Other books by Robert Hugh Benson
The Light Invisible By What Authority? The King's Achievement The History of Richard Reynall, Solitary The Queen's Tragedy The Religion of the Plain Man The Sanctity of the Church The Sentimentalists Lord of the World A Mirror of Shalott, composed of tales told at a symposium Papers of a Pariah The Conventionalists The Holy Blissful Martyr Saint Thomas of Canterbury The Dissolution of the Religious Houses The Necromancers Non-Catholic Denominations None Other Gods A Winnowing Christ in the Church: a volume of religious essays The Dawn of All Come Rack! Come Rope! The Coward The Friendship of Christ An Average Man Confessions of a Convert Optimism Paradoxes of Catholicism Poems Initiation Oddsfish! Spiritual Letters of Monsignor R. Hugh Benson to one of his converts Loneliness Sermon Notes
Robert Hugh Benson
First published in 1909.
Wildside Press Doylestown, Pennsylvania
I must express my gratitude to the Rev. Father Augustine Howard, O.P., who has kindly read this book in manuscript and favored me with his criticisms.
—Robert Hugh Benson.
"I am very much distressed about it all," murmured Mrs. Baxter.
She was a small, delicate-looking old lady, very true to type indeed, with the silvery hair of the devout widow crowned with an exquisite lace cap, in a filmy black dress, with a complexion of precious china, kind shortsighted blue eyes, and white blue-veined hands busy now upon needlework. She bore about with her always an atmosphere of piety, humble, tender, and sincere, but as persistent as the gentle sandalwood aroma which breathed from her dress. Her theory of the universe, as the girl who watched her now was beginning to find out, was impregnable and unapproachable. Events which conflicted with it were either not events, or they were so exceptional as to be negligible. If she were hard pressed she emitted a pathetic peevishness that rendered further argument impossible.
The room in which she sat reflected perfectly her personality. In spite of the early Victorian date of the furniture, there was in its arrangement and selection a taste so exquisite as to deprive it of even a suspicion of Philistinism. Somehow the rosewood table on which the September morning sun fell with serene beauty did not conflict as it ought to have done with the Tudor paneling of the room. A tapestry screen veiled the door into the hall, and soft curtains of velvety gold hung on either side of the tall, modern windows leading to the garden. For the rest, the furniture was charming and suitable—low chairs, a tapestry couch, a multitude of little leather-covered books on every table, and two low carved bookshelves on either side of the door filled with poetry and devotion.
The girl who sat upright with her hands on her lap was of another type altogether—of that type of which it is impossible to predicate anything except that it makes itself felt in every company. Any respectable astrologer would have had no difficulty in assigning her birth to the sign of the Scorpion. In outward appearance she was not remarkable, though extremely pleasing, and it was a pleasingness that grew upon acquaintance. Her beauty, such as it was, was based upon a good foundation: upon regular features, a slightly cleft rounded chin, a quantity of dark coiled hair, and large, steady, serene brown eyes. Her hands were not small, but beautifully shaped; her figure slender, well made, and always at its ease in any attitude. In fact, she had an air of repose, strength, and all-round competence; and, contrasted with the other, she resembled a well-bred sheep-dog eyeing an Angora cat.
They were talking now about Laurie Baxter.
"Dear Laurie is so impetuous and sensitive," murmured his mother, drawing her needle softly through the silk, and then patting her material, "and it is all terribly sad."
This was undeniable, and Maggie said nothing, though her lips opened as if for speech. Then she closed them again, and sat watching the twinkling fire of logs upon the hearth. Then once more Mrs. Baxter took up the tale.
"When I first heard of the poor girl's death," she said, "it seemed to me so providential. It would have been too dreadful if he had married her. He was away from home, you know, on Thursday, when it happened; but he was back here on Friday, and has been like—like a madman ever since. I have done what I could, but—"
"Was she quite impossible?" asked the girl in her slow voice. "I never saw her, you know."
Mrs. Baxter laid down her embroidery.
"My dear, she was. Well, I have not a word against her character, of course. She was all that was good, I believe. But, you know, her home, her father—well, what can you expect from a grocer—and a Baptist," she added, with a touch of vindictiveness.
"What was she like?" asked the girl, still with that meditative air.
"My dear, she was like—like a picture on a chocolate-box. I can say no more than that. She was little and fair-haired, with a very pretty complexion, and a ribbon in her hair always. Laurie brought her up here to see me, you know—in the garden; I felt I could not bear to have her in the house just yet, though, of course, it would have had to have come. She spoke very carefully, but there was an unmistakable accent. Once she left out an aitch, and then she said the word over again quite right."
Maggie nodded gently, with a certain air of pity, and Mrs. Baxter went on encouraged.
"She had a little stammer that—that Laurie thought very pretty, and she had a restless little way of playing with her fingers as if on a piano. Oh, my dear, it would have been too dreadful; and now, my poor boy—"
The old lady's eyes filled with compassionate tears, and she laid her sewing down to fetch out a little lace-fringed pocket-handkerchief.
Maggie leaned back with one easy movement in her low chair, clasping her hands behind her head; but she still said nothing. Mrs. Baxter finished the little ceremony of wiping her eyes, and, still winking a little, bending over her needlework, continued the commentary.
"Do try to help him, my dear. That was why I asked you to come back yesterday. I wanted you to be in the house for the funeral. You see, Laurie's becoming a Catholic at Oxford has brought you two together. It's no good my talking to him about the religious side of it all; he thinks I know nothing at all about the next world, though I'm sure—"
"Tell me," said the girl suddenly, still in the same attitude, "has he been practicing his religion? You see, I haven't seen much of him this year, and—"
"I'm afraid not very well," said the old lady tolerantly. "He thought he was going to be a priest at first, you remember, and I'm sure I should have made no objection; and then in the spring he seemed to be getting rather tired of it all. I don't think he gets on with Father Mahon very well. I don't think Father Mahon understands him quite. It was he, you know, who told him not to be a priest, and I think that discouraged poor Laurie."
"I see," said the girl shortly. And Mrs. Baxter applied herself again to her sewing.
* * * * *
It was indeed a rather trying time for the old lady. She was a tranquil and serene soul; and it seemed as if she were doomed to live over a perpetual volcano. It was as pathetic as an amiable cat trying to go to sleep on a rifle range; she was developing the jumps. The first serious explosion had taken place two years before, when her son, then in his third year at Oxford, had come back with the announcement that Rome was the only home worthy to shelter his aspiring soul, and that he must be received into the Church in six weeks' time. She had produced little books for his edification, as in duty bound, she had summoned Anglican divines to the rescue; but all had been useless, and Laurie had gone back to Oxford as an avowed proselyte.
She had soon become accustomed to the idea, and indeed, when the first shock was over had not greatly disliked it, since her own adopted daughter, of half French parentage, Margaret Marie Deronnais, had been educated in the same faith, and was an eminently satisfactory person. The next shock was Laurie's announcement of his intention to enter the priesthood, and perhaps the Religious Life as well; but this too had been tempered by the reflection that in that case Maggie would inherit this house and carry on its traditions in a suitable manner. Maggie had come to her, upon leaving her convent school three years before, with a pleasant little income of her own—had come to her by an arrangement made previously to her mother's death—and her manner of life, her reasonableness, her adaptability, her presentableness had reassured the old lady considerably as to the tolerableness of the Roman Catholic religion. Indeed, once she had hoped that Laurie and Maggie might come to an understanding that would prevent all possible difficulty as to the future of his house and estate; but the fourth volcanic storm had once more sent the world flying in pieces about Mrs. Baxter's delicate ears; and, during the last three months she had had to face the prospect of Laurie's bringing home as a bride the rather underbred, pretty, stammering, pink and white daughter of a Baptist grocer of the village.
This had been a terrible affair altogether; Laurie, as is the custom of a certain kind of young male, had met, spoken to, and ultimately kissed this Amy Nugent, on a certain summer evening as the stars came out; but, with a chivalry not so common in such cases, had also sincerely and simply fallen in love with her, with a romance usually reserved for better-matched affections. It seemed, from Laurie's conversation, that Amy was possessed of every grace of body, mind, and soul required in one who was to be mistress of the great house; it was not, so Laurie explained, at all a milkmaid kind of affair; he was not the man, he said, to make a fool of himself over a pretty face. No, Amy was a rare soul, a flower growing on stony soil—sandy perhaps would be the better word—and it was his deliberate intention to make her his wife.
Then had followed every argument known to mothers, for it was not likely that even Mrs. Baxter would accept without a struggle a daughter-in-law who, five years before, had bobbed to her, wearing a pinafore, and carrying in a pair of rather large hands a basket of eggs to her back door. Then she had consented to see the girl, and the interview in the garden had left her more distressed than ever. (It was there that the aitch incident had taken place.) And so the struggle had gone on; Laurie had protested, stormed, sulked, taken refuge in rhetoric and dignity alternately; and his mother had with gentle persistence objected, held her peace, argued, and resisted, conflicting step by step against the inevitable, seeking to reconcile her son by pathos and her God by petition; and then in an instant, only four days ago, it seemed that the latter had prevailed; and today Laurie, in a black suit, rent by sorrow, at this very hour at which the two ladies sat and talked in the drawing-room, was standing by an open grave in the village churchyard, seeing the last of his love, under a pile of blossoms as pink and white as her own complexion, within four elm-boards with a brass plate upon the cover.
Now, therefore, there was a new situation to face, and Mrs. Baxter was regarding it with apprehension.
* * * * *
It is true that mothers know sometimes more of their sons than their sons know of themselves, but there are certain elements of character that sometimes neither mothers nor sons appreciate. It was one or two of those elements that Maggie Deronnais, with her hands behind her head, was now considering. It seemed to her very odd that neither the boy himself nor Mrs. Baxter in the least seemed to realize the astonishing selfishness of this very boy's actions.
She had known him now for three years, though owing to her own absence in France a part of the time, and his absence in London for the rest, she had seen nothing of this last affair. At first she had liked him exceedingly; he had seemed to her ardent, natural, and generous. She had liked his affection for his mother and his demonstrativeness in showing it; she had liked his well-bred swagger, his manner with servants, his impulsive courtesy to herself. It was a real pleasure to her to see him, morning by morning, in his knickerbockers and Norfolk jacket, or his tweed suit; and evening by evening in his swallow-tail coat and white shirt, and the knee breeches and buckled shoes that he wore by reason of the touch of picturesque and defiant romanticism that was so obvious a part of his nature. Then she had begun, little by little, to perceive the egotism that was even more apparent; his self-will, his moodiness, and his persistence.
Though, naturally, she had approved of his conversion to Catholicism, yet she was not sure that his motives were pure. She had hoped indeed that the Church, with its astonishing peremptoriness, might do something towards a moral conversion, as well as an artistic and intellectual change of view. But this, it seemed, had not happened; and this final mad episode of Amy Nugent had fanned her criticism to indignation. She did not disapprove of romance—in fact she largely lived by it—but there were things even more important, and she was as angry as she could be, with decency, at this last manifestation of selfishness.
For the worst of it was that, as she knew perfectly well, Laurie was rather an exceptional person. He was not at all the Young Fool of Fiction. There was a remarkable virility about him, he was tender-hearted to a degree, he had more than his share of brains. It was intolerable that such a person should be so silly.
She wondered what sorrow would do for him. She had come down from Scotland the night before, and down here to Herefordshire this morning; she had not then yet seen him; and he was now at the funeral....
Well, sorrow would be his test. How would he take it?
Mrs. Baxter broke in on her meditations.
"Maggy, darling ... do you think you can do anything? You know I once hoped...."
The girl looked up suddenly, with so vivid an air that it was an interruption. The old lady broke off.
"Well, well," she said. "But is it quite impossible that—"
"Please, don't. I—I can't talk about that. It's impossible—utterly impossible."
The old lady sighed; then she said suddenly, looking at the clock above the oak mantelshelf, "It is half-past. I expect—"
She broke off as the front door was heard to open and close beyond the hall, and waited, paling a little, as steps sounded on the flags; but the steps went up the stairs outside, and there was silence again.
"He has come back," she said. "Oh! my dear."
"How shall you treat him?" asked the girl curiously.
The old lady bent again over her embroidery.
"I think I shall just say nothing. I hope he will ride this afternoon. Will you go with him?"
"I think not. He won't want anyone. I know Laurie."
The other looked up at her sideways in a questioning way, and Maggie went on with a kind of slow decisiveness.
"He will be queer at lunch. Then he will probably ride alone and be late for tea. Then tomorrow—"
"Oh! my dear, Mrs. Stapleton is coming to lunch tomorrow. Do you think he'll mind?"
"Who is Mrs. Stapleton?"
The old lady hesitated.
"She's—she's the wife of Colonel Stapleton. She goes in for what I think is called New Thought; at least, so somebody told me last month. I'm afraid she's not a very steady person. She was a vegetarian last year; now I believe she's given that up again."
Maggie smiled slowly, showing a row of very white, strong teeth.
"I know, auntie," she said. "No; I shouldn't think Laurie'll mind much. Perhaps he'll go back to town in the morning, too."
"No, my dear, he's staying till Thursday."
* * * * *
There fell again one of those pleasant silences that are possible in the country. Outside the garden, with the meadows beyond the village road, lay in that sweet September hush of sunlight and mellow color that seemed to embalm the house in peace. From the farm beyond the stable-yard came the crowing of a cock, followed by the liquid chuckle of a pigeon perched somewhere overhead among the twisted chimneys. And within this room all was equally at peace. The sunshine lay on table and polished floor, barred by the mullions of the windows, and stained here and there by the little Flemish emblems and coats that hung across the glass; while those two figures, so perfectly in place in their serenity and leisure, sat before the open fire-place and contemplated the very unpeaceful element that had just walked upstairs incarnate in a pale, drawn-eyed young man in black.
The house, in fact, was one of those that have a personality as marked and as mysterious as of a human character. It affected people in quite an extraordinary way. It took charge of the casual guest, entertained and soothed and sometimes silenced him; and it cast upon all who lived in it an enchantment at once inexplicable and delightful. Externally it was nothing remarkable.
It was a large, square-built house, close indeed to the road, but separated from it by a high wrought-iron gate in an oak paling, and a short, straight garden-path; originally even ante-Tudor, but matured through centuries, with a Queen Anne front of mellow red brick, and back premises of tile, oak, and modern rough-cast, with old brew-houses that almost enclosed a graveled court behind. Behind this again lay a great kitchen garden with box-lined paths dividing it all into a dozen rectangles, separated from the orchard and yew walk by a broad double hedge down the center of which ran a sheltered path. Round the south of the house and in the narrow strip westwards lay broad lawns surrounded by high trees completely shading it from all view of the houses that formed the tiny hamlet fifty yards away.
Within, the house had been modernized almost to a commonplace level. A little hall gave entrance to the drawing-room on the right where these two women now sat, a large, stately room, paneled from floor to ceiling, and to the dining-room on the left; and, again, through to the back, where a smoking room, an inner hall, and the big kitchens and back premises concluded the ground floor. The two more stories above consisted, on the first floor, of a row of large rooms, airy, high, and dignified, and in the attics of a series of low-pitched chambers, whitewashed, oak-floored, and dormer-windowed, where one or two of the servants slept in splendid isolation. A little flight of irregular steps leading out of the big room on to the first floor, where the housekeeper lived in state, gave access to the further rooms near the kitchen and sculleries.
Maggie had fallen in love with the place from the instant that she had entered it. She had been warned in her French convent of the giddy gaieties of the world and its temptations; and yet it seemed to her after a week in her new home that the world was very much maligned. There was here a sense of peace and sheltered security that she had hardly known even at school; and little by little she had settled down here, with the mother and the son, until it had begun to seem to her that days spent in London or in other friends' houses were no better than interruptions and failures compared with the leisurely, tender life of this place, where it was so easy to read and pray and possess her soul in peace. This affair of Laurie's was almost the first reminder of what she had known by hearsay, that Love and Death and Pain were the bones on which life was modeled.
With a sudden movement she leaned forward, took up the bellows, and began to blow the smoldering logs into flame.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, upstairs on a long couch beside the fire in his big bed-sitting-room lay a young man on his face motionless.
A week ago he had been one of those men who in almost any company appear easy and satisfactory, and, above all, are satisfactory to themselves. His life was a very pleasant one indeed.
He had come down from Oxford just a year ago, and had determined to take things as they came, to foster acquaintanceships, to travel a little with a congenial friend, to stay about in other people's houses, and, in fact, to enjoy himself entirely before settling down to read law. He had done this most successfully, and had crowned all, as has been related, by falling in love on a July evening with one who, he was quite certain, was the mate designed for him for Time and Eternity. His life, in fact, up to three days ago had developed along exactly those lines along which his temperament traveled with the greatest ease. He was the only son of a widow, he had an excellent income, he made friends wherever he went, and he had just secured the most charming rooms close to the Temple. He had plenty of brains, an exceedingly warm heart, and had lately embraced a religion that satisfied every instinct of his nature. It was the best of all possible worlds, and fitted him like his own well-cut clothes. It consisted of privileges without responsibilities.
And now the crash had come, and all was over.
As the gong sounded for luncheon he turned over and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.
It should have been a very attractive face under other circumstances. Beneath his brown curls, just touched with gold, there looked out a pair of grey eyes, bright a week ago, now dimmed with tears, and patched beneath with lines of sorrow. His clean-cut, rather passionate lips were set now, with down-turned corners, in a line of angry self-control piteous to see; and his clear skin seemed stained and dull. He had never dreamt of such misery in all his days.
As he lay now, with lax hands at his side, tightening at times in an agony of remembrance, he was seeing vision after vision, turning now and again to the contemplation of a dark future without life or love or hope. Again he saw Amy, as he had first seen her under the luminous July evening, jeweled overhead with peeping stars, amber to the westwards, where the sun had gone down in glory. She was in her sun-bonnet and print dress, stepping towards him across the fresh-scented meadow grass lately shorn of its flowers and growth, looking at him with that curious awed admiration that delighted him with its flattery. Her face was to the west, the reflected glory lay on it as delicate as the light on a flower, and her blue eyes regarded him beneath a halo of golden hair.
He saw her again as she had been one moonlight evening as the two stood together by the sluice of the stream, among the stillness of the woods below the village, with all fairyland about them and in their hearts. She had thrown a wrap about her head and stolen down there by devious ways, according to the appointment, meeting him, as was arranged, as he came out from dinner with all the glamour of the Great House about him, in his evening dress, buckled shoes, and knee-breeches all complete. How marvelous she had been then—a sweet nymph of flesh and blood, glorified by the moon to an ethereal delicacy, with the living pallor of sun-kissed skin, her eyes looking at him like stars beneath her shawl. They had said very little; they had stood there at the sluice gate, with his arm about her, and herself willingly nestling against him, trembling now and again; looking out at the sheeny surface of the slow flowing stream from which, in the imperceptible night breeze, stole away wraith after wraith of water mist to float and lose themselves in the sleeping woods.
Or, once more, clearer than all else he remembered how he had watched her, himself unseen, delaying the delight of revealing himself, one August morning, scarcely three weeks ago, as she had come down the road that ran past the house, again in her sun-bonnet and print dress, with the dew shining about her on grass and hedge, and the haze of a summer morning veiling the intensity of the blue sky above. He had called her then gently by name, and she had turned her face to him, alight with love and fear and sudden wonder.... He remembered even now with a reflection of memory that was nearly an illusion the smell of yew and garden flowers.
This, then, had been the dream; and today the awakening and the end.
That end was even more terrible than he had conceived possible on that horrible Friday morning last week, when he had opened the telegram from her father.
He had never before understood the sordidness of her surroundings, as when, an hour ago, he had stood at the grave-side, his eyes wandering from that long elm box with the silver plate and the wreath of flowers, to the mourners on the other side—her father in his broadcloth, his heavy, smooth face pulled in lines of grotesque sorrow; her mother, with her crimson, tear-stained cheeks, her elaborate black, her intolerable crape, and her jet-hung mantle. Even these people had been seen by him up to then through a haze of love; he had thought them simple honest folk, creatures of the soil, yet wholesome, natural, and sturdy. And now that the jewel was lost the setting was worse than empty. There in the elm box lay the remnants of the shattered gem.... He had seen her in her bed on the Sunday, her fallen face, her sunken eyes, all framed in the detestable whiteness of linen and waxen flowers, yet as pathetic and as appealing as ever, and as necessary to his life. It was then that the supreme fact had first penetrated to his consciousness, that he had lost her—the fact which, driven home by the funeral scene this morning, the rustling crowd come to see the young Squire, the elm box, the heap of flowers—had now flung him down on this couch, crushed, broken, and hopeless, like young ivy after a thunderstorm.
His moods alternated with the rapidity of flying clouds. At one instant he was furious with pain, at the next broken and lax from the same cause. At one moment he cursed God and desired to die, defiant and raging; at the next he sank down into himself as weak as a tortured child, while tears ran down his cheeks and little moans as of an animal murmured in his throat. God was a hated adversary, a merciless Judge ... a Blind Fate ... there was no God ... He was a Fiend.... there was nothing anywhere in the whole universe but Pain and Vanity....
Yet, through it all, like a throbbing pedal note, ran his need of this girl. He would do anything, suffer anything, make any sacrifice, momentary or lifelong, if he could but see her again, hold her hand for one instant, look into her eyes mysterious with the secret of death. He had but three or four words to say to her, just to secure himself that she lived and was still his, and then ... then he would say good-bye to her, content and happy to wait till death should reunite them. Ah! he asked so little, and God would not give it him.
All, then, was a mockery. It was only this past summer that he had begun to fancy himself in love with Maggie Deronnais. It had been an emotion of very quiet growth, developing gently, week by week, feeding on her wholesomeness, her serenity, her quiet power, her cool, capable hands, and the look in her direct eyes; it resembled respect rather than passion, and need rather than desire; it was a hunger rather than a thirst. Then had risen up this other, blinding and bewildering; and, he told himself, he now knew the difference. His lips curled into bitter and resentful lines as he contemplated the contrast. And all was gone, shattered and vanished; and even Maggie was now impossible.
Again he writhed over, sick with pain and longing; and so lay.
* * * * *
It was ten minutes before he moved again, and then he only roused himself as he heard a foot on the stairs. Perhaps it was his mother. He slipped off the couch and stood up, his face lined and creased with the pressure with which he had lain just now, and smoothed his tumbled clothes. Yes, he must go down.
He stepped to the door and opened it.
"I am coming immediately," he said to the servant.
* * * * *
He bore himself at lunch with a respectable self-control, though he said little or nothing. His mother's attitude he found hard to bear, as he caught her eyes once or twice looking at him with sympathy; and he allowed himself internally to turn to Maggie with relief in spite of his meditations just now. She at least respected his sorrow, he told himself. She bore herself very naturally, though with long silences, and never once met his eyes with her own. He made his excuses as soon as he could and slipped across to the stable yard. At least he would be alone this afternoon. Only, as he rode away half an hour later, he caught a sight of the slender little figure of his mother waiting to have one word with him if she could, beyond the hall-door. But he set his lips and would not see her.
It was one of those perfect September days that fall sometimes as a gift from heaven after the bargain of summer has been more or less concluded. As he rode all that afternoon through lanes and across uplands, his view barred always to the north by the great downs above Royston, grey-blue against the radiant sky, there was scarcely a hint in earth or heaven of any emotion except prevailing peace. Yet the very serenity tortured him the more by its mockery. The birds babbled in the deep woods, the cheerful noise of children reached him now and again from a cottage garden, the mellow light smiled unending benediction, and yet his subconsciousness let go for never an instant of the long elm box six feet below ground, and of its contents lying there in the stifling dark, in the long-grassed churchyard on the hill above his home.
He wondered now and again as to the fate of the spirit that had informed the body and made it what it was; but his imagination refused to work. After all, he asked himself, what were all the teachings of theology but words gabbled to break the appalling silence? Heaven ... Purgatory ... Hell. What was known of these things? The very soul itself—what was that? What was the inconceivable environment, after all, for so inconceivable a thing...?
He did not need these things, he said—certainly not now—nor those labels and signposts to a doubtful, unimaginable land. He needed Amy herself, or, at least, some hint or sound or glimpse to show him that she indeed was as she had always been; whether in earth or heaven, he did not care; that there was somewhere something that was herself, some definite personal being of a continuous consciousness with that which he had known, characterized still by those graces which he thought he had recognized and certainly loved. Ah! he did not ask much. It would be so easy to God! Here out in this lonely lane where he rode beneath the branches, his reins loose on his horse's neck, his eyes, unseeing, roving over copse and meadow across to the eternal hills—a face, seen for an instant, smiling and gone again; a whisper in his ear, with that dear stammer of shyness; a touch on his knee of those rippling fingers that he had watched in the moonlight playing gently on the sluice-gate above the moonlit stream.... He would tell no one if God wished it to be a secret; he would keep it wholly to himself. He did not ask now to possess her; only to be certain that she lived, and that death was not what it seemed to be.
* * * * *
"Is Father Mahon at home?" he asked, as he halted a mile from his own house in the village, where stood the little tin church, not a hundred yards from its elder alienated sister, to which he and Maggie went on Sundays.
The housekeeper turned from her vegetable-gathering beyond the fence, and told him yes. He dismounted, hitched the reins round the gatepost, and went in.
Ah! what an antipathetic little room this was in which he waited while the priest was being fetched from upstairs!
Over the mantelpiece hung a large oleograph of Leo XIII, in cope and tiara, blessing with upraised hand and that eternal, wide-lipped smile; a couple of jars stood beneath filled with dyed grasses; a briar pipe, redolent and foul, lay between them. The rest of the room was in the same key: a bright Brussels carpet, pale and worn by the door, covered the floor; cheap lace curtains were pinned across the windows; and over the littered table a painted deal bookshelf held a dozen volumes, devotional, moral, and dogmatic theology; and by the side of that an illuminated address framed in gilt, and so on.
Laurie looked at it all in dumb dismay. He had seen it before, again and again, but had never realized its horror as he realized it now from the depths of his own misery. Was it really true that his religion could emit such results?
There was a step on the stairs—a very heavy one—and Father Mahon came in, a large, crimson-faced man, who seemed to fill the room with a completely unethereal presence, and held out his hand with a certain gravity. Laurie took it and dropped it.
"Sit down, my dear boy," said the priest, and he impelled him gently to a horsehair-covered arm-chair.
"Thank you, father; but I mustn't stay."
He fumbled in his pocket, and fetched out a little paper-covered packet.
"Will you say Mass for my intention, please?" And he laid the packet on the mantelshelf.
The priest took up the coins and slipped them into his waistcoat pocket.
"Certainly," he said. "I think I know—"
Laurie turned away with a little jerk.
"I must be going," he said. "I only looked in—"
"Mr. Baxter," said the other, "I hope you will allow me to say how much—"
Laurie drew his breath swiftly, with a hiss as of pain, and glanced at the priest.
"You understand, then, what my intention is?"
"Why, surely. It is for her soul, is it not?"
"I suppose so," said the boy, and went out.
"I have told him," said Mrs. Baxter, as the two women walked beneath the yews that morning after breakfast. "He said he didn't mind."
Maggie did not speak. She had come out just as she was, hatless, but had caught up a spud that stood in the hall, and at that instant had stopped to destroy a youthful plantain that had established himself with infinite pains on the slope of the path. She attacked for a few seconds, extricated what was possible of the root with her strong fingers, tossed the corpse among the ivy, and then moved on.
"I don't know whether to say anything to Mrs. Stapleton or not," pursued the old lady.
"I think I shouldn't, auntie," said the girl slowly.
They spoke of it for a minute or two as they passed up and down, but Maggie only attended with one superficies of her mind.
She had gone up as usual to Mass that morning, and had been astonished to find Laurie already in church; they had walked back together, and, to her surprise, he had told her that the Mass had been for his own intention.
She had answered as well as she could; but a sentence or two of his as they came near home had vaguely troubled her.
It was not that he had said anything he ought not, as a Catholic, to have said; yet her instinct told her that something was wrong. It was his manner, his air, that troubled her. What strange people these converts were! There was so much ardor at one time, so much chilliness at another; there was so little of that steady workaday acceptance of religious facts that marked the born Catholic.
"Mrs. Stapleton is a New Thought kind of person," she said presently.
"So I understand," said the old lady, with a touch of peevishness. "A vegetarian last year. And I believe she was a sort of Buddhist five or six years ago. And then she nearly became a Christian Scientist a little while ago."
"I wonder what she'll talk about," she said.
"I hope she won't be very advanced," went on the old lady. "And you think I'd better not tell her about Laurie?"
"I'm sure it's best not," said the girl, "or she'll tell him about Deep Breathing, or saying Om, or something. No; I should let Laurie alone."
* * * * *
It was a little before one o'clock that the motor arrived, and that there descended from it at the iron gate a tall, slender woman, hooded and veiled, who walked up the little path, observed by Maggie from her bedroom, with a kind of whisking step. The motor moved on, wheeled in through the gates at the left, and sank into silence in the stable-yard.
"It's too charming of you, dear Mrs. Baxter," Maggie heard as she came into the drawing-room a minute or two later, "to let me come over like this. I've heard so much about this house. Lady Laura was telling me how very psychical it all was."
"My adopted daughter, Miss Deronnais," observed the old lady.
Maggie saw a rather pretty, passe face, triangular in shape, with small red lips, looking at her, as she made her greetings.
"Ah! how perfect all this is," went on the guest presently, looking about her, "how suggestive, how full of meaning!"
She threw back her cloak presently, and Maggie observed that she was busy with various very beautiful little emblems—a scarab, a snake swallowing its tail, and so forth—all exquisitely made, and hung upon a slender chain of some green enamel-like material. Certainly she was true to type. As the full light fell upon her it became plain that this other-worldly soul did not disdain to use certain toilet requisites upon her face; and a curious Eastern odor exhaled from her dress.
Fortunately, Maggie had a very deep sense of humor, and she hardly resented all this at all, nor even the tactful hints dropped from time to time, after the conventional part of the conversation was over, to the effect that Christianity was, of course, played out, and that a Higher Light had dawned. Mrs. Stapleton did not quite say this outright, but it amounted to as much. Even before Laurie came downstairs it appeared that the lady did not go to church, yet that, such was her broad-mindedness, she did not at all object to do so. It was all one, it seemed, in the Deeper Unity. Nothing particular was true; but all was very suggestive and significant and symbolical of something else to which Mrs. Stapleton and a few friends had the key.
Mrs. Baxter made more than one attempt to get back to more mundane subjects, but it was useless. When even the weather serves as a symbol, the plain man is done for.
Then Laurie came in.
He looked very self-contained and rather pinched this morning, and shook hands with the lady without a word. Then they moved across presently to the green-hung dining-room across the hall, and the exquisite symbol of Luncheon made its appearance.
Lady Laura, it appeared, was one of those who had felt the charm of Stantons; only for her it was psychical rather than physical, and all this was passed on by her friend. It seemed that the psychical atmosphere of most modern houses was of a yellow tint, but that this one emanated a brown-gold radiance which was very peculiar and exceptional. Indeed, it was this singularity that had caused Mrs. Stapleton to apply for an invitation to the house. More than once during lunch, in a pause of the conversation, Maggie saw her throw back her head slightly as if to appreciate some odor or color not experienced by coarser-nerved persons. Once, indeed, she actually put this into words.
"Dear Laura was quite right," cried the lady; "there is something very unique about this place. How fortunate you are, dear Mrs. Baxter!"
"My dear husband's grandfather bought the place," observed the mistress plaintively. "We have always found it very soothing and pleasant."
"How right you are! And—and have you had any experiences here?" Mrs. Baxter eyed her in alarm. Maggie had an irrepressible burst of internal laughter, which, however, gave no hint of its presence in her steady features. She glanced at Laurie, who was eating mutton with a depressed air.
"I was talking to Mr. Vincent, the great spiritualist," went on the other vivaciously, "only last week. You have heard of him, Mrs. Baxter? I was suggesting to him that any place where great emotions have been felt is colored and stained by them as objectively as old walls are weather-beaten. I had such an interesting conversation, too, with Cardinal Newman on the subject"—she smiled brilliantly at Maggie, as if to reassure her of her own orthodoxy—"scarcely six weeks ago."
There was a pregnant silence. Mrs. Baxter's fork sank to her plate.
"I don't understand," she said faintly. "Cardinal Newman—surely—"
"Why yes," said the other gently. "I know it sounds very startling to orthodox ears; but to us of the Higher Thought all these things are quite familiar. Of course, I need hardly say that Cardinal Newman is no longer—but perhaps I had better not go on."
She glanced archly at Maggie.
"Oh, please go on," said Maggie genially. "You were saying that Cardinal Newman—"
"Dear Miss Deronnais, are you sure you will not be offended?"
"I am always glad to receive new light," said Maggie solemnly.
The other looked at her doubtfully; but there was no hint of irony in the girl's face.
"Well," she began, "of course on the Other Side they see things very differently. I don't mean at all that any religion is exactly untrue. Oh no; they tell us that if we cannot welcome the New Light, then the old lights will do very well for the present. Indeed, when there are Catholics present Cardinal Newman does not scruple to give them a Latin blessing—"
"Is it true that he speaks with an American accent?" asked Maggie gravely. The other laughed with a somewhat shrill geniality.
"That is too bad, Miss Deronnais. Well, of course, the personality of the medium affects the vehicle through which the communications come. That is no difficulty at all when once you understand the principle—"
Mrs. Baxter interrupted. She could bear it no longer.
"Mrs. Stapleton. Do you mean that Cardinal Newman really speaks to you?"
"Why yes," said the other, with a patient indulgence. "That is a very usual experience, but Mr. Vincent does much more than that. It is quite a common experience not only to hear him, but to see him. I have shaken hands with him more than once ... and I have seen a Catholic kiss his ring."
Mrs. Baxter looked helplessly at the girl; and Maggie came to the rescue once more. "This sounds rather advanced to us," she said. "Won't you explain the principles first?"
Mrs. Stapleton laid her knife and fork down, leaned back, and began to discourse. When a little later her plate was removed, she refused sweets with a gesture, and continued.
Altogether she spoke for about ten minutes, uninterrupted, enjoying herself enormously. The others ate food or refused it in attentive silence. Then at last she ended.
"... I know all this must sound quite mad and fanatical to those who have not experienced it; and yet to us who have been disciples it is as natural to meet our friends who have crossed over as to meet those who have not.... Dear Mrs. Baxter, think how all this enlarges life. There is no longer any death to those who understand. All those limitations are removed; it is no more than going into another room. All are together in the Hands of the All-Father"—Maggie recognized the jetsam of Christian Science. "'O death!' as Paul says, 'where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?'"
Mrs. Stapleton flashed a radiant look of helpfulness round the faces, lingering for an instant on Laurie's, and leaned back.
There followed a silence.
"Shall we go into the drawing-room?" suggested Mrs. Baxter, feebly rising. The guest rose too, again with a brilliant patient smile, and swept out. Maggie crossed herself and looked at Laurie. The boy had an expression, half of disgust, half of interest, and his eyelids sank a little and rose again. Then Maggie went out after the others.
"A dreadful woman," observed Mrs. Baxter half an hour later, as the two strolled back up the garden path, after seeing Mrs. Stapleton wave a delicately gloved hand encouragingly to them over the back of the throbbing motor.
"I suppose she thinks she believes it all," said Maggie.
"My dear, that woman would believe anything. I hope poor Laurie was not too much distressed."
"Oh! I think Laurie took it all right."
"It was most unfortunate, all that about death and the rest.... Why, here comes Laurie; I thought he would be gone out by now!"
The boy strolled towards them round the corner of the house, tossing away the fragment of his cigarette. He was still in his dark suit, bareheaded, with no signs of riding about him.
"So you've not gone out yet, dear boy?" remarked his mother.
"Not yet," he said, and hesitated as they went on.
Mrs. Baxter noticed it.
"I'll go and get ready," she said. "The carriage will be round at three, Maggie."
When she was gone the two moved out together on to the lawn.
"What did you think of that woman?" demanded Laurie with a detached air.
Maggie glanced at him. His tone was a little too much detached.
"I thought her quite dreadful," she said frankly. "Didn't you?" she added.
"Oh yes, I suppose so," said Laurie. He drew out a cigarette and lighted it. "You know a lot of people think there's something in it," he said.
"I daresay," said Maggie.
She perceived out of the corner of her eye that Laurie looked at her suddenly and sharply. For herself, she loathed what little she knew of the subject, so cordially and completely, that she could hardly have put it into words. Nine-tenths of it she believed to be fraud—a matter of wigs and Indian muslin and cross-lights—and the other tenth, by the most generous estimate, an affair of the dingiest and foulest of all the backstairs of life. The prophetic outpourings of Mrs. Stapleton had not altered her opinion.
"Oh! if you feel like that—" went on Laurie.
She turned on him.
"Laurie," she said, "I think it perfectly detestable. I acknowledge I don't know much about it; but what little I do know is enough, thank you."
Laurie smiled in a faintly patronizing way.
"Well," he said indulgently, "if you think that, it's not much use discussing it."
"Indeed it's not," said Maggie, with her nose in the air.
There was not much more to be said; and the sounds of stamping and whoaing in the stable-yard presently sent the girl indoors in a hurry.
Mrs. Baxter was still mildly querulous during the drive. It appeared to her, Maggie perceived, a kind of veiled insult that things should be talked about in her house which did not seem to fit in with her own scheme of the universe. Mrs. Baxter knew perfectly well that every soul when it left this world went either to what she called Paradise, or in extremely exceptional cases, to a place she did not name; and that these places, each in its own way, entirely absorbed the attention of its inhabitants. Further, it was established in her view that all the members of the spiritual world, apart from the unhappy ones, were a kind of Anglicans, with their minds no doubt enlarged considerably, but on the original lines.
Tales like this of Cardinal Newman therefore were extremely tiresome and upsetting.
And Maggie had her theology also; to her also it appeared quite impossible that Cardinal Newman should frequent the drawing-room of Mr. Vincent in order to exchange impressions with Mrs. Stapleton; but she was more elementary in her answer. For her the thing was simply untrue; and that was the end of it. She found it difficult therefore to follow her companion's train of thought.
"What was it she said?" demanded Mrs. Baxter presently. "I didn't understand her ideas about materialism."
"I think she called it materialization," explained Maggie patiently. "She said that when things were very favorable, and the medium a very good one, the soul that wanted to communicate could make a kind of body for itself out of what she called the astral matter of the medium or the sitters."
"But surely our bodies aren't like that?"
"No; I can't say that I think they are. But that's what she said."
"My dear, please explain. I want to understand the woman."
Maggie frowned a little.
"Well, the first thing she said was that those souls want to communicate; and that they begin generally by things like table-rapping, or making blue lights. Then when you know they're there, they can go further. Sometimes they gain control of the medium who is in a trance, and speak through him, or write with his hand. Then, if things are favorable, they begin to draw out this matter, and make it into a kind of body for themselves, very thin and ethereal, so that you can pass your hand through it. Then, as things get better and better, they go further still, and can make this body so solid that you can touch it; only this is sometimes rather dangerous, as it is still, in a sort of way, connected with the medium. I think that's the idea."
"But what's the good of it all?"
"Well, you see, Mrs. Stapleton thinks that they really are souls from the other world, and that they can tell us all kinds of things about it all, and what's true, and so on."
"But you don't believe that?"
Maggie turned her large eyes on the old lady; and a spark of humor rose and glimmered in them.
"Of course I don't," she said.
"Then how do you explain it?"
"I think it's probably all a fraud. But I really don't know. It doesn't seem to me to matter much—"
"But if it should be true?"
Maggie raised her eyebrows, smiling.
"Dear auntie, do put it out of your head. How can it possibly be true?"
Mrs. Baxter set her lips in as much severity as she could.
"I shall ask the Vicar," she said. "We might stop at the Vicarage on the way back."
Mrs. Baxter did not often stop at the Vicarage; as she did not altogether approve of the Vicar's wife. There was a good deal of pride in the old lady, and it seemed to her occasionally as if Mrs. Rymer did not understand the difference between the Hall and the Parsonage. She envied sometimes, secretly, the Romanist idea of celibacy: it was so much easier to get on with your spiritual adviser if you did not have to consider his wife. But here, was a matter which a clergyman must settle for her once and for all; so she put on a slight air of dignity which became her very well, and a little after four o'clock the Victoria turned up the steep little drive that led to the Vicarage.
Thee dusk was already fallen before Laurie, strolling vaguely in the garden, heard the carriage wheels draw up at the gate outside.
He had ridden again alone, and his mind had run, to a certain extent, as might be expected, upon the recent guest and her very startling conversation. He was an intelligent young man, and he had not been in the least taken in by her pseudo-mystical remarks. Yet there had been something in her extreme assurance that had affected him, as a man may smile sourly at a good story in bad taste. His attitude, in fact, was that of most Christians under the circumstances. He did not, for an instant, believe that such things really and literally happened, and yet it was difficult to advance any absolutely conclusive argument against them. Merely, they had not come his way; they appeared to conflict with experience, and they usually found as their advocates such persons as Mrs. Stapleton.
Two things, however, prevailed to keep the matter before his mind. The first was his own sense of loss, his own experience, sore and hot within him, of the unapproachable emptiness of death; the second, Maggie's attitude. When a plainly sensible and controlled young woman takes up a position of superiority, she is apt, unless the young man in her company happens to be in love with her—and sometimes even when he is—to provoke and irritate him into a camp of opposition. She is still more apt to do so if her relations to him have once been in the line of even greater tenderness.
Laurie then was not in the most favorable of moods to receive the dicta of the Vicar.
They were announced to him immediately after Mrs. Baxter had received from Maggie's hands her first cup of tea.
"Mr. Rymer tells me it's all nonsense," she said.
Laurie looked up.
"What?" he said.
"Mr. Rymer tells me Spiritualism is all nonsense. He told me about someone called Eglingham, who kept a beard in his portmanteau."
"Eglinton, I think, auntie," put in Maggie.
"I daresay, my dear. Anyhow, it's all the same. I felt sure it must be so." Laurie took a bun, with a thoughtful air.
"Does Mr. Rymer know very much about it, do you think, mother?"
"Dear boy, I think he knows all that anyone need know. Besides, if you come to think of it, how could Cardinal Newman possibly appear in a drawing-room? Particularly when Mrs. Stapleton says he isn't a Christian any longer."
This had a possible and rather pleasing double interpretation; but Laurie decided it was not worth while to be humorous.
"What about the Witch of Endor?" he asked innocently, instead.
"That was in the Old Testament," answered his mother rapidly. "Mr. Rymer said something about that too."
"Oh! wasn't it really Samuel who appeared?"
"Mr. Rymer thinks that things were permitted then that are not permitted now."
Laurie drank up his cup of tea. It is a humiliating fact that extreme grief often renders the mourner rather cross. There was a distinct air of crossness about Laurie at this moment. His nerves were very near the top.
"Well, that's very convenient," he said. "Maggie, do you know if there's any book on Spiritualism in the house?"
The girl glanced uneasily near the fire-place.
"I don't know," she said. "Yes; I think there's something up there. I believe I saw it the other day."
Laurie rose and stood opposite the shelves.
"What color is it? (No, no more tea, thanks.)"
"Er ... black and red, I think," said the girl. "I forget."
She looked up at him, faintly uneasy, as he very deliberately drew down a book from the shelf and turned the pages.
"Yes ... this is it," he said. "Thanks very much.... No, really no more tea, thanks, mother."
Then he went to the door, with his easy, rather long steps, and disappeared. They heard his steps in the inner hall. Then a door closed overhead.
Mrs. Baxter contentedly poured herself out another cup of tea.
"Poor boy," she said. "He's thinking of that girl still. I'm glad he's got something to occupy his mind."
The end room, on the first floor, was Laurie's possession. It was a big place, with two windows, and a large open fire, and he had skillfully masked the fact that it was a bedroom by disposing his furniture, with the help of a screen, in such a manner as completely to hide the bed and the washing arrangements.
The rest of the room he had furnished in a pleasing male kind of fashion, with a big couch drawn across the fire, a writing-table and chairs, a deep easy chair near the door, and a long, high bookcase covering the wall between the door and the windows. His college oar, too, hung here, and there were pleasant groups and pictures scattered on the other walls.
Maggie did not often come in here, except by invitation, but about seven o'clock on this evening, half an hour before she had to go and dress, she thought she would look in on him for a few minutes. She was still a little uncomfortable; she did not quite know why: it was too ridiculous, she told, herself, that a sensible boy like Laurie could be seriously affected by what she considered the wicked nonsense of Spiritualism.
Yet she went, telling herself that Laurie's grief was an excuse for showing him a little marked friendliness. Besides, she would like to ask him whether he was really going back to town on Thursday.
She tapped twice before an answer came; and then it seemed a rather breathless voice which spoke.
The boy was sitting bolt upright on the edge of the sofa, with a couple of candles at his side, and the book in his hands. There was a strained and intensely interested look in his eyes.
"May I come in for a few minutes? It's nearly dressing time," she said.
He got up, rather stiffly, still keeping his place in the book with one finger, while she sat down. Then he too sat again, and there was silence for a moment.
"Why, you're not smoking," she said.
"I forgot. I will now, if you don't mind!"
She saw his fingers tremble a little as he put out his hand to a box of cigarettes at his side. But he put the book down, after looking at the page.
She could keep her question in no longer.
"What do you think of that," she said, nodding at the book.
He filled his lungs with smoke and exhaled again slowly.
"I think it's extraordinary," he said shortly.
"In what way?"
Again he paused before answering. Then he answered deliberately.
"If human evidence is worth anything, those things happen," he said.
"The dead return."
Maggie looked at him, aware of his deliberate attempt at dramatic brevity. He was watching the end of his cigarette with elaborate attention, and his face had that white, rather determined look that she had seen on it once or twice before, in the presence of a domestic crisis.
"Do you really mean you believe that?" she said, with a touch of careful bitterness in her voice.
"I do," he said, "or else—"
"Or else human evidence is worth nothing at all."
Maggie understood him perfectly; but she realized that this was not an occasion to force issues. She still put the tone of faint irony into her voice.
"You really believe that Cardinal Newman comes to Mr. Vincent's drawing room and raps on tables?"
"I really believe that it is possible to get into touch with those whom we call dead. Each instance, of course, depends on its own evidence."
"And Cardinal Newman?"
"I have not studied the evidence for Cardinal Newman," remarked Laurie in a head-voice.
"Let's have a look at that book," said Maggie impulsively.
He handed it to her; and she began to turn the pages, pausing now and again to read a particular paragraph, and once for nearly a minute while she examined an illustration. Certainly the book seemed interestingly written, and she read an argument or two that appeared reasonably presented. Yet she was extraordinarily repelled even by the dead paper and ink she had in her hands. It was as if it was something obscene. Finally she tossed it back on to the couch.
Laurie waited; but she said nothing.
"Well?" he asked at last, still refraining from looking at her.
"I think it's horrible," she said.
Laurie delicately adjusted a little tobacco protruding from his cigarette.
"Isn't that a little unreasonable?" he asked. "You've hardly looked at it yet."
Maggie knew this mood of his only too well. He reserved it for occasions when he was determined to fight. Argument was a useless weapon against it.
"My dear boy," she said with an effort, "I'm sorry. I daresay it is unreasonable. But that kind of thing does seem to me so disgusting. That's all.... I didn't come to talk about that.... Tell me—"
"Didn't you?" said Laurie.
Maggie was silent.
"Well—yes I did. But I don't want to any more."
Laurie smiled so that it might be seen.
"Well, what else did you want to say?" He glanced purposely at the book. Maggie ignored his glance.
"I just came to see how you were getting on."
"How do you mean? With the book?"
"No; in every way."
He looked up at her swiftly and suddenly, and she saw that his agony of sorrow was acute beneath all his attempts at superiority, his courteous fractiousness, and his set face. She was filled suddenly with an enormous pity.
"Oh! Laurie, I'm so sorry," she cried out. "Can't I do anything?"
"Nothing, thanks; nothing at all," he said quietly.
Again pity and misery surged up within her, and she cast all prudence to the winds. She had not realized how fond she was of this boy till she saw once more that look in his eyes.
"Oh! Laurie, you know I didn't like it; but—but I don't know what to do, I'm so sorry. But don't spoil it all," she said wildly, hardly knowing what she feared.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know what I mean. Don't spoil it, by—by fancying things."
"Maggie," said the boy quietly, "you must let me alone. You can't help."
"You can't help," he repeated. "I must go my own way. Please don't say any more. I can't stand it."
There followed a dead silence. Then Maggie recovered and stood up. He rose with her.
"Forgive me, Laurie, won't you? I must say this. You'll remember I'll always do anything I can, won't you?"
Then she was gone.
The ladies went to bed early at Stantons. At ten o'clock precisely a clinking of bedroom candlesticks was heard in the hall, followed by the sound of locking doors. This was the signal. Mrs. Baxter laid aside her embroidery with the punctuality of a religious at the sound of a bell, and said two words—
There were occasionally exclamatory expostulations from the two at the piquet-table, but in nine cases out of ten the game had been designed with an eye upon the clock, and hardly any delay followed. Mrs. Baxter kissed her son, and passed her arm through Maggie's. Laurie followed; gave them candles, and generally took one himself.
But this evening there was no piquet. Laurie had stayed later than usual in the dining-room, and had wandered rather restlessly about when he had joined the others. He looked at a London evening paper for a little, paced about, vanished again, and only returned as the ladies were making ready to depart. Then he gave them their candlesticks, and himself came back to the drawing room.
He was, in fact, in a far more perturbed and excited mood than even Maggie had had any idea of. She had interrupted him half-way through the book, but he had read again steadily until five minutes before dinner, and had, indeed, gone back again to finish it afterwards. He had now finished it; and he wanted to think.
It had had a surprising effect on him, coming as it did upon a state of mind intensely stirred to its depths by his sorrow. Crossness, as I have said, had been the natural psychological result of his emotions; but his emotions were none the less real. The froth of whipped cream is real cream, after all.
Now Laurie had seen perfectly well the extreme unconvincingness of Mrs. Stapleton, and had been genuine enough in his little shrug of disapproval in answer to Maggie's, after lunch; yet that lady's remarks had been sufficient just to ignite the train of thought. This train had smoldered in the afternoon, had been fanned ever so slightly by two breezes—the sense of Maggie's superiority and the faint rebellious reaction which had come upon him with regard to his personal religion. Certainly he had had Mass said for Amy this morning; but it had been by almost a superstitious rather than a religious instinct. He was, in fact, in that state of religious unreality which occasionally comes upon converts within a year or two of the change of their faith. The impetus of old association is absent, and the force of novelty has died.
Underneath all this then, it must be remembered that the one thing that was intensely real to him was his sense of loss of the one soul in whom his own had been wrapped up. Even this afternoon as yesterday, even this morning as he lay awake, he had been conscious of an irresistible impulse to demand some sign, to catch some glimpse of that which was now denied to him.
It was in this mood that he had read the book; and it is not to be wondered at that he had been excited by it.
For it opened up to him, beneath all its sham mysticism, its intolerable affectations, its grotesque parody of spirituality—of all of which he was largely aware—a glimmering avenue of a faintly possible hope of which he had never dreamed—a hope, at least, of that half self-deception which is so tempting to certain characters.
Here, in this book, written by a living man, whose name and address were given, were stories so startling, and theories so apparently consonant with themselves and with other partly known facts—stories and theories, too, which met so precisely his own overmastering desire, that it is little wonder that he was affected by them.
Naturally, even during his reading, a thousand answers and adverse comments had sprung to his mind—suggestions of fraud, of lying, of hallucination—but yet, here the possibility remained. Here were living men and women who, with the usual complement of senses and reason, declared categorically and in detail, that on this and that date, in this place and the other, after having taken all possible precautions against fraud, they had received messages from the dead—messages of which the purport was understood by none but themselves—that they had seen with their eyes, in sufficient light, the actual features of the dead whom they loved, that they had even clasped their hands, and held for an instant the bodies of those whom they had seen die with their own eyes, and buried.
* * * * *
When the ladies' footsteps had ceased to sound overhead, Laurie went to the French window, opened it, and passed on to the lawn.
He was astonished at the warmth of the September night. The little wind that had been chilly this afternoon had dropped with the coming of the dark, and high overhead he could see the great masses of the leaves motionless against the sky. He passed round the house, and beneath the yews, and sat down on the garden bench.
It was darker here than outside on the lawn. Beneath his feet were the soft needles from the trees, and above him, as he looked out, still sunk in his thought, he could see the glimmer of a star or two between the branches.
It was a fragrant, kindly night. From the hamlet of half a dozen houses beyond the garden came no sound; and the house, too, was still behind him. An illuminated window somewhere on the first floor went out as he looked at it, like a soul leaving a body; once a sleepy bird somewhere in the shrubbery chirped to its mate and was silent again.
Then as he still labored in argument, putting this against that, and weighing that against the other, his emotion rose up in an irresistible torrent, and all consideration ceased. One thing remained: he must have Amy, or he must die.
* * * * *
It was five or six minutes before he moved again from that attitude of clenched hands and tensely strung muscles into which his sudden passion had cast him.
During those minutes he had willed with his whole power that she should come to him now and here, down in this warm and fragrant darkness, hidden from all eyes—in this sweet silence, round which sleep kept its guard. Such things had happened before; such things must have happened, for the will and the love of man are the mightiest forces in creation. Surely again and again it had happened; there must be somewhere in the world man after man who had so called back the dead—a husband sobbing silently in the dark, a child wailing for his mother; surely that force had before, in the world's history, willed back again from the mysterious dark of space the dear personality that was all that even heaven could give, had even compelled into a semblance of life some sort of body to clothe it in. These things must have happened—only secrets had been well kept.
So this boy had willed it; yet the dark had remained empty; and no shadow, no faintly outlined face, had even for an instant blotted out the star on which he stared; no touch on his shoulder, no whisper in his ear. It had seemed as he strove there, in the silence, that it must be done; that there was no limit to power concentrated and intense. Yet it had not happened....
Once he had shuddered a little; and the very shudder of fear had had in it a touch of delicious, trembling expectation. Yet it had not happened.
Laurie relaxed his muscles therefore, let his breath exhale in a long sigh, and once more remembered the book he had read and Mrs. Stapleton's feverish, self-conscious thought.
Half an hour later his mother, listening in her bed, heard his footsteps pass her room.
Lady Laura Bethell, spinster, had just returned to her house in Queen's Gate, with her dearest friend, Mrs. Stapleton, for a few days of psychical orgy. It was in her house, as much as in any in London, that the modern prophets were to be met with—severe-looking women in shapeless dresses, little men and big, with long hair and cloaks; and it was in her drawing-room that tea and Queen cakes were dispensed to inquirers, and papers read and discussed when the revels were over.
Lady Laura herself was not yet completely emancipated from what her friends sometimes called the grave-clothes of so-called Revelation. To her it seemed a profound truth that things could be true and untrue simultaneously—that what might be facts on This Side, as she would have expressed it, might be falsehoods on the Other. She was accustomed, therefore, to attend All Saints', Carlton Gardens, in the morning, and psychical drawing-rooms or halls in the evening, and to declare to her friends how beautifully the one aspect illuminated and interpreted the other.
For the rest, she was a small, fair-haired woman, with penciled dark eyebrows, a small aquiline nose, gold pince-nez, and an exquisite taste in dress.
The two were seated this Tuesday evening, a week after Mrs. Stapleton's visit to the Stantons, in the drawing-room of the Queen's Gate house, over the remnants of what corresponded to five-o'clock tea. I say "corresponded," since both of them were sufficiently advanced to have renounced actual tea altogether. Mrs. Stapleton partook of a little hot water out of a copper-jacketed jug; her hostess of boiled milk. They shared their Plasmon biscuits together. These things were considered important for those who would successfully find the Higher Light.
At this instant they were discussing Mr. Vincent.
"Dearest, he seems to me so different from the others," mewed Lady Laura. "He is such a man, you know. So often those others are not quite like men at all; they wear such funny clothes, and their hair always is so queer, somehow."
"Darling, I know what you mean. Yes, there's a great deal of that about James Vincent. Even dear Tom was almost polite to him: he couldn't bear the others: he said that he always thought they were going to paw him."
"And then his powers," continued Lady Laura—"his powers always seem to me so much greater. The magnetism is so much more evident."
Mrs. Stapleton finished her hot water.
"We are going on Sunday?" she said questioningly.
"Yes; just a small party. And he comes here tomorrow, you remember, just for a talk. I have asked a clergyman I know in to meet him. It seems to me such a pity that our religious teachers should know so little of what is going on."
"Who is he?"
"Oh, Mr. Jamieson ... just a young clergyman I met in the summer. I promised to let him know the next time Mr. Vincent came to me."
Mrs. Stapleton murmured her gratification.
These two had really a great deal in common besides their faith. It is true that Mrs. Stapleton was forty, and her friend but thirty-one; but the former did all that was possible to compensate for this by adroit toilette tactics. Both, too, were accustomed to dress in soft materials, with long chains bearing various emblems; they did their hair in the same way; they cultivated the same kinds of tones in their voices—a purring, mewing manner—suggestive of intuitive kittens. Both alike had a passion for proselytism. But after that the differences began. There was a deal more in Mrs. Stapleton besides the kittenish qualities. She was perfectly capable of delivering a speech in public; she had written some really well-expressed articles in various Higher periodicals; and she had a will-power beyond the ordinary. At the point where Lady Laura began to deprecate and soothe, Mrs. Stapleton began to clear decks for action, so to speak, to be incisive, to be fervent, even to be rather eloquent. She kept "dear Tom," the Colonel, not crushed or beaten, for that was beyond the power of man to do, but at least silently acquiescent in her program: he allowed her even to entertain her prophetical friends at his expense, now and then; and, even when among men, refrained from too bitter speech. It was said by the Colonel's friends that Mrs. Colonel had a tongue of her own. Certainly, she ruled her house well and did her duty; and it was only because of her husband's absence in Scotland that during this time she was permitting herself the refreshment of a week or two among the Illuminated.
At about six o'clock Lady Laura announced her intention of retiring for her evening meditation. Opening out of her bedroom was a small dressing-room that she had fitted up for this purpose with all the broad suggestiveness that marks the Higher Thought: decked with ornaments emblematical of at least three religions, and provided with a faldstool and an exceedingly easy chair. It was here that she was accustomed to spend an hour before dinner, with closed eyes, emancipating herself from the fetters of sense; and rising to a due appreciation of that Nothingness that was All, from which All came and to which it retired.
"I must go, dearest; it is time."
A ring at the bell below made her pause.
"Do you think that can be Mr. Vincent?" she said, pleasantly apprehensive. "It's not the right day, but one never knows."
A footman's figure entered.
"Mr. Baxter, my lady.... Is your ladyship at home?"
Mrs. Stapleton rose.
"Let me see him instead, dearest.... You remember ... from Stantons."
"I wonder what he wants?" murmured the hostess. "Yes, do see him, Maud; you can always fetch me if it's anything."
Then she was gone. Mrs. Stapleton sank into a chair again; and in a minute Laurie was shaking hands with her.
Mrs. Stapleton was accustomed to deal with young men, and through long habit had learned how to flatter them without appearing to do so. Laurie's type, however, was less familiar to her. She preferred the kind that grow their hair rather long and wear turn-down collars, and have just found out the hopeless banality of all orthodoxy whatever. She even bore with them when they called themselves unmoral. But she remembered Laurie, the silent boy at lunch last week, she had even mentioned him to Lady Laura, and received information about the village girl, more or less correct. She was also aware that he was a Catholic.
She gave him her hand without rising.
"Lady Laura asked me to excuse her absence to you, Mr. Baxter. To be quite truthful, she is at home, but had just gone upstairs for her meditation."
"Yes, you know; we think that so important, just as you do. Do sit down, Mr. Baxter. You have had tea?"
"I hope she will be down before you go. I don't think she'll be very long this evening. Can I give her any message, Mr. Baxter, in case you don't see her?"
Laurie put his hat and stick down carefully, and crossed his legs.
"No; I don't think so, thanks," he said. "The fact is, I came partly to find out your address, if I might."
Mrs. Stapleton rustled and rearranged herself.
"Oh! but that's charming of you," she said. "Is there anything particular?"
"Yes," said Laurie slowly; "at least it seems rather particular to me. It's what you were talking about the other day."
"Now how nice of you to say that! Do you know, I was wondering as we talked. Now do tell me exactly what is in your mind, Mr. Baxter."
Mrs. Stapleton was conscious of a considerable sense of pleasure. Usually she found this kind of man very imperceptive and gross. Laurie seemed perfectly at his ease, dressed quite in the proper way, and had an air of presentableness that usually only went with Philistinism. She determined to do her best.
"May I speak quite freely, please?" he asked, looking straight at her.
"Please, please," she said, with that touch of childish intensity that her friends thought so innocent and beautiful.
"Well, it's like this," said Laurie. "I've always rather disliked all that kind of thing, more than I can say. It did seem to me so—well—so feeble, don't you know; and then I'm a Catholic, you see, and so—"
"Well, I've been reading Mr. Stainton Moses, and one or two other books; and I must say that an awful lot of it seems to me still great rubbish; and then there are any amount of frauds, aren't there, Mrs. Stapleton, in that line?"
"Alas! Ah, yes!"
"But then I don't know what to make of some of the evidence that remains. It seems to me that if evidence is worth anything at all, there must be something real at the back of it all. And then, if that is so, if it really is true that it is possible to get into actual touch with people who are dead—I mean really and truly, so that there's no kind of doubt about it—well, that does seem to me about the most important thing in the world. Do you see?"
She kept her eyes on his face for an instant or two. Plainly he was really moved; his face had gone a little white in the lamplight and his hands were clasped tightly enough over his knee to whiten the knuckles. She remembered Lady Laura's remarks about the village girl, and understood. But she perceived that she must not attempt intimacy just yet with this young man: he would resent it. Besides, she was shrewd enough to see by his manner that he did not altogether like her.
She nodded pensively once or twice. Then she turned to him with a bright smile. "I understand entirely," she said. "May I too speak quite freely? Yes? Well, I am so glad you have spoken out. Of course, we are quite accustomed to being distrusted and feared. After all, it is the privilege of all truth-seekers to suffer, is it not? Well, I will say what is in my heart.
"First, you are quite right about some of our workers being dishonest sometimes. They are, Mr. Baxter, I have seen more than one, myself, exposed. But that is natural, is it not? Why, there have been bad Catholics, too, have there not? And, after all, we are only human; and there is a great temptation sometimes not to send people away disappointed. You have heard those stories, I expect, Mr. Baxter?"
"I have heard of Mr. Eglinton."
"Ah! Poor Willie.... Yes. But he had great powers, for all that.... Well, but the point you want to get at is this, is it not? Is it really true, underneath it all? Is that it?"
Laurie nodded, looking at her steadily. She leaned forward.
"Mr. Baxter, by all that I hold most sacred, I assure you that it is, that I myself have seen and touched ... touched ... my own father, who crossed over twenty years ago. I have received messages from his own lips ... and communications in other ways too, concerning matters only known to him and to myself. Is that sufficient? No"; (she held up a delicate silencing hand) "... no, I will not ask you to take my word. I will ask you to test it for yourself."
Laurie too leaned forward now in his low chair, his hands clasped between his knees.
"You will—you will let me test it?" he said in a low voice.
She sat back easily, pushing her draperies straight. She was in some fine silk that fell straight from her high slender waist to her copper-colored shoes.
"Listen, Mr. Baxter. Tomorrow there is coming to this house certainly the greatest medium in London, if not in Europe. (Of course we cannot compete with the East. We are only children beside them.) Well, this man, Mr. Vincent—I think I spoke of him to you last week—he is coming here just for a talk to one or two friends. There shall be no difficulty if you wish it. I will speak to Lady Laura before you go."
Laurie looked at her without moving.
"I shall be very much obliged," he said. "You will remember that I am not yet in the least convinced? I only want to know."
"That is exactly the right attitude. That is all we have any right to ask. We do not ask for blind faith, Mr. Baxter—only for believing after having seen."
Laurie nodded slowly.
"That seems to me reasonable," he said.
There was silence for a moment. Then she determined on a bold stroke.
"There is someone in particular—Mr. Baxter—forgive me for asking—someone who has passed over—?"
She sank her voice to what she had been informed was a sympathetic tone, and was scarcely prepared for the sudden tightening of that face.
"That is my affair, Mrs. Stapleton."
Ah well, she had been premature. She would fetch Lady Laura, she said; she thought she might venture for such a purpose. No, she would not be away three minutes. Then she rustled out.
Laurie went to the fire to wait, and stood there, mechanically warming his hands and staring down at that sleeping core of red coal.
He had taken his courage in both hands in coming at all. In spite of his brave words to Maggie, he had been conscious of a curious repulsion with regard to the whole matter—a repulsion not only of contempt towards the elaborate affectations of the woman he had determined to consult. Yet he had come.
What he had said just now had been perfectly true. He was not yet in the least convinced, but he was anxious, intensely and passionately anxious, goaded too by desire.
Ah! surely it was absurd and fantastic—here in London, in this century. He turned and faced the lamp-lit room, letting his eyes wander round the picture-hung walls, the blue stamped paper, the Empire furniture, the general appearance of beautiful comfort and sane modern life. It was absurd and fantastic; he would be disappointed again, as he had been disappointed in everything else. These things did not happen—the dead did not return. Step by step those things that for centuries had been deemed evidence of the supernatural, one by one had been explained and discounted. Hypnotism, water divining, witchcraft, and the rest. All these had once been believed to be indisputable proofs of a life beyond the grave, of strange supernormal personalities, and these, one by one, had been either accounted for or discredited. It was mad of him to be alarmed or excited. No, he would go through with it, expecting nothing, hoping nothing. But he would just go through with it to satisfy himself....
The door opened, and the two ladies came in.
"I am delighted that you called, Mr. Baxter; and on such an errand!"
Lady Laura put out a hand, tremulous with pleasure at welcoming a possible disciple.
"Mrs. Stapleton has explained—" began Laurie.
"I understand everything. You come as a skeptic—no, not as a skeptic, but as an inquirer, that is all that we wish.... Then tomorrow, at about half-past four."
It was a mellow October afternoon, glowing towards sunset, as Laurie came across the south end of the park to his appointment next day; and the effect of it upon his mind was singularly unsuggestive of supernatural mystery. Instead, the warm sky, the lights beginning to peep here and there, though an hour before sunset, turned him rather in the direction of the natural and the domestic.
He wondered what his mother and Maggie would say if they knew his errand, for he had sufficient self-control not to have told them of his intentions. As regards his mother he did not care very much. Of course she would deprecate it and feebly dissuade; but he recognized that there was no particular principle behind, beyond a sense of discomfort at the unknown. But it was necessary for him to argue with himself about Maggie. The angry kind of contempt that he knew she would feel needed an answer; and he gave it by reminding himself that she had been brought up in a convent-school, that she knew nothing of the world, and that, lastly, he himself did not take the matter seriously. He was aware, too, that the instinctive repulsion that she felt so keenly found a certain echo in his own feelings; but he explained this by the novelty of the thing.
In fact, the attitude of mind in which he more or less succeeded in arraying himself was that of one who goes to see a serious conjurer. It would be rather fun, he thought, to see a table dancing. But there was not wholly wanting that inexplicable tendency of some natures deliberately to deceive themselves on what lies nearest to their hearts.
Mr. Vincent had not yet arrived when he was shown upstairs, even though Laurie himself was late. (This was partly deliberate. He thought it best to show a little nonchalance.) There was only a young clergyman in the room with the ladies; and the two were introduced.