THE MAGICIAN OF BANKOK


By Judith Gautier


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Editors' Note

The story below, translated by Lafcadio Hearn, appeared in issue 4 of "The Double Dealer." The original spelling and grammar have been preserved.

Judith Gautier (1845-1917) was a French poet and novelist. Gautier had a scholarly interest in East Asia, and according to "The New International Encyclopedia," her works dealt greatly with themes associated in the West with this region.

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Bankok becomes enveloped in darkness and silence; huge stars open their blossoms of fire in the sky; it is the hour when sorcerers prepare for their deeds of evil and cast spells upon their enemies; objects become deformed by vagueness and take frightful shapes—the palms seem full of black birds; the domes of the pagodas look like huge bald skulls; obscurity crouches in the underbrush, and one fancies that he beholds the forms of reptiles moving everywhere. The sounds of human life yield place to the murmurs of the night—to the lapping of the waves upon the river's bank, to the rustling of leaves in the wind—to the thousand inexplicable sighs which are born of silence.

See! In a street near Mei-Nam, a shadowy door opens, and a man goes forth with slow and cautious steps. He is clad in a long robe which trails upon the ground. His head is bare. He carries in his right hand a forked branch.

Suddenly a vague human form rises behind him. Whence did it come? There was no one on the road before; it could not have come from behind the trees, nor from any neighboring house. It is immensely tall, but keeps itself in a bent posture. The man directs his steps towards the river; it follows him, but its legs do not move. Long ears hang down upon its shoulders; its arms reach to its feet.

The man suddenly turns round.

"Why dost thou follow me?" he asks. "Is it to prevent me from having the Head and the Feet? I shall walk over thy feet and upon thy head!"

The form passes before the man and suddenly moves backwards. The man succeeds in stepping upon its feet. He flings the shape to the earth and walks over the body, which suddenly sinks into the ground and disappears.

Then he continues on his way to the river. A troupe of great apes deploy across the road; they have long, pointed snouts, bristling with horny points, and make hideous grimaces, rendered visible by the light of their flaming eyes.

"Why do ye place yourselves across my path?'' asked the man. "Is it to prevent me from seizing the Future, which ye keep imprisoned in a coffer of bronze? I go to seek the key which will open to me the mysterious coffer. Sulphur-eyed apes, begone!"

The man smites the air with his forked branch. The apes disappear.

He continues to advance.

Ambushes stir behind every tree; eyes flame between the branches; the soil undulates beneath his feet with slimy and formless creatures. He marches on, clearing himself a path with his forked rod. But where he thought to find land he beholds a furious sea roaring before him.

"Appearances!" he cries; "deceits, snares of the enemy! cease to abuse my eyes. I shall have the Hands and the Feet; I shall have the Head—for my step is firm and my heart has not trembled!"

The sea vanishes. A troop of furious horsemen rush upon him. They are black as extinguished coals. They fill up the whole way before him. They gallop furiously. The man plants his branch in the earth, and, leaning upon it with both hands, raises himself off the ground. When the whirlwind of men and horses comes, he flings himself forward upon the other side. Everything vanishes before him; but his branch has disappeared.

Now he gains the bank of the river. He beholds his own wife all bleeding and mutilated, who is being dragged to the water by a man.

"It shall not turn me aside from my path," mutters the man. "The visible does not persuade me of the real. My wife is at this moment asleep in my house, with her head resting upon the lower pillow."

A frightful monster rises up before him. It seems like a living mass of red-hot iron. Sparks fly from its body. Its yawning mouth is a furnace.

"I am near the end," says the man. "Return where thou earnest; redescend the stairway of cinders thou hast fruitlessly mounted! I go to seek the burning shears which shall rend for me the mantle of the Future."

The Fire Monster extinguishes itself.

The man still marches on. He approaches a tomb. It is the tomb of the woman who was buried that very day—surprised by death en etat de grossesse.

He kneels; he seeks to dig up the earth with his nails.He lays his hand upon a knot of serpents.

"Vipers do not breed upon newly-made graves," he exclaims.

The serpents vanish in smoke.

He continues his work. A thousand briars rend his hands.

"Briars do not grow on newly-made graves," he exclaims.

The briars disappear.

He continues to dig; a mighty wind rushes from the tomb and flings him to the earth.

"The wind blows from the east, from the west, from the north, and from the south," he cries, rising to his feet— "the wind never blows from the tombs."

The wind ceases.

The man digs again; the earth changes to flames.

"Only wood, straw, and dry leaves," he says, "burn easily; earth never burns."

The earth ceases to flame, but a multitude of demons of a frightful greenish hue, armed with red-hot goads and whips of fire, assail the sacrilege and scourge him ceaselessly. He, insensible, savage, frenzied, plunges his arm into the yawning grave, and accomplishes a hideous task.

Suddenly he leaps to his feet. He brandishes a newly-born corpse. He flies under the pale moon. He shrieks: "I have won the secret of the Future!"

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John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons