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CHAPTER XII

 

OF BROTHER ONOFRIO, HIS STOUTNESS AND VALIANCE; AND OF THE MISADVENTURES THAT CAME THEREBY TO THE BLACK LODGE

 

     THE ecclesiastic is a definite type of man. The Italian priest has changed his character in three thousand years as little as he has his costume.

     Brother Onofrio's father happened to be a free-thinking Anti-clerical, a pillar of Masonry; otherwise, his son would assuredly have been a bishop. The type is perfectly pagan, whatever the creed; it is robust and subtle, spiritual and sensual, adroit in manipulation of inferiors and superiors alike. It has the courage which vigorous health and the consciousness of its own validity combine to give; and where courage will not serve the turn, astuteness deftly takes its place.

     A stupid pedant like Edwin Arthwait is the very feeblest opponent for such a man.

     Brother Onofrio, while successfully practising magick, was quite ready at a moment's notice to throw the whole theory overboard with a horse laugh -- and at the same time to reckon his action in so doing a branch of magick also. It was the beginning of the duplicate brain-development which Cyril Grey had cultivated to so high a point of perfection.

     But Arthwait was in the fetters of his own egoism; while he pronounced himself father and grandfather [157] of all spiritual science, in language that would have seemed stilted and archaic to Henry James, or Osric, and presumptuous in the mouth of an archangel, he was the bondslave of utterly insignificant writers, fakers of magical "grimoires " of the fourteenth century, hawkers of spells and conjurations to a benighted peasantry who wished to bewitch cows or to prevent their neighbours from catching fish. Arthwait had published a book to show the folly of such works, but in practice they were his only guide. In particular, he swore by the "Black Pullet," which seemed to him less dangerous than the "Grand Grimoire," or the forgery attributed to Pope Honorius. He wanted to evoke the devil, but was terrified lest he should be successful. However, nobody could be more pedantically pious than he in following out the practical prescriptions of these absurd charm-books.

     This individual might usually have been discovered during that honeymoon in the Naples villa, seated in the arm-chair of the apartment which he had rented in the Galeria Vittoria. He would be clad in a frockcoat of City cut, for he affected the "professional man," and his air would be preoccupied. The arrival of his colleagues for consultation would apparently startle him from a profound speculation upon the weightier matters of the law.

     It would be only by an effort that he spoke in English; the least distraction would send him back into Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, none of which languages he understood. He was a peddler of words; his mind was a rag-and-bone shop of worthless and disjointed mediaevalism.

     After a severe struggle, he would "proceed to an allocution." He never "spoke"; he "monologized."

     The first formal conference took place when they had been about a week in Naples.

     "My fathers learned in Art Magic," he began, [158] addressing Gates and Abdul, "venerable and archetypal doctors of the Hermetic Arcanum, it hath been sacramentally imposed upon our sophistic Tebunah by the monumentally aggregated psycho-mentality of Those whose names in respect of known dedications must here -- juxta nos -- be heled ob Danaos (as I should adumbrate advisedly, for is it not script, concerning cowans, in the archives of the Clermont Harodim?) that a term, in fine, should mete the orbit and currency of the heretic and apostate, quem in Tartarum conjuro, hight Grey, in his areopagus of the averse hierarchy. I exiterate, clam populo, that all warrants of precursors falt no ratification, peradventure, in the actual concatenation, sed, me judice, it is meliorated that by virtue and cosmodominicy of Satanas -- cognomen ineffabile, quod reverentissime proloquor! -- the opus confronts the Sir Knights of the Black Chapter -- in via sua propria -- in the authentic valley and this lucus tenebrosa Neapolitanensis, as the near -- nay, the next! -- conflagration of barbaric pilum against retiarial ludibry. Worthy Fathers and reverend in the doctrine, salutatio in summo imperio -- per totam orbem -- in the supranominal Donner of Orcus and of Phlegethon -- sufficit!"

     The Turkish diplomat spoke nine languages, but not this one. Gates, who had known Arthwait for many years, explained that these remarks, formidable in appearance, meant only that Grey ought to be killed at any time, on general principles, but that as they were specially charged with that task by their leaders, so much the better.

     The conference, thus prosperously inaugurated, proved a lengthy one. How, indeed, could it be otherwise? For Arthwait was naturally slow of thought and speech; it took him some time to warm up to real eloquence; and then he became so [159] long-winded, and lost himself so completely in his words and phrases, that he would speak for many hours without conveying a single idea of any kind to his hearers, or even having one to convey.

     But the upshot of his conversation upon this occasion was that an attempt should be made to poison the household magically by bewitching the food supplied to them from the market. Certain succulent shell-fish, called vongole, very popular in Naples, were selected as a material basis, "because their appurtenance and charter was be-Yekl Klippoth," as Arthwait explained.

     Into these molluscs, therefore, might be conjured a spirit of Mars "of them that bear witness unto Bartzabel," in the hope that those who partook of them might be stricken with some type of fever, fevers and all acute diseases being classified as Martial.

     It was unfortunate for these plans that Brother Onofrio habitually took the precaution to purify and consecrate all food that came into the house before it reached the kitchen; and further, anticipating some such attempt, he had everything tested psychometrically by one of his acolytes, whom he had trained especially in sensitiveness to all such subtle impressions.

     The shell-fish were consequently discovered to be charged with the Martial current; Brother Onofrio smiled hugely and proceeded to call upon the divine forces of Mars, before which even Bartzabel "trembles every day," and, thus having converted himself into a high-power engine of war, sat down to a Gargantuan banquet, eating the entire consignment himself. The result was that the unfortunate Arthwait was seized with violent and intractable colic, which kept him twisted in agony on his bed for forty-eight hours.

     Gates had taken no part in this performance; [160] he knew how dangerous it was, and how likely to recoil upon the rash practitioner. But he did some genuinely useful work. He had been to the church in the village, near Posilippo, whose tower overlooked the Butterfly-net; and he had persuaded the priest to allow him continual access to that tower, on the pretext of being an artist. And indeed he had a pretty amateur talent for painting in water-colours: some people thought it stronger than his verses. For ten days he watched the Butterfly-net with extreme care, and he wrote down the routine of the inhabitants hour by hour. Nothing escaped him of their doings in the garden; and (as it happened) the preponderating portion of their work lay out-of-doors. He could make nor head nor tail of the fact that the most important people were apparently doing no magick of any kind, but, careless lovers, enjoying the firstfruits of their flight to the South.

     But Douglas put two and two together very cleverly, even from the first report; he noted, also, the intelligence and ability of Gates, and made a memorandum to use him up quickly and destroy him.

     Without divining the exact intention of Cyril Grey, he rightly concluded that this "honeymoon" was not so simple as it seemed; in fact, he recognized it as the core of the apple. He telegraphed Gates to redouble his watch upon the lovers, and to report instantly if any marked change occurred in their habits.

     Meanwhile, Edwin Arthwait was busy with the "Black Pullet." There is a method of describing a pentagram upon a doorstep which is infallible. The first person who crosses it receives a shock which may drive him insane, or even kill him. A magician would naturally be suspicious if he found anything of this kind on his front doorstep, so Arthwait cleverly determined to paint the pentagram in Gum Arabic, which would hardly be visible. Accordingly he went [161] to the Butterfly-net at dead of night, armed with this means of grace, and set to work by the light of a candle-lamp. He was careful to make the pentagram so large that it was impossible to cross the bridge without stepping over it. Absorbed in his inspiring task, he did not notice, until the last stroke was in place, that he was himself hemmed in between his pentagram and the door of the villa. He crouched in terror for the best part of an hour; then a hint of daylight made him fearful of discovery. He was forced to make a move of some sort; and he found that by careful sidling he could escape to the parapet of the bridge. But he was no climber; he overbalanced and fell into the chasm, being lucky to escape with a severe shaking. On his limping way back to Naples he was overtaken by an icy shower of rain; and as he got into bed, too late to avoid a nasty chill, which kept him in bed for a week, he had the irritating reflexion that his pentagram must have been washed away.

     But he had not become known as the most voluminous of modern pedants without perseverance. His literary method was that of the "tank." It was not agile, it was not versatile, it was exposed to artillery attack; but it proceeded. He was as comprehensive as the Catalogue of the British Museum -- and almost as extensive. But he was not arranged. Such a man was not to be deterred by two failures, or forty-two. Indeed, but for the frank criticism of Gates, he would have counted them successes.

     For his third experiment he chose "The Wonder-working Serpent," whose possession confers the power of attracting love. The appeal lay in the failure of Abdul to make any impression upon Lisa, whom he had courted in characteristically local manner by appearing, guitar in hand, below the terrace where she had been dedicated to the moon. He caught her [162] there alone, and called her by her name. She recognized him instantly; she had been violently attracted to him at the ball where they had originally met; and, until she had seen Cyril, regretted constantly that she had missed the opportunity. The memory of that thwarted desire sprang vehement upon her; but she was at the white heat of her passion for Cyril. Even so, she half hesitated; she wanted to keep Abdul on ice, so to speak, for a future occasion; such action was as instinctive with her as breathing. But her obligation was still fresh in her mind; she was pledged not to communicate with the outer world. She ignored him; she turned and left the garden without so much as a gesture; and he went back to Naples in a black fury against her. "The Wonder-working Serpent" was, therefore, an operation entirely to his taste. Gates thought the line of attack hopeful; he was totally sceptical of Lisa's virtue, or any woman's; and he had lived on women long enough to make his view arguable, within the limits of his experience. He bade Abdul try again. Good -- then let magic aid!

     In order to possess "The Wonder-working Serpent," it is necessary, in the words of the Grimoire, "to buy an egg without haggling," which (by the way) indicates the class of person for and by whom the book was written. This egg is to be buried in a cemetery at midnight, and every morning at sunrise it must be watered with brandy. On the ninth day a spirit appears, and demands your purpose. You reply "I am watering my plant." This occurs on three successive days; at the midnight following the egg is dug up, and found to contain a serpent, with a cock's head. This amiable animal answers to the name of Ambrosiel. Carry it in your bosom, and your suit inevitably prospers.

     Arthwait put this scheme into careful rehearsal, [163] and having got the conjurations and ceremonies perfect -- for the egg must be buried with full military honours, as it were -- he reached the third day without mishap. But at this point a spirit appeared -- a guardian of the cemetery -- and, dissatisfied with his answers, took him to the police-station as a wandering lunatic. A less other-worldly master of the dark sciences might have bribed the official; but Arthwait's self-importance once again stood in his way. He got in deeper, and in the end it was Gates who offered to be responsible for him, and persuaded the British Consul to use influence for his release.

     As so many workers of magic have done, from the Yukon and Basutoland to Tonga and Mongolia, Arthwait attributed his defeats to the superior cunning and wickedness of his opponents.

     Gates himself had varied his pleasures by a much more serious attempt to create a magical link with the garrison. From his tower he had observed many pigeons upon the hillside, and he began to tame these, spreading corn upon the tower. In three days they were eating out of his hand. He then trained them to recognize him and follow him from place to place. A week later he found a moment when the garden was deserted save for a single patrol, and threw his grain over the wall. The pigeons flocked to it and fed. Now it so happened that the patrolling magician was unsuspicious. He was aware that the benign influence of the house made its gardens attractive. There flowers bloomed brighter than elsewhere; and all Nature's wanderers seemed to look to it as their refuge. They felt instinctively the innocence and goodwill of the inhabitants, and thronged those hospitable terraces.

     When Gates moved on, the pigeons followed his next throw; round the first corner, he placed the remains of his supply of corn in a small heap on the [164] ground; the pigeons unsuspectingly approached, and he threw a net over half a dozen of them.

     This was a great point gained; for the Black Lodge was in possession of living things that had come from within the guarded precinct; it would be easy to attack the inmates by means of sympathetic magic. As it chanced, two of the birds were male; but pigeons being of the general nature of Venus, it was decided to try to identify them with the least male persons of the garrison, namely the four women and the two boys. Accordingly, ribbons were tied to the necks of the birds, and the names of the intended victims inscribed upon them. Magical ceremonies were now made, Gates, who took a real interest in the experiment, being the leader.

     When he considered the identification adequate, he placed red pepper on the tongues of the birds; and was rewarded the following morning by seeing Sister Clara turn upon one of her girls with a gesture of rage; he could even hear faintly the tones of anger in her voice.

     But Brother Onofrio had not failed to observe the same thing; and he divined instantly that a breach had been made in his circle. He went immediately to Sister Clara, and compelled her attention by a sign of such authority that no initiate dare overlook it.

     "Sister," he said very gently, "you do not speak with man; what cause, then, can there be for bitterness?"

     She answered him, still angrily. "The house is upside down," she said. "Iliel is as irritable as an eczema; the boys have both made insulting faces at every one they have seen this morning; and the girls are absolutely impudent."

     "This is a matter for me, as in charge of the defence of the circle." [165]

     Sister Clara uttered a sharp exclamation. It had not occurred to her to think of it in that way.

     "I should be obliged," continued Brother Onofrio, "if you could see your way to impose a rule of silence for seven days from sunset to-night. Excepting, of course, in the invocations. I will warn the boys; do you take up the matter with Iliel and the girls."

     " It shall be done."

     Brother Onofrio went off to the private room where he did his own particular magick. He saw that a serious inroad had been made; but his divination, on this occasion, failed to enlighten him. His favourite device was the Tarot, those mysterious cards with their twenty-two hieroglyphic trumps; and as a rule he was able to discover all kinds of unknown matters by their use. But on this attempt he was baffled by the monotony of his answer.

However he used the cards, they always reverted to a single symbol, the trump numbered XVI, which is called "The Blasted Tower," and has some reference to the legend of Babel.

     "I know," he muttered, himself irritated by the persistence of the card, "I know it's Mars" -- which is the planet signified by that particular hieroglyph. "But I wanted a lot more than that. I asked 'What is the trouble?' 'From whom is the trouble?' 'Where is the trouble?' 'What shall I do?' And the same card answers all the questions!"

     The next day Gates found that the tongues of the birds were shrivelled up, and he divined that his mode of attack had been  detected, and precaution taken. He proceeded by drugging the pigeons with the vapour of ether.

     In the house the result was immediate. The six people affected showed signs of intoxication and dizziness, coupled with a strong feeling of suffocation. [166] Sister Clara was less troubled than the others, and she recognized the magical cause of the symptoms. She ran quickly to Brother Onofrio; he saw instantly that a new attack was in progress, and gave the sign agreed upon for retirement to a specially consecrated room in the square tower, a sort of inner circle, or citadel. The victims gathered in this room within a few minutes, and their symptoms abated on the instant.

     But Brother Onofrio had a glimpse of light, as he assisted one of the two boys, who was almost choking, to reach the refuge. The tower caught his eye, and it flashed upon him that perhaps the Tarot was referring to an actual tower. It was only one step to think of the tower of the church; and, running into the garden, he saw that a man was standing there, evidently engaged in watching the house of the magicians. Brother Onofrio's quick insight decided him instantly upon the course to follow.

     The Tarot Trump in question represents a tower struck by lightning, from which figures of men are seen falling.

     He laughed joyously; his favourite method of divination had vindicated itself supremely. His four questions had indeed a single answer.

     W. S. Gilbert informs us that "a deed of blood, and fire, and flames, was meat and drink to Simple James"; and to find himself approached upon the plane of Mars was like mother's milk to Brother Onofrio.

     For he was himself of the strongest Martial type, having been born with Scorpio, the night house of Mars, rising, and the planet himself conjoined with Herschel in the mid-heaven in the sign of the Lion, with the Sun rising in trine and Jupiter conjoined with Saturn making an additional trine from the sixth house, which governs secret things such as magick [167] It was as formidable a combination as Mars could make in a thousand years.

     He happened also to belong to that grade of the Order -- Adeptus Major -- which specializes in Mars; Arthwait and Company had unwittingly come to meet him where he was strongest.

     To invoke Mars is to establish a connection with that order of nature which we class as martial. It may be remembered how a man once came to a doctor, suffering internal pangs of no mean order from having swallowed by mistake some pills intended for a horse. Asked how it came to happen, he explained that he had been administering them to the horse by blowing them down its throat through a tube; but the horse had blown first.

     This is of course the danger in every magical experiment; and this constitutes the evergreen glory of every man who adventures upon it; for at each new portal he enters, naked and new-born, to confront he knows not what malignant enemies. The sole excuse for the existence of our miserable species lies not in intelligence, but in this masterful courage, this aspiration to extend the empire of the spirit. Even the blackest of magicians, like Douglas, or the stupidest, like Arthwait, is a higher type of being than the bourgeois who goes along with his nose on the ground picking up gold bricks in the mire.

     Now when Brother Onofrio found Gates perched upon the campanile, he saw the Martial symbol complete -- only awaiting the lightning-flash. There was no need for him to produce a thunderstorm, as it would have been if Gates had been an ordinary man, accessible only to coarse influences; no, Brother Onofrio knew how to assimilate the church tower to The Blasted Tower of the Tarot without appealing to the material forces of nature, so-called, as if "matter" were not comprehensive as "nature" [168] herself; but the English language is full of these booby-traps.

     He went to his laboratory, took out the Tarot card XVI and set it up on the altar. He lighted the fire upon the tripod, and he kindled the incense of dragon's blood that stood ready in the iron censer. He then put upon his head the steel crown of Mars, thorny with its four flashing pentagrams, and he took in his hands the heavy sword, as long as himself, with a two-edged blade tapering from a width, at the junction of the hilt, of no less than five inches.

     Chanting the terrible conjurations of Mars, fierce war-songs of the olden peoples of the world, invocations of mighty deities throned upon the thunder -- "He sent out his arrows and scattered them; he sent forth his lightnings, and consumed them" -- Brother Onofrio began the war-dance of the Serpent, the invoking dance of Mars. Close coiled about the altar at first, he took gradually a wider sweep, constantly revolving on himself but his feet tracing a complex spiral curve. On reaching the door of the room, he allowed the "Serpent" to stretch out its length, and, ever twisting on himself, came out upon the terrace.

     Gates was still at his post upon the campanile; he had been about to go, but this new feature of the routine of the house riveted him to his place. This was just what Douglas needed to know! He leant upon the parapet of the tower, watching with infinite eagerness and minuteness the convolutions of the adept.

     Once upon the terrace, Brother Onofrio proceeded to coil up his "Serpent" after him, diminishing the sweep of his spirals until he was at zero, merely rotating on himself.

     Then he began the second part of his work, the Dance of the Sword. [169]

     Slowly he began to cause his feet to trace a pentagram, and he allowed the Sword to leave his body as he quickened his pace, just as one sees the weights of the ball-governor of a steam-engine fly outwards as pressure and speed leap higher.

     Gates was altogether fascinated by the sight. In the sunlight, this scarlet figure with lights darting from every brilliance of its steel was a magnificent spectacle, almost bewildering in its intensity.

     Faster and faster whirled the adept, his sword swaying about him like a garment of light; and his voice, louder and fiercer with every turn, assumed the very majesty of thunder.

     Gates watched with open mouth; he was learning much from this man. He began to perceive the primaeval energy of the universe, under a veil, the magical clang and rush of blazing stars in the blind emptiness of space. And suddenly Brother Onofrio stopped dead; his voice snapped short into a silence far more terrible than any word; and his long sword was still, fearfully still, stretched out like a shaft of murderous light -- the point towards the tower.

     Gates was suddenly aware that he had all along been the object of the dance; and then his brain began to reel. Had the whirling flashes hypnotized him? He could not think; the world went black for him. Automatically he clutched at the parapet; but he pitched headlong over it, and crashed upon the ground a hundred feet below.

      On the terrace Brother Onofrio was beginning the banishing spirals of Mars, with songs of triumph into which stole, as if surreptitiously, some hint of that joy of love which, from the beginning of time, has welcomed the victorious soldier. [170]