W. Somerset Maugham.

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The Magician





In 1897, after spending five years at St Thomas's Hospital I passed the
examinations which enabled me to practise medicine. While still a medical
student I had published a novel called _Liza of Lambeth_ which caused a
mild sensation, and on the strength of that I rashly decided to abandon
doctoring and earn my living as a writer; so, as soon as I was
'qualified', I set out for Spain and spent the best part of a year in
Seville. I amused myself hugely and wrote a bad novel. Then I returned to
London and, with a friend of my own age, took and furnished a small flat
near Victoria Station. A maid of all work cooked for us and kept the flat
neat and tidy. My friend was at the Bar, and so I had the day (and the
flat) to myself and my work. During the next six years I wrote several
novels and a number of plays. Only one of these novels had any success,
but even that failed to make the stir that my first one had made. I could
get no manager to take my plays. At last, in desperation, I sent one,
which I called _A Man of Honour_, to the Stage Society, which gave two
performances, one on Sunday night, another on Monday afternoon, of plays
which, unsuitable for the commercial theatre, were considered of
sufficient merit to please an intellectual audience. As every one knows,
it was the Stage Society that produced the early plays of Bernard Shaw.
The committee accepted _A Man of Honour_, and W.L. Courtney, who was a
member of it, thought well enough of my crude play to publish it in _The
Fortnightly Review_, of which he was then editor. It was a feather in my

Though these efforts of mine brought me very little money, they attracted
not a little attention, and I made friends. I was looked upon as a
promising young writer and, I think I may say it without vanity, was
accepted as a member of the intelligentsia, an honourable condition
which, some years later, when I became a popular writer of light
comedies, I lost; and have never since regained. I was invited to
literary parties and to parties given by women of rank and fashion who
thought it behoved them to patronise the arts. An unattached and fairly
presentable young man is always in demand. I lunched out and dined out.
Since I could not afford to take cabs, when I dined out, in tails and a
white tie, as was then the custom, I went and came back by bus. I was
asked to spend week-ends in the country. They were something of a trial
on account of the tips you had to give to the butler and to the footman
who brought you your morning tea. He unpacked your gladstone bag, and
you were uneasily aware that your well-worn pyjamas and modest toilet
articles had made an unfavourable impression upon him. For all that, I
found life pleasant and I enjoyed myself. There seemed no reason why I
should not go on indefinitely in the same way, bringing out a novel once
a year (which seldom earned more than the small advance the publisher
had given me but which was on the whole respectably reviewed), going to
more and more parties, making more and more friends. It was all very
nice, but I couldn't see that it was leading me anywhere. I was thirty.
I was in a rut. I felt I must get out of it. It did not take me long to
make up my mind. I told the friend with whom I shared the flat that I
wanted to be rid of it and go abroad. He could not keep it by himself,
but we luckily found a middle-aged gentleman who wished to install his
mistress in it, and was prepared to take it off our hands. We sold the
furniture for what it could fetch, and within a month I was on my way to
Paris. I took a room in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank.

A few months before this, I had been fortunate enough to make friends
with a young painter who had a studio in the Rue Campagne Première. His
name was Gerald Kelly. He had had an upbringing unusual for a painter,
for he had been to Eton and to Cambridge. He was highly talented,
abundantly loquacious, and immensely enthusiastic. It was he who first
made me acquainted with the Impressionists, whose pictures had recently
been accepted by the Luxembourg. To my shame, I must admit that I could
not make head or tail of them. Without much searching, I found an
apartment on the fifth floor of a house near the Lion de Belfort. It had
two rooms and a kitchen, and cost seven hundred francs a year, which was
then twenty-eight pounds. I bought, second-hand, such furniture and
household utensils as were essential, and the _concierge_ told me of a
woman who would come in for half a day and make my _café au lait_ in the
morning and my luncheon at noon. I settled down and set to work on still
another novel. Soon after my arrival, Gerald Kelly took me to a
restaurant called Le Chat Blanc in the Rue d'Odessa, near the Gare
Montparnasse, where a number of artists were in the habit of dining;
and from then on I dined there every night. I have described the place
elsewhere, and in some detail in the novel to which these pages are meant
to serve as a preface, so that I need not here say more about it. As a
rule, the same people came in every night, but now and then others came,
perhaps only once, perhaps two or three times. We were apt to look upon
them as interlopers, and I don't think we made them particularly welcome.
It was thus that I first met Arnold Bennett and Clive Bell. One of these
casual visitors was Aleister Crowley. He was spending the winter in
Paris. I took an immediate dislike to him, but he interested and amused
me. He was a great talker and he talked uncommonly well. In early youth,
I was told, he was extremely handsome, but when I knew him he had put on
weight, and his hair was thinning. He had fine eyes and a way, whether
natural or acquired I do not know, of so focusing them that, when he
looked at you, he seemed to look behind you. He was a fake, but not
entirely a fake. At Cambridge he had won his chess blue and was esteemed
the best whist player of his time. He was a liar and unbecomingly
boastful, but the odd thing was that he had actually done some of the
things he boasted of. As a mountaineer, he had made an ascent of K2 in
the Hindu Kush, the second highest mountain in India, and he made it
without the elaborate equipment, the cylinders of oxygen and so forth,
which render the endeavours of the mountaineers of the present day more
likely to succeed. He did not reach the top, but got nearer to it than
anyone had done before.

Crowley was a voluminous writer of verse, which he published sumptuously
at his own expense. He had a gift for rhyming, and his verse is not
entirely without merit. He had been greatly influenced by Swinburne and
Robert Browning. He was grossly, but not unintelligently, imitative. As
you flip through the pages you may well read a stanza which, if you
came across it in a volume of Swinburne's, you would accept without
question as the work of the master. '_It's rather hard, isn't it, Sir,
to make sense of it?_' If you were shown this line and asked what poet
had written it, I think you would be inclined to say, Robert Browning.
You would be wrong. It was written by Aleister Crowley.

At the time I knew him he was dabbling in Satanism, magic and the occult.
There was just then something of a vogue in Paris for that sort of thing,
occasioned, I surmise, by the interest that was still taken in a book of
Huysmans's, _Là Bas_. Crowley told fantastic stories of his experiences,
but it was hard to say whether he was telling the truth or merely pulling
your leg. During that winter I saw him several times, but never after I
left Paris to return to London. Once, long afterwards, I received a
telegram from him which ran as follows: 'Please send twenty-five pounds
at once. Mother of God and I starving. Aleister Crowley.' I did not do
so, and he lived on for many disgraceful years.

I was glad to get back to London. My old friend had by then rooms in Pall
Mall, and I was able to take a bedroom in the same building and use his
sitting-room to work in. _The Magician_ was published in 1908, so I
suppose it was written during the first six months of 1907. I do not
remember how I came to think that Aleister Crowley might serve as the
model for the character whom I called Oliver Haddo; nor, indeed,
how I came to think of writing that particular novel at all. When, a
little while ago, my publisher expressed a wish to reissue it, I felt
that, before consenting to this, I really should read it again. Nearly
fifty years had passed since I had done so, and I had completely
forgotten it. Some authors enjoy reading their old works; some cannot
bear to. Of these I am. When I have corrected the proofs of a book, I
have finished with it for good and all. I am impatient when people insist
on talking to me about it; I am glad if they like it, but do not much
care if they don't. I am no more interested in it than in a worn-out
suit of clothes that I have given away. It was thus with disinclination
that I began to read _The Magician_. It held my interest, as two of my
early novels, which for the same reason I have been obliged to read, did
not. One, indeed, I simply could not get through. Another had to my mind
some good dramatic scenes, but the humour filled me with mortification,
and I should have been ashamed to see it republished. As I read _The
Magician_, I wondered how on earth I could have come by all the material
concerning the black arts which I wrote of. I must have spent days and
days reading in the library of the British Museum. The style is lush and
turgid, not at all the sort of style I approve of now, but perhaps not
unsuited to the subject; and there are a great many more adverbs and
adjectives than I should use today. I fancy I must have been impressed by
the _écriture artiste_ which the French writers of the time had not yet
entirely abandoned, and unwisely sought to imitate them.

Though Aleister Crowley served, as I have said, as the model for Oliver
Haddo, it is by no means a portrait of him. I made my character more
striking in appearance, more sinister and more ruthless than Crowley ever
was. I gave him magical powers that Crowley, though he claimed them,
certainly never possessed. Crowley, however, recognized himself in the
creature of my invention, for such it was, and wrote a full-page review
of the novel in _Vanity Fair_, which he signed 'Oliver Haddo'. I did not
read it, and wish now that I had. I daresay it was a pretty piece of
vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.

I do not remember what success, if any, my novel had when it was
published, and I did not bother about it much, for by then a great change
had come into my life. The manager of the Court Theatre, one Otho Stuart,
had brought out a play which failed to please, and he could not
immediately get the cast he wanted for the next play he had in mind to
produce. He had read one of mine, and formed a very poor opinion of
it; but he was in a quandary, and it occurred to him that it might just
serve to keep his theatre open for a few weeks, by the end of which the
actors he wanted for the play he had been obliged to postpone would be at
liberty. He put mine on. It was an immediate success. The result of this
was that in a very little while other managers accepted the plays they
had consistently refused, and I had four running in London at the same
time. I, who for ten years had earned an average of one hundred pounds a
year, found myself earning several hundred pounds a week. I made up my
mind to abandon the writing of novels for the rest of my life. I did not
know that this was something out of my control and that when the urge to
write a novel seized me, I should be able to do nothing but submit. Five
years later, the urge came and, refusing to write any more plays for the
time, I started upon the longest of all my novels. I called it _Of Human

The Magician


Arthur Burdon and Dr Porhoët walked in silence. They had lunched at a
restaurant in the Boulevard Saint Michel, and were sauntering now in the
gardens of the Luxembourg. Dr Porhoët walked with stooping shoulders, his
hands behind him. He beheld the scene with the eyes of the many painters
who have sought by means of the most charming garden in Paris to express
their sense of beauty. The grass was scattered with the fallen leaves,
but their wan decay little served to give a touch of nature to the
artifice of all besides. The trees were neatly surrounded by bushes,
and the bushes by trim beds of flowers. But the trees grew without
abandonment, as though conscious of the decorative scheme they helped to
form. It was autumn, and some were leafless already. Many of the flowers
were withered. The formal garden reminded one of a light woman, no longer
young, who sought, with faded finery, with powder and paint, to make a
brave show of despair. It had those false, difficult smiles of uneasy
gaiety, and the pitiful graces which attempt a fascination that the
hurrying years have rendered vain.

Dr Porhoët drew more closely round his fragile body the heavy cloak which
even in summer he could not persuade himself to discard. The best part of
his life had been spent in Egypt, in the practice of medicine, and the
frigid summers of Europe scarcely warmed his blood. His memory flashed
for an instant upon those multi-coloured streets of Alexandria; and then,
like a homing bird, it flew to the green woods and the storm-beaten
coasts of his native Brittany. His brown eyes were veiled with sudden

'Let us wait here for a moment,' he said.

They took two straw-bottomed chairs and sat near the octagonal water
which completes with its fountain of Cupids the enchanting artificiality
of the Luxembourg. The sun shone more kindly now, and the trees which
framed the scene were golden and lovely. A balustrade of stone gracefully
enclosed the space, and the flowers, freshly bedded, were very gay. In
one corner they could see the squat, quaint towers of Saint Sulpice, and
on the other side the uneven roofs of the Boulevard Saint Michel.

The palace was grey and solid. Nurses, some in the white caps of their
native province, others with the satin streamers of the _nounou_, marched
sedately two by two, wheeling perambulators and talking. Brightly dressed
children trundled hoops or whipped a stubborn top. As he watched them, Dr
Porhoët's lips broke into a smile, and it was so tender that his thin
face, sallow from long exposure to subtropical suns, was transfigured.
He no longer struck you merely as an insignificant little man with hollow
cheeks and a thin grey beard; for the weariness of expression which was
habitual to him vanished before the charming sympathy of his smile. His
sunken eyes glittered with a kindly but ironic good-humour. Now passed a
guard in the romantic cloak of a brigand in comic opera and a peaked cap
like that of an _alguacil_. A group of telegraph boys in blue stood round
a painter, who was making a sketch - notwithstanding half-frozen fingers.
Here and there, in baggy corduroys, tight jackets, and wide-brimmed hats,
strolled students who might have stepped from the page of Murger's
immortal romance. But the students now are uneasy with the fear of
ridicule, and more often they walk in bowler hats and the neat coats
of the _boulevardier_.

Dr Porhoët spoke English fluently, with scarcely a trace of foreign
accent, but with an elaboration which suggested that he had learned the
language as much from study of the English classics as from conversation.

'And how is Miss Dauncey?' he asked, turning to his friend.

Arthur Burdon smiled.

'Oh, I expect she's all right. I've not seen her today, but I'm going to
tea at the studio this afternoon, and we want you to dine with us at the
Chien Noir.'

'I shall be much pleased. But do you not wish to be by yourselves?'

'She met me at the station yesterday, and we dined together. We talked
steadily from half past six till midnight.'

'Or, rather, she talked and you listened with the delighted attention of
a happy lover.'

Arthur Burdon had just arrived in Paris. He was a surgeon on the staff of
St Luke's, and had come ostensibly to study the methods of the French
operators; but his real object was certainly to see Margaret Dauncey. He
was furnished with introductions from London surgeons of repute, and had
already spent a morning at the Hôtel Dieu, where the operator, warned
that his visitor was a bold and skilful surgeon, whose reputation in
England was already considerable, had sought to dazzle him by feats that
savoured almost of legerdemain. Though the hint of charlatanry in the
Frenchman's methods had not escaped Arthur Burdon's shrewd eyes, the
audacious sureness of his hand had excited his enthusiasm. During
luncheon he talked of nothing else, and Dr Porhoët, drawing upon his
memory, recounted the more extraordinary operations that he had witnessed
in Egypt.

He had known Arthur Burdon ever since he was born, and indeed had missed
being present at his birth only because the Khedive Ismaïl had summoned
him unexpectedly to Cairo. But the Levantine merchant who was Arthur's
father had been his most intimate friend, and it was with singular
pleasure that Dr Porhoët saw the young man, on his advice, enter his
own profession and achieve a distinction which himself had never won.

Though too much interested in the characters of the persons whom chance
threw in his path to have much ambition on his own behalf, it pleased him
to see it in others. He observed with satisfaction the pride which Arthur
took in his calling and the determination, backed by his confidence and
talent, to become a master of his art. Dr Porhoët knew that a diversity
of interests, though it adds charm to a man's personality, tends to
weaken him. To excel one's fellows it is needful to be circumscribed.
He did not regret, therefore, that Arthur in many ways was narrow.
Letters and the arts meant little to him. Nor would he trouble himself
with the graceful trivialities which make a man a good talker. In mixed
company he was content to listen silently to others, and only something
very definite to say could tempt him to join in the general conversation.
He worked very hard, operating, dissecting, or lecturing at his hospital,
and took pains to read every word, not only in English, but in French and
German, which was published concerning his profession. Whenever he could
snatch a free day he spent it on the golf-links of Sunningdale, for he
was an eager and a fine player.

But at the operating-table Arthur was different. He was no longer the
awkward man of social intercourse, who was sufficiently conscious of his
limitations not to talk of what he did not understand, and sincere enough
not to express admiration for what he did not like. Then, on the other
hand, a singular exhilaration filled him; he was conscious of his power,
and he rejoiced in it. No unforeseen accident was able to confuse him.
He seemed to have a positive instinct for operating, and his hand and
his brain worked in a manner that appeared almost automatic. He never
hesitated, and he had no fear of failure. His success had been no less
than his courage, and it was plain that soon his reputation with the
public would equal that which he had already won with the profession.

Dr Porhoët had been making listless patterns with his stick upon the
gravel, and now, with that charming smile of his, turned to Arthur.

'I never cease to be astonished at the unexpectedness of human nature,'
he remarked. 'It is really very surprising that a man like you should
fall so deeply in love with a girl like Margaret Dauncey.'

Arthur made no reply, and Dr Porhoët, fearing that his words might
offend, hastened to explain.

'You know as well as I do that I think her a very charming young person.
She has beauty and grace and sympathy. But your characters are more
different than chalk and cheese. Notwithstanding your birth in the East
and your boyhood spent amid the very scenes of the Thousand and One
Nights, you are the most matter-of-fact creature I have ever come

'I see no harm in your saying insular,' smiled Arthur. 'I confess that I
have no imagination and no sense of humour. I am a plain, practical man,
but I can see to the end of my nose with extreme clearness. Fortunately
it is rather a long one.'

'One of my cherished ideas is that it is impossible to love without

Again Arthur Burdon made no reply, but a curious look came into his
eyes as he gazed in front of him. It was the look which might fill the
passionate eyes of a mystic when he saw in ecstasy the Divine Lady of
his constant prayers.

'But Miss Dauncey has none of that narrowness of outlook which, if you
forgive my saying so, is perhaps the secret of your strength. She has a
delightful enthusiasm for every form of art. Beauty really means as much
to her as bread and butter to the more soberly-minded. And she takes a
passionate interest in the variety of life.'

'It is right that Margaret should care for beauty, since there is beauty
in every inch of her,' answered Arthur.

He was too reticent to proceed to any analysis of his feelings; but
he knew that he had cared for her first on account of the physical
perfection which contrasted so astonishingly with the countless
deformities in the study of which his life was spent. But one phrase
escaped him almost against his will.

'The first time I saw her I felt as though a new world had opened to my

The divine music of Keats's lines rang through Arthur's remark, and to
the Frenchman's mind gave his passion a romantic note that foreboded
future tragedy. He sought to dispel the cloud which his fancy had cast
upon the most satisfactory of love affairs.

'You are very lucky, my friend. Miss Margaret admires you as much as you
adore her. She is never tired of listening to my prosy stories of your
childhood in Alexandria, and I'm quite sure that she will make you the
most admirable of wives.'

'You can't be more sure than I am,' laughed Arthur.

He looked upon himself as a happy man. He loved Margaret with all his
heart, and he was confident in her great affection for him. It was
impossible that anything should arise to disturb the pleasant life
which they had planned together. His love cast a glamour upon his
work, and his work, by contrast, made love the more entrancing.

'We're going to fix the date of our marriage now,' he said. 'I'm buying
furniture already.'

'I think only English people could have behaved so oddly as you, in
postponing your marriage without reason for two mortal years.'

'You see, Margaret was ten when I first saw her, and only seventeen when
I asked her to marry me. She thought she had reason to be grateful to me
and would have married me there and then. But I knew she hankered after
these two years in Paris, and I didn't feel it was fair to bind her to me
till she had seen at least something of the world. And she seemed hardly
ready for marriage, she was growing still.'

'Did I not say that you were a matter-of-fact young man?' smiled Dr

'And it's not as if there had been any doubt about our knowing our minds.
We both cared, and we had a long time before us. We could afford to

At that moment a man strolled past them, a big stout fellow, showily
dressed in a check suit; and he gravely took off his hat to Dr Porhoët.
The doctor smiled and returned the salute.

'Who is your fat friend?' asked Arthur.

'That is a compatriot of yours. His name is Oliver Haddo.'

'Art-student?' inquired Arthur, with the scornful tone he used when
referring to those whose walk in life was not so practical as his own.

'Not exactly. I met him a little while ago by chance. When I was getting
together the material for my little book on the old alchemists I read a
great deal at the library of the Arsenal, which, you may have heard, is
singularly rich in all works dealing with the occult sciences.'

Burden's face assumed an expression of amused disdain. He could not
understand why Dr Porhoët occupied his leisure with studies so
profitless. He had read his book, recently published, on the more
famous of the alchemists; and, though forced to admire the profound
knowledge upon which it was based, he could not forgive the waste of

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Online LibraryW. Somerset MaughamThe Magician → online text (page 1 of 17)