The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham

  "I've been waiting for you," he said.

  Haddo led her into a sitting-room. He had an apartment in a maison meublĂ©e, and heavy hangings, the solid furniture of that sort of house in Paris, was unexpected in connection with him. The surroundings were so commonplace that they seemed to emphasise his singularity. There was a peculiar lack of comfort, which suggested that he was indifferent to material things. The room was large, but so cumbered that it gave a cramped impression. Haddo dwelt there as if he were apart from any habitation that might be his. He moved cautiously among the heavy furniture, and his great obesity was somehow more remarkable. There was the acrid perfume which Margaret remembered a few days before in her vision of an Eastern city.

  Asking her to sit down, he began to talk as if they were old acquaintance between whom nothing of moment had occurred. At last she took her courage in both hands.

  "Why did you make me come here?" she asked suddenly.

  "You give me credit now for very marvellous powers," he smiled.

  "You knew I should come."

  "I knew."

  "What have I done to you that you should make me so unhappy? I want you to leave me alone."

  "I shall not prevent you from going out if you choose to go. No harm has come to you. The door is open."

  Her heart beat quickly, painfully almost, and she remained silent. She knew that she did not want to go. There was something that drew her strangely to him, and she was ceasing to resist. A strange feeling began to take hold of her, creeping stealthily through her limbs; and she was terrified, but unaccountably elated.

  He began to talk with that low voice of his that thrilled her with a curious magic. He spoke not of pictures now, nor of books, but of life. He told her of strange Eastern places where no infidel had been, and her sensitive fancy was aflame with the honeyed fervour of his phrase. He spoke of the dawn upon sleeping desolate cities, and the moonlit nights of the desert, of the sunsets with their splendour, and of the crowded streets at noon. The beauty of the East rose before her. He told her of many-coloured webs and of silken carpets, the glittering steel of armour damascened, and of barbaric, priceless gems. The splendour of the East blinded her eyes. He spoke of frankincense and myrrh and aloes, of heavy perfumes of the scent-merchants, and drowsy odours of the Syrian gardens. The fragrance of the East filled her nostrils. And all these things were transformed by the power of his words till life itself seemed offered to her, a life of infinite vivacity, a life of freedom, a life of supernatural knowledge. It seemed to her that a comparison was drawn for her attention between the narrow round which awaited her as Arthur's wife and this fair, full existence. She shuddered to think of the dull house in Harley Street and the insignificance of its humdrum duties. But it was possible for her also to enjoy the wonder of the world. Her soul yearned for a beauty that the commonalty of men did not know. And what devil suggested, a warp as it were in the woof of Oliver's speech, that her exquisite loveliness gave her the right to devote herself to the great art of living? She felt a sudden desire for perilous adventures. As though fire passed through her, she sprang to her feet and stood with panting bosom, her flashing eyes bright with the multi-coloured pictures that his magic presented.

  Oliver Haddo stood too, and they faced one another. Then, on a sudden, she knew what the passion was that consumed her. With a quick movement, his eyes more than ever strangely staring, he took her in his arms, and he kissed her lips. She surrendered herself to him voluptuously. Her whole body burned with the ecstasy of his embrace.

  "I think I love you," she said, hoarsely.

  She looked at him. She did not feel ashamed.

  "Now you must go," he said.

  He opened the door, and, without another word, she went. She walked through the streets as if nothing at all had happened. She felt neither remorse nor revulsion.

  Then Margaret felt every day that uncontrollable desire to go to him; and, though she tried to persuade herself not to yield, she knew that her effort was only a pretence: she did not want anything to prevent her. When it seemed that some accident would do so, she could scarcely control her irritation. There was always that violent hunger of the soul which called her to him, and the only happy hours she had were those spent in his company. Day after day she felt that complete ecstasy when he took her in his huge arms, and kissed her with his heavy, sensual lips. But the ecstasy was extraordinarily mingled with loathing, and her physical attraction was allied with physical abhorrence.

  Yet when he looked at her with those pale blue eyes, and threw into his voice those troubling accents, she forgot everything. He spoke of unhallowed things. Sometimes, as it were, he lifted a corner of the veil, and she caught a glimpse of terrible secrets. She understood how men had bartered their souls for infinite knowledge. She seemed to stand upon a pinnacle of the temple, and spiritual kingdoms of darkness, principalities of the unknown, were spread before her eyes to lure her to destruction. But of Haddo himself she learned nothing. She did not know if he loved her. She did not know if he had ever loved. He appeared to stand apart from human kind. Margaret discovered by chance that his mother lived, but he would not speak of her.

  "Some day you shall see her," he said.


  "Very soon."

  Meanwhile her life proceeded with all outward regularity. She found it easy to deceive her friends, because it occurred to neither that her frequent absence was not due to the plausible reasons she gave. The lies which at first seemed intolerable now tripped glibly off her tongue. But though they were so natural, she was seized often with a panic of fear lest they should be discovered; and sometimes, suffering agonies of remorse, she would lie in bed at night and think with utter shame of the way she was using Arthur. But things had gone too far now, and she must let them take their course. She scarcely knew why her feelings towards him had so completely changed. Oliver Haddo had scarcely mentioned his name and yet had poisoned her mind. The comparison between the two was to Arthur's disadvantage. She thought him a little dull now, and his commonplace way of looking at life contrasted with Haddo's fascinating boldness. She reproached Arthur in her heart because he had never understood what was in her. He narrowed her mind. And gradually she began to hate him because her debt of gratitude was so great. It seemed unfair that he should have done so much for her. He forced her to marry him by his beneficence. Yet Margaret continued to discuss with him the arrangement of their house in Harley Street. It had been her wish to furnish the drawing-room in the style of Louis XV; and together they made long excursions to buy chairs or old pieces of silk with which to cover them. Everything should be perfect in its kind. The date of their marriage was fixed, and all the details were settled. Arthur was ridiculously happy. Margaret made no sign. She did not think of the future, and she spoke of it only to ward off suspicion. She was inwardly convinced now that the marriage would never take place, but what was to prevent it she did not know. She watched Susie and Arthur cunningly. But though she watched in order to conceal her own secret, it was another's that she discovered. Suddenly Margaret became aware that Susie was deeply in love with Arthur Burdon. The discovery was so astounding that at first it seemed absurd.

  "You've never done that caricature of Arthur for me that you promised," she said, suddenly.

  "I've tried, but he doesn't lend himself to it," laughed Susie.

  "With that long nose and the gaunt figure I should have thought you could make something screamingly funny."

  "How oddly you talk of him! Somehow I can only see his beautiful, kind eyes and his tender mouth. I would as soon do a caricature of him as write a parody on a poem I loved."

  Margaret took the portfolio in which Susie kept her sketches. She caught the look of alarm that crossed her friend's face, but Susie had not the courage to prevent her from looking. She turned the drawings carelessly and presently came to a sheet upon which, in a more or less finished state, were half a dozen heads of Arthur. Pretending not to see it, she went on to the end. When sh
e closed the portfolio Susie gave a sigh of relief.

  "I wish you worked harder," said Margaret, as she put the sketches down. "I wonder you don't do a head of Arthur as you can't do a caricature."

  "My dear, you mustn't expect everyone to take such an overpowering interest in that young man as you do."

  The answer added a last certainty to Margaret's suspicion. She told herself bitterly that Susie was no less a liar than she. Next day, when the other was out, Margaret looked through the portfolio once more, but the sketches of Arthur had disappeared. She was seized on a sudden with anger because Susie dared to love the man who loved her.

  The web in which Oliver Haddo enmeshed her was woven with skilful intricacy. He took each part of her character separately and fortified with consummate art his influence over her. There was something satanic in his deliberation, yet in actual time it was almost incredible that he could have changed the old abhorrence with which she regarded him into that hungry passion. Margaret could not now realise her life apart from his. At length he thought the time was ripe for the final step.

  "It may interest you to know that I'm leaving Paris on Thursday," he said casually, one afternoon.

  She started to her feet and stared at him with bewildered eyes.

  "But what is to become of me?"

  "You will marry the excellent Mr. Burdon."

  "You know I cannot live without you. How can you be so cruel?"

  "Then the only alternative is that you should accompany me."

  Her blood ran cold, and her heart seemed pressed in an iron vice.

  "What do you mean?"

  "There is no need to be agitated. I am making you an eminently desirable offer of marriage."

  She sank helplessly into her chair. Because she had refused to think of the future, it had never struck her that the time must come when it would be necessary to leave Haddo or to throw in her lot with his definitely. She was seized with revulsion. Margaret realised that, though an odious attraction bound her to the man, she loathed and feared him. The scales fell from her eyes. She remembered on a sudden Arthur's great love and all that he had done for her sake. She hated herself. Like a bird at its last gasp beating frantically against the bars of a cage, Margaret made a desperate effort to regain her freedom. She sprang up.

  "Let me go from here. I wish I'd never seen you. I don't know what you've done with me."

  "Go by all means if you choose," he answered.

  He opened the door, so that she might see he used no compulsion, and stood lazily at the threshold, with a hateful smile on his face. There was something terrible in his excessive bulk. Rolls of fat descended from his chin and concealed his neck. His cheeks were huge, and the lack of beard added to the hideous nakedness of his face. Margaret stopped as she passed him, horribly repelled yet horribly fascinated. She had an immense desire that he should take her again in his arms and press her lips with that red voluptuous mouth. It was as though fiends of hell were taking revenge upon her loveliness by inspiring in her a passion for this monstrous creature. She trembled with the intensity of her desire. His eyes were hard and cruel.

  "Go," he said.

  She bent her head and fled from before him. To get home she passed through the gardens of the Luxembourg, but her legs failed her, and in exhaustion she sank upon a bench. The day was sultry. She tried to collect herself. Margaret knew well the part in which she sat, for in the enthusiastic days that seemed so long gone by she was accustomed to come there for the sake of a certain tree upon which her eyes now rested. It had all the slim delicacy of a Japanese print. The leaves were slender and fragile, half gold with autumn, half green, but so tenuous that the dark branches made a pattern of subtle beauty against the sky. The hand of a draughtsman could not have fashioned it with a more excellent skill. But now Margaret could take no pleasure in its grace. She felt a heartrending pang to think that thenceforward the consummate things of art would have no meaning for her. She had seen Arthur the evening before, and remembered with an agony of shame the lies to which she had been forced in order to explain why she could not see him till late that day. He had proposed that they should go to Versailles, and was bitterly disappointed when she told him they could not, as usual on Sundays, spend the whole day together. He accepted her excuse that she had to visit a sick friend. It would not have been so intolerable if he had suspected her of deceit, and his reproaches would have hardened her heart. It was his entire confidence which was so difficult to bear.

  "Oh, if I could only make a clean breast of it all," she cried.

  The bell of Saint Sulpice was ringing for vespers. Margaret walked slowly to the church, and sat down in the seats reserved in the transept for the needy. She hoped that the music she must hear there would rest her soul, and perhaps she might be able to pray. Of late she had not dared. There was a pleasant darkness in the place, and its large simplicity was soothing. In her exhaustion, she watched listlessly the people go to and fro. Behind her was a priest in the confessional. A little peasant girl, in a Breton coiffe, perhaps a maid-servant lately come from her native village to the great capital, passed in and knelt down. Margaret could hear her muttered words, and at intervals the deep voice of the priest. In three minutes she tripped neatly away. She looked so fresh in her plain black dress, so healthy and innocent, that Margaret could not restrain a sob of envy. The child had so little to confess, a few puny errors which must excite a smile on the lips of the gentle priest, and her candid spirit was like snow. Margaret would have given anything to kneel down and whisper in those passionless ears all that she suffered, but the priest's faith and hers were not the same. They spoke a different tongue, not of the lips only but of the soul, and he would not listen to the words of an heretic.

  A long procession of seminarists came in from the college which is under the shadow of that great church, two by two, in black cassocks and short white surplices. Many were tonsured already. Some were quite young. Margaret watched their faces, wondering if they were tormented by such agony as she. But they had a living faith to sustain them, and if some, as was plain, were narrow and obtuse, they had at least a fixed rule which prevented them from swerving into treacherous byways. One or two had a wan ascetic look, such as the saints may have had when the terror of life was known to them only in the imaginings of the cloister. The canons of the church followed in their more gorgeous vestments, and finally the officiating clergy.

  The music was beautiful. There was about it a staid, sad dignity; and it seemed to Margaret fit thus to adore God. But it did not move her. She could not understand the words that the priests chanted; their gestures, their movements to and fro, were strange to her. For her that stately service had no meaning. And with a great cry in her heart she said that God had forsaken her. She was alone in an alien land. Evil was all about her, and in those ceremonies she could find no comfort. What could she expect when the God of her fathers left her to her fate? So that she might not weep in front of all those people, Margaret with down-turned face walked to the door. She felt utterly lost. As she walked along the interminable street that led to her own house, she was shaken with sobs.

  "God has forsaken me," she repeated. "God has forsaken me."

  Next day, her eyes red with weeping, she dragged herself to Haddo's door. When he opened it, she went in without a word. She sat down, and he watched her in silence.

  "I am willing to marry you whenever you choose," she said at last.

  "I have made all the necessary arrangements."

  "You have spoken to me of your mother. Will you take me to her at once."

  The shadow of a smile crossed his lips.

  "If you wish it."

  Haddo told her that they could be married before the Consul early enough on the Thursday morning to catch a train for England. She left everything in his hands.

  "I'm desperately unhappy," she said dully.

  Oliver laid his hands upon her shoulders and looked into her eyes.

  "Go home, and you will forget your
tears. I command you to be happy."

  Then it seemed that the bitter struggle between the good and the evil in her was done, and the evil had conquered. She felt on a sudden curiously elated. It seemed no longer to matter that she deceived her faithful friends. She gave a bitter laugh, as she thought how easy it was to hoodwink them.

  Wednesday happened to be Arthur's birthday, and he asked her to dine with him alone.

  "We'll do ourselves proud, and hang the expense," he said.

  They had arranged to eat at a fashionable restaurant on the other side of the river, and soon after seven he fetched her. Margaret was dressed with exceeding care. She stood in the middle of the room, waiting for Arthur's arrival, and surveyed herself in the glass. Susie thought she had never been more beautiful.

  "I think you've grown more pleasing to look upon than you ever were," she said. "I don't know what it is that has come over you of late, but there's a depth in your eyes that is quite new. It gives you an odd mysteriousness which is very attractive."

  Knowing Susie's love for Arthur, she wondered whether her friend was not heartbroken as she compared her own plainness with the radiant beauty that was before her. Arthur came in, and Margaret did not move. He stopped at the door to look at her. Their eyes met. His heart beat quickly, and yet he was seized with awe. His good fortune was too great to bear, when he thought that this priceless treasure was his. He could have knelt down and worshipped as though a goddess of old Greece stood before him. And to him also her eyes had changed. They had acquired a burning passion which disturbed and yet enchanted him. It seemed that the lovely girl was changed already into a lovely woman. An enigmatic smile came to her lips.

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