THE MAGISTER CURIOSITY
A memoir of Professor Artemus More FRS
Brute force momentum as the door gave out, tumbled the boorish New York police sergeant headlong into Nikola Tesla’s hotel room. With his hard wood baton of pain poised and murder in his eyes he looked around and saw…
Not a soul. Neither hide nor hair, which as I relate this makes me smile and I shall shortly reveal why. The room was pristine tidy, just as Nik had left it. Well, all save for the littering of door jamb splinters, and wisps of coarse black hair on the carpet here and there.
But of anything resembling vagrant filth? The place was utterly devoid.
“Their in’t no one here, Sergeant,” said the junior cop, who mooched in behind the brute. Languid and lanky.
The Sergeant sneered a growl. Then barked: “Behind the door!”
Lanky took a look. “No. No one here, Sergeant.”
“’Neath the bed then,” ordered the Sergeant, tapping his baton upon the palm of his hand, now even more keen to mete out retribution.
Lanky drew his own stick from his belt, bent down and waved it about under the iron bed frame.
…and cracked the chamber pot. But again, “No. No one here, Sergeant.”
The Sergeant then demanded the looking behind of, or beneath, or within every possible hidey-hole. Wardrobe, washstand, curtains, chaise. Each fruitless search was reported as, “No one here either.”
“Out through the window,” growled the Sergeant, now punctuating his orders with invective choice enough to make Father Connor O’Connor blush. “The yella bellied pair of the two have fled out through the window.”
“No. Cannot be seeing how such a thing could occur, Sergeant,” said lanky, rattling the window frame. “Being locked tight as it is from the inside.”
“Vagrants! Where is the pair of the two of ya?”
“They didn’t answer, Sergeant,” said the lanky cop.
“I know they did not answer!!”
“Then, happen it be they ain’t here?”
It was detective work which pushed the needle on the Sergeant’s foul-talk gauge up, round and right into the red. Or more properly the blue.
Mr Keith, the tall, handsome, wavy-haired hotel manager standing watching New York’s finest at work, ran a slender finger down the broken door-surround. Then said in his delicate manner: “Well, I must also pose the question, Sergeant, as your Officer here says – might it be that no persons can be found within this locked room because no persons were ever here in the very first place? And, quite frankly, you have been misinformed?”
The Sergeant’s face, which at the best of times was usually given to florid, now inflamed through the denser colours of the spectrum wheel round to purple. In desperation he hammered the walls hoping for a secret passage, stamped on the carpet listening for a trap door, and then bashed his baton of pain down on the chaise longue in frustration. A little cloud of dust puffed up and out, causing Mr Keith as much concern as the door jamb. That dust would never do. And this hair in the carpet. He made a note, he must speak with housekeeping.
“Is there anything else you might care to damage in your fruitless quest, Sergeant?”
The Sergeant huffed and stomped out of the room and down along the corridor. The lanky Officer shrugged Mr Keith a sympathetic look and followed his Sergeant. Then, after a pause, we heard Mr Keith announce to nobody, “Well, gentlemen, I have no notion of how you managed this feat, or where you are now, but know this: I am impressed.” He then set off behind the policemen, demanding to know who he should bill for the damage.
“So, Professor, you and Michael simply vanished.” Phoebe leaned forward. Her dark eyes sparkling with excitement.
“Which of course you did not. But how? Oh, yes. This is too delicious. A locked-room mystery.” Then she held up a hand.
“No, no, Professor. Tell me nothing. Just let me examine what I have to work with. There were two exits. The room door was guarded on the outside and the window locked from the inside so at once they can be discounted because you and Michael clearly did not, or could not leave the room.”
I saw her red lips purse as she tried to visualise Tesla’s room.
“Floor and walls were examined, which leaves us with … the furniture! What did you describe? A bed, a chaise longue and an armchair. Behind which or beneath, the slender policeman found nothing.”
More pursing. More picturing.
“Which can only mean…” Then a slow dawning. “Inside...?”
My face gave away nothing. I think.
“You hid inside the furniture? Oh, that is beautiful.”
Phoebe stood and paced back and forth, again running a scenario in her mind.
“Let me imagine this. Professor, you must have hidden within the armchair. Because of your size. I mean no offence.”
Charming. But, well, true.
“And Michael? Not inside the mattress, because the bed springs within would...” Inspiration inspired a clap of the hands. “Inside the chaise!”
I offered a hint of a nod.
“Which must have been rather painful when that vulgar Sergeant beat it with his baton.”
It was. Bruised his nethers.
“But how?” she held up another hand, while she paced her way through it. “How did you get inside?”
The pursing became pouting.
“With you and Michael both wrapped in bath towels … how could you cut through the fabric of the armchair and the chaise to slide inside?” Then a crown’s worth of pennies dropped and Phoebe proceeded to conduct a conversation entirely with herself. “Dr Tesla’s personal grooming aids. His manicure tools. The nail scissors would be far from strong enough. Ah! But if you opened them and used one blade as a knife edge to slice through. That would work. But then how did the coarse Sergeant, or his slender sidekick, fail to notice the cut in the fabric?” More miming and visualising. Then, “Not if you follow the line of the piping, or the along the length of the edge of the fabric where it is tacked to the base. And the Sergeant’s powers of observation, assuming he possessed any in the first place, would have certainly been clouded by his frustration. How am I faring, Professor?”
Highly impressed, I had to admit she was by and large quite correct.
As soon as the hammering and the shouting started, Michael’s mind was racing. Where to hide? Where to hide? Adrenaline fuelled his creativity. With Nik’s scissors Michael sliced through the leather of the armchair, across the back of the underside base, then half way up the side. Opened the flap. And forced me upside down and headfirst into the seat cushion of the chair. Then hefted my legs, one then the other, with enormous effort, up into the back of the chair. Like childbirth in reverse. Then whispered I should hold the flap shut as best I could. And pray.
I know little of prayer but I am certain Father Connor O’Connor has never needed to adopt such an awkward inverted position. Well, perhaps while in the confessional with one of his parishioners, but that is as maybe.
The well-flattened horsehair within the chair reluctantly yielded me enough space but still all but suffocated me, while scratching my skin like a multi-clawed cat. But pray I did. That neither of the police saw fit to flop down into the armchair.
I later learned that the more slender Michael repeated the process, only length-wise on the chaise longue.
It was the worst five minutes of my life. Far more painful than watching Truly Shattuck’s Music Hall act in Berlin. That was not only her name, by the way, but also a review of her performance. But then sheer terror gave me the strength not to move, nor barely breathe until I heard Mr Keith declare his admiration. But it was only when Michael pulled back the flap of the chair and whispered that they had gone that my numb legs were pulled down and out of the chair, followed by the rest of me.
Like Michael, I was panting and spitting horsehair, the rest of which caked our sweated naked bodies to give us the look of a pair of asthmatic ape-men.
Recovery for me took a full half hour of lying silently on the carpet. I could barely speak when Tesla pushed the room door inwards with his foot.
“My friends,” he said. “Mr Keith informs me there has been the incident most unfortunate.”
“I assume the hotel manager was a picture of contrition and apology when Dr Tesla returned to the Astor Hotel with his clothing parcels,” said Phoebe.
Nik said Mr Keith also assured him the carpenter had been sent for. But ‘the incident’ served to confirm Nik’s suspicion that spies were observing him. Associates of Edison…
Michael and I bathed. Again! Nevertheless, I confided to Phoebe, my horsehair chafing remained red for a month. Which was probably more than she needed to know. But now, fresh and newly clothed for the era, Nik took us to the best restaurant in Manhattan for a very fine lunch.
“Which is all commendably dandy, Professor, but what about poor Wicko?” asked Phoebe. “Your narrative left him kidnapped from gaol and standing outside a condemned Madison Square Garden.”
Ah, yes. Wicko.
Well, as far as our dwarfish friend could tell, this so-called Madison Square Garden was a complete misnomer, it being a roofless arena that was neither square nor had a garden.
“Bit of a dead and alive hole, isn’t it,” observed Wicko.
“Wah! At one time in this venue,” said his benefactor, Mr Warner, proudly, “ten thousand spectators marvelled at displays of cycling and boxing, dog shows and gymkhanas; and most significantly, here was displayed the enormous magnificence everyone came to see – Mr Barnum’s Jumbo.”
Wicko wrinkled his nose in distaste. “I hope that’s not a euphemism… So, your Mr Barnum. Does he not still own this … garden?”
“Wah! Only ever leased the land from Mr Vanderbilt. The entire block was once a disused railroad depot which Mr Barnum developed into this spectacular performance arena. ‘It was Grander built, than ever Vanderbilt’,” proclaimed Mr Warner.
It was a slogan which left Wicko more concerned than impressed.
“The old place is scheduled for demolition. So, Mr Barnum is clearing out his office. Shall we?”
Wicko followed Warner inside and up two thigh-burning flights of stairs to a large open door. The nasal voice from within called, “Make your entrance, Mr Warner! Make your entrance, do.”
Again, Wicko followed nervously, into not so much an office more the considerable area of a well-lit exhibition hall. Brick whitewashed walls were lined upon two sides by bright and airy windows. Easily dominating the centre of the emptiness stood a desk the size of a banqueting table, cluttered with … well, stuff.
And you thought my workspace was a chaotic!
Barnum had piled thereon, rolls of multicoloured publicity posters; a large egg of painful proportions; and ‘bodies’, if you will, of half a dozen moth-eaten beasts of doubtful species; the highlight of which was a hybrid comprising the top half of a little monkey and the lower a large halibut which looked as if the nearest it ever got to water was a damp cloth.
The phoney ‘creature’ lay slumped beside a desperate dragon which was to all intents and purposes a stuffed baby crocodile with sagging eagle-wings gummed to its shoulders, and presenting all the smoke-snorting aerodynamics of a cinder block.
On the floor in front of the table, more unconvincing totally fake body parts of non-existent beasts of the field and denizens of the deep.
But of more interest to Wicko was what rested on a small, ornate stand, gentrified with gold paint and fluted legs, put together in the style of ‘overblown baroque fakery’. On that tabletop stood a ‘something’ both primitive and fascinating. Something Wicko could very much relate to. A metal frame in the form of a square box. And supported within said framework – was the head of a woman!
Well, more the pallid rubber face, with full lips, proud nose and glaring lifeless eyes trying to look like a woman.
And Wicko was captivated. It was an ambitious Contrivance, although decades behind the kind of ‘Humannequins’ or ‘auto-icons’ he and I, but predominantly he, had been perfecting for Sir Nicholas Tesler and Lord Alva-Edison.
This old lady, with her black and dusty ringlets of sisal hair and perishing features had clearly known better times. She was supported by metal cross-members, mounted in front of a pair of bellows, and appeared to be operated by a series of levers and pulleys rigged up to, of all things, a small piano-organ keyboard.
“Wah! Mr Barnum, I regret to report the two Chinese possibilities made their bid for freedom. Down Madison Avenue,” called Warner.
“What a foolish pair,” said the man, still unseen, tinkering around at the back of the Contrivance. “But not a matter, Mr Warner, not a matter. And the un-heighted gentleman? What of he? What of he?”
“The un-heighted gentleman stands right here by my side,” replied Warner.
Un-heighted? In all his lifetime Wicko had been dubbed many things, but ‘un-heighted’ was so far the most – well, decorous.
“A wise fellow he is, a wise fellow indeed,” said the voice. “Now give me one further moment with Euphonia, gentlemen, if you please…”
Wicko could now take in the details of the space. Wooden crates, stencilled ‘BARNUM’ were packed and stacked, looking ready to move out. Propped up to one side, a huge colour hoarding, easily ten feet tall and six feet wide, displaying an elephant of such portions it looked to be the size of a house. Grey skinned and tusk-free, this docile leviathan was pictured lifting its mighty trunk and chuckling happily, while surrounded by the best part of a dozen infants, none of them given to poverty, all waving and patting the elephant’s legs in great merriment. The slogan across the top of the poster declared: JUMBO – THE CHILDREN’S GIANT PET.
Mr Barnum’s Jumbo! That was a relief.
Also displayed on a grand scale, an advertisement featuring two benevolent looking gentlemen framed within silver circles. One fellow was pictured with a full and bushy red beard; red and grey receding hair and announced as J. A. BAILEY.
The other man, chubbier and beard-free with white and grey receding hair was proclaimed as P. T. BARNUM.
And between them floated the colourful legend:
THE BARNUM AND BAILEY GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!
In Barnum’s world everything was either grand or magnificent. Nothing in between. And, do you know, although he would never admit such a thing, in the midst of this tat and glamour, I believe Wicko was just a little seduced.
The hideous sound of a wheezing consumptive broke the silence. Before the gasping slowed and with a whimper quickly gave up the ghost.
The dreadful noises caused the woman’s features to gurn in painful contortions as if still afflicted by unreleased wind. Which Wicko quickly surmised to be the cause of the failure!
“Tish and pooh, tish and pooh,” spoke the hitherto unseen man who now emerged from behind the Contrivance, throwing down a screwdriver. “Despite the labours of my highly paid engineers sweet Euphonia still refuses to utter a coherent word. I fear she is destined for the scrap heap, yes I do, indeed I do.”
The man turned out to be a beaming, colourful whirlwind, who then wiped his hands on a rag, which he also flung while striding towards Wicko.
“Whereas the un-heighted fellow before me is destined for greater things, greater things! Splendid job, Mr Warner, splendid job! If this fine gentleman is not a star in the making, then my name is most certainly not Phineas T. Barnum.”
Either way, it was Phineas T. Barnum. One of the men in the oval frame of the poster. But in real life looking a great less sour than his portrait suggested.
He possessed a pudgy-putty nose spread across a rectangular face, beneath a high forehead, while great bunches of curly-haired brows shadowed his clear eyes. And for a man of seventy-four he was noticeably lively.
With curt bow and wave of his hand Joseph Warner announced: “Wah! Mr Barnum, may I present – Dr Wicko.”
Barnum rested his hands either side of his belly, his thumbs jammed in the pockets of his orange silk, double-breasted waistcoat and leaned back. “Dr Wicko, Dr Wicko, what a fine name, what a fine name. Now let me see you, let me see you!”
And see Dr Wicko Mr Barnum did. Examined him closely. Before dancing a jig of glee in his coarse tweed yellow and green trousers. “Oh, yes indeedy-do! Mr Warner, my trusty assistant, on this occasion you have outdone yourself, outdone yourself, you have!”
He bent low and looked Wicko directly in the eyes. “M’boy! Phineas Taylor Barnum is honoured to bid you welcome to his wondrous world, welcome to his wondrous world.”
Barnum then grabbed Wicko’s hand and shook it with dislocating enthusiasm.
“Yes, all right, thank you,” said our dwarf with all the testiness we have come to know and love. “Go easy on the wrist. I’ve only got the two.”
Barnum stopped, paused, took a full step back and laughed long and hearty. “Easy on the wrist, he says, easy on the wrist! Why, this Dr Wicko presents a drollery more dry than the Gobi! And in’t that just like the British, Mr Warner? To present wit more dry than the Gobi!”
And Mr Warner laughed heartily too.
Wicko frowned, thinking: “These two are easily humoured.” Then said aloud: “And let me state one more time, I am not British. Or English!”
More hilarity at the dwarf’s Gobian humour.
“Hire this boy, Mr Warner, hire this boy this instant. I can promise you a lifetime of luxury, riches and fame, Dr Wicko. Luxury, riches and fame!”
In his mind’s eye, Barnum saw himself addressing a vast fairground audience when he announced aloud: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you a wonder of the world, the most remarkable wit of the planet, following in the tiny footsteps of the Commodore and the General, I present to you – Dr Wicko! And the gigantic crowd cheers to the rafters!”
Warner nodded. Sharing the vision. “Wah!”
“Er, Mr Barnum,” said Wicko. “Just a quick question. This Commodore you mentioned? And the General? Who are they?”
Cue further Barnum and Warner hysteria. Until from Wicko’s blank look, they realised he was seriously unknowing.
Barnum flashed a puzzled look at Warner who chipped in with a quick Wah! before explaining that Commodore Nutt and General Tom Thumb were, in the past, both premier stars of Mr Barnum’s touring spectaculars. Both were as un-heighted as Dr Wicko, and their fortune was as vast and their fame-international. Why, both had even appeared before President Lincoln and the Queen Victoria.
“And you want me? As a replacement for your Commodore and your General?”
“Yes, I do, m’boy, yes, I do.”
Luxury, riches and fame? Wicko required little in the way of consideration of such a prospect. No. This was an unforeseen development. Very welcome. Very welcome indeed. He might just come through this nightmare on top.
“As I say, sign up Dr Wicko, Mr Warner. Sign up Dr Wicko this instant.”
“Wah! Certainly, Mr Barnum. But before you apply your signature to the velum, Dr Wicko, I am contractually obliged to ask you to demonstrate for Mr Barnum and myself how well you can perform a cartwheel.”
A what? Wicko’s jaw dropped. “Pardon?”
“Wah! Kindly demonstrate your cartwheel.”
“If you will, m’boy. If you will. ’Tis a mere formality.”
Wicko now pulled that furrowed brow of indignation with which we are also so familiar. “I can’t perform a cartwheel.”
Barnum laughed out loud. “My good friend Twain is going to revel in your drollery, Dr Wicko, truly he shall. But come now, m’ boy. Hup-n-over! Hup-n-over!”
“No, seriously,” said Wicko. “I can’t do a cartwheel. Can’t say I ever even tried.”
It slowly dawned on Barnum and Warner that when Wicko said ‘seriously’ he meant it. Now it was their faces that fell.
“Cannot perform a cartwheel? Tish and pooh. Tish and pooh. What a to do.”
“Wah!” said Warner, glaring at Wicko. “What’s the point of being a dwarf, if you can’t do a cartwheel?”
I know!! He said that! Well, as you can imagine, Wicko’s face turned to thunder. And he was about to give both showmen the mother of all Wicko tirades when Barnum said: “Thank you for your time, Dr Wicko. I bid you good day!” turned and started to walk back to the Contrivance he called ‘Euphonia’.
Wicko was stunned. “What does that mean?”
“Wah! Means it’s back to where you came from, Dr Wicko.” Mr Warner placed a firm and restraining hand on the dwarf’s shoulder. “It is back to The Tombs for you!”
And that’s when Wicko’s face turned the deathly pale of terror.
Delmonico’s Steak House Restaurant. The most opulent and finest dining experience to be found in this version of New York. Set on the ground floor of an imposing building shaped like the blunted prow of a ship, right where Beaver St. and Williams St. fork together, the grand entrance is adorned with Pompeian pillars. In this comparatively arid Realm, Delmonico’s was a welcome oasis of the civility to which I was much more accustomed.
The friendly waiting staff, in their long white aprons, dark suits and black bow ties all addressed Dr Tesla by name and afforded Michael and me, his guests, in our new, matching black suits and ties and looking like a convention of undertakers, exactly the same courtesy. Lord knows how much Nik spent in this grand establishment every week, but it was plenty enough to guarantee him a quiet corner table without a prior reservation.
Michael and I sated our hunger with silky soft steaks called porterhouse and a pile of exquisite mashed potatoes. This was when I first realised Nik was a lifelong vegetarian. Why did he frequent a steak house? Simply because it was the finest restaurant in the city, and the Chopped Cobb Salad and the Acquerello Summer Vegetables Risotto – I know, get him! – more than satisfied his dietary needs.
It was also now, in the relaxed atmosphere of such fine dinery, that I had the time to study our saviour more closely.
Nik was as gaunt and tall, back then as he is now, even his eyes have retained that piercing blue. The fastidious, no, fussy, precision of his habits and dress have always matched his approach to science. Nik still displays no affectations and wears not a trinket of jewellery. But these days his voice is pitched not as high as when we first met him, nor his speech as quick and as clipped as it was then.
After chewing a slice of carrot for his habitual twenty-three times, Tesla swallowed, dabbed his lips with the starched, white napkin and asked: “Is there nothing of recollection you can bring to the foremost of your mind, Michael Magister? No memories, not even of the most vague?”
Michael stopped sawing into his steak and sighed. “Not a thing, doc. It’s like my entire life tape got over-dubbed by a bunch of white noise.”
Tesla nodded wisely. At least he understood. “It is to be hoped in time your personal history may be recalled.”
But as we all now know, those memories would not start to trickle back for another decade. (As I recorded in my original memoir ‘Steam, Smoke & Mirrors’.)
Then Nik directed his gaze at me. “Professor Octopus, it is fortune most good to know your reminiscences are retained with such of the detailed clarity. If you would please to share with me once again your comparative observations between the doppelgangers in this Realm of myself and your own.”
“Doppel-bangers?” asked Michael.
“The doppelgangers,” corrected Tesla. “Persons who look the exact images of ourselves but who also display the differences.”
Michael nodded, none the wiser, before diving into another forkful of creamy mash.
I told Nik again that the Sir Nicholas Tesler I worked for was an impulsive, cavalier virtuoso. A stark contrast to the precise, analytical genius who now sat before me. He liked that. And that while I was a Vanguard Professor, dealing with power matrices and complex transportation designs and modes of propulsion, my equivalent in this Realm appeared to be an inebriate who struggled to master a broom.”
“Also, Octopus,” added Tesla, “The elegant and sophisticated Lord Alva-Edison known unto you bears little semblance to the Thomas Edison who deems me the rival most dangerous.”
“By the way,” said Michael, pausing between delicious mouthfuls. “It’s the kid.”
The kid? What kid?
“Over at the doc’s hotel. The bellhop. It’s him. Clear as day.”
“Young Dredger? Pray tell, what of him?”
“He’s the guy who snitched. Told your man Edison that the Prof and I snuck up into your room. That’s why the cops were there so quickly.”
Tesla thought a moment. “But upon which evidence do you base this allegation?”
Michael shrugged. “Seriously? I have no idea. Maybe his lack of a naval beard? I don’t know. But trust me. It’s the bellhop. He’s your Edison spy.”
Tesla and I both stared at Michael, neither of us knowing what to think.
Not that he gave us the time anyway before changing tack. “However! Just as important, gentlemen, probably even more so, is that I need to get out and earn some money with which to repay your hospitality.”
This took us both aback.
“Of this there is no need, Michael Magister.”
“Yes, doc, there is, and here’s why.” In this Michael appeared resolute and firm. “It’s what I need to do. For my own personal self-respect. Y’see, I have no idea what happened. No idea what is happening to me right now. And who knows what’s going to happen next? But I need to give back. I can’t help it. It’s the way I am. I have to pour some wine back in the ground.”
Michael’s torrent was noble and sincere. I tried to shrug it away but…
“Okay. Prof, you’re a man of science, you have the intelligence to help Nik with his work here, get any kind of job. Me, I can’t do that. There’s only one thing I know I can do to make money.”
“And this is?”
From the jacket pocket of his new, brown woollen suit, Michael pulled his deck of cards; in a blur they were unboxed and fanned out. “Do what I do. Shuffle the deck, doc.”
Nik took the cards from Michael and inexpertly mixed the order.
“Happy with that shuffle, doc? Here are the cards, I’m fanning them out face up so you can see they’re in a random order. Now I’m going to give them a riffle shuffle and place the deck face down. Prof, I want you to cut the deck in half, now place both halves face out on the tablecloth. That’s good. I’m going to look at the fifth card in that left-hand deck and that’s going to help me predict that the fifth card in this right-hand deck is… the nine of clubs. Now, doc, I want you to go to this right-hand deck and turn over the fifth card. And what is it?”
Nik Tesla’s eyes widened as he revealed … the nine of clubs.”
“That is the most astonishing!”
I had to agree.
“It’s what I do. Magic. But it’s only magic if you don’t know how it’s done.” Then he took a beat. “Please. Let me do this. I owe you. Both of you. You’re the guys who saved my life.”
Phoebe too shuffled a deck of cards while listening. I suggested how fascinating it was that Michael’s innate ability with playing cards was retained even after everything else was lost.
“Yes, that is remarkable,” she purred, in that way which suggested she had something better to offer. “But more so was Michael now exhibiting his instinct for spotting clues and solving mysteries without having any comprehension of what they are and why? Pinpointing the bellhop boy, Young Dredger. I take it he was the Edison spy?”
He was. When challenged, Young Dredger exhibited petulant indignation and threatened to report Tesla’s assertion to Mr Keith. At the same time, Phlemmer the elevator operator, quietly asked why he, an older man who served with loyalty aboard the USS Merrimack during the Civil War, would jeopardise the only job he could land, by breaching confidentiality?
“The naval beard! That’s what Michael said,” said Phoebe.
He did! Anyway, the bellhop absconded the following day and was never seen again. Which probably proved Michael was right.
Phoebe smiled. “Of course he was.” She shifted in her Throne to make herself more comfortable, again swung her booted feet up onto my desk and said: “Now then. Wicko’s experience with Phineas T. Barnum. How did that pan out? Being faced with the terror of The Tombs.”
Wicko knew this predicament was unbelievably dire.
“Here. Mr Barnum,” he called, in desperation. “I might not be able to do a cartwheel. But I know what’s wrong with Euphonia!”
The world’s greatest showman said nothing. Just stopped.
“I can get her talking again!”
Barnum turned to face Wicko. “M’boy, Euphonia has not uttered a single coherent word in decades. Not a single word. Forty years ago she could be billed as ‘The Scientific Sensation of the Age – The Marvellous Talking Machine’. Now she is just as these washed-out bunkums,” he waved at the herd of fake abominations, flopped and defeated, on and about his table, “bound for the scrap heap.”
“She’ll talk! I am an ‘Inventioneer’. A Doctor of Advanced Automaton Robotics and the Lord Alva-Edison Complex Scientifica! Give me a time cycle of ninety minutes and use of your whatever’s in your tool chest. Most likely by the time I’m finished I’ll have the old lady singing!”
After a long pause, deathly long Wicko said it was too, Barnum replied: “I admire your sales pitch, Dr Wicko. I shall return in sixty minutes, following my luncheon. Your challenge will be quite the feat, m’boy. Quite the feat – to amaze the man who does the amazing.”
With Barnum and Warner now gone and the door locked behind them, time became the enemy. The array of spanners and screwdrivers available in Barnum’s tool chest was extensive by the standards of this wretched Realm, but to Wicko they appeared positively primitive.
A closer examination of Euphonia’s controlling mechanism, which at first looked to be a small piano-organ keyboard, did in fact turn out to be a small piano-organ keyboard. With extra lengths of greened copper wire sagging between the line of flaccid levers. Once Wicko fathomed which keys operated which features on Euphonia’s face, he figured he was in with a chance.
But too much time was lost easing seized bolts and prising rusted tacks from her perished facial gubbins, and to continue with the technical description, he was cannibalising odds and sods from this and that while surgically slicing bits and bobs from the redundant faux menagerie slumped on Barnum’s table. A decent patch of rubber from this thing, a strong length of sinew from that, and an eye from a goat’s head.
Each element of the desperate overhaul was accompanied by a complaining wheeze from Euphonia.
Bellows from behind the face gulped in air and forced it up to the throat and through the vocal glottis, and created individual syllables which chorused together to whisper recognisable words. But his hour was all but up.
A little rouge applied to the cheeks and the lips. So much so it was possible Wicko was falling a little but in love with her. And Father Connor O’Connor’s behaviour would have been unspeakable…
“Professor Artemus More! That is both shameful and unbecoming!”
Yes, very well. Phoebe’s interjection was not unfounded.
But it was what Wicko said when he told me what happened! Anyway, I blushed, apologised and continued.
Wicko put his own heart and soul into ‘The Marvellous Talking Machine’ because his life really did depend upon it. He and Euphonia were both destined for the scrap heap should he fail. Our dwarf was still gluing and screwing and imbuing the face in the frame with life when he heard Barnum and Warner climbing the stairs.
But she hadn’t been fully tested! He was not going to make it!
“I’ll wager Dr Wicko is not going to make it,” Barnum said to Warner in some strange, coincidental way, as he unlocked the door.
That was the guttural, gravelly sound that greeted the showman as he walked into the room.
“Mis-ter – Bar-num! You – sh-all – be – deem-ed – a – buff-oon – if – you – do – not – main-tain – me – in – a – bet-ter – sh-ape – of – reep-air. My – con-di-shun – was – a – dis-gray-ss – un-til – this – fine – doc-tor – gee-nee-us – re-surrec-ted – me.”
“She speaks! She speaks!” Barnum danced another little jig while he was subjected to another sentence or two of Euphonia-uttered insults. “You are a genius, m’boy, a genius to behold!”
Wicko leaned back from the keyboard he was operating, relieved and at that time neurologically more incapable of speech than Euphonia.
Barnum waved for Warner to retrieve the contract from his inside pocket, before shoving aside a rubber four-eyed goat-head – which from now on was known as a three-eyed goat-head – to make room on his table. He laid the document down and smoothed out the creases with the back of his hand.
“Sign right here, m’boy. I want you as my chief engineer, my chief engineer! Dr Wicko, you and I shall grow old with even greater success together,” effused Phineas T. Barnum. “Welcome to The Greatest Show on Earth!”
“Doc, I really wasn’t thinking of playing a venue this size,” said Michael, peering up at New York’s Tammany Hall. All imposing red brick, three storeys of it, with its eighteen Georgian windows, inch perfect in their symmetry. An iconic leviathan of a building which had stood dominating East 14th Street for almost a century.
“In which case I am happy to tell that this,” said Tesla, pointing to a small portion on the left-hand side of Tammany Hall, “is the theatre.”
That was more like it. No sense in starting too big, was Michael’s reasoning. Especially as he still had no real purchase on his surroundings.
Spanning just three windows, the theatre was accessed by eight stone steps, flanked either side by a pair of round pillars; sentinels supporting large circular clockfaces. But instead of telling the time they sported bill posters proclaiming to the people of Union Square that this was the place to come and be entertained by the famous variety shows in New York, stage by the legendary King of Variety – this was before it was called vaudeville, by the way – Mr Tony Pastor.
The man himself was in his late fifties, dark haired, profound of girth and profusive of moustache. Antonio ‘Tony’ Pastor was a tough though, by all accounts, thoroughly decent impresario of vast experience, who had trodden the boards in his own right before changing out singing for staging his own variety shows, based on the principle of ‘family entertainment’. Tony was firm in his policy of banning any talk of a foul, fighting or filthy nature. Which applied not just to the performers up on stage but the people in the audience as well.
My. The things Tesla knew about never failed to impress me!
“Fortune favours us,” said Nik. “For I believe the gentleman standing over there is the proprietor himself.”
Mr Pastor, sharply dressed in a black three-piece suit, tie and bowler was standing just outside the entrance. Agreeing with one of his staff – an older man, black, thin, tall, salt and pepper grizzled hair and matching beard, wearing a more workmanlike suit of grey flannel – that he had pasted this new advertising poster at the most strikingly effective height.
“Thank you, Obadiah. That could not be more straight and square if Pythagoras himself had pasted her up.”
“Thank you, Mr Pastor. Reckon I’d agree with that,” said Obadiah, standing back to admire his own work.
I was still about to wonder how we might attract this Tony Pastor’s attention when Michael had already set to work. He walked quickly and gently brushed past the man.
“Steady there, young fella,” said the impresario.
“I am so sorry, sir. I am so sorry! My sincere apologies, I was distracted by that exciting new poster,” lied Michael. Pastor assured him everything was fine. “In fact, I was very taken with the poster because that is a show I would very much look forward to seeing. I’m sorry. No, wait. I mean … no, you can’t be him. Forgive me, for a moment I thought you might be Mr Tony Pastor, the Mr Tony Pastor himself, but now I see, you’re far too young to be the great man.”
“You’re a silver-tongued wiseacre, young fella,” smiled Pastor. “I will give you that. Now on your way.”
Obadiah, the tall black fellow moved over, protectively. Armed with his sloppy paste brush. “Everything okay here, Mr Pastor?”
“Everything is fine here, good sir,” said Michael. “And here’s why, because if this gentleman is Mr Pastor, I was hoping he could give me just five minutes of his time.”
Pastor’s face was impassive. “Why would I give you even five seconds of my busy time?”
“That is a very good question – because, Mr Pastor, I’m a magician, hoping to audition just for you.”
Obadiah stepped in. “Make yourself an appointment, young man, like all turns need to do.” His voice was like his hair and beard. Grizzled and grey.
“Five seconds is all I need to impress you, Mr Pastor. Five seconds. Go ahead,” encouraged Michael. “Time me.”
Pastor, the old campaigner, did nothing other than look Michael in eye, smile, well half-smile, and hold out his hand.
“Give Mr Pastor back his watch,” sighed Obadiah.
Michael flourished a few fancy empty-hand gestures, then produced the gold watch and chain, which he poured chain first into Tony Pastor’s open palm, while the rightful owner reacquainted his pricey timepiece with the pockets of his waistcoat.
Michael had lifted the watch from Pastor’s waistcoat when he ‘accidentally’ brushed into him.
“Now you best get yourself gone,” said Obadiah. “Pastor’s ain’t the venue for no Bowery Boy thievery.”
“Absolutely, gentlemen. That is an excellent policy. My apologies again. Thank you for your time. But while I do have your attention, and you yourself, Mr Pastor, do now have your watch, can I try for ten seconds?”
“And suddenly it is become ten seconds?” said Pastor.
Obadiah uttered something which sounded like “Pshaw!” And was shaping to wield the sloppy paste brush about Michael’s ear.
“It’s okay, Obadiah, I shall grant this young fella his ten seconds. If only to determine if his trickery is cut from the same cloth as his audacity.” Pastor then pointed across at Tesla and me. “By the by. These fine gentlemen across the sidewalk? They agents of the Pinkertons, looking to collar an arrest?”
Michael said quietly: “Both are my elderly uncles, Mr Pastor. Eccentric elderly uncles I’m currently staying with while in New York.”
“Eccentric?” thought Nik.
Elderly? thought I.
From his jacket pocket Michael produced his pack of cards.
He spieled about this being an ordinary pack of cards while un-boxing the deck and inviting Mr Pastor to check them through, and once satisfied to hand the cards back. Michael dropped to his knees and cut the pack into three equal piles, face down side by side on the sidewalk.
“You really want me to bend down to see this?” complained Pastor.
“Only enough to check if my predictions are correct, sir. You see I have super vision with the capability to see straight through these cards, vision so intense I can even name these three top cards. For example, top of this pile on the left is without doubt the Ten of Spades.” Michael looked at the card, nodded and smiled and put it back. “And this pile in the centre is topped by the Three of Diamonds.” Michael looked at the card, nodded and smiled and put it back. “And right at the top here we have the King of Hearts.”
By now a gaggle of female passers-by had stopped to see the free Pastor show. Obadiah huffed.
“For which we only have your word, young fella,” said Pastor, entirely unimpressed.
“I’m very happy to prove, sir, that, yes, that is very much the case. As you can see here and now.” said Michael, as he turned over the top card on each of the piles. The Ten of Spaces, the Three of Diamonds and the King of Hearts.
He then played up to the passers-by. “Thank you, ladies. My last audience was so shocked they also forgot to applaud.”
The group made noises of wonder and clapped. Tony Pastor pulled an impressed face.
Obadiah did not. “Very good, son. Now show’s over, ladies. The boy is moving on.”
One of the group, a flouncy-dressed, Bronx lady with the face of an unsuccessful boxer growled, “Pray let the handsome young man beguile us with another. Lessee what else he’s got up those sleeves a-his.”
“Ladies,” said Michael. “I thank you, but really feel I’m outstaying my welcome. But, hey, come and see Mr Pastor’s show. See this poster? The great Lillian Russell is appearing soon. Better book early.”
The new poster did in fact state:
For three nights only:
the return of the ‘Talk of New York’
‘The American Beauty’
MISS LILLIAN RUSSELL
Then Tony Pastor spoke up. “I shall admit to admiring your selling patter, young fella. But truth be told, I have no such place in any of my shows for a conjuror.”
“Okay, Mr Pastor, if I can’t be in the show how about you let me entertain the line. Up and down. Street magic. Never fails. Captivate your patrons. Make their queue-time pass quicker. It can be seen as Mr Pastor caring for his crowd.”
Pastor looked at Michael. He was thinking.
“Tell me, sir, does any other promoter in town offer entertainment before they enter the theatre? A kind of pre-show show? Got to be a no-brainer.”
“It’s got to be a what?” said Obadiah. “You talk very strange, young man.”
Pastor thought some more. “If you want to work the line outside here tonight on your own dime? That’s fine by me. Any shenanigans now, the cops’ll be here in a snap of Mr Obadiah’s fingers. But you impress him, then maybe I’ll see what I can do. What’s your name, young fella?”
“Magister, sir. Michael Magister.”
Phoebe too was giving the circumstances some profound thought.
Before asking, “Professor. What was the first thing you ever told me about working in the Music Hall? Anything that appears too good to be true is always without fail too good to be true.”
Yes, I did say that. And this was exactly the reason why. Because two of the greatest minds in the country – I was now including myself alongside Nikola Tesla in that thought – could see no down side to Michael’s arrangement with the most fundamentally honest impresario in the entire city. Neither could Michael.
But what none of us saw? The anonymous man standing behind us, watching everything. Why would we? He was anonymous.
Except this man was holding a revolver.
END OF CHAPTER FIVE!