Fifth Business – The Deptford Trilogy #1 by Robertson Davies

Philosophers have tackled this question, of course, and answered it in ways highly satisfactory to themselves; but I never knew a philosopher’s answer to make much difference to anyone not in the trade. I was trying to get at the subject without wearing either the pink spectacles of faith or the green spectacles of science. All I had managed by the time I found myself sitting in the basilica of Guadalupe was a certainty that faith was a psychological reality, and that where it was not invited to fasten itself on things unseen, it invaded and raised bloody hell with things seen. Or in other words, the irrational will have its say, perhaps because “irrational” is the wrong word for it.

Such speculation cannot fill the whole of one’s day. I used to rise early and go to the shrine in the morning. After luncheon I followed the local custom and slept. I explored the city until dinner. After dinner, what? I could not sit in the public rooms in my hotel for they were uncomfortable after the Spanish fashion. The writing-room was dominated by a large painting of the Last Supper, a more than usually gloomy depiction of that gloomiest of parties; apparently nobody had been able to touch a bite, and a whole lamb, looking uncomfortably alive though flayed, lay on a platter in the middle of the table with its eyes fixed reproachfully on Judas.

I tried the theatre and found myself sitting through a drama that I identified as Sardou’s Frou Frou, heavily Hispanicized and given a further Mexican flavour. It was slow going. I went to one or two films, American pieces with Spanish sound tracks. With relief I discovered from a morning paper that a magician might be seen at the Teatro Chueca, and I booked a seat through my hotel.

Enthusiasm for magic had never wholly died in me, and I had seen the best illusionists of my time — Thurston, Goldin, Blackstone, the remarkable German who called himself Kalanag, and Harry Houdini, not long before his death. But the name of the man who was to perform in Mexico was unknown to me; the advertisement announced that Magnus Eisengrim would astonish Mexico City after having triumphantly toured South America. I assumed that he was a German who thought it impolitic to appear in the States at present.

Very soon after the curtain rose I knew that this was a magic entertainment unlike any I had ever seen. In the twentieth century stage magicians have always been great jokers; even Houdini grinned like a film star through most of his show. They kept up a run of patter designed to assure the audience that they were not to be taken seriously as wonder-workers; they were entertainers and mighty clever fellows, but their magic was all in fun. Even when they included a little hypnotism — as Blackstone did so deftly — nobody was given any cause for alarm.

Not so Magnus Eisengrim. He did not wear ordinary evening clothes, but a beautiful dress coat with a velvet collar, and silk knee breeches. He began his show by appearing in the middle of the stage out of nowhere; he plucked a wand from the air and, wrapping himself in a black cloak, suddenly became transparent; members of his company — girls dressed in fanciful costumes — seemed to walk through him; then, after another flourish of the cloak, he was present in the flesh again, and four of the girls were sufficiently ghostly for him to pass his wand through them. I began to enjoy myself; this was the old Pepper’s Ghost illusion, familiar enough in principle but newly worked up into an excellent mystery. And nobody on the stage cracked a smile.

Eisengrim now introduced himself to us. He spoke in elegant Spanish, and it was clear at once that he did not present himself as a funny-man but as one who offered an entertainment of mystery and beauty, with perhaps a hint of terror as well. Certainly his appearance and surroundings were not those of the usual stage magician; he was not tall, but his bearing was so impressive that his smallness was unimportant. He had beautiful eyes and an expression of dignity, but the most impressive thing about him was his voice; it was much bigger than one would expect from a small man, and of unusual range and beauty of tone. He received us as honoured guests and promised us an evening of such visions and illusions as had nourished the imagination of mankind for two thousand years — and a few trifles for amusement as well.

This was a novelty — a poetic magician who took himself seriously. It was certainly not the role in which I had expected to re-encounter Paul Dempster. But this was Paul, without a doubt, so self-assured, so polished, so utterly unlike the circus conjurer with the moustache and beard and shabby clothes whom I had met in Le grand Cirque forain de St. Vite more than fifteen years before, that it was some time before I could be sure it was he. How had he come by this new self, and where had he acquired this tasteful, beautiful entertainment?

It was so elegantly presented that I doubt if anyone in the Teatro Chueca but myself realized how old it was in essence. Paul did not do a single new trick; they were all classics from the past, well known to people who were interested in the history of this curious minor art and craft.

He invited members of the audience to have a drink with him before he began his serious work, and poured red and white wine, brandy, tequila, whisky, milk, and water from a single bottle; a very old trick, but the air of graceful hospitality with which he did it was enough to make it new. He borrowed a dozen handkerchiefs — mine among them — and burned them in a glass vessel; then from the ashes he produced eleven handkerchiefs, washed and ironed; when the twelfth donor showed some uneasiness, Eisengrim directed him to look towards the ceiling, from which his handkerchief fluttered down into his hands. He borrowed a lady’s handbag, and from it produced a package that swelled and grew until he revealed a girl under the covering; he caused this girl to rise in the air, float out over the orchestra pit, return to the table, and, when covered, to dwindle once again to a package, which, when returned to the lady’s purse, proved to be a box of bonbons. All old tricks. All beautifully done. And all offered without any of the facetiousness that usually makes magic shows so restless and tawdry.

The second part of his entertainment began with hypnotism. From perhaps fifty people who volunteered to be subjects he chose twenty and seated them in a half-circle on the stage. Then, one by one, he induced them to do the things all hypnotists rely on — row boats, eat invisible meals, behave as guests at a party, listen to music, and all the rest of it — but he had one idea that was new to me; he told a serious-looking man of middle age that he had just been awarded the Nobel Prize and asked him to make a speech of acceptance. The man did so, with such dignity and eloquence that the audience applauded vigorously. I have seen displays of hypnotism in which people were made to look foolish, to show the dominance of the hypnotist; there was nothing of that here, and all of the twenty left the stage with dignity unimpaired, and indeed with a heightened sense of importance.

Then Eisengrim showed us some escapes, from ropes and straps bound on him by men from the audience who fancied themselves as artists in bondage. He was tied up and put into a trunk, which was pulled on a rope up into the ceiling of the theatre; after thirty seconds Eisengrim walked down the centre aisle to the stage, brought the trunk to ground, and revealed that it contained an absurd effigy of himself.

His culminating escape was a variation of one Houdini originated and made famous. Eisengrim, wearing only a pair of bathing trunks, was handcuffed and pushed upside down into a metal container like a milk can, and the top of the milk can was fastened shut with padlocks, some of which members of the audience had brought with them; the milk can was lowered into a tank of water, with glass windows in it so that the audience could see the interior clearly; curtains were drawn around the tank and its contents, and the audience sat in silence to await events. Two men were asked to time the escape; and if more than three minutes elapsed, they were to order the theatre fireman who was in attendance to break open the milk can without delay.

The three minutes passed. The fireman was given the word and made a very clumsy business of getting the can out of the tank and opening the padlocks. But when he had done so the milk can was empty, and the fireman was Eisengrim. It was the nearest thing to comedy the evening provided.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson