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CHAPTER XIII

 

 OF THE PROGRESS OF THE GREAT EXPERIMENT; NOT FORGETTING OUR FRIENDS LAST SEEN IN PARIS, ABOUT WHOSE WELFARE MUCH ANXIETY MUST HAVE BEEN FELT

 

     EARLY in January Cyril Grey received a letter from Lord Antony Bowling. "My good Grey," it began, "may the New Year bring you courage to break your resolutions early! My own plan is to swear off every kind of virtue, so that I triumph even when I fall!

     "Morningside is off to America with his New Discovery in Science. It is that all crime is due to breathing. Statistics show (a) that all convicts are guilty of this disgusting habit; (b) it is characteristic of all the inmates of our insane asylums.

     "On the other hand, neither crime nor insanity has ever been proved against any person who was not an habitual breather. The case, as you see, is complete. Morningside has gone even farther, and shown that breathing is akin to drug-habits; he has made numerous experiments upon addicts, and finds that suppression leads to mental and physical distress of an even more acute type than that which follows the removal of morphia or cocaine from their slaves. There is little doubt that Congress will take immediate action to penalize this filthy vice as it deserves, and Fresh Air will be included among the drugs to which the Harrison Law applies. Hot Air, as the natural food of the People, will of course be permitted.

     "I saw Sister Cybele the other day. She was [171] passing through London to visit friends in Scotland. I tried to alleviate that dreadful destiny by asking her to dinner, and we had an amusing seance with my new toy, a youth named Roger Blunt, who is controlled by a spirit called Wooloo, has eight secondary personalities, and causes pencils to adhere to walls. It cannot be that this is varnish, or surface tension, or a little of both; it would be too, too cruel!

     "The Mahathera Phang has vanished from our gaze; he has probably gone to the Equator to correct the obliquity of the Ecliptic in the interest of the Law of Righteousness. I'm sorry; I believe in that man; I know he's got something that I haven't, and I want it. However, Simple Simon has been nice to me; only he won't talk Phenomena -- says that, like a certain Pope, he has seen too many miracles to believe in them. Which is my own case, only he is referring to genuine ones. Hence difficulty in comprehension of his attitude.

     "I hope you're having a great time with the devil; I envy your blue skies; London is wrapped in fog, and even on fine days I have to go to the War Office. But isn't it a pity those wicked bad naughty men know where you are? I have my doubts about magick; but I know Balloch, and he's the rottenest egg in London. I gather he's at the back of it. Some blackmailing articles on you, again; but as Morningside would say, you should worry. Come along and see me before, in a moment of madness and despair, you plunge into Vesuvius in the hope of exciting a future Mathew Arnold to immortalize you.

     "Well, here's the best to you!
                              "ANTONY BOWLING."

 

     There was a brief note, too, from Simon Iff. "It's to be supposed all's well; rumours of disaster to enemy offensive current in Paris. You had better [172] worry along on your own now; there's other fish frying in this kitchen. An old man may possibly drop in on you early in August; you may recognize him -- with a strong pair of glasses -- as your old friend, -- SIMON IFF."

     Simple Simon never spoke of himself as "I" in a letter; he only used the pronoun in conversation as a concession to custom.

     The Black Commissioners had also heard from headquarters; Gates was replaced, as quick as rail could carry, by a man of superior advancement in the Black Lodge.

     This was the celebrated Dr. Victor Vesquit, the most famous necromancer of his age. There was really little harm in the man beyond his extraordinary perversion in the matter of corpses. His house in Hampden Road was not only a rendezvous of spiritualists, but a Home for Lost Mummies. He based all his magical operations upon dead bodies, or detached portions of the same, believing that to endow dead matter with life -- the essential of nearly all magick, as he quite rightly saw -- it was best to choose matter in which life had recently been manifest. An obvious corollary is that the best bodies are those that have met a violent death, rather than those which have been subjected to illness and decay. Also, it followed that the best corpses of all were those of executed murderers, whose vitality may be assumed as very great -- though on this last point Cyril Grey, for one, would have disagreed with him, saying that the most vital people would have too much respect for the principle of life to commit murder in cold blood.

     However, Dr Vesquit had obtained an appointment as coroner in the most murderous district of London; and uncanny were the rumours that circulated among occult sympathizers. [173]

     His career had nearly been ruined on two occasions by scandal. The notorious Diana Vaughan, it had been said, was his mistress; and he had become her accomplice in the introduction of the frightful sect of the Palladists.

     The rumour was not widespread, and Vesquit need not have suffered; but he took alarm, and had the unlucky thought of employing Arthwait to write a book clearing him from all suspicion, by which it naturally was fixed on him for ever.

     The second trouble was his little quarrel with Douglas. Vesquit was Senior in the Black Lodge, and Douglas overthrew him by "carelessly" leaving, in a hansom cab, some documents belonging to the Lodge, with Vesquit's name and address attached to them, which made some exceedingly grim revelations of the necromantic practices carried on in Hampden Road.

     The honest cabby had turned over the papers to Scotland Yard, as his duty was; and the police had sent them on to those in authority over coroners; and Vesquit received, with his documents, an intimation that he must drop that sort of thing at once.

     To be chief in the Lodge seemed less than to be always in a Paradise of corpses; so he resigned office, and Douglas pushed his advantage by making him an abject tool, under the perpetual threat of exposure.

     No sooner did Douglas learn of the death of Gates than he telegraphed to Arthwait to get the inquest adjourned "so that the relatives of the deceased in England might attend, and take possession of the body," and to Vesquit to attend the same. On this occasion the coroner needed no threat -- the job was after his own heart.

     Douglas met him in Paris in high glee, for he was not sorry to be rid of Gates; and, on the other hand, the man had died in full tide of battle, and should be the very corpse that Vesquit most needed; as Douglas himself said, with a certain grim humour in which he excelled, he was, morally speaking, an executed criminal; while, being in actual magical contact with Grey and his friends, so much so that he had evidently been killed by them, he was an ideal magical link.

     Vesquit's task was, if possible, to learn from Gates exactly what had happened, and so expert a necromancer had no fear of the result. He was also to create a semi-material ghost of Gates from the remains, and send it to the person who had dealt out death to that unlucky wizard.

     On his arrival at Naples, there was no difficulty in the way of the Black Lodge; the authorities were only too glad to return a formal verdict of death by misadventure, and to hand over the corpse to the rejoicing Vesquit.

     Gates had fortunately left memoranda, a rough diary of the various procedures hitherto adopted; so that Vesquit was not committed to the task of acquiring information from Arthwait, which might easily have occupied a season; and from these notes the old necromancer came to the conclusion that the enemy was to be respected. Gates had done pretty well in the matter of the pigeons, at first; his procedure was not to be compared with his colleague's pedantic idiocies; but the first touch of riposte had been indeed deadly. Gates had been the clairvoyant of the party; he had gauged clearly enough the result of his operation; but naturally he had left no note of the last act, and neither Arthwait nor Abdul Bey had been able to do anything. Arthwait had been scared badly until his pompous vanity came to the rescue, and showed him that accidents of that kind must be expected when one is handicapped with an assistant of inferior ability.

     Vesquit decided that the battle should be properly [175] prepared, and no trouble spared to make it a success. His fondness for corpses had not gone to the length of desiring to become one.

     In him there had been the makings of a fairly strong man; and, with Douglas to push him on, he was still capable of acting with spirit and determination. Also, he had the habit of authority. He set Arthwait to worrk on the Grimoire; for, in a operation of this importance, one must make all one's instruments.

     Beginning with a magic knife, which one is allowed to buy, one cuts the magic wand from a hazel, the magic quill from a goose, and so on. The idea is to confirm the will to perform the operation by a long series of acts ad hoc. It is even desirable to procure parchment by killing a consecrated animal with the magic knife, and making ready the skin with similarly prepared utensils; one might for instance, cut and consecrate even the pegs which stretched the skin. However, in this case Arthwait had plenty of "Virgin parchment" in stock, with quills of a black vulture, and ink made by burning human bones, and mixing the carbonized products with the soot of the magic dark-lantern, whose candles were prepared with human fat.

     But the Grimoire of any great operation must be thought out and composed; according to elaborate rules, indeed, but with the purpose of the work constantly in mind. Even when all this is done, the Grimoire is hardly begun; for it must be copied out in the way above indicated; and it should be illuminated with every kind of appropriate design. This was an ideal task for Arthwait; he was able to wallow in dog-latin and corrupt Greek-Coptic; he made sentences so complicated that the complete works of George Meredith, Thomas Carlyle, and Henry James, tangled together, would have seemed in comparison like a word of three letters. [176]

     His Grimoire was in reality excellent for its purpose; for the infernal hierarchy delights in unintelligible images, in every kind of confusion and obscurity. This particular lucubration was calculated to drag the Archdemon of Bad Syntax himself from the most remote corner of his lair.

     For Arthwait could not speak with becoming unintelligibility; to knot a sentence up properly it has to be thought out carefully, and revised. New phrases have to be put in; sudden changes of subject must be introduced; verbs must be shifted to unsuspected localities; short words must be excised with ruthless hand; archaisms must be sprinkled like sugar-plums upon the concoction; the fatal human tendency to say things straightforwardly must be detected and defeated by adroit reversals; and, if a glimmer of meaning yet remain under close scrutiny, it must be removed by replacing all the principal verbs by paraphrases in some dead language.

     This is not to be achieved in a moment; it is not enough to write disconnected nonsense; it must be possible for anyone acquainted with the tortuosities of the author's mind to resolve the sentence into its elements, and reproduce -- not the meaning, for there is none, but the same mental fog from which he was originally suffering. An illustration is appended.

 

                                                Pneumaticals                                        Omnient

                                                     (spirits)                                               (all)

                                                  Tabernacular                                  Subinfractically

                                                    (dwelling)                                          (Below)

                                                  Homotopic                                     hermeneutical

                                                      (this)                                                (magic)

                                                Ru-volvolimperipunct,                    suprorientalize,

                                                      (circle)                                              (arise)

                                                      factote                                    kinematodrastically,

                                                      (move)                                             (soon)

                                                     overplus                                     phenomenize!

                                                       (and)                                              (appear) [177]

 

     Upon this skeleton, a fair example of his earlier manner, for no man attains the summit of an art in a day, he would build a superstructure by the deft introduction of parentheses, amplifying each word until the original coherence of the paragraph was diluted to such an extent that the true trail was undiscoverable. The effect upon his public was to impress them with the universality of his learning.

     Arthwait being thus well out of harm's way, Vesquit and Abdul set to work on the less arduous of the preparations. Four black cats were needed for the four points of the compass, and it was desirable to massacre a goat upon the altar, which would be no less than the corpse itself. Vesquit, declaring that the body was to be sent to England, had a dummy shipped off in a coffin, and kept Gates on ice, which may or may not have been a great comfort to him.

     Abdul had no difficulty in procuring the cats which, much to their dissatisfaction, were caged in Arthwait's study, and fed on human flesh, which Vesquit easily procured from the dissecting-rooms of the local hospitals.

     But the goat was a more serious matter. An ordinary goat will not do; it had to qualify in certain respects; Abdul succeeded in his quest only after a series of intrigues with the lowest ruffians in Naples, which brought him into more vulgar and unpleasant dangers than he had contemplated "when he first put that uniform on." It was, however, at least temporarily, a very amusing situation for the goat. The requisite bat, which must be fed on a woman's blood, was easily arranged for, a courageous country girl offering to accommodate with a toe, for a consideration. The nails from a suicide's coffin, and the skull of the parricide, were of course no trouble; for Vesquit never travelled without these household requisites.

     There were many other details to arrange; the consideration of a proper place for the operation gave rise to much mental labour. It is, generally speaking, desirable to choose the locality of a recent battle; and the greater the number of slain the better. (There should be some very desirable spots in the vicinity of Verdun for black magicians who happen to flourish after the vulgar year 1917). But the Grimoires were written in other times with other manners; now-a-days there is risk of disturbance if one sets up one's paraphernalia of goats and cats at a cross-roads, in the hope of helping oneself out with a recently-interred suicide, or a ceremonially annihilated vampire; where the peasant of the fourteenth century would have fled shrieking, the motorist of the twentieth century stops to observe, or, more likely, runs you over; so that unless your property includes a private battlefield, it is a point of valour to choose a more retired site for one's necromancy than the stricken field of the Marne. Cross-roads, again, are not so thickly planted with suicides and vampires as in happier days. Reflecting solidly and ably upon these points of modern degeneracy, Vesquit made up his mind to compromise, and accept the most agreeable substitute, a profaned chapel; it was easy to rent a villa with a chapel attached, and, to a man of Vesquit's ability, the work of a moment to profane it.

     This he accordingly arranged through Abdul Bey.

     The mind of this youth was very forcibly impressed by the preparations of the old coroner. He had been brought up in the modern school, and could laugh at superstition with the best of us; but there were traces of hereditary faith in Islam, and he was not sceptical enough to spoil the magic of Vesquit.

     No man knew better than the necromancer that all this insane ceremonial was irrational. But it [179] so happens that everything on this planet is, ultimately, irrational; there is not, and cannot be, any reason for the causal connexion of things, if only because our use of the word "reason" already implies the idea of causal connexion. But, even if we avoid this fundamental difficulty, Hume said that causal connexion was not merely unprovable, but unthinkable; and, in shallower waters still, one cannot assign a true reason why water should flow down hill, or sugar taste sweet in the mouth. Attempts to explain these simple matters always progress into a learned lucidity, and on further analysis retire to a remote stronghold where every thing is irrational and unthinkable.

     If you cut off a man's head, he dies. Why? Because it kills him. That is really the whole answer. Learned excursions into anatomy and physiology only beg the question; it does not explain why the heart is necessary to life to say that it is a vital organ. Yet that is exactly what is done, the trick that is played on every inquiring mind. Why cannot I see in the dark? Because light is necessary to sight. No confusion of that issue by talk of rods and cones, and optical centres, and foci, and lenses, and vibrations is very different to Edwin Arthwait's treatment of the long-suffering English language.

     Knowledge is really confined to experience. The laws of Nature are, as Kant said, the laws of our minds, and, as Huxley said, the generalization of observed facts.

     It is, therefore, no argument against ceremonial magic to say that it is "absurd" to try to raise a thunderstorm by beating a drum; it is not even fair to say that you have tried the experiment, found it would not work, and so perceived it to be "impossible." You might as well claim that, as you had taken paint and canvas, and not produced a Rembrandt, it was evident that the pictures attributed to his painting were really produced in quite a different way.

     You do not see why the skull of a parricide should help you to raise a dead man, as you do not see why the mercury in a thermometer should rise and fall, though you elaborately pretend that you do; and you could not raise a dead man by the aid of the skull of a parricide, just as you could not play the violin like Kreisler; though in the latter case you might modestly add that you thought you could learn.

     This is not the special pleading of a professed magician; it boils down to the advice not to judge subjects of which you are perfectly ignorant, and is to be found, stated in clearer and lovelier language, in the Essays of Thomas Henry Huxley.

     Dr. Victor Vesquit, to whom the whole of these ideas was perfectly familiar, proceeded with his quaint preparations unperturbed by the least doubt of their efficacy.

     He had found that they worked; and he cared no more for the opinion of those who, whatever their knowledge in other branches of science might be, were not experts in necromancy, than does Harry Vardon when it is proved to him, with the utmost scientific precision, that he cannot possibly hit a golf ball so long as he swings as he does, and uses that mechanically defective grip.

     It is also to be remarked that the contrary holds good; no method of doing anything has yet been found which cannot be bungled by the inept.

     So, as the Persian poet says: "Who hath the How is careless of the Why."

     It was early in the course of Dr. Vesquit's preliminaries that (what Arthwait called the "antilan-thanetical douleskeiarchy") the secret service which had been established reported to him a complete [181] change in the routine of the people of the Butterfly net. On the seventh of January Iliel reported that the first point of the work was in all probability attained; all that was now necessary was to concentrate upon the real crux of the case, the catching of the Butterfly.

     The household was reorganized accordingly; Cyril Grey withdrew himself completely from the company of Iliel, and joined the Church Militant Here On Earth; while Iliel herself came under the direct care of Sister Clara, the point within the triangle of women. She took part in their invocations, as the focus to which they were directed; while the men were wholly busied in watching over the safety of the fortress, their faces turned inexorably outward, their sole business to assure the security of the three women and their treasure.

     Upon these facts being brought to the notice of Edwin Arthwait, he smiled. He had redeemed his earlier failures -- due to the incapacity of his assistants -- by a sweeping success.

     For to his magic, evidently, was due the observed change in nature! Shortly after the arrival of Vesquit, he had completed his latest operation, the bewitchment of three nails in such a manner that, if struck into the door of a room of a house, the occupants would be thereby debarred from the enjoyment of conjugal felicity. And here was the result, shining before him, beautiful with banners. Even the pretence of amity had been abandoned. As a matter of fact, Brother Onofrio had discovered the nails, and taken the proper measures to return the current to its sender; but on this occasion it was as " tae tak' the breeks aff a Hielan' mon"!

     Arthwait was totally insensible to the malice of his adversary, and remained in the enjoyment of his supposed victory. He resolved to steal a match on [182] Vesquit. Why should he share his glory with another? He had the enemy on the run; he had better pursue them forthwith. Vesquit's slow methods would only give them time to recover.

     So he resolved upon the chivalrous if perilous course of Cat's Cradle. This magical operation, the relics of which are familiar even to the most unspiritually-minded children, is exceedingly widespread, especially among nations which live principally by fishing, as, for example, the South Sea Islanders. Many most intricate and beautiful patterns have been devised, and of these the wayfaring man may partake by a perusal of Dr. W. W. R. Ball's monograph upon the subject.[1] That able mathematician, however, neglects unpardonably the magical side of the matter.

     The theory is apparently based upon the fact that the most elusive objects, birds, butterflies, and fishes, may be taken by means of a net. It is argued, therefore, that anything whatever, no matter how elusive, such as the ghost of one's father or the soul of one's enemy, may be caught similarly, though of course the net must be adapted to the special game that one is after.

     With these things Arthwait was familiar, and it occurred to him that it should be easy to identify string, or, preferably, cat-gut, with the viscera of his victims. There could then be no difficulty in knotting up the cords in such a pattern, for example, as the Many Stars, or the Owl, or the Zigzag Lightning; and assuredly the magicians thus assailed would find similar re-arrangements of the contents of their peritonea.

     After various preliminary exercises, annoying to the objects of this solicitude, Arthwait proposed to proceed to the grand operation of all, tying up his gut in the Elusive Yam pattern, which, from the [183] greatest complexity, dissolves like a dream at a single last twist; the persons thus sympathetically treated would obviously perish no less miserably than did Eglon, King of Moab, or Judas Iscariot.

     The advantage of this operation is evidently its extreme simplicity and economy; while, if it works at all, it surely leaves nothing to be desired in such Teutonic qualities as thoroughness and frightfulness.

     Whether from any difficulty in identification or otherwise, it was some little while before Arthwait began to feel that his plan was working out. The trouble with all these operations was in the absence of a direct link with the principals; the currents invariably struck the outer defences, in the person of Brother Onofrio, before penetrating. When, therefore, Arthwait's efforts began to show results, they were first noticed by that sturdy warrior. And he, considering the situation, argued that the observed phenomena were due to Nature or to Magick, and that in either case the remedy lay in opposing no resistance to the forces, but allowing them to operate in a laudable manner. Accordingly, he took a large dose of a medicine known to the pharmacist as Hydrarg.Subchlor, adding the remark "If this be nature, may it do me good; and if this be magic, may it do him good!"

     This occurred just as Arthwait reached his final operation, the evisceration of his enemy.

     That night both parties were successful in causing things to happen; and the morning after Arthwait was securely incarcerated in the Quarantine Hospital of the city, and the newspapers were paragraphing a suspected case of Asiatic Cholera.

     However, in five days the symptoms abated; the case was declared non-infectious; and the pallid shadow of the disconcerted sorcerer was restored to the more congenial atmosphere of his Grimoire. [184]



[1]   Mathematical Recreations and Essays.