufficient to cause the flowers to be thrown away; they still possess volumes of fragrance; yet these decrease, and the new scent increases, until it has the victory.
So it was now to the perceptions of this lady. Oh! yes. Spiritualism was very "teaching" and beautiful; it was perfectly compatible with orthodox religion; it was undeniably true. She would not dream of giving it up. Only it would be better if Laurie Baxter did not meddle with it: he was too sensitive.... However, he was coming that evening again.... There was the fact.
* * * * *
As she turned southwards at last, crossing the road again towards her own street, it seemed to her that the day even now was beginning to cloud over. Over the roofs of Kensington a haze was beginning to make itself visible, as impalpable as a skein of smoke; yet there it was. She felt a little languid, too. Perhaps she had walked too far. She would rest a little after lunch, if dearest Maud did not mind; for dearest Maud was to lunch with her, as was usual on Sundays when the Colonel was away.
As she came, slower than ever, down the broad opulent pavement of Queen's Gate, through the silence and emptiness of Sunday—for the church bells were long ago silent—she noticed coming towards her, with a sauntering step, an old gentleman in frock coat and silk hat of a slightly antique appearance, spatted and gloved, carrying his hands behind his back, as if he were waiting to be joined by some friend from one of the houses. She noticed that he looked at her through his glasses, but thought no more of it till she turned up the steps of her own house. Then she was startled by the sound of quick footsteps and a voice.
"I beg your pardon, madam ..."
She turned, with her key in the door, and there he stood, hat in hand.
"Have I the pleasure of speaking to Lady Laura Bethell?"
There was a pleasant brisk ring about his voice that inclined her rather favorably towards him.
"Is there anything.... Did you want to speak to me...? Yes, I am Lady Laura Bethell."
"I was told you were at church, madam, and that you were not at home to visitors on Sunday."
"That is quite right.... May I ask...?"
"Only a few minutes, Lady Laura, I promise you. Will you forgive my persistence?"
Yes; the man was a gentleman; there was no doubt of that.
"Would not tomorrow do? I am rather engaged today."
He had his card-case ready, and without answering her at once, he came up the steps and handed it to her.
The name meant nothing at all to her.
"Will not tomorrow...?" she began again.
"Tomorrow will be too late," said the old gentleman. "I beg of you, Lady Laura. It is on an extremely important matter."
She still hesitated an instant; then she pushed the door open and went in.
"Please come in," she said.
She was so taken aback by the sudden situation that she forgot completely that the drawing-room would be upside down, and led the way straight upstairs; and it was not till she was actually within the door, with the old gentleman close on her heels, that she saw that, with the exception of three or four chairs about the fire and the table set out near the hearthrug, the room was empty of furniture.
"I forgot," she said; "but will you mind coming in here.... We ... we have a meeting here this evening."
She led the way to the fire, and at first did not notice that he was not following her. When she turned round she saw the old gentleman, with his air of antique politeness completely vanished, standing and looking about him with a very peculiar expression. She also noticed, to her annoyance, that the cabinet was already in place in the little ante-room and that his eyes almost immediately rested upon it. Yet there was no look of wonder in his face; rather it was such a look as a man might have on visiting the scene of a well-known crime—interest, knowledge, and loathing.
"So it is here—" he said in quite a low voice.
Then he came across the room towards her.
For an instant his bearded face looked so strangely at her that she half moved towards the bell. Then he smiled, with a little reassuring gesture.
"No, no," he said. "May I sit down a moment?"
She began hastily to cover her confusion.
"It is a meeting," she said, "for this evening. I am sorry—"
"Just so," he said. "It is about that that I have come."
"I beg your pardon...?"
"Please sit down, Lady Laura.... May I say in a sentence what I have come to say?"
This seemed a very odd old man.
"Why, yes—" she said.
"I have come to beg you not to allow Mr. Baxter to enter the house.... No, I have no authority from anyone, least of all from Mr. Baxter. He has no idea that I have come. He would think it an unwarrantable piece of impertinence."
"Mr. Cathcart ... I—I cannot—"
"Allow me," he said, with a little compelling gesture that silenced her. "I have been asked to interfere by a couple of people very much interested in Mr. Baxter; one of them, if not both, completely disbelieves in spiritualism."
"Then you know—"
He waved his hand towards the cabinet.
"Of course I know," he said. "Why, I was a spiritualist for ten years myself. No, not a medium; not a professional, that is to say. I know all about Mr. Vincent; all about Mrs. Stapleton and yourself, Lady Laura. I still follow the news closely; I know perfectly well—"
"And you have given it up?"
"I have given it up for a long while," he said quietly. "And I have come to ask you to forbid Mr. Baxter to be present this evening, for—for the same reason for which I have given it up myself."
"Yes? And that—"
"I don't think we need go into that," he said. "It is enough, is it not, for me to say that Mr. Baxter's work, and, in fact, his whole nervous system, is suffering considerably from the excitement; that one of the persons who have asked me to do what I can is Mr. Baxter's own law-coach: and that even if he had not asked me, Mr. Baxter's own appearance—"
"You know him?"
"Practically, no. I lunched at the same table with him on Friday; the symptoms are quite unmistakable."
"I don't understand. Symptoms?"
"Well, we will say symptoms of nervous excitement. You are aware, no doubt, that he is exceptionally sensitive. Probably you have seen for yourself—"
"Wait a moment," said Lady Laura, her own heart beating furiously. "Why do you not go to Mr. Baxter himself?"
"I have done so. I arranged to meet him at lunch, and somehow I took a wrong turn with him: I have no tact whatever, as you perceive. But I wrote to him on Friday night, offering to call upon him, and just giving him a hint. Well, it was useless. He refused to see me."
"I don't see what I—"
"Oh yes," chirped the old gentleman almost gaily. "It would be quite unusual and unconventional. I just ask you to send him a line—I will take it myself, if you wish it—telling him that you think it would be better for him not to come, and saying that you are making other arrangements for tonight."
He looked at her with that odd little air of birdlike briskness that she had noticed in the street; and it pleasantly affected her even in the midst of the uneasiness that now surged upon her again tenfold more than before. She could see that there was something else behind his manner; it had just looked out in the glance he had given round the room on entering; but she could not trouble at this moment to analyze what it was. She was completely bewildered by the strangeness of the encounter, and the extraordinary coincidence of this man's judgment with her own. Yet there were a hundred reasons against her taking his advice. What would the others say? What of all the arrangements ... the expectation...?
"I don't see how it's possible now," she began. "I think I know what you mean. But—"
"Indeed, I trust you have no idea," cried the old gentleman, with a queer little falsetto note coming into his voice—"no idea at all. I come to you merely on the plea of nervous excitement; it is injuring his health, Lady Laura."
She looked at him curiously.
"But—" she began.
"Oh, I will go further," he said. "Have you never heard of—of insanity in connection with all this? We will call it insanity, if you wish."
For a moment her heart stood still. The word had a sinister sound, in view of an incident she had once witnessed; but it seemed to her that some meaning behind, unknown to her, was still more sinister. Why had he said that it might be "called insanity" only...?
"Yes.... I—I have once seen a case," she stammered.
"Well," said the old gentleman, "is it not enough when I tell you that I—I who was a spiritualist for ten years—have never seen a more dangerous subject than Mr. Baxter? Is the risk worth it...? Lady Laura, do you quite understand what you are doing?"
He leaned forward a little; and again she felt anxiety, sickening and horrible, surge within her. Yet, on the other hand....
The door opened suddenly, and Mr. Vincent came in.
There was silence for a moment; then the old gentleman turned round, and in an instant was on his feet, quiet, but with an air of bristling about his thrust-out chin and his tense attitude.
Mr. Vincent paused, looking from one to the other.
"I beg your pardon, Lady Laura," he said courteously. "Your man told me to wait here; I think he did not know you had come in."
"Well—er—this gentleman..." began Lady Laura. "Why, do you know Mr. Vincent?" she asked suddenly, startled by the expression in the old gentleman's face.
"I used to know Mr. Vincent," he said shortly.
"You have the advantage of me," smiled the medium, coming forward to the fire.
"My name is Cathcart, sir."
The other started, almost imperceptibly.
"Ah! yes," he said quietly. "We did meet a few times, I remember."
Lady Laura was conscious of distinct relief at the interruption: it seemed to her a providential escape from a troublesome decision.
"I think there is nothing more to be said, Mr. Cathcart.... No, don't go, Mr. Vincent. We had finished our talk."
"Lady Laura," said the old gentleman with a rather determined air, "I beg of you to give me ten minutes more private conversation."
She hesitated, clearly foreseeing trouble either way. Then she decided.
"There is no necessity today," she said. "If you care to make an appointment for one day next week, Mr. Cathcart—"
"I am to understand that you refuse me a few minutes now?"
"There is no necessity that I can see—"
"Then I must say what I have to say before Mr. Vincent—"
"One moment, sir," put in the medium, with that sudden slight air of imperiousness that Lady Laura knew very well by now. "If Lady Laura consents to hear you, I must take it on myself to see that nothing offensive is said." He glanced as if for leave towards the woman.
She made an effort.
"If you will say it quickly," she began. "Otherwise—"
The old gentleman drew a breath as if to steady himself. It was plain that he was very strongly moved beneath his self-command: his air of cheerful geniality was gone.
"I will say it in one sentence," he said. "It is this: You are ruining that boy between you, body and soul; and you are responsible before his Maker and yours. And if—"
"Lady Laura," said the medium, "do you wish to hear any more?"
She made a doubtful little gesture of assent.
"And if you wish to know my reasons for saying this," went on Mr. Cathcart, "you have only to ask for them from Mr. Vincent. He knows well enough why I left spiritualism—if he dares to tell you."
Lady Laura glanced at the medium. He was perfectly still and quiet—looking, watching the old man curiously and half humorously under his heavy eyebrows.
"And I understand," went on the other, "that tonight you are to make an attempt at complete materialization. Very good; then after tonight it may be too late. I have tried to appeal to the boy: he will not hear me. And you too have refused to hear me out. I could give you evidence, if you wished. Ask this gentleman how many cases he has known in the last five years, where complete ruin, body and soul—"
The medium turned a little to the fire, sighing as if for weariness: and at the sound the old man stopped, trembling. It was more obvious than ever that he only held himself in restraint by a very violent effort: it was as if the presence of the medium affected him in an extraordinary degree.
Lady Laura glanced again from one to the other.
"That is all, then?" she said.
His lips worked. Then he burst out—
"I am sick of talking," he cried—"sick of it! I have warned you. That is enough. I cannot do more."
He wheeled on his heel and went out. A minute later the two heard the front door bang.
She looked at Mr. Vincent. He was twirling softly in his strong fingers a little bronze candlestick that stood on the mantelpiece: his manner was completely unconcerned; he even seemed to be smiling a little.
For herself she felt helpless. She had taken her choice, impelled to it, though she scarcely recognized the fact, by the entrance of this strong personality; and now she needed reassurance once again. But before she had a word to say, he spoke—still in his serene manner.
"Yes, yes," he said. "I remember now. I used to know Mr. Cathcart once. A very violent old gentleman."
"What did he mean?"
"His reasons for leaving us? Indeed I scarcely remember. I suppose it was because he became a Catholic."
"Was there nothing more?"
He looked at her pleasantly.
"Why, I daresay there was. I really can't remember, Lady Laura. I suppose he had his nerves shaken. You can see for yourself what a fanatic he is."
But in spite of his presence, once more a gust of anxiety shook her.
"Mr. Vincent, are you sure it's safe—for Mr. Baxter, I mean?"
"Safe? Why, he's as safe as any of us can be. We all have nervous systems, of course."
"But he's particularly sensitive, isn't he?"
"Indeed, yes. That is why even this evening he must not go into trance. That must come later, after a good training."
She stood up, and came herself to stand by the mantelpiece.
"Then really there's no danger?"
He turned straight to her, looking at her with kind, smiling eyes.
"Lady Laura," he said, "have I ever yet told you that there was no danger? I think not. There is always danger, for every one of us, as there is for the scientist in the laboratory, and the engineer in his machinery. But what we can do is to reduce that danger to a minimum, so that, humanly speaking, we are reasonably and sufficiently safe. No doubt you remember the case of that girl? Well, that was an accident: and accidents will happen; but do me the justice to remember that it was the first time that I had seen her. It was absolutely impossible to foresee. She was on the very edge of a nervous breakdown before she entered the room. But with regard to Mr. Baxter, I have seen him again and again; and I tell you that I consider him to be running a certain risk—but a perfectly justifiable one, and one that is reduced to a minimum, if I did not think that we were taking every precaution, I would not have him in the room for all the world.... Are you satisfied, Lady Laura?"
Every word he said helped her back to assurance. It was all so reasonable and well weighed. If he had said there was no danger, she would have feared the more, but his very recognition of it gave her security. And above all, his tranquility and his strength were enormous assets on his side.
She drew a breath, and decided to go forward.
"And Mr. Cathcart?" she asked.
He smiled again.
"You can see what he is," he said. "I should advise you not to see him again. It's of no sort of use."
The weather forecasts had been in the right; and the few that struggled homewards that night from church fought against a south-west wind that tore, laden with driving rain, up the streets and across the open spaces, till the very lights were dimmed in the tall street lamps and shone only through streaming panes that seemed half opaque with mist and vapor. In Queen's Gate hardly one lighted window showed that the houses were inhabited. So fierce was the clamor and storm of the broad street that men made haste to shut out every glimpse of the night, and the fanlights above the doors, or here and there a line of brightness where some draught had tossed the curtains apart, were the only signs of human life. Outside the broad pavements stared like surfaces of some canal, black and mirror-like, empty of passengers, catching every spark or hint of light from house and lamp, transforming it to a tall streak of glimmering wetness.
The housekeeper's room in this house on the right was the more delightful from the contrast. It was here that the august assembly was held every evening after supper, set about with rigid etiquette and ancient rite. Its windows looked on to the little square garden at the back, but were now tight shuttered and curtained; and the room was a very model of comfort and warmth. Before the fire a square table was drawn up, set out with pudding and fruit, for it was here that the upper servants withdrew after the cold meat and beer of the servants' hall, to be waited upon by the butler's boy: and it was round this that the four sat in state—housekeeper, butler, lady's maid, and cook.
It was already after ten o'clock; and Mr. Parker was permitted to smoke a small cigar. They had discussed the weather, the sermon that Miss Baker had heard in the morning, and the prospects of a Dissolution; and they had once more returned to the mysteries that were being enacted upstairs. They were getting accustomed to them now, and there was not a great deal to say, unless they repeated themselves, which they had no objection to do. Their attitude was one of tolerant skepticism, tempered by an agreeable tendency on the part of Miss Baker to become agitated after a certain point. Mr. Vincent, it was generally conceded, was a respectable sort of man, with an air about him that could hardly be put into words, and it was thought to be a pity that he lent himself to such superstition. Mrs. Stapleton had been long ago dismissed as a silly sort of woman, though with a will of her own; and her ladyship, of course, must have her way; it could not last long, it was thought.
But young Mr. Baxter was another matter, and there was a deal to say about him. He was a gentleman—that was certain; and he seemed to have sense; but it was a pity that he was so often here now on this business. He had not said one word to Mr. Parker this evening as he took off his coat; Mr. Parker had not thought that he looked very well.
"He was too quiet-like," said the butler.
As to the details of the affair upstairs—these were considered in a purely humorous light. It was understood that tables danced a hornpipe, and that tambourines were beaten by invisible hands; and it was not necessary to go further into principles, particularly since all these things were done by machinery at the Egyptian Hall. Faces also, it was believed, were seen looking out of the cabinet which Mr. Parker had once more helped to erect this morning; but these, it was explained, were "done" by luminous paint. Finally, if people insisted on looking into causes, Electricity was a sufficient answer for all the rest. No one actually suggested water-power.
As for human motives, these were not called in question at all. It appeared to amuse some people to do this kind of thing, as others might collect old china or practice the cotillion. There it was, a fact, and there was no more to be said about it. Old Lady Carraden, where Mr. Parker had once been under-butler, had gone in for pouter pigeons; and Miss Baker had heard tell of a nobleman who had a carpenter's shop of his own.
These things were so, then; and meantime here was a cigar to be smoked by Mr. Parker, and a little weak tea to be taken by the three ladies.
It was about a quarter-past ten when a reversion was made to the weather. Within here all was supremely comfortable. A black stuff mat, with a red fringed border, lay before the blazing fire, convenient to the feet; the heavy red curtains shut out the darkness, and where the glass cases of china permitted it, large photographs of wedding groups and the houses of the nobility hung upon the walls. A King Charles' spaniel, in another glass case, looked upon the company with an eternal snarl belied by the mildness of his brown eyes; and, corresponding to him on the other side of the fire, a numerous family of humming-birds, a little dusty and dim, poised perpetually above the flowers of a lichened tree, with a flaming sunset to show them up.
But, without, the wind tore unceasingly, laden with rain, through the gusty darkness of the little garden, and, in the pauses, the swift dripping from the roof splashed and splashed upon the paved walk. It was a very wild night, as Mr. Parker observed four times: he only hoped that no one would require a hansom cab. He had been foolish enough to take the responsibility tonight of letting the guests out himself, and of allowing William to go to bed when he wished. And these were late affairs, seldom over before eleven, and often not till nearly midnight.
Mrs. Martin, in her blouse, moved a little nearer the fire, and said she must be off soon to bed; Mrs. Mayle, in her black silk, added that there was no telling when her ladyship would get to bed, what with Mrs. Stapleton and all, and commiserated Miss Baker; Miss Baker moaned a little in self-pity; and Mr. Parker remarked for the fifth time that it was a wild night. It was an astonishingly serene and domestic atmosphere: no effort of imagination or wit was required from anybody; it was enough to make observations when they occurred to the brain, and they would meet with a tranquil response.
As half-past ten tinkled out from the little yellow marble clock on the mantelpiece—it had been won by Mrs. Mayle's deceased husband in a horticultural exhibition—Mrs. Martin said that she must go and have a look at the scullery to see that all was as it should be; there was no knowing with these girls nowadays what they might not leave undone; and Mrs. Mayle preened herself gently with the thought that her responsibilities were on a higher plane. Mr. Parker made a courteous movement as if to rise, and remained seated, as the cook rustled out. Miss Baker sighed again as she contemplated the long conversation that might take place between the two ladies upstairs before she could get her mistress to bed.
Once more the tranquil atmosphere settled down on the warm room; the brass lamp burned brightly with a faint and reassuring smell of paraffin; the fire presented a radiant cavern of red coals fringed by dancing flames; and Mr. Parker leaned forwards to shake off the ash of his cigar.
Then, on a sudden, he paused, for from the passage outside came the passionless tinkle of an electric bell—then another, and another, and another, as if some person overhead strove by reiteration on that single note to cry out some overwhelming need.
Overhead in the great empty drawing-room the noise of the wind and rain, the almost continuous spatter on the glass, and the long hooting of the gusts, had been far more noticeable than in the basement beneath. Below stairs the company had been natural and normal, talking of this and that, in a brightly lighted room, dwelling only on matters that fell beneath the range of their senses, lulled by warmth and food and cigar-smoke into a kind of rapt self-contemplation. But up here, in the gloom, lighted only on this occasion by a single shaded candle, in a complete interior silence, three persons had sat round a table for more than an hour, striving by passivity and a kind of indescribable concentration to ignore all that was presented by the senses, and to await some movement from that which lies beyond them.
Lady Laura had sat down that night in a state of mind which she could not analyze. It was not that her anxieties had been lulled so much as counterbalanced; they were still there, at once poignant and heavy, but on the other side there had been the assured air of the medium, his reasonableness and his personality, as well as the enthusiasm of her friend, and her astonished remonstrances. She had decided to acquiesce, not because she was satisfied, but because on the whole anxiety was outweighed by confidence. She could not have taken action under such circumstances, but she could at least refrain from it.
Laurie, as Mr. Parker had noticed, had been "quiet-like"; he had said very little indeed, but a nervous strain was evident in the brightness of his eyes; but in answer to a conventional inquiry he had declared himself extremely well. Mr. Vincent had looked at him for just an instant longer than usual as he shook hands, but he said nothing. Mrs. Stapleton had made an ecstatic remark or two on the envy with which she regarded the boy's sensitive faculties.
At the beginning of the seance the medium had repeated his warnings as to Laurie's avoiding of trance, and had added one or two other precautions. Then he had gone into the cabinet; the fire had been pressed down under ashes, and a single candle lighted and placed behind the angle of the little adjoining room in such a position that its shaded light fell upon the cabinet only and the figure of the medium within.
* * * * *
When the silence became fixed, Lady Laura for the first time perceived the rage of wind and rain outside. The very intensity of the interior stillness and the rapture of attention emphasized to an extraordinary degree the windy roar without. Yet the silence seemed to her, now as always, to have a peculiar faculty of detaching the psychical from the physical atmosphere. In spite of the batter of rain not ten feet away, the sighing between the shutters, and even the lift now and again of the heavy curtains in the draught, she seemed to herself as remote from it as does a man crouching in the dark under some ruin feel himself at an almost infinite distance from the pick and the hammer of the rescuers. These were in one world, she in another.
For over an hour no movement was made. She herself sat facing the fire, Laurie on her left looking towards the cabinet with his back to the windows, Mrs. Stapleton opposite to her.
An endless procession of thoughts defiled before her as she sat, yet these too were somewhat remote—far up, so to speak, on the superficies of consciousness: they did not approach that realm of the will poised now and attentive on another range of existence. Once and again she glanced up without moving her head at the three-quarter profile on her left, at the somewhat Zulu-like outline opposite to her; then down again at the polished little round table and the six hands laid upon it. And meanwhile her brain revolved images rather than thoughts, memories rather than reflections—vignettes, so to speak,—old Mr. Cathcart in his spats and frock-coat, the look on the medium's face, there and gone again in an instant as he had heard the stranger's name; the carved oak stalls of the chancel towards which she had faced this morning, the look of the park, the bloom upon the still leafless trees, the radiance of the blue spring sky....
It must have been, she thought, after a little over an hour that the first expected movement made itself felt—a long trembling shudder through the wood beneath her hands, followed by a strange sensation of lightness, as if the whole table rose a little from the floor. Then, almost before the movement subsided, a torrent of little taps poured itself out, as delicate and as swift and, it seemed, as perfectly calculated, as the rapping of some minute electric hammer. This was new to her, yet not so unlike other experiences as to seem strange or perturbing in any way.... Again she bent her attention to the table as the vibration ceased.
There followed a long silence.
It must have been about ten minutes later that she became aware of the next phenomenon; and her attention had been called to it by a sudden noiseless uplifting of the profile on her left. She turned her face to the cabinet and looked; and there, perfectly discernible, was some movement going on between the curtains. For the moment she could see the medium clearly, his arms folded, indicated by the white lines of his cuffs across his breast, his head sunk forward in deep sleep; and at the next instant the curtains flapped two or three times, as if jerked from within, and finally rested completely closed.
She glanced quickly at the boy on her left, and in the diffused light from the other room could see him distinctly, his eyes open and watching, his lips compressed as if in some tense effort of self-control.
When she looked at the cabinet again she could see that some movement had begun again behind the curtains, for these swayed and jerked convulsively, as if some person with but little room was moving there. And she could hear now, as the gusts outside lulled for a moment, the steady rather stertorous breathing of the medium. Then once again the wind gathered strength outside; the rain tore at the glass like a streaming handful of tiny pebbles, and the great curtains at her side lifted and sighed in the draught through the shutters.
When it quieted again the breathing had become a measured moaning, as that which a dreaming dog emits at the end of each expiration; and she herself drew a long trembling breath, overwhelmed by the sense of some struggle in the room such as she had not experienced before.
It was impossible for her to express this even to herself; yet the perception was clear—as clear as some presentment of the senses. She knew during those moments, as she watched the swaying curtains of the cabinet in the shaded light that fell upon them, and heard now and again that low moan from behind them, that some kind of stress lay upon something that was new to her in this connection. For the time she forgot her undertone of anxiety as to this boy at her side, and a curious terrified excitement took its place. Once, even then, she glanced at him again, and saw the motionless profile watching, always watching....
Then in an instant the climax came, and this is what she saw.
* * * * *
The commotion of the curtains ceased suddenly, and they hung in straight folds from roof to floor of the little cabinet. Then they gently parted—she saw the long fingers that laid hold of them—and the form of a person came out, descended the single step, and stood on the floor before her eyes, in the plain candlelight, not four steps away.
It was the figure of a young girl, perfectly formed in all its parts, swathed in some light stuff resembling muslin that fell almost to the feet and shrouded the upper part of the head. Her hands were clasped across her breast, her bare feet were visible against the dark floor, and her features were unmistakably clear. There was a certain beauty in the face—in the young lips, the open eyes, and the dark lines of the brows over them; and the complexion was waxen, clear as of a blonde. But, as the observer had noticed before on the three or four occasions on which she had seen these phenomena, there was a strange mask-like set of the features, as if the life that lay behind them had not perfectly saturated that which expressed it. It was something utterly different from the face of a dead person, yet also not completely alive, though the eyes turned a little in their sockets, and the young down-curved lips smiled. Behind her, plain between the tossed-back curtains, was the figure of the medium sunk in sleep.
And so for a few seconds the apparition remained.
It seemed to the watcher that during those seconds the whole world was still. Whether in truth the wind had dropped, or whether the absorbed attention perceived nothing but the marvel before it, yet so it seemed. Even the breathing of the medium had stopped; Lady Laura heard only the ticking of the watch upon her own wrist.
Then, as once more a gust tore up from the south-west, the figure moved forward a step nearer the table, coming with a motion as of a living person, causing, it even appeared, that faint vibration on the floor as of a living body.
She stood so near now, though with her back to the diffused light of the ante-room, that her features were more plain than before—the stained lips, the open eyes, the shadow beneath the nostrils and chin, even the white fingers clasped across the breast. There was none of that vague mistiness that had been seen once before in that room; every line was as clear-cut as in the face of a living person; even the swell of the breast beneath the hands, the slender sloping shoulders, the long curved line from hip to ankle, all were real and discernible. And once again the staring eyes of the watcher took in, and her mind perceived, that slight mask-like look on the pretty appealing face.
Once again the figure came forward, straight on to the table; and then, so swift that not a motion or a word could check it, the catastrophe fell.
There was a violent movement on Lady Laura's left hand, a chair shot back and fell, and with a horrible tearing cry from the throat, the boy dashed himself face forwards across the table, snatched at and for an instant seized something real and concrete that stood there; and as the two women sprang up, losing sight for an instant of the figure that had been there a moment ago, the boy sank forward, moaning and sobbing, and a crash as of a heavy body falling sounded from the cabinet.
For a space of reckonable time there was complete silence. Then once more a blast of wind tore up from the south-west, rain shattered against the window, and the house vibrated to the shock.
As the date approached Maggie felt her anxieties settle down, like a fire, from turbulence to steady flame. On the Sunday she had with real difficulty kept it to herself, and the fringe of the storm of wind and rain that broke over Herefordshire in the evening had not been reassuring. Yet on one thing her will kept steady hold, and that was that Mrs. Baxter must not be consulted. No conceivable good could result, and there might even be harm: either the old lady would be too much or not enough concerned: she might insist on Laurie's return to Stantons, or might write him a cheering letter encouraging him to amuse himself in any direction that he pleased. So Maggie passed the evening in fits of alternate silence and small conversation, and succeeded in making Mrs. Baxter recommend a good long night.
Monday morning, however, broke with a cloudless sky, an air like wine, and the chatter of birds; and by the time that Maggie went to look at the crocuses immediately before breakfast, she was all but at her ease again. Enough, however, of anxiety remained to make her hurry out to the stable-yard when she heard the postman on his way to the back door.
There was one letter for her, in Mr. Cathcart's handwriting; and she opened it rather hastily as she turned in again to the garden.
It was reassuring. It stated that the writer had approached—that was the word—Mr. Baxter, though unfortunately with ill-success, and that he proposed on the following day—the letter was dated on Saturday evening—also to approach Lady Laura Bethell. He felt fairly confident, he said, that his efforts would succeed in postponing, at any rate, Mr. Baxter's visit to Lady Laura; and in that case he would write further as to what was best to be done. In the meanwhile Miss Deronnais was not to be in the least anxious. Whatever happened, it was extremely improbable that one visit more or less to a seance would carry any great harm: it was the habit, rather than the act, that was usually harmful to the nervous system. And the writer begged to remain her obedient servant.
Maggie's spirits rose with a bound. How extraordinarily foolish she had been, she told herself, to have been filled with such forebodings last night! It was more than likely that the seance had taken place without Laurie; and, even at the worst, as Mr. Cathcart said, he was probably only a little more excited than usual this morning.
So she began to think about future arrangements; and by the time that Mrs. Baxter looked benignantly out at her from beneath the Queen Anne doorway to tell her that breakfast was waiting, she was conceiving of the possibility of going up herself to London in a week or two on some shopping excuse, and of making one more genial attempt to persuade Laurie to be a sensible boy again.
During her visit to the fowl-yard after breakfast she began to elaborate these plans.
She was clear now, once again, that the whole thing was a fantastic delusion, and that its sole harm was that it was superstitious and nerve-shaking. (She threw a large handful of maize, with a meditative eye.) It was on that ground and that only that she would approach Laurie. Perhaps even it would be better for her not to go and see him; it might appear that she was making too much of it: a good sensible letter might do the work equally well.... Well, she would wait at least to hear from Mr. Cathcart once more. The second post would probably bring a letter from him. (She emptied her bowl.)
She was out again in the spring sunshine, walking up and down before the house with a book, by the time that the second post was due. But this time, through the iron gate, she saw the postman go past the house without stopping. Once more her spirits rose, this time, one might say, to par; and she went indoors.
Her window looked out on to the front; and she moved her writing-table to it to catch as much as possible of the radiant air and light of the spring day. She proposed to begin to sketch out what she would say to Laurie, and suggest, if he wished it, to come up and see him in a week or two. She would apologize for her fussiness, and say that the reason why she was writing was that she did not want his mother to be made anxious.
"My dear Laurie..."
She bit her pen gently, and looked out of the window to catch inspiration for the particular frame of words with which she should begin. And as she looked an old gentleman suddenly appeared beyond the iron gate, shook it gently, glanced up in vain for a name on the stone posts, and stood irresolute. It was an old trap, that of the front gate; there was no bell, and it was necessary for visitors to come straight in to the front door.
Then, so swiftly that she could not formulate it, an anxiety leapt at her, and she laid her pen down, staring. Who was this?
She went quickly to the bell and rang it; standing there waiting, with beating heart and face suddenly gone white....
"Susan," she said, "there is an old gentleman at the gate. Go out and see who it is.... Stop: if it is anyone for me ... if—if he gives the name of Mr. Cathcart, ask him to be so kind as to go round the turn to the village and wait for me.... Susan, don't say anything to Mrs. Baxter; it may just possibly be bad news."
From behind the curtain she watched the maid go down the path, saw a few words pass between her and the stranger, and then the maid come back. She waited breathless.
"Yes, miss. It is a Mr. Cathcart. He said he would wait for you."
"I will go," she said. "Remember, please do not say a word to anyone. It may be bad news, as I said."
* * * * *
As she walked through the hamlet three minutes later, she began to recognize that the news must be really serious; and that beneath all her serenity she had been aware of its possibility. So intense now was that anxiety—though perfectly formless in its details—that all other faculties seemed absorbed into it. She could not frame any imagination as to what it meant; she could form no plan, alternative or absolute, as to what must be done. She was only aware that something had happened, and that she would know the facts in a few seconds.
About fifty yards up the turning she saw the old gentleman waiting. He was in his London clothes, silk-hatted and spatted, and made a curiously incongruous picture there in the deep-banked lane that led upwards to the village. On either side towered the trees, still leafless, yet bursting with life; and overhead chattered the birds against the tender midday sky of spring.
He lifted his hat as she came to him; but they spoke no word of greeting.
"Tell me quickly," she said. "I am Maggie Deronnais."
He turned to walk by her side, saying nothing for a moment.
"The facts or the interpretation?" he asked in his brisk manner. "I will just say first that I have seen him this morning."
"Oh! the facts," she said. "Quickly, please."
"Well, he is going to Mr. Morton's chambers this afternoon; he says..."
"One moment, please.... Oh! he is not seriously ill, as the world counts illness. He thought he was just very tired this morning. I went round to call on him. He was in bed at half-past ten when I left him. Then I came straight down here."
For a moment she thought the old man mad. The relief was so intense that she flushed scarlet, and stopped dead in the middle of the road.
"You came down here," she repeated. "Why, I thought—"
He looked at her gravely, in spite of the incessant twinkle in his eyes. She perceived that this old man's eyes would twinkle at a death-bed. He stroked his grey beard smoothly down.
"Yes; you thought that he was dead, perhaps? Oh, no. But for all that, Miss Deronnais, it is just as serious as it can be."
She did not know what to think. Was the man a madman himself?
"Listen, please. I am telling you simply the facts. I was anxious, and I went round this morning first to Lady Laura Bethell. To my astonishment she saw me. I will not tell you all that she said, just now. She was in a terrible state, though she did not know one-tenth of the harm—Well, after what she told me I went round straight to Mitre Court. The porter was inclined not to let me in. Well, I went in, and straight into Mr. Baxter's bedroom; and I found there—"
"I found exactly what I had feared, and expected."
"Oh! tell me quickly," she cried, wheeling on him in anger.
He looked at her as if critically for a moment. Then he went on abruptly.
"I found Mr. Baxter in bed. I made no apology at all. I said simply that I had come to see how he was after the seance."
"It took place, then—"
"Oh! yes.... I forgot to mention that Lady Laura would pay no attention to me yesterday.... Yes, it took place.... Well, Mr. Baxter did not seem surprised to see me. He told me he felt tired. He said that the seance had been a success. And while he talked I watched him. Then I came away and caught the ten-fifty."
"I don't understand in the least," said Maggie.
"So I suppose," said the other dryly. "I imagine you do not believe in spiritualism at all—I mean that you think that the whole thing is fraud or hysteria?"
"Yes, I do," said Maggie bravely.
He nodded once or twice.
"So do most sensible people. Well, Miss Deronnais, I have come to warn you. I did not write, because it was impossible to know what to say until I had seen you and heard your answer to that question. At the same time, I wanted to lose no time. Anything may happen now at any moment.... I wanted to tell you this: that I am at your service now altogether. When—" he stopped; then he began again, "If you hear no further news for the present, may I ask when you expect to see Mr. Baxter again?"
"In Easter week."
"That is a fortnight off.... Do you think you could persuade him to come down here next week instead? I should like you to see him for yourself: or even sooner."
She was still hopelessly confused with these apparent alternations. She still wondered whether Mr. Cathcart were as mad as he seemed. They turned, as the village came in sight ahead, up the hill.
"Next week? I could try," she said mechanically. "But I don't understand—"
He held up a gloved hand.
"Wait till you have seen him," he said. "For myself, I shall make a point of seeing Mr. Morton every day to hear the news.... Miss Deronnais, I tell you plainly that you alone will have to bear the weight of all this, unless Mrs. Baxter—"
"Oh, do explain," she said almost irritably.
He looked at her with those irresistibly twinkling eyes, but she perceived a very steady will behind them.
"I will explain nothing at all," he said, "now that I have seen you, and heard what you think, except this single point. What you have to be prepared for is the news that Mr. Baxter has suddenly gone out of his mind."
It was said in exactly the same tone as his previous sentences, and for a moment she did not catch the full weight of its meaning. She stopped and looked at him, paling gradually.
"Yes, you took that very well," he said, still meeting her eyes steadily. "Stop.... Keep a strong hold on yourself. That is the worst you have to hear, for the present. Now tell me immediately whether you think Mrs. Baxter should be informed or not."
Her leaping heart slowed down into three or four gulping blows at the base of her throat. She swallowed with difficulty.
"How do you know—"
"Kindly answer my question," he said. "Do you think Mrs. Baxter—"
"Oh, God! Oh, God!" sobbed Maggie.
"Steady, steady," said the old man. "Take my arm, Miss Deronnais."
She shook her head, keeping her eyes fixed on his.
He smiled in his grey beard.
"Very good," he said, "very good. And do you think—"
She shook her head again.
"No: not one word. She is his mother. Besides—she is not the kind—she would be of no use."
"Yes: it is as I thought. Very well, Miss Deronnais; you will have to be responsible. You can wire for me at any moment. You have my address?"
"Then I have one or two things to add. Whatever happens, do not lose heart for one moment. I have seen these cases again and again.... Whatever happens, too, do not put yourself into a doctor's hands until I have seen Mr. Baxter for myself. The thing may come suddenly or gradually. And the very instant you are convinced it is coming, telegraph to me. I will be here two hours after.... Do you understand?"
They halted twenty yards from the turning into the hamlet. He looked at her again with his kindly humorous eyes.
She nodded slowly and deliberately, repeating in her own mind his instructions; and beneath, like a whirl of waters, questions surged to and fro, clamoring for answer. But her self-control was coming back each instant.
"You understand, Miss Deronnais?" he said again.
"I understand. Will you write to me?"
"I will write this evening.... Once more, then. Get him down next week. Watch him carefully when he comes. Consult no doctor until you have telegraphed to me, and I have seen him."
She drew a long breath, nodding almost mechanically.
"Good-bye, Miss Deronnais. Let me tell you that you are taking it magnificently. Fear nothing; pray much."
He took her hand for a moment. Then he raised his hat and left her standing there.
Mrs. Baxter was exceedingly absorbed just now in a new pious book of meditations written by a clergyman. A nicely bound copy of it, which she had ordered specially, had arrived by the parcels post that morning; and she had been sitting in the drawing-room ever since looking through it, and marking it with a small silver pencil. Religion was to this lady what horticulture was to Maggie, except of course that it was really important, while horticulture was not. She often wondered that Maggie did not seem to understand: of course she went to mass every morning, dear girl; but religion surely was much more than that; one should be able to sit for two or three hours over a book in the drawing-room, before the fire, with a silver pencil.
So at lunch she prattled of the book almost continuously, and at the end of it thought Maggie more unsubtle than ever: she looked rather tired and strained, thought the old lady, and she hardly said a word from beginning to end.
The drive in the afternoon was equally unsatisfactory. Mrs. Baxter took the book with her, and the pencil, in order to read aloud a few extracts here and there; and she again seemed to find Maggie rather vacuous and silent.
"Dearest child, you are not very well, I think," she said at last.
Maggie roused herself suddenly.
"You are not very well, I think. Did you sleep well?"
"Oh! I slept all right," said Maggie vaguely.
* * * * *
But after tea Mrs. Baxter did not feel very well herself. She said she thought she must have taken a little chill. Maggie looked at her with unperceptive eyes.
"I am sorry," she said mechanically.
"Dearest, you don't seem very overwhelmed. I think perhaps I shall have dinner in bed. Give me my book, child.... Yes, and the pencil-case."
Mrs. Baxter's room was so comfortable, and the book so fascinatingly spiritual, that she determined to keep her resolution and go to bed. She felt feverish, just to the extent of being very sleepy and at her ease. She rang her bell and issued her commands.
"A little of the volaille," she said, "with a spoonful of soup before it.... No, no meat; but a custard or so, and a little fruit. Oh! yes, Charlotte, and tell Miss Maggie not to come and see me after dinner."
It seemed that the message had roused the dear girl at last, for Maggie appeared ten minutes later in quite a different mood. There was really some animation in her face.
"Dear Auntie, I am so very sorry.... Yes; do go to bed, and breakfast there in the morning too. I'm just writing to Laurie, by the way."
Mrs. Baxter nodded sleepily from her deep chair.
"He's coming down in Easter week, isn't he?"
"So he says, my dear."
"Why shouldn't he come next week instead, Auntie, and be with us for Easter? You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Very nice indeed, dear child; but don't bother the boy."
"And you don't think it's influenza?" put in Maggie swiftly, laying a cool hand on the old lady's.
She maintained it was not. It was just a little chill, such as she had had this time last year: and it became necessary to rouse herself a little to enumerate the symptoms. By the time she had done, Maggie's attention had begun to wander again: the old lady had never known her so unsympathetic before, and said so with gentle peevishness.
Maggie kissed her quickly.
"I'm sorry, Auntie," she said. "I was just thinking of something. Sleep well; and don't get up in the morning."
Then she left her to a spoonful of soup, a little volaille, a custard, some fruit, her spiritual book and contentment.
Downstairs she dined alone in the green-hung dining-room; and she revolved for the twentieth time the thoughts that had been continuously with her since midday, moving before her like a kaleidoscope, incessantly changing their relations, their shapes, and their suggestions. These tended to form themselves into two main alternative classes. Either Mr. Cathcart was a harmless fanatic, or he was unusually sharp. But these again had almost endless subdivisions, for at present she had no idea of what was really in his mind—as to what his hints meant. Either this curious old gentleman with shrewd, humorous eyes was entirely wrong, and Laurie was just suffering from a nervous strain, not severe enough to hinder him from reading law in Mr. Morton's chambers; and this was all the substratum of Mr. Cathcart's mysteries: or else Mr. Cathcart was right, and Laurie was in the presence of some danger called insanity which Mr. Cathcart interpreted in some strange fashion she could not understand. And beneath all this again moved the further questions as to what spiritualism really was—what it professed to be, or mere superstitious nonsense, or something else.
She was amazed that she had not demanded greater explicitness this morning; but the thing had been so startling, so suggestive at first, so insignificant in its substance, that her ordinary common sense had deserted her. The old gentleman had come and gone like a wraith, had uttered a few inconclusive sentences, and promised to write, had been disappointed with her at one moment and enthusiastic the next. Obviously their planes ran neither parallel nor opposing; they cut at unexpected points; and Maggie had no notion as to the direction in which his lay. All she saw plainly was that there was some point of view other than hers.
So, then, she revolved theories, questioned, argued, doubted with herself. One thing only emerged—the old lady's feverish cold afforded her exactly the opportunity she wished; she could write to Laurie with perfect truthfulness that his mother had taken to her bed, and that she hoped he would come down next week instead of the week after.
After dinner she sat down and wrote it, pausing many times to consider a phrase.
Then she read a little, and soon after ten went upstairs to bed.
It was a little before sunset on that day that Mr. James Morton turned down on to the Embankment to walk up to the Westminster underground to take him home. He was a great man on physical exercise, and it was a matter of principle with him to live far from his work. As he came down the little passage he found his friend waiting for him, and together they turned up towards where in the distance the Westminster towers rose high and blue against the evening sky.
"Well?" said the old man.
Mr. Morton looked at him with a humorous eye.
"You are a hopeless case," he said.
"Kindly tell me what you noticed."
"My dear man," he said, "there's absolutely nothing to say. I did exactly what you said: I hardly spoke to him at all: I watched him very carefully indeed. I really can't go on doing that day after day. I've got my own work to do. It's the most utter bunkum I ever—"
"Tell me anything odd that you saw."
"There was nothing odd at all, except that the boy looked tired, as you saw for yourself this morning."
"Did he behave exactly as usual?"
"Exactly, except that he was quieter. He fidgeted a little with his fingers."
"And he seemed very hard at work. I caught him looking at me once or twice."
"Yes? How did he look?"
"He just looked at me—that was all. Good Lord! what do you want—"
"And there was nothing else—absolutely nothing else?"
"Absolutely nothing else."
"He didn't complain of ... of anything?"
"Lord...! Oh, yes; he did say something about a headache."
"Ah!" The old man leaned forward. "A headache? What kind?"
"Back of his head."
The old man sat back with pursed lips.
"Did he talk about last night?" he went on again suddenly.
"Not a word."
Mr. Morton burst into a rude uproarious laugh.
"Upon my word!" he said. "I think, Cathcart, you're the most amazingly—"
The other held up a gloved hand in deprecation; but he did not seem at all ruffled.
"Yes, yes; we can take all that as said.... I'm accustomed to it, my dear fellow. Well, I saw Miss Deronnais, as I told you I should in my note.... You're quite right about her."
"Pleased to hear it, I'm sure," said Mr. Morton solemnly.
"She's one in a thousand. I told her right out, you know, that I feared insanity."
"Oh! you did! That's tactful! How did she—"
"She took it admirably."
"And did you tell her your delightful theories?"
"I did not. She will see all that for herself, I expect. Meantime—"
"Oh, you didn't tell me about your interview with Lady Laura."