Page 76

The Magician Susie fixed her attention on Margaret, for in what she had heard of her she had been quite unable to recognize the girl who had been her friend. And what struck her most now was that there was in Margaret's expression a singular likeness to Haddo's. Notwithstanding her exquisite beauty, she had a curiously vicious look, which suggested that somehow she saw literally with Oliver's eyes. They had won great sums that evening, and many persons watched them. It appeared that they played always in this fashion, Margaret putting on the stakes and Haddo telling her what to do and when to stop. Susie heard two Frenchmen talking of them. She listened with all her ears. She flushed as she heard one of them make an observation about Margaret which was more than coarse. The other laughed. 'It is incredible,' he said. 'I assure you it's true. They have been married six months, and she is still only his wife in name. The superstitious through all the ages have believed in the power of virginity, and the Church has made use of the idea for its own ends. The man uses her simply as a mascot.' The men laughed, and their conversation proceeded so grossly that Susie's cheeks burned. But what she had heard made her look at Margaret more closely still. She was radiant. Susie could not deny that something had come to her that gave a new, enigmatic savour to her beauty. She was dressed more gorgeously than Susie's fastidious taste would have permitted; and her diamonds, splendid in themselves, were too magnificent for the occasion. At last, sweeping up the money, Haddo touched her on the shoulder, and she rose. Behind her was standing a painted woman of notorious disreputability. Susie was astonished to see Margaret smile and nod as she passed her. Susie learnt that the Haddos had a suite of rooms at the most expensive of the hotels. They lived in a whirl of gaiety. They knew few English except those whose reputations were damaged, but seemed to prefer the society of those foreigners whose wealth and eccentricities made them the cynosure of that little world. Afterwards, she often saw them, in company of Russian Grand−Dukes and their mistresses, of South American women with prodigious diamonds, of noble gamblers and great ladies of doubtful fame, of strange men overdressed and scented. Rumour was increasingly busy with them. Margaret moved among all those queer people with a cold mysteriousness that excited the curiosity of the sated idlers. The suggestion which Susie overheard was repeated more circumstantially. But to this was joined presently the report of orgies that were enacted in the darkened sitting−room of the hotel, when all that was noble and vicious in Monte Carlo was present. Oliver's eccentric imagination invented whimsical festivities. He had a passion for disguise, and he gave a fancy−dress party of which fabulous stories were told. He sought to revive the mystical ceremonies of old religions, and it was reported that horrible rites had been performed in the garden of the villa, under the shining moon, in imitation of those he had seen in Eastern places. It was said that Haddo had magical powers of extraordinary character, and the tired imagination of those pleasure−seekers was tickled by his talk of black art. Some even asserted that the blasphemous ceremonies of the Black Mass had been celebrated in the house of a Polish Prince. People babbled of satanism and of necromancy. Haddo was thought to be immersed in occult studies for the performance of a magical operation; and some said that he was occupied with the Magnum Opus, the greatest and most fantastic of alchemical experiments. Gradually these stories were narrowed down to the monstrous assertion that he was attempting to create living beings. He had explained at length to somebody that magical receipts existed for the manufacture of homunculi. Haddo was known generally by the name he was pleased to give himself. The Brother of the Shadow; but most people used it in derision, for it contrasted absurdly with his astonishing bulk. They were amused or outraged by his vanity, but they could not help talking about him, and Susie knew well enough by now that nothing pleased him more. His exploits as a lion−hunter were well known, and it was reported that human blood was on his hands. It was soon discovered that he had a queer power over animals, so that in his presence they were seized with unaccountable terror. He succeeded in surrounding himself with an atmosphere of the fabulous, and nothing that was told of him was too extravagant for belief. But unpleasant stories were 11

74

The Magician  
The Magician  

W. Somerset Maugham

Advertisement