The Conjurer, by Richard Middleton
Certainly the audience was restive. In the first place it felt that
it had been defrauded, seeing that Cissie Bradford, whose smiling
face adorned the bills outside, had, failed to appear, and secondly,
it considered that the deputy for that famous lady was more than
inadequate. To the little man who sweated in the glare of the
limelight and juggled desperately with glass balls in a vain effort
to steady his nerve it was apparent that his turn was a failure. And
as he worked he could have cried with disappointment, for his was a
trial performance, and a year's engagement in the Hennings' group of
music-halls would have rewarded success. Yet his tricks, things that
he had done with the utmost ease a thousand times, had been a
succession of blunders, rather mirth-provoking than mystifying to
the audience. Presently one of the glass balls fell crashing on the
stage, and amidst the jeers of the gallery he turned to his wife,
who served as his assistant.
"I've lost my chance," he said, with a sob; "I can't do it!"
"Never mind, dear," she whispered. "There's a nice steak and onions
at home for supper."
"It's no use," he said despairingly. "I'll try the disappearing trick
and then get off. I'm done here." He turned back to the audience.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said to the mockers in a wavering voice,
"I will now present to you the concluding item of my entertainment. I
will cause this lady to disappear under your very eyes, without the
aid of any mechanical contrivance or artificial device." This was the
merest showman's patter, for, as a matter of fact, it was not a very
wonderful illusion. But as he led his wife forward to present her to
the audience the conjurer was wondering whether the mishaps that had
ruined his chance would meet him even here. If something should go
wrong he felt his wife's hand tremble in his, and he pressed it
tightly to reassure her. He must make an effort, an effort of will,
and then no mistakes would happen. For a second the lights danced
before his eyes, then he pulled himself together. If an earthquake
should disturb the curtains and show Molly creeping ignominiously
away behind he would still meet his fate like a man. He turned round
to conduct his wife to the little alcove from which she should
vanish. She was not on the stage!
For a minute he did not guess the greatness of the disaster. Then he
realised that the theatre was intensely quiet, and that he would have
to explain that the last item of his programme was even more of a
fiasco than the rest. Owing to a sudden indisposition his skin
tingled at the thought of the hooting. His tongue rasped upon
cracking lips as he braced himself and bowed to the audience.
Then came the applause. Again and again it broke out from all over
the house, while the curtain rose and fell, and the conjurer stood on
the stage, mute, uncomprehending. What had happened? At first he had
thought they were mocking him, but it was impossible to misjudge the
nature of the applause. Besides, the stage-manager was allowing him
call after call, as if he were a star. When at length the curtain
remained down, and the orchestra struck up the opening bars of the
next song, he staggered off into the wings as if he were drunk. There
he met Mr. James Hennings himself.
"You'll do," said the great man; "that last trick was neat. You ought
to polish up the others though. I suppose you don't want to tell me
how you did it? Well, well, come in the morning and we'll fix up a
And so, without having said a word, the conjurer found himself
hustled off by the Vaudeville Napoleon. Mr. Hennings had something
more to say to his manager.
"Bit rum," he said. "Did you see it?"
"Queerest thing we've struck."
"How was it done do you think?"
"Can't imagine. There one minute on his arm, gone the next, no trap,
or curtain, or anything."
"Money in it, eh?"
"Biggest hit of the century, I should think."
"I'll go and fix up a contract and get him to sign it tonight. Get
on with it." And Mr. James Hennings fled to his office.
Meanwhile the conjurer was wandering in the wings with the drooping
heart of a lost child. What had happened? Why was he a success, and
why did people stare so oddly, and what had become of his wife? When
he asked them the stage hands laughed, and said they had not seen
her. Why should they laugh? He wanted her to explain things, and hear
their good luck. But she was not in her dressing-room, she was not
anywhere. For a moment he felt like crying.
Then, for the second time that night, he pulled himself together.
After all, there was no reason to be upset. He ought to feel very
pleased about the contract, however it had happened. It seemed that
his wife had left the stage in some queer way without being seen.
Probably to increase the mystery she had gone straight home in her
stage dress, and had succeeded in dodging the stage-door keeper. It
was all very strange; but, of course, there must be some simple
explanation like that. He would take a cab home and find her there
already. There was a steak and onions for supper.
As he drove along in the cab he became convinced that this theory was
right. Molly had always been clever, and this time she had certainly
succeeded in surprising everybody. At the door of his house he gave
the cabman a shilling for himself with a light heart. He could afford
it now. He ran up the steps cheerfully and opened the door. The
passage was quite dark, and he wondered why his wife hadn't lit the
"Molly!" he cried, "Molly!"
The small, weary-eyed servant came out of the kitchen on a savoury
wind of onions.
"Hasn't missus come home with you, sir?" she said.
The conjurer thrust his hand against the wall to steady himself, and
the pattern of the wall-paper seemed to burn his finger-tips.
"Not here!" he gasped at the frightened girl. "Then where is she?
Where is she?"
"I don't know, sir," she began stuttering; but the conjurer turned
quickly and ran out of the house. Of course, his wife must be at the
theatre. It was absurd ever to have supposed that she could leave the
theatre in her stage dress unnoticed; and now she was probably
worrying because he had not waited for her. How foolish he had been.
It was a quarter of an hour before he found a cab, and the theatre
was dark and empty when he got back to it. He knocked at the stage
door, and the night watchman opened it.
"My wife?" he cried. "There's no one here now, sir," the man answered
respectfully, for he knew that a new star had risen that night.
The conjurer leant against the doorpost faintly.
"Take me up to the dressing-rooms," he said. "I want to see whether
she has been, there while I was away."
The watchman led the way along the dark passages. "I shouldn't worry
if I were you, sir," he said. "She can't have gone far." He did not
know anything about it, but he wanted to be sympathetic.
"God knows," the conjurer muttered, "I can't understand this at all."
In the dressing-room Molly's clothes still lay neatly folded as she
had left them when they went on the stage that night, and when he saw
them his last hope left the conjurer, and a strange thought came into
"I should like to go down on the stage," he said, "and see if there
is anything to tell me of her."
The night watchman looked at the conjurer as if he thought he was
mad, but he followed him down to the stage in silence. When he was
there the conjurer leaned forward suddenly, and his face was filled
with a wistful eagerness.
"Molly!" he called, "Molly!"
But the empty theatre gave him nothing but echoes in reply.