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Red Magic Post by :cyberagora Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :2544

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Red Magic

Everybody said it was a great opportunity for Hans. The pay was small, to be sure, but the hours were short and the chance for advancement prodigious. Already the boy could take a pair of rabbits out of a high hat, or change a bunch of carrots into a bowl of goldfish. Unfortunately, the Dutchmen of Rothdam were vegetarians, and Hans was not yet learned enough in magic to turn goldfish back to carrots. Many times he had asked his master, Kahnale, for instruction in the big tricks. He longed to go in for advanced magic, such as typhoons, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. He even aspired to juggle planets and keep three stars in the air at once.

Kahnale only smiled and spoke of the importance of rudiments. He pointed out that as long as inexperience made mistakes possible it would be better to mar a carrot or two than the solar system.

Not all the boy's projects were vast. It seemed as if there was as much enthusiasm in his voice when he asked about love philters as when he spoke of earthquakes. His casual inquiry as to the formula for making a rival disappear into thin air betrayed an eagerness not present in his planetary researches.

But to every question Kahnale replied, "Wait." The magician intimated that a bachelor of black arts might play pranks with the winds, the mountains and the stars forbidden to a freshman. True love, he declared, would be the merest trifle for one who knew all the lore. Hans found surprisingly small comfort in these promises. He had seen the sixteen foot shelf of magic in the back room where the skeletons swung in white arcs through the violet haze. Millions of words stood between him and Gretchen, and she was already seventeen and he had turned twenty. It irked him that he should be forced to learn Arabic, Chaldean and a little Phoenician to win a Dutch girl. Sometimes he imagined she cared for him in spite of a seeming disdain and he hoped that he might win her without recourse to magic, but then she grew coy again. Anyway, Kahnale had told him that only post-graduate students should seek to read the heart of a woman.

And so Hans polished the high hats, fed the rabbits, read the prescribed pieces in Volume One and learned a little day by day. He yearned more. It seemed as if there must be a short cut to the knowledge which he wanted, and this belief was strengthened one day when he discovered a thin and ever so aged volume hidden behind the books of the sixteen foot shelf. Before he had a chance to open the little book Kahnale rushed into the room and cried out to him in a great and terrible voice to drop the volume. Carefully, the magician returned the book to its hiding place and he warned Hans never to touch it again upon the pain of the most extensive and prodigious penalties. He not only intimated that disobedience would be dangerous to Hans, but to his family, to the town of Rothdam, to Holland and to the world.

Six months passed and Hans had striven to remember so many things since the day of the warning that he had all but forgotten the words of Kahnale. Lying atop the dyke, Hans gave the magician never a thought. The boy drew pictures in the loose sand with the toe of his sabot and brushed them away one after the other. At last he completed a design which struck his fancy and he ceased work to admire it. He had drawn a large heart and exactly in the center he had written "Gretchen."

It may have been a charm or a coincidence, but he looked up from the sand design just in time to see her passing along the road which ran parallel to the dyke. He shouted after her, but it was a capricious day with Gretchen, and she went along about her business without once looking back, under the pretense that she had not heard the greeting.

Hans raged and made as if to demolish the heart, and Gretchen, and indeed the whole dyke, but then he thought of something better. He got up and entering the house of Kahnale, went into the back room without even stopping to rattle the skeletons. The room was empty and Hans rummaged behind the long row of magic books until he found the old volume which he felt sure would give him some of the needful secrets which had been withheld from him. Opening the book, he blew away a thick top soil of ancient dust and was chagrined to find that whatever knowledge lay before him was concealed in some language so ancient that he could not understand a single word.

"Perhaps," he thought to himself, "this is a charm I can set to ticking even if I can't understand it." Fearing that Kahnale might come upon him, he hid the book under his coat and carried it out to his retreat on top of the dyke. In a low voice he began to read the strange and fearsome sentences in the book. Although they meant nothing to him, they possessed a fine rolling cadence which captured his fancy, and more boldly and more loudly Hans went on with his reading.

While Hans meddled with the book of magic, Kahnale was in consultation with the Mayor of Rothdam, who sought some charm or potion which would insure him reëlection. He had been a thoroughly inefficient Mayor, but the magician dealt with clients as impartially as a lawyer or doctor, and he agreed to weave the necessary spells. He stipulated only that the Mayor should accompany him to the house on the dyke, where there was a more propitious atmosphere for black art than in the town hall. After some little fuss and fume about the price and the long walk and his dignity, the Mayor consented, and the two men descended the great stairway of the town hall. No sooner had they reached the street than Kahnale looked at the sky in amazement. The day had been the most stolid and fair of days when he entered the Mayor's office, but now the western sky was filled with tier upon tier of angry black clouds, and as he looked there was a fearsome flash of fire broad as a canal and a roll of thunder which shook the ground beneath their feet.

"Quick!" cried Kahnale, and seizing the Mayor by the arm he rushed him down the road which led to the sea. As they ran a rising wind with a salt tang smote their faces. The clouds were growing blacker and heavier. It almost seemed as if they might topple. There was another flash bright as the light which blinded Saul. The Mayor crossed himself and prayed. Kahnale cursed. They were within a hundred feet of the sea when a second flare of fire outlined a figure on the dyke. It swayed to and fro and moaned above the growing roar of the wind.

In a sudden hush between the gusts the figure turned and they could hear the voice distinctly enough, though it seemed to be the voice of some one a long way off. "Eb dewollah," said the voice, and Kahnale clapped his hands to his head in horror.

"It is the end," cried the wizard. "There is no hope. This is the final charm. The Lord's Prayer is last of all."

"I do not hear the Lord's Prayer. What is it?" pleaded the Mayor.

"You would not understand," explained Kahnale. "The prayer is said backward, as in all charms. He has reached 'Eb Dewollah,' and that is 'Hallowed Be!' The prayer is the last of the charm."

"Charm? What charm?" said the Mayor querulously, clinging dose to Kahnale.

"The master charm," said the magician. "This is the spell which when said aloud summons all the forces of the devil and brings the destruction of the world."

"The world!" interrupted the Mayor in amazement. "Then Rothdam will be destroyed," and he began to weep.

Kahnale paid no heed. "It can't be stopped," he muttered. "It must go on. He has the book and there is no power strong enough to stop the spell."

"If I only had my policemen and my priest," moaned the Mayor.

"Is that all?" said Kahnale. "I have enough magic for that."

The magician spoke three words and made two passes in the air before he turned and pointed to Rothdam. Instantly the bell in the town hall which called all villagers to the dyke tolled wildly. The wind was rising and shrilling louder and louder, and the sky was now of midnight blackness. The Mayor looked up in wretched terror at the figure on the dyke and started to rush at him as if to pitch him into the sea. Kahnale held him back. "Wait," he said. "If you touched the devil servant you would die."

Above the shriek of the wind rose the voice from the dyke. "Nevaeh ni," said the voice. "In heaven," muttered Kahnale. "It is almost done."

Down the road in the teeth of the gale came the villagers of Rothdam. In the van were the Mayor's police in red coats. They carried clubs and blunderbusses, and one, more hurriedly summoned than his companions, held a poker.

"There," cried the Mayor, "shoot that man on the dyke!" And with the first flash of light the foremost guard ran halfway up the steep embankment and leveled his blunderbuss. He fired. The roar of the gun was answered by a crash of thunder. A fang of fire darted from the center of the clouds and the guard rolled down the dyke and lay still at the bottom.

"Tra ohw," came the voice from the dyke. The priest, not daunted by the fate of the guard, hurried close to the side of the swaying figure and sprinkled him with holy water, but no sooner had the water left his hands than each drop changed to a tiny tongue of fire, leaping and dancing on the shoulder of the devil servant. The priest drew back in horror and the Mayor, with a cry of fear, threw himself at the foot of the dyke and buried his face in the long grasses. High above the booming of the gale and the crash of the waves against the barrier came the voice from the dyke, "Rehtaf."

"Father," said Kahnale, "I come, master devil!" he cried with one hand raised.

The sea which had almost reached the top of the dyke suddenly receded. Back and back it went and bared a deep and slimy floor. On that floor were many unswept things of horror. The earth trembled. The black clouds were banks of floating flame. The villagers turned to run from the dyke, for now the sea was returning. It rushed toward the dyke in a wave a hundred feet high.

Out of the crowd one ran forward and not back. It was a girl with flaxen hair and red ribbons. She ran straight to the figure on the dyke.

"It's Gretchen," she called. "Save me, Hans, save me." She threw her arms around the boy's neck and kissed him. The wall of water hung on the edge of the dyke like a violin string drawn tight. Then it surged forward and swallowed up both boy and girl.

Some folk in Rothdam say that Hans dropped the book of black magic and kissed Gretchen before the water swept over them, but the villagers are not sure about this trifle, since at that moment they were watching the rebirth of a lost world.

The wave of water a hundred feet high dwindled until it was no wave, but only a few tall grasses swaying gently in the dying land breeze. The clouds of fire faded to mist, pink tinted by the setting sun. Somewhere about were roses.

The villagers rushed to the top of the dyke. A policeman who had muddied his uniform as if by a fall rose to his feet and followed them, rubbing his head. Far below the dyke lay a calm sea. On the horizon were ships.

"Rothdam and its brave citizens are saved," said the Mayor. "To-night I will burn two hundred candles in honor of our patron saint, who has this day delivered us and enabled us to continue a happy existence under the best municipal government Rothdam has ever known." There were cheers.

That night Kahnale walked on the dyke alone. Everybody else was in the cathedral. That is, everybody but one policeman, who pleaded a severe headache. The magician listened to the bells of the cathedral and then he shook his head. "It was not the saint who saved us," he muttered. "There are no miracles. Somewhere there is a rational magical explanation for all this." But he had to shake his head again. "It is not in the books," he muttered.

Just then the moon came from behind a cloud and silvered some marks in the path of Kahnale. The magician stooped and looked. There on the top of the wave swept dyke, drawn in the loose sand, was a large heart, and in the center of it was written "Gretchen."

(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: Red Magic

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