The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham

  Margaret sprang up with a cry.

  "Oh, how cruel! How hatefully cruel!"

  "Are you convinced now?" asked Haddo coolly.

  The two women hurried to the doorway. They were frightened and disgusted. Oliver Haddo was left alone with the snake-charmer.


  DR. PORHOËT had asked Arthur to Tiring Margaret and Miss Boyd to see him on Sunday at his apartment in the Île Saint Louis; and the lovers arranged to spend an hour on their way at the Louvre. Susie, invited to accompany them, preferred independence and her own reflections.

  To avoid the crowd which throngs the picture galleries on holidays, they went to that part of the museum where ancient sculpture is kept. It was comparatively empty, and the long halls had the singular restfulness of places where works of art are gathered together. Margaret was filled with a genuine emotion; and though she could not analyse it, as Susie, who loved to dissect her state of mind, would have done, it strangely exhilarated her. Her heart was uplifted from the sordidness of earth, and she had a sensation of freedom which was as delightful as it was indescribable. Arthur had never troubled himself with art till Margaret's enthusiasm taught him that there was a side of life he did not realise. Though beauty meant little to his practical nature, he sought, in his great love for Margaret, to appreciate the works which excited her to such charming ecstasy. He walked by her side with docility and listened, not without deference, to her outbursts. He admired the correctness of Greek anatomy, and there was one statue of an athlete which attracted his prolonged attention, because the muscles were indicated with the precision of a plate in a surgical text-book. When Margaret talked of the Greeks' divine repose and of their blitheness, he thought it very clever because she said it; but in a man it would have aroused his impatience.

  Yet there was one piece, the charming statue known as La Diane de Gabies, which moved him differently, and to this presently he insisted on going. With a laugh Margaret remonstrated, but secretly she was not displeased. She was aware that his passion for this figure was due, not to its intrinsic beauty, but to a likeness he had discovered in it to herself.

  It stood in that fair wide gallery where is the mocking faun, with his inhuman savour of fellowship with the earth which is divine, and the sightless Homer. The goddess had not the arrogance of the huntress who loved Endymion, nor the majesty of the cold mistress of the skies. She was in the likeness of a young girl, and with collected gesture fastened her cloak. There was nothing divine in her save a sweet strange spirit of virginity. A lover in ancient Greece, who offered sacrifice before this fair image, might forget easily that it was a goddess to whom he knelt, and see only an earthly maid fresh with youth and chastity and loveliness. In Arthur's eyes Margaret had all the exquisite grace of that statue, and the same unconscious composure; and in her also breathed the spring odours of ineffable purity. Her features were chiselled with the clear and divine perfection of this Greek girl's; her ears were as delicate and as finely wrought. The colour of her skin was so tender that it reminded you vaguely of all beautiful soft things, the radiance of sunset and the darkness of the night, the heart of roses and the depth of running water. The goddess's hand was raised to her right shoulder, and Margaret's hand was as small, as dainty, and as white.

  "Don't be so foolish," said she, as Arthur looked silently at the statue.

  He turned his eyes slowly, and they rested upon her. She saw that they were veiled with tears.

  "What on earth's the matter?"

  "I wish you weren't so beautiful," he answered, awkwardly, as though he could scarcely bring himself to say such foolish things. "I'm so afraid that something will happen to prevent us from being happy. It seems too much to expect that I should enjoy such extraordinarily good luck."

  She had the imagination to see that it meant much for the practical man so to express himself. Love of her drew him out of his character, and, though he could not resist, he resented the effect it had on him. She found nothing to reply, but she took his hand.

  "Everything has gone pretty well with me so far," he said, speaking almost to himself. "Whenever I've really wanted anything, I've managed to get it. I don't see why things should go against me now."

  He was trying to reassure himself against an instinctive suspicion of the malice of circumstances. But he shook himself and straightened his back.

  "It's stupid to be so morbid as that," he muttered.

  Margaret laughed. They walked out of the gallery and turned to the quay. By crossing the bridge and following the river, they must come eventually to Dr. Porhoët's house.

  Meanwhile Susie wandered down the Boulevard Saint Michel, alert with the Sunday crowd, to that part of Paris which was dearest to her heart. L'Île Saint Louis to her mind offered a synthesis of the French spirit, and it pleased her far more than the garish boulevards in which the English as a rule seek for the country's fascination. Its position on an island in the Seine gave it a compact charm. The narrow streets, with their array of dainty comestibles, had the look of streets in a provincial town. They had a quaintness which appealed to the fancy, and they were very restful. The names of the streets recalled the monarchy that passed away in bloodshed, and in poudre de riz. The very plane trees had a greater sobriety than elsewhere, as though conscious they stood in a Paris where progress was not. In front was the turbid Seine, and below, the twin towers of Notre Dame. Susie could have kissed the hard paving stones of the quay. Her good-natured, plain face lit up as she realised the delight of the scene upon which her eyes rested; and it was with a little pang, her mind aglow with characters and events from history and from fiction, that she turned away to enter Dr. Porhoët's house.

  She was pleased that the approach did not clash with her fantasies. She mounted a broad staircase, dark but roomy, and, at the command of the concierge, rang a tinkling bell at one of the doorways that faced her. Dr. Porhoët opened in person.

  "Arthur and Mademoiselle are already here," he said, as he led her in.

  They went through a prim French dining-room, with much woodwork and heavy scarlet hangings, to the library. This was a large room, but the bookcases that lined the walls, and a large writing-table heaped up with books, much diminished its size. There were books everywhere. They were stacked on the floor and piled on every chair. There was hardly space to move. Susie gave a cry of delight.

  "Now you mustn't talk to me. I want to look at all your books."

  "You could not please me more," said Dr. Porhoët, "but I am afraid they will disappoint you. They are of many sorts, but I fear there are few that will interest an English young lady."

  He looked about his writing-table till he found a packet of cigarettes. He gravely offered one to each of his guests. Susie was enchanted with the strange musty smell of the old books, and she took a first glance at them in general. For the most part they were in paper bindings, some of them neat enough, but more with broken backs and dingy edges; they were set along the shelves in serried rows, untidily, without method or plan. There were many older ones also in bindings of calf and pigskin, treasure from half the bookshops in Europe; and there were huge folios like Prussian grenadiers; and tiny Elzevirs, which had been read by patrician ladies in Venice. Just as Arthur was a different man in the operating theatre, Dr. Porhoët was changed among his books. Though he preserved the amiable serenity which made him always so attractive, he had there a diverting brusqueness of demeanour which contrasted quaintly with his usual calm.

  "I was telling these young people, when you came in, of an ancient Korân which I was given in Alexandria by a learned man whom I operated upon for cataract." He showed her a beautifully-written Arabic work, with wonderful capitals and headlines in gold. "You know that it is almost impossible for an infidel to acquire the holy book, and this is a particularly rare copy, for it was written by Kaït Bey, the greatest of the Mameluke Sultans."

  He handled the delicate pages as a lover of flowers would handle rose-leaves.

  "And have you much literat
ure on the occult sciences?" asked Susie.

  Dr. Porhoët smiled.

  "I venture to think that no private library contains so complete a collection, but I dare not show it to you in the presence of our friend Arthur. He is too polite to accuse me of foolishness, but his sarcastic smile would betray him."

  Susie went to the shelves to which he vaguely waved, and looked with a peculiar excitement at the mysterious array. She ran her eyes along the names. It seemed to her that she was entering upon an unknown region of romance. She felt like an adventurous princess who rode on her palfrey into a forest of great bare trees and mystic silences, where wan, unearthly shapes pressed upon her way.

  "I thought once of writing a life of that fantastic and grandiloquent creature, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Paracelsus Bombast von Hohenheim," said Dr. Porhoët, "and I have collected many of his books."

  He took down a slim volume in duodecimo, printed in the seventeenth century, with queer plates, on which were all manner of cabbalistic signs. The pages had a peculiar, musty odour. They were stained with iron-mould.

  "Here is one of the most interesting works concerning the black art. It is the Grimoire of Honorius, and is the principal text-book of all those who deal in the darkest ways of the science."

  Then he pointed out the Hexameron of Torquemada and the Tableau de l'Inconstance des Démons, by Delancre; he drew his finger down the leather back of Delrio's Disquisitiones Magicœ and set upright the Pseudomonarchia Dœmonorum of Wierus; his eyes rested for an instant on Hauber's Acta et Scripta Magica, and he blew the dust carefully off the most famous, the most infamous, of them all, Sprenger's Malleus Maleficorum.

  "Here is one of my greatest treasures. It is the Clavicula Salomonis; and I have much reason to believe that it is the identical copy which belonged to the greatest adventurer of the eighteenth century, Jacques Casanova. You will see that the owner's name has been cut out, but enough remains to indicate the bottom of the letters; and these correspond exactly with the signature of Casanova which I have found at the Bibliothèque Nationale. He relates in his memoirs that a copy of this book was seized among his effects when he was arrested in Venice for traffic in the black arts; and it was there, on one of my journeys from Alexandria, that I picked it up."

  He replaced the precious work, and his eye fell on a stout volume bound in vellum.

  "I had almost forgotten the most wonderful, the most mysterious, of all the books that treat of occult science. You have heard of the Kabbalah, but I doubt if it is more than a name to you."

  "I know nothing about it at all," laughed Susie, "except that it's all very romantic and extraordinary and ridiculous."

  "This, then, is its history. Moses, who was learned in all the wisdom of Egypt, was first initiated into the Kabbalah in the land of his birth; but became most proficient in it during his wanderings in the wilderness. Here he not only devoted the leisure hours of forty years to this mysterious science, but received lessons in it from an obliging angel. By aid of it he was able to solve the difficulties which arose during his management of the Israelites, notwithstanding the pilgrimages, wars, and miseries of that most unruly nation. He covertly laid down the principles of the doctrine in the first four books of the Pentateuch, but withheld them from Deuteronomy. Moses also initiated the Seventy Elders into these secrets, and they in turn transmitted them from hand to hand. Of all who formed the unbroken line of tradition, David and Solomon were the most deeply learned in the Kabbalah. No one, however, dared to write it down till Schimeon ben Jochai, who lived in the time of the destruction of Jerusalem; and after his death the Rabbi Eleazar, his son, and the Rabbi Abba, his secretary, collected his manuscripts and from them composed the celebrated treatise called Zohar."

  "And how much do you believe of this marvellous story?" asked Arthur Burdon.

  "Not a word," answered Dr. Porhoët, with a smile. "Criticism has shown that Zohar is of modern origin. With singular effrontery, it cites an author who is known to have lived during the eleventh century, mentions the Crusades, and records events which occurred in the year of Our Lord 1264. It was some time before 1291 that copies of Zohar began to be circulated by a Spanish Jew named Moses de Leon, who claimed to possess an autograph manuscript by the reputed author Schimeon ben Jochai. But when Moses de Leon was gathered to the bosom of his father Abraham, a wealthy Hebrew, Joseph de Avila, promised the scribe's widow, who had been left destitute, that his son should many her daughter, to whom he would pay a handsome dowry, if she would give him the original manuscript from which these copies were made. But the widow (one can imagine with what gnashing of teeth) was obliged to confess that she had no such manuscript, for Moses de Leon had composed Zohar out of his own head, and written it witih his own right hand."

  Arthur got up to stretch his legs. He gave a laugh.

  "I never know how much you really believe of all these things you tell us. You speak with such gravity that we are all taken in, and then it turns out that you've been laughing at us."

  "My dear friend, I never know myself how much I believe," returned Dr. Porhoët.

  "I wonder if it is for the same reason that Mr. Haddo puzzles us so much," said Susie.

  "Ah, there you have a case that is really interesting," replied the doctor. "I assure you that, though I know him fairly intimately, I have never been able to make up my mind whether he is an elaborate practical joker, or whether he is really convinced he has the wonderful powers to which he lays claim."

  "We certainly saw things last night that were not quite normal," said Susie. "Why had that serpent no effect on him though it was able to kill the rabbit instantaneously? And how are you going to explain the violent trembling of that horse, Mr. Burdon?"

  "I can't explain it," answered Arthur, irritably, "but I'm not inclined to attribute to the supernatural everything that I can't immediately understand."

  "I don't know what there is about him that excites in me a sort of horror," said Margaret. "I've never taken such a sudden dislike to anyone."

  She was too reticent to say all she felt, but she had been strangely affected last night by the recollection of Haddo's words and of his acts. She had awaked more than once from a nightmare in which he assumed fantastic and ghastly shapes. His mocking voice rang in her ears, and she seemed still to see that vast bulk and the savage, sensual face. It was like a spirit of evil in her path, and she was curiously alarmed. Only her reliance on Arthur's common sense prevented her from giving way to ridiculous terrors.

  "I've written to Frank Hurrell and asked him to tell me all he knows about him," said Arthur. "I should get an answer very soon."

  "I wish we'd never come across him," cried Margaret vehemently. "I feel that he will bring us misfortune."

  "You're all of you absurdly prejudiced," answered Susie gaily. "He interests me enormously, and I mean to ask him to tea at the studio."

  "I'm sure I shall be delighted to come."

  Margaret cried out, for she recognised Oliver Haddo's deep bantering tones; and she turned round quickly. They were all so taken aback that for a moment no one spoke. They were gathered round the window and had not heard him come in. They wondered guiltily how long he had been there and how much he had heard.

  "How on earth did you get here?" cried Susie lightly, recovering herself first.

  "No well-bred sorcerer is so dead to the finer feelings as to enter a room by the door," he answered, with his puzzling smile. "You were standing round the window, and I thought it would startle you if I chose that mode of ingress, so I descended with incredible skill down the chimney."

  "I see a little soot on your left elbow," returned Susie. "I hope you weren't at all burned."

  "Not at all, thanks," he answered, gravely brushing his coat.

  "In whatever way you came, you are very welcome," said Dr. Porhoët, genially holding out his hand.

  But Ardiur impatiently turned to his host.

  "I wish I knew what made you engage upon these studies," he said. "I shoul
d have thought your medical profession protected you from any tenderness towards superstition."

  Dr. Porhoët shrugged his shoulders.

  "I have always been interested in the oddities of mankind. At one time I read a good deal of philosophy and a good deal of science, and I learned in that way that nothing was certain. Some people, by the pursuit of science, are impressed with the dignity of man, but I was only made conscious of his insignificance. The greatest questions of all have been threshed out since he acquired the beginnings of civilisation and he is as far from a solution as ever. Man can know nothing, for his senses are his only means of knowledge, and they can give no certainty. There is only one subject upon which the individual can speak with authority, and that is his own mind, but even here he is surrounded with darkness. I believe that we shall always be ignorant of the matters which it most behoves us to know, and therefore I cannot occupy myself with them. I prefer to set them all aside, and, since knowledge is unattainable, to occupy myself only with folly."

  "It is a point of view I do not sympathise with," said Arthur.

  "Yet I cannot be sure that it is all folly," pursued the Frenchman reflectively. He looked at Arthur with a certain ironic gravity. "Do you believe that I should lie to you when I promised to speak the truth?"

  "Certainly not."

  "I should like to tell you of an experience that I once had in Alexandria. So far as I can see, it can be explained by none of the principles known to science. I ask you only to believe that I am not consciously deceiving you."

  He spoke with a seriousness which gave authority to his words. It was plain, even to Arthur, that he narrated the event exactly as it occurred.

  "I had heard frequently of a certain sheikh who was able by means of a magic mirror to show the inquirer persons who were absent or dead, and a native friend of mine had often begged me to see him. I had never thought it worth while, but at last a time came when I was greatly troubled in my mind. My poor mother was an old woman, a widow, and I had received no news of her for many weeks. Though I wrote repeatedly, no answer reached me. I was very anxious and very unhappy. I thought no harm could come if I sent for the sorcerer, and perhaps after all he had the power which was attributed to him. My friend, who was interpreter to the French Consulate, brought him to me one evening. He was a fine man, tall and stout, of a fair complexion, but with a dark brown beard. He was shabbily dressed, and, being a descendant of the Prophet, wore a green turban. In his conversation he was affable and unaffected. I asked him what persons could see in the magic mirror, and he said they were a boy not arrived at puberty, a virgin, a black female slave, and a pregnant woman. In order to make sure that there was no collusion, I despatched my servant to an intimate friend and asked him to send me his son. While we waited, I prepared by the magician's direction frankincense and coriander-seed, and a chafing-dish with live charcoal. Meanwhile, he wrote forms of invocation on six strips of paper. When the boy arrived, the sorcerer threw incense and one of the paper strips into the chafing-dish, then took the boy's right hand and drew a square and certain mystical marks on the palm. In the centre of the square he poured a little ink. This formed the magic mirror. He desired the boy to look steadily into it without raising his head. The fumes of the incense filled the room with smoke. The sorcerer muttered Arabic words, indistinctly, and this he continued to do all the time except when he asked the boy a question.

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