THE MAGICIAN by WILLIAM SOMERSET MAUGHAM
Margaret Dauncey shared a flat near the Boulevard du Montparnasse with Susie Boyd; and it was to meet her that Arthur had arranged to come to tea that afternoon. The young women waited for him in the studio. The kettle was boiling on the stove; cups and petits fours stood in readiness on a model stand. Susie looked forward to the meeting with interest. She had heard a good deal of the young man, and knew that the connexion between him and Margaret was not lacking in romance. For years Susie had led the monotonous life of a mistress in a school for young ladies, and had resigned herself to its dreariness for the rest of her life, when a legacy from a distant relation gave her sufficient income to live modestly upon her means. When Margaret, who had been her pupil, came, soon after this, to announce her intention of spending a couple of years in Paris to study art, Susie willingly agreed to accompany her. Since then she had worked industriously at Colarossi's Academy, by no means under the delusion that she had talent, but merely to amuse herself. She refused to surrender the pleasing notion that her environment was slightly wicked. After the toil of many years it relieved her to be earnest in nothing; and she found infinite satisfaction in watching the lives of those around her.
She had a great affection for Margaret, and though her own stock of enthusiasms was run low, she could enjoy thoroughly Margaret's young enchantment in all that was exquisite. She was a plain woman; but there was no envy in her, and she took the keenest pleasure in Margaret's comeliness. It was almost with maternal pride that she watched each year add a new grace to that exceeding beauty. But her common sense was sound, and she took care by good-natured banter to temper the praises which extravagant admirers at the drawing-class lavished upon the handsome girl both for her looks and for her talent. She was proud to think that she would hand over to Arthur Burdon a woman whose character she had helped to form, and whose loveliness she had cultivated with a delicate care.
Susie knew, partly from fragments of letters which Margaret read to her, partly from her conversation, how passionately he adored his bride; and it pleased her to see that Margaret loved him in return with a grateful devotion. The story of this visit to Paris touched her imagination. Margaret was the daughter of a country barrister, with whom Arthur had been in the habit of staying; and when he died, many years after his wife, Arthur found himself the girl's guardian and executor. He sent her to school; saw that she had everything she could possibly want; and when, at seventeen, she told him of her wish to go to Paris and learn drawing, he at once consented. But though he never sought to assume authority over her, he suggested that she should not live alone, and it was on this account that she went to Susie. The preparations for the journey were scarcely made when Margaret discovered by chance that her father had died penniless and she had lived ever since at Arthur's entire expense. When she went to see him with tears in her eyes, and told him what she knew, Arthur was so embarrassed that it was quite absurd.
'But why did you do it?' she asked him. 'Why didn't you tell me?'
'I didn't think it fair to put you under any obligation to me, and I wanted you to feel quite free.'
She cried. She couldn't help it.
'Don't be so silly,' he laughed. 'You own me nothing at all. I've done very little for you, and what I have done has given me a great deal of pleasure.'
'I don't know how I can ever repay you.'
'Oh, don't say that,' he cried. 'It makes it so much harder for me to say what I want to.'
She looked at him quickly and reddened. Her deep blue eyes were veiled with tears.
'Don't you know that I'd do anything in the world for you?' she cried.
'I don't want you to be grateful to me, because I was hoping--I might ask you to marry me some day.'
Margaret laughed charmingly as she held out her hands.
'You must know that I've been wanting you to do that ever since I was ten.'
She was quite willing to give up her idea of Paris and be married without delay, but Arthur pressed her not to change her plans. At first Margaret vowed it was impossible to go, for she knew now that she had no money, and she could not let her lover pay.
'But what does it matter?' he said. 'It'll give me such pleasure to go on with the small allowance I've been making you. After all, I'm pretty well-to-do. My father left me a moderate income, and I'm making a good deal already by operating.'
'Yes, but it's different now. I didn't know before. I thought I was spending my own money.'
'If I died tomorrow, every penny I have would be yours. We shall be married in two years, and we've known one another much too long to change our minds. I think that our lives are quite irrevocably united.'
Margaret wished very much to spend this time in Paris, and Arthur had made up his mind that in fairness to her they could not marry till she was nineteen. She consulted Susie Boyd, whose common sense prevented her from paying much heed to romantic notions of false delicacy.
'My dear, you'd take his money without scruple if you'd signed your names in a church vestry, and as there's not the least doubt that you'll marry, I don't see why you shouldn't now. Besides, you've got nothing whatever to live on, and you're equally unfitted to be a governess or a typewriter. So it's Hobson's choice, and you'd better put your exquisite sentiments in your pocket.'
Miss Boyd, by one accident after another, had never seen Arthur, but she had heard so much that she looked upon him already as an old friend. She admired him for his talent and strength of character as much as for his loving tenderness to Margaret. She had seen portraits of him, but Margaret said he did not photograph well. She had asked if he was good-looking.
'No, I don't think he is,' answered Margaret, 'but he's very paintable.'
'That is an answer which has the advantage of sounding well and meaning nothing,' smiled Susie.
She believed privately that Margaret's passion for the arts was a not unamiable pose which would disappear when she was happily married. To have half a dozen children was in her mind much more important than to paint pictures. Margaret's gift was by no means despicable, but Susie was not convinced that callous masters would have been so enthusiastic if Margaret had been as plain and old as herself.
Miss Boyd was thirty. Her busy life had not caused the years to pass easily, and she looked older. But she was one of those plain women whose plainness does not matter. A gallant Frenchman had to her face called her a belle laide, and, far from denying the justness of his observation, she had been almost flattered. Her mouth was large, and she had little round bright eyes. Her skin was colourless and much disfigured by freckles. Her nose was long and thin. But her face was so kindly, her vivacity so attractive, that no one after ten minutes thought of her ugliness. You noticed then that her hair, though sprinkled with white, was pretty, and that her figure was exceedingly neat. She had good hands, very white and admirably formed, which she waved continually in the fervour of her gesticulation. Now that her means were adequate she took great pains with her dress, and her clothes, though they cost much more than she could afford, were always beautiful. Her taste was so great, her tact so sure, that she was able to make the most of herself. She was determined that if people called her ugly they should be forced in the same breath to confess that she was perfectly gowned. Susie's talent for dress was remarkable, and it was due to her influence that Margaret was arrayed always in the latest mode. The girl's taste inclined to be artistic, and her sense of colour was apt to run away with her discretion. Except for the display of Susie's firmness, she would scarcely have resisted her desire to wear nondescript garments of violent hue. But the older woman expressed herself with decision.
'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 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 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 cross 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.'