The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham


  Clayson had a vinous nose and a tedious habit of saying brilliant things. With his twinkling eyes, red cheeks, and fair, pointed beard, he looked exactly like a Franz Hals; but he was dressed like the caricature of a Frenchman in a comic paper. He spoke English with a Parisian accent.

  Miss Boyd was beginning to tear him gaily limb from limb, when the door was flung open, and a large person entered. He threw off his cloak with a dramatic gesture.

  "Marie, disembarrass me of this coat of frieze. Hang my sombrero upon a convenient peg."

  He spoke execrable French, but there was a grandiloquence about his vocabulary which set everyone laughing.

  "Here is somebody I don't know," said Susie.

  "But I do, at least, by sight," answered Burdon. He leaned over to Dr. Porhoët, who was sitting opposite, quietly eating his dinner and enjoying the nonsense which everyone talked. "Is not that your magician?"

  "Oliver Haddo," said Dr. Porhoët, with a little nod of amusement.

  The new arrival stood at the end of the room with all eyes upon him. He threw himself into an attitude of command and remained for a moment perfectly still.

  "You look as if you were posing, Haddo," said Warren huskily.

  "He couldn't help doing that if he tried," laughed Clayson.

  Oliver Haddo slowly turned his glance to the painter.

  "I grieve to see, O most excellent Warren, that the ripe juice of the apéritif has glazed your sparkling eye."

  "Do you mean to say I'm drunk, sir?"

  "In one gross, but expressive, word, drunk."

  The painter grotesquely flung himself back in his chair as though he had been struck a blow, and Haddo looked steadily at Clayson.

  "How often have I explained to you, O Clayson, that your deplorable lack of education precludes you from the brilliancy to which you aspire?"

  For an instant Oliver Haddo resumed his effective pose; and Susie, smiling, looked at him. He was a man of great size, two or three inches more than six feet high; but the most noticeable thing about him was a vast obesity. His paunch was of imposing dimensions. His face was large and fleshy. He had thrown himself into the arrogant attitude of Velasquez's portrait of Del Borro in the Museum of Berlin; and his countenance bore of set purpose the same contemptuous smile. He advanced and shook hands with Dr. Porhoët.

  "Hail, brother wizard! I greet in you, if not a master, at least a student not unworthy my esteem."

  Susie was convulsed with laughter at his pompousness, and he turned to her with the utmost gravity.

  "Madam, your laughter is more soft in mine ears than the singing of Bulbul in a Persian garden."

  Dr. Porhoët interposed with introductions. The magician bowed solemnly as he was in turn made known to Susie Boyd, and Margaret, and Arthur Burdon. He held out his hand to the grim Irish painter.

  "Well, my O'Brien, have you been mixing as usual the waters of bitterness with the thin claret of Bordeaux?"

  "Why don't you sit down and eat your dinner?" returned the other, gruffly.

  "Ah, my dear fellow, I wish I could drive the fact into this head of yours that rudeness is not synonymous with wit. I shall not have lived in vain if I teach you in time to realise that the rapier of irony is more effective an instrument than the bludgeon of insolence."

  O'Brien reddened with anger, but could not at once find a retort, and Haddo passed on to that faded, harmless youth who sat next to Margaret.

  "Do my eyes deceive me, or is this the Jagson whose name in its inanity is so appropriate to the bearer? I am eager to know if you still devote upon the ungrateful arts talents which were more profitably employed upon haberdashery."

  The unlucky creature, thus brutally attacked, blushed feebly without answering, and Haddo went on to the Frenchman, Meyer, as more worthy of his mocking.

  "I'm afraid my entrance interrupted you in a discourse. Was it the celebrated harangue on the greatness of Michael Angelo, or was it the searching analysis of the art of Wagner?"

  "We were just going," said Meyer, getting up with a frown.

  "I am desolated to lose the pearls of wisdom that habitually fall from your cultivated lips," returned Haddo, as he politely withdrew Madame Meyer's chair.

  He sat down with a smile.

  "I saw the place was crowded, and with Napoleonic instinct decided that I could only make room by insulting somebody. It is cause for congratulation that my gibes, which Raggles, a foolish youth, mistakes for wit, have caused the disappearance of a person who lives in open sin; thereby vacating two seats, and allowing me to eat a humble meal with ample room for my elbows."

  Marie brought him the bill of fare, and he looked at it gravely.

  "I will have a vanilla ice, O well-beloved, and the wing of a tender chicken, a fried sole, and some excellent pea-soup."

  "Bien, un potage, une sole, one chicken, and an ice."

  "But why should you serve them in that order rather than in the order I gave you?"

  Marie and the two Frenchwomen who were still in the room broke into exclamations at this extravagance, but Oliver Haddo waved his fat hand.

  "I shall start with the ice, O Marie, to cool the passion with which your eyes inflame me, and then without hesitation I will devour the wing of a chicken in order to sustain myself against your smile. I shall then proceed to a fresh sole, and with the pea-soup I will finish a not un-sustaining meal."

  Having succeeded in capturing the attention of everyone in the room, Oliver Haddo proceeded to eat these dishes in the order he had named. Margaret and Burdon watched him with scornful eyes, but Susie, who was not revolted by the vanity which sought to attract notice, looked at him curiously. He was clearly not old, though his corpulence added to his apparent age. His features were good, his ears small, and his nose delicately shaped. He had big teeth, but they were white and even. His mouth was large, with heavy moist lips. He had the neck of a bullock. His dark, curling hair had retreated from the forehead and temples in such a way as to give his clean-shaven face a disconcerting nudity. The baldness of his crown was vaguely like a tonsure. He had the look of a very wicked, sensual priest. Margaret, stealing a glance at him as he ate, on a sudden violently shuddered; he affected her with an uncontrollable dislike. He lifted his eyes slowly, and she looked away, blushing as though she had been taken in some indiscretion. These eyes were the most curious thing about him. They were not large, but an exceedingly pale blue, and they looked at you in a way that was singularly embarrassing. At first Susie could not discover in what precisely their peculiarity lay, but in a moment she found out: the eyes of most persons converge when they look at you, but Oliver Haddo's, naturally or by a habit he had acquired for effect, remained parallel. It gave the impression that he looked straight through you and saw the wall beyond. It was uncanny. But another strange thing about him was the impossibility of telling whether he was serious. There was a mockery in that queer glance, a sardonic smile upon the mouth, which made you hesitate how to take his outrageous utterances. It was irritating to be uncertain whether, while you were laughing at him, he was not really enjoying an elaborate joke at your expense.

  His presence cast an unusual chill upon the party. The French members got up and left. Warren reeled out with O'Brien, whose uncouth sarcasms were no match for Haddo's bitter gibes. Raggles put on his coat with the scarlet lining and went out with the tall Jagson, who smarted still under Haddo's insolence. The American sculptor paid his bill silently. When he was at the door, Haddo stopped him

  "You have modelled lions at the Jardin des Plantes, my dear Clayson. Have you ever hunted them on their native plains?"

  "No, I haven't."

  Clayson did not know why Haddo asked the question, but he bristled with incipient wrath.

  "Then you have not seen the jackals, gnawing at a dead antelope, scamper away in terror when the King of Beasts stalked down to make his meal."

  Clayson slammed the door behind him. Haddo was left with Margaret, and Arthur Burdon, Dr. Porhoët, and Susie. He smi
led quietly.

  "By the way, are you a lion-hunter?" asked Susie flippantly.

  He turned on her his straight uncanny glance.

  "I have no equal with big game. I have shot more lions than any man alive. I think Jules Gerard, whom the French of the nineteenth century called Le Tueur de Lions, may have been fit to compare with me, but I can call to mind no other."

  This statement, made with the greatest calm, caused a moment of silence. Margaret stared at him with amazement.

  "You suffer from no false modesty," said Arthur Burdon.

  "False modesty is a sign of ill-breeding, from which my birth amply protects me."

  Dr. Porhoët looked up with a smile of irony.

  "I wish Mr. Haddo would take this opportunity to disclose to us the mystery of his birth and family. I have a suspicion that, like the immortal Cagliostro, he was born of unknown but noble parents, and educated secretly in Eastern palaces."

  "In my origin I am more to be compared with Denis Zachaire or with Raymond Lully. My ancestor, George Haddo, came to Scotland in the suite of Anne of Denmark, and when James I., her consort, ascended the English throne, he was granted the estates in Staffordshire which I still possess. My family has formed alliances with the most noble blood of England, and the Merestons, the Parnabys, the Hollingtons, have been proud to give their daughters to my house."

  "Those are facts which can be verified in works of reference," said Arthur dryly.

  "They can," said Oliver.

  "And the Eastern palaces in which your youth was spent, and the black slaves who waited on you. and the bearded sheikhs who imparted to you secret knowledge?" cried Dr. Porhoët.

  "I was educated at Eton, and I left Oxford in 1896."

  "Would you mind telling me at what college you were?" said Arthur.

  "I was at the House."

  "Then you must have been there with Frank Hurrell."

  "Now assistant physician at St. Luke's Hospital. He was one of my most intimate friends."

  "I'll write and ask him about you."

  "I'm dying to know what you did with all the lions you slaughtered," said Susie Boyd.

  The man's effrontery did not exasperate her as it obviously exasperated Margaret and Arthur. He amused her, and she was anxious to make him talk.

  "They decorate the floors of Skene, which is the name of my place in Staffordshire." He paused for a moment to light a cigar. "I am the only man alive who has killed three lions with three successive shots."

  "I should have thought you could have demolished them by the effects of your oratory," said Arthur.

  Oliver leaned back and placed his two large hands on the table.

  "Burkhardt, a German with whom I was shooting, was down with fever and could not stir from his bed. I was awakened one night by the uneasiness of my oxen, and I heard the roaring of lions close at hand. I took my carbine and came out of my tent. There was only the meagre light of the moon. I walked alone, for I knew natives could be of no use to me. Presently I came upon the carcass of an antelope, half-consumed, and I made up my mind to wait for the return of the lions. I hid myself among the boulders twenty paces from the prey. All about me was the immensity of Africa and the silence. I waited, motionless, hour after hour, till the dawn was nearly at hand. At last three lions appeared over a rock. I had noticed, the day before, spoor of a lion and two females."

  "May I ask how you could distinguish the sex?" asked Arthur, incredulously.

  "The prints of a lion's fore feet are disproportionately larger than those of the hind feet. The fore feet and hind feet of the lioness are nearly the same size."

  "Pray go on," said Susie.

  "They came into full view, and in the dim light, as they stood chest on, they appeared as huge as the strange beasts of the Arabian tales. I aimed at the lioness which stood nearest to me and fired. Without a sound, like a bullock felled at one blow, she dropped. The lion gave vent to a sonorous roar. Hastily I slipped another cartridge in my rifle. Then I became conscious that he had seen me. He lowered his head, and his crest was erect. His lifted tail was twitching, his lips were drawn back from the red gums, and I saw his great white fangs. Living fire flashed from his eyes, and he growled incessantly. Then he advanced a few steps, his head held low; and his eyes were fixed on mine with a look of rage. Suddenly he jerked up his tail, and when a lion does this he charges. I got a quick sight on his chest and fired. He reared up on his hind legs, roaring loudly and clawing at the air, and fell back dead. One lioness remained, and through the smoke I saw her spring to her feet and rush towards me. Escape was impossible, for behind me were high boulders that I could not climb. She came on with hoarse, coughing grunts, and with desperate courage I fired my remaining barrel. I missed her clean. I took one step backwards in the hope of getting a cartridge into my rifle, and fell, scarcely two lengths in front of the furious beast. She missed me. I owed my safety to that fall. And then suddenly I found that she had collapsed. I had hit her after all. My bullet went clean through her heart, but the spring had carried her forwards. When I scrambled to my feet I found that she was dying. I walked back to my camp and ate a capital breakfast."

  Oliver Haddo's story was received with astonished silence. No one could assert that it was untrue, but he told it with a grandiloquence that carried no conviction. Arthur would have wagered a considerable sum that there was no word of truth in it. He had never met a person of this kind before, and could not understand what pleasure there might be in the elaborate invention of improbable adventures.

  "You are evidently very brave," he said.

  "To follow a wounded lion into thick cover is probably the most dangerous proceeding in the world," said Haddo calmly. "It calls for the utmost coolness and for iron nerve."

  The answer had an odd effect on Arthur. He gave Haddo a rapid glance, and was seized suddenly with uncontrollable laughter. He leaned back in his chair and roared. His hilarity affected the others, and they broke into peal upon peal of laughter. Oliver watched them gravely. He seemed neither disconcerted nor surprised. When Arthur recovered himself, he found Haddo's singular eyes fixed on him.

  "Your laughter reminds me of the crackling of thorns under a pot," he said.

  Haddo looked round at the others. Though his gaze preserved its fixity, his lips broke into a queer, sardonic smile.

  "It must be plain even to the feeblest intelligence that a man can only command the elementary spirits if he is without fear. A capricious mind can never rule the sylphs, nor a fickle disposition the undines."

  Arthur stared at him with amazement. He did not know what on earth the man was talking about. Haddo paid no heed.

  "But if the adept is active, pliant, and strong, the whole world will be at his command. He will pass through the storm and no rain shall fall upon his head. The wind will not displace a single fold of his garment. He will go through fire and not be burned."

  Dr. Porhoët ventured upon an explanation of these cryptic utterances.

  "These ladies are unacquainted with the mysterious beings of whom you speak, cher ami. They should know that during the Middle Ages imagination peopled the four elements with intelligences, normally unseen, some of which were friendly to man and others hostile. They were thought to be powerful and conscious of their power, though at the same time they were profoundly aware that they possessed no soul. Their life depended upon the continuance of some natural object, and hence for them there could be no immortality. They must return eventually to the abyss of unending night, and the darkness of death afflicted them always. But it was thought that in the same manner as man by his union with God had won a spark of divinity, so might the sylphs, gnomes, undines, and salamanders by an alliance with man partake of his immortality. And many of their women, whose beauty was more than human, gained a human soul by loving one of the race of men. But the reverse occurred also, and often a love-sick youth lost his immortality because he left the haunts of his kind to dwell with the fair, soulless denizens of the running streams
or of the forest airs."

  "I didn't know that you spoke figuratively," said Arthur to Oliver Haddo.

  The other shrugged his shoulders.

  "What else is the world than a figure? Life itself is but a symbol. You must be a wise man if you can tell us what is reality."

  "When you begin to talk of magic and mysticism I confess that I am out of my depth."

  "Yet magic is no more than the art of employing consciously invisible means to produce visible effects. Will, love, and imagination are magic powers that everyone possesses; and whoever knows how to develop them to their fullest extent is a magician. Magic has but one dogma, namely, that the seen is the measure of the unseen."

  "Will you tell us what the powers are that the adept possesses?"

  "They are enumerated in a Hebrew manuscript of the sixteenth century, which is in my possession. The privileges of him who holds in his right hand the Keys of Solomon and in his left the Branch of the Blossoming Almond are twenty-one. He beholds God face to face without dying, and converses intimately with the Seven Genii who command the celestial army. He is superior to every affliction and to every fear. He reigns with all heaven and is served by all hell. He holds the secret of the resurrection of the dead, and the key of immortality."

  "If you possess even these you have evidently the most varied attainments," said Arthur ironically.

  "Everyone can make game of the unknown," retorted Haddo, with a shrug of his massive shoulders.

  Arthur did not answer. He looked at Haddo curiously. He asked himself whether he believed seriously these preposterous things, or whether he was amusing himself in an elephantine way at their expense. His manner was earnest, but there was an odd expression about the mouth, a hard twinkle of the eyes, which seemed to belie it. Susie was vastly entertained. It diverted her enormously to hear occult matters discussed with apparent gravity in this prosaic tavern. Dr. Porhoët broke the silence.

 
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