The Magician

by William Somerset Maugham

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Chapter 4

They came down to the busy, narrow street which led into the Boulevard du Montparnasse. Electric trams passed through it with harsh ringing of bells, and people surged along the pavements.

The fair to which they were going was held at the Lion de Belfort, not more than a mile away, and Arthur hailed a cab. Susie told the driver where they wanted to be set down. She noticed that Haddo, who was waiting for them to start, put his hand on the horse's neck. On a sudden, for no apparent reason, it began to tremble. The trembling passed through the body and down its limbs till it shook from head to foot as though it had the staggers. The coachman jumped off his box and held the wretched creature's head. Margaret and Susie got out. It was a horribly painful sight. The horse seemed not to suffer from actual pain, but from an extraordinary fear. Though she knew not why, an idea came to Susie.

'Take your hand away, Mr Haddo,' she said sharply.

He smiled, and did as she bade him. At the same moment the trembling began to decrease, and in a moment the poor old cab-horse was in its usual state. It seemed a little frightened still, but otherwise recovered.

'I wonder what the deuce was the matter with it,' said Arthur.

Oliver Haddo looked at him with the blue eyes that seemed to see right through people, and then, lifting his hat, walked away. Susie turned suddenly to Dr Porhoet.

'Do you think he could have made the horse do that? It came immediately he put his hand on its neck, and it stopped as soon as he took it away.'

'Nonsense!' said Arthur.

'It occurred to me that he was playing some trick,' said Dr Porhoet gravely. 'An odd thing happened once when he came to see me. I have two Persian cats, which are the most properly conducted of all their tribe. They spend their days in front of my fire, meditating on the problems of metaphysics. But as soon as he came in they started up, and their fur stood right on end. Then they began to run madly round and round the room, as though the victims of uncontrollable terror. I opened the door, and they bolted out. I have never been able to understand exactly what took place.'

Margaret shuddered.

'I've never met a man who filled me with such loathing,' she said. 'I don't know what there is about him that frightens me. Even now I feel his eyes fixed strangely upon me. I hope I shall never see him again.'

Arthur gave a little laugh and pressed her hand. She would not let his go, and he felt that she was trembling. Personally, he had no doubt about the matter. He would have no trifling with credibility. Either Haddo believed things that none but a lunatic could, or else he was a charlatan who sought to attract attention by his extravagances. In any case he was contemptible. It was certain, at all events, that neither he nor anyone else could work miracles.

'I'll tell you what I'll do,' said Arthur. 'If he really knows Frank Hurrell I'll find out all about him. I'll drop a note to Hurrell tonight and ask him to tell me anything he can.'

'I wish you would,' answered Susie, 'because he interests me enormously. There's no place like Paris for meeting queer folk. Sooner or later you run across persons who believe in everything. There's no form of religion, there's no eccentricity or enormity, that hasn't its votaries. Just think what a privilege it is to come upon a man in the twentieth century who honestly believes in the occult.'

'Since I have been occupied with these matters, I have come across strange people,' said Dr Porhoet quietly, 'but I agree with Miss Boyd that Oliver Haddo is the most extraordinary. For one thing, it is impossible to know how much he really believes what he says. Is he an impostor or a madman? Does he deceive himself, or is he laughing up his sleeve at the folly of those who take him seriously? I cannot tell. All I know is that he has travelled widely and is acquainted with many tongues. He has a minute knowledge of alchemical literature, and there is no book I have heard of, dealing with the black arts, which he does not seem to know.' Dr Porhoet shook his head slowly. 'I should not care to dogmatize about this man. I know I shall outrage the feelings of my friend Arthur, but I am bound to confess it would not surprise me to learn that he possessed powers by which he was able to do things seemingly miraculous.'

Arthur was prevented from answering by their arrival at the Lion de Belfort.

The fair was in full swing. The noise was deafening. Steam bands thundered out the popular tunes of the moment, and to their din merry-go-rounds were turning. At the door of booths men vociferously importuned the passers-by to enter. From the shooting saloons came a continual spatter of toy rifles. Linking up these sounds, were the voices of the serried crowd that surged along the central avenue, and the shuffle of their myriad feet. The night was lurid with acetylene torches, which flamed with a dull unceasing roar. It was a curious sight, half gay, half sordid. The throng seemed bent with a kind of savagery upon amusement, as though, resentful of the weary round of daily labour, it sought by a desperate effort to be merry.

The English party with Dr Porhoet, mildly ironic, had scarcely entered before they were joined by Oliver Haddo. He was indifferent to the plain fact that they did not want his company. He attracted attention, for his appearance and his manner were remarkable, and Susie noticed that he was pleased to see people point him out to one another. He wore a Spanish cloak, the capa, and he flung the red and green velvet of its lining gaudily over his shoulder. He had a large soft hat. His height was great, though less noticeable on account of his obesity, and he towered over the puny multitude.

They looked idly at the various shows, resisting the melodramas, the circuses, the exhibitions of eccentricity, which loudly clamoured for their custom. Presently they came to a man who was cutting silhouettes in black paper, and Haddo insisted on posing for him. A little crowd collected and did not spare their jokes at his singular appearance. He threw himself into his favourite attitude of proud command. Margaret wished to take the opportunity of leaving him, but Miss Boyd insisted on staying.

'He's the most ridiculous creature I've ever seen in my life,' she whispered. 'I wouldn't let him out of my sight for worlds.'

When the silhouette was done, he presented it with a low bow to Margaret.

'I implore your acceptance of the only portrait now in existence of Oliver Haddo,' he said.

'Thank you,' she answered frigidly.

She was unwilling to take it, but had not the presence of mind to put him off by a jest, and would not be frankly rude. As though certain she set much store on it, he placed it carefully in an envelope. They walked on and suddenly came to a canvas booth on which was an Eastern name. Roughly painted on sail-cloth was a picture of an Arab charming snakes, and above were certain words in Arabic. At the entrance, a native sat cross-legged, listlessly beating a drum. When he saw them stop, he addressed them in bad French.

'Does not this remind you of the turbid Nile, Dr Porhoet?' said Haddo. 'Let us go in and see what the fellow has to show.'

Dr Porhoet stepped forward and addressed the charmer, who brightened on hearing the language of his own country.

'He is an Egyptian from Assiut,' said the doctor.

'I will buy tickets for you all,' said Haddo.

He held up the flap that gave access to the booth, and Susie went in. Margaret and Arthur Burdon, somewhat against their will, were obliged to follow. The native closed the opening behind them. They found themselves in a dirty little tent, ill-lit by two smoking lamps; a dozen stools were placed in a circle on the bare ground. In one corner sat a fellah woman, motionless, in ample robes of dingy black. Her face was hidden by a long veil, which was held in place by a queer ornament of brass in the middle of the forehead, between the eyes. These alone were visible, large and sombre, and the lashes were darkened with kohl: her fingers were brightly stained with henna. She moved slightly as the visitors entered, and the man gave her his drum. She began to rub it with her hands, curiously, and made a droning sound, which was odd and mysterious. There was a peculiar odour in the place, so that Dr Porhoet was for a moment transported to the evil-smelling streets of Cairo. It was an acrid mixture of incense, of attar of roses, with every imaginable putrescence. It choked the two women, and Susie asked for a cigarette. The native grinned when he heard the English tongue. He showed a row of sparkling and beautiful teeth.

'My name Mohammed,' he said. 'Me show serpents to Sirdar Lord Kitchener. Wait and see. Serpents very poisonous.'

He was dressed in a long blue gabardine, more suited to the sunny banks of the Nile than to a fair in Paris, and its colour could hardly be seen for dirt. On his head was the national tarboosh.

A rug lay at one side of the tent, and from under it he took a goatskin sack. He placed it on the ground in the middle of the circle formed by the seats and crouched down on his haunches. Margaret shuddered, for the uneven surface of the sack moved strangely. He opened the mouth of it. The woman in the corner listlessly droned away on the drum, and occasionally uttered a barbaric cry. With a leer and a flash of his bright teeth, the Arab thrust his hand into the sack and rummaged as a man would rummage in a sack of corn. He drew out a long, writhing snake. He placed it on the ground and for a moment waited, then he passed his hand over it: it became immediately as rigid as a bar of iron. Except that the eyes, the cruel eyes, were open still, there might have been no life in it.

'Look,' said Haddo. 'That is the miracle which Moses did before Pharaoh.'

Then the Arab took a reed instrument, not unlike the pipe which Pan in the hills of Greece played to the dryads, and he piped a weird, monotonous tune. The stiffness broke away from the snake suddenly, and it lifted its head and raised its long body till it stood almost on the tip of its tail, and it swayed slowly to and fro.

Oliver Haddo seemed extraordinarily fascinated. He leaned forward with eager face, and his unnatural eyes were fixed on the charmer with an indescribable expression. Margaret drew back in terror.

'You need not be frightened,' said Arthur. 'These people only work with animals whose fangs have been extracted.'

Oliver Haddo looked at him before answering. He seemed to consider each time what sort of man this was to whom he spoke.

'A man is only a snake-charmer because, without recourse to medicine, he is proof against the fangs of the most venomous serpents.'

'Do you think so?' said Arthur.

'I saw the most noted charmer of Madras die two hours after he had been bitten by a cobra,' said Haddo. I had heard many tales of his prowess, and one evening asked a friend to take me to him. He was out when we arrived, but we waited, and presently, accompanied by some friends, he came. We told him what we wanted. He had been at a marriage-feast and was drunk. But he sent for his snakes, and forthwith showed us marvels which this man has never heard of. At last he took a great cobra from his sack and began to handle it. Suddenly it darted at his chin and bit him. It made two marks like pin-points. The juggler started back.

'"I am a dead man," he said.

'Those about him would have killed the cobra, but he prevented them.

'"Let the creature live," he said. "It may be of service to others of my trade. To me it can be of no other use. Nothing can save me."

'His friends and the jugglers, his fellows, gathered round him and placed him in a chair. In two hours he was dead. In his drunkenness he had forgotten a portion of the spell which protected him, and so he died.'

'You have a marvellous collection of tall stories,' said Arthur. 'I'm afraid I should want better proof that these particular snakes are poisonous.'

Oliver turned to the charmer and spoke to him in Arabic. Then he answered Arthur.

'The man has a horned viper, cerastes is the name under which you gentlemen of science know it, and it is the most deadly of all Egyptian snakes. It is commonly known as Cleopatra's Asp, for that is the serpent which was brought in a basket of figs to the paramour of Caesar in order that she might not endure the triumph of Augustus.'

'What are you going to do?' asked Susie.

He smiled but did not answer. He stepped forward to the centre of the tent and fell on his knees. He uttered Arabic words, which Dr. Porhoet translated to the others.

'O viper, I adjure you, by the great God who is all-powerful, to come forth. You are but a snake, and God is greater than all snakes. Obey my call and come.'

A tremor went through the goatskin bag, and in a moment a head was protruded. A lithe body wriggled out. It was a snake of light grey colour, and over each eye was a horn. It lay slightly curled.

'Do you recognize it?' said Oliver in a low voice to the doctor.

'I do.'

The charmer sat motionless, and the woman in the dim background ceased her weird rubbing of the drum. Haddo seized the snake and opened its mouth. Immediately it fastened on his hand, and the reptile teeth went deep into his flesh. Arthur watched him for signs of pain, but he did not wince. The writhing snake dangled from his hand. He repeated a sentence in Arabic, and, with the peculiar suddenness of a drop of water falling from a roof, the snake fell to the ground. The blood flowed freely. Haddo spat upon the bleeding place three times, muttering words they could not hear, and three times he rubbed the wound with his fingers. The bleeding stopped. He stretched out his hand for Arthur to look at.

'That surely is what a surgeon would call healing by first intention,' he said.

Burdon was astonished, but he was irritated, too, and would not allow that there was anything strange in the cessation of the flowing blood.

'You haven't yet shown that the snake was poisonous.'

'I have not finished yet,' smiled Haddo.

He spoke again to the Egyptian, who gave an order to his wife. Without a word she rose to her feet and from a box took a white rabbit. She lifted it up by the ears, and it struggled with its four quaint legs. Haddo put it in front of the horned viper. Before anyone could have moved, the snake darted forward, and like a flash of lightning struck the rabbit. The wretched little beast gave a slight scream, a shudder went through it, and it fell dead.

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.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.