The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham


  "But look here," said Arthur, "didn't Paracelsus, like most of these old fellows, in the course of his researches make any practical discoveries?"

  "I prefer those which were not practical," confessed the doctor, with a smile. "Consider for example the Tinctura Physicorum, which neither Pope nor Emporer could buy with all his wealth. It was one of the greatest alchemical mysteries, and, though mentioned under the name of The Red Lion in many occult works, was actually known to few before Paracelsus, except Hermes Trismegistus and Albertus Magnus. Its preparation was extremely difficult, for the presence was needed of two perfectly harmonious persons whose skill was equal. It was said to be a red ethereal fluid. The least wonderful of its many properties was its power to transmute all inferior metals into gold. There is an old church in the south of Bavaria where the tincture is said to be still buried in the ground. In the year 1698 some of it penetrated through the soil, and the phenomenon was witnessed by many people, who believed it to be a miracle. The church which was thereupon erected is still a well-known place for pilgrimage. Paracelsus concludes his directions for its manufacture with the words: But if this be incomprehensible to you, remember that only he who desires with his whole heart will find, and to him only who knocks vehemently shall the door be opened."

  "I shall never try to make it," smiled Arthur.

  "Then there was the Electrum Magicum, of which the wise made mirrors wherein they were able to see not only the events of the past and of the present, but the doings of men in daytime and at night. They might see anything that had been written or spoken, and the person who said it, and the causes that made him say it. But I like best the Primum Ens Melissa. An elaborate prescription is given for its manufacture. It was a remedy to prolong life, and not only Paracelsus, but his predecessors Galen, Arnold of Villanova, and Raymond Lulli, had laboured studiously to discover it."

  "Will it make me eighteen again?" cried Susie.

  "It is guaranteed to do so," answered Dr. Porhoët gravely. "Lesebren, a physician to Louis XIV, gives an account of certain experiments witnessed by himself. It appears that one of his friends prepared the remedy, and his curiosity would not let him rest until he had seen with his own eyes the effect of it."

  "That is the true scientific attitude," laughed Arthur.

  "He took every morning at sunrise a glass of white wine tinctured with this preparation; and after using it for fourteen days his nails began to fall out, without, however, causing him any pain. His courage failed him at this point, and he gave the same dose to an old female servant. She regained at least one of the characteristics of youth, much to her astonishment, for she did not know that she had been taking a medicine, and, becoming frightened, refused to continue. The experimenter then took some grain, soaked it in the tincture, and gave it to an aged hen. On the sixth day the bird began to lose its feathers, and kept on losing them till it was naked as a new-born babe; but before two weeks had passed other feathers grew, and these were more beautifully coloured than any that fortunate hen had possessed in her first youth. Her comb stood up, and she began again to lay eggs."

  Arthur laughed heartily.

  "I confess I like that story much better than the others. The Primum Ens Melissa at least offers a less puerile benefit than most magical secrets."

  "Do you call the search for gold puerile?" asked Haddo, who had been sitting for a long time in complete silence.

  "I venture to call it sordid."

  "You are very superior."

  "Because I think the aims of mystical persons invariably gross or trivial? To my plain mind, it is inane to raise the dead in order to hear from their phantom lips nothing but commonplaces. And I really cannot see that the alchemist who spent his life in the attempted manufacture of gold was a more respectable object than the outside jobber of modern civilisation."

  "But if he sought for gold it was for the power it gave him, and it was power he aimed at when he brooded night and day over dim secrets. Power was the subject of all his dreams, but not a paltry, limited dominion over this or that; power over the whole world, power over all created things, power over the very elements, power over God Himself. His lust was so vast that he could not rest till the stars in their courses were obedient to his will."

  For once Haddo lost his enigmatic, manner. It was plain now that his words intoxicated him, and his face assumed a new, a strange, expression. A peculiar arrogance flashed in his shining eyes.

  "And what else is it that men seek in life but power? If they want money, it is but for the power that attends it, and it is power again that they strive for in all the knowledge they acquire. Fools and sots aim at happiness, but men aim only at power. The magus, the sorcerer, the alchemist, are seized with the fascination of the unknown; and they desire a greatness that is inaccessible to mankind. They think by the science they study so patiently, by endurance and strength, by force of will and by imagination, for these are the great weapons of the magician, they may achieve at last a power with which they can face the God of Heaven Himself."

  Oliver Haddo lifted his huge bulk from the low chair in which he had been sitting. He began to walk up and down the studio. It was curious to see this heavy man, whose seriousness was always problematical, caught up by a curious excitement.

  "You've been talking of Paracelsus," he said. "There is one of his experiments which the doctor has withheld from you. You will find it neither mean nor mercenary, but it is very terrible. I do not know whether the account of it is true, but it would be of extraordinary interest to test it for oneself."

  He looked round at the four persons who watched him intently. There was a singular agitation in his manner, as though the thing of which he spoke was very near his heart.

  "The old alchemists believed in the possibility of spontaneous generation. By the combination of psychical powers and of strange essences, they claim to have created forms in which life became manifest. Of these, the most marvellous were those strange beings, male and female, which were called homunculi. The old philosophers doubted the possibility of this operation, but Paracelsus asserts positively that it can be done. I picked up once for a song on a barrow at London Bridge a little book in German. It was dirty and thumbed, many of the pages were torn, and the binding scarcely held the leaves together. It was called Die Sphinx and was edited by a certain Dr. Emil Besetzny. It contained the most extraordinary account I have ever read of certain spirits generated by Johann-Ferdinand, Count von Küffstein, in the Tyrol, in 1775. The sources from which this account is taken consist of masonic manuscripts, but more especially of a diary kept by a certain James Kammerer, who acted in the capacity of butler and famulus to the Count. The evidence is ten times stronger than any upon which men believe the articles of their religion. If it related to less wonderful subjects, you would not hesitate to believe implicitly every word you read. There were ten homunculi—James Kammerer calls them prophesying spirits—kept in strong bottles, such as are used to preserve fruit, and these were filled with water. They were made in five weeks, by the Count von Küffstein and an Italian mystic and rosicrucian, the Abbé Geloni. The bottles were closed with a magic seal. The spirits were about a span long, and the Count was anxious that they should grow. They were therefore buried under two cartloads of manure, and the pile daily sprinkled with a certain liquor prepared with great trouble by the adepts. The pile after such sprinklings began to ferment and steam, as if heated by a subterranean fire. When the bottles were removed, it was found that the spirits had grown to about a span and a half each; the male homunculi were come into possession of heavy beards, and the nails of the fingers had grown. In two of the bottles there was nothing to be seen save clear water, but when the Abbé knocked thrice at the seal upon the mouth, uttering at the same time certain Hebrew words, the water turned a mysterious colour, and the spirits showed their faces, very small at first, but growing in size till they attained that of a human countenance. And this countenance was horrible and fiendish."

  Haddo spoke in a
low voice that was hardly steady, and it was plain that he was much moved. It appeared as if his story affected him so that he could scarcely preserve his composure. He went on.

  "These beings were fed every three days by the Count with a rose-coloured substance which was kept in a silver box. Once a week the bottles were emptied and filled again with pure rain-water. The change had to be made rapidly, because while the homunculi were exposed to the air they closed their eyes and seemed to grow weak and unconscious, as though they were about to die. But with the spirits that were invisible, at certain intervals blood was poured into the water; and it disappeared at once, inexplicably, without colouring or troubling it. By some accident one of the bottles fell one day and was broken. The homunculus within died after a few painful respirations in spite of all efforts to save him, and the body was buried in the garden. An attempt to generate another, made by the Count without the assistance of the Abbé, who had left, failed; it produced only a small thing like a leech, which had little vitality and soon died."

  Haddo ceased speaking, and Arthur looked at him with amazement. "But taking for granted that the thing is possible, what on earth is the use of manufacturing these strange beasts?" he exclaimed.

  "Use!" cried Haddo passionately. "What do you think would be man's sensations when he had solved the great mystery of existence, when he saw living before him the substance which was dead? These homunculi were seen by historical persons, by Count Max Lemberg, by Count Franz-Josef von Thun, and by many others. I have no doubt that they were actually generated. But with our modern appliances, with our greater skill, what might it not be possible to do now if we had the courage? There are chemists toiling away in their laboratories to create the primitive protoplasm from matter which is dead, the organic from the inorganic. I have studied their experiments. I know all that they know. Why shouldn't one work on a larger scale, joining to the knowledge of the old adepts the scientific discovery of the moderns? I don't know what would be the result. It might be very strange and very wonderful. Sometimes my mind is verily haunted by the desire to see a lifeless substance move under my spells, by the desire to be as God."

  He gave a low weird laugh, half cruel, half voluptuous. It made Margaret shudder with sudden fright. He had thrown himself down in the chair, and he sat in complete shadow. By a singular effect his eyes appeared blood-red, and they stared into space, strangely parallel, with an intensity that was terrifying. Arthur started a little and gave him a searching glance. The laugh and that uncanny glance, the unaccountable emotion, were extraordinarily significant. The whole thing was explained if Oliver Haddo was mad.

  There was an uncomfortable silence. Haddo's words were out of tune with the rest of the conversation. Dr. Porhoët had spoken of magical things with a sceptical irony that gave a certain humour to the subject, and Susie was resolutely flippant. But Haddo's vehemence put these incredulous people out of countenance. Dr. Porhoët got up to go. He shook hands with Susie and with Margaret. Arthur opened the door for him. The kindly scholar looked round for Margaret's terrier.

  "I must bid my farewells to your little dog."

  He had been so quiet that they had forgotten his presence.

  "Come here, Copper," said Margaret.

  The dog slowly slunk up to them, and with a terrified expression crouched at Margaret's feet.

  "What on earth's the matter with you?" she asked.

  "He's frightened of me," said Haddo, with that harsh laugh of his which gave such an unpleasant impression.

  "Nonsense!"

  Dr. Porhoët bent down, stroked the dog's back, and shook its paw. Margaret lifted it up and set it on a table.

  "Now, be good," she said, with lifted finger.

  Dr. Porhoët with a smile went out, and Arthur shut the door behind him. Suddenly, as though evil had entered into it, the terrier sprang at Oliver Haddo and fixed its teeth in his hand. Haddo uttered a cry, and, shaking it off, gave it a savage kick. The dog rolled over with a loud bark that was almost a scream of pain, and lay still for a moment as if it were desperately hurt. Margaret cried out with horror and indignation. A fierce rage on a sudden seized Arthur so that he scarcely knew what he was about. The wretched brute's suffering, Margaret's terror, his own instinctive hatred of the man, were joined together in frenzied passion.

  "You brute," he muttered.

  He hit Haddo in the face with his clenched fist. The man collapsed bulkily to the floor, and Arthur, furiously seizing his collar, began to kick him with all his might. He shook him as a dog would shake a rat and then violently flung him down. For some reason Haddo made no resistance. He remained where he fell in utter helplessness. Arthur turned to Margaret. She was holding the poor hurt dog in her hands, crying over it, and trying to comfort it in its pain. Very gently he examined it to see if Haddo's brutal kick had broken a bone. They sat down beside the fire. Susie, to steady her nerves, lit a cigarette. She was horribly, acutely conscious of that man who lay in a mass on the floor behind them. She wondered what he would do. She wondered why he did not go. And she was ashamed of his humiliation. Then her heart stood still; for she realised that he was raising himself to his feet, slowly, with the difficulty of a very fat person. He leaned against the wall and stared at them. He remained there quite motionless. His stillness got on her nerves, and she could have screamed as she felt him look at them, look with those unnatural eyes, whose expression now she dared not even imagine.

  At last she could no longer resist the temptation to turn round just enough to see him. Haddo's eyes were fixed upon Margaret so intently that he did not see he was himself observed. His face, distorted by passion, was horrible to look upon. That vast mass of flesh had a malignancy that was inhuman, and it was terrible to see the satanic hatred which hideously deformed it. But it changed. The redness gave way to a ghastly pallor. The revengeful scowl disappeared; and a torpid smile spread over the features, a smile that was even more terrifying than the frown of malice. What did it mean? Susie could have cried out, but her tongue cleaved to her throat. The smile passed away, and the face became once more impassive. It seemed that Margaret and Arthur realised at last the power of those inhuman eyes, and they became quite still. The dog ceased its sobbing. The silence was so great that each one heard the beating of his heart. It was intolerable.

  Then Oliver Haddo moved. He came forward slowly.

  "I want to ask you to forgive me for what I did," he said. "The pain of the dog's bite was so keen that I lost my temper. I deeply regret that I kicked it. Mr. Burdon was very right to thrash me. I feel that I deserved no less."

  He spoke in a low voice, but with great distinctness. Susie was astounded. An abject apology was the last thing she expected.

  He paused for Margaret's answer. But she could not bear to look at him. When she spoke, her words were scarcely audible. She did not know why his request to be forgiven made him seem more detestable.

  "I think, if you don't mind, you had better go away."

  Haddo bowed slightly. He looked at Burdon.

  "I wish to tell you that I bear no malice for what you did. I recognise the justice of your anger."

  Arthur did not answer at all. Haddo hesitated a moment, while his eyes rested on them quietly. To Susie it seemed that they flickered with the shadow of a smile. She watched him with bewildered astonishment.

  He reached for his hat, bowed again, and went.

  VIII

  SUSIE could not persuade herself that Haddo's regret was sincere. The humility of it aroused her suspicion. She could not get out of her mind the ugly slyness of that smile which succeeded on his face the first passionate look of deadly hatred. Her fancy suggested various dark means whereby Oliver Haddo might take vengeance on his enemy, and she was at pains to warn Arthur. But he only laughed.

  "The man's a funk," he said. "Do you think if he'd had anything in him at all he would have let me kick him without trying to defend himself?"

  Haddo's cowardice increased the disgust with which Arthur regarded hi
m. He was amused by Susie's trepidation.

  "What on earth do you suppose he can do? He can't drop a brickbat on my head. If he shoots me he'll get his head cut off, and he won't be such an ass as to risk that!"

  Margaret was glad that the incident had relieved them of Oliver's society. She met him in the street a couple of day's later, and since he took off his hat in the French fashion without waiting for her to acknowledge him, she was able to make her cut more pointed.

  She began to discuss with Arthur the date of their marriage. It seemed to her that she had got out of Paris all it could give her, and she wished to begin a new life. Her love for Arthur appeared on a sudden more urgent, and she was filled with delight at the thought of the happiness she would give him.

  A day or two later Susie received a telegram. It ran as follows:

  "Please meet me at the Gare du Nord, 2:40.

  "NANCY CLERK."

  It was an old friend, who was apparently arriving in Paris that afternoon. A photograph of her, with a bold signature, stood on the chimney-piece, and Susie gave it an inquisitive glance. She had not seen Nancy for so long that it surprised her to receive this urgent message.

 
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