Eisengrim was altogether in high spirits, and showed no fatigue from his afternoon’s talking. He pretended to be solicitous about the rest of us, however, and particularly about Lind and Kinghovn. Did they really wish to continue with his narrative? Did they truly think what he had to say offered any helpful subtext to the film about Robert-Houdin? Indeed, as the film was now complete, of what possible use could a subtext be?
“Of the utmost possible use when next I make a film,” said Jurgen Lind. “These divergences between the acceptable romance of life and the clumsily fashioned, disproportioned reality are part of my stock-in-trade. Here you have it, in your tale of Sir John’s tour of Canada; he took highly burnished romance to a people whose life was lived on a different plateau, and the discomforts of his own life and the lives of his troupe were on other levels. How reconcile the three?”
“Light,” said Kinghovn. “You do it with light. The romance of the plays is theatre-light; the different romance of the company is the queer train-light Magnus has described; think what could be done, with that flashing strobe-light effect you get when a train passes another and everything seems to flicker and lose substance. And the light of the Canadians would be that hard, bright light you find in northern lands. Leave it to me to handle all three lights in such a way that they are a variation on the theme of light, instead of just three kinds of light, and I’ll do the trick for you, Jurgen.”
“I doubt if you can do it simply in terms of appearances,” said Lind.
“I didn’t say you could. But you certainly can’t do it without a careful attention to appearances, or you’ll have no romance of any kind. Remember what Magnus says: without attention to detail you will have no illusion, and illusion’s what you’re aiming at, isn’t it?”
“I had rather thought I was aiming at truth, or some tiny corner of it,” said Lind.
“Truth!” said Kinghovn. “What kind of talk is that for a sane man? What truth have we been getting all afternoon? I don’t suppose Magnus thinks he’s been telling us the truth. He’s giving us a mass of detail, and I don’t doubt that every word he says is true in itself, but to call that truth is ridiculous even for a philosopher of film like you, Jurgen. What’s he been doing to poor old Roly? He’s cast him as the clown of the show—mother’s boy, pompous Varsity ass, snob, and sexual non-starter—and I’m sure it’s all true, but what has it to do with our Roly? The man you and I work with and lean on? The thoroughly capable administrator, literary man, and smoother-of-the-way? Eh?”
“Thank you for these few kind words, Harry,” said Ingestree. You save me the embarrassment of saying them myself. Don’t suppose I bear any malice. Indeed, if I may make a claim for my admittedly imperfect character, it is that I have never been a malicious man. I accept what Magnus says. He has described me as I no doubt appeared to him. And I haven’t scrupled to let you know that so far as I was concerned he was an obnoxious little squirt and climber. That’s how I would describe him if I were writing my autobiography, which I may do, one of these days. But what’s an autobiography? Surely it’s a romance of which one is oneself the hero. Otherwise why write the thing? Perhaps you give yourself a rather shopworn character, like Rousseau, or H. G. Wells, and it’s just another way of making yourself interesting. But Mungo Fetch and the Cantab belong to the drama of the past; it’s forty years since they trod the boards. We’re two different people now. Magnus is a great illusionist and, as I have said time after time, a great actor; I’m what you so generously described, Harry. So let’s not fuss about it.”
Magnus was not satisfied. “You don’t believe, then,” said he, “that a man is the sum and total of all his actions, from birth to death? That’s what Dunny believes, and he’s our Sorgenfrei expert on metaphysics. I think that’s what I believe, too. Squirt and climber; not a bad summing-up of whatever you were able to understand of me when first we met, Roly. I’m prepared to stand by it, and when your autobiography comes out I shall look for myself in the Index under S and C: ‘Squirts I have known, Mungo Fetch’, and ‘Climbers I have encountered. Fetch, M.’. We must all play as cast, as my contract with Sir John put it. As for truth, I suppose we have to be content with the constant revisions of history. Though there is the odd inescapable fact, and I still have one or two of those to impart, if you want me to go on.”
They wanted him to go on. The after-dinner cognac was on the table and I made it my job to see that everyone had enough. After all, I was paying my share of the costs, and I might as well cast myself as host, so far as lay in my power. God knows, that piece of casting would be undisputed when the bill was presented. “As we made the return journey across Canada, a change took place in the spirit of the company,” said Magnus; “going West it was all adventure and new experiences, and the country embraced us; as soon as we turned round at Vancouver it was going home, and much that was Canadian was unfavourably compared with the nests in the suburbs of London toward which many of the company were yearning. The Haileys talked even more about their son, and their grave worry that if they didn’t get him into a better school he would grow up handicapped by an undesirable accent. Charlton and Woulds were hankering for restaurants better than the places, most of them run by Chinese, we found in the West. Grover Paskin and Frank Moore talked learnedly of great pubs they knew, and of the foreign fizziness of Canadian beer. Audrey Sevenhowes, having squeezed the Cantab, threw him away and devoted herself seriously to subduing Eric Foss. During our journey West we had seen the dramatic shortening of the days which has such ominous beauty in northern countries, and which I loved; now we saw the daylight lengthen, and it seemed to be part of our homeward journey; we had gone into the darkness and now we were heading back toward the light, and every night, as we went into those queer little stage doors, the naked bulb that shone above them seemed less needful.
“The foreignness of Canada semed to abate a little at every sunset, but it was not wholly gone. When we played Regina for a week there was one memorable night when five Blackfoot Indian chiefs, asserting their right as tribal brothers of Sir John, sat as his guests in the left-hand stage box: it was rum, I can tell you, playing Scaramouche with those motionless figures, all of them in blankets, watching everything with unwinking, jetty black eyes. What did they make of it? God knows. Or perhaps Sir John had some inkling, because Morton W. Penfold arranged that he should meet them in an interval, when there was an exchange of gifts, and pictures were taken. But I doubt if the French Revolution figured largely in their scheme of things. Milady said they loved oratory, and perhaps they were proud of Soksi-Poyina as he harangued the aristocrats so eloquently.
“Sir John had rejoined us by that time, and it was a shock when he appeared in our midst, for his hair had turned almost entirely grey during his time in the hospital. Perhaps he had touched it up before then, and the dye had run its course; he never attempted to return it to its original dark brown, and although the grey became him, he looked much older, and in private life he was slower and wearier. Not so on the stage. There he was as graceful and light-footed as ever, but there was something macabre about his youthfulness, in my eyes, at least. With his return the feeling of the company changed; we had supported Gordon Barnard with all our hearts, but now we felt that the ruler had returned to his kingdom; the lamp of romance burned with a different flame—a return, perhaps, to gaslight, after some effective but comparatively charmless electricity.
“I had a feeling, too, that the critics changed their attitude toward us on the homeward journey, and it was particularly evident in Toronto. The important four were in their seats, as usual: the man who looked like Edward VII from Saturday Night; the stout little man, rumoured to be a Theosophist, from The Globe; the smiling little fellow in pince-nez from The Telegram; and the ravaged Norseman who wrote incomprehensible rhapsodies for The Star. They were friendly (except Edward VII, who was jocose about Milady), but they would persist in remembering Irving (whether they had ever actually seen him, or not), and that bothered the younger actors. Bothered Morton W. Penfold, too, who mumbled to Holroyd that perhaps the old man would be wise to think about retirement.
“The audiences came in sufficient numbers, and were warm in their applause, particularly when we played The Lyons Mail. It was another of the dual roles in which Sir John delighted, and so did I, because it gave me a new chance to double. If Roly had been looking for it, he would have found the seed of his Jekyll and Hyde play here, for it was a play in which, as the good Leserques, Sir John was all nobility and candour, and then, seconds later, lurched on the stage as the drunken murderer Dubosc, chewing a straw and playing with a knobbed cudgel. There was one moment in that play that never failed to chill me: it was when Dubosc had killed the driver of the mail coach, and leaned over the body, rifling the pockets; as he did it. Sir John whistled the ‘Marseillaise’ through his teeth, not loudly, but with such terrible high spirits that it summoned up, in a few seconds, a world of heartless, demonic criminality. But even I, enchanted as I was, could understand that this sort of thing, in this form, could not last long on the stage that Noel Coward had made his own. It was acting of a high order, but it was out of time. It still had magic here in Canada, not because the people were unsophisticated (on the whole they were as acute as English audiences in the provinces) but because, in a way I cannot explain, it was speaking to a core of loneliness and deprivation in these Canadians of which they were only faintly aware. I think it was loneliness, not just for England, because so many of these people on the prairies were not of English origin, but for some faraway and long-lost Europe. The Canadians knew themselves to be strangers in their own land, without being at home anywhere else.
“So, night by night, Canada relinquished its hold on us, and day by day we became weary, not perhaps of one another, but of our colleagues’ unvarying heavy overcoats and too familiar pieces of luggage; what had been the romance of long hops going West—striking the set, seeing the trucks loaded at the theatre and unloaded onto the train, climbing aboard dead tired at three o’clock in the morning, and finding berths in the dimmed, heavily curtained sleeping-car—grew to be tedious. Another kind of excitement, the excitement of going home, possessed us, and although we were much too professional a company to get out of hand, we played with a special gloss during our final two weeks in Montreal. Then aboard ship, a farewell telegram to Sir John and Milady from Mr. Mackenzie King (who semed to be a great friend of the theatre, though outwardly a most untheatrical man), and off to England by the first sailing after the ice was out of the harbour.
“I had changed substantially during the tour. I was learning to dress like Sir John, which was eccentric enough in a young man, but at least not vulgar in style. I was beginning to speak like him, and as is common with beginners, I was overdoing it. I was losing, ever so little, my strong sense that every man’s hand was against me, and my hand against every man. I had encountered my native land again, and was reconciled to all of it except Deptford. We passed through Deptford during the latter part of our tour, on a hop between Windsor and London; I found out from the conductor of the train that we would stop to take on water for the engine there, and that the pause would be short, but sufficient for my purpose; as we chugged past the gravel pit beside the railway line I was poised on the steps at the back of the train, and as we pulled in to the station, so small and so familiar, I swung down onto the platform and surveyed all that was to be seen of the village.
“I could look down most of the length of our main street. I recognized a few buildings and saw the spires of the five churches—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Catholic—among the leafless trees. Solemnly, I spat. Then I went behind the train to the siding where, so many years ago, Willard had imprisoned me in Abdullah, and there I spat again. Spitting is not a ceremonious action, but I crowded it with loathing, and when I climbed back on the train I felt immeasurably better. I had not settled any scores, or altered my feelings, but I had done something of importance. Nobody knew it, but Paul Dempster had visited his childhood home. I have never returned.
“Back to England, and another long period of hand-to-mouth life for me. Sir John wanted a rest, and Milady had the long trial of waiting for her eyes to be ready for an operation. they called it ‘ripening’ in cases of cataracts then—and the operation itself, which was successful in that it made it possible for her to see with thick, disfiguring lenses that were a humiliation for a woman who still thought of herself as a leading actress. Macgregor decided to retire, which was reasonable but made a gap in the organization on which Sir John depended. Holroyd was a thoroughgoing pro, and could get a good job anywhere, and I think he saw farther than either Sir John or Milady, because he went to Stratford-on-Avon and stayed at the Memorial Theatre until he too retired. Nothing came of the Jekyll and Hyde play, though I know the Tresizes tinkered with the scenario for years, as an amusement. But they were comfortably off for money—rich, by some standards—and they could settle down happily in their suburban home, which had a big garden, and amuse themselves with the antiques that gave them so much delight. I visited them there often, because they kept a kind interest in me, and helped me as much as they were able. But their influence in the theatre was not great; indeed, a recommendation from them took on a queer look in the hands of a young man, because to so many of the important employers of actors in the London theatre in the mid-thirties they belonged to a remote past.
“Indeed, they never appeared at the head of a company again. Sir John had one splendid appearance in a play by a writer who had been a great figure in the theatre before and just after the First World War, but his time, too, had passed; his play suffered greatly from his own illness and some justifiable but prolonged caprice on the part of the star players. Sir John was very special in that play, and he was given fine notices by the press, but nothing could conceal the fact that he was not the undoubted star, but ‘distinguished support in a role which could not have been realized with the same certainty of touch and golden splendour of personality by any other actor of our time’—so James Agate said, and everybody agreed.
“There was one very bad day toward the end of his life which, I know, opened the way for his death. In the autumn of 1937, when people were thinking of more immediately pressing things, some theatre people were thinking that the centenary of the birth of Henry Irving should not pass unnoticed. They arranged an all-star matinee, in which tribute to the great actor should be paid, and as many as possible of the great theatre folk of the day should appear in scenes selected from the famous plays of his repertoire. It should be given at his old theatre, the Lyceum, as near as possible to his birthday, which was February 6 in the following year.
“Have you ever had anything to do with such an affair? The idea is so splendid, the sentiment so admirable, that it is disillusioning to discover what a weight of tedious and seemingly unnecessary diplomacy must go into its arrangement. Getting the stars to say with certainty that they will appear is only the beginning of it; marshalling the necessary stage-settings, arranging rehearsals, and publicizing the performance, without ruinously disproportionate expense, is the bulk of the work, and I understand that an excellent committee did it with exemplary patience. But inevitably there were muddles, and in the first enthusiasm many more people were asked to appear than could possibly have been crowded on any stage, even if the matinee had been allowed to go on for six or seven hours.
“Quite reasonably, one of the first people to be asked for his services was Sir John, because he was the last actor of first-rate importance still living who had been trained under Irving. He agreed that he would be present, but then, prompted by God knows what evil spirit of vanity, he began to make conditions: he would appear, and he would speak a tribute to Irving if the Poet Laureate would write one. The committee demurred, and the Poet Laureate was not approached. So Sir John, with the bit between his teeth, approached the Poet Laureate himself, and the Poet Laureate said he would have to think about it. He thought for six weeks, and then, in response to another letter from Sir John, said he didn’t see his way clear to doing it.
“Sir John communicated this news to the committee, who had meanwhile gone on with other plans, and they did not reply because, I suppose, they were up to their eyes in complicated arrangements which they had to carry through in the spare time of their busy lives. Sir John, meanwhile, urged an ancient poet of his acquaintance, who had been a very minor figure in the literary world before the First World War, to write the poetic tribute. The ancient poet, whose name was Urban Frawley, thought a villanelle would do nicely. Sir John thought something more stately was called for; his passion for playing the literary Meddlesome Mattie was aroused, and he and the ancient poet had many a happy hour, wrangling about the form the tribute should take. There was also the great question about what Sir John should wear, when delivering it. He finally decided on some robes he had worn not less than twenty-five years earlier, in a play by Maeterlinck; like everything else in his wardrobe it had been carefully stored, and when Holroyd had been summoned from Stratford to find it, it was in good condition, and needed only pressing and some loving care to make it very handsome. This valet work became my job, and in all I made three journeys to Richmond, where the Tresizes lived, to attend to it. Everything seemed to be going splendidly, and only I worried about the fact that nothing had been heard from the committee for a long time.
“There was less than a week to go before the matinee when at last I persuaded Sir John that something must be done to make sure that he had been included in the programme. This was tactless, and he gave me a polite dressing-down for supposing that when Irving was being honoured, his colleagues would be so remiss as to forget Irving’s unquestioned successor. I was not so confident, because since the tour I had mingled a little with theatre people, and had learned that there were other pretenders to Irving’s crown, and that Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Sir Frank Benson had been spoken of in this regard, and Benson was still living. I took my scolding meekly, and went right on urging him not to leave things to chance. So, rather in the spirit of the Master of Ballantrae giving orders to the pirates, he telephoned the secretary of the committee, and talked, not to him, but to his anonymous assistant.
“Sir John told him he was calling simply to say that he would be on hand for the matinee, as he had been invited to do some months before; that he would declaim the tribute to Irving which had been specially written by that favoured child of the Muses, Urban Frawley; that he would not arrive at the theatre until half past four, and he would arrive in costume, as he knew the backstage resources of the theatre would be crowded, and nothing was further from his mind than to create any difficulty by requiring the star dressing-room. All of this was delivered in the jocular but imperative mode that was his rehearsal speciality, with much ‘eh’ and ‘quonk’ to make it sound friendly. The secretary’s secretary apparently gave satisfactory replies, because when Sir John had finished his call he looked at me slyly, as if I were a silly lad who didn’t understand how such things were done.
“It was agreed that I should drive him to the theatre, because he might want assistance in arranging his robes, and although he had an old and trusted chauffeur, the man had no skill as a dresser. So, with lots of time to spare, I helped him into the back seat in his heavy outfit of velvet and fur, climbed into the driver’s place, and off we went. It was one of those extremely class-conscious old limousines; Sir John, in the back, sat on fine whipcord, and I, in front, sat on leather that was as cold as death; we were separated by a heavy glass partition, but from time to time he spoke to me through the speaking tube, and his mood was triumphal.
“Dear old man! He was going to pay tribute to Irving, and there was nobody else in the world who could do it with a better right, or more reverent affection. It was a glory-day for him, and I was anxious that nothing should go wrong.
“As it did, of course. We pulled up at the stage door of the Lyceum, and I went in and told the attendant that Sir John had arrived. He wasn’t one of your proper old stage doormen, but a young fellow who took himself very seriously, and had a sheaf of papers naming the people he was authorized to admit. No Sir John Tresize was on the list. He showed it to me, in support of his downright refusal. I protested. He stuck his head out of the door and looked at our limousine, and made off through the passage that led to the stage, and I stuck close to him. He approached an elegant figure whom I knew to be one of the most eminent of the younger actor-knights and hissed, ‘There’s an old geezer outside dressed as Nero who says he’s to appear; will you speak to him, sir?’ I intervened; ‘It’s Sir John Tresize,’ I said, ‘and it was arranged that he was to speak an Epilogue—a tribute to Irving.’ The eminent actor-knight went rather pale under his make-up (he was rigged out as Hamlet) and asked for details, which I supplied. The eminent actor-knight cursed with brilliant invention for a few seconds, and beckoned me to the corridor. I went, but not before I was able to identify the sounds that were coming from the stage as a passage from The Lyons Mail; the rhythm, the tune of what I heard was all wrong, too colloquial, too matter-of-fact.
“We made our way back to the stage door, and the eminent actor-knight darted across the pavement, leapt into the limousine beside Sir John, and began to talk to him urgently. I would have given a great deal to hear what was said, but I could only catch scraps of it from where I sat in the driver’s seat. ‘Dreadful state of confusion… can’t imagine what the organization of such an affair entails… would not for the world have slighted so great a man of the theatre and the most eminent successor of Irving… but when the proposal to the Poet Laureate fell through all communication had seemed to stop… nothing further had been heard… no, there had been no message during the past week or something would certainly have been done to alter the programme… but as things stand… greatest reluctance… beg indulgence… express deepest personal regret but as you know I do not stand alone and cannot act on personal authority so late in the afternoon…’
“A great deal of this; the eminent actor-knight was sweating and I could see in the rear-vision mirror that his distress was real, and his determination to stick to his guns was equally real. They were a notable study. You could do wonders with them, Harry; the young actor so vivid, the old one so silvery in the splendour of his distinction; both giving the quality of art to a common human blunder. Sir John’s face was grave, but at last he reached out and patted the knee in the Hamlet tights and said, ‘I won’t say I understand, because I don’t; still, nothing to be done now, eh? Damned embarrassing for us both, quonk? But I think I may say a little more than just embarrassing for me.’ Then Hamlet, delighted to have been let off the hook, smiled the smile of spiritual radiance for which he was famous, and did an inspired thing: he took the hand Sir John extended to him and raised it to his lips. It seemed under the circumstances precisely the right thing to do.
“Then I drove Sir John back to Richmond, and it was a slow journey, I can tell you. I hardly dared to look in the mirror, but I did twice, and both times tears were running down the old man’s face. When we arrived I helped him inside and he leaned very heavily on my arm. I couldn’t bear to hang around and hear what he said to Milady. Nor would they have wanted me.
“So that was how you knifed him, Roly. Don’t protest. When the stage doorman showed me that list of people who were included in the performance, it was signed by you, on behalf of the eminent actor-knight. You simply didn’t let that telephone message go any farther. It’s a pity you couldn’t have been on hand to see the scene in the limousine.”
Magnus said no more, and nobody else seemed anxious to break the silence. Ingestree appeared to be thinking, and at last it was he who spoke.
“I don’t see any reason now for denying what you’ve said. I think you have coloured it absurdly, but your facts are right. It’s true I devilled for the committee about that Irving matinee; I was just getting myself established in the theatre in a serious way and it was a great opportunity for me. All the stars who formed the committee heaped work on me, and that was as it should be. I don’t complain. But if you think Sir John Tresize was the only swollen ego I had to deal with, you’d better think again; I had months of tiresome negotiating to do, and because no money was changing hands I had to treat over a hundred people as if they were all stars.
“Yes, I got the call from Tresize, and it came just at the time when I was hardest pressed. Yes, I did drop it, because by that time I had been given a programme for that awful afternoon that we had to stick to or else disturb I can’t think how many careful arrangements. You saw one man disappointed; I saw at least twenty. All my life I’ve had to arrange things, because I’m that uncommon creature, an artist with a good head for administration. One of the lessons I’ve learned is to give no ground to compassion, because the minute you do that a dozen people descend upon you who treat compassion as weakness, and drive you off your course without the slightest regard for what happens to you. You’ve told us that you apprenticed yourself to an egoism, Magnus, and so you did, and you’ve learned the egoism-game splendidly; but in my life I’ve had to learn how to deal with people like you without becoming your slave, and that’s what I’ve done. I’m sorry if old Tresize felt badly, but on the basis of what you’ve told us I think everybody else here will admit that it was nobody’s fault but his own.”
“I don’t think I’m ready to admit that,” said Lind. “There is a hole in your excellent story: you didn’t tell your superior about the telephone call. Surely he was the man to make final decisions?”
“There were innumerable decisions to be made. If you’ve ever had any experience of an all-star matinee you can guess how many. During the last week everybody was happy if a decision could be made that would stick. I don’t remember the details very clearly. I acted for what seemed the best.”
“Without any recollection of being told how to carry a chair, or that unfortunate reference to your father’s shop, or the disappointment about Jekyll-and-Hyde in masks and meem?” said Magnus.
“What do you suppose I am? You can’t really imagine I would take revenge for petty things of that sort.”
“Oh yes; I can imagine it without the least difficulty.”
“Life has made me aware of how far mean minds rely on generosity in others.”
“You’ve always disliked me.”
“You didn’t like the old man.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, in my judgement at least, you killed him.”
“Did I? Something had to kill him, I suppose. Something kills everybody. And when you say something you often mean somebody. Eventually something or somebody will kill us all. You’re not going to back me into a corner that way.”
“No, don’t think you can quite attribute Sir John’s death to Roly,” said Lind. “But a not very widely understood or recognized element in life—I mean the jealousy youth feels for age—played a part in it. Have you been harbouring ill-will toward Roly all these years because of this incident? Because I really think that what Sir John was played a large part in the way he died, as is usually the case.”
“Very well,” said Magnus; “I’ll reconsider the matter. After all, it doesn’t really signify whether I think Roly killed him, or not. But Sir John and Milady were the first two people in my life I really loved, and the list isn’t a long one. After the matinee Sir John wasn’t himself; in a few weeks he had flu, which turned to pneumonia, and he didn’t last long. I went to Richmond every day, and there was one dreadful afternoon toward the end when I went into the room where Milady was sitting; when she heard my footstep she said, ‘Is that you. Jack?’ and I knew she wasn’t going to live long, either.
“She was wandering, of course, and as I have told you I had learned so much from Sir John that I even walked like him; it was eerie and desolating to be mistaken for him by the person who knew him best. Roly says I ate him. Rubbish! But I had done something that I don’t pretend to explain, and when Milady thought he was well again, and walking as he had not walked for a year, I couldn’t speak to her, or say who I was, so I crept away and came back later, making it very clear that it was Mungo Fetch who had come, and would come as long as he was wanted.
“He died, and at that time everybody was deeply concerned about the war that was so near at hand, and there were very few people at the funeral. Not Milady; she wasn’t well enough to go. But Agate was there, the only time I ever saw him. And a handful of relatives were there, and I noticed them looking at me with unfriendly, sidelong glances. Then it broke on me that they thought I must be some sort of ghost from the past, and very probably an illegitimate son. I didn’t approach them, because I was sure that nothing would ever make it clear to them that I was indeed a ghost, and an illegitimate son, but in a sense they would never understand.
“Milady died a few weeks later, and there were even fewer at her funeral; Macgregor and Holroyd were there, and as I stood with them nobody bothered to look twice at me. Odd: it was not until they died that I learned they were both much older than I had supposed.
“The day after we buried Milady I left England; I had wanted to do so for some time, but I didn’t want to go so long as there was a chance that I could do anything for her. There was a war coming, and I had no stomach for war; the circumstances of my life had not inclined me toward patriotism. There was nothing for me to do in England. I had never gained a foothold on the stage because my abilities as an actor were not of the fashionable kind, and I had not been able to do any better with magic. I kept bread in my mouth by taking odd jobs as a magician; at Christmas I gave shows for children in the toy department of one of the big shops, but the work was hateful to me. Children are a miserable audience for magic; everybody thinks they are fond of marvels, but they are generally literal-minded little toughs who want to know how everything is done; they have not yet attained to the sophistication that takes pleasure in being deceived. The very small ones aren’t so bad, but they are in a state of life where a rabbit might just as well appear out of a hat as from anywhere else; what really interests them is the rabbit. For a man of my capacities, working for children was degrading; you might just as well confront them with Menuhin playing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’. But I drew streams of half-crowns from tiny noses, and wrapped up turtles that changed into boxes of sweets in order to collect my weekly wage. Now and then I took a private engagement, but the people who employed me weren’t serious about magic. It sounds odd, but I can’t put it any other way; I was wasted on them and my new egoism was galled by the humiliation of the work.
“I had to live, and I understood clocks. Here again I was at a disadvantage because I had no certificate of qualification, and anyhow ordinary cleaning and regulating of wrist-watches and mediocre mantel clocks bored me. But I hung around the clock exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and worked my way into the private room of the curator of that gallery in order to ask questions, and it was not long before I had a rather irregular job there. It is never easy to find people who can be trusted with fine old pieces, because it calls for a kind of sympathy that isn’t directly hitched to mechanical knowledge.
“With those old clocks you need to know not only how they work, but why they are built as they are. Every piece is individual, and something of the temperament of the maker is built into them, so the real task is to discern whatever you can of the maker’s temperament and work within it, if you hope to humour his clock and persuade it to come to life again.
“In the States and Canada they talk about ‘fixing’ clocks; it’s a bad word, because you can’t just fix a clock if you hope to bring it to life. I was a reanimator of clocks, and I was particularly good at the sonnerie—you know, the bells and striking apparatus—which is especially hard to humour into renewed life. You’ve all heard old clocks that strike as if they were being managed by very old, arthritic gnomes; the notes tumble along irregularly, without any of the certainty and dignity you want from a true chime. It’s a tricky thing to restore dignity to a clock that has been neglected or misused or that simply has grown old. I could do that, because I understood time.
“I mean my own time, as well as the clock’s. So many workmen think in terms of their own time, on which they put a value. They will tell you it’s no good monkeying with an old timepiece because the cost of the labour would run too close to the value of the clock, even when it was restored. I never cared how long a job took, and I didn’t charge for my work by the hour; not because I put no value on my time but because I found that such an attitude led to hurried work, which is fatal to humouring clocks. I don’t suppose I was paid as much as I could have demanded if I had charged by the hour, but I made myself invaluable, and in the end that has its price. I had a knack for the work, part of which was the understanding I acquired of old metal (which mustn’t be treated as if it were modern metal), and part of which was the boundless patience and the contempt for time I had gained sitting inside Abdullah, when time had no significance.
“I suppose the greatest advantage I have had over other people who have wanted to do what I can do is that I really had no education at all, and am free of the illusions and commonplace values that education brings. I don’t speak against education; for most people it is a necessity; but if you’re going to be a genius you should try either to avoid education entirely, or else work hard to get rid of any you’ve been given. Education is for commonplace people and it fortifies their commonplaceness. Makes them useful, of course, in an ordinary sort of way.
“So I became an expert on old clocks, and I know a great many of the finest chamber clocks, and lantern clocks, and astronomical and equation clocks in the finest collections in the world, because I have rebuilt them, and tinkered them, and put infinitesimal new pieces into them (but always fashioned in old metal, or it would be cheating), and brought their chimes back to their original pride, and while I was doing that work I was as anonymous as I had been when I was inside Abdullah. I was a back-room expert who worked on clocks which the Museum undertook, as a special favour, to examine and put in order if it could be done. And when I had become invaluable I had no trouble in getting a very good letter of recommendation, to anybody whom it might concern, from the curator, who was a well-known man in his field.
“With that I set off for Switzerland, because I knew that there ought to be a job for a good clock-man there, and I was certain that when the war came Switzerland would be neutral, though probably not comfortable. I was right; there were shortages, endless problems about spies who wouldn’t play their game according to the rules, bombings that were explained as accidental and perhaps were, and the uneasiness rising toward hysteria of being in the middle of a continent at war when other nations use your neutrality on the one hand, and hate you for it on the other. We were lucky to have Henri Guisan to keep us in order.
“I say ‘we’, though I did not become a Swiss and have never done so; theirs is not an easy club to join. I was Jules LeGrand, and a Canadian, and although that was sometimes complicated I managed to make it work.
“I presented my letter at the biggest watch and clock factories, and although I was pleasantly received I could not get a job, because I was not a Swiss, and at that time there were many foreigners who wanted jobs in important industries, and it was probable that some of them were spies. If I were going to place a spy, I would get a man who could pass for a native, and equip him with unexceptionable papers to show that he was a native; but when people are afraid of spies they do not think rationally. Still, after some patient application I wrangled an interview at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva, and after waiting a while Jules LeGrand found himself once more in the back room of a museum. It was there that one of the great strokes of luck in my life occurred, and most uncharacteristically it came through an act of kindness I had undertaken. There must be a soft side to my nature, and perhaps I should have trusted it more than I have done.
“I was living in a pension, the proprietor of which had a small daughter. The daughter had got herself into deep trouble because she had broken her father’s walking-stick, and as the stick had been a possession of her grandfather it had something of the character of an heirloom. It was no ordinary walking-stick, but one of those joke sticks that fashionable young men used to carry—a fine Malacca cane, but with a knob on the top that did a trick. The knob of this particular specimen was of ivory, carved prettily like the head of a monkey; but when you pressed a button in its neck the monkey opened its mouth, stuck out a red tongue, and rolled its blue eyes up to heaven. The child had been warned not to play with grandfather’s stick, and had predictably done so, and jammed it so that the monkey was frozen in an expression of idiocy, its tongue half out and its eyes half raised.
“The family made a great to-do, and little Rosalie was lectured and hectored and deprived of her allowance for an indefinite period, and the tragedy of the stick was brought up at every meal; everybody at the pension had ideas about either child-rearing or the mending of the stick and I became thoroughly sick of hearing about it, though not as sick as poor Rosalie, who was a nice kid, and felt like a criminal. So I offered to take it to my workroom at the Musee and do what I could. Mending old toys could not be very different from mending old clocks, and Rosalie was growing pale, so clearly something must be done. The family had tried a few watch-repair people, but none of them wanted to be bothered with what looked like a troublesome job; it is astonishing that in a place like Geneva, which numbers watch mechanics in the thousands, there should be so few who are prepared to tackle anything old. Something new delights them, but what is old seems to clog their works. I suppose it is a matter of sympathetic approach, which was my chief stock-in-trade as a reanimator of old timepieces.
“The monkey was not really difficult, but he took time. Releasing the silver collar that kept the head in position without destroying it; removing the ivory knob without damage; penetrating the innards of the knob in such a way as to discover its secrets without wrecking them: these were troublesome tasks, but what someone has made, someone else can dismantle and make again. It proved to be a matter of an escapement device that needed replacing, and that meant making a tiny part on one of my tiny lathes from metal that would work well, but not too aggressively, with the old metal in the monkey’s works. Simple, when you know how and are prepared to take several hours to do it; not simple if you are in a hurry to finish. So I did it, and restored the stick to its owner with a flowery speech in which I begged forgiveness for Rosalie, and Rosalie thought I was a marvellous man (in which she was quite correct) and a very nice man (in which I fear she was mistaken).
“The significant detail is that one evening after the museum’s working day was done I was busy with the walking-stick when the curator of my department walked through the passage outside the small workshop, saw my light, and came in, like a good Swiss, to turn it off. He asked what I was doing, and when I explained he showed some interest. It was a year later that he sent for me and asked if I knew much about mechanical toys; I said I didn’t, but that it would be odd if a toy were more complex than a clock. Then he said, ‘Have you ever heard of Jeremias Naegeli?’ and I hadn’t. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘Jeremias Naegeli is very old, very rich, and very much accustomed to having his own way. He has retired, except for retaining the chairmanship of the board of So-and-So’—and he mentioned the name of one of the biggest clock, watch, and optical equipment manufacturers in Switzerland—’and he has collected a great number of mechanical toys, all of them old and some of them unique. He wants a man to put them in order. Would you be interested in a job like that?’
“I said, ‘If Jeremias Naegeli commands several thousand expert technicians, why would he want me?’ ‘Because his people are expected to keep on the job during wartime,’ said my boss; ‘it would not look well if he took a first-rate man for what might appear to be a frivolous job. He is old and he doesn’t want to wait until the war is over. But if he borrows you from the museum, and you are a foreigner not engaged in war production, it’s a different thing, do you understand?’ I understood, and in a couple of weeks I was on my way to St. Gallen to be looked over by the imperious Jeremias Naegeli.
“It proved that he lived at some distance from St. Gallon on his estate in the mountains, and a driver was sent to take me there. That was my first sight of Sorgenfrei. As you gentlemen know, it is an impressive sight, but try to imagine how impressive it was to me, who had never been in a rich house before, to say nothing of such a gingerbread castle as that. I was frightened out of my wits. As soon as I arrived I was taken by a secretary to the great man’s private room, which was called his study, but was really a huge library, dark, hot, stuffy, and smelling of leather furniture, expensive cigars, and rich man’s farts. It was this expensive stench that destroyed the last of my confidence, because it was as if I had entered the den of some fearsome old animal, which was precisely what Jeremias Naegeli was. It had been many years—in Willard’s time—since I had been afraid of anyone, but I was afraid of him.
“He played the role of great industrialist, contemptuous of ceremony and without an instant to spare on inferior people. ‘Have you brought your tools?’ was the first thing he said to me; although it was a silly question—why wouldn’t I have brought my tools?—he made it sound as if I were just the sort of fellow who would have travelled across the whole of Switzerland without them. He questioned me carefully about clockwork, and that was easy because I knew more about that subject than he did; he understood principles but I don’t suppose he could have made a safety-pin. Then he heaved himself out of his chair and gestured to me with his cigar to follow; he was old and very fat, and progress was slow, but we crawled back into the entrance hall, where he showed me the big clock there, which you have all seen; it has dials for everything you can think of—time at Sorgenfrei and at Greenwich, seconds, the day of the week, the date of the month, the seasons, and the signs of the zodiac, the phases of the moon, and a complex sonnerie. ‘What’s that?’ he said. So I told him what it was, and how it was integrated and what metals were probably used to balance one another off with enough compensation to keep the thing from needing continual readjustment. He didn’t say anything, but I knew he was pleased. ‘That clock was made for my grandfather, who designed it,’ he said. ‘He must have been a very great technician,’ I said, and that pleased him as well, as I meant it to do. Most men are much more partial to their grandfathers than to their fathers, just as they admire their grandsons but rarely their sons. Then he beckoned me to follow again, and this time we went on quite a long journey, down a flight of steps, through a long corridor, and up steps again into what I judged was another building; we had been through a tunnel.
“In a tall, sunny room in this building there was the most extraordinary collection of mechanical toys that anyone has ever seen; there can be no doubt about that, because it is now in one of the museums in Zurich, and its reputation is precisely what I have said—the most extensive and extraordinary in the world. But when I first saw it, the room looked as if all the little princes and princesses and serene highnesses in the world had been having a thoroughly destructive afternoon. Legs and arms lay about the floor, springs burst from little animals like metal guts, paint had been gashed with sharp points. It was a breathtaking scene of destruction, and as I wandered here and there looking at the little marvels and the terrible damage, I was filled with awe, because some of those things were of indisputable beauty and they had been despoiled in a fit of crazy fury.
“It was here that the old man showed the first touch of humanity I had seen in him. There were tears in his eyes. ‘Can you mend this?’ he asked, waving his heavy stick to encompass the room. It was not a time for hesitation. ‘I don’t know that I can mend it all,’ I said, ‘but if anybody can do it, I can. But I mustn’t be pressed for time.’ That fetched him. He positively smiled, and it wasn’t a bad smile either. ‘Then you must begin at once,’ he said, ‘and nobody shall ever ask you how you are getting on. But you will tell me sometimes, won’t you?’ And he smiled the charming smile again.
“That was how I began my life at Sorgenfrei. It was odd, and I never became fully accustomed to the routine of the house. There were a good many servants, most of whom were well up in years, as otherwise they would have been called away for war work. There were also two secretaries, both invalidish young men, and the old Direktor—which was what everybody called him—kept them busy, because he either had, or invented, a lot of business to attend to. There was another curious functionary, also unfit for military service, whose job it was to play the organ at breakfast, and play the piano at night if the old man wanted music after dinner. He was a fine musician, but he can’t have been driven by ambition, or perhaps he was too ill to care. Every morning of his life, while the Direktor consumed a large breakfast, this fellow sat in the organ loft and worked his way methodically through Bach’s chorales. The old man called them his prayers and he heard three a day; he consumed spiced ham and cheese and extraordinary quantities of rolls and hot breads while he was listening to Bach, and when he had finished he hauled himself up and lumbered off to his study. From that time until evening the musician sat in the secretaries’ room and read, or looked out of the window and coughed softly, until it was time for him to put on his dress clothes and eat dinner with the Direktor, who would then decide if he wanted any Chopin that evening.
“We all dined with the Direktor, and with a severe lady who was the manager of his household, but we took our midday meal in another room. It was the housekeeper who told me that I must get a dinner suit, and sent me to St. Gallon to buy one. There were shortages in Switzerland, and they were reflected in the Direktor’s meals, but we ate extraordinarily well, all the same.
“The Direktor was as good as his word; he never harried me about time. We had occasional conferences about things I needed, because I required seasoned metal—not new stuff—that his influence could command from the large factories in the complex of which he was the nominal ruler and undoubted financial head; I also had to have some rather odd materials to repair finishes, and as I wanted to use egg tempera I needed a certain number of eggs, which were not the easiest things to get in wartime, even in Switzerland.
“I had never dealt with an industrialist before, and I was bothered by his demand for accurate figures; when he asked me how much spring-metal of a certain width and weight I wanted I was apt to say, “Oh, a fair-sized coil,” which tried his temper dreadfully. But after he had seen me working with it, and understood that I really knew what I was doing, he regained his calm, and may even have recognized that in the sort of job he had given me accuracy of estimate was not to be achieved in the terms he understood.
“The job was literally a mess. I set to work methodically on the first day to canvass the room, picking up everything and putting the component parts of every toy in a separate box, so far as I could identify them. It took ten days, and when I had done I estimated that of the hundred and fifty toys that had originally been on the shelves, all but twenty-one could be identified and put into some sort of renewed life. What remained looked like what is found after an aircraft disaster; legs, heads, arms, bits of mechanism and unidentifiable rubbish lay there in a jumble that made no sense, sort it how I would.
“It was a queer way to spend the worst years of the war. So far as work and the nurture of my imagination went, I was in the nineteenth century. None of the toys was earlier than 1790, and most of them belonged to the 1830s and ‘40s, and reflected the outlook on life of that time, and its quality of imagination—the outlook and imagination, that’s to say, of the kind of people—French, Russian, Polish, German—who liked mechanical toys and could afford to buy them for themselves or their children. Essentially it was a stuffy, limited imagination.
“If I have been successful in penetrating the character of Robert-Houdin and the sort of performance he gave, it is because my work with those toys gave me the clue to it and his audience. They were people who liked imagination to be circumscribed: you were a wealthy bourgeois papa, and you wanted to give your little Clothilde a surprise on her birthday, so you went to the very best toymaker and spent a lot of money on an effigy of a little bootblack who whistled as he shined the boot he held in his hands. See Clothilde, see! How he nods his head and taps with his foot as he brushes away! How merrily he whistles ‘Ach, du lieber Augustin’! Open the back of his case—carefully, my darling, better let papa do it for you—and there is the spring, which pumps the little bellows and works the little barrel-and-pin device that releases the air into the pipes that makes the whistle. And these little rods and eccentric wheels make the boy polish the boot and wag his head and tap his toe. Are you not grateful to papa for this lovely surprise? Of course you are, my darling. And now we shall put the little boy on a high shelf, and perhaps on Saturday evenings papa will make it work for you. Because we mustn’t risk breaking it, must we? Not after papa spent so much money to buy it. No, we must preserve it with care, so that a century from now Herr Direktor Jeremias Naegeli will include it in his collection.
“But somebody had gone through Herr Direktor Naegeli’s collection and smashed it to hell. Who could it be?
“Who could be so disrespectful of all the careful preservation, painstaking assembly, and huge amount of money the collection represented? Who can have lost patience with the bourgeois charm of all these little people—the ballerinas who danced so delightfully to the music of the music-boxes, the little bands of Orientals who banged their cymbals and beat their drums and jingled their little hoops of bells, the little trumpeters (ten of them) who could play three different trumpet tunes, the canary that sang so prettily in its decorative cage, the mermaid who swam in what looked like real water, but was really revolving spindles of twisted glass, the little tightrope walkers, and the big cockatoo that could ruffle its feathers and give a lifelike squawk—who can have missed their charm and seen instead their awful rigidity and slavery to mechanical pattern?
“I found out who this monster was quite early in my long task. After I had sorted the debris of the collection, and set to work, I spent from six to eight hours a day sitting in that large room, with a jeweller’s glass stuck in my eye, reassembling mechanisms, humouring them till they worked as they ought, and then touching up the paintwork and bits of velvet, silk, spangles, and feathers that had been damaged on the birds, the fishes, monkeys, and tiny people who gave charm to the ingenious clockwork which was the important part of them.
“I am a concentrated worker, and not easily interrupted, but I began to have a feeling that I was not alone, and that I was being watched by no friendly eye. I could not see anything in the room that would conceal a snooper, but one day I felt a watcher so close to me that I turned suddenly and saw that I was being watched through one of the big windows, and that the watcher was a very odd creature indeed—a sort of monkey, I thought, so I waved to it and grinned, as one does at monkeys. In reply the monkey jabbed a fist through the window and cursed fiercely at me in some Swiss patois that was beyond my understanding. Then it unfastened the window by reaching through the hole it had made in the glass, threw up the sash, and leapt inside.
“Its attitude was threatening, and although I saw that it was human, I continued to behave as if it were a monkey. I had known Rango pretty well in my carnival days, and I knew that with monkeys the first rule is never to show surprise or alarm; but neither can you win monkeys by kindness. The only thing to do is to keep still and quiet and be ready for anything. I spoke to it in conventional German—”
“You spoke in a vulgar Austrian lingo,” said Liesl. “And you took the patronizing tone of an animal-trainer. Have you any idea what it is like to be spoken to in the way people speak to animals? A fascinating experience. Gives you quite a new feeling about animals. They don’t know words, but they understand tones. The tone people usually use to animals is affectionate, but it has an undertone of ‘What a fool you are!’ I suppose an animal has to make up its mind whether it will put up with that nonsense for the food and shelter that goes with it, or show the speaker who’s boss. That’s what I did. Really Magnus, if you could have seen yourself at that moment! A pretty, self-assured little manikin, watching to see which way I’d jump. And I did jump. Right on top of you, and rolled you on the floor. I didn’t mean to do you any harm, but I couldn’t resist rumpling you up a bit.”
“You bit me,” said Magnus.
“How was I to know it was only meant to be a nip?”
“You weren’t. But did you have to hit me on the head with the handle of a screwdriver?”
“Yes, I did. Not that it had much effect.”
“You couldn’t know that the most ineffective thing you could do to me was to hit me on the head.”
“Liesl, you would have frightened St. George and his dragon. If you wanted gallantry you shouldn’t have hit me and squeezed me and banged my head on the floor as you did. So far as I knew I was fighting for my life. And don’t pretend now that you meant it just as a romp. You were out to kill. I could smell it on your breath.”
“I could certainly have killed you. Who knew or cared that you were at Sorgenfrei, mending those ridiculous toys? In wartime who would have troubled to trace one insignificant little mechanic, travelling on a crooked passport, who happened to vanish? My grandfather would have been angry, but he would have had to hush the thing up somehow. He couldn’t hand his granddaughter over to the police. The old man loved me, you know. If he hadn’t, he would probably have killed me or banished me after I smashed up his collection of toys.”
“And why did you smash them?” said Lind.
“Pure bloody-mindedness. For which I had good cause. You have heard what Magnus says: I looked like an ape. I still look like an ape, but I have made my apishness serve me and now it doesn’t really matter. But it mattered then, more than anything else in the world, to me. It mattered more than the European War, more than anybody’s happiness. I was so full of spleen I could have killed Magnus, and enjoyed it, and then told my grandfather to cope with the situation, and enjoyed that. And he would have done it.
“You’d better let me tell you about it, before Magnus rushes on and puts the whole thing in his own particular light. My life was pretty much that of any lucky rich child until I was fourteen. The only thing that was in the least unusual was that my parents—my father was Jeremias Naegeli’s only son—were killed in a motor accident when I was eleven. My grandfather took me on, and was as kind to me as he knew how to be. He was like the bourgeois papa that Magnus described giving the mechanical top to little Clothilde; my grandfather belonged to an era when the attitude toward children was that they were all right as long as they were loved and happy, and their happiness was obviously the same as that of their guardians. It works pretty well when nothing disturbs the pattern, but when I was fourteen something very disturbing happened in my pattern.
“It was at the beginning of puberty, and I knew all about that because my grandfather was enlightened and I was given good, if rather Calvinist, instruction by a woman doctor. So when I began to grow rather fast I didn’t pay much attention until it seemed that the growth was too much for me and I began to have fainting fits. The woman doctor appeared again and was alarmed. Then began a wretched period of hospitals and tests and consultations and head-shakings and discussions in which I was not included, and after all that a horrible time when I was taken to Zurich three times a week for treatment with a large ray-machine. The treatments were nauseating and depressing, and I was wretched because I supposed I had cancer, and asked the woman doctor about it. No, not cancer. What, then? Some difficulty with the growing process, which the ray treatment was designed to arrest.
“I won’t bore you with it all. The disease was a rare one, but not so rare they didn’t have some ideas about it, and Grandfather made sure that everything was done that anyone could do. The doctors were delighted. They did indeed control my growth, which made them as happy as could be, because it proved something. They explained to me, as if it were the most wonderful Christmas gift any girl ever had, that if they had not been able to do wonders with their rays and drugs I would have been a giant. Think of it, they said; you might have been eight feet tall, but we have been able to halt you at five foot eleven inches, which is not impossibly tall for a woman. You are a very lucky young lady. Unless, of course, there is a recurrence of the trouble, for which we shall keep the most vigilant watch. You may regard yourself as cured.
“There were, of course, a few side effects. One cannot hope to escape such an experience wholly unscathed. The side effects were that I had huge feet and hands, a disfiguring thickening of the skull and jaw, and surely one of the ugliest faces anyone has ever seen. But wasn’t I lucky not to be a giant, as well?
“I was so perverse as not to be grateful for my luck. Not to be a giant, at the cost of looking like an ape, didn’t seem to me to be the greatest good luck. Surely Fortune had something in her basket a little better than that? I raved and I raged, and I made everybody as miserable as I could. My grandfather didn’t know what to do. Zurich was full of psychiatrists but my grandfather belonged to a pre-psychiatric age. He sent for a bishop, a good Lutheran bishop, who was a very nice man but I demolished him quickly; all his talk about resignation, recognition of the worse fate of scores of poor creatures in the Zurich hospitals, the necessity to humble oneself before the inscrutable mystery of God’s will, sounded to me like mockery. There sat the bishop, with his snowy hair smelling of expensive cologne and his lovely white hands moulding invisible loaves of bread in the air before him, and there sat I, hideous and destroyed in mind, listening to him prate about resignation. He suggested that we pray, and knelt with his face in the seat of his chair. I gave him such a kick in the arse that he limped for a week, and rushed off to my own quarters.
“There was worse to come. With the thickening of the bones of my head there had been trouble with my organs of speech, and there seemed to be nothing that could be done about that My voice became hoarse, and as my tongue thickened I found speech more and more difficult, until I could only utter in a gruff tone that sounded to me like the bark of a dog. That was the worst. To be hideous was humiliating and ruinous to my spirit, but to sound as I did threatened my reason. What was I to do? I was young and very strong, and I could rage and destroy. So that is what I did.
“It had all taken a long time, and when Magnus first saw me at the window of his workroom I was seventeen. I had gone on the rampage one day, and wrecked Grandfather’s collection of toys. It was usually kept locked up but I knew how to get to it. Why did I do it? To hurt the old man. Why did I want to hurt the old man? Because he was at hand, and the pity I saw in his eyes when he came to see me—I kept away from the life in the house—made me hate him. Who was he, so old, so near death, so capable of living the life he liked, to pity me? If Fate had a blow, why didn’t Fate strike him? He would not have had to endure it long. But I might easily live to be as old as he, trapped in my ugliness for sixty years. So I smashed his toys. Do you know, he never said a word of reproach? In the kind of world the bishop inhabited his forbearance would have melted my heart and brought me to a better frame of mind. But misfortune had scorched all the easy Christianity out of me, and I despised him all the more for his compassion, and wondered where I could attack him next.
“I knew Grandfather had brought someone to Sorgenfri to mend the toys, and I wanted to see who it was. There was not much fun to be got out of the secretaries, and I had exhausted the possibilities of tormenting Hofetatter, the musician; he was poor game, and wept easily, the feeble schlemiel. I had spied on Magnus for quite a time before he discovered me; looking in the windows of his workroom meant climbing along a narrow ledge some distance above ground and as I looked like an ape I thought I might as well behave like one. So I used to creep along the ledge, and watch the terribly neat, debonair little fellow bent over his workbench, tinkering endlessly with bits of spring and tiny wires, and filing patiently at the cogs of little wheels. He always had his jeweller’s glass stuck in one eye, and a beautifully fresh long white coat, and he never sat down without tugging his trousers gently upward to preserve their crease. He was handsome, too, in a romantic, nineteenth-century way that went beautifully with the little automata he was repairing.
“Before my trouble I had loved to go to the opera, and Contes d’Hoffmann was one of my favourites; the scene in Magnus’s workroom always reminded me of the mechanical doll, Olympia, in Hoffmann, though he was not a bit like the grotesque old man who quarrelled over Olympia. So there it was, Hoffmann inside the window and outside, what? The only person in opera I resembled at all was Kundry the monstrous woman in Parsifal, and Kundry always seemed to be striving to do good and be redeemed. I didn’t want to do good and had no interest in being redeemed.
“I read a good deal and my favourite book at that time was Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes—I was not a stupid girl, you understand—and from it I had drawn a mishmash of notions which tended to support whatever I felt like doing, especially when I wanted to be destructive. Most adolescents are destructive, I suppose, but the worst are certainly those who justify what they do with a half-baked understanding of somebody’s philosophy. It was under the banner of Spengler, then, that I decided to surprise Magnus and rough him up a bit. He looked easy. A man who worried so much in private about the crease of his trousers was sure to be a poor fighter.
“The surprise was mine. I was bigger and stronger but I hadn’t had his experience in carnival fights and flophouses. He soon found out that hitting me on the head was no good, and hit me a most terrible blow in the diaphragm that knocked out all my breath. Then he bent one of my legs backward and sat on me. That was when we had our first conversation.
“It was long, and I soon discovered that he spoke my language. I don’t mean German; I had to teach him proper German later. I mean that he asked intelligent questions and expected sensible answers. He was also extremely rude. I told you I had a hoarse, thick voice, and he had trouble understanding me in French and English. ‘Can’t you speak better than that?’ he demanded, and when I said I couldn’t he simply said, ‘You’re not trying; you’re making the worst of it in order to seem horrible. You’re not horrible, you’re just stupid. So cut it out.’
“Nobody had ever talked to me like that. I was the Naegeli heiress, and I was extremely unfortunate; I was used to deference, and people putting up with whatever I chose to give them. Here was little Herr Trousers-Crease, who spoke elegant English and nice clean French and barnyard German, cheeking me about the way I spoke. And laying down the law and making conditions! ‘If you want to come here and watch me work you must behave yourself. You should be ashamed, smashing up all these pretty things! Have you no respect for the past? Look at this: a monkey orchestra of twenty pieces and a conductor, and you’ve reduced it to a boxful of scraps. I’ve got to mend it, and it won’t take less than four to six months of patient, extremely skilled work before the monkeys can play their six little tunes again. And all because of you! Your grandfather ought to tie you to the weathervane and leave you on the roof to die!’
“Well, it was a change from the bishop and my grandfather’s tears. Of course I knew it was bluff. He may have hoped to shame me, but I think he was cleverer than that. All he was doing was serving notice on me that he would not put up with any nonsense; he knew I was beyond shame. But it was a change. And I began, just a little, to like him. Little Heir Trousers-Crease had quality, and an egoism that was a match for my own.
“Now—am I to go on? If there is to be any more of this I think I should be the one to speak. But is this confessional evening to know no bounds?”
“I think you’d better go ahead, Liesl,” said I. “You’ve always been a great one to urge other people to tell their most intimate secrets. It’s hardly fair if you refuse to do so.”
“Ah, yes, but dear Ramsay, what follows isn’t a tale of scandal, and it isn’t really a love-story. Will it be of any interest? We must not forget that this is supposed to provide a subtext for Magnus’s film about Robert-Houdin. What is the real story of the making of a great conjuror as opposed to Robert-Houdin’s memoirs, which we are pretty much agreed are a bourgeois fake? I don’t in the least mind telling my side of the story, if its of any interest to the film-makers. What’s the decision?”
“The decision is that you go on,” said Kinghovn. “You have paused simply to make yourself interesting, as women do. No—that’s unjust. Eisengrim has been doing the same thing all day. But go on.”
“Very well, Harry, I shall go on. But there won’t be much for you in what I have to tell, because this part of the story could not be realized in visual terms, even by you. What happened was that I came more and more to the workroom where little Herr Trousers-Crease was mending Grandfather’s automata, and I fell under the enchantment of what he was able to do. He has told you that he humoured those little creatures back into life, but you would have to see him at work to get any kind of understanding of what it meant, because only part of it was mechanical. I suppose one of Grandfather’s master technicians—one of the men who make those marvellous chronometers that are given to millionaires by their wives, and which never vary from strict time by more than a second every year—could have mended all those little figures so that they worked, but only Magnus could have read, in a cardboard box full of parts, the secret of the tiny performance that the completed figure was meant to give. When he had finished one of his repair jobs, the little bootblack did not simply brisk away at his little boot with his miniature brush, and whistle and tap his foot: he seemed to live, to have a true quality of being as though when you had turned your back he would leap up from his box and dance a jig, or run off for a pot of beer. You know what those automata are like: there is something distasteful about their rattling merriment; but Magnus made them act—they gave a little performance. I had seen them before I broke them, and I swear that when Magnus had remade them they were better than they had ever been.
“Was little Herr Trousers-Crease a very great watchmaker’s mechanic, then? No, something far beyond that. There must have been in him some special quality that made it worth his while to invest these creatures of metal with so much vitality and charm of action. Roly has talked about his wolfishness; that was part of it, because with that wolfishness went an intensity of imagination and vision. The wolfishness meant only that he never questioned the overmastering importance of what he—whoever and whatever he was—might be doing. But the artistry was of a rare kind, and little by little I began to understand what it was. I found it in Spengler.
“You have read Spengler? No; it is not so fashionable as it once was. But Spengler talks a great deal about what he calls the Magian World View, which he says we have lost, but which was part of the Weltanschauung—you know, the world outlook—of the Middle Ages. It was a sense of the unfathomable wonder of the invisible world that existed side by side with a hard recognition of the roughness and cruelty and day-to-day demands of the tangible world. It was a readiness to see demons where nowadays we see neuroses, and to see the hand of a guardian angel in what we are apt to shrug off ungratefully as a stroke of luck. It was religion, but a religion with a thousand gods, none of them all-powerful and most of them ambiguous in their attitude toward man. It was poetry and wonder which might reveal themselves in the dunghill, and it was an understanding of the dunghill that lurks in poetry and wonder. It was a sense of living in what Spengler called a quivering cavern-light which is always in danger of being swallowed up in the surrounding, impenetrable darkness.
“This was what Herr Trousers-Crease seemed to have, and what made him ready to spend his time on work that would have maddened a man of modern education and modern sensibility. We have paid a terrible price for our education, such as it is. The Magian World View, in so far as it exists, has taken flight into science, and only the great scientists have it or understand where it leads; the lesser ones are merely clockmakers of a larger growth, just as so many of our humanist scholars are just cud-chewers or system-grinders. We have educated ourselves into a world from which wonder, and the fear and dread and splendour and freedom of wonder have been banished. Of course wonder is costly. You couldn’t incorporate it into a modern state, because it is the antithesis of the anxiously worshipped security which is what a modern state is asked to give. Wonder is marvellous but it is also cruel, cruel, cruel. It is undemocratic, discriminatory, and pitiless.
“Yet here it was, in this most unexpected place, and when I had found it I apprenticed myself to it. Literally, for I begged Herr Trousers-Crease to teach me what he knew, and even with my huge hands I gained skill, because I had a great master. And that means very often an exacting, hot-tempered, and impatient master, because whatever my great countrymen Pestalozzi and Froebel may have said about the education of commonplace people, great things are not taught by blancmange methods. What great thing was I learning? The management of clockwork? No; any great craft tends at last toward the condition of a philosophy, and I was moving through clockwork to the Magian World View.
“Of course it took time. My grandfather was delighted, for what he saw was that his intractable, hideous granddaughter was quietly engaged in helping to repair what she had destroyed. He also saw that I improved physically, because my agony over my sickness had been terribly destructive; physically I had become slouching and simian, and as Magnus saw at once, I made my speech trouble far worse than it was, to spite myself and the world. Magnus helped me with that. Re-taught me, indeed, because he would not tolerate my uncouth mutterings, and gave me some sharp and demanding instruction in the manner of speech he had learned from Lady Tresize. And I learned. It was a case of learn to speak properly or get out of the workroom, and I wanted to stay.
“We were an odd pair, certainly. I knew about the Magian World View, and recognized it in my teacher. He knew nothing of it, because he knew nothing else: it was so much in the grain of the life he had lived, so much a part of him, that he didn’t understand that everybody else didn’t think—no, not think, feel—as he did. I would not for the world have attempted to explain it to him, because that would have endangered it. His kind was not the kind of mind that is happy with explanations and theories. In the common sense of the expression, he had no brains at all, and hasn’t to this day. What does it matter? I have brains for him.
“As his pupil, is it strange that I should fall in love with him? I was young and healthy, and hideous though I was, I had my yearnings—perhaps exaggerated by the unlikelihood that they could find satisfaction. How was I to make him love me? Well, I began, as all the beginners in love do, with the crazy notion that if I loved him enough he must necessarily respond. How could he ignore the devotion I offered? Pooh! He didn’t notice at all. I worked like a slave, but that was no more than he expected. I made little gestures, gave him little gifts, tried to make myself fascinating—and that was uphill work, let me assure you. Not that he showed distaste for me. After all, he was a carnival man, and had grown used to grotesques. He simply didn’t think of me as a woman.
“At least, that is how I explained it to myself, and I made myself thoroughly miserable about it. At last, one day, when he spoke to me impatiently and harshly, I wept. I suppose I looked dreadful, and he became even more rough. So I seized him, and demanded that he treat me as a human creature and not simply as a handy assistant, and blubbered out that I loved him. I did all the youthful things: I told him that I knew it was impossible that he should love me, because I was so ugly, but that I wanted some sort of human feeling from him.
“To my delight he took me quite seriously. We sat down at the workbench, and settled to a tedious task that needed some attention, but not too much, and he told me about Willard, and his childhood, and said that he did not think that love in the usual sense was for him, because he had experienced it as a form of suffering and humiliation—a parody of sex—and he could not persuade himself to do to anyone else what had been done to him in a perverse and terrifying mode.
“This was going too fast for me. Of course I wanted sexual experience, but first of all I wanted tenderness. Under my terrible appearance—I read a lot of old legends and I thought of myself as the Loathly Maiden in the Arthurian stories—I was still an upper-class Swiss girl of gentle breeding, and I thought of sexual intercourse as a splendid goal to be achieved, after a lot of pleasant things along the way. And being a sensible girl, under all the outward trouble and psychological muddle, I said so. That led to an even greater surprise.
“He told me that he had once been in love with a woman, who had died, and that he could not feel for anyone else as he had felt for her. Romance! I rose to it like a trout to a fly. But I wanted to know more, and the more I heard the better it was. Titled lady of extraordinary charm, understanding, and gentleness. All this was to the good. But then the story began to slide sidewise into farce, as it seemed to me. The lady was not young; indeed, as I probed, it came out that she had been over sixty when he first met her. There had been no tender passages between them, because he respected her too much, but he had been privileged to read the Bible to her. It was at this point I laughed.
“Magnus was furious. The more he stormed the more I laughed, and I am sorry to say that the more I laughed the more I jeered at him. I was young, and the young can be horribly coarse about love that is not of their kind. From buggery to selfless, knightly adoration at one splendid leap! I made a lot of it, and hooted with mirth.
“I deserved to be slapped, and I was slapped. I hit back, and we fought, and rolled on the floor and slugged each other. But of course everyone knows that you should never fight with women if you want to punish them; the physical contact leads to other matters, and it did. I was not ready for sexual intercourse so soon, and Magnus did not want it, but it happened all the same. It was the first time for both of us, and it is a wonder we managed at all. It is like painting in water-colours, you know; it looks easy but it isn’t. Real command only comes with experience. We were both astonished and cross. I thought I had been raped; Magnus thought he had been unfaithful to his real love. It looked like a deadlock.
“It wasn’t, however. We did it lots of times after that—I mean, in the weeks that followed—and the habit is addictive, as you all know, and very agreeable, if not really the be-all and end-all and cure-all that stupid people pretend. It was good for me. I became quite smart, in so far as my appearance allowed, and paid attention to my hair, which as you see is very good. My grandfather was transported, because I began to eat at the family table again, and when he had guests I could be so charming that they almost forgot how I looked. The Herr Direktor’s granddaughter Fraulein Orang-Outang, so charming and witty, though it is doubtful if even the old man’s money will find her a husband.
“I am sure Grandfather knew I was sleeping with Magnus, and it must have given him severe Calvinist twinges, but he did not become a great industrialist by being a fool; he weighed the circumstances and was pleased by the obvious balance on the credit side. I think he would have consented to marriage if Magnus had mentioned it. But of course he didn’t.
“Nor would I have urged it. The more intimate we became, the more I knew that we were destined to be very great friends, and probably frequent bedmates, but certainly not a happy bourgeois married couple. For a time I called Magnus Tiresias, because like that wonderful old creature he had been for seven years a woman, and had gained strange wisdom and insight thereby. I thought of him sometimes as Galahad, because of his knightly obsession with the woman we now know as Milady, but I never called him that to his face, because I had done with mocking at his chivalry. I have never understood chivalry, but I have learned to keep my mouth shut about it.”
“It’s a man’s thing,” said I; “and I think we have seen the last of it for a while on this earth. It can’t live in a world of liberated women, and perhaps the liberation of women is worth the price it is certain to cost. But chivalry won’t die easily or unnoticed; banish chivalry from the world and you snap the mainspring of many lives.”
“Good, grey old Ramsay,” said Liesl, reaching over to pat my hand; “always gravely regretting, always looking wistfully backward.”
“You’re both wrong,” said Magnus. “I don’t think chivalry belongs to the past; it’s part of that World View Liesl talks so much about, and that she thinks I possess but don’t understand. What captured my faith and loyalty about Milady had just as much to do with Sir John. He was that rare creature, the Man of One Woman. He loved Milady young and he loved her old and much of her greatness was the creation of his love. To hear people talk and to look at the stuff they read and see in the theatre and the films, you’d think the true man was the man of many women, and the more women, the more masculine the man. Don Juan is the ideal. An unattainable ideal for most men, because of the leisure and money it takes to devote yourself to a life of womanizing—not to speak of the relentless energy, the unappeasable lust, and the sheer woodpecker-like vitality of the sexual organ that such a life demands. Unattainable, yes, but thousands of men have a stab at it, and in their old age they count their handful of successes like rosary beads. But the Man of One Woman is very rare. He needs resources of spirit and psychological virtuosity beyond the common, and he needs luck, too, because the Man of One Woman must find a woman of extraordinary quality. The Man of One Woman was the character Sir John played on the stage, and it was the character he played in life, too.
“I envied him, and I cherished the splendour those two had created. If, by any inconceivable chance, Milady had shown any sexual affection for me, I should have been shocked, and I would have rebuked her. But she didn’t, of course, and I simply warmed myself at their fire, and by God I needed warmth. I once had a hope that I might have found something of the sort for myself, with you, Liesl, but my luck was not to run in that direction. I would have been very happy to be a Man of One Woman, but that wasn’t your way, nor was it mine. I couldn’t forget Milady.”
“No, no; we went our ways,” said Liesl. “And you know you were never much of a lover, Magnus. What does that matter? You were a great magician, and has any great magician ever been a great lover? Look at Merlin: his only false step was when he fell in love and ended up imprisoned in a tree for his pains. Look at poor old Klingsor: he could create gardens full of desirable women, but he had been castrated with a magic spear. You’ve been happy with your magic. And when I gained enough confidence to go out into the world again, I was happy in a casual, physical way with quite a few people, and some of the best of them were of my own sex.”
“Yes, indeed,” said Magnus. “Who snatched the Beautiful Faustina from under my very nose?”
“Oh, Faustina, Faustina, you always bring her up when you feel a grievance. You must understand, gentlemen, that when my grandfather died, and I was heir to a large fortune, Magnus and I realized a great ambition we had in common; we set up a magic show, which developed and gained sophistication and gloss until it became the famous Soiree of Illusions. It takes money to get one of those things on its feet, as you well know, but when it is established it can be very profitable.
“You can’t have a magic show without a few beautiful girls to be sawn in two, or beheaded, or whisked about in space. Sex has its place in magic, even if it is not the foremost place. As ours was the best show in existence, or sought to become the best, we had to have some girls better than the pretty numskulls who are content to take simple jobs in which they are no more than living stage properties.
“I found one in Peru, a great beauty indeed but not far evolved in the European sense; a lovely animal. I bought her, to be frank. You can still buy people, you know, if you understand how to go about it. You don’t go to a peasant father and say, ‘Sell me your daughter’; you say, ‘I can open up a splendid future for your daughter, that will make her a rich lady with many pairs of shoes, and as I realize you need her to work at home, I hope you won’t be offended if I offer you five hundred American dollars to recompense you for the loss.’ He isn’t offended; not in the least. And you make sure he puts his mark on an official-looking piece of paper that apprentices the girl to you, to learn a trade—in this case the trade of seamstress, because actress has a bad sound if there is any trouble. And there you are. You wash the girl, teach her to stand still on stage and do what she is told, and you clout her over the ear if she is troublesome. Quite soon she thinks she is a great deal more important than she really is, but that can be endured.
“Faustina was a thrill on the stage, because she really was stunningly beautiful, and for a while it seemed to be good business to let curious people think she was Magnus’s mistress; only a few rather perceptive people know that great magicians, as opposed to ham conjurors, don’t have mistresses. In reality, Faustina was my mistress, but we kept that quiet, in case some clamorous moralist should make a fuss about it. In Latin America, in particular, the clergy are pernickety about such things. You remember Faustina, Ramsay? I recall you had a wintry yearning toward her yourself.”
“Don’t be disagreeable, Liesl,” I said. “You know who destroyed that.”
“Destroyed it, certainly, and greatly enriched you in the process,” said Liesl, and touched me gently with one of her enormous hands.
“So there you have it, gentlemen,” she continued. “Now you know everything, it seems to me.”
“Not everything,” said Ingestree. “The name, Magnus Eisengrim—whose inspiration was that?”
“Mine,” said Liesl. “Did I tell you I took my degree at the University of Zurich? Yes, in the faculty of philosophy where I leaned toward what used to be called philology—quite a Teutonic speciality. So of course I was acquainted with the great beast-legends of Europe, and in Reynard the Fox, you know, there is the great wolf Eisengrim, whom everyone fears, but who is not such a bad fellow, really. Just the name for a magician, don’t you think?”
“And your name,” said Lind. “Liselotte Vitzliputzli? You were always named on the programmes as Theatre Autocrat—Liselotte Vitzliputzli.”
“Ah, yes. Somebody has to be an autocrat in an affair of that kind, and it sounds better and is more frank than simply Manager. Anyhow, I wasn’t quite a manager: I was the boss. It was my money, you see. But I knew my place. Manager I might be, but without Magnus Eisengrim I was nothing. Consequently—Vitzlipiitzli. You understand?”
“No, gnadiges Fraulein, I do not understand,” said Lind, “and you know I do not understand. What I am beginning to understand is that you are capable of giving your colleagues Eisengrim and Ramsay a thoroughly difficult time when it is your whim. So again—Vitzliputzli?”
“Dear, dear, how ignorant people are in this supposedly brilliant modern world,” said Liesl. “You surely know Faust? Not Goethe’s Faust, of course; every Teuton has that by heart—both parts of it—but the old German play on which he based his poem. Look among the characters there, and you will find that the least of the demons attending on the great magician is Vitzlipiitzli. So that was the name I chose. A delicate compliment to Magnus. It takes a little of the sting out of the word Autocrat.
“But an autocrat is what I must be now. Gentlemen, we have talked for a long time, and I hope we have given you your subtext. You have seen what a gulf lies between the reality of a magician with the Magian World View and such a pack of lies as Robert-Houdin’s bland, bourgeois memoirs. You have seen, too, what a distance there is between the pack of lies Ramsay wrote so artfully as a commercial life of our dear Eisengrim, and the sad little boy from Deptford. And now, we must travel tomorrow, and I must pack my two old gentlemen off to their beds, or they will not be happy for the plane. So it is time to say good night.”
Profuse thanks for hospitality, for the conversation, for the pleasure of working together on the film La Hommage a Robert-Houdin, from Lind. A rather curious exchange of friendly words and handshakes between Eisengrim and Roland Ingestree. The business of waking Kinghovn from a drunken stupor, of getting him to understand that he must not have another brandy before going home. And then, at last, we three went by ourselves.
“Strange to spend so many hours answering questions,” said Liesl.
“Strange, and disagreeable,” said Eisengrim.
“Strange what questions went unasked and unanswered,” said I.
“Such as…” said Liesl.
“Such as ‘Who Killed Boy Staunton?’ “ said I.