For the first few days it was flattering to my spirit to sit in the stalls in the empty theatre with Liesl while Eisengrim rehearsed. Not a day passed that he did not go through a searching examination of several of his illusions, touching up one moment, or subduing another, and always refining that subtle technique of misdirecting the attention of his audience, which is the beginning and end of the conjurer’s art.
To me it was deeply satisfying to watch him, for he was a master of all those sleights that had seemed so splendid, and so impossible, in my boyhood. “Secure and palm six half-crowns.” He could do it with either hand. His professional dress coat almost brought tears to my eyes, such a marvel was it of loading-pockets, pochettes and profondes; when it was filled and ready for his appearance in The Dream of Midas it weighed twelve pounds, but it fitted him without a bulge.
My opinion was sought, and given, about the program. It was on my advice that the second part of his entertainment was reshaped. I suggested that he cut out the escape act entirely; it was not suitable to an illusionist, for it was essentially a physical trick and not a feat of magic. There was no romance about being stuck in a milk can and getting out again. This gave Liesl a chance to press for the inclusion of The Brazen Head of Friar Bacon and I supported her strongly; it was right for the character of the show they were building. But Eisengrim the Great had never heard of Friar Bacon, and like so many people who have not heard of something, he could not believe that anybody but a few eccentrics would have done so.
“It is unmistakably your thing,” I said. “You can tell them about the great priest-magician and his Brazen Head that foretold the future and knew the past; I’ll write the speech for you. It doesn’t matter whether people have heard of Bacon or not. Many of them haven’t heard of Dr. Faustus, but they like your conclusion.”
“Oh, every educated person has heard of Faust,” said Eisengrim with something like pomposity. “He’s in a very famous opera.” He had no notion that Faust was also in one of the world’s greatest plays.
He had virtually no education, though he could speak several languages, and one of the things Liesl had to teach him, as tactfully as possible, was not to talk out of his depth. I thought that much of his extraordinarily impressive personality arose from his ignorance — or, rather, from his lack of a headful of shallow information that would have enabled him to hold his own in a commonplace way among commonplace people. As a schoolmaster of twenty years’ experience I had no use for smatterers. What he knew, he knew as well as anybody on earth; it gave him confidence, and sometimes a naive egotism that was hard to believe.
We worked very hard on the Brazen Head, which was no more than a very good thought-reading act dressed in a new guise. The Brazen Head was “levitated” by Eisengrim and floated in the middle of the stage, apparently without wires or supports; then the girls moved through the audience, collecting objects that were sealed in envelopes by their lenders. Eisengrim received these envelopes on a tray on the stage and asked the Head to describe the objects and identify their owners; the Head did so, giving the row and seat number for each; only then did Eisengrim touch them. Next, the Head gave messages to three members of the audience, chosen apparently at random, relating to their personal affairs. It was a first-rate illusion, and I think the script I wrote for it, which was plain and literate, and free of any of the pompous rhetoric so dear to conjurers, had a substantial part in creating its air of mystery.
Rehearsal was difficult because much depended on the girls who collected the objects; they had to use their heads, and their heads were not the best-developed part of them. The random messages were simple but dangerous, for they relied on the work of the company manager, a pickpocket of rare gifts; but he had an air of transparent honesty and geniality, and as he mingled with the audience when it entered the theatre, shaking hands and pressing through the crowd as if on his way somewhere else to do something very important, nobody suspected him. Sometimes he found invaluable letters in the coats of distinguished visitors when he took these to his office to spare such grandees the nuisance of lining up at the garderobe. But in the case of ladies or men of no special importance it was straight “dipping”, and potentially dangerous. He enjoyed it; it put him in mind of the good old days before he got into trouble and left London for Rio.
Because of a message the Brazen Head gave a beautiful lady in the very first audience before which it was shown, a duel was fought the next day between a well-known Mexican lawyer and a dentist who fancied himself as a Don Juan. Nothing could have been better publicity, and all sorts of people offered large sums to be permitted to consult the Brazen Head privately. Eisengrim, who had a perfectionist’s capacity for worry, was fearful that such revelations would keep people out of the theatre, but Liesl was confident and exultant; she said they would come to hear what was said about other people, and they did.
Liesl’s job was to speak for the Brazen Head, because she was the only member of the company capable of rapidly interpreting a letter or an engagement book, and composing a message that was spicy without being positively libellous. She was a woman of formidable intelligence and intuition: she had a turn for improvising and phrasing ambiguous but startling messages that would have done credit to the Oracle at Delphi.
The Brazen Head was such a success that there was some thought of putting it at the end of the show, as the “topper”, but I opposed this; the foundation of the show was romance, and The Vision of Dr. Faustus had it. But the Head was our best effort in sheer mystery.
I cannot refrain from boasting that it was I who provided the idea for one of the illusions that made Eisengrim the most celebrated magician in the world. Variety theatres everywhere abounded with magicians who could saw a woman in two; it was my suggestion that Eisengrim should offer to saw a member of the audience in two.
His skill as a hypnotist made it possible. When we had worked out the details and put the illusion on the stage, he would first perform the commonplace illusion, sawing one of his showgirls into two sections with a circular saw and displaying her with her head smiling from one end of a box while her feet kicked from the other — but with a hiatus of three feet between the two parts of the box. Then he would offer to do the same thing with a volunteer from the audience. The volunteer would be “lightly anaesthetized” by hypnosis, ostensibly so that he would not wriggle and perhaps injure himself, after which he would be put in a new box, and Eisengrim would saw him in two with a large and fearsome lumberman’s saw. The volunteer was shown to be divided but able to kick his feet and answer questions about the delightfully airy feeling in his middle. Rejoined, the volunteer would leave the stage decidedly dazed, but marvelling at himself and pleased with the applause.
The high point of this illusion was when two assistants held a large mirror so that the volunteer, could see for himself that he had been sawn in two. We substituted this illusion for the rather ordinary hypnotic stuff that had been in the show when first I saw it.
Working on these illusions was delightful but destructive of my character. I was aware that I was recapturing the best of my childhood; my imagination had never known such glorious freedom; but as well as liberty and wonder I was regaining the untruthfulness, the lack of scruple, and the absorbing egotism of a child. I heard myself talking boastfully, lying shamelessly. I blushed but could not control myself. I had never, so far as I can tell, been absorbed completely into the character of a Headmaster — a figure of authority, of scholarship, of probity — but I was an historian, a hagiographer, a bachelor of unstained character, a winner of the Victoria Cross, the author of several admired books, a man whose course of life was set and the bounds of whose success were denned. Yet here I was, in Mexico City, not simply attached to but subsumed in a magic show. The day I found myself slapping one of the showgirls on the bottom and winking when she made her ritual protest, I knew that something was terribly wrong with Dunstan Ramsay.