The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham


  "My dear, you won't draw any the worse for wearing a well-made corset, and to surround your body with bands of grey flannel will certainly not increase your talent."

  "But the fashion is so hideous," smiled Margaret.

  "Fiddlesticks! The fashion is always beautiful. Last year it was beautiful to wear a hat like a pork-pie tipped over your nose; and next year, for all I know, it will be beautiful to wear a bonnet like a sitz-bath at the back of your head. Art has nothing to do with a smart frock, and whether a high-heeled pointed shoe commends itself or not to the painters in the quarter, it's the only thing in which a woman's foot looks really nice."

  Susie Boyd vowed that she would not live with Margaret at all unless she let her see to the buying of her things.

  "And when you're married, for heaven's sake ask me to stay with you four times a year, so that I can see after your clothes. You'll never keep your husband's affection if you trust to your own judgment."

  Miss Boyd's reward had come the night before, when Margaret, coming home from dinner with Arthur, had repeated an observation of his.

  "How beautifully you're dressed!" he had said. "I was rather afraid you'd be wearing art-serges."

  "Of course you didn't tell him that I insisted on buying every stitch you'd got on," cried Susie.

  "Yes, I did," answered Margaret simply. "I told him I had no taste at all, but that you were responsible for everything."

  "That was the least you could do," answered Miss Boyd.

  But her heart went out to Margaret, for the trivial incident showed once more how frank the girl was. She knew quite well that few of her friends, though many took advantage of her matchless taste, would have made such an admission to the lover who congratulated them on the success of their costume.

  There was a knock at the studio door, and Arthur came in.

  "This is the fairy prince," said Margaret, bringing him to her friend.

  "I'm glad to see you in order to thank you for all you've done for Margaret," he smiled, taking the proffered hand.

  Susie remarked that he looked upon her with friendliness, but with a certain vacancy, as though too much engrossed in his beloved really to notice anyone else; and she wondered how to make conversation with a man who was so manifestly absorbed. While Margaret busied herself with the preparations for tea, his eyes followed her movements with a doglike, touching devotion. They travelled from her smiling mouth to her deft hands. It seemed that he had never seen anything so ravishing as the way in which she bent over the kettle. Margaret felt that he was looking at her, and turned round. Their eyes met, and they stood for an appreciable time gazing at one another silently.

  "Don't be a pair of perfect idiots," cried Susie gaily. "I'm dying for my tea."

  The lovers laughed and reddened. It struck Arthur that he should say something polite.

  "I hope you'll show me your sketches afterwards, Miss Boyd. Margaret says they're awfully good."

  "You really needn't think it in the least necessary to show any interest in me," she replied bluntly.

  "She draws the most delightful caricatures," said Margaret. "I'll bring you a horror of yourself, which she'll do the moment you leave us."

  "Don't be so spiteful, Margaret."

  Miss Boyd could not help thinking all the same that Arthur Burdon would caricature very well. Margaret was right when she said that he was not handsome, but his clean-shaven face was full of interest to so passionate an observer of her kind. The lovers were silent, and Susie had the conversation to herself. She chattered without pause and had the satisfaction presently of capturing their attention. Arthur seemed to become aware of her presence, and laughed heartily at her burlesque account of their fellow-students at Colarossi's. Meanwhile Susie examined him. He was very tall and very thin. His frame had a Yorkshireman's solidity, and his bones were massive. He missed being ungainly only through the serenity of his self-reliance. He had high cheek-bones and a long, lean face. His nose and his mouth were large, and his skin was sallow. But there were two characteristics which fascinated her, an imposing strength of purpose and a singular capacity for suffering. This was a man who knew his mind and was determined to achieve his desire; it refreshed her vastly after the extreme weakness of the young painters with whom of late she had mostly consorted. But those quick dark eyes were able to express an anguish that was hardly tolerable, and the mobile mouth had a nervous intensity which suggested that he might easily suffer the very agonies of woe.

  Tea was ready, and Arthur stood up to receive his cup.

  "Sit down," said Margaret. "I'll bring you everything you want, and I know exactly how much sugar to put in. It pleases me to wait on you."

  With the grace that marked all her movements she walked across the studio, the filled cup in one hand and the plate of cakes in the other. To Susie it seemed that he was overwhelmed with gratitude by Margaret's condescension. His eyes were soft with indescribable tenderness as he took the sweetmeats she gave him. Margaret smiled with happy pride. For all her good-nature, Susie could not prevent the pang that wrung her heart; for she too was capable of love. There was in her a wealth of passionate affection that none had sought to find. None had ever whispered in her ears the charming nonsense that she read in books. She recognised that she had no beauty to help her, but once she had at least the charm of vivacious youth. That was gone now, and the freedom to go into the world had come too late; yet her instinct told her that she was made to be a decent man's wife and the mother of children. She stopped in the middle of her bright chatter, fearing to trust her voice, but Margaret and Arthur were too much occupied to notice that she had ceased to speak. They sat side by side and enjoyed the happiness of one another's company.

  "What a fool I am!" thought Susie.

  She had learnt long ago that common sense, intelligence, good-nature, and strength of character were unimportant in comparison with a pretty face. She shrugged her shoulders.

  "I don't know if you young things realise that it's growing late. If you want us to dine at the Chien Noir, you must leave us now, so that we can make ourselves tidy."

  "Very well," said Arthur, getting up. "I'll go back to my hotel and have a wash. We'll meet at half-past seven."

  When Margaret had closed the door on him, she turned to her friend.

  "Well, what do you think?" she asked, smiling.

  "You can't expect me to form a definite opinion of a man whom I've seen for so short a time."

  "Nonsense!" said Margaret.

  Susie hesitated for a moment.

  "I think he has an extraordinarily good face," she said at last gravely. "I've never seen a man whose honesty of purpose was so transparent."

  Susie Boyd was so lazy that she could never be induced to occupy herself with household matters and, while Margaret put the tea things away, she began to draw the caricature which every new face suggested to her. She made a little sketch of Arthur, abnormally lanky, with a colossal nose, with the wings and the bow and arrow of the God of Love, but it was not half done before she thought it silly. She tore it up with impatience. When Margaret came back, she turned round and looked at her steadily.

  "Well?" said the girl, smiling under the scrutiny.

  She stood in the middle of the lofty studio. Half-finished canvases leaned with their faces against the wall; pieces of stuff were hung here and there, and photographs of well-known pictures. She had fallen unconsciously into a wonderful pose, and her beauty gave her, notwithstanding her youth, a rare dignity. Susie smiled mockingly.

  "You look like a Greek goddess in a Paris frock," she said.

  "What have you to say to me?" asked Margaret, divining from the searching look that something was in her friend's mind.

  Susie stood up and went to her.

  "You know, before I'd seen him I hoped with all my heart that he'd make you happy. Notwithstanding all you'd told me of him, I was afraid. I knew he was much older than you. He was the first man you'd ever known. I could scarcely bear to entrust you to
him in case you were miserable."

  "I don't think you need have any fear."

  "But now I hope with all my heart that you'll make him happy. It's not you I'm frightened for now, but him."

  Margaret did not answer; she could not understand what Susie meant.

  "I've never seen anyone with such a capacity for wretchedness as that man has. I don't think you can conceive how desperately he might suffer. Be very careful, Margaret, and be very good to him, for you have the power to make him more unhappy than any human being should be."

  "Oh, but I want him to be happy," cried Margaret vehemently. "You know that I owe everything to him. I'd do all I could to make him happy, even if I had to sacrifice myself. But I can't sacrifice myself, because I love him so much that all I do is pure delight."

  Her eyes filled with tears and her voice broke. Susie, with a little laugh that was half hysterical, kissed her.

  "My dear, for heaven's sake don't cry! You know I can't bear people who weep, and if he sees your eyes red, he'll never forgive me."

  III

  THE Chien Noir, where Susie Boyd and Margaret generally dined, was the most charming restaurant in the quarter. Downstairs was a public room, where all and sundry devoured their food, for the little place had a reputation for good cooking combined with cheapness; and the patron, a retired horse-dealer who had taken to victualling in order to build up a business for his son, was a cheery soul whose loud-voiced friendliness attracted custom. But on the first floor was a narrow room, with three tables arranged in a horse-shoe, which was reserved for a small party of English or American painters and a few Frenchmen with their wives. At least, they were so nearly wives, and their manner had such a matrimonial respectability, that Susie, when first she and Margaret were introduced into this society, judged it would be vulgar to turn up her nose. She held that it was prudish to insist upon the conventions of Notting Hill in the Boulevard du Mont-parnasse. The young women who had thrown in their lives with these painters were modest in demeanour and quiet in dress. They were model housewives, who had preserved their self-respect notwithstanding a difficult position, and did not look upon their relation with less seriousness because they had not muttered a few words before Monsieur le Maire.

  The room was full when Arthur Burdon entered, but Margaret had kept him an empty seat between herself and Miss Boyd. Everyone was speaking at once, in French, at the top of his voice, and a furious argument was proceeding on the merit of the later Impressionists. Arthur sat down, and was hurriedly introduced to a lanky youth, who sat on the other side of Margaret. He was very tall, very thin, very fair. He wore a very high collar and very long hair, and held himself like an exhausted lily.

  "He always reminds me of an Aubrey Beardsley that's been dreadfully smudged," said Susie in an undertone. "He's a nice, kind creature, but his name is Jagson. He has virtue and industry. I haven't seen any of his work, but he has absolutely no talent."

  "How do you know, if you've not seen his pictures?" asked Arthur.

  "Oh, it's one of our conventions here that nobody has talent," laughed Susie. "We suffer one another personally, but we have no illusions about the value of our neighbour's work."

  "Tell me who everyone is."

  "Well, look at that little bald man in the corner. That is Warren."

  Arthur looked at the man she pointed out. He was a small person, with a pate as shining as a billiard-ball, and a pointed beard. He had protruding, brilliant eyes.

  "Hasn't he had too much to drink?" asked Arthur frigidly.

  "Much," answered Susie promptly, "but he's always in that condition, and the further he gets from sobriety the more charming he is. He's the only man in this room of whom you'll never hear a word of evil. The strange thing is that he's very nearly a great painter. He has the most fascinating sense of colour in the world, and the more intoxicated he is, the more delicate and beautiful is his painting. Sometimes, after more than the usual number of apéritifs, he will sit down in a café to do a sketch, with his hand so shaky that he can hardly hold a brush; he has to wait for a favourable moment, and then he makes a jab at the panel. And the immoral thing is that each of these little jabs is lovely. He's the most delightful interpreter of Paris I know, and when you've seen his sketches—he's done hundreds, of unimaginable grace and feeling and distinction—you can never see Paris in the same way again."

  The little maid who looked busily after the varied wants of the customers stood in front of them to receive Arthur's order. She was a hard-visaged creature of mature age, but she looked neat in her black dress and white cap; and she had a motherly way of attending to these people, with a capacious smile of her large mouth which was full of charm.

  "I don't mind what I eat," said Arthur. "Let Margaret order my dinner for me."

  "It would have been just as good if I had ordered it," laughed Susie.

  They began a lively discussion with Marie as to the merits of the various dishes, and it was only interrupted by Warren's hilarious expostulations.

  "Marie, I precipitate myself at your feet, and beg you to bring me a poule au riz."

  "Oh, but give me one moment, monsieur," said the maid.

  "Do not pay any attention to that gentleman. His morals are detestable, and he only seeks to lead you from the narrow path of virtue."

  Arthur protested that on the contrary the passion of hunger occupied at that moment his heart to the exclusion of all others.

  "Marie, you no longer love me," cried Warren. "There was a time when you did not look so coldly upon me when I ordered a bottle of white wine."

  The rest of the party took up his complaint, and all besought her not to show too hard a heart to the bald and rubicund painter.

  "Mais si, je vous aime, Monsieur Warren," she cried, laughing, "Je vous aime tous, tous."

  She ran downstairs, amid the shouts of men and women, to give her orders.

  "The other day the Chien Noir was the scene of a tragedy," said Susie. "Marie broke off relations with her lover, who is a waiter at Lavenue's, and would have no reconciliation. He waited till he had a free evening, and then came to the room downstairs and ordered dinner. Of course, she was obliged to wait on him, and as she brought him each dish he expostulated with her, and they mingled their tears."

  "She wept in floods," interrupted a youth with neatly brushed hair and a fat nose. "She wept all over our food, and we ate it salt with tears. We besought her not to yield; except for our encouragement she would have gone back to him; and he beats her."

  Marie appeared again, with no signs now that so short a while ago romance had played a game with her, and brought the dishes that had been ordered. Susie seized once more upon Arthur Burdon's attention.

  "Now please look at the man who is sitting next to Mr. Warren."

  Arthur saw a tall, dark fellow with strongly-marked features, untidy hair, and a ragged black moustache.

  "That is Mr. O'Brien, who is an example of the fact that strength of will and an earnest purpose cannot make a painter. He's a failure, and he knows it, and the bitterness has warped his soul. If you listen to him, you'll hear every painter of eminence come under his lash. He can forgive nobody who's successful, and he never acknowledges merit in anyone till he's safely dead and buried."

  "He must be a cheerful companion," answered Arthur. "And who is the stout old lady by his side, with the flaunting hat?"

  "That is the mother of Madame Rouge, the little palefaced woman sitting next to her. She is the mistress of Rouge, who does all the illustrations for La Semaine. At first it rather tickled me that the old lady should call him mon gendre, my son-in-law, and take the irregular union of her daughter with such a noble unconcern for propriety; but now it seems quite natural."

  The mother of Madame Rouge had the remains of beauty, and she sat bolt upright, picking the leg of a chicken with a dignified gesture. Arthur looked away quickly, for, catching his eye, she gave him an amorous glance. Rouge had more the appearance of a prosperous tradesman than of an a
rtist; but he carried on with O'Brien, whose French was perfect, an argument on the merits of Cezanne. To one he was a great master and to the other an impudent charlatan. Each hotly repeated his opinion, as though the mere fact of saying the same thing several times made it more convincing.

  "Next to me is Madame Meyer," proceeded Susie. "She was a governess in Poland, but she was much too pretty to remain one, and now she lives with the landscape painter who is by her side."

  Arthur's eyes followed her words and rested on a cleanshaven man with a large quantity of grey, curling hair. He had a handsome face of a deliberately aesthetic type and was very elegantly dressed. His manner and his conversation had the flamboyance of the romantic thirties. He talked in flowing periods with an air of finality, and what he said was no less just than obvious. The gay little lady who shared his fortunes listened to his wisdom with an admiration that plainly flattered him.

  Miss Boyd had described everyone to Arthur except young Raggles, who painted still life with a certain amount of skill, and Clayson, the American sculptor. Raggles stood for rank and fashion at the Chien Noir. He was very smartly dressed in a horsey way, and he walked with bowlegs, as though he spent most of his time in the saddle. He alone used scented pomade upon his neat smooth hair. His chief distinction was a greatcoat he wore, with a scarlet lining; and Warren, whose memory for names was defective, could only recall him by that peculiarity. But it was understood that he knew duchesses in fashionable streets, and occasionally dined with them in solemn splendour.

 
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