The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham


  "Good God, it's moving!"

  Arthur put his hand on her arm quickly to quieten her and bent down with irresistible curiosity. They saw that it was a mass of flesh unlike that of any human being; and it pulsated regularly. The movement was quite distinct, up and down, like the delicate heaving of a woman's breast when she is asleep. Arthur touched the thing with one finger and it shrank slightly.

  "It's quite warm," he said.

  He turned it over, and it remained in the position in which he had placed it, as if there were neither top nor bottom to it. But they could see now, irregularly placed on one side, a few short hairs. They were just like human hairs.

  "Is it alive?" whispered Susie, struck with horror and amazement.

  "Yes!"

  Arthur seemed fascinated. He could not take his eyes off the loathsome thing. He watched it slowly heave with even motion.

  "What can it mean?" he asked.

  He looked at Dr. Porhoët with pale and startled face. A thought was coming to him, but a thought so unnatural, extravagant, and terrible that he pushed it from him with a movement of both hands, as though it were a material thing. Then all three turned around abruptly with a start, for they heard again the wild gibbering which had first shocked their ears. In the wonder of this revolting object they had forgotten all the rest. The sound seemed extraordinarily near, and Susie drew back instinctively, for it appeared to come from her very side.

  "There's nothing here," said Arthur. "It must be in the next room."

  "Oh, Arthur, let us go," cried Susie. "I'm afraid to see what may be in store for us. It is nothing to us, and what we see may poison our sleep for ever."

  She looked appealingly at Dr. Porhoët. He was white and anxious. The heat of that place had made the sweat break out on his forehead.

  "I have seen enough. I want to see no more," he said.

  "Then you may go, both of you," answered Arthur. "I do not wish to force you to see anything. But I shall go on. Whatever it is, I wish to find out."

  "But Haddo? Supposing he is there, waiting? Perhaps you are only walking into a trap that he has set for you."

  "I am convinced that Haddo is dead."

  Again that unintelligible jargon, unhuman and shrill, fell upon their ears, and Arthur stepped forward. Susie did not hesitate. She was prepared to follow him anywhere. He opened the door, and there was a sudden quiet. Whatever made those sounds was there. It was a larger room than any of the others and much higher, for it ran along the whole front of the house. The powerful lamps showed every corner of it at once, but, above, the beams of the open ceiling were dark with shadow. And here the nauseous odour, which had struck them before, was so overpowering that for a while they could not go in. It was indescribably foul. Even Arthur thought it would make him sick, and he looked at the windows to see if it was possible to open them; but it seemed they were hermetically closed. The extreme warmth made the air more overpowering. There were four furnaces here, and they were all alight. In order to give out more heat and to burn slowly, the fronts of them were open, and one could see that they were filled with glowing coke.

  The room was furnished no differently from the others, but to the various instruments for chemical operations on a large scale were added all manner of electrical appliances-Several books were lying about, and one had been left open face downwards on the edge of a table. But what immediately attracted their attention was a row of those large glass vessels like that which they had seen in the adjoining room. Each was covered with a white cloth. They hesitated a moment, for they knew that here they were face to face with the great enigma. At last Arthur pulled away the cloth from one. None of them spoke. They stared with astonished eyes. For here, too, was a strange mass of flesh, almost as large as a new-born child, but there was in it the beginnings of something ghastly human. It was shaped vaguely like an infant, but the legs were joined together so that it looked like a mummy rolled up in its coverings. There were neither feet nor knees. The trunk was formless, but there was a curious thickening on each side; it was as if a modeller had meant to make a figure with the arms loosely bent, but had left the work unfinished so that they were still one with the body. There was something that resembled a human head, covered with long golden hair, but it was horrible; it was an uncouth mass, without eyes or nose or mouth. The colour was a kind of sickly pink, and it was almost transparent. There was a very slight movement in it, rhythmical and slow. It was living too.

  Then quickly Arthur removed the covering from all the other jars but one; and in a flash of the eyes they saw abominations so awful that Susie had to clench her fists in order not to scream. There was one monstrous thing in which the limbs approached nearly to the human. It was extraordinarily heaped up, with fat tiny arms, little bloated legs, and an absurd squat body, so that it looked like a Chinese mandarin in porcelain. In another the trunk was almost like that of a human child, except that it was patched strangely with red and grey. But the terror of it was that at the neck it branched hideously, and there were two distinct heads, monstrously large, but duly provided with all their features. The features were a caricature of humanity so shameful that one could hardly bear to look. And as the light fell on it, the eyes of each head opened slowly. They had no pigment in them, but were pink, like the eyes of white rabbits; and they stared for a moment with an odd, unseeing glance. Then they were shut again, and what was curiously terrifying was that the movements were not quite simultaneous; the eyelids of one head fell slowly just before those of the other. And in another place was a ghastly monster in which it seemed that two bodies had been dreadfully entangled with one another. It was a creature of nightmare, with four arms and four legs, and this one actually moved. With a peculiar motion it crawled along the bottom of the great receptacle in which it was kept, towards the three persons who looked at it. It seemed to wonder what they did. Susie started back with fright, as it raised itself on its four legs and tried to reach up to them.

  Susie turned away and hid her face. She could not look at those ghastly counterfeits of humanity. She was terrified and ashamed.

  "Do you understand what this means?" said Dr. Porhoët to Arthur, in an awed voice. "It means that he has discovered the secret of life."

  "Was it for these vile monstrosities that Margaret was sacrificed in all her loveliness?"

  The two men looked at one another with sad, wondering eyes.

  "Don't you remember that he talked of the manufacture of human beings? It's these misshapen things that he's succeeding in producing," said the doctor.

  "There is one more that we haven't seen," said Arthur.

  He pointed to the covering which still hid the largest of the vases. He had a feeling that it contained the most fearful of all these monsters; and it was not without an effort that he drew the cloth away. But no sooner had he done this than something sprang up, so that instinctively he started back, and it began to gibber in piercing tones. These were the unearthly sounds that they had heard. It was not a voice, it was a kind of raucous crying, hoarse yet shrill, uneven like the barking of a dog, and appalling. The sounds came forth in rapid succession, angrily, as though the being that uttered them sought to express itself in furious words. It was mad with passion and beat against the glass walls of its prison with clenched fists. For the hands were human hands, and the body, though much larger, was of the shape of a new-born child. The creature must have stood about four feet high. The head was horribly misshapen. The skull was enormous, smooth and distended like that of a hydrocephalic, and the forehead protruded over the face hideously. The features were almost unformed, preternaturally small under the great, overhanging brow; and they had an expression of fiendish malignity. The tiny, misshapen countenance writhed with convulsive fury, and from the mouth poured out a foaming spume. It raised its voice higher and higher, shrieking senseless gibberish in its rage. Then it began to hurl its whole body madly against the glass walls and to beat its head. It appeared to have a sudden incomprehensible hatred for the thr
ee strangers. It was trying to fly at them. the toothless gums moved spasmodically, and it threw its face into horrible grimaces. That nameless, loathsome abortion was the nearest that Oliver Haddo had come to the human form.

  "Come away," said Arthur. "We must not look at this."

  He quickly flung the covering over the jar.

  "Yes, for God's sake let us go," said Susie.

  "We haven't done yet," answered Arthur. "We haven't found the author of all this."

  He looked at the room in which they were, but there was no door except that by which they had entered. Then he uttered a startled cry, and stepping forward fell on his knee.

  On the other side of the long tables heaped up with instruments, hidden so that at first they had not seen him, Oliver Haddo lay on the floor, dead. His blue eyes were staring wide, and they seemed larger than they had ever been. They kept still the expression of terror which they had worn in the moment of his agony, and his heavy face was distorted with deadly fear. It was purple and dark, and the eyes were injected with blood.

  "He died of suffocation," whispered Dr. Porhoët.

  Arthur pointed to the neck. There could be seen on it distinctly the marks of the avenging fingers that had strangled the life out of him. It was impossible to hesitate.

  "I told you that I had killed him," said Arthur.

  Then he remembered something more. He took hold of the right arm. He was convinced that it had been broken during that desperate struggle in the darkness. He felt it carefully and listened. He heard plainly the two parts of the bone rub against one another. The dead man's arm was broken just in the place where he had broken it. Arthur stood up. He took one last look at his enemy. That vast mass of flesh lay heaped up on the floor in horrible disorder.

  "Now that you have seen, will you come away?" said Susie, interrupting him.

  The words seemed to bring him suddenly to himself.

  "Yes, we must go quickly."

  They turned away and with hurried steps walked through those bright attics till they came to the stairs.

  "Now go down and wait for me at the door," said Arthur. "I will follow you immediately."

  "What are you going to do?" asked Susie.

  "Never mind. Do as I tell you. I have not finished here yet."

  They went down the great oak staircase and waited in the hall. They wondered what Arthur was about. Presently he came running down.

  "Be quick!" he cried. "We have no time to lose."

  "What have you done, Arthur?"

  "There's no time to tell you now."

  He hurried them out and slammed the door behind him. He took Susie's hand.

  "Now we must run. Come."

  She did not know what his haste signified, but her heart beat furiously. He dragged her along. Dr. Porhoët hurried on behind them. Arthur plunged into the wood. He would not leave them time to breathe.

  "You must be quick," he said.

  At last they came to the opening in the fence, and he helped them to get through. Then he carefully replaced the wooden paling and, taking Susie's arm, began to walk rapidly towards their inn.

  "I'm frightfully tired," she said. "I simply can't go so fast."

  "You must. Presently you can rest as long as you like."

  They walked very quickly for a while. Now and then Arthur looked back. The night was still quite dark, and the stars shone out in their myriads. At last he slackened their pace.

  "Now you can go more slowly," he said.

  Susie saw the smiling glance that he gave her. His eyes were full of tenderness. He put his arm affectionately round her shoulders to support her.

  "I'm afraid you're quite exhausted, poor thing," he said. "I'm sorry to have had to hustle you so much."

  "It doesn't matter at all."

  She leaned against him comfortably. With that protecting arm about her, she felt capable of any fatigue. Dr. Porhoët stopped.

  "You must really let me roll myself a cigarette," he said.

  "You may do whatever you like," answered Arthur.

  There was a different ring in his voice now, and it was soft with a good-humour that they had not heard in it for many months. He appeared singularly relieved. Susie was ready to forget the terrible past and give herself over to the happiness that seemed at last in store for her. They began to saunter slowly on. And now they could take pleasure in the exquisite night. The air was very suave, odorous with the heather that was all about them, and there was an enchanting peace in that scene which wonderfully soothed their weariness. It was dark still, but they knew the dawn was at hand, and Susie rejoiced in the approaching day. In the east the azure of the night began to thin away into pale amethyst, and the trees seemed gradually to stand out from the darkness in a ghostly beauty. Suddenly birds began to sing all around them in a splendid chorus. From their feet a lark sprang up with a rustle of wings and, mounting proudly upon the air, chanted blithe canticles to greet the morning. They stood upon a little hill.

  "Let us wait here and see the sun rise," said Susie.

  "As you will."

  They stood all three of them, and Susie took in deep, joyful breaths of the sweet air of dawn. The whole land, spread at her feet, was clothed in the purple dimness that heralds day, and she exulted in its beauty. But she noticed that Arthur, unlike herself and Dr. Porhoët, did not look toward the east. His eyes were fixed steadily upon the place from which they had come. What did he look for in the darkness of the west? She turned round, and a cry broke from her lips, for the shadows there were lurid with a deep red glow.

  "It looks like a fire," she said.

  "It is. Skene is burning like tinder."

  And as he spoke it seemed that the roof fell in, for suddenly vast flames sprang up, rising high into the still night air; and they saw that the house they had just left was blazing furiously. It was a magnificent sight from the distant hill on which they stood to watch the fire as it soared and sank, as it shot scarlet tongues along like strange Titanic monsters, as it raged from room to room. Skene was burning. It was beyond the reach of human help. In a little while there would be no trace of all those crimes and all those horrors. Now it was one mass of flame. It looked like some primeval furnace, where the gods might work unheard-of miracles.

  "Arthur, what have you done?" asked Susie, in a tone that was hardly audible.

  He did not answer directly. He put his arm about her shoulder again, so that she was obliged to turn round.

  "Look, the sun is rising."

  In the east, a long ray of light climbed up the sky, and the sun, yellow and round, appeared upon the face of the earth.

  Also available from Vintage

  W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

  Of Human Bondage

  'It was not true that he would never see her again. It was not

  true because it was impossible.'

  Of Human Bondage is the first and most autobiographical of

  Maugham's masterpieces. It tells the story of Philip Carey, an

  orphan eager for life, love and adventure. After a few months

  studying in Heidelberg, and a brief spell in Paris as a would-be

  artist, Philip settles in London to train as a doctor.

  And that is where he meets Mildred, the loud but irresistible

  waitress with whom he plunges into a formative, tortured and

  masochistic affair which very nearly ruins him.

  It is in Of Human Bondage that the essential themes of

  autonomy and enslavement which dominate so much of

  Maugham's writing are most profoundly explored.

  Also available from Vintage

  W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

  The Moon and Sixpence

  'Art is a manifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a

  language that all may understand.'

  Inspired by the life of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and a Sixpence

  tells the story of Charles Strickland, a conventional stockbroker

  who abandons his wife a
nd children for Paris and Tahiti, to live

  his life as a painter. Whilst his betrayal of family, duty and

  honour gives him the freedom to achieve greatness, his decision

  leads to an obsession which carries severe implications. The

  Moon and Sixpence is at once a satiric caricature of Edwardian

  mores and a vivid portrayal of the mentality of genius.

  Also available from Vintage

  W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

  Up at the Villa

  'A great writer determined to tell the truth in a form which

  releases all the possibilities of his art'

  Cyril Connolly

  Newly widowed after an unhappy marriage, Mary Panton

  finds tranquillity in a beautiful villa high in the hills above

  Florence. From this haven of peace, she contemplates the

  prospect of a second marriage to the kindly and distinguished

 
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