One day I was asked if I would play ball after school. I said I had to do some work.
“Sure,” said Milo, “Dunny’s got to get right over to the bughouse and cut the grass.”
“The bughouse?” asked a few who were slow of wit.
“Yep. The Dempsters’. That’s the bughouse now.”
It was now or never for me. “Milo,” I said “if you ever say that again I’ll get a great big cork and stick it up you, and then nobody’ll ever laugh at you again.” As I said this I walked menacingly towards him, and as soon as Milo backed away I knew I was the victor, for the moment. The joke about Milo and the cork was frugally husbanded by our collectors of funny sayings, and he was not allowed to forget it. “If you stuck a cork in Milo nobody would ever laugh at him again,” these unashamed gleaners of the fields of repartee would say and shout with laughter. Nobody said “bughouse” to me for a long time, but sometimes I could see that they wanted to say it, and I knew they said it behind my back. This increased my sense of isolation — of being forced out of the world I belonged to into the strange and unchancy world of the Dempsters.
The passing of time brought other isolations. At thirteen I should have been learning the printing business; my father was neat-handed and swift, and Willie was following in his steps. But I was all thumbs in the shop, slow to learn the layout of the frames in which the fonts of type were distributed, clumsy at locking up a forme, messy with ink, a great spoiler of paper, and really not much good at anything but cutting reglet or reading proof, which my father never trusted to anyone but himself in any case. I never mastered the printer’s trick of reading things upside down and backward, and I never properly learned how to fold a sheet. Altogether I was a nuisance in the shop, and as this humiliated me, and my father was a kindly man, he sought some other honourable work to keep me from under his feet. It had been suggested that our village library should be open a few afternoons a week so that the more responsible schoolchildren might use it, and somebody was needed to serve as under-librarian, the real librarian being busy as a teacher during the daytime and not relishing the loss of so much of her free time. I was appointed to this job, at a salary of nothing at all, the honour being deemed sufficient reward.
This suited me admirably. Three afternoons a week I opened our one-room library in the upstairs of the Town Hall and lorded it over any schoolchildren who appeared. Once I had the dizzy pleasure of finding something in the encyclopaedia for Leola Cruikshank, who had to write an essay about the equator and didn’t know whether it went over the top or round the middle. More afternoons than not, nobody appeared, or else those who came went away as soon as they found what they wanted, and I had the library to myself.
It was not much of a collection – perhaps fifteen hundred books in all, of which roughly a tenth part were for children. The annual budget was twenty-five dollars, and much of that went on subscriptions to magazines that the magistrate, who was chairman of the board, wanted to read. Acquisitions, therefore, were usually gifts from the estates of people who had died, and our local auctioneer gave us any books that he could not sell; we kept what we wanted and sent the rest to the Grenfell Mission, on the principle that savages would read anything.
The consequence was that we had some odd things, of which the oddest were kept in a locked closet off the main room. There was a medical book, with a frightful engraving of a fallen womb, and another of a varicocele, and a portrait of a man with lavish hair and whiskers but no nose, which made me a lifelong enemy of syphilis. My special treasures were The Secrets of Stage Conjuring by Robert-Houdin and Modern Magic and Later Magic by Professor Hoffmann; they had been banished as uninteresting — uninteresting! — and as soon as I saw them I knew that fate meant them for me. By studying them I should become a conjurer, astonish everybody, win the breathless admiration of Leola Cruikshank, and become a great power. I immediately hid them in a place where they could not fall into the hands of unworthy persons, including our librarian, and devoted myself to the study of magic.
I still look back upon those hours when I acquainted myself with the means by which a French conjurer had astonished the subjects of Louis-Napoleon as an era of Arcadian pleasure. It did not matter that everything about the book was hopelessly old-fashioned; great as the gap between me and Robert-Houdin was, I could accept his world as the real world, so far as the wonderful art of deception was concerned. When he insisted on the necessity of things that were unknown to Deptford, I assumed that it was because Deptford was a village and Paris was a great and sophisticated capital, where everybody who was anybody was mad for conjuring and wanted nothing more than to be delightfully bamboozled by an elegant, slightly sinister, but wholly charming master of the art. It did not surprise me in the least that Robert-Houdin’s Emperor had sent him on a special diplomatic mission to Algiers, to destroy the power of the marabouts by showing that his magic was greater than theirs. When I read of his feat on the Shah of Turkey’s yacht, when he hammered the Shah’s jewelled watch to ruins in a mortar, then threw the rubbish overboard, cast a line into the sea, pulled up a fish, asked the Shah’s chef to clean it, and stood by while the chef discovered the watch, quite unharmed, enclosed in a silk bag in the entrails of the fish, I felt that this was life as it ought to be lived. Conjurers were obviously fellows of the first importance and kept distinguished company. I would be one of them.
The Scottish practicality that I had imitated from my parents was not really in grain with me; I cared too little for difficulties. I admitted to myself that Deptford was unlikely to yield a conjurer’s table — a gilded gueridon, with a cunning servante on the back of it for storing things one did not wish to have seen, and a gibeciere into which coins and watches could noiselessly be dropped; I had no tailcoat, and if I had I doubt if my mother would have sewn a proper conjurer’s profonde in the tails, for disappearing things. When Professor Hoffmann instructed me to fold back my cuffs, I knew that I had no cuffs, but did not care. I would devote myself to illusions that did not require such things. These illusions, I discovered, called for special apparatus, always described by the Professor as “simple”, which the conjurer was advised to make himself. For me, a boy who always tied his shoelaces backward and whose Sunday tie looked like a hangman’s noose, such apparatus presented a problem that I had to admit, after a few tries, was insuperable. Nor could I do anything about the tricks that required “a few substances, easily obtainable from any chemist,” because Ruckle’s drugstore had never heard of any of them. But I was not defeated. I would excel in the realm which Robert-Houdin said was the truest, most classical form of conjuring: I would be a master of sleight-of-hand, a matchless prestidigitateur.
It was like me to begin with eggs — or, to be precise, one egg. It never occurred to me that a clay egg, of the kind used to deceive hens, would do just as well. I hooked an egg from my mother’s kitchen and when the library was empty began to practise producing it from my mouth, elbow, and back of the knee; also putting it into my right ear and, after a little henlike clucking, removing it from my left. I seemed to be getting on splendidly, and when the magistrate made a sudden appearance to get the latest Scribner’s. I had a mad moment when I thought of amazing him by taking an egg out of his beard. Of course I did not dare to go so far, but the delightful thought that I could if I wanted to put me into such a fit of giggles that he looked at me speculatively. When he was gone I handled the egg with greater boldness until, disappearing it into my hip pocket, I put my thumb through it.
Ha ha. Every boy has experiences of this kind, and they are usually thought to be funny and childlike. But that egg led to a dreadful row with my mother. She had missed the egg — it never occurred to me that anybody counted eggs — and accused me of taking it. I lied. Then she caught me trying to wash out my pocket, because, in a house with no running water, washing cannot be a really private business. She exposed my lie and demanded to know what I wanted with an egg. Now, how can a boy of thirteen tell a Scotswoman widely admired for her practicality that he intends to become the world’s foremost prestidigitateur? I took refuge in mute insolence. She stormed. She demanded to know if I thought she was made of eggs. Visited unhappily by a good one, I said that that was something she would have to decide for herself. My mother had little sense of humour. She told me that if I thought I had grown too old to be beaten she would show me I was mistaken, and from the kitchen cupboard she produced the pony whip.