THE MAGICIAN by WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Some weeks later Dr Porhoet was sitting among his books in the quiet, low room that overlooked the Seine. He had given himself over to a pleasing melancholy. The heat beat down upon the noisy streets of Paris, and the din of the great city penetrated even to his fastness in the Ile Saint Louis. He remembered the cloud-laden sky of the country where he was born, and the south-west wind that blew with a salt freshness. The long streets of Brest, present to his fancy always in a drizzle of rain, with the lights of cafes reflected on the wet pavements, had a familiar charm. Even in foul weather the sailor-men who trudged along them gave one a curious sense of comfort. There was delight in the smell of the sea and in the freedom of the great Atlantic. And then he thought of the green lanes and of the waste places with their scented heather, the fair broad roads that led from one old sweet town to another, of the Pardons and their gentle, sad crowds. Dr Porhoet gave a sigh.
'It is good to be born in the land of Brittany,' he smiled.
But his bonne showed Susie in, and he rose with a smile to greet her. She had been in Paris for some time, and they had seen much of one another. He basked in the gentle sympathy with which she interested herself in all the abstruse, quaint matters on which he spent his time; and, divining her love for Arthur, he admired the courage with which she effaced herself. They had got into the habit of eating many of their meals together in a quiet house opposite the Cluny called La Reine Blanche, and here they had talked of so many things that their acquaintance was grown into a charming friendship.
'I'm ashamed to come here so often,' said Susie, as she entered. 'Matilde is beginning to look at me with a suspicious eye.'
'It is very good of you to entertain a tiresome old man,' he smiled, as he held her hand. 'But I should have been disappointed if you had forgotten your promise to come this afternoon, for I have much to tell you.'
'Tell me at once,' she said, sitting down.
'I have discovered an MS. at the library of the Arsenal this morning that no one knew anything about.'
He said this with an air of triumph, as though the achievement were of national importance. Susie had a tenderness for his innocent mania; and, though she knew the work in question was occult and incomprehensible, congratulated him heartily.
'It is the original version of a book by Paracelsus. I have not read it yet, for the writing is most difficult to decipher, but one point caught my eye on turning over the pages. That is the gruesome fact that Paracelsus fed the homunculi he manufactured on human blood. One wonders how he came by it.'
Susie gave a little start, which Dr Porhoet noticed.
'What is the matter with you?'
'Nothing,' she said quickly.
He looked at her for a moment, then proceeded with the subject that strangely fascinated him.
'You must let me take you one day to the library of the Arsenal. There is no richer collection in the world of books dealing with the occult sciences. And of course you know that it was at the Arsenal that the tribunal sat, under the suggestive name of chambre ardente, to deal with cases of sorcery and magic?'
'I didn't,' smiled Susie.
'I always think that these manuscripts and queer old books, which are the pride of our library, served in many an old trial. There are volumes there of innocent appearance that have hanged wretched men and sent others to the stake. You would not believe how many persons of fortune, rank, and intelligence, during the great reign of Louis XIV, immersed themselves in these satanic undertakings.'
Susie did not answer. She could not now deal with these matters in an indifferent spirit. Everything she heard might have some bearing on the circumstances which she had discussed with Dr Porhoet times out of number. She had never been able to pin him down to an affirmation of faith. Certain strange things had manifestly happened, but what the explanation of them was, no man could say. He offered analogies from his well-stored memory. He gave her books to read till she was saturated with occult science. At one moment, she was inclined to throw them all aside impatiently, and, at another, was ready to believe that everything was possible.
Dr Porhoet stood up and stretched out a meditative finger. He spoke in that agreeably academic manner which, at the beginning of their acquaintance, had always entertained Susie, because it contrasted so absurdly with his fantastic utterances.
'It was a strange dream that these wizards cherished. They sought to make themselves beloved of those they cared for and to revenge themselves on those they hated; but, above all, they sought to become greater than the common run of men and to wield the power of the gods. They hesitated at nothing to gain their ends. But Nature with difficulty allows her secrets to be wrested from her. In vain they lit their furnaces, and in vain they studied their crabbed books, called up the dead, and conjured ghastly spirits. Their reward was disappointment and wretchedness, poverty, the scorn of men, torture, imprisonment, and shameful death. And yet, perhaps after all, there may be some particle of truth hidden away in these dark places.'
'You never go further than the cautious perhaps,' said Susie. 'You never give me any definite opinion.'
'In these matters it is discreet to have no definite opinion,' he smiled, with a shrug of the shoulders. 'If a wise man studies the science of the occult, his duty is not to laugh at everything, but to seek patiently, slowly, perseveringly, the truth that may be concealed in the night of these illusions.'
The words were hardly spoken when Matilde, the ancient bonne, opened the door to let a visitor come in. It was Arthur Burdon. Susie gave a cry of surprise, for she had received a brief note from him two days before, and he had said nothing of crossing the Channel.
'I'm glad to find you both here,' said Arthur, as he shook hands with them.
'Has anything happened?' cried Susie.
His manner was curiously distressing, and there was a nervousness about his movements that was very unexpected in so restrained a person.
'I've seen Margaret again,' he said.
He seemed unable to go on, and yet both knew that he had something important to tell them. He looked at them vacantly, as though all he had to say was suddenly gone out of his mind.
'I've come straight here,' he said, in a dull, bewildered fashion. 'I went to your hotel, Susie, in the hope of finding you; but when they told me you were out, I felt certain you would be here.'
'You seem worn out, cher ami,' said Dr Porhoet, looking at him. 'Will you let Matilde make you a cup of coffee?'
'I should like something,' he answered, with a look of utter weariness.
'Sit still for a minute or two, and you shall tell us what you want to when you are a little rested.'
Dr Porhoet had not seen Arthur since that afternoon in the previous year when, in answer to Haddo's telegram, he had gone to the studio in the Rue Campagne Premiere. He watched him anxiously while Arthur drank his coffee. The change in him was extraordinary; there was a cadaverous exhaustion about his face, and his eyes were sunken in their sockets. But what alarmed the good doctor most was that Arthur's personality seemed thoroughly thrown out of gear. All that he had endured during these nine months had robbed him of the strength of purpose, the matter-of-fact sureness, which had distinguished him. He was now unbalanced and neurotic.
Arthur did not speak. With his eyes fixed moodily on the ground, he wondered how much he could bring himself to tell them. It revolted him to disclose his inmost thoughts, yet he was come to the end of his tether and needed the doctor's advice. He found himself obliged to deal with circumstances that might have existed in a world of nightmare, and he was driven at last to take advantage of his friend's peculiar knowledge.
Returning to London after Margaret's flight, Arthur Burdon had thrown himself again into the work which for so long had been his only solace. It had lost its savour; but he would not take this into account, and he slaved away mechanically, by perpetual toil seeking to deaden his anguish. But as the time passed he was seized on a sudden with a curious feeling of foreboding, which he could in no way resist; it grew in strength till it had all the power of an obsession, and he could not reason himself out of it. He was sure that a great danger threatened Margaret. He could not tell what it was, nor why the fear of it was so persistent, but the idea was there always, night and day; it haunted him like a shadow and pursued him like remorse. His anxiety increased continually, and the vagueness of his terror made it more tormenting. He felt quite certain that Margaret was in imminent peril, but he did not know how to help her. Arthur supposed that Haddo had taken her back to Skene; but, even if he went there, he had no chance of seeing her. What made it more difficult still, was that his chief at St Luke's was away, and he was obliged to be in London in case he should be suddenly called upon to do some operation. But he could think of nothing else. He felt it urgently needful to see Margaret. Night after night he dreamed that she was at the point of death, and heavy fetters prevented him from stretching out a hand to help her. At last he could stand it no more. He told a brother surgeon that private business forced him to leave London, and put the work into his hands. With no plan in his head, merely urged by an obscure impulse, he set out for the village of Venning, which was about three miles from Skene.
It was a tiny place, with one public-house serving as a hotel to the rare travellers who found it needful to stop there, and Arthur felt that some explanation of his presence was necessary. Having seen at the station an advertisement of a large farm to let, he told the inquisitive landlady that he had come to see it. He arrived late at night. Nothing could be done then, so he occupied the time by trying to find out something about the Haddos.
Oliver was the local magnate, and his wealth would have made him an easy topic of conversation even without his eccentricity. The landlady roundly called him insane, and as an instance of his queerness told Arthur, to his great dismay, that Haddo would have no servants to sleep in the house: after dinner everyone was sent away to the various cottages in the park, and he remained alone with his wife. It was an awful thought that Margaret might be in the hands of a raving madman, with not a soul to protect her. But if he learnt no more than this of solid fact, Arthur heard much that was significant. To his amazement the old fear of the wizard had grown up again in that lonely place, and the garrulous woman gravely told him of Haddo's evil influence on the crops and cattle of farmers who had aroused his anger. He had had an altercation with his bailiff, and the man had died within a year. A small freeholder in the neighbourhood had refused to sell the land which would have rounded off the estate of Skene, and a disease had attacked every animal on his farm so that he was ruined. Arthur was impressed because, though she reported these rumours with mock scepticism as the stories of ignorant yokels and old women, the innkeeper had evidently a terrified belief in their truth. No one could deny that Haddo had got possession of the land he wanted; for, when it was put up to auction, no one would bid against him, and he bought it for a song.
As soon as he could do so naturally, Arthur asked after Margaret. The woman shrugged her shoulders. No one knew anything about her. She never came out of the park gates, but sometimes you could see her wandering about inside by herself. She saw no one. Haddo had long since quarrelled with the surrounding gentry; and though one old lady, the mother of a neighbouring landowner, had called when Margaret first came, she had not been admitted, and the visit was never returned.
'She'll come to no good, poor lady,' said the hostess of the inn. 'And they do say she's a perfect picture to look at.'
Arthur went to his room. He longed for the day to come. There was no certain means of seeing Margaret. It was useless to go to the park gates, since even the tradesmen were obliged to leave their goods at the lodge; but it appeared that she walked alone, morning and afternoon, and it might be possible to see her then. He decided to climb into the park and wait till he came upon her in some spot where they were not likely to be observed.
Next day the great heat of the last week was gone, and the melancholy sky was dark with lowering clouds. Arthur inquired for the road which led to Skene, and set out to walk the three miles which separated him from it. The country was grey and barren. There was a broad waste of heath, with gigantic boulders strewn as though in pre-historic times Titans had waged there a mighty battle. Here and there were trees, but they seemed hardly to withstand the fierce winds of winter; they were old and bowed before the storm. One of them attracted his attention. It had been struck by lightning and was riven asunder, leafless; but the maimed branches were curiously set on the trunk so that they gave it the appearance of a human being writhing in the torture of infernal agony. The wind whistled strangely. Arthur's heart sank as he walked on. He had never seen a country so desolate.
He came to the park gates at last and stood for some time in front of them. At the end of a long avenue, among the trees, he could see part of a splendid house. He walked along the wooden palisade that surrounded the park. Suddenly he came to a spot where a board had been broken down. He looked up and down the road. No one was in sight. He climbed up the low, steep bank, wrenched down a piece more of the fence, and slipped in.
He found himself in a dense wood. There was no sign of a path, and he advanced cautiously. The bracken was so thick and high that it easily concealed him. Dead owners had plainly spent much care upon the place, for here alone in the neighbourhood were trees in abundance; but of late it had been utterly neglected. It had run so wild that there were no traces now of its early formal arrangement; and it was so hard to make one's way, the vegetation was so thick, that it might almost have been some remnant of primeval forest. But at last he came to a grassy path and walked along it slowly. He stopped on a sudden, for he heard a sound. But it was only a pheasant that flew heavily through the low trees. He wondered what he should do if he came face to face with Oliver. The innkeeper had assured him that the squire seldom came out, but spent his days locked in the great attics at the top of the house. Smoke came from the chimneys of them, even in the hottest days of summer, and weird tales were told of the devilries there committed.
Arthur went on, hoping in the end to catch sight of Margaret, but he saw no one. In that grey, chilly day the woods, notwithstanding their greenery, were desolate and sad. A sombre mystery seemed to hang over them. At last he came to a stone bench at a cross-way among the trees, and, since it was the only resting-place he had seen, it struck him that Margaret might come there to sit down. He hid himself in the bracken. He had forgotten his watch and did not know how the time passed; he seemed to be there for hours.
But at length his heart gave a great beat against his ribs, for all at once, so silently that he had not heard her approach, Margaret came into view. She sat on the stone bench. For a moment he dared not move in case the sound frightened her. He could not tell how to make his presence known. But it was necessary to do something to attract her attention, and he could only hope that she would not cry out.
'Margaret,' he called softly.
She did not move, and he repeated her name more loudly. But still she made no sign that she had heard. He came forward and stood in front of her.
She looked at him quietly. He might have been someone she had never set eyes on, and yet from her composure she might have expected him to be standing there.
'Margaret, don't you know me?'
'What do you want?' she answered placidly.
He was so taken aback that he did not know what to say. She kept gazing at him steadfastly. On a sudden her calmness vanished, and she sprang to her feet.
'Is it you really?' she cried, terribly agitated. 'I thought it was only a shape that mimicked you.'
'Margaret, what do you mean? What has come over you?'
She stretched out her hand and touched him.
'I'm flesh and blood all right,' he said, trying to smile.
She shut her eyes for a moment, as though in an effort to collect herself.
'I've had hallucinations lately,' she muttered. 'I thought it was some trick played upon me.'
Suddenly she shook herself.
'But what are you doing here? You must go. How did you come? Oh, why won't you leave me alone?'
'I've been haunted by a feeling that something horrible was going to happen to you. I was obliged to come.'
'For God's sake, go. You can do me no good. If he finds out you've been here--'
She stopped, and her eyes were dilated with terror. Arthur seized her hands.
'Margaret, I can't go--I can't leave you like this. For Heaven's sake, tell me what is the matter. I'm so dreadfully frightened.'
He was aghast at the difference wrought in her during the two months since he had seen her last. Her colour was gone, and her face had the greyness of the dead. There were strange lines on her forehead, and her eyes had an unnatural glitter. Her youth had suddenly left her. She looked as if she were struck down by mortal illness.
'What is that matter with you?' he asked.
'Nothing.' She looked about her anxiously. 'Oh, why don't you go? How can you be so cruel?'
'I must do something for you,' he insisted.
She shook her head.
'It's too late. Nothing can help me now.' She paused; and when she spoke again it was with a voice so ghastly that it might have come from the lips of a corpse. 'I've found out at last what he's going to do with me He wants me for his great experiment, and the time is growing shorter.'
'What do you mean by saying he wants you?'
'He wants--my life.'
Arthur gave a cry of dismay, but she put up her hand.
'It's no use resisting. It can't do any good--I think I shall be glad when the moment comes. I shall at least cease to suffer.'
'But you must be mad.'
'I don't know. I know that he is.'
'But if your life is in danger, come away for God's sake. After all, you're free. He can't stop you.'
'I should have to go back to him, as I did last time,' she answered, shaking her head. 'I thought I was free then, but gradually I knew that he was calling me. I tried to resist, but I couldn't. I simply had to go to him.'
'But it's awful to think that you are alone with a man who's practically raving mad.'
'I'm safe for today,' she said quietly. 'It can only be done in the very hot weather. If there's no more this year, I shall live till next summer.'
'Oh, Margaret, for God's sake don't talk like that. I love you--I want to have you with me always. Won't you come away with me and let me take care of you? I promise you that no harm shall come to you.'
'You don't love me any more; you're only sorry for me now.'
'It's not true.'
'Oh yes it is. I saw it when we were in the country. Oh, I don't blame you. I'm a different woman from the one you loved. I'm not the Margaret you knew.'
'I can never care for anyone but you.'
She put her hand on his arm.
'If you loved me, I implore you to go. You don't know what you expose me to. And when I'm dead you must marry Susie. She loves you with all her heart, and she deserves your love.'
'Margaret, don't go. Come with me.'
'And take care. He will never forgive you for what you did. If he can, he will kill you.'
She started violently, as though she heard a sound. Her face was convulsed with sudden fear.
'For God's sake go, go!'
She turned from him quickly, and, before he could prevent her, had vanished. With heavy heart he plunged again into the bracken.
When Arthur had given his friends some account of this meeting, he stopped and looked at Dr Porhoet. The doctor went thoughtfully to his bookcase.
'What is it you want me to tell you?' he asked.
'I think the man is mad,' said Arthur. 'I found out at what asylum his mother was, and by good luck was able to see the superintendent on my way through London. He told me that he had grave doubts about Haddo's sanity, but it was impossible at present to take any steps. I came straight here because I wanted your advice. Granting that the man is out of his mind, is it possible that he may be trying some experiment that entails a sacrifice of human life?'
'Nothing is more probable,' said Dr Porhoet gravely.
Susie shuddered. She remembered the rumour that had reached her ears in Monte Carlo.
'They said there that he was attempting to make living creatures by a magical operation.' She glanced at the doctor, but spoke to Arthur. 'Just before you came in, our friend was talking of that book of Paracelsus in which he speaks of feeding the monsters he has made on human blood.'
Arthur gave a horrified cry.
'The most significant thing to my mind is that fact about Margaret which we are certain of,' said Dr Porhoet. 'All works that deal with the Black Arts are unanimous upon the supreme efficacy of the virginal condition.'
'But what is to be done?' asked Arthur is desperation. 'We can't leave her in the hands of a raving madman.' He turned on a sudden deathly white. 'For all we know she may be dead now.'
'Have you ever heard of Gilles de Rais?' said Dr Porhoet, continuing his reflections. 'That is the classic instance of human sacrifice. I know the country in which he lived; and the peasants to this day dare not pass at night in the neighbourhood of the ruined castle which was the scene of his horrible crimes.'
'It's awful to know that this dreadful danger hangs over her, and to be able to do nothing.'
'We can only wait,' said Dr Porhoet.
'And if we wait too long, we may be faced by a terrible catastrophe.'
'Fortunately we live in a civilized age. Haddo has a great care of his neck. I hope we are frightened unduly.'
It seemed to Susie that the chief thing was to distract Arthur, and she turned over in her mind some means of directing his attention to other matters.
'I was thinking of going down to Chartres for two days with Mrs Bloomfield,' she said. 'Won't you come with me? It is the most lovely cathedral in the world, and I think you will find it restful to wander about it for a little while. You can do no good, here or in London. Perhaps when you are calm, you will be able to think of something practical.'
Dr Porhoet saw what her plan was, and joined his entreaties to hers that Arthur should spend a day or two in a place that had no associations for him. Arthur was too exhausted to argue, and from sheer weariness consented. Next day Susie took him to Chartres. Mrs Bloomfield was no trouble to them, and Susie induced him to linger for a week in that pleasant, quiet town. They passed many hours in the stately cathedral, and they wandered about the surrounding country. Arthur was obliged to confess that the change had done him good, and a certain apathy succeeded the agitation from which he had suffered so long. Finally Susie persuaded him to spend three or four weeks in Brittany with Dr Porhoet, who was proposing to revisit the scenes of his childhood. They returned to Paris. When Arthur left her at the station, promising to meet her again in an hour at the restaurant where they were going to dine with Dr Porhoet, he thanked her for all she had done.
'I was in an absurdly hysterical condition,' he said, holding her hand. 'You've been quite angelic. I knew that nothing could be done, and yet I was tormented with the desire to do something. Now I've got myself in hand once more. I think my common sense was deserting me, and I was on the point of believing in the farrago of nonsense which they call magic. After all, it's absurd to think that Haddo is going to do any harm to Margaret. As soon at I get back to London, I'll see my lawyers, and I daresay something can be done. If he's really mad, we'll have to put him under restraint, and Margaret will be free. I shall never forget your kindness.'
Susie smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
She was convinced that he would forget everything if Margaret came back to him. But she chid herself for the bitterness of the thought. She loved him, and she was glad to be able to do anything for him.
She returned to the hotel, changed her frock, and walked slowly to the Chien Noir. It always exhilarated her to come back to Paris; and she looked with happy, affectionate eyes at the plane trees, the yellow trams that rumbled along incessantly, and the lounging people. When she arrived, Dr Porhoet was waiting, and his delight at seeing her again was flattering and pleasant. They talked of Arthur. They wondered why he was late.
In a moment he came in. They saw at once that something quite extraordinary had taken place.
'Thank God, I've found you at last!' he cried.
His face was moving strangely. They had never seen him so discomposed.
'I've been round to your hotel, but I just missed you. Oh, why did you insist on my going away?'
'What on earth's the matter?' cried Susie.
'Something awful has happened to Margaret.'
Susie started to her feet with a sudden cry of dismay.
'How do you know?' she asked quickly.
He looked at them for a moment and flushed. He kept his eyes upon them, as though actually to force his listeners into believing what he was about to say.
'I feel it,' he answered hoarsely.
'What do you mean?'
'It came upon me quite suddenly, I can't explain why or how. I only know that something has happened.'
He began again to walk up and down, prey to an agitation that was frightful to behold. Susie and Dr Porhoet stared at him helplessly. They tried to think of something to say that would calm him.
'Surely if anything had occurred, we should have been informed.'
He turned to Susie angrily.
'How do you suppose we could know anything? She was quite helpless. She was imprisoned like a rat in a trap.'
'But, my dear friend, you mustn't give way in this fashion,' said the doctor. 'What would you say of a patient who came to you with such a story?'
Arthur answered the question with a shrug of the shoulders.
'I should say he was absurdly hysterical.'
'I can't help it, the feeling's there. If you try all night you'll never be able to argue me out of it. I feel it in every bone of my body. I couldn't be more certain if I saw Margaret lying dead in front of me.'
Susie saw that it was indeed useless to reason with him. The only course was to accept his conviction and make the best of it.
'What do you want us to do?' she asked.
'I want you both to come to England with me at once. If we start now we can catch the evening train.'
Susie did not answer, but she got up. She touched the doctor on the arm.
'Please come,' she whispered.
He nodded and untucked the napkin he had already arranged over his waistcoat.
'I've got a cab at the door,' said Arthur.
'And what about clothes for Miss Susie?' said the doctor.
'Oh, we can't wait for that,' cried Arthur. 'For God's sake, come quickly.'
Susie knew that there was plenty of time to fetch a few necessary things before the train started, but Arthur's impatience was too great to be withstood.
'It doesn't matter,' she said. 'I can get all I want in England.'
He hurried them to the door and told the cabman to drive to the station as quickly as ever he could.
'For Heaven's sake, calm down a little,' said Susie. 'You'll be no good to anyone in that state.'
'I feel certain we're too late.'
'Nonsense! I'm convinced that you'll find Margaret safe and sound.'
He did not answer. He gave a sigh of relief as they drove into the courtyard of the station.