Both Liesl and I went with Magnus the following morning on his sentimental expedition. Liesl wanted to know who Milady was; her curiosity was aroused by the tenderness and reverence with which he spoke of the woman who appeared to Ingestree to be a figure of fun. I was curious about everything concerning him. After all, I had my document to consider. So we both went with him to buy the roses. Liesl protested when he bought an expensive bunch of two dozen. “If you leave them in the street, somebody will steal them,” she said; “the gesture is the same whether it’s one rose or a bundle. Don’t waste your money. Once again I had occasion to be surprised at the way very rich people think about money; a costly apartment at the Savoy, and a haggle about a few roses! But Eisengrim was not to be changed from his purpose. “Nobody will steal them, and you’ll find out why,” said he. So off we went on foot along the Strand, because Magnus felt that taking a taxi would lessen the solemnity of his pilgrimage.
The Irving monument stands in quite a large piece of open pavement; near by a pavement artist was chalking busily on the flagstones. Beside the monument itself a street performer was unpacking some ropes and chains, and a woman was helping him to get ready for his performance. Magnus took off his hat, laid the flowers at the foot of the statue, arranged them to suit himself, stepped back, looked up at the statue, smiled, and said something under his breath. Then he said to the street performer: “Going to do a few escapes, are you?”
“Right you are,” said the man.
“Will you be here long?”
“Long as anybody wants to watch me.”
“I’d like you to keep an eye on those flowers. They’re for the Guvnor, you see. Here’s a pound. I’ll be back before lunch, and if they’re still there, and if you’re still here, I’ll have another pound for you. I want them to stay where they are for at least three hours; after that anybody who wants them can have them. Now let’s see your show.”
The busker and the woman went to work. She rattled a tambourine, and he shook the chains and defied the passers-by to tie him up so that he couldn’t escape. A few loungers gathered, but none of them seemed anxious to oblige the escape-artist by tying him up. At last Magnus did it himself.
I didn’t know what he had in mind, and I wondered if he meant to humiliate the poor fellow by tying him up and leaving him to struggle; after all, Magnus had been a distinguished escape-artist himself in his time, and as he was a man of scornful mind; such a trick would not have been outside his range. He made a thorough job of it, and before he had done there was a crowd of fifteen or twenty people gathered to see the fun. It is not every day that one of these shabby street performers has a beautifully dressed and distinguished person as an assistant. I saw a policeman halt at the back of the crowd, and began to worry. My philosophical indifference to human suffering is not as complete as I wish it were. If Magnus tied up the poor wretch and left him, what should I do? Interfere, or run away? Or would I simply hang around and see what happened?
At last Magnus was contented with his work, and stepped away from the busker, who was now a bundle of chains and ropes. The man dropped to the ground, writhed and grovelled for a few seconds, worked himself up on his knees, bent his head and tried to get at one of the ropes with his teeth, and in doing so fell forward and seemed to hurt himself badly. The crowd murmured sympathetically, and pressed a bit nearer. Then, suddenly, the busker gave a triumphant cry, and leapt to his feet, as chains and ropes fell in a tangle on the pavement.
Magnus led the applause. The woman passed the tattered cap that served as a collection bag. Some copper and a few silver coins were dropped in it. Liesl contributed a fifty-penny piece, and I found another. It was a good round for the busker; astonishingly good, I imagine, for the first show of the day.
When the crowd had dispersed, the busker said softly to Magnus: “Pro, ain’t yer?”
“Yes, I’m a pro.”
“Knew it. You couldn’t of done them ties without being a pro.You playin’ in town?”
“No, but I have done. Years ago, I used to give a show right where we’re standing now.”
“You did! Christ, you’ve done well.”
“Yes. And I started here under the Guvnor’s statue. You’ll keep an eye on his flowers, won’t you?”
“Too right I will! And thanks!”
We walked away, Magnus smiling and big with mystery. He knew how much we wanted to know what lay behind what we had just seen, and was determined to make us beg. Liesl, who has less pride about such things than I, spoke before we had passed the pornography shops into Leicester Square.“Come along, Magnus. Enough of this. We want to know and you want to tell. I can feel it. When did you ever perform in the London streets?”
“After I got away from France, and the travelling circus, and the shadow of Willard, I came to London, which was dangerous with the kind of passport I carried, but I managed it. What was I to do? You don’t get jobs in variety theatres just by hanging around the stage doors. It’s a matter of agents, and having press cuttings, and being known to somebody. And I was down and out. I hadn’t a penny. No, that’s not quite true; I had forty-two shillings and that was just enough to buy a few old ropes and chains. So I took a look around the West End, and soon found out that the choice position for open-air shows was the place we’ve just visited. But even that wasn’t free; street-artists of long standing had first call on the space. I tried to do my little act when they weren’t busy, and three of them took me up an alley and convinced me that I had been tactless. Nevertheless, with a black eye I managed to show them a little magic that persuaded one of them to let me add something to his own show, and for that I got a very small daily sum. Still, I was seen, and it wasn’t more than a few days before I was taken to Milady, and after that everything was glorious.”
“Why should Milady want to see you? Really, Magnus, you are intolerable. You are going to tell us, so why don’t you do it without making me corkscrew every word out of you?”
“If I tell you now, in the street, don’t you think I am being rather unfair to Lind? He wants to know too, you know.”
“Last night you virtually ordered Lind and his friends out of the hotel. Do you mean you are going to change your mind about that?”
“I was annoyed with Ingestree.”
“Yes, I know that. But what’s so bad about Ingestree? He doesn’t agree with you about Milady. Is the man to have no mind of his own? Must everybody agree with you? Ingestree isn’t a bad fellow.”
“Not a bad fellow. A fool perhaps.”
“Since when is it a criminal offence to be a fool? You’re rather a fool yourself, especially about women. I insist on knowing whatever there is to know about Milady.”
“And so you shall, my dear Liesl. So you shall. You have only to wait until this evening. I guarantee that when we go back to the Savoy we shall find that Lind has called, that Ingestree is ready to apologize, and that we are all three asked to dinner tonight so that I may very graciously go on with my subtext to Hommage. Which I am perfectly willing to do. And Ramsay will be pleased, because the free dinner he gets tonight will somewhat offset the cost of the dinner he had to share in giving last night. You see, all things work together for good to them that love God.”
“Sometimes I wish I were a professing Christian, so that I would have the right to tell you how much your blasphemous quoting of Scripture annoys me. And you mustn’t torment Ramsay. He hasn’t had your advantages. He’s never been really poor, and that is a terrible drawback to a man—Will you promise to be decent to Ingestree?”
An unwonted sound: Eisengrim laughed aloud: Merlin’s Laugh, if ever I heard it.