The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham


  At last, in concert with Dr. Porhoët, she determined to make one more attempt. It was late at night, and they sat with open windows in the sitting-room of the inn. There was a singular oppressiveness in the air which suggested that a thunderstorm was at hand. Susie prayed for it; for she ascribed to the peculiar heat of the last few days much of Arthur's sullen irritability.

  "Arthur, you must tell us what you are going to do," she said. "It is useless to stay here. We are all so ill and nervous that we cannot consider anything rationally. We want you to come away with us to-morrow."

  "You can go if you choose," he said. "I shall remain till that man is dead."

  "It is madness to talk like that. You can do nothing. You are only making yourself worse by staying here."

  "I have quite made up my mind."

  "The law can offer you no help, and what else can you do?"

  She asked the question, meaning if possible to get from him some hint of his intentions; but the grimness of his answer, though it only confirmed her vague suspicions, startled her.

  "If I can do nothing else, I shall shoot him like a dog."

  She could think of nothing to say, and for a while they remained in silence. Then he got up.

  "I think I should prefer it if you went," he said. "You can only hamper me."

  "I shall stay here as long as you do."

  "Why?"

  "Because if you do anything, I shall be compromised. I may be arrested. I think the fear of that may restrain you."

  He looked at her steadily. She met his eyes with a calmness which showed that she meant exactly what she said, and he turned uneasily away. A silence even greater than before fell upon them. They did not move. It was so still in the room that it might have been empty. The breath-lessness of the air increased, so that it was horribly oppressive. Suddenly there was a loud rattle of thunder, and a flash of lightning tore across the heavy clouds. Susie thanked Heaven for the storm which would give presently a welcome freshness. She felt excessively ill at ease, and it was a relief to ascribe her sensation to a state of the atmosphere. Again the thunder rolled. It was so loud that it seemed to be immediately above their heads. And the wind rose suddenly and swept with a long moan through the trees that surrounded the house. It was a sound so human that it might have come from the souls of dead men suffering hopeless torments of regret.

  The lamp went out, so suddenly that Susie was vaguely frightened. It gave one flicker, and they were in total darkness. It seemed as though someone had leaned over the chimney and blown it out. The night was very black, and they could not see the window which opened on to the country. The darkness was so peculiar that for a moment no one stirred.

  Then Susie heard Dr. Porhoët slip his hand across the table to find matches, but it seemed that they were not there. Again a loud peal of thunder startled them, but the rain would not fall. They panted for fresh air. On a sudden Susie's heart gave a bound, and she sprang up.

  "There's someone in the room."

  The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she heard Arthur fling himself upon the intruder. She knew at once, with the certainty of an intuition, that it was Haddo. But how had he come in? What did he want? She tried to cry out, but no sound came from her throat. Dr. Porhoët seemed bound to his chair. He did not move. He made no sound. She knew that an awful struggle was proceeding. It was a struggle to the death between two men who hated one another, but the most terrible part of it was that nothing was heard. They were perfectly noiseless. She tried to do something, but she could not stir. And Arthur's heart exulted, for his enemy was in his grasp, under his hands, and he would not let him go while life was in him. He clenched his teeth and tightened his straining muscles. Susie heard his laboured breathing, but she only heard the breathing of one man. She wondered in abject terror what that could mean. They struggled silently, hand to hand, and Arthur knew that his strength was greater. He had made up his mind what to do and directed all his energy to a definite end. His enemy was extraordinarily powerful, but Arthur appeared to create strength from the sheer force of his will. It seemed for hours that they struggled. He could not bear him down.

  Suddenly, he knew that the other was frightened and sought to escape from him. Arthur tightened his grasp; for nothing in the world now would he ever loosen his hold. He took a deep, quick breath, and then put out all his strength in a tremendous effort. They swayed from side to side. Arthur felt as if his muscles were being torn from the bones, he could not continue for more than a moment longer; but the agony that flashed across his mind at the thought of failure braced him to a sudden angry jerk. All at once Haddo collapsed, and they fell heavily to the ground. Arthur was breathing more quickly now. He thought that if he could keep on for one instant longer, he would be safe. He threw all his weight on the form that rolled beneath him, and bore down furiously on the man's arm. He twisted it sharply, with all his might, and felt it give way. He gave a low cry of triumph; the arm was broken. And now his enemy was seized with panic; he struggled madly, he wanted only to get away from those long hands that were killing him. They seemed to be of iron. Arthur seized the huge bullock throat and dug his fingers into it, and they sunk into the heavy rolls of fat; and he flung the whole weight of his body into them. He exulted, for he knew that his enemy was in his power at last; he was strangling him, strangling the life out of him. He wanted light so that he might see the horror of that vast face, and the deadly fear, and the staring eyes. And still he pressed with those iron hands. And now the movements were strangely convulsive. His victim writhed in the agony of death. His struggles were desperate, but the avenging hands held him as in a vice. And then the movements grew spasmodic, and then they grew weaker. Still the hands pressed upon the gigantic throat, and Arthur forgot everything. He was mad with rage and fury and hate and sorrow. He thought of Margaret's anguish and of her fiendish torture, and he wished the man had ten lives so that he might take them one by one. And at last all was still, and that vast mass of flesh was motionless, and he knew that his enemy was dead. He loosened his grasp and slipped one hand over the heart. It would never beat again. The man was stone dead. Arthur got up and straightened himself. The darkness was intense still, and he could see nothing. Susie heard him, and at length she was able to speak.

  "Arthur what have you done?"

  "I've killed him," he said hoarsely.

  "O God, what shall we do?"

  Arthur began to laugh aloud, hysterically, and in the darkness his hilarity was terrifying.

  "For God's sake let us have some light."

  "I've found the matches," said Dr. Porhoët.

  He seemed to awake suddenly from his long stupor. He struck one, and it would not light. He struck another, and Susie took off the globe and the chimney as he kindled the wick. Then he held up the lamp, and they saw Arthur looking at them. His face was ghastly. The sweat ran off his forehead in great beads, and his eyes were bloodshot. He trembled in every limb. Then Dr. Porhoët advanced with the lamp and held it forward. They looked down on the floor for the man who lay there dead. Susie gave a sudden cry of horror.

  There was no one there.

  Arthur stepped back in terrified surprise. There was no one in the room, living or dead, but the three friends. The ground sank under Susie's feet, she felt horribly ill, and she fainted. When she awoke, seeming difficultly to emerge from an eternal night, Arthur was holding down her head.

  "Bend down," he said. "Bend down."

  All that had happened came back to her, and she burst into tears. Her self-control deserted her, and, clinging to him for protection, she sobbed as though her heart would break. She was shaken from head to foot. The strangeness of this last horror had overcome her, and she could have shrieked with fright.

  "It's all right," he said. "You need not be afraid."

  "Oh, what does it mean?"

  "You must pluck up courage. We're going now to Skene."

  She sprang to her feet, as though to get away from him; her heart beat wildly.<
br />
  "No, I can't; I'm frightened."

  "We must see what it means. We have no time to lose, or the morning will be upon us before we get back."

  Then she sought to prevent him.

  "Oh, for God's sake, don't go, Arthur. Something awful may await you there. Don't risk your life."

  "There is no danger. I tell you the man is dead."

  "If anything happened to you ..."

  She stopped, trying to restrain her sobs; she dared not go on. But he seemed to know what was in her mind.

  "I will take no risks, because of you. I know that whether I live or die is not a—matter of indifference to you."

  She looked up and saw that his eyes were fixed upon her gravely. She reddened. A curious feeling came into her heart.

  "I will go with you wherever you choose," she said humbly.

  "Come, then."

  They stepped out into the night. And now, without rain, the storm had passed away, and the stars were shining. They walked quickly. Arthur went in front of them. Dr. Porhoët and Susie followed him, side by side, and they had to hasten their steps in order not to be left behind. It seemed to them that the horror of the night was passed, and there was a fragrancy in the air which was wonderfully refreshing. The sky was beautiful. And at last they came to Skene. Arthur led them again to the opening in the palisade, and he took Susie's hand. Presently they stood in the place from which a few days before they had seen the house. As then, it stood in massive blackness against the night and, as then, the attic windows shone out with brilliant lights. Susie started, for she had expected that the whole place would be in darkness.

  "There is no danger, I promise you," said Arthur gently. "We are going to find out the meaning of all this mystery."

  He began to walk towards the house.

  "Have you a weapon of some sort?" asked the doctor.

  Arthur handed him a revolver.

  "Take this. It will reassure you, but you will have no need of it. I bought it the other day when—I had other plans."

  Susie gave a little shudder. They reached the drive and walked to the great portico which adorned the façade of the house. Arthur tried the handle, but it would not open.

  "Will you wait here?" he said. "I can get through one of the windows, and I will let you in."

  He left them. They stood quietly there, with anxious hearts; they could not guess what they would see. They were afraid that something would happen to Arthur, and Susie regretted that she had not insisted on going with him. Suddenly she remembered that awful moment when the light of the lamp had been thrown where all expected to see a body, and there was nothing.

  "What do you think it meant?" she cried suddenly. "What is the explanation?"

  "Perhaps we shall see now," answered the doctor.

  Arthur still lingered, and she could not imagine what had become of him. All sorts of horrible fancies passed through her mind, and she dreaded she knew not what. At last they heard a footstep inside the house, and the door was opened.

  "I was convinced that nobody slept here, but I was obliged to make sure. I had some difficulty in getting in."

  Susie hesitated to enter. She did not know what horrors awaited her, and the darkness was terrifying.

  "I cannot see," she said.

  "I've brought a torch," said Arthur.

  He pressed a button, and a narrow ray of bright light was cast upon the floor. Dr. Porhoët and Susie went in. Arthur carefully closed the door, and flashed the light of his torch all round them. They stood in a large hall, the floor of which was scattered with the skins of lions that Haddo on his celebrated expedition had killed in Africa. There were perhaps a dozen, and their number gave a wild, barbaric note. A great oak staircase led to the upper floors.

  "We must go through all the rooms," said Arthur.

  He did not expect to find Haddo till they came to the lighted attics, but it seemed needful nevertheless to pass right through the house on their way. A flash of his torch had shown him that the walls of the hall were decorated with all manner of armour, ancient swords of Eastern handiwork, barbaric weapons from central Africa, savage implements of mediaeval warfare; and an idea came to him. He took down a huge battle-axe and swung it in his hand.

  "Now come."

  Silently, holding their breath as though they feared to wake the dead, they went into the first room. They saw it difficultly with their scant light, since the thin shaft of brilliancy, emphasising acutely the surrounding darkness, revealed it only piece by piece. It was a large room, evidently unused, for the furniture was covered with holland, and there was a mustiness about it which suggested that the windows were seldom opened. As in many old houses, the rooms led not from a passsage but into one another, and they walked through many till they came back into the hall. They had all a desolate, uninhabited air. Their sombreness was increased by the oak with which they were panelled. There was panelling in the hall too, and on the stairs that led broadly to the top of the house. As they ascended, Arthur stopped for one moment and passed his hand over the polished wood.

  "It would burn like tinder," he said.

  They went through the rooms on the first floor, and they were as empty and as cheerless. Presently they came to that which had been Margaret's. In a bowl were dead flowers. Her brushes were still on the toilet table. But it was a gloomy chamber, with its dark oak, and so comfortless that Susie shuddered. Arthur stood for a time and looked at it, but he said nothing. They found themselves again on the stairs and they went to the second storey. But here they seemed to be at the top of the house.

  "How does one get up to the attics?" said Arthur, looking about him with surprise.

  He paused for a while to think. Then he nodded his head.

  "There must be some steps leading out of one of the rooms."

  They went on. And now the ceilings were much lower, with heavy beams, and there was no furniture at all. The emptiness seemed to make everything more terrifying. They felt that they were on the threshold of a great mystery, and Susie's heart began to beat fast. Arthur conducted his examination with the greatest method; he walked round each room carefully, looking for a door that might lead to a staircase; but there was no sign of one.

  "What will you do if you can't find the way up?" asked Susie.

  "I shall find the way up," he answered.

  They came to the staircase once more and had discovered nothing. They looked at one another helplessly.

  "It's quite clear there is a way," said Arthur, with impatience. "There must be something in the nature of a hidden door somewhere or other."

  He leaned against the balustrade and meditated. The light of his lantern threw a narrow ray upon the opposite wall.

  "I feel certain it must be in one of the rooms at the end of the house. That seems the most natural place to put a means of ascent to the attics."

  They went back, and again he examined the panelling of a small room that had outside walls on three sides of it. It was the only one that did not lead into another.

  "It must be here," he said.

  Presently he gave a little laugh, for he saw that a small door was concealed by the woodwork. He pressed it where he thought there might be a spring, and it flew open. Their torch showed them a narrow wooden staircase. They walked up and found themselves in front of a door. Arthur tried it, but it was locked. He smiled grimly.

  "Will you get back a little," he said.

  He lifted his axe and swung it down upon the latch. The handle was shattered, but the lock did not yield. He shook his head. As he paused for a moment, and there was a complete silence, Susie distinctly heard a slight noise. She put her hand on Arthur's arm to call his attention to it, and with strained ears they listened. There was something alive on the other side of that door. They heard it curious sound: it was not that of a human voice, it was not the crying of an animal, it was extraordinary.

  It was the sort of gibber, hoarse and rapid, and it filled them with an icy terror because it was so weird and so u
nnatural.

  "Come away, Arthur," said Susie. "Come away."

  "There's some living thing in there," he answered.

  He did not know why the sound horrified him. The sweat broke out on his forehead.

  "Something awful will happen to us," whispered Susie, shaking with uncontrollable fear.

  "The only thing is to break the door down."

  The horrid gibbering was drowned by the noise he made. Quickly, without pausing, he began to hack at the oak door with all his might. In rapid succession his heavy blows rained down, and the sound echoed through the empty house. There was a crash, and the door swung back. They had been so long in almost total darkness that they were blinded for an instant by the dazzling light. And then instinctively they started back, for, as the door opened, a wave of heat came out upon them so that they could hardly breathe. The place was like an oven.

  They entered. It was lit by enormous lamps, the light of which was increased by reflectors, and warmed by a great furnace. They could not understand why so intense a heat was necessary. The narrow windows were closed. Dr. Porhoët caught sight of a thermometer and was astounded at the temperature it indicated. The room was used evidently as a laboratory. On broad tables were test-tubes, basins and baths of white porcelain, measuring-glasses, and utensils of all sorts; but the surprising thing was the great scale upon which everything was. Neither Arthur nor Dr. Porhoët had ever seen such gigantic measures nor such large test-tubes. There were rows of bottles, like those in the dispensary of a hospital, each containing great quantities of a different chemical. The three friends stood in silence. The emptiness of the room contrasted so oddly with its appearance of being in immediate use that it was uncanny. Susie felt that he who worked there was in the midst of his labours, and might return at any moment; he could have only gone for an instant into another chamber in order to see the progress of some experiment. It was quite silent. Whatever had made those vague, unearthly noises was hushed by their approach.

  The door was closed between this room and the next. Arthur opened it, and they found themselves in a long, low attic, ceiled with great rafters, as brilliantly lit and as hot as the first. Here too were broad tables laden with retorts, instruments for heating, huge test-tubes, and all manner of vessels. The furnace that warmed it gave a steady heat. Arthur's gaze travelled slowly from table to table, and he wondered what Haddo's experiments had really been. The air was heavy with an extraordinary odour: it was not musty, like that of the closed rooms through which they had passed, but singularly pungent, disagreeable and sickly. He asked himself what it could spring from. Then his eyes fell upon a huge receptacle that stood on the table nearest to the furnace. It was covered with a white cloth. He took it off. The vessel was about four feet high, round, and shaped somewhat like a washing tub, but it was made of glass more than an inch thick. In it was a spherical mass, a little larger than a football, of a peculiar, livid colour. The surface was smooth, but rather coarsely grained, and over it ran a dense system of blood-vessels. It reminded the two medical men of those huge tumours which are preserved in spirit in hospital museums. Susie looked at it with an incomprehensible disgust. Suddenly she gave a cry.

 
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