“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.”
“I never cease to be astonished at the unexpectedness of human nature...”
“I have always been interested in the oddities of mankind. At one time I read a good deal of philosophy and a good deal of science, and I learned in that way that nothing was certain. Some people, by the pursuit of science, are impressed with the dignity of man, but I was only made conscious of his insignificance. The greatest questions of all have been threshed out since he acquired the beginnings of civilization and he is as far from a solution as ever. Man can know nothing, for his senses are his only means of knowledge, and they can give no certainty. There is only one subject upon which the individual can speak with authority, and that is his own mind, but even here he is surrounded with darkness. I believe that we shall always be ignorant of the matters which it most behoves us to know, and therefore I cannot occupy myself with them. I prefer to set them all aside, and, since knowledge is unattainable, to occupy myself only with folly.”
“Yet magic is no more than the art of employing consciously invisible means to produce visible effects. Will, love, and imagination are magic powers that everyone possesses; and whoever knows how to develop them to their fullest extent is a magician. Magic has but one dogma, namely, that the seen is the measure of the unseen.”
“And what else is it that men seek in life but power? If they want money, it is but for the power that attends it, and it is power again that they strive for in all the knowledge they acquire. Fools and sots aim at happiness, but men aim only at power. The magus, the sorcerer, the alchemist, are seized with fascination of the unknown; and they desire a greatness that is inaccessible to mankind. They think by the science they study so patiently, but endurance and strength, by force of will and by imagination, for these are the great weapons of the magician, they may achieve at last a power with which they can face the God of Heaven Himself.”
Oliver Haddo began then to speak of Leonardo da Vinci, mingling with his own fantasies the perfect words of that essay which, so wonderful was his memory, he seemed to know by heart. He found exotic fancies in the likeness between Saint John the Baptist, with his soft flesh and waving hair, and Bacchus, with his ambiguous smile. Seen through his eyes, the seashore in the Saint Anne had the airless lethargy of some damasked chapel in a Spanish nunnery, and over the landscapes brooded a wan spirit of evil that was very troubling. He loved the mysterious pictures in which the painter had sought to express something beyond the limits of painting, something of unsatisfied desire and of longing for unhuman passions. Oliver Haddo found this quality in unlikely places, and his words gave a new meaning to paintings that Margaret had passed thoughtlessly by. There was the portrait of a statuary by Bronzino in the Long Gallery of the Louvre. The features were rather large, the face rather broad. The expression was sombre, almost surly in the repose of the painted canvas, and the eyes were brown, almond-shaped like those of an Oriental; the red lips were exquisitely modelled, and the sensuality was curiously disturbing; the dark, chestnut hair, cut short, curled over the head with an infinite grace. The skin was like ivory softened with a delicate carmine. There was in that beautiful countenance more than beauty, for what most fascinated the observer was a supreme and disdainful indifference to the passion of others. It was a vicious face, except that beauty could never be quite vicious; it was a cruel face, except that indolence could never be quite cruel. It was a face that haunted you, and yet your admiration was alloyed with an unreasoning terror. The hands were nervous and adroit, with long fashioning fingers; and you felt that at their touch the clay almost moulded itself into gracious forms. With Haddo’s subtle words the character of that man rose before her, cruel yet indifferent, indolent and passionate, cold yet sensual; unnatural secrets dwelt in his mind, and mysterious crimes, and a lust for the knowledge that was arcane. Oliver Haddo was attracted by all that was unusual, deformed, and monstrous, by the pictures that represented the hideousness of man or that reminded you of his mortality. He summoned before Margaret the whole array of Ribera’s ghoulish dwarfs, with their cunning smile, the insane light of their eyes, and their malice: he dwelt with a horrible fascination upon their malformations, the humped backs, the club feet, the hydrocephalic heads. He described the picture by Valdes Leal, in a certain place at Seville, which represents a priest at the altar; and the altar is sumptuous with gilt and florid carving. He wears a magnificent cope and a surplice of exquisite lace, but he wears them as though their weight was more than he could bear; and in the meagre trembling hands, and in the white, ashen face, in the dark hollowness of the eyes, there is a bodily corruption that is terrifying. He seems to hold together with difficulty the bonds of the flesh, but with no eager yearning of the soul to burst its prison, only with despair; it is as if the Lord Almighty had forsaken him and the high heavens were empty of their solace. All the beauty of life appears forgotten, and there is nothing in the world but decay. A ghastly putrefaction has attacked already the living man; the worms of the grave, the piteous horror of mortality, and the darkness before him offer naught but fear. Beyond, dark night is seen and a turbulent sea, the dark night of the soul of which the mystics write, and the troublous sea of life whereon there is no refuge for the weary and the sick at heart.
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.