THE MAGISTER CURIOSITY
A memoir of Professor Artemus More FRS
With Michael having secured – well, so it seemed – some kind of official audition for Tony Pastor, Nikola Tesla walked us the short distance west towards Little Italy and the site of his present Laboratory. By the way, out of respect and admiration, it is always a capital ‘L’ for Nik’s Laboratories. ’ell, yes.
175 Grand Street. That was the address. Sited one property down from the corner with Baxter Street. Once turned onto Grand, Nik’s route took us past a mighty brown stone building. Italianate of design. Solid and imposing, calling itself ‘I.O.O.F. Hall’.
“Ioof?” wondered Michael.
“It is the acronym,” Nik explained. And you know how much I enjoy a good acronym. “Standing as it does for ‘The International Order of Oddfellows’.”
I allowed myself a smile, wondering if perhaps Michael and I were more suited to that building than Tesla’s workspace.
Once inside the fourth-floor Laboratory, a decent thirty by twenty feet single size, Nik removed his jacket and carefully draped it over a wooden hanger. He rolled his white shirt sleeves up above his thin white elbows, pulled a thick brown leatherette apron and bib over his head, securing the apron in a double bow. He then eased a pair of welder’s goggles on his forehead.
The laboratory was as pristine and obsessive as its owner.Upon polished, dust-free shelves there stood not a carefully labelled jar of chemicals, nor a brightly-polished measuring retort out of place. Given his limited resources, this set up put our overblown facilities at the Laboratorium 13 to shame.
“Octopus, I wish to solicit your opinion most honest, of my High Frequency Resonant Transformer,” said Nik. “The T-100!”
How could I miss it? The Transformer dominated the centre of the room. It was the reason for the Laboratory’s existence. The star of the show. A symphony in polished wood and gleaming metalwork of a brass and coppery confection
The apparatus was set out on a wooden trestle, so elegantly carpentered it could have doubled as a mansion house dining table. Dominated by a large drum-like induction coil sitting crossways on, its two thick copper wires coiled and connected to a pair of tall glass and metal-foiled Leyden jars, standing almost side by side. Both jars possessed internal connectors which were then wired to a pair of brass nippley-nodes staring at one another to form a micrometric Spark Gap. The gap between the nippley-nodes could be closed or widened by an adjustment wheel.
The two external wires of the Leyden jars were connected to what Nik called his Primary coil. This appeared to be a vastly oversized wooden cotton reel, wrapped not with cotton thread, but a few turns of thick copper wire.
“Behold,” said Nik. I am not entirely sure that is what he actually said, but the significance of the moment certainly deserved it.
He took a-hold of a rolling pin, well, that was its shape, a rolling pin, topped with a single nippley-node and wrapped tightly with yards of thin copper wire – what Nik called his Secondary coil – and carefully lowered the instrument into the space in the centre of the cotton reel. Once inserted, we heard a firm click as it locked into a base plate.
Nik then pushed on a large wooden lever arm, which clicked across pads of conductive brass and controlled the incremental release of energy current from the top of the Coil.
Stay with me please. This is a moment of scientific history I am trying to convey here.
Nik then demonstrated the presence of the current by offering his hand above the brass nippley-node at the top of the Secondary Coil.
A crackle and a spit of blue energy sparked upward to tingle his palm.
“The generated power now permeates the atmosphere,” he explained.
The current created by the Coil then caused a crackling, spitting blue discharge to jump the Spark Gap.
PITTZZZ! PITTZZZ! It repeated
That Nikola Tesla could create such a wonder from the primitive equipment available to him was almost too magnificent to behold!
Like me, Michael watched in wide-eyed wonder. “Where does Dr Orlando Watt plug himself in?”
“Of whom do you speak, Mr Magister?” asked Nik.
Michael gave it more than a moment’s thought. Frowned. And then concluded: “I have no idea.”
Me neither. Another echo of a memory perhaps?
“Most fascinating,” was Nik’s quiet response, before announcing: “For you now, I must do this.”
He then drew the heavy black drapes together across the window. The enclosing darkness immediately exaggerated the sharp blues of the fizzing sparks. Next Nik reached below the table and pulled out a clear glass tube at least a foot in length.
“The gas-discharge lamp, the Heinrich Geissler tube, which I shall present to the path of the current.”
He waved the Geissler tube above the entire apparatus. Immediately it flickered, then glowed a steady bright blue. With no visible or physical connections to the energy whatsoever.
This was my first introduction to what I dubbed, and what subsequently became known as, The Tesla Coil.
“That is incredible,” gasped Michael, who then started to clap. In fact, given the resources, it was so incredible I felt the need to join in.
From the glow of the tube I could see Nik’s shadowy face. It was that contented look of pride I came to know so well.
With the Coil shut down and the natural light restored, Nik and I began a technical discussion. I told him this was a glorious device. His transmitting energy through the air via the Aethyr was well on its way to developing as The Aethylium Current so important to my Realm.
“Please, be so kind, Octopus, as to explain unto me how this Aethylium Current is generated.”
I described the intensely high-speed revolutions of the similar but much smaller copper wire drum which created the energy for a far greater size-to-output ratio. But truthfully that was as much as I knew. It was not my invention. Far from my abstruse mathematics and modes of transportation specialty.
“It is the problems of the reduced scale and speed of revolutions I am required to solve. Please to reassure me, Octopus, that it was my most cavalier equivalent, Sir Nicholas Tesler, who invented such a device and not your Lord Alva-Edison.”
To his visible relief, I happily confirmed it was.
“So, Doc, Prof,” said Michael. “While I have not the first idea what you’re both talking about, I am thinking this. Imagine how we could wow the crowd with that fantastic … devicey Coil thing. Blue sparking energy from nowhere. I mean, really? Come on. That is a sure certain winner. Any chance you could knock one out for me to use tonight? At Pastor’s?”
Well, the reaction on Nik’s face was a picture. The thought that his hours, years, devoted to the creation of the Tesla Coil could be ‘knocked out’ in just a few moments was, well, horrifying.
Nevertheless, he was typically polite. “Such miracles, they do take time, Mr Magister.”
But it did occur to me that Michael’s performance along the audience line should, yes, be impressive, but not outshine the show the spectators were queuing to see. “We preferred the entertainment outside!”, was not the kind of reaction Mr Pastor would really want to hear. Especially with this very famous woman Michael and I had never heard of, what was her name, Lillian Russell, headlining the show.
“You’re right. That, Prof, is a very fine point.”
“But I am understanding of the analysis,” said Nik. “And while Mr Michael’s manipulations of the cards shall indeed impress, I am sure it is not beyond us to ‘knock out’ a little magic of a scientific nature to add the element most original. After all, my friends, we are in a Laboratory. And I am Tesla.” Then he added as an afterthought: “And you are Octopus.”
“I must say, Professor, that was rather intuitive advice, not overshadowing the content of the show the people are queuing to see. Very impressive insight from someone with no experience in Music Hall entertainment.”
I tried hard to look modest. But, yes, I have to say even back then I was presenting signs of some innate predisposition for the business of show. Oh. Was I now beginning to sound arrogant? No. Surely not. I am far too good for that.
Phoebe was now standing at the Dungeon butler sink dribbling water from a tap into the kettle. “Interesting also that Dr Tesla was clearly expressing an interest in what you might contribute to Michael’s performance. Almost an audition.”
She then sounded very much like Nik: “‘Let me see what the great scientist from the most advanced Realm can devise’. A test which I have no doubt you passed with style.”
Well. You know … how can I put this? I did!
You see, I told her, while Michael dozed in Nik’s wooden chair in the corner of the Laboratory, and given the knowledge he would be working the line in three hours’ time, I was pretty pleased with my practical thought.
I fathomed, then fashioned, out of a wooden cabinet drawer eighteen inches square and about five inches deep, a smart performance aid. I inverted the drawer so that the storage section became the underside, hinged four telescopic drop-down legs within the space, screwed a D-shaped carry-handle to the front of the drawer, and now Michael had a very portable card table upon which to perform his cunning tricks without cricking the necks of his bending-forward audience. If you get my drift.
The additional smoke effect I conceived used a length of string, soaked in hydrochloric acid and sleeved in a glass vial. There was also another piece of string, this one soaked in ammonia. As the legs were released into the standing position, they withdrew both strings from their vials, bringing them into close proximity to one another. The gas emitted from the acid reacted with the ammonia to create a white, harmless smoke which puffed out from under the table. Additional flamboyance which I hoped was beyond the traditional capabilities of the conjurors of this particular time.
“That is rather marvellous, Professor. And what over-wrought name did Michael impose upon your ingenious table?”
‘The Mystic Card Table of Cagliostro’.
“Of course it was,” Phoebe said with smile. “And Dr Tesla’s contribution to the evening’s gaiety?”
Ah. I explained that Nik had slipped out of the laboratory for ten minutes, returning with two brand new packs of playing cards with which he then fiddled and faddled, in between running adjustments on his Coils.
“What could he possibly do with the cards?” wondered Phoebe, while warming the teapot with water from the quickly-heated kettle. “Unless…”
Yes. It was the very first outing for an effect we have been running in our shows ever since. A fine mixture of powdered sulphur and potassium perchlorate graced one of the edges of the two Joker cards, thereby not compromising the fifty-two cards in the deck.
“Leading with the Jokers when he tapped the deck on your table surface, the powder-mix pops and smokes like a gunshot.”
Phoebe stopped spooning two heaps of Chamomile into the tea pot. Oh dear. She was kindly making me a cup of that wretched stuff.
“But, just a moment, Professor. Wicko always told me he devised that particular effect.”
Yes, he probably did…
“Wah! Clutterbuck Nohosh,” said Thomas Warner.
Wicko said nothing.
He was staring out of the window of his comfortable room at the Astor House Hotel. This temporary accommodation was one of the many benefits which accompanied his new position as Phineas T. Barnum’s chief engineer. Wicko was also now smartly, albeit more than a little mustily, dressed in a suit and tie. It had perhaps the whiff of hand-me-down about it.
He said nothing because he was distracted. Worried. Not for the wellbeing of Dok Tor and Wu Hu Phunn. Lord no. They had chosen to make their own way to whatever and wherever, so he harboured no thoughts whatsoever concerning those disreputable buggers. Let them get on with it. No. His concern was for me. Was I was floating stone-cold dead, face down in the Hudson? And if I were still breathing, where was I doing it? The only certainty? The life at the Lord Thomas Alva-Edison Complex Scientifica we both knew was now an entire world away.
Wicko looked at the uneven skyline of New York. A grey-purple dusk descending. A thousand milky lights were beginning to blur into life, through the smoky grime. Horrible.
And all this after he had learned Barnum was sailing for England in two days’ time. Taking ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ across for a mammoth one hundred-night engagement in London. At the Olympia Amphitheatre, Hammersmith. Whatever that was! And in his new capacity, Wicko was expected to travel with the show! To England!
Pragmatically, what else could he do? He had to go.
“Where are you, out there, Professor Artemus bloody More?” he said to himself. “Where are…?”
“Wah! Dr Wicko,” insisted Mr Warner. “I said Clutterbuck Nohosh.”
“Mmm? What? Is that some foul expression I’ve never heard of?”
Mr Warner laughed at Wicko’s apparently ‘dry as the Gobi’ wit. “Wah! No. It is the name of a one-armed juggler.”
“Wonderful,” thought our dwarf. “That’s right. Interrupt my wistful thinking, why don’t you, with talk of … a juggler!? Bah!”
In fairness, Wicko had once seen such a juggler perform. And it was an entertaining triumph of timing over gravity. Keeping six heavy objects in the air while preventing any one of them from crashing down on to your face. Great skill required … but…
“Hold up, Mr Warner! How can you have a one-armed juggler?”
“Wah! It’s what makes Clutterbuck Nohosh unique,” came the upbeat reply. “Mr Barnum is keen to consider exactly such a performance for the London show.”
“So – why doesn’t Mr Barnum just sign the act?” asked Wicko, in that isn’t-that-the-obvious-solution tone of his.
“Wah! Clutterbuck Nohosh is already contracted to another production. A three-night engagement supporting Lillian Russell at Pastor’s Theatre on 14th Street. I have been instructed to observe this evening’s performance and thence to persuade Nohosh to commit to Mr Barnum’s tour. If you would favour the opportunity to admire the one-armed juggler and the fabled Lillian Russell at Pastor’s, Mr Barnum has decreed you are most welcome to join me. It is the most sought-after show. Wah!”
Wicko thought for a moment and then politely declined, citing the most effective use of his time was fine tuning the Humannequin Euphonia’s speech patterns.
Secretly he would much prefer to be alone this evening. And worry about never seeing me again. The worst thing imaginable would be going to a place called Pastor’s.
Mr Obadiah too was at a window. Looking down from the third floor at Pastor’s Theatre, watching Michael’s winning interaction with the line of mighty finely dressed women and men. All smooth patter and deft manipulation
The one thing we did not factor in was the light! As a novice, I forgot Michael would be performing outside in the evening. How could the punters admire his dexterity in the dark? But Pastor’s years of show business experience already had that covered. The approach to his theatre was the best lit area on the block.
That smoking portable card table was a revelation. And the crack-and-flare effect when Michael first tapped the cards on the table quickly drew every punter’s attention. Obadiah had to admit it. He was starting to like this confident young man. This I knew, because from where I was standing on the other side of 14th Street, I could see it in his face.
This rare Pastor production had attracted scores of early-doors members of the audience. Working quickly and unobtrusively, Michael charmed the ladies and impressed their cynical husbands, all while extolling the virtues of Miss Russell’s show. What a treat they were about to enjoy.
The crowd gasped at his card play, they laughed, politely applauded and stuttered their astonishment in unfinished sentences. “How the…?”, “Well, I’ll be…”.
“See here, fella. My good lady wife and me, we are what you might call fervent Miss Russell admirers,” said a tall, brown-bearded man in a matching suit and bowler. Like many other couples in the line, this charming gentleman looked hardly short of a dollar or two. His elegant fair-haired wife, with strong cheek bones, offered a winning, toothsome smile and agreed.
“Young man, what are the chances Diamond Jim might be along here tonight, a-cheering Miss Russell on?” wondered the toothsome wife.
Michael’s glib patter immediately ran out of steam. Who?
Mercifully, the couple next in the line piped up, announcing they had heard tell that Diamond Jim was detained. Holed up in Boston on business. But surely he would be coming by tomorrow night to watch the love of his life, Miss Russell?
The charming man and his toothsome wife agreed. Knowing Diamond Jim, that would most certainly be the case.
“Wah! Very fine conjuring, young man,” said another man waiting in the line. He pulled from his waistcoat pocket an overblown riot of colour and curlicue business card and handed it to Michael. The loud legend thereon declared him to be:
Mr Thomas Warner
Barnum & Bailey’s
The Greatest Show on Earth.
“You may wish to consider trying out for our upcoming overseas tour. To the United Kingdom.”
To the man’s genuine surprise, Michael quickly returned the card. “Mr Warner, thank you but, see, here’s the thing. Much as I appreciate your interest, and I know my manager Professor More will agree with me, our loyalty lies here with Mr Pastor.” He gestured to the theatre.
“Wah! Commendably loyal. I understand,” said Mr Warner. Even though he did not.
Finally, the door closed when the last in the line filed into the theatre. And, phew! That was it. Audition over.
I crossed the street and congratulated Michael on everything I had witnessed: a polished performance of consummate ease. Totally professional.
“Just wish I knew where it all came from,” said Michael, shaking his head. “I must’ve done this kind of thing before.”
It was just as we were beginning to wonder what to do now, that the theatre doors opened. There stood Obadiah.
“How did we do?” asked Michael.
The face on the tall fellow remained impassive.
“Magister. Uncle. When the show comes down, be waiting round the back. By the stage door.”
And he went back inside.
Phoebe sipped her chamomile tea, while I glared at mine. I know she said it was good for me, but each waft of new-mown lawn triggered another wet sniff in my nostrils.
“A pity you did not see Miss Russell in performance, Professor,” said Phoebe, before adding, not a little bitterly, “But then I rather imagine she was much in the blousy vein of the much beloved Mrs Langtry.”
With mention of her mother’s name now dispensed with, Phoebe’s mood brightened. “Far more importantly, I believe being instructed to wait by the stage door was a thoroughly more positive result.”
Oh, it most certainly was.
“And do correct me if I misheard. Mr Obadiah called you ‘Uncle’? Which I think is really rather charming. Do you think perhaps in future I should call you ‘Uncle’?”
Humph! I gently advised her she should not. And continued…
The Lillian Russell variety extravaganza ran for an hour and twenty. Quite long enough to require Michael to cuddle his portable card table to his chest and for me to rub my hands together to keep warm.
But standing on the paved and elevated area beside the black-painted stage door and hearing the muffled cheers of ‘Encore!”, the performance was not even close to being long enough for the crowd.
Then, the curtain had barely fallen before a substantial crowd of well-to-do Lillian Russell admirers scurried and teetered around the corner towards the stage door.
The air was suddenly rich with the scent of Eau de Cologne and Otto of Roses, and conversations concerning every glorious aspect of Miss Russell’s performance. The songs, the dress, the witty patter.
“Look here, it’s the conjurer,” said one voice, which caused many of the ladies in the crowd to now notice Michael’s face, lit beneath the stage door lamp, and take that as their cue to trill with husband-hating excitement.
In fact, Michael was beginning to regret shouting it out when, with consummate timing, the stage door swung open, dazzling the throng with a burst of bright yellow light. An event which raised an expectant cheer.
Except it was Obadiah waving Michael and me inside.
“Wait here. Say nothing.” That was the instruction.
Michael and I were simply grateful for the warmth of the stage lobby, where we stood watching chattering performers clatter down the wooden stairs from the dressing rooms and out into the night and the real world.
Dancers, comedy mimes and a tall lady with one arm and a nose that looked as if it had been broken on more than one occasion.
Noticeable, and not only to me, I expect, was the number of ladies in the cast who smiled at Michael and said “Hello” in a most lewd and unbecoming manner.
Finally, following a long and relatively quiet pause, the wooden staircase began to echo with the sounds of two pairs of elegant shoes and a deep whispered conversation.
Into view descended Tony Pastor, resplendent in thin black bow tie and black suit. The lady he was escorting was, well, what can I say, a glowing vision. Neither I nor Michael had ever before encountered such a breath-taking presence. Well, we have since, obviously, many times, but not until then.
There was Lillian Russell. Golden hair tied up, huge piercing blue eyes, clear-skinned, rosy-cheeked and with a figure for which the word ‘voluptuous’ was first created; and further enhanced by the agonisingly-pinch-waisted purple silken evening dress.
How she could breathe, let alone sing in that thing was a lung-capacity marvel. She glittered in the midst of strings of pearls and a huge diamond ring.
She looked across and saw us both standing there. Well, I shall not kid myself. She saw Michael. I got the distinct feeling I was just a person who happened to be nearby.
She stopped. Both her walking and her talking. Mr Pastor followed suit.
“Good evening,” the voice was rich, with a rising end-of-sentence pitch. A trait of the residents of Iowa apparently. Like I know what I’m talking about.
“Antonio, this is the young man you were telling me about? Who entertained my audience out on the cold of the cobbles?”
“This is him, Miss Lillian,” said Pastor.
“Delightful,” she said, as she stroked Michael’s cheek, smiled then walked on.
Obadiah opened the stage door.
The light fell once again on a sea of eager faces. The crowd cheered and clapped. Some shouted “Bravo!” Michael and I strained on tiptoe, well I did, to gaze out and watch as the people parted to make a path, like the Red Sea accommodating Moses.
With Tony Pastor at her side, Lillian Russell glided gently past. Smiling, waving and stroking faces. In all my life I had never before witnessed such adulation for a performer. With perhaps the exception of Queen Victoria herself. Not that she was given to stroking faces.
“Magister,” said Obadiah, breaking the spell. “Mr Pastor says this is for you.” He held twenty cents in coins between his thumb and forefinger.
“Er, what is that, Mr Obadiah?”
“Wages, son. I watched you while you worked the line. Informed Mr Pastor of what I seen. That you were good to your side of the bargain. Setting about your flim-flam like a professional.”
“Thank you, Mr. Obadiah.”
“Don’t thank me, Magister, I didn’t do nothing. Matter is, you could have stolen from any one of Mr Pastor’s patrons in that line. Straight easy pickings from that shipload of sparkling finery on display. You had the opportunity to snatch any piece, bolt into the night and in the doing earn twenty-times this sum. But you honoured your end. Mr Pastor admires honesty. And I seen you rejecting that offer from Barnum’s man out there. You come back tomorrow. Work that line just as well for the rest the week and there’ll be another fifty cents for you. That’s per day.”
Michael was at a loss. Not knowing whether this offer was good, bad or indifferent. I was no help. I had never had to deal with money.
Obadiah looked at me. “D’you want to grab this, Uncle? Before I lock it back in Mr Pastor’s safe?”
So, I took it. Quickly and gratefully.
“Good. And now take my advice and remember that scene outside, Magister. And the looks of joy on all those faces. Because that, son, that is what being a true star is all about.”
And if Michael Magister learned anything from looking at the gathering that night, working that line – it was the knowledge he really quite liked the idea of being a true star.
“Now, there’s one final job for you two. Magister. Uncle. Before the night is done.”
Obadiah handed each of us a whisk broom.
“Clean out the dressing rooms.”
Michael looked shocked, but I chipped in before he could protest, saying, “Leave this to me I know how one of these things works.”
The night, Michael and I took to a deep and welcome rest. The first either of us had enjoyed since we both ‘arrived’ in such fiery circumstances. Nikola Tesla had organised our own room at The Astor House Hotel. But frankly we could have slept anywhere.
By the way, that was me in the bed, Michael on the chaise.
The routine of the next day was exactly the same as before. Lunch was taken at Delmonico’s, the afternoon spent at Nik’s laboratory and the evening playing to the expectant crowd, many of them repeat customers. Familiar faces, including the charming gentleman with his elegant, toothsome wife, again hoping to see Diamond Jim in the audience. Also, the man called Mr Warner who had offered Michael his ornate business card.
Again, at the end of the night, Obadiah invited us in through the stage door. The ladies in the show smiled and said “Goodnight.” One pushy minx even asked Michael’s name and where he lived.
“Tread careful there, son,” warned Obadiah. “That there path leads down to a whole heap of trouble.”
Wise advice which, as you know, Michael has rarely heeded.
“This evening, Miss Lillian has a special guest,” whispered Obadiah. “Mr Brady has come here to see her.” Off Michael’s puzzled look, the tall black fellow explained, “You heard of Diamond Jim, James Buchanan Brady? A close personal friend and the regular escort of Miss Lillian?”
Michael remembered. The charming man and his elegant wife with the toothsome smile. Twice they had asked if Diamond Jim would be present. Well, this time they would not be disappointed…
“Shush now,” hissed Obadiah as the familiar, slow and elegant footfall on the stairs began. This time three pairs of leather shoes. And whispered conversation, this time peppered with the tinkle of Lillian Russell’s laughter. Followed by the great American beauty herself, who in one hand held high the hem of a new, turquoise gown, while her other hand rested upon the forearm of a man whose appearance was like nothing we ever expected.
Because Diamond Jim Brady was a broad-bellied, jowlsy, plain looking gentleman with a pallid, sullen countenance exacerbated by a sharp centre parting in his black hair. His elegant silver-grey frock coat was a knee length marvel, the stitches of which fought a never-ending battle to constrain its bounteous owner within its silky confines.
The double-breasted buttons alone were formed of diamonds and emeralds set in solid gold. The studs on his shirt were, by comparison, plain emeralds. The ball-head on his walking cane was 24 carat and clustered with more emeralds. The diamond rings glittering on his chubby fingers could slice through reinforced glass with a single swipe. The ebony walking cane topped with a bauble set on gold…
I am sure you get the picture.
‘You’re far too understated, Jim’ was fashion advice he had never ever been given. If anyone dared.
Aged thirty-nine, he was ten years older than Lillian Russell but the gap looked more like thirty.
See? I was ignored again!
“A pleasure, Miss Lillian,” said Michael.
“James, this is Magister,” she told Diamond Jim. “The young man who entertains my waiting audience for me so well.”
Diamond Jim looked at Michael with cold impassive eyes. “You’s a decent conjurer?”
The man’s speech tried hard to conceal his son-of-a-saloon-owner background, but largely failed.
“So, go ahead. Good and quick. Impress me wid somethin’.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Michael took a deep breath. Good and quick? Good and quick…
“Sir, yes. Okay. If I may say, I think you have an extra finger on which you can wear another fine ring. Wait, yes. I’m looking and, sir, did you know you had eleven fingers?”
“You insulting me, son?”
“Absolutely not. But you have eleven fingers, sir, and let me prove it. Please hold up your left hand.”
“Oh, go ahead, James,” encouraged Lillian, taking his walking cane.
So, the big man did as he was told and presented his vast bejewelled hand.
“Sir, you clearly have a head for figures…”
To which Lillian smiled.
“So, I want you to count your fingers on that hand for me please. Count them out loud. Starting at ten and counting down.”
“Dis better be good. Ten – nine – eight – seven – and six.”
“Six, you said,” said Michael. “And add to that the five fingers on your other hand, which makes a total of…?”
Lillian Russell shrieked with laughter. A reaction which prompted a grudging grin from Diamond Jim Brady. And looks of blessed relief from Tony Pastor and Obadiah. And me!
“You’s a smart young guy, Magicker,” grunted Diamond Jim, with a begrudging nod.
“Your carriage is outside, Miss Lillian, Mr James,” said Mr Pastor.
“See you tomorrow evening, Mr Magister,” said Miss Lillian. Then she looked at me. “And you too, Uncle.”
Obadiah enquired if Miss Lillian was ready. She said she was. And he opened the stage door.
There, flooded in light, the crowd. Far greater than the night before, breaking into applause and cheering. Lillian waved. Diamond Jim looked impassive. Tony Pastor went ahead to lead the way through.
Michael looked at the tableau of faces. It was remarkable. Dozens of them. Rapt. Beaming. Cheering. Out towards the back he saw that Mr Warner speaking with the one-armed juggler from the show. And here towards the front was that charming man. The one with the elegant wife with the cheekbones and the toothsome smile…
…only this time she was certainly not smiling. And he was looking hard and stern.
That’s when Michael saw it. Acted out in muffled slow motion. The woman mouthing the word “Now!” The man reaching inside his jacket. And pulling out a revolver.
And mouthing something like: “This is for Samson Fox!”
“Gun!!” screamed Michael, to break the spell. “Gun!!”
He jumped forward, pulled Lillian by the arm and somehow tumbled her to the floor.
Just as Obadiah swung his body. A human shield in front of Diamond Jim, forcing the big man to stagger back.
The crowd screamed and surged away. Pastor shoved the gunman’s wrist down.
The toothsome wife screeched a cry of agony and clutched her eye. A torrent of red flooded from between her fingers, as she staggered and fell to the cobblestones. Pastor socked the gunman in the face with the fist of a street fighter.
Police whistles shrilled as chaos ensued.
Michael was lying on top of Lillian Russell, shock and terror preventing movement from either of them. Until I pulled Michael off and we both hauled her back into the lobby.
“Obadiah!” I heard Tony Pastor shout.
I do recall seeing Diamond Jim standing white and rigid with his back to the brick wall, while Obadiah, his eyes rolling, slipped slowly to floor.
Wicko was awoken by hammering on the door of his hotel room. Not that he was asleep, but he tutted anyway. The hammering continued. So, wearing his blue striped nightshirt and sleeping cap, he swung his legs off the bed, dropped down to the carpet and padded barefoot, to the front door.
Outside, he found a flushed and flustered Thomas Warner.
“Wah! Dr Wicko. What an evening I have just witnessed. At Pastor’s. Wah! A massacre! Nine dead. An attempt on the life of Lillian Russell foiled by that young conjuror. The crazy gunman overpowered and strung up by the crowd. Pastor’s loyal man slain while protecting Jim Brady. Wah! It was a bloodbath. But the best thing about it?”
“There’s a best thing?” asked Wicko, shocked.
Warner proudly produced a fold of velum paper. “Clutterbuck Nohosh signed the contract. We got ourselves a one-armed juggler for England.”
At that moment, on the floor above, I knocked on Tesla’s room door. The line of bright light seeping under the door told us he was awake. Nik opened up, still smartly dressed, still working, to gaze upon the ‘sight most unedifying’ of Michael and me supporting one another, looking pale, clammy and utterly spent.
“My friends, what is this?”
“We’ve had a bit of a night,” said Michael.
“I can only imagine the horror of that situation,” said Phoebe, pouring herself another cup of chamomile. “But how thankful that Michael spotted the revolver and sought to protect Lillian Russell so quickly! That was unusually courageous.”
Well. Hmm. To this day I am still uncertain whether or not he was turning to rush back into the stage door lobby and accidentally bashed into Miss Russell, shoving her down onto her back. But, you know, on the whole, I prefer to go with Phoebe’s interpretation.
Midday the following morning found Wicko outside the Astor House Hotel, wincing and cringing, while two flat-capped, cigarette smoking, salts-of-the-earth huffed and puffed a wooden crate up and onto the back of a flat-bed horse-drawn waggon. The precious cargo within was the now completed, all singing, all dancing, well, all singing anyway, fully functioning Humannequin, automata, call her what you will, Euphonia. Ready for transportation to the docks and London.
Nik and Michael observed the frustrations of the dwarf at such farcical shenanigans as we left the building, but I took no notice. The constant looping of the images from the previous night still occupied my thoughts.
Nik had been thinking in the night, always a good sign, and said there was something he was desperate to show me. What he called “The solution to the anomaly most plausible.”
Michael was far keener to get back to Pastor’s. Learn the fate of Mr Obadiah. The last we saw of him was being stretchered into a horse-drawn ambulance. I mean, how backward was this Realm?
While Michael pressed on to the theatre, Nik took up the stairs at 175 Grand Street, past his Laboratory, then up a further flight of stairs.
As we climbed, I wondered aloud why Michael’s state of amnesia was quite so acute? While mine was only marginal and brief. Was the burst of energy to which he was subjected more intense? Was it because he had been alone?
“Such speculation is fruitless, Octopus. Michael’s glimmers of recollection, they flicker occasionally. Should the memories ever return in the earnest, then the change in him may be most considerable. Until such time, I council he should not be prompted.”
The stairs led to a service door which opened out onto a flat, grey, leaded roof.
Up here the wind, unchanneled by the long, straight streets below, became more of a breeze, but no less whiffy. The sheer drop, over the edge, was guarded by a parapet of fancy brickwork barely a foot high. Built more with style in mind than safety.
Of the view, I took no notice. What immediately caught my attention was the oil-skinned tarpaulin lashed across something which, knowing Tesla as well as I already did, could only be something magnificent.
With great attention he untied the knots and, with greater aplomb, pulled back the tarp to reveal the beast. A familiar masterpiece of finely crafted wood, glass and copper wire.
Nik summed it up perfectly when he proudly said, “I present unto you – the T-1000! The replica of the High Frequency Resonant Transformer I have built below. But on the scale far more grand. So. Tell me now, Octopus. What is it that you think?”
I told him I thought it was remarkable.
“This I know,” he concurred, modestly.
This vastly improved version of the Coil was built to discharge and distribute energy into the atmosphere and power any appliance, totally without connection to wires, across a far greater distance.
I asked him if it worked. Which on reflection was a ridiculous question.
“But, of course. And, Octopus, I am also of the belief that the T-1000 is the reason why both you and Michael Magister were drawn to this particular year. 1889.”
I asked him to explain. Again, ridiculous. As if he was not going to…
“The finer details of the science I still have to consider. But the T-1000 I have powered on only the two occasions. An hour following the first experiment, a flash of the light appeared in the distance over to the South West. Matching, Octopus, with the anomaly of your arrival. In the hour following my second experiment, the corresponding flash occurred over the Chapel of St Paul. Matching with the arrival of Michael Magister.”
The concept of coincidences I have never believed in. No matter how remote, there is always some underlying explanation. So, for me, his theory was sound.
“Of course, Octopus. Why would it not be so? After all…”
I know. You are Tesla.
Despite Michael knocking and calling out, nobody came to the stage door. The place was empty. He sat himself on the steps, face to the feeble sun, and waited. Stains of blood remained there to see. By the door. On the cobbles before him.
It turned out to be a good three hours before Tony Pastor arrived, jangling his keys, to open up. On his arm? Lillian Russell.
“Magister. What you doing here, son?”
Pastor looked washed out. As if he had not seen his bed in forever.
“Obadiah, Mr Pastor. I needed to know.”
“I spent the night at the hospital with him. He took two slugs to the shoulder. He’ll pull through in time. That’s thoughtful of you to ask. Quite a night, huh? You did good, son. I mean real good.”
“Why, yes, Magister,” said Lillian Russell, again, her trademark stroking the cheek on his face. “You shall be feted evermore as one of the gentlemen who saved the life of Diamond Jim Brady.”
Despite the night before, Lillian looked magnificent, wearing another full-length silk gown, this one in a deep purple, collared and cuffed in some kind of velvet.
“And that’s quite the claim to fame,” said Pastor, his mind already working the marketing possibilities.
“Well, yes, but that honour has to go one hundred percent to Mr Obadiah. But what the hell happened? Who was the gunman?”
“A tiresome and vengeful salesman,” sighed Lillian. “Who used to work for a company that manufactured wooden bases for railway waggons, and which was superseded by undercarriages supplied by a British steel company. In an arrangement brokered by Mr Brady himself. People do baulk at the idea of progress. All so very highly tedious.”
Lillian shook her head and closed her eyes to emphasise just how so very highly tedious it all was. Then she looked up and continued: “And I Magister, have a sparkling reward of gratitude for you. You may come to my dressing room in ten minutes. Not a moment sooner, mind. Ten minutes.”
After which Mr Pastor unlocked the door and Miss Lillian glided up the stairs.
“I don’t need a reward,” whispered Michael.
“Son, do you know how many turns would give their lives to be in your position now? If Miss Lillian Russell says she wants to give you a reward, you say nothing other than thank you muchly. ‘No’ is not a word that lady is used to. Remember. I’ve known her since she was plain Helen Louise Leonard from Clinton, Iowa. Why else do you think a star of her stature would play a few dates here at Pastor’s?”
Ten minutes later, Michael tapped gently on the door adorned with the large brass star, engraved with the words: ‘Miss Lillian’.
“Enter!” commanded the voice from within.
Now, to this day, Michael struggles to recall the details of what Lillian Russell’s dressing room looked like. He remembers a vast mirror behind the make-up desk. But little else. Because all he saw when he walked in was the famous performer herself, draped over a chaise, wearing nothing but a chorus-girl basque. Scarlet with black fringes. Fit to bust. In every sense.
“Oh, sorry, my fault,” said Michael, shaping to back out of the room. “I thought you said to…”
“Magister. I did.” And the finger beckoned ‘come hither’.
So, he did as he was ordered. Tentatively. Then Lillian stood, heaved Michael’s head straight into the cleave of her capacious bosoms, and fell back on the chaise, bringing Michael with her.
As he suffocated, all Michael could think of gasping, for no apparent reason, was: “I can’t hear the band.”
“Does this remind you of that moment last night?” she murmured.
There then followed what can only be described as a wrestling match, in which Lillian Russell became an all-enveloping octopus – there’s irony! – thwarting, with hands, arms, legs and anything else she possessed, any mode of escape her youthful prey attempted. She scissor’d her substantial thighs around Michael’s hips and pushed his face up and out of her fleshly cushions to smack a smothering ruby-coloured kiss on his lips. All the time moaning and ‘yessing’ like Aphrodite on heat.
There then ensued a most horrifying occurrence.
No, not that.
“Baby Lillian!” called the gruff voice Miss Russell was not expecting.
“Shit!” she fishwifed. Which was equally unexpected. “It’s Brady!”
Lillian shoved Michael away in a flustered panic.
“Out! Quickly! Through the window!” she ordered.
CLUMP! CLUMP! CLUMP!
They could hardly fail to hear the slow hefty sound of Diamond Jim Brady climbing the stairs.
Michael opened the window. Looked out. Damn it. He was two floors up.
CLUMP! CLUMP! CLUMP!
There was no ledge to shimmy along. No sill to hang from. Below there was no pile of empty boxes or anything else conveniently soft to jump down on to. No way to escape.
CLUMP! CLUMP! CLUMP!
CLUMP! CLUMP! CLUMP!
The dressing room door was knocked upon.
“One moment!” said Lillian Russell. “Enter…”
The door pushed inwards.
Framed in the doorway. Diamond Jim. Bulky, breathless and bejewelled. Embracing a huge bouquet of fragrant pink roses.
“Miss Lillian,” he wheezed. “Dese is fer … what da…?”
Of Michael there was thankfully no sign. What Diamond Jim did gaze upon was Miss Lillian gracing the chaise with allure, wearing a pink and fluffy dressing gown.
“Why, darling James, that is so very tender of you,” said Lillian, patting the red velvet cushion of the chaise. “So sweet of you to call. And so unexpected.”
“After last night…” he panted, barely able to speak.
“Come now, darling. Now you need to rest up, a while. Come join me here.” She patted the chaise again.
Diamond Jim admitted he was feeling a mite bushed, having hurried up dat staircase. “Well, Miss Lillian. If ya doesn’t object me taking up such a position … quite so close?”
Lillian said she would prefer it. Michael’s cunning ploy was for her to distract the man, enabling his tiptoed escape. What neither he, nor Lillian, had banked on was Diamond Jim gratefully flopping his hefty self down on the chaise which such a force as to…
…break the wooden cross-members on the underside.
“Gnnnnn!” Came the voice from under the chaise.
Lillian panicked. Quickly stood.
“What was dat?” said Diamond Jim, who then in a flush of furious energy shuffled and struggled to get himself back up on his feet again.
“Just me expressing my concern for you, my darling,” said Lillian, giving her finest acting performance.
But by now Diamond Jim had pushed and failed and heaved and failed and then forced himself to roll off the chaise straight onto the floor with a heavy…
…where he found himself eye to eye with Michael. Hiding beneath the chaise. Covered in splinters of wood.
“What the..? You!!! Here?!!”
The vicious snarl of fury on Diamond Jim’s face was absolutely terrifying.
And the best acting performance Michael could muster? A hopeful smile and the word:
END OF CHAPTER SIX!
Phoebe quickly got to her feet and held up her hand. “Please, Professor. I must insist I stop you there.”
Really? I wondered if the dilemma in which Michael now found himself was too much for her nerves?
“Oh, my days, no,” she frowned. “What was he thinking? He should have suspected the woman’s motives! immediately! ‘I have a sparkling reward for you’. Good grief. I have no sympathy for him.”
Then why did she ask me to stop?
“Professor, I have drunk so much chamomile tea…”
She tutted. “You really want me to spell this out? I need to visit the ladies’ powder room. So, if you’ll excuse me.”
Ah. Yes. And excuse her I did. I knew that chamomile tea was no good for you.
Upon her return, Phoebe hitched up her skirt, threw her booted feet back up onto my desk and said with a smile: “Now then. Where were we?”
“Mark dis, Magicker! I’ll git all ma boys onto you! We’ll hunt ya down! Hunt ya down like a dog, ’til we finds ya! And we kills ya!”
As he shouted these threats Diamond Jim Brady rocked and rolled around on the floor utterly unable to get back up. That feat would take a further ten minutes and the sweat of six strong men.
Michael scrambled away, out of the dressing room, down the stairs – and straight into Tony Pastor, who gripped him firmly him by the shoulders.
“Godammit, son,” he whispered, urgent, shaking his head. “And you had such a fine prospect ahead you, working for me. But if you want to get out of this with your life, you listen to me. Listen to me! Miss Lillian is gonna soothe him, and I know she can. But, son, you’re done here. I know what that man is like where Miss Lillian is concerned. You got to get yourself gone. You and Uncle. And I don’t mean gone out of the city. Or the state. But as far away as possible. Out of the country. Because Brady’s never made an idle threat in his life. And a man as jealous and as rich as Diamond Jim, and with his connections, all over the U.S., be in no doubt he will find you. You hear me?”
“I’m sorry, son. But this is how it is. No other way. Now get the hell gone. And promise me this, Magister. Wherever you go – you never look back.”
Wicko and Thomas Warner met with Phineas T. Barnum back at Madison Square Garden, where they found the greatest showman taking one final look at the venue he had so triumphantly leased for the past ten years. Gone was the phoney and furry menagerie of beasts which littered his table and floor. Rolled up in storage were the posters and publicity packages. What had been Barnum’s vast office was now an empty shell, bracing itself for the wrecking ball.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” said Barnum. “The end of an era but the start of something bigger. England beckons, Dr Wicko, beckons she does. I’m guessing you’ll feel right at home there, m’boy, right at home.”
“Mr Barnum, how many more times. I’m not English. Or British.”
Not that the man took any notice. “The parade is all set, Mr Warner? To process to the docks in grand style?”
“Wah! Yes, sir, it is.”
“What parade?” asked Wicko.
“Whatever the town, whenever the Barnum show leaves or arrives there’s always a spectacular parade. And I want you to head this particular pageant, Dr Wicko, as my new chief engineer, I want you at the head.”
“I don’t know, Mr Barnum…” said Wicko, furrowing his brow.
“Wah! It is a very great honour. Heading the Barnum parade.”
“Very great it is,” endorsed Barnum.
Wicko shrugged an okay.
“Splendid news, m’boy, that is splendid news, indeed!” Barnum bent down and patted Wicko on the shoulder. “Now, on the way to the docks we must stop by and pick up your costume.”
Wicko looked shocked. “Hold up. Costume? What costume?”
To say Michael was panic-stricken when he regaled us with the news of the fracas in Lillian Russell’s dressing room, would be nothing but the truth.
We were standing in Nik’s Laboratory at the time. I felt Michael was surely over-reacting, but Tesla shared his concern.
“This is news most distressing to hear. I have heard from many that James Brady is not the enemy to make and Mr Tony Pastor is correct in his contention. Unless you wish to live your life in the fear most constant, you must leave America. And we must move you as quickly as is possible.”
Well, you know, I have to say I objected. Strongly. The idea was preposterous. Admittedly, my additional concern being I may never return to my own Realm if I fled the country.
But Nik was firm. “This is a situation most perilous and the needs, they must.” He also promised he would work to solve my problem. “No matter how long of the time it takes.”
We all rode a taxi cab to Henderson Brothers at 19 Broadway. A transatlantic passenger agency Nik had used more than once.
“The next ship to leave New York, if you please?”
“Bound for where, Mr Tesla?” asked the round-faced clerk with more curly hair on his chin than there was on his face.
“Anywhere,” was the reply.
The clerk squeezed the pince-nez on the end of his broad nose and opened a heavy, leather bound ledger. Urgency was a speed with which he was apparently unfamiliar. “The very next, you say?” He looked at his pocket watch. Checked the time.
“See now. Yep. Here. Next one gets underway in three hours. Out of pier 54. Liverpool bound.”
“Where’s that?” asked Michael.
“England!” snapped Tesla, as if the destination mattered, then told the clerk he wanted to purchase tickets for two. For the mission of the mercy. One way.
“The S. S. Furnessia. Of The Anchor Line. Now that ship has been chartered. But seeing as you say this is a mission of mercy, Mr Tesla ... there is the one cabin free. Third class. Down toward the bilges. And the manifest is a very, mighty strange…”
“We take it,” said Nik, reaching for his money pouch.
He then taxi’d us to the docks, stopping only at Nik’s tailors on the lower East side to collect the extra, almost finished, additional suits he had ordered for us. At least it was something to fold into our brand-new cardboard suitcases.
“And the cloth caps, my friends. For the disguises.”
Pier 54 was a concrete spit which jutted out into the North River. Tied up beside the pier sat a large single-funnelled steamship, with two masts for the rigging of sails. Colourful containers and boxes were being craned aboard.
The bushy-bearded, blue-uniformed sea dog type carefully examined our tickets. “You picked quite the passage this time, gen’men. Suggest you hurry aboard while you can. Afore the bull and baloney really gets underway.”
It was Michael, scanning everywhere for heavily-armed hoodlums, who first heard the sound. Which grew ever closer. Then they saw it. The start of a brash and vivid spectacle. A line of waggons, vehicles, cages, animals pre or post taxidermy, marching soldiers, tumblers, even a one-armed juggler all brightly uniformed in royal blue, gold-braided costumes, all waving wildly at everybody and nobody.
The colourful hoardings painted on the sides of each of the waggons proclaimed this to be: “Barnum & Bailey, The Greatest Show on Earth”.
“I guess we’re in for a lively crossing, Prof,” said Michael.
We thanked Nik. Profusely. What we owed him we could never repay, but I suppose over the years we have.
“Not for us the goodbyes, Octopus More and Michael Magister. Just the farewells. Already I am planning for the visit to the United Kingdom. Not also to forget I have an invention of the wireless telegraph to unveil.”
One last firm shake of the hands from me and an awkward manly embrace from Michael.
As we set off down the pier toward the boarding gangway, I remembered. Shouted to Nik. The name of a bright and very fine man he may wish to seek out and consider employing. A man who was wasted at the Edison Machine Works. A man called Whittler Briss.
Which I am very pleased to report is exactly what Nik did.
“The adventure, my friends – and so it begins.”
It was on the fourth day. I had ventured up on to the deck to draw in my daily ration of sharp, cool, salt-tanged air and gaze at the grim, white-capped expanse of glistening grey. This was my only respite from the garish colours, over-excited bustle and relentless, animal aroma’d racket of our fellow travellers.
Michael found me there. Leaning against the ship’s pitted starboard rail. Tapped me on the shoulder. And said:
“Er. So. Prof. There’s never going to be a way for me to say this without it sounding very, incredibly weird.”
Oh, dear. What now?
“But, there’s a dwarf guy here. Dressed as a drum major. And he says he knows you.”
Here’s the method Michael used in Chapter Three when performing the card prediction trick to the thieving temptress Lezley Concupiscence, on Wall Street.
Give the deck of cards to your spectator. Have them shuffle it and hand it back to you. Tell them you’re going to turn over the top card. But instead, you employ a technique known as a “double lift”, which means you’re actually turning over two cards, kept together tight and square. The card you show them will be their chosen card; in Lezley’s case, it was the ‘seven of diamonds’. Tell the spectator to remember that card.
Turn the two cards back down and now tell them you’re going to lose their card in the middle of the deck. Cut the deck in half and slide off the top card, which they believe is the seven of diamonds, and place it in the middle of the deck. Remember that’s not ‘their’ card. The ‘seven of diamonds’ now sits on the top of the deck. Rejoin the two halves keeping the ‘seven of diamonds’ on top while they continue to think ‘their’ card is lost somewhere in the middle.
To make it more convincing, cut the cards and perform another riffle shuffle. But always make sure you finish the shuffle with ‘seven of diamonds’ still on top.
Now corner riffle the deck and ask the spectator to say ‘stop’ whenever they want. Once this is done you now have the deck once again in two halves. With the top half of the deck, slide out the cards, except the top card. This technique is called a ‘flip force’.
Drop the top card, ‘the seven of diamonds’ down onto the top of the lower half, then tell the spectator, “You said stop anywhere in the deck, and it just happened to be on…” turn over the top card of the lower deck – and it is revealed to be the ‘seven of diamonds’.
As with all card tricks it requires practice, practice, practice before you roll it out to an audience. This one is especially technical because it employs the “double lift” and the “flip force”.
While Michael’s next card trick still demands a whole lot of practice, there are no special techniques to master.
Here’s the method Michael used in Chapter Five when performing the card prediction trick to Nikola Tesla and the Professor, while sitting at the table in Delmonico’s Steak House Restaurant.
Ask the spectator to shuffle the deck of cards as many times as they like. Take back the deck and turn the cards face up and fan them out to show the spectator, proving the cards are randomly set out. As you do this remember the card in the fifth position from the top. In this case the card in the fifth position was the nine of clubs.
Give the deck one more shuffle, but maintain the position of at least the top five cards, so you know the nine of clubs is still in that fifth position. You do this by leaving plenty of cards at the top.
You then ask the spectator to cut to the deck in half, wherever they like. Place the two piles face down. You now know your ‘nine of clubs’ is still in fifth position in the half on the left.
Then announce that by looking at the fifth card in this pile (on the right hand side) you can predict precisely what the fifth card in the other half (your left side ‘nine of clubs’ pile) will be. Count off five cards from the right hand pile. Don’t show the spectator the cards you’re counting out. Take a look at the fifth card. For Michael’s method with Tesla, it doesn’t matter what it is.
Place that card back on the right hand pile. Then go to the left hand pile, announcing your prediction that the fifth card will be the ‘nine of clubs’. You count off five cards, turn the fifth card over, and there it is, the ‘nine of clubs’.
Michael’s trick is a simplified version of a stunningly impressive continuing sequence of fifth card predictions. One of which he will be displaying to its fullest glory in…
THE CONAN DOYLE CURIOSITY