The film-makers were drawing near the end of their work. All but a few special scenes of Un Hommage a Robert-Houdin were “in the can”; what remained was to arrange backstage shots of Eisengrim being put into his “gaffed” conjuror’s evening coat by the actor who played the conjuror’s son and assistant; of assistants working quietly and deftly while the great magician produced astonishing effects on the stage; of Mme Robert-Houdin putting the special padded covers over the precious and delicate automata; of the son-assistant gently loading a dozen doves, or three rabbits, or even a couple of ducks into a space which seemed incapable of holding them; of all the splendidly efficient organization which was needed to produce the effect of the illogical and incredible. That night, therefore, Eisengrim moved his narrative along a little faster.
“You don’t want a chronological account of my seven years as the mechanism of Abdullah,” he said, “and indeed it would be impossible for me to give you one. Something was happening all the time, but only two or three matters were of any importance. We were continually travelling and seeing new places, but in fact we saw nothing. We brought excitement and perhaps a whisper of magic into thousands of rural Canadian lives, but our own lives were vast unbroken prairies of boredom. We were continually on the alert, sizing up the Rubes and trying to match what we gave to what they wanted, but no serious level of our minds was ever put to work.
“For Sonnenfels, Molza, and poor old Professor Spencer it was the only life they knew or could expect to have; the first two kept themselves going by nursing some elaborate, inexhaustible, ill-defined personal grievance which they shared; Spencer fed himself on complex, unworkable economic theories, and he would jaw you half to death about bimetallism, or Social Credit, if you gave him a chance. The Fat Woman had her untiring crusade against smut and irreligion; she could not reconcile herself to being simply fat, and I suppose this suggests some kind of mental or spiritual life in her. I saw hope dying in poor Em Dark, as Joe proved his incapacity to learn anything that would get them out of carnival life. Zitta was continually on the lookout for somebody to marry; she couldn’t make any money, because she had to spend so much on new, doctored snakes; but how do you get a sucker to the altar if you are always on the move? She would have snatched at Charlie, but Charlie liked something fresher, and anyhow Gus was vigilant to save Charlie from designing women. Zovene was locked in the misery of dwarfdom; he wasn’t really a midget, because a midget has to be perfectly formed, and he had a small but unmistakable hump; he was a sour little fellow, and deeply unhappy, I’m sure. Heinie Bayer had lived so long with Rango that he was more like Rango than like a man; they did not bring out the best in each other.
“Like a lot of monkeys, Rango was a great masturbator, and when Happy Hannah complained about it Heinie would snicker and say, ‘It’s natural, ain’t it?’ and encourage Rango to do it during the Last Trick, where the young people would see him. Then Hannah would shout across the tent, ‘Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.’ But the youngsters can’t have been believers in the sense of the text, for they hung around Rango, some snickering, some ashamedly curious, and some of the girls obviously unable to understand what was happening. Gus tried to put a stop to this, but even Gus had no power over Rango, except to put him off the show, and he was too solid a draw for that Hannah decided that Rango was a type of natural, unredeemed man, and held forth at length on that theme. She predicted that Rango would go mad, if he had any brains to go mad with. But Rango died unredeemed.
“So far as I was concerned, the whole of Wanless’s World of Wonders was unredeemed. Did Christ die for these, I asked myself, hidden in the shell of Abdulah. I decided that He didn’t. I now think I was mistaken, but you must remember that I began these reflections when I was ten years old, and deep in misery. I was in a world which seemed to me to be filthy in every way; I had grown up in a world where there was little love, but much concern about goodness. Here I could see no goodness, and felt no goodness.”
Lind intervened. “Excuse me if I am prying,” he said, “but you have been very frank with us, and my question is one of deep concern, not simple curiosity. You were swept into the carnival because Willard had raped you; was there any more of that?”
“Yes, much more of it. I cannot pretend to explain Willard, and I think such people must be rare. I know very well that homosexuality includes love of all sorts, but in Willard it was just a perverse drive, untouched by affection or any concern at all, except for himself. At least once every week we repeated that first act. Places had to be found, and when it happened it was quick and usually done in silence except for occasional whimpers from me and—this was very strange—something very like whimpers from Willard.”
“And you never complained, or told anybody?”
“I was a child. I knew in my bones that what Willard did to me was very wrong, and he was careful to let me know that it was my fault. If I said a word to anybody, he told me, I would at once find myself in the hands of the law. And what would the law do to a boy who did what I did? Terrible things. When I dared to ask what the law would do to him, he said the law couldn’t touch him; he knew highly placed people everywhere.”
“How can you have continued to believe that?”
“Oh, you people who are so fortunately born, so well placed, so sure the policeman is your friend! Do you remember my home, Ramsay?”
“An abode of love, was it?”
“Your mother loved you very much.”
“My mother was a madwoman. Why? Ramsay has very fine theories about her; he had a special touch with her. But to me she was a perpetual reproach because I knew that her madness was my fault. My father told me that she had gone mad at the time of my birth, and because of it. I was born in 1908, when all sorts of extraordinary things were still believed about childbirth, especially in places like Deptford. Those were the sunset days of the great legend of motherhood. When your mother bore you, she went down in her anguish to the very gates of Death, in order that you might have life. Nothing that you could do subsequently would work off your birth-debt to her. No degree of obedience, no unfailing love, could put the account straight. Your guilt toward her was a burden you carried all your life. Christ, I can hear Charlie now, standing on the stage of a thousand rotten little vaude houses, giving out that message in a tremulous voice, while the pianist played ‘In a Monastery Garden’ —
Mis for the million smiles she gave me;
Omeans only that she’s growing old;
Tis for the times she prayed to save me;
His for her heart, of purest gold;
Eis every wrong that she forgave me;
Ris right—and Right she’ll always be!
Put them all together, they spell MOTHER—
A word that means the world to me!
That was the accepted attitude toward mothers, at that time, in the world I belonged to. Well? Imagine what it was like to grow up with a mother who had to be tied up every morning before my father could go off to his work as an accountant at the planing-mill; he was a parson no longer because her disgrace had made it impossible for him to continue his ministry. What was her disgrace? Something that made my schoolmates shout ‘Hoor!’ when they passed our house. Something that made them call out filthy jokes about hoors when they saw me. So there you have it. A disgraced and ruined home, and for what reason? Because I was born into it. That was the reason.
“That wasn’t all. I said that when Willard used me he whimpered. Sometimes he spoke in his whimpering, and what he said then was, ‘You goddam little hoor!’ And when it was over, more than once he slapped me mercilessly around the head, saying, ‘Hoor! You’re nothing but a hoor!’ It wasn’t really condemnation; it seemed to be part of his fulfilment, his ecstasy. Don’t you understand? ‘Hoor’ was what my mother was, and what had brought our family down because of my birth. ‘Hoor’ was what I was. I was the filthiest thing alive. And I was Nobody. Now do you ask me why I didn’t complain to someone about ill usage? What rights had I? I hadn’t even a conception of what ‘rights’ were.”
“Could this go on without anybody knowing, or at least suspecting?” Lind was pale; he was taking this hard; I had not thought of him as having so much compassionate feeling.
“Of course they knew. But Willard was crafty and they had no proof. They’d have had to be very simple not to know that something was going on, and carnival people weren’t ignorant about perversion. They hinted, and sometimes they were nasty, especially Sonnenfels and Molza. Heinie and Zovene thought it was a great joke. Em Dark had spells of being sorry for me, but Joe didn’t want her to mix herself up in anything that concerned Willard, because Willard was a power in the World of Wonders. He and Charlie were very thick, and if Charlie turned against any of the Talent, there were all kinds of ways he could reduce their importance in the show, and then Gus might get the idea that some new Talent was wanted.
“Furthermore, I was thought to be bad luck by most of the Talent, and show people are greatly involved with the idea of luck. Early in my time on the show I got into awful trouble with Molza because I inadvertently shifted his trunk a few inches in the dressing tent. It was on a bit of board I wanted to use in my writing-lesson with Professor Spencer. Suddenly Moba was on me, storming incomprehensibly, and Spencer had trouble quieting him down. Then Spencer warned me against ever moving a trunk, which is very bad luck indeed; when the handlers bring it in from the baggage wagon they put it where it ought to go, and there it stays until they take it back to the train. I had to go through quite a complicated ceremony to ward off the bad luck, and Molza fussed all day.
“The idea of the Jonah is strong with show people. A bringer of ill luck can blight a show. Some of the Talent were sure I was a Jonah, which was just a way of focussing their detestation of what I represented, and of Willard, whom they all hated.
“Only the Fat Woman ever spoke to me directly about who and what I was. I forget exactly when it was, but it was fairly early in my experience on the show. It might have been during my second or third year, when I was twelve or thereabouts. One morning before the first trick, and even before the calliope began its toot-up, which was the signal that the World of Wonders and its adjuncts were opening for business, she was sitting on her throne and I was doing something to Abdullah, which I checked carefully every day for possible trouble.
“ ‘Come here, kid,’ she said. ‘I wanta talk to you. And I wanta talk mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches. Them words mean anything to you?’
“ ‘That’s from Numbers,’ I said.
“ ‘Numbers is right; Numbers twelve, verse eight. How do you know that?’
“ ‘I just know it.’
“ ‘No, you don’t just know it. You been taught it. And you been taught it by somebody who cared for your soul’s salvation. Was it your Ma?’
“ ‘My Pa,’ I said.
“ ‘Then did he ever teach you Deuteronomy twenty-three, verse ten?’
“ ‘Is that about uncleanness in the night?’
“ ‘That’s it. You been well taught. Did he ever teach you Genesis thirteen, verse thirteen? That’s one of the unluckiest verses in the Bible.’
“ ‘I don’t remember.’
“ ‘Not that the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly?’
“ ‘I don’t remember.’
“ ‘I bet you remember Leviticus twenty, thirteen.’
“ ‘I don’t remember.’
“ ‘You do so remember! If a man also lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.’
“I said nothing, but I am sure my face gave me away. It was one of Willard’s most terrible threats that if I were caught I should certainly be hanged. But I was mute before the Fat Woman.
“ ‘You know what that means, dontcha?’
“Oh, I knew what it meant. In my time on the show I had already learned a great deal about mankind lying with women, because Charlie talked about little else when he sat on the train with Willard. It was a very dark matter, for all I knew about it was the parody of this act which I was compelled to go through with Willard, and I assumed that the two must be equally horrible. But I clung to the child’s refuge: silence.
“ ‘You know where that leads, dontcha? Right slap to Hell, where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.’
“From me, nothing but silence.
“ ‘You’re in a place where no kid ought to be. I don’t mean the show, naturally. The show contains a lotta what’s good. But that Abdullah. That’s an idol, and that Willard and Charlie encourage the good folks that come in here for an honest show to bow down and worship almost before it, and they won’t be held guiltless. No sirree! Nor you, neither, because you’re the works of an idol and just as guilty as they are.’
“ ‘I just do what I’m told,’ I managed to say.
“ ‘That’s what many a sinner’s said, right up to the time when it’s no good saying it any longer. And those tricks. You’re learning tricks, aren’t you? What do you want tricks for?’
“I had a happy inspiration. I looked her straight in the eye. ‘I count them but dung, that I may win Christ,’ I said.
“ ‘That’s the right way to look at it, boy. Put first things first. If that’s the way you feel, maybe there’s some hope for you still.’ She sat a little forward in her chair, which was all she could manage, and put her podgy hands on her great knees, which were shown off to advantage by her pink rompers. ‘I’ll tell you what I always say,’ she continued; ‘there’s two things you got to be ready to do in this world, and that’s fight for what’s right, and read your Bible every day. I’m a fighter. Always have been. A mighty warrior for the Lord. And you’ve seen me on the train, reading my old Bible that’s so worn and thumbed that people say to me, “That’s a disgrace; why don’t you get yourself a decent copy of the Lord’s Word?” And I reply, “I hang on to this old Bible because it’s seen me through thick and thin, and what looks like dirt to you is the wear of love and reverence on every page.” A clean sword and a dirty Bible! That’s my warcry in my daily crusade for the Lord: a clean sword and a dirty Bible! Now, you remember that. And you ponder on Leviticus twenty, thirteen, and cut out all that fornication and Sodom abomination before it”s too late, if it isn’t too late already.’
“I got away, and hid myself in Abdullah and thought a lot about what Happy Hannah had said. My thoughts were like those of many a convicted sinner. I was pleased with my cleverness in thinking up that text that had averted her attack. I sniggered that I had even been able to use a forbidden word like ‘dung’ in a sanctified sense. I was frightened by Leviticus twenty, thirteen, and—you see how much a child of the superstitious carnival I had already become—by the double thirteen verse from Genesis. Double thirteen! What could be more ominous! I knew I ought to repent, and I did, but I knew I could not leave off my sin, or Willard might kill me, and not only was I afraid to die, I quite simply didn’t want to die. And such is the resilience of childhood that when the first trick advanced as far as Abdullah, I was pleased to defeat a particularly obnoxious Rube.
“After that I had many a conversation with Hannah in which we matched texts. Was I a hypocrite? I don’t think so. I had simply acquired the habit of adapting myself to my audience. Anyhow, my readiness with the Bible seemed to convince her that I was not utterly damned. I had no such assurance, but I was getting used to living with damnation.
“I had a Bible. I stole it from a hotel. It was one of those sturdy copies the Gideons spread about so freely in hotel rooms. I snitched one at the first opportunity, and as Professor Spencer was teaching me to read very capably I spent many an hour with it. I felt no compunction about the theft, because theft was part of the life I lived. Willard was as good a pickpocket as I have ever known, and one of the marks of his professionalism was that he was not greedy or slapdash in his methods.
“He had an agreement with Charlie. At a point about the middle of the bally, during one of the night shows, Charlie would interrupt his description of the World of Wonders to say, very seriously, Ladies and gentlemen, I think I ought to warn you, on behalf of the management, that pickpockets may be at work at this fair. I give you my assurance that nothing is farther from the spirit of amusement and education represented by our exhibition than the utterly indefensible practice of theft. But as you know, we cannot control everything that may happen. The gaff here was that when he spoke of thieves, Rubes who had a full wallet were likely to put a hand on it. Willard spotted them from the back of the crowd, and during the rest of Charlie’s pious spiel he would gently lift one from a promising Rube. It had to be very quick work. Then, when he had taken the money, he substituted a wad of newspaper of the appropriate size, and either during the bally, or when the Rube came into the tent, he would put the wallet back in place. Rubes generally carried their wallets on the left hip, and as their pants were often a tight fit, a light hand was necessary.
“Willard was never caught. If the Rube came to complain that he had been robbed, Charlie put on a show for him, shook his head sadly, and said that this was one of the problems that confronted honest show folks. Willard never pinched more than one bankroll in a town, and never robbed in the same town two years running. Willard liked best to steal from the local cop, but as cops rarely had much money this was a larcenous foppery which he did not often allow himself.
“Gus never caught on. Gus was a strangely innocent woman in everything that pertained to Charlie and his doings. Of course Charlie got a fifty per cent cut of what Willard stole.
“Willard knew I stole the Bible, and he was angry. Theft, he gave me to understand, was serious business and not for kids. Get caught stealing some piece of junk, and how were you to get back to serious theft again? Never steal anything trivial. This was perhaps the only moral precept Willard ever impressed on me.
“Anyhow, I had a hotel Bible, and I read it constantly, in many another hotel. The carnival business is a fair-weather business, and in winter it could not be pursued and the carnival had to be put to bed.
“That did not mean a cessation of work. The brother who never travelled with the carnival, but who did all our booking, was Jerry Wanless, and he handled the other side of the business, which was vaudeville booking. As soon as the carnival season was over, Willard and Abdullah were booked into countless miserable little vaudeville theatres throughout the American and Canadian Middle West.
“It was an era of vaudeville and there were thousands of acts to fill thousands of spots all over the continent There was a hierarchy of performance, beginning with the Big Time, which was composed of top acts that played in the big theatres of big cities for a week or more at a stretch. After it came the Small Big Time, which was pretty good and played lesser houses in big and middle-sized cities. Then came the Small Time, which played smaller towns in the sticks and was confined to split weeks. Below that was a rabble of acts that nobody wanted very much, which played for rotten pay in the worst vaude houses. Nobody ever gave it a name, and those who belonged to it always referred to it as Small Time, but it was really Very Small Time. That was where Jerry Wanless booked incompetent dog acts, jugglers who were on the booze, dirty comedians, single women without charm or wit, singers with nodes on their vocal chords, conjurors who dropped things, quick-change artistes who looked the same in all their impersonations, and a crowd of carnies like Willard and some of the other Talent from the World of Wonders.
“It was the hardest kind of entertainment work, and we did it in theatres that seemed never to have been swept, for audiences that seemed never to have been washed. We did continuous vaudeville: six acts followed by a “feature” movie, round and round and round from one o’clock in the afternoon until midnight. The audience was invited to come when it liked and stay as long as it liked. In fact, it changed completely almost every show, because there was always an act called a ‘chaser’ which was reckoned to be so awful that even the people who came to our theatres couldn’t stand it. Quite often during my years in vaudeville Zovene the Midget Juggler filled this ignominious spot. Poor old Zovene wasn’t really as awful as he appeared, but he was pretty bad and he was wholly out of fashion. He dressed in a spangled costume that was rather like the outfit worn by Mr. Punch—a doublet and tight knee-breeches, with striped stockings and little pumps. He had only one outfit, and he had shed spangles for so long that he looked very shabby. There was still a wistful prettiness about him as he skipped nimbly to ‘Funiculi funicula’ and tossed coloured Indian clubs in the air. But it was a prettiness that would appeal only to an antiquarian of the theatre, and we had no such rarities in our audiences.
“There is rank and precedence everywhere, and here, on the bottom shelf of vaudeville, Willard was a headliner. He had the place of honour, just before Zovene came on to empty the house. The ‘professor’ at the piano would thump out an Oriental theme from Chu Chin Chow and the curtain would rise to reveal Abdullah, bathed in whatever passed for an eerie light in that particular house. Behind Abdullah might be a backdrop representing anything—a room in a palace, a rural glade, or one of those improbable Italian gardens, filled with bulbous balustrades and giant urns, which nobody has ever seen except a scene-painter.
“Willard would enter in evening dress, wearing a cape, which he doffed with an air, and held extended briefly at his right side; when he folded it, a shabby little table with his cards and necessaries had appeared behind it. Applause? Never! The audiences we played to rarely applauded and they expected a magician to be magical. If they were not asleep, or drunk, or pawing the woman in the next seat, they received all Willard’s tricks with cards and coins stolidly.
“They liked it better when he did a little hypnotism, asking for members of the audience to come to the stage to form a ‘committee’ which would watch his act at close quarters, and assure the rest of the audience that there was no deception. He did the conventional hypnotist’s tricks, making men saw wood that wasn’t there, fish in streams that had no existence, and sweat in sunlight that had never penetrated into that dismal theatre. Finally he would cause two of the men to start a fight, which he would stop. The fight always brought applause. Then, when the committee had gone back to their seats, came the topper of his act, Abdullah the Wonder Automaton of the Age. It was the same old business; three members of the audience chose cards, and three times Abdullah chose a higher one. Applause. Real applause, this time. Then the front-drop—the one with advertisements painted on it—came down and poor old Zovene went into his hapless act.
“The only other Talent from the World of Wonders that was booked into the places where we played were Charlie, who did a monologue, and Andro.
“Andro was becoming the worst possible kind of nuisance. He was showing real talent, and to hear Charlie and Willard talk about it you would think he was a traitor to everything that was good and pure in the world of show business. But I was interested in Andro, and watched him rehearse. He never talked to me, and probably regarded me as a company spy. There were such things, and they reported back to Jerry in Chicago what Talent was complaining about money, or slacking on the job, or black-mouthing the management. But Andro was the nearest thing to real Talent I had met with up to that time, and he fascinated me. He was a serious, unrelenting worker and perfectionist.
“Imitators of his act have been common in night-clubs for many years, and I don’t suppose he was the first to do it, but certainly he was the best of the lot. He played in the dark, except for a single spotlight, and he waltzed with himself. That is to say, on his female side he wore a red evening gown, cut very low in the back, and showing lots of his female leg in a red stocking; on his masculine side he wore only half a pair of black satin knee-breeches, a black stocking and a pump with a phoney diamond buckle. When he wrapped himself in his own arms, we saw a beautiful woman in the arms of a half-naked muscular man, whirling rhythmically round the stage in a rapturous embrace. He worked up all sorts of illusions, kissing his own hand, pressing closer what looked like two bodies, and finally whirling offstage for what must undoubtedly be further romance. He was a novelty, and even our audiences were roused from their lethargy by him. He improved every week.
“Willard and Charlie couldn’t stand it. Charlie wrote to Jerry and I heard what he said, for Charlie liked his own prose and read it aloud to Willard. Charlie deplored ‘the unseemly eroticism’ of the act, he said. It would get Jerry a bad name to book such an act into houses that catered to a family trade. Jerry wrote back telling Charlie to shut up and leave the booking business to him. He suggested that Charlie clean up his own act, of which he had received bad reports. Obviously some stool-pigeon had it in for Charlie.
“As a monologist, Charlie possessed little but the self-assurance necessary for the job. Such fellows used to appear before the audience, flashily dressed, with the air of a relative who has made good in the big city and come home to amuse the folks. ‘Friends, just before the show I went into one of your local restaurants and looked down the menoo for something tasty. I said to the waiter. Say, have you got frogs’ legs? No sir, says he, I walk like this because I got corns. You know, one of the troubles today is Prohibition. Any disagreement? No. I didn’t think there would be. But the other day I stepped into a blind pig not a thousand miles from this spot, and I said to the waiter, Bring me a couple of glasses of beer. So he did. So I drank one. Then I got up to leave, and the waiter comes running. Hey, you didn’t pay for those two glasses of beer, he said. That’s all right, I said, I drank one and left the other to settle. Then I went to keep a date with a pretty schoolteacher. She’s the kind of schoolteacher I like best—lots of class and no principle. I get on better with schoolteachers now than I did when I was a kid. My education was completed early. One day in school I put up my hand and the teacher said. What is it, and I said, Please may I leave the room? No, she says, you stay here and fill the inkwells. So I did, and she screamed, and the principal expelled me…’ And so on, for ten or twelve minutes, and then he would say, ‘But seriously folks—’ and go into a rhapsody about his Irish mother, and a recitation of that tribute to motherhood. Then he would run off the stage quickly, laughing as if he had been enjoying himself too much to hold it in. Sometimes he got a spatter of applause. Now and then there would be dead silence, and some sighing. Vaudeville audiences in those places could give the loudest sighs I have ever heard. Prisoners in the Bastille couldn’t have touched them.
“In the monologues of people like Charlie there were endless jokes about minorities—Jews, Dutch, Squareheads, Negroes, Irish, everybody. I never heard of anybody resenting it. The sharpest jokes about Jews and Negroes were the ones we heard from Jewish and Negro comedians. Nowadays I understand that a comedian doesn’t dare to make a joke about anyone but himself, and if he does too much of that he is likely to be tagged as a masochist, playing for sympathy because he is so mean to himself. The old vaude jokes were sometimes cruel, but they were fairly funny and they were lightning-rods for the ill-will of audiences like ours, who had a plentiful supply of ill-will. We played to people who had not been generously used by life, and I suppose we reflected their state of mind.
“I spent my winters from 1918 to 1928 in vaudeville houses of the humblest kind. As I sat inside Abdullah and peeped out through the spy-hole in his bosom I learned to love these dreadful theatres. However wretched they were, they appealed to me powerfully. It was not until much later in my life that I learned what it was that spoke to me of something fine, even when the language was garbled. It was Liesl, indeed, who showed me that all theatres of that sort—the proscenium theatres that are out of favour with modern architects—took their essential form and style from the ballrooms of great palaces, which were the theatres of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. All the gold, and stucco ornamentation, the cartouches of pan-pipes and tambourines, the masks of Comedy, and the upholstery in garnet plush were democratic stabs at palatial luxury; these were the palaces of the people. Unless they were Catholics, and spent some time each week in a gaudy church, this was the finest place our audiences could enter. It was heart-breaking that they should be so tasteless and rundown and smelly, but their ancestry was a noble one. And of course the great movie and vaudeville houses where Charlie and Willard would never play, or enter except as paying customers, were real palaces of the people, built in what their owners and customers believed to be a regal mode.
“There was nothing regal about the accommodation for the Talent. The dressing-rooms were few and seemed never to be cleaned; when there were windows they were filthy, and high in the walls, and were protected on the outside by wire mesh which caught paper, leaves, and filth; as I remember them now most of the rooms had a dado of deep brown to a height of about four feet from the floor, above which the walls were painted a horrible green. There were washbasins in these rooms, but there was never more than one donniker, usually in a pitiful state of exhaustion, sighing and wheezing the hours away at the end of a corridor. But there was always a star painted on the door of one of these dismal holes, and it was in the star dressing-room that Willard, and Charlie (as a relative of the management) changed their clothes, and where I was tolerated as a dresser and helper.
“It was as a dresser that I travelled, officially. Dresser, and assistant to Willard. It was never admitted that I was the effective part of Abdullah, and we carried a screen which was set up to conceal the back of the automaton, so that the stagehands never saw me climbing into my place. They knew, of course, but they were not supposed to know, and such is the curious loyalty and discipline of even these rotten little theatres that I never heard anyone telling the secret. Everybody backstage closed ranks against the audience, just as in the carnival we were all in league against the Rubes.
“I spent all day in the theatre, because the only alternative was the room I shared with Willard in some cheap hotel, and he didn’t want me there. My way of life could hardly have been more in contradiction of what is thought to be a proper environment for a growing boy. I saw little sunlight, and I breathed an exhausted and dusty air. My food was bad, because Willard kept me on a very small allowance of money, and as there was nobody to make me eat what I should, I ate what I liked, which was cheap pastry, candy, and soft drinks. I was not a fanatical washer, but as I shared a bed with Willard he sometimes insisted that I take a bath. By every rule of hygiene I should have died of several terrible diseases complicated with malnutrition, but I didn’t. In a special and thoroughly unsuitable way, I was happy. I even contrived to learn one or two things which were invaluable to me.
“Except for his dexterity as a conjuror, pickpocket, and card-sharp, Willard did nothing with his hands. As I told you, Abdullah had some mechanism in his base, and when Willard moved the handle that set it in motion, it was supposed to enable Abdullah to do clever things with cards. The mechanism was a fake only in so far as it related to Abdullah’s skill; otherwise it was genuine enough. But it was always breaking down, and this was embarrassing when we were on show. Early in my tune with Willard I explored those wheels and springs and cogs, and very soon discovered how to set them right when they stuck. The secret was very simple; Willard never oiled the wheels, and if somebody else oiled them for him, he allowed the oil to grow thick and dirty so that it clogged the works. Quite soon I took over the care of Abdullah’s fake mechanism, and though I still did not really understand it I was capable enough at maintaining it.
“I suppose I was thirteen or so when a property man at one of the theatres where we played saw me cleaning and oiling these gaffs, and we struck up a conversation. He was interested in Abdullah, and I was nervous about letting him probe the works, fearing that he would find out that they were fakes, but I need not have worried. He knew that at a glance. ‘Funny that anybody’d take the trouble to put this class of work into an old piece of junk like this,’ he said. ‘D’you know who made it?’ I didn’t. ‘Well, I’ll bet anything you like a clockmaker made it,’ said he. ‘Lookit; I’ll show you.’ And he proceeded to give me a lecture that lasted for almost an hour about the essentials of clockwork, which is a wonderful complexity of mechanism that is, at base, quite simple and founded on a handful of principles. I won’t pretend that everybody would have understood him as well as I did, but I am not telling you this story to gain a reputation for modesty. I took to it with all the enthusiasm of a curious boy who had nothing else in the world to occupy his mind. I pestered the property man whenever he had a moment of spare time, demanding more explanation and demonstration. He had been trained as a clock—and watchmaker as a boy—I think he was a Dutchman but I never bothered to learn his name except that it was Henry—and he was a kindly fellow. The third day, which was our last stay in that town, he opened his own watch, took out the movement, and showed me how it could be taken to pieces. I felt as if Heaven had opened. My hands were by this time entirely at my command because of my hundreds of hours of practice in the deeps of Abdullah, and I begged him to let me reassemble the watch. He wouldn’t do that; he prized his watch, and though I showed some promise he was not ready to take risks. But that night, after the last show, he called me to him and handed me a watch—a big, old-fashioned turnip with a German-silver case —and told me to try my luck with that. ‘When you come back this way,’ he said, ‘let’s see how you’ve got on.’
“I got on wonderfully. During the next year I took that watch apart and reassembled it time after time. I tinkered and cleaned and oiled and fiddled with the old-fashioned regulator until it was as accurate a timepiece as its age and essential character allowed. I longed for greater knowledge, and one day when opportunity served I stole a wristwatch—they were novelties still at that time—and discovered to my astonishment that it was pretty much the same inside as my old turnip, but not such good workmanship. This was the foundation of my mechanical knowledge. I soon had the gaffed works of Abdullah going like a charm, and even introduced a few improvements and replaced some worn parts. I persuaded Willard that the wheels and springs of Abdullah should be on view at all times, and not merely during his preliminary lecture; I put my own control handle inside where I could reach it and cause Abdullah’s wheels to change speed when he was about to do his clever trick. Willard didn’t like it. He disapproved of changes, and he didn’t want me to get ideas above my station.
“However, that is precisely what I did. I began to understand that Willard had serious limitations, and that perhaps his power over me was not so absolute as he pretended. But I was still much too young and frightened to challenge him in anything serious. Like all great revolutions, mine was a long time preparing. Furthermore, the sexual subjection in which I lived still had more power over me than the occasional moments of happiness I enjoyed, and which even the most miserable slaves enjoy.
“From the example of Willard and Charlie I learned a cynicism about mankind which it would be foolish to call deep, but certainly it was complete. Humanity was divided into two groups, the Wise Guys and the Rubes, the Suckers, the Patsys. The only Wise Guys within my range were Willard and Charlie. It was the law of nature that they should prey on the others.
“Their contempt for everyone else was complete, but whereas Charlie was good-natured and pleased with himself when he got the better of a Sucker, Willard merely hated the Sucker. The sourness of his nature did not display itself in harsh judgements or wisecracks; he possessed no wit at all—not even the borrowed wit with which Charlie decked his act and his private conversation. Willard simply thought that everybody but himself was a fool, and his contempt was absolute.
“Charlie wasted a good deal of time, in Willard’s opinion, chasing girls. Charlie fancied himself as a seducer, and waitresses and chambermaids and girls around the theatre were all weighed by him in terms of whether or not he would be able to ‘slip it to them’. That was his term. I don’t think he was especially successful, but he worked at his hobby and I suppose he had a measure of success. ‘Did you notice that kid in the Dancing Hallorans?’ he would ask Willard. ‘She’s got round heels. I can always tell. What do you wanta bet I slip it to her before we get outa here?’ Willard never wanted to bet about that; he liked to bet on certainties.
“The Rubes who wanted to play cards with Abdullah in the vaude houses were of a different stamp from those we met in the carnival world. The towns were bigger than the villages which supported country fairs, and in every one there were a few gamblers. They would turn up at an evening show, and it was not hard to spot them; a gambler looks like anyone else when he is not gambling, but when he takes the cards or the dice in his hands he reveals himself. They were piqued by their defeat at the hands of an automaton and wanted revenge. It was Charlie who sought them out and suggested a friendly game after the theatre was closed.
“The friendly game always began with another attempt to defeat Abdullah, and sometimes money was laid on it. After a sufficient number of defeats—three was usually enough—Willard would say, ‘You’re not going to get anywhere with the Old Boy here, and I don’t want to take your money. But how about a hand or two of Red Dog?’ He always started with Red Dog, but in the end they played whatever game the Suckers chose. There they would sit, in a corner of the stage, with a table if they could find one, or else playing on top of a box, and it would be three or four in the morning before they rose, and Willard and Charlie were always the winners.
“Willard was an accomplished card-sharp. He never bothered with any of the mechanical aids some crooks use—holdouts, sleeve pockets, and such things—because he thought them crude and likely to be discovered, as they often are. He always played with his coat off and his sleeves rolled up, which had an honest look; he depended on his ability as a shuffler and dealer, and of course he used marked cards. Sometimes the Rubes brought their own cards, which he would not allow them to use with Abdullah—he explained that Abdullah used a sensitized deck—but which he was perfectly willing to play with in the game. If they were marked he knew it at once, and after a game or two he would say, in a quiet but firm voice, that he thought a change of deck would be pleasant, and produced a new deck fresh from a sealed package, calling attention to the fact that the cards were not marked and could not be.
“They did not remain unmarked for long, however. Willard had a left thumbnail which soon put the little bumps in the tops and sides of the cards that told him all he needed to know. He let the Rubes win for an hour or so, and then their luck changed, and sometimes big money came into Willard’s hands at the end of the game. He was the best marker of cards I have ever known except myself. Some gamblers hack their cards so that you could almost see the marks across a room, but Willard had sensitive hands and he nicked them so cleverly that a man with a magnifying glass might have missed it. Nor was he a flashy dealer; he left that to the Rubes who wanted to show off. He dealt rather slowly, but I never saw him deal from the bottom of the deck, although he certainly did so in every game. He and Charlie would sometimes move out of a town with five or six hundred dollars to split between them, Charlie being paid off as the steerer who brought in the Rubes, and Willard as the expert with the cards. Charlie sometimes appeared to be one of the losers in these games, though never so much so that it looked suspicious. The Rubes had a real Rube conviction that show folks and travelling men ought to be better at cards than the opponents they usually met.
“I watched all of this from the interior of Abdullah, because after the initial trials against the automaton it was impossible for me to escape. I was warned against falling asleep, lest I might make some sound that would give away the secret. So, heavy-eyed, but not unaware, I saw everything that was done, saw the greed on the faces of the Rubes, and saw the quiet way in which Willard dealt with the occasional quarrels. And of course I saw how much money changed hands.
“What happened to all that money? Charlie, I knew, was being paid seventy-five dollars a week for his rotten monologues, which would have been good pay if he had not had to spend so much of it on travel; part of Jerry’s arrangement was that all Talent paid for its own tickets from town to town, as well as costs of room and board. Very often we had long hops from one stand to another, and travel was a big expense. And of course Charlie spent a good deal on bootleg liquor and the girls he chased.
“Willard was paid a hundred a week, as a headliner, and because the transport of Abdullah, and myself at half-fare, cost him a good deal. But Willard never showed any sign of having much money, and this puzzled me for two or three years. But then I became aware that Willard had an expensive habit. It was morphine. This of course was before heroin became the vogue.
“Sharing a bedroom with him I could not miss the fact that he gave himself injections of something at least once a day, and he told me that it was a medicine that kept him in trim for his demanding work. Taking dope was a much more secret thing in those days than it has become since, and I had never heard of it, so I paid no attention. But I did notice that Willard was much pleasanter after he had taken his medicine than he was at other times, and it was then that he would sometimes give me a brief lesson in sleight-of-hand.
“Occasionally he would give himself a little extra treat, and then, before he fell asleep, he might talk for a while about what the future held. ‘It’ll be up to Albee,’ he might say; ‘he’ll have to make his decision. I’ll tell him—E.F., you want me at the Palace? Okay, you know my figure. And don’t tell me I have to arrange it with Martin Beck. You talk to Beck. You paid that French dame, that Bernhardt, $7,000 a week at the Palace. I’m not going to up the ante on you. That figure’ll do for me. So any time you want me, you just have to let me know, and I promise you I’ll drop everything else to oblige you—’ Even in my ignorant ears this sounded unlikely. Once I asked him if he would take Abdullah to the Palace, and he gave one of his rare, snorting laughs. ‘When I go to the Palace, I’ll go alone,’ he said; ‘the day I get the high sign from Albee, you’re on your own.’ But he didn’t hear from Albee, or any manager but Jerry Wanless.
“He began to hear fairly often from Jerry, whose stool-pigeons were reporting that Willard was sometimes vague on the stage, mistimed a trick now and then, and even dropped things, which is something a headline magician, even on Jerry’s circuit, was not supposed to do. I thought these misadventures came from not eating enough, and used to urge Willard to get himself a square meal, but he had never cared much for food, and as the years wore on he ate less and less. I thought this was why he so rarely needed to go to the donniker, and why he was so angry with me when I was compelled to do so, and it was not until years later that I learned that constipation is a symptom of Willard’s indulgence. He was usually better in health and sharper on the job when we were with the carnival, because he was in the open air, even though he worked in a tent, but during the winters he was sometimes so dozy—that was Charlie’s word for it—that Charlie was worried.
“Charlie had reason to be worried. He was Willard’s source of supply. Charlie was a wonder at discovering a doctor in every town who could be squared, because he was always on the lookout for abortionists. Not that he needed abortionists very often, but he belonged to a class of man who regards such knowledge as one of the hallmarks of the Wise Guy. An abortionist might also provide what Willard wanted, for a price, and if he didn’t, he knew someone else who would do so. Thus, without, I think, being malignant or even a very serious drug pusher, Charlie was Willard’s supplier, and a large part of Willard’s winnings in the night-long card games stuck to Charlie for expenses and recompense for the risks he took. When Willard began to be dozy, Charlie saw danger to his own income, and he tried to keep Willard’s habit within reason. But Willard was resistant to Charlie”s arguments, and became in time even thinner than he had been when first I saw him, and he was apt to be twitchy if he had not had enough. A twitchy conjuror is useless; his hands tremble, his speech is hard to understand, and he makes disturbing faces. The only way to keep Willard functioning efficiently, both as an entertainer and as a card-sharp, was to see that he had the dose he needed, and if his need increased, that was his business, according to Charlie.
“When Willard felt himself denied, it was I who had to put up with his ill temper and spite. There was only one advantage in the gradual decline of Willard so far as I was concerned, and that was that as morphine became his chief craze, his sexual approaches to me became fewer. Sharing a bed with him when he was restless was nervous work, and I usually preferred to sneak one of his blankets and lie on the floor. If the itching took him, his wriggling and scratching were dreadful, and went on until he was exhausted and fell into a stupor rather than a sleep. Sometimes he had periods of extreme sweating, which were very hard on a man who was already almost a skeleton. More than once I have had to rouse Charlie in the middle of the night, and tell him that Willard had to have some of his medicine, or he might go mad. It was always called ‘his medicine’ by me and by Charlie when he talked to me. For of course I was included in the all-embracing cynicism of these two. They assumed that I was stupid, and this was only one of their serious mistakes.
“I too became cynical, with the whole-hearted, all-inclusive vigour of the very young. Why not? Was I not shut off from mankind and any chance to gain an understanding of the diversity of human temperament by the life I led and the people who dominated me? Yet I saw people, and I saw them very greatly to their disadvantage. As I sat inside Abdullah, I saw them without being seen, while they gaped at the curiosities of the World of Wonders. What I saw in most of those faces was contempt and patronage for the show folks, who got an easy living by exploiting their oddities, or doing tricks with snakes or fire. They wanted us; they needed us to mix a little leaven in their doughy lives, but they did not like us. We were outsiders, holiday people, untrustworthy, and the money they spent to see us was foolish money. But how much they revealed as they stared! When the Pharisees saw us they marvelled, but it seemed to me that their inward parts were full of ravening and wickedness. Day after day, year after year, they believed that somehow they could get the better of Abdullah, and their, greed and stupidity and cunning drove them on to try their hands at it. Day after day, year after year, I defeated them, and scorned them because they could not grasp the very simple fact that if Abdullah could be defeated, Abdullah would cease to be. Those who tried their luck I despised rather less than those who hung back and let somebody else try his. The change in their loyalty was always the same; they were on the side of the daring one until he was defeated, and then they laughed at him, and sided with the idol.
“In those years I formed a very low idea of crowds. And of all those who pressed near me the ones I hated most, and wished the worst luck, were the young, the lovers, who were free and happy. Sex to me meant terrible bouts with Willard and the grubby seductions of Charlie. I did not believe in the happiness or the innocence or the goodwill of the couples who came to the fair for a good time. My reasoning was simple, and of a very common kind: if I were a hoor and a crook, were not whoredom and dishonesty the foundations on which humanity rested? If I were at the outs with God—and God never ceased to trouble my mind—was anyone else near Him? If they were, they must be cheating. I very soon came to forget that it was I who was the prisoner: I was the one who saw clearly and saw the truth because I saw without being seen. Abdullah was the face I presented to the world, and I knew that Abdullah, the undefeated, was worth no more than I.
“Suppose that Abdullah were to make a mistake? Suppose when Uncle Zeke or Swifty Dealer turned up a ten of clubs, Abdullah were to reply with a three of hearts? What would Willard say? How would he get out of his predicament? He was not a man of quick wit and as the years wore on I understood that his place in the world was even shakier than my own. I could destroy Willard.
“Of course I didn’t do it. The consequences would have been terrible. I was greatly afraid of Willard, afraid of Charlie, of Gus, and most afraid of the world into which such an insubordinate act would certainly throw me. But do we not all play, in our minds, with terrible thoughts which we would never dare to put into action? Could we live without some hidden instincts of revolt, of some protest against our fate in life, however enviable it may seem to those who do not have to bear it? I have been, for twenty years past, admittedly the greatest magician in the world. I have held my place with such style and flourish that I have raised what is really a very pretty achievement to the dignity of art. Do you imagine that in my best moments when I have had very distinguished audiences—crowned heads, as all magicians love to boast—that I have not thought fleetingly of producing a full chamber-pot out of a hat, and throwing it into the royal box, just to show that it can be done? But we all hug our chains. There are no free men.
“As I sat in the belly of Abdullah, I thought often of Jonah in the belly of the great fish. Jonah, it seemed to me, had an easy time of it. ‘Out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice’; that was what Jonah said. But I cried out of the belly of hell, and nothing whatever happened. Indeed, the belly of hell grew worse and worse, for the stink of the dwarf gave place to the stink of Cass Fletcher, who was not a clean boy and ate a bad diet; we can all stand a good deal of our own stink, and there are some earthy old sayings which prove it, but after a few years Abdullah was a very nasty coffin, even for me. Jonah was a mere three days in his fish. After three years I was just beginning my sentence. What did Jonah say? ‘When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord.’ So did I. Such was the power of my early training that I never became cynical about the Lord—only about his creation. Sometimes I thought the Lord hated me; sometimes I thought he was punishing me for—for just about everything that had ever happened to me, beginning with my birth; sometimes I thought he had forgotten me, but that thought was blasphemy, and I chased it away as fast as I could. I was an odd boy, I can tell you.
“Odd, but—what is truly remarkable—not consciously unhappy. Unhappiness of the kind that is recognized and examined and brooded over is ritual luxury. Certainly it was a luxury beyond my means at that time. The desolation of the spirit in which I lived was in the grain of my life, and to admit its full horror would have destroyed me. Deep in my heart I knew that. Somehow I had to keep from falling into despair. So I seized upon, and treasured, every lightening of the atmosphere, everything that looked like kindness, every joke that interrupted the bleak damnation of the World of Wonders. I was a cynic about the world, but I did not dare to become a cynic about myself. Who else? Certainly not Willard or Charlie. If one becomes a cynic about oneself the next step is the physical suicide which is the other half of that form of self-destruction.
“This was the life I lived, from that ill-fated thirtieth of August in 1918 until ten years had passed. Many things happened, but the pattern was invariable; the World of Wonders from the middle of May until the middle of October, and the rest of the time in the smallest of small-time vaudeville. I ranged over all of central Canada, and just about every town of medium size in the middle of the U.S. west of Chicago. When I say that many things happened I am not talking about events of world consequence; in the carnival and the vaude houses we were isolated from the world, and this was part of the paradox of our existence. We seemed to bring a breath of something larger into country fairs and third-rate theatres, but we were little touched by the changing world. The automobile was linking the villages with towns, and the towns with cities, but we hardly noticed. In the vaude houses we knew about the League of Nations and the changing procession of American Presidents because these things provided the jokes of people like Charlie. The splendour of motherhood was losing some of its gloss, and something called the Jazz Age was upon us. So Charlie dropped mother, and substituted a recitation that was a parody of “Gunga Din”, which older vaudevillians were still reciting.
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you
By the Henry Ford that made you
You’re a better car than Packard
— he concluded, and quite often the audience laughed. As we traipsed around the middle of the Great Republic we hardly noticed that the movies were getting longer and longer, and that Hollywood was planning something that would put us all out of work. Who were the Rubes? I think we were the Rubes.
“My education continued its haphazard progress. I would do almost anything to fight the boredom of my life and the sense of doom that I had to suppress or be destroyed by it. I hung around the property-shops of theatres that possessed such things, and learned a great deal from the old men there who had been compelled, in their day, to produce anything from a workable elephant to a fake diamond ring, against time. I sometimes haunted watch-repair shops, and pestered busy men to know what they were doing; I even picked up their trick of looking through a jeweller’s loupe with one eye while surveying the world fishily through the other. I learned some not very choice Italian from Zovene, some Munich German from Sonny, and rather a lot of pretty good French from a little man who came on the show when Molza’s mouth finally became so painful that he took the extraordinary step of visiting a doctor, and came back to the World of Wonders with a very grey face, and packed up his traps. This Frenchman, whose name was Duparc, was an India Rubber Wonder, a contortionist and an uncommonly cheerful fellow. He became my teacher, so far as I had one; Professor Spencer was becoming queerer and queerer and gave up selling the visiting cards which he wrote with his feet; instead he tried to persuade the public to buy a book he had written and printed at his own expense, about monetary reform. He was, I believe, one of the last of the Single Tax men. In spite of the appearance of Duparc, and the disappearance of Andro, who had left the very small time and was now a top-liner on the Orpheum Circuit, we had all been together in the World of Wonders for too many years. But Gus was too tender-hearted to throw anybody off the show, and Jerry got us cheap, and such is the professional vanity of performers of all kinds that we didn’t notice that the little towns were growing tired of us.
“Duparc taught me French, and I knew I was learning, but I had another teacher from whom I learned without knowing. Almost everything of great value I have learned in life has been taught me by women. The woman who taught me the realities of hypnotism was Mrs. Constantinescu, a strange old girl who travelled around with our show for a few years, running a mitt-camp.
“It was not part of the World of Wonders; it was a concession which Jerry rented, as he rented the right to run a hot dog stand, a Wheel of Fortune, the cat-rack and, of course, the merry-go-round. The mitt-camp was a fortune-telling tent, with a gaudy banner outside with the signs of the zodiac on it, and an announcement that inside Zingara would reveal the Secrets of Fate. Mrs. Constantinescu was Zingara, and for all I know she may have been a real gypsy, as she claimed; certainly she was a good fortune-teller. Not that she would ever admit such a thing. Fortune-telling is against the law in just about every part of Canada and the US. When her customers came in she would sell them a copy of Zadkiel’s Dream Book for ten cents, and offer a personal interpretation for a further fifteen cents, and a full-scale investigation of your destiny for fifty cents, Zadkiel included. Thus it was possible for her to say that she was simply selling a book, if any nosey cop interfered with her. They very rarely did so, because it was the job of our advance man to square the cops with money, bootleg hooch, or whatever their fancy might be. Her customers never complained. Zingara knew how to deliver the goods.
“She liked me, and that was a novelty. She was sorry for me, and except for Professor Spencer, nobody had been sorry for me in a very long time. But what made her really unusual in the World of Wonders was that she was interested in people; the Talent regarded the public as Rubes, to be exploited, and whether it was Willard’s kind of exploitation or Happy Hannah’s, it came to the same thing. But Zingara never tired of humanity or found it a nuisance. She enjoyed telling fortunes and truly thought that she did good by it.
“ ‘Most people have nobody to talk to,’ she said to me many times. ‘Wives and husbands don’t talk; friends don’t really talk because people don’t want to get mixed up in anything that might cost them something in the end. Nobody truly wants to hear anybody else’s worries and troubles. But everybody has worries and troubles and they don’t cover a big range of subjects. People are much more like one another than they are unlike. Did you ever think of that?
“ ‘Well? So I am somebody to talk to. I’ll talk, and I’ll be gone in the morning, and everything I know goes away with me. I don’t look like the neighbours. I don’t look like the doctor or the preacher, always judging, always tired. I’ve got mystery, and that’s what everybody wants. Maybe they’re churchgoers, the people in these little dumps, but what does the church give them? Just sermons from some poor sap who doesn’t understand life any more than they do; they know him, and his salary, and his wife, and they know he’s no great magician. They want to talk, and they want the old mystery, and that’s what I give ‘em. A good bargain.’
“Clearly they did want it, for though there was never any crowd around Zingara’s tent she took in twenty to twenty-five dollars a day, and after fifty a week had been paid to Jerry, that left her with more money than most of the Talent in the World of Wonders.
“ ‘You have to learn to look at people. Hardly anybody does that. They stare into people’s faces, but you have to look at the whole person. Fat or thin? Where is the fat? What about the feet? Do the feet show vanity or trouble? Does she stick out her breast or curl her shoulders to hide it? Does he stick out his chest or his stomach? Does he lean forward and peer, or backward and sneer? Hardly anybody stands straight. Knees bent, or shoved back? The bum tight or drooping? In men, look at the lump in the crotch; big or small? How tall is he when he sits down? Don’t miss hands. The face comes last. Happy? Probably not. What kind of unhappy? Worry? Failure? Where are the wrinkles? You have to look good, and quick. And you have to let them see that you’re looking. Most people aren’t used to being looked at except by the doctor, and he’s looking for something special.
“ ‘You take their hand. Hot or cold? Dry or wet? What rings? Has a woman taken off her wedding ring before she came in? That’s always a sign she’s worried about a man, probably not the husband. A man—big Masonic or K. of C. ring? Take your time. Tell them pretty soon that they’re worried. Of course they’re worried; why else would they come to a mitt-camp at a fair? Feel around, and give them chances to talk; you know as soon as you touch the sore spot. Tell them you have to feel around because you’re trying to find the way into their lives, but they’re not ordinary and so it takes time.
“ ‘Who are they? A young woman—it’s a boy, or two boys, or no boy at all. If she’s a good girl—you know by the hairdo—probably her mother is eating her. Or her father is jealous about boys. An older woman—why isn’t my husband as romantic as I thought he was; is he tired of me; why haven’t I got a husband; is my best friend sincere; when are we going to have more money; my son or daughter is disobedient, or saucy, or wild; have I had all the best that life is going to give me?
“ ‘Suppose it’s a man; lots of men come, usually after dark. He wants money; he’s worried about his girl; his mother is eating him; he’s two-timing and can’t get rid of his mistress; his sex is wearing out and he thinks it’s the end; his business is in trouble; is this all life holds for me?
“ ‘It’s an old person. They’re worried about death; will it come soon and will it hurt? Have I got cancer? Did I invest my money right? Are my grandchildren going to make out? Have I had all life holds for me?
“ ‘Sure you get smart-alecs. Sometimes they tell you most. Flatter them. Laugh at the world with them. Say they can’t be deceived. Warn them not to let their cleverness make them hard, because they’re really very fine people and will make a big mark in the world. Look to see what they are showing to the world, then tell them they are the exact opposite. That works for almost everybody.
“ ‘Flatter everybody. Is it crooked? Most people are starved to death for a kind word. Warn everybody against something, usually something they will be let in for because they are too honest, or too good-natured. Warn against enemies; everybody’s got an enemy. Say things will take a turn for the better soon, because they will; talking to you will make things better because it takes a load off their minds.
“ ‘But not everybody can do it. You have to know how to get people to talk. That’s the big secret. That Willard! He calls himself a hypnotist, so what does he do? He stands up a half-dozen Rubes and says, I’m going to hypnotize you! Then he bugs his eyes and waves his hands and after a while they’re hypnotized. But the real hypnotism is something very different. It’s part kindness and part making them feel they’re perfectly safe with you. That you’re their friend even though they never saw you until a minute ago. You got to lull them, like you’d lull a child. That’s the real art. You mustn’t overdo it. No saying, you’re safe with me, or anything like that. You have to give it out, and they have to take it in, without a lot of direct talk. Of course you look at them hard, but not domineering-hard like vaude hypnotists. You got to look at them as if they was all you had on your mind at the moment, and you couldn’t think of anything you’d rather do. You got to look at them as if it was a long time since you met an equal. But don’t push; don’t shove it. You got to be wide open to them, or else they won’t be wide open to you.’
“Of course I wanted to have my fortune told by Mrs. Constantinescu, but it was against the etiquette of carnival. We never dreamed of asking Sonnenfels to lift anything heavy, or treated the Fat Woman as if she was inconvenient company. But of course Zingara knew what I thought, and she teased me about it. ‘You want to know your future, but you don’t want to ask me? That’s right; don’t put your faith in sideshow gypsies. Crooks, the whole lot of them. What do they know about the modern world? They belong to the past. They got no place in North America.’ But one day, when I suppose I was looking blue, she did tell me a few things.
“ ‘You got an easy fortune to tell, boy. You’ll go far. How do I know? Because life is goosing you so hard you’ll never stop climbing. You’ll rise very high and you’ll make people treat you like a king. How do I know? Because you’re dirt right now, and it grinds your gizzard to be dirt. What makes me think you’ve got the stuff to make the world admire you? Because you couldn’t have survived the life you’re leading if you hadn’t got lots of sand. You don’t eat right and you got filthy hair and I’ll bet you’ve been lousy more than once. If it hasn’t killed you, nothing will.’
“Mrs. Constantinescu was the only person who had ever talked to me about what Willard was still doing to me. The Fat Woman muttered now and then about ‘abominations’ and Sonny was sometimes very nasty to me, but nobody came right out and said anything unmistakable. But old Zingara said: ‘You’re his bumboy, eh? Well, it’s not good, but it could be worse. I’ve known men who liked goats best. It gives you a notion what women got to put up with. The stories I hear! If he calls you ‘hoor’ just think what that means. I’ve known plenty of hoors who made it a ladder to something very good. But if you don’t like it, do something about it. Get your hair cut. Keep yourself clean. Stop wiping your nose on your sleeve. If you got no money, here’s five dollars. Now you start out with a good Turkish bath. Build yourself up. If you gotta be a hoor, be a clean hoor. If you don’t want to be a hoor, don’t look like a lousy bum.’
“At that time, which was the early twenties, a favourite film star was Jackie Coogan; he played charming waifs, often with Charlie Chaplin. But I was a real waif, and sometimes when a Coogan picture was showing in the vaude houses where Willard and I appeared, I was humiliated by how far I fell short of the Coogan ideal.
“I tried a more thorough style of washing, and I got a haircut, a terrible one from a barber who wanted to make everybody look like Rudolph Valentine. I bought some pomade for my hair from him, and the whole World of Wonders laughed at me. But Mrs. Constantinescu encouraged me. Later, when I was with Willard on the vaude circuit, we had three days in a town where there was a Turkish bath, and I spent a dollar and a half on one. The masseur worked on me for half an hour, and then said: ‘You know what? I never seen a dirtier guy. Jeeze, there’s still grey stuff comin’ outa you! Look at these towels! What you do for a living, kid? Sweep chimneys?’ I developed quite a taste for Turkish baths, and stole money regularly from Willard to pay for them. I’m sure he knew I stole, but he preferred that to having me ask him for money. He was growing very careless about money, anyhow.
“I was emboldened to steal enough, over a period of a few weeks, to buy a suit. It was a dreadful suit, God knows, but I had been wearing Willard’s castoffs, cheaply cut down, and it was a royal robe to me. Willard raised his eyebrows when he saw it, but he said nothing. He was losing his grip on the world, and losing his grip on me, and like many people who are losing their grip, he mistook it for the coming of a new wisdom in himself. But when summer came, and Mrs. Constantinescu saw me, she was pleased.
“ ‘You’re doing fine,’ she said. ‘You got to get yourself ready to make a break. This carnival is running downhill. Gus is getting tired. Charlie is getting too big a boy for her to handle. He’s drunk on the show now, and she don’t even bawl him out. Bad luck is coming. How do I know? What else could be coming to a stale tent-show like this? Bad luck. You watch out. Their bad luck will be your good luck, if you’re smart. Keep your eyes open.’
“I mustn’t give the impression that Mrs. Constantinescu was always at my elbow uttering gypsy warnings. I didn’t understand much of what she said, and I mistrusted some of what I understood. That business about looking at people as if you were interested in nothing else, for instance; when I tried it, I suppose I looked foolish, and Happy Hannah made a loud fuss in the Pullman one day, declaring that I was trying to learn the Evil Eye, and she knew who was teaching me. Mrs. Constantinescu was very high on her list of abominations. She urged me to search Deuteronomy to learn what happened to people who had the Evil Eye; plagues wonderful, and plagues of my seed, even great plagues of long continuance, and sore sickness; that was what was in store for me unless I stopped bugging my eyes at folks who had put on the whole armour of God, that they might stand against the wiles of the Devil. Like every young person, I was abashed at the apparent power of older people to see through me. I suppose I was pitifully transparent, and Happy Hannah’s inveterate malignancy gave her extraordinary penetration. Indeed, I was inclined to think at that time that Mrs. Constantinescu was a nut, but she was an interesting nut, and willing to talk. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much good sense was in what she said.
“Of course she was right about bad luck coming to the show. It happened suddenly.
“Em Dark was a nice woman, and she tried to fight down her growing disappointment with Joe by doing everything she could for him, which included making herself attractive. She was small, and rather plump, and dressed well, making all her clothes. Joe was very proud of her appearance, and I think poor Joe was beginning to be aware that the best thing about him was his wife. So he was completely thrown off base one day, as the Pullman was carrying us from one village to another, to see a horrible caricature of Em walk past him and down the aisle toward Heinie and Sonny, who were laughing their heads off in the door of the smoking-room. It was Rango, dressed in Em’s latest and best, with a cloche hat on his head, and one of Em’s purses in his hairy hand. There is no doubt that Heinie and Sonny meant to get Joe’s goat, and to spatter the image of Em, because that was the kind of men they were, and that was what they thought funny. Joe looked like a man who has seen a ghost. He was working, as he so often was, on one of the throwing knives he sold as part of his act, and I think before he knew what he had done, he threw it, and got Rango right between the shoulders. Rango turned, with a look of dreadful pathos on his face, and fell in the aisle. The whole thing took less than thirty seconds.
“You can imagine the uproar. Heinie rushed to Rango, coddled him in his arms, wept, swore, screamed, and became hysterical. But Rango was dead. Sonny stormed and accused Joe in German; he was the kind of man who jabs with his forefinger when he is angry. Gus and Professor Spencer tried to restore order, but nobody wanted order; the excitement was the most refreshing thing that had happened to the World of Wonders in years. Everybody had a good deal to say on one side or the other, but mostly against Joe. The love between Joe and Em concentrated the malignancy of those unhappy people, but this was the first time they had been given a chance to attack it directly. Happy Hannah was seized with a determination to stop the train. What good that would have done nobody knew, but she felt that a big calamity demanded the uttermost in drama.
“I did not at first understand the full enormity of what Joe had done. To kill Rango was certainly a serious injury to Heinie, whose livelihood he was. To buy and train another orangoutang would be months of work. It was Zovene, busily crossing himself, who put the worst of the horror in words: it is a well-known fact in the carnival and circus world that if anybody kills a monkey, three people will die. Heinie wanted Joe to be first on the list, but Gus held him back; luckily for him, because in a fight Joe could have murdered anybody on the show, not excluding Sonny.
“What do you do with a dead monkey? First of all Rango had to be disentangled from Em Dark’s best outfit, which Em quite understandably didn’t want and threw off the back of the car with Rango’s blood on it. (What do you suppose the finder made of that?) Then the body had to be stowed somewhere, and Heinie would have it nowhere except in his berth, which Rango customarily shared with him. You can’t make a dead monkey look dignified, and Rango was not an impressive corpse. His eyes wouldn’t shut; one stared and the other eyelid drooped, and soon both eyes took on a bluish film; his yellow teeth showed. The Darks felt miserable, because of what Joe had done, and because their love had been held up to mockery in the naked passion and hatred of the hour after Rango’s death. Heinie had not scrupled to say that Rango was a lot more use on the show and a lot better person, even though not human, than a little floozie who just stood up and let a dummkopf of a husband throw knives at her; if Joe was so good at hitting Rango, how come he never hit that bitch of a wife of his? This led to more trouble, and it was Em who had to prevent Joe from battering Heinie. I must say that Heinie took the fullest advantage of the old notion that a man is not responsible for what he does in his misery. He got very drunk that night, and wailed and grieved all up and down the car.
“Indeed, the World of Wonders got drunk. Private bottles appeared from everywhere, and were private no more. Professor Spencer accepted a large drink, and it went a very long way with him, for he was not used to it. Indeed, even Happy Hannah took a drink, and quite shortly everyone wished she hadn’t. It had been her custom for some years to drink a lot of cider vinegar; she said it kept her blood from thickening, to the great danger of her life, and she got away with so much vinegar that she always smelled of it. Her unhappy inspiration was to spike her evening slug of vinegar with a considerable shot of bootleg hooch which Gus pressed on her, and it was hardly down before it was up again. A nauseated Fat Woman is a calamity on a monumental scale, and poor Gus had a bad night of it with Happy Hannah. Only Willard kept out of the general saturnalia; he crept into his berth, injected himself with his favourite solace, and was out of that world of sorrow, over which the corpse of Rango spread an increasing influence.
“From time to time the Talent would gather around Heinie’s berth, and toast the remains. Professor Spencer made a speech, sitting on the edge of the upper berth opposite the one which had become Rango’s bier; in this comfortable position he was able to hold his glass with a device he possessed, attached to one foot. He was drunkenly eloquent, and talked touchingly if incoherently about the link between Man and the Lesser Creation, which was nowhere so strong or so truly understood as in circuses and carnivals; had we not, through the years, come to esteem Rango as one of ourselves, a delightful Child of Nature who spoke not with the tongue of man, but through a thousand merry tricks, which now, alas, had been brought to an untimely end? (‘Rango’d of been twenty next April,’ sobbed Heinie; ‘twenty-two, more likely, but I always dated him from when I bought him.’) Professor Spencer did not want to say that Rango had been struck down by a murderer’s hand. No, that wasn’t the way he looked at it. He would speak of it more as a Cream Passional, brought on by the infinite complexity of human relationships. The Professor rambled on until he lost his audience, who took affairs into their own hands, and drank toasts to Rango as long as the booze held out, with simple cries of ‘Good luck and good-bye. Rango old pal.’
“At last Rango’s wake was over. The Darks had lain unseen in their berth ever since it had been possible to go to bed, but it was half past three when Heinie crawled in beside Rango and wept himself to sleep with the dead monkey in his arms. By now Rango was firmly advanced in rigor mortis and his tail stuck from between the curtains of the berth like a poker. But Heinie’s devotion was much admired; Gus said it warmed the cuckolds of her heart.
“Next morning, at the fairground, our first business was to bury Rango. ‘Let him lay where his life was spent for others,’ was what Heinie said. Professor Spencer, badly hung over, asked God to receive Rango. The Darks came, and brought a few flowers, which Heinie ostentatiously spurned from the grave. All Rango’s possessions—his cups and plates, the umbrella with which he coquetted on the tightrope—were buried with him.
“Was Zingara tactless, or mischievous, when she said loudly, as we broke up to go about our work; ‘Well, how long do we wait to see who’s first?’ The calliope began the toot-up—it was “The Poor Butterfly Waltz”—and we got ready for the first trick which, without Rango, put extra work on all of us.
“As the days passed we realized just how much extra work the absence of Rango did mean. There was nothing Heinie could do without him, and five minutes of performance time had somehow to be made up at each trick. Sonnenfels volunteered to add a minute to his act, and so did Duparc; Happy Hannah was always glad to extend the time during which she harassed her audience about religion, and it was simple for Willard to extend the doings of Abduilah for another minute; so it seemed easy. But an additional ten minutes every day was not so easy for Sonnenfels as for the others; as Strong Men go, he was growing old. Less than a fortnight after the death of Rango, at the three o’clock trick, he hoisted his heaviest bar-bell to his knee, then level with his shoulders, then dropped it with a crash and fell forward. There was a doctor on the fairground, and it was less than three minutes before he was with Sonny, but even at that he came too late. Sonny was dead.
“It is much easier to dispose of a Strong Man than it is of a monkey. Sonny had no family, but he had quite a lot of money in a belt he wore at all times, and we were able to bury him in style. He had been a stupid, evil-speaking, bad-tempered man—quite the opposite of the genial giant described by Charlie in his introduction—and no one but Heinie regretted him deeply. But he left another hole in the show, and it was only because Duparc could do a few tricks on the tightrope that the gap could be filled without making the World of Wonders seem skimpy. Heinie mourned Sonny as uproariously as he had mourned Rango, but this time his grief was not so well received by the Talent.
“Sonny’s death was proof positive that the curse of a dead monkey was a fact Zingara was not slow to point out how short a time had been needed to set the bad luck to work. The Talent turned against Heinie with just as much extravagance of sentimentality as they had shown in pitying him. They were inclined to blame him for Sonny’s death. He was still hanging around the show, and he was still drawing a salary, because he had a contract which said nothing about the loss of his monkey by murder. He was on the booze. Gus and Charlie resented him because he cost money without bringing anything in. His presence was a perpetual reminder of bad luck, and soon he was suffering the cold shoulder that had been my lot when Happy Hannah first decided I was a Jonah. Heinie was a proven Jonah, and to look at him was to be reminded that somebody was next on the list of the three who must atone for Rango. Heinie had ceased to be Talent; his reason for being was buried with Rango. He was an outsider, and in the carnival world an outsider is very far outside indeed.
“We were near the end of the autumn season, and no more deaths occurred before we broke up for winter, some of us to our vaudeville work, and others, like Happy Hannah, to a quiet time in theme museums and Grand Congresses of Strange People in the holiday grounds of the warm south. Zingara was not the only one to remark that poor Gus was looking very yellow. Happy Hannah thought Gus must be moving into The Change, but Zingara said The Change didn’t make you belch a lot, and go off your victuals, like Gus, and whispered a word of fear. When we assembled again the following May, Gus was not with us.
“There the deaths seemed to stop, for those who were less perceptive than Zingara, and myself. But something happened during the winter season that was surely a death of a special kind.
“It was in Dodge City. Willard was fairly reliable during our act, but sometimes during the day he was perceptibly under the influence of morphine, and at other and much worse times he was feeling the want of it. I did not know how prolonged addiction works on the imagination; I was simply glad that his sexual demands on me had dropped almost to nothing. Therefore I did not know what to make of it when he seized me one afternoon in the wings of the vaude house, and accused me violently of sexual unfaithfulness to him. I was ‘at it’, he said, with a member of a Japanese acrobatic troupe on the bill, and he wasn’t going to stand for that. I was a hoor right enough, but by God I wasn’t going to be anybody else’s hoor. He cuffed me, and ordered me to get into Abdullah, and stay there, so he would know where I was; and I wasn’t to get out of the automaton any more, ever. He hadn’t kept me all these years to be cheated by any such scum as I was.
“All of this was said in a low voice, because although he was irrational, he wasn’t so far gone that he wanted the stage manager to drop on him, and perhaps fine him, for making a row in the wings during the show. I was seventeen or eighteen, I suppose—I had long ago forgotten my birthday, which had never been a festival in our house anyhow—and although I was still small I had some spirit, and it all rushed to my head when he struck me over the ear. Abdullah was standing in the wings in the place where the image was stored between shows, and I was beside it. I picked up a stage-brace, and lopped off Abdulah’s head with one strong swipe; then I took after Willard. The stage manager was soon upon us, and we scampered off to the dressing-room, where Willard and I had such a quarrel as neither of us had ever known before. It was short, but decisive, and when it ended Willard was whining to me to show him the kind of consideration he deserved, as one who had been more than a father to me, and taught me an art that would be a fortune to me; I had declared that I was going to leave him then and there.
“I did nothing of the kind. These sudden transformations of character belong to fiction, not to fact, and certainly not to the world of dependence and subservience that I had known for so many years. I was quite simply scared to leave Willard. What could I do without him? I found out very quickly.
“The stage manager had told the manager about the brief outburst in the wings, and the manager came to set us right as to what he would allow in his house. But with the manager came Charlie, who carried great weight because he was the brother of Jerry, who booked the Talent for that house. It was agreed that—just this once—the matter would be overlooked.
“Willard could not be overlooked a couple of hours later, when he was so far down in whatever world his drug took him to that it was impossible for him to go on the stage. There was all the excitement and loud talk you might expect, and the upshot was that I was ordered to take Willard’s place at the next show, and do his act as well as I could, without Abdullah. And that is what I did. I was in a rattle of nerves, because I had never appeared on a stage before, except when I was safely concealed in the body of the automaton. I didn’t know how to address an audience, how to time my tricks, or how to arrange an act. The hypnotism was beyond me, and Abdullah was a wreck. I suppose I must have been dreadful, but somehow I filled in the time, and when I had done all I could the spatter of applause was only a little less encouraging than it had been for Willard for several months past.
“When Willard recovered enough to know what had happened he was furious, but his fury simply persuaded him to seek relief from the pain of a rotten world with the needle. This was what precipitated the crisis that delivered me from Abdullah forever; Jerry was on the long-distance telephone, wrangling with Charlie, and the upshot of Charlie’s best persuasion was that Willard could finish his season if Charlie would keep him in condition to appear on the stage, and that if Willard didn’t appear, I was to do so, and I was able to be made to perform a proper, well-planned act. I see now that this was very decent of Jerry, who had all the problems of an agent to trouble him. He must have been fond of Charlie. But it seemed a dreadful sentence at the time. Beginners in the entertainment world are all supposed to be panting for a chance to rush before an audience and prove themselves; I was frightened of Willard, frightened of Jerry, and most frightened of all of failure.
“As is usually the case with understudies I neither failed nor succeeded greatly. In a short time I had worked out a version of The Miser’s Dream that was certainly better than Willard’s, and on Charlie’s strong advice I did it as a mute act. I had very little voice, and what I had was a thin, ugly croak; I had no vocabulary of the kind that a magician needs; my conversation was conducted in illiterate carnival slang, varied now and then with some Biblical turn of speech that had clung to me. So I simply appeared on the stage and did my stuff without sound, while the pianist played whatever he thought appropriate. My greatest difficulty was in learning how to perform slowly enough. In my development of a technique while I was concealed in Abdullah I had become so fast and so slick that my work was incomprehensible; the quickness of the hand should certainly deceive the eye, but not so fast the eye doesn’t realize that it is being deceived.
“Abdullah simply dropped out of use. We lugged him around for a few weeks, but his transport was costly, and as I would not get inside him now he was useless baggage. So one morning, on a railway siding, Charlie and I burned him, while Willard moaned and grieved that we were destroying the greatest thing in his life, and an irreplaceable source of income.
“That was the end of Abdullah, and the happiest moment of my life up to then was when I saw the flames engulf that ugliest of images.
“In their strange way Charlie and Willard were friends, and Charlie thought the moment had come for him to reform Willard. He set about it with his usual enthusiasm, conditioned by a very simple mind. Willard must break the morphine habit. He was to cut the stuff out, at a stroke, and with no thought of looking back. Of course this meant that in a very few days Willard was a raving lunatic, rolling on the floor, the sweating, shrieking victim of crawling demons. Charlie was frightened out of his wits, brought in one of his ambiguous doctors, bought Willard a syringe to replace the one he had dramatically thrown away, and loaded him up to keep him quiet. There was no more talk of abstinence. Charlie kept assuring me that ‘somehow we’ve got to see him through it’. But there was no way through it. Willard was a gone goose.
“I speak of this lightly now, but at the time I was just as frightened and puzzled as Charlie. I was alarmed to find how dependent on Willard I had become. I had lived with him in dreadful servitude for almost half my life, and now I didn’t know what I should do without him. Furthermore, he had been jolted by his attempt at reform into one of those dramatic changes of character which are so astonishing to people who find themselves responsible for a drug addict. He who had been domineering and ugly became embarrassingly fawning and frightened. His great dread was that Charlie and I would put him in hospital. All he wanted was to be cared for, and supplied with enough morphine to keep him comfortable. A simple demand, wasn’t it? But somehow we managed it, and one consequence was that I became involved in the nuisance of finding suppliers of the drug, making approaches to them, and paying the substantial prices they demanded.
“By the time it was the season for rejoining the World of Wonders, I had taken over completely the job of filling Willard’s place in the vaude programmes, and Willard was an invalid who had to be dragged from date to date. It was a greatly changed carnival that season. Gus was gone, and the new manager was a tough little carnie who knew how to manage the show, but had none of Gus’s pride in it; he took his tone from Charlie, as the real representative of the owners. Charlie had finally wakened up to the fact that the day of such shows was passing, and that fair dates were harder to get. That was when he decided to add a blow-off to the World of Wonders, and as well to set up in a little business of his own, unknown to Jerry.
“A blow-off is an annex to a carnival show. Sometimes it is well-advertised, if it is a speciality that does not quite fit into the show proper, like Australian stock-whip performers, or a man and a girl who do tricks with lariats, in cowboy costume. But it can also be a part of the show that is very quietly introduced, and that is not necessarily seen during every performance. Charlie’s blow-off was of this latter kind, and the only attractions in it were Zitta and Willard.
“Zitta was now too fat and too ugly to hold a place in the main tent, but in the blow-off, which occupied a smaller tent entered through the World of Wonders, she could still do a dirty act with some snakes, a logical development from the stunts she had formerly done during the Last Trick. But it was Willard’s role that startled me. Charlie had decided to exhibit him as a Wild Man. Willard sat in ragged shirt and pants, his feet bare, in the dust. After he had gone for a few weeks without shaving he looked convincingly wild. His skin had by this time taken on the bluish tinge of the morphine addict, and his eyes, with their habitually contracted pupils, looked terrifying enough to the rural spectators. Charlie’s explanation was that Zitta and Willard came from the Deep South, and were sad evidence of what happened when fine old families, reduced from plantation splendour, became inbred. The suggestion was that Willard was the outcome of a variety of incestuous matings. I doubt if many of the people who came to see Willard believed it, but the appetite for marvels and monsters is insatiable, and he was a good eyeful for the curious. The Shame of the Old South, as the blow-off was called, did pretty good business.
“As for Charlie’s enterprise, he had become a morphine pusher. ‘Cut out the middle man,’ he said to me by way of explanation; he now bought the stuff from even bigger pushers, and sold it at a substantial price to those who wanted it The medical profession, he said to me, was intolerably greedy, and he didn’t see why he should always be on the paying end of a profitable trade.
“I am sorry to say that I shared Charlie’s opinion at that time, and for a while I was his junior in the business. I offer no excuses. I had become fond of the things money can buy, and keeping Willard stoked with what he wanted was very costly. So I became a supplier, rather than a purchaser, and did pretty well by it. But I never put all my eggs in one basket. I was still primarily a conjuror, and the World of Wonders, even in its reduced circumstances, paid me sixty-five dollars a week to do my version of The Miser’s Dream for five minutes an hour, twelve hours a day.
“I am going to ask you to excuse me from a detailed account of what followed during the next couple of years. It was inevitable, I suppose, that a simpleton like Charlie, with a greenhorn like myself as his lieutenant, should be caught in one of the periodic crackdowns on drug trafficking. The F.B.I. in the States and the R.C.M.P. in Canada began to pick up some of the small fry like ourselves, as leads to the bigger fish who were more important in the trade. I do not pretend that I behaved particularly well, and the upshot was that Charlie was nabbed and I was not, and that I made my escape by ship with a passport that cost me a great deal of money; I have it still, and it is a beautiful job, but it is not as official as it looks. My problem when the trouble came was what I was going to do with Willard. My solution still surprises me. When every consideration of good sense and self-preservation said that I should ditch him, and let the police find him, I decided instead to take him with me. Explain it as you will, by saying that my conscience overcame my prudence, or that there had grown up a real affection between us during all those years when I was his slave and the secret source of his professional reputation, but I decided that I must take Willard where I was going. Willard was always reminding me that he had never abandoned me when it would have been convenient to do so. So, one pleasant Friday morning in 1927, Jules LeGrand and his invalid uncle, Aristide LeGrand, sailed from Montreal on a C.P.R. ship bound for Cherbourg, and somewhat later Charlie Wanless stood trial in his native state of New York and received a substantial sentence.
The passports and the steamship passages just about cleaned me out, but I think Willard saved me from being caught. He made a very convincing invalid in his wheelchair, and although I know the ship was watched we had no trouble. But when we arrived in France, what was to be done? Thanks to Duparc I could speak French pretty well, though I could neither read nor write the language. I was a capable conjuror, but the French theatrical world did not have the kind of third-class variety theatre into which I could make my way. However, there were small circuses, and eventually I got a place in Le grand Cirque forain de St. Vite after some rough adventures during which I was compelled to exhibit Willard as a geek.
“You know what a geek is, Ramsay, but perhaps these gentlemen are not so well versed in the humbler forms of carnival performance. You let it be known that you have, concealed perhaps in a stable at the back of a village inn, a man who eats strange food. When the crowd comes—and not too much of a crowd, because the police don’t like such shows—you lecture for a while on the yearning of the geek for raw flesh and particularly for blood; you explain that it is something the medical profession knows about, but keeps quiet so that the relatives of people thus afflicted will not be put to shame. Then, if you can get a chicken, you give the geek a chicken, and he growls and gives a display of animal passion, and finally bites the chicken in the neck, and seems to drink some of its blood. If you are reduced to the point where you can’t afford even a superannuated chicken, you find a grass snake or two, or perhaps a rabbit. I was the lecturer, and Willard was the geek. It raised enough money to keep us from starvation, and to keep Willard supplied with just enough of his fancy to prevent a total breakdown.
“You discovered us under the banner of St. Vite, Ramsay, when we were travelling in the Tyrol. I suppose it looked very humble to you, but it was a step on an upward path for us. I appeared, you remember, as Faustus LeGrand, the conjuror; I thought Faustus sounded well for a magician; poor old Willard was Le Solitaire des forets, which was certainly an improvement on geeking and sounds much more elegant than Wild Man.”
“I remember it very well,” I said, “and I remember that you were not at all anxious to recognize me.”
“I wasn’t anxious to see anybody from Canada. I hadn’t seen you for—surely it must have been fourteen years. How was I to know that you had enlisted in the R.C.M.P.—possibly become the pride of the Narcotics Squad? But let that go. I was in a confused state of mind at the time. Do you know what I mean?Something is taking all your attention—something inward—and the outer world is not very real, and you deal with it hastily and badly. I was still battling in my conscience about Willard. By this time I thoroughly hated him. He was an expensive nuisance, yet I couldn’t make up my mind to get rid of him. Besides, he might just have enough energy, prompted by anger, to betray me to the police, even at the cost of his own destruction. Still, his life lay in my power. A smallish extra injection some day would have disposed of him.
“But I couldn’t do it. Or rather—I’ve said so much, and put myself so thoroughly to the bad, that I might just as well go all the way—I didn’t really want to do it because I got a special sort of satisfaction from his presence. This confused old wreck had been my master, my oppressor, the man who let me live hungry and dirty, who used my body shamefully and never let me lift my head above the shame. Now he was utterly mine; he was my thing. That was how it was now between me and Willard. I had the upper hand, and I admit frankly that it gave me a delicious satisfaction to have the upper hand. Willard had just enough sense of reality left to understand without any question of a mistake who was master. Not that I stressed it coarsely. No, no. If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat: and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink; for thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord shall reward thee. Indeed so. The Lord rewarded me richly, and it seemed to me the Lord’s face was dark and gleeful as he did so.
“This was Revenge, which we have all been told is a very grave sin, and in our time psychologists and sociologists have made it seem rather lower class, and unevolved, as well. Even the State, which retains so many primitive privileges that are denied to its citizens, shrinks from Revenge. If it catches a criminal the State is eager to make it clear that whatever it chooses to do is for the possible reform of that criminal, or at the very most for his restraint. Who would be so crass as to suggest that the criminal might be used as he has used his fellow man? We don’t admit the power of the Golden Rule when it seems to be working in reverse gear. Do unto others as society says they should do unto you, even when they have done something quite different. We’re all sweetness and light now, in our professions of belief. We have shut our minds against the Christ who cursed the fig tree. Revenge—horrors! So there it was: I was revenging myself on Willard, and I’m not going to pretend to you that when he crunched into a grass snake to give a thrill to a stable filled with dull peasants, who despised him for doing it, I didn’t have a warm sense of satisfaction. The Lord was rewarding me. Under the banner of St. Vite, the man who had once been Mephistopheles in my life was now just a tremulous, disgusting Wild Man, and if anybody was playing Mephistopheles, the role was mine. Blessed be the name of the Lord, who forgettest not his servant “Don’t ask me if I would do it now. I don’t suppose for a moment that I would. But I did it then. Now I am famous and rich and have delightful friends like Liesl and Ramsay; charming people like yourselves come from the B.B.C. to ask me to pretend to be Robert-Houdin. But in those days I was Paul Dempster, who had been made to forget it and take a name from the side of a barn, and be the pathic of a perverted drug-taker. Do you think I have forgotten that even now? I have a lifelong reminder. I am a sufferer from a tiresome little complaint called proctalgia fugax. Do you know it? It is a cramping pain in the anus that wakes you out of a sound sleep and gives you five minutes or so of great unease. For years I thought that Willard, by this nasty use of me, had somehow injured me irreparably. It took a little courage to go to a doctor and find out that it was quite harmless, though I suppose it has some psychogenic origin. It is useless to ask Magnus Eisengrim if he would exert himself to torment a worm like Willard the Wizard; he has the magnanimity that comes so easily to the rich and powerful. But if you had put the question to Faustus LeGrand in 1929 his answer would have been the one I have just given you.
“Yes, gentlemen, it was Revenge, and it was sweet. If I am to be damned for a sin, I expect that will be the one. Shall I tell you the cream of it—or the worst of it, according to your point of view? There came a time when Willard could stand no more. Jaunting around southern France, and the Tyrol and parts of Switzerland, even when he had absorbed the minimum dose I allowed him, was a weariness that he could no longer endure. He wanted to die, and begged me for death. ‘Just gimme a little too much, kid,’ was what he said. He was never eloquent but he managed to put a really heart-breaking yearning into those words. What did I reply? ‘I couldn’t do it, Willard. Really I couldn’t. I’d have your life on my conscience. You know we’re forbidden by every moral law to take life. If I do what you ask, not only am I a murderer, but you are a suicide. Can you face the world to come with that against you?’ Then he would curse and call me every foul name he could think of. And next day it would be the same. I didn’t kill him. Instead I withheld death from him, and it was balm to my spirit to be able to do it.
“Of course it came at last. From various evidence I judge that he was between forty and forty-five, but he looked far worse than men I have seen who were ninety. You know how such people die. He had been blue before, but for a few hours before the end he was a leaden colour, and as his mouth was open it was possible to see that it was almost black inside. His teeth were in very bad condition from geeking, and he looked like one of those terrible drawings by Daumier of a pauper corpse. The pupils of his eyes were barely perceptible. His breath was very faint, but what there was of it stank horribly. Till quite near the end he was begging for a shot of his fancy. The only other person with us was a member of the St. Vite troupe, a bearded lady—you remember her, don’t you, Ramsay?—but as Willard spoke no French she didn’t know what he was saying, or if she did she gave no sign. Then a surprising thing happened; a short time before he died his pupils dilated extraordinarily, and that, with his wide-stretched mouth and his colour, gave him the look of a man dying of terror. Indeed, perhaps it was so. Was he aware of the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, where he would join the unbelieving and the abominable, the whoremongers, sorcerers, and idolaters? I had seen Abdullah go into the fire. Was it so also with Willard?
“But he was dead, and I was free. Had I not been free for years? Free since I struck the head off Abdullah? No; freedom does not come suddenly. One has to grow into it. But now that Willard was dead, I felt truly free, and I hoped that I might throw off some of the unpleasant characteristics I had taken upon myself but not, I hoped, forever taken within myself.
“I finished my season with Le grand Cirque because I did not want to attract attention by leaving as soon as Willard was out of the way. Without his luxury to pay for I was able to give up occasional pocket-picking, and save a little money. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to get to England; I knew there were vaude houses or variety shows of some kind in England, and I thought I could get a job there.
“I remember that I took stock of myself, as cold-bloodedly as I could, but not, I think, unjustly. The Deptford parson’s son, the madwoman’s son, had become a pretty widely experienced young tough; I could pick pockets, I could push dope. I could fight with a broken bottle and I had picked up the French knack of boxing with my feet. I could now speak and read French, and a little German and Italian, and I could speak a terrible patois of English, in which I sounded like the worst of Willard and Charlie combined.
“What was there on the credit side? I was an expert conjuror, and I was beginning to have some inkling of what Mrs. Constantinescu meant when she talked about real hypnotism as opposed to the sideshow kind. I was a deft mechanic, could mend anybody’s watch, and humour an old calliope. Although I had been the passive partner in countless acts of sodomy I was still, so far as my own sexual activity was concerned, a virgin, and likely to remain one, because I knew nothing about women other than Fat Ladies, Bearded Ladies, Snake Women, and mitt-camp gypsies; on the whole I liked women, but I had no wish to do to anybody I liked what Willard had done to me—and although of course I knew that the two acts differed I supposed they were pretty much the same to the recipient. I had none of Charlie’s unresting desire to ‘slip it’ to anybody. As you see, I was a muddle of toughness and innocence.
“Of course I didn’t think of myself as innocent. What young man ever does? I thought I was the toughest thing going. A verse from the Book of Psalms kept running through my head that seemed to me to describe my state perfectly. ‘I am become like a bottle in the smoke.’ It’s a verse that puzzles people who think it means a glass bottle, but my father would never have allowed me to be so ignorant as that. It means one of those old wineskins the Hebrews used; it means a goatskin that has been scraped out, and tanned, and blown up, and hung over the fire till it is as hard as a warrior’s boot. That was how I saw myself.
“I was twenty-two, so far as I could reckon, and a bottle that had been thoroughly smoked. What was life going to pour into the bottle? I didn’t know, but I was off to England to find out.
“And you are off to England in the morning gentlemen. Forgive me for holding you so long. I’ll say good night.”
And for the last time at Sorgenfrei we went through that curious little pageant of bidding our ceremonious good night to Magnus Eisengrim, who said his farewells with unusual geniality.
Of course the film-makers didn’t go back to their inn. They poured themselves another round of drinks and made themselves comfortable by the fire.
“What I can’t decide,” said Ingestree, “is how much of what we have heard we are to take as fact. It’s the inescapable problem of the autobiography: how much is left out, how much has been genuinely forgotten, how much has been touched up to throw the subject into striking relief? That stuff about Revenge, for instance. Can he have been as horrible as he makes out? He doesn’t seem a cruel man now. We must never forget that he’s a conjuror by profession; his lifelong pose has been demonic. I think he’d like us to believe he played the demon in reality, as well.”
“I take it seriously,” said Lind. “You are English, Roly, and the English have a temperamental pull toward cheerfulness; they don’t really believe in evil. If the Gulf Stream ever deserted their western coast, they’d think differently. Americans are supposed to be the great optimists, but the English are much more truly optimistic. I think he has done all he says he has done. I think he killed his enemy slowly and cruelly. And I think it happens oftener than is supposed by people who habitually avert their minds from evil.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid of evil,” said Ingestree. “Glad to look on the dark side any time it seems necessary. But I think people dramatize themselves when they have a chance.”
“Of course you are afraid of evil,” said Lind. “You’d be a fool if you weren’t. People talk about evil frivolously, just as Eisengrim says they do; it’s a way of diminishing its power, or seeming to do so. To talk about evil as if it were just waywardness or naughtiness is very stupid and trivial. Evil is the reality of at least half the world.”
“You’re always philosophizing,” said Kinghovn; “and that’s the dope of the Northern mind. What’s evil? You don’t know. But when you want an atmosphere of evil in your films you tell me and I arrange lowering skies and funny light and find a good camera angle; if I took the same thing in blazing sunlight, from another place, it’d look like comedy.”
“You’re always playing the tough guy, the realist,” said Lind, “and that’s wonderful. I like you for it, Harry. But you’re not an artist except in your limited field, so you leave it to me to decide what’s evil and what’s comedy on the screen. That’s something that goes beyond appearances. Right now we’re talking about a man’s life.”
Liesl had said very little at any of these evening sessions, and I think the film-makers had made the mistake of supposing she had nothing to say. She struck in now.
“Which man’s life are you talking about?” she said. “That’s another of the problems of biography and autobiography, Ingestree, my dear. It can’t be managed except by casting one person as the star of the drama, and arranging everybody else as supporting players. Look at what politicians write about themselves! Churchill and Hitler and all the rest of them seem suddenly to be secondary figures surrounding Sir Numskull Poop, who is always in the limelight. Magnus is no stranger to the egotism of the successful performing artist. Time after time he has reminded us that he is the greatest creature of his kind in the world. He does it without shame. He is not held back by any middle-class notion that it would be nicer if we said it instead of himself. He knows we’re not going to say it, because nothing so destroys the sense of equality on which all pleasant social life depends as perpetual reminders that one member of the company out-ranks all the rest. When it is so, it is considered good manners for the pre-eminent one to keep quiet about it. Because Magnus has been talking for a couple of hours we have assumed that his emphasis is the only emphasis.
“This business of the death of Willard: if we listen to Magnus we take it for granted that Magnus killed Willard after painfully humiliating him for quite a long time. The tragedy of Willard’s death is the spirit in which Faustus LeGrand regarded it. But isn’t Willard somebody, too? As Willard lay dying, who did he think was the star of the scene? Not Magnus, I’ll bet you. And look at it from God’s point of view, or if that strains you uncomfortably, suppose that you have to make a movie of the life and death of Willard. You need Magnus, but he is not the star. He is the necessary agent who brings Willard to the end. Everybody’s life is his Passion, you know, and you can’t have much of a Passion if you haven’t got a good strong Judas. Somebody has to play Judas, and it is generally acknowledged to be a fine, meaty role. There’s a pride in being cast for it. You recall the Last Supper? Christ said that he would be betrayed by one of those who sat at the table with him. The disciples called out, Lord, is it I? And when Judas asked, Christ said it was he.
“Has it never occurred to you that there might have been just the tiniest feeling in the bosom of one of the lesser apostles—Lebbaeus, for instance, whom tradition represents as a fat man—that Judas was thrusting himself forward again? Christ died on the Cross, and Judas also had his Passion, but can anybody tell me what became of Lebbaeus? Yet he too was a man, and if he had written an autobiography do you suppose that Christ would have had the central position? There seems to have been a Bearded Lady at the deathbed of Willard, and I would like to know her point of view. Being a woman, she probably had too much intelligence to think that she was the central figure, but would she have awarded that role to Willard or to Magnus?”
“Either would do,” said Kinghovn; “but you need a point of focus, you know. Otherwise you get this cinema verite stuff which is sometimes interesting but it damn well isn’t verite because it fails utterly to convince. It’s like those shots of war you see on tv; you can’t believe anything serious is happening. If you want your film to look like truth you need somebody like Jurgen to decide what truth is, and somebody like me to shoot it so it never occurs to you that it could appear any other way. Of course what you get is not truth, but it’s probably a lot better in more ways than just the cinematic way. If you want the death of Willard shot from the point of view of the Bearded Lady I can certainly do it. And simply because I can do it to order I don’t know how you can pretend it has any special superiority as truth.”
“I suppose it’s part of that human condition silly-clever people are always grizzling about,” said Liesl. “If you want truth, I suppose you must shoot the film from God’s point of view and with God’s point of focus, whatever it may be. And I’ll bet the result won’t look much like cinema verite. But I don’t think either you or Jurgen are up to that job, Harry.”
“There is no God,” said Kinghovn; “and I’ve never felt the least necessity to invent one.”
“Probably that is why you have spent your life as a technician; a very fine one, but a technician,” said Lind. “It’s only by inventing a few gods that we get that uneasy sense that something is laughing at us, which is one of the paths to faith.”
“Eisengrim talks a lot about God,” said Ingestree, “and God seems still to be a tremendous reality to him. But there’s no question of God laughing. The bottle in the smoke—that’s what he was. I really must read the Bible some time; there are such marvellous goodies in it, just waiting to be picked up. But even these Bibles Designed to be Read as Literature are so bloody thick! I suppose one could browse, but when I browse I never seem to find anything except tiresome stud-book stuff about Aminadab begetting Jonadab and that kind of thing.”
“We’ve only had part of the story,” I said. “Magnus has carefully pointed out to us that he is looking backward on his early life as a man who has changed decisively in the last forty years. What’s his point of focus?”
“Nobody changes so decisively that they lose all sense of the reality of their youth,” Lind said. “The days of childhood are always the most vivid. He has let us think that his childhood made him a villain. So I think we must assume that he is a villain now. A quiescent villain, but not an extinct one.”
“I think that’s a lot of romantic crap,” said Kinghovn. “I’m sick of all the twaddle about childhood. You should have seen me as a child; a flaxen-haired little darling playing in my mother’s garden in Aalborg. Where is he now? Here I sit, a very well-smoked bottle like our friend who has gone to bed. If I met that flaxen-haired child now I would probably give him a good clout over the ear. I’ve never much liked kids. Which was the greater use in the world? That child, so sweet and pure, or me, as I am now, not sweet and damned well not pure?”
“That’s a dangerous question for a man who doesn’t believe in God,” I said, “because there is no answer to it without God. I could answer it for you, if I thought you were open to anything but drink and photography, Harry, but I’m not going to waste precious argument. What I want is to defend Eisengrim against the charge of being a villain, now or at any other time. You must look at his history in the light of myth—”
“Aha, I thought we should get to myth in time,” said Liesl.
“Well, myth explains much that is otherwise inexplicable, just because myth is a boiling down of universal experience. Eisengrim’s story of his childhood and youth is as new to me as it is to you, although I knew him when he was very young—”
“Yes, and you were an influence in making him what he is,” said Liesl.
“Because you taught him conjuring?” said Lind.
“No, no; Ramsay was personally responsible for the premature birth of little Paul Dempster, and responsible also for Paul’s mother’s madness, which marked him so terribly,” said Liesl.
I gaped at her in astonishment. “This is what comes of confiding in women! Not only can they not keep a secret; they retell it in an utterly false way! I must put this matter right. It is true that Paul Dempster was born prematurely because his mother was hit on the head by a snowball. It is true that the snowball was meant to hit me, and it hit her instead because I dodged it. It is true that the blow on the head and the birth of the child seemed to precipitate an instability that sometimes amounted to madness. And it is true that I felt some responsibility in the matter. But that was long ago and far away, in a country which you would scarcely recognize as modern Canada. Liesl, I blush for you.”
“What a lovely old-fashioned thing to say, dear Ramsay. Thank you very much for blushing for me, because I long ago lost the trick of blushing for myself. But I didn’t spill the beans about you just to make you jump. I wanted to make the point that you are a figure in this story, too. A very strange figure, just as odd as any in your legends. You precipitated, by a single action—and who could think you guilty just because you jumped out of the way of a snowball (who, that is, but a grim Calvinist like yourself, Ramsay)—everything that we have been hearing from Magnus during these nights past. Are you a precipitating figure in Magnus’s story, or he in yours? Who could comb it all out? But get on with your myth, dear man. I want to hear what lovely twist you will give to what Magnus has told us.”
“It is not a twist, but an explication. Magnus has made it amply clear that he was brought up in a strict, unrelenting form of puritanism. In consequence he still blames himself whenever he can, and because he knows the dramatic quality of the role, he likes to play the villain. But as for his keeping Willard as a sort of hateful pet, in order to jeer at him, I simply don’t believe it was like that at all. What is the mythical element in his story? Simply the very old tale of the man who is in search of his soul, and who must struggle with a monster to secure it. All myth and Christianity—which has never been able to avoid the mythical pull of human experience—are full of similar instances, and people all around us are living out this basic human pattern every day. In the study of hagiography—”
“I knew you’d get to saints before long,” said Liesl.
“In the study of hagiography we have legends and all those splendid pictures of saints who killed dragons, and it doesn’t take much penetration to know that the dragons represent not simply evil in the world but their personal evil, as well. Of course, being saints, they are said to have killed their dragons, but we know that dragons are not killed; at best they are tamed, and kept on the chain. In the pictures we see St. George, and my special favourite, St. Catherine, triumphing over the horrid beast, who lies with his tongue out, looking as if he thoroughly regretted his mistaken course in life. But I am strongly of the opinion that St. George and St. Catherine did not kill those dragons, for then they would have been wholly good, and inhuman, and useless and probably great sources of mischief, as one-sided people always are. No, they kept the dragons as pets. Because they were Christians, and because Christianity enjoins us to seek only the good and to have nothing whatever to do with evil, they doubtless rubbed it into the dragons that it was uncommonly broadminded and decent of them to let the dragons live at all. They may even have given the dragon occasional treats: you may breathe a little fire, they might say, or you may leer desirously at that virgin yonder, but if you make one false move you’ll wish you hadn’t. You must be a thoroughly submissive dragon, and remember who’s boss. That’s the Christian way of doing things, and that’s what Magnus did with Willard. He didn’t kill Willard. The essence of Willard lives with him today. But he got the better of Willard. Didn’t you notice how he was laughing as he said good night?”
“I certainly did,” said Ingestree. “I didn’t understand it at all. It wasn’t just the genial laughter of a man saying farewell to some guests. And certainly he didn’t seem to be laughing at us. I thought perhaps it was relief at having got something off his chest.”
“The laugh troubled me,” said Lind. “I am not good at humour, and I like to be perfectly sure what people are laughing at. Do you know what it was, Ramsay?”
“Yes,” I said, “I think I do. That was Merlin’s Laugh.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Lind.
“If Liesl will allow it, I must be mythological again. The magician Merlin had a strange laugh, and it was heard when nobody else was laughing. He laughed at the beggar who was bewailing his fate as he lay stretched on a dunghill; he laughed at the foppish young man who was making a great fuss about choosing a pair of shoes. He laughed because he knew that deep in the dunghill was a golden cup that would have made the beggar a rich man; he laughed because he knew that the pernickety young man would be stabbed in a quarrel before the soles of his new shoes were soiled. He laughed because he knew what was coming next.”
“And of course our friend knows what is coming next in his own story,” said Lind.
“Are we to take it then that there was some striking reversal of fortune awaiting him when he went to England?” said Ingestree.
“I know no more than you,” said I. “I do not hear Merlin’s Laugh very often, though I think I am more sensitive to its sound than most people. But he spoke of finding out what wine would be poured into the well-smoked bottle that he had become. I don’t know what it was.”
Ingestree was more excited than the rest. “But are we never to know? How can we find out?”
“Surely that’s up to you,” said Lind. “Aren’t you going to ask Eisengrim to come to London to see the rushes of this film we have been making? Isn’t that owing to him? Get him in London and ask him to continue.”
Ingestree looked doubtful. “Can it be squeezed out of the budget?” he said. “The corporation doesn’t like frivolous expenses. Of course I’d love to ask him, but if we run very much over budget, well, it would be as good as my place is worth, as servants used to say in the day when they knew they were servants.”
“Nonsense, you can rig it,” said Kinghovn. But Ingestree still looked like a worried, rather withered baby.
“I know what is worrying Roly,” said Liesl. “He thinks that he could squeeze Eisengrim’s expenses in London out of the B.B.C.—but he knows he can’t lug in Ramsay and me, and he’s too nice a fellow to suggest that Magnus travel without us. Isn’t that it, Roly?”
Ingestree looked at her. “Bang on the head,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Liesl. “I’ll pay my own way, and even this grinding old miser Ramsay might unchain a few pennies for himself. Just let us know when to come.”
And so, at last, they went. As we came back into the large, gloomy, nineteenth-century Gothic hall of Sorgenfrei, I said to Liesl: “It was nice of you to think of Lebbaeus, tonight. People don’t mention him very often. But you’re wrong, you know, saying that there is no record of what he did after the Crucifixion. There is a non-canonical Acts of Thaddaeus—Thaddaeus was his surname, you recall—that tells all about him. It didn’t get into the Bible, but it exists.”
“What’s it like?”
“A great tale of marvels. Real Arabian Nights stuff. Puts him dead at the centre of affairs.”
“Didn’t I say so! Just like a man. I’ll bet he wrote it himself.”