FICTION

AMRATH the GREAT

GEORGE E. CLOUGH May 15 1933
FICTION

AMRATH the GREAT

GEORGE E. CLOUGH May 15 1933

AMRATH the GREAT

FICTION

GEORGE E. CLOUGH

THERE WAS ONLY one other man in the parlor car when my train drew out of Fort William for the long run around the north shore of Lake Superior. I read his name on his suitcase—that of a celebrated magician. “Are you. by any chance . . .?” I asked.

He was!

Now 1 have always taken a great interest in conjuring, and I never see a trick without wanting to know how it is done. So I accounted myself lucky to have a travelling companion who might perhaps be willing to explain some of the mysteries that luid puzzled me.

He was of middle age and prosperous appearance; roundfaced, clean-shaven, plump, and with the simple, open, trustful Ux>k that is best described as "innocent.” At first I thought that this expression was assumed, but later I decided it was natural. No doubt it had served him well in his profession.

For the first half-hour or so we discussed hard times and economic problems. He told me frankly he had been lasing money for the [X»st two years, and laughed when I replied that mine was always spent before I had time to lose it.

“It’s plain to see you’re not worrying,” I said.

“Not a bit.” said he. “I'm a free man. I’ve left my worries all behind me. No more world tours. I'm going home to live in dear old London.”

No. he was not retiring exactly. He might accept some drawing-room engagements.

“I’m not as young as I was,” he said. “I can find more joy in puzzling a small, select audience than in staging a show with twenty ix-ople and four carloads of properties.” He brought out a deck of cards, selected a card and held it up. Before my eyes it vanished.

“You'll find it in the deck," he said, and I did.

“That's sleight of hand.” he chuckled. “Why should I carry an expensive company? I’m happy when l match my skill against your eyes and your wits.”

“But surely.” I suggested, “it must be much more thrilling to stage some wonderful illusion that amazes everyone?” “More thrilling? Yes.” he said. “There’s pride, and pleasure, too. in knowing you have built upan act and made every detail so perfect that not a soul in the house can guess how your trick was done. But there’s a world of worry. You are depending on your comjranv to help you put it over. Someone may fail you: some piece of mechanism may refuse to work. Some hired helper may even steal the product of your ingenuity.” .

“Steal your illusion?”

He nodded. “Amrath stole Karl Endor’s.”

"Amrath? I never heard of him.”

“He didn’t last. Karl Endor. now he was a genius. He invented illusions that brought him fame. He shared their secret only with a man and a g rl. The man was

responsible for the working of the stage mechanism; the girl appeared in the illusions. She wras a beautiful girl.”

His tone had become ironic.

“Beautiful but dumb?”

“No, she was clever. When those two people put their heads together . . . Pretty country, this, isn’t it?”

“There’s a terrible lot of it.” I said. “The man—you called him Amrath?”

“Amrath. the Great. It was he who gave me my start, and I could tell you almost the whole story from my personal experience. You want to hear it? There’s an illusion in it worth describing. It’s quite a story, too.”

I WAS A MERE BOY (he began)

I when I arrived in New York. I came to conquer a continent with my whole outfit in one trunk and not a hundred dollars in my pocket.

But I’d been practising sleight of hand for ten years, had lived by it for three, and I knew I was good.

My English accent and general appearance were against me. No agent would book my act. I haunted the agencies, hunted through the ads. in the theatrical papers, and had sixmt my last dollar when a small ad. of mine brought me a letter written on Ritz notepaper. This was from a man named Rath Arthur M. Rath and it invited me to call.

I went to the hotel at the time suggested and was shown up to his room.

Rath was a sharp-faced, slim young man with smooth black hair and very wide-open eyes. He kept me standing. Ux>ked me over as il 1 were some strange animal, then smiled and shook his head.

“Sorry.” lie said. “I need a first-class conjuror.”

1 was prepared lor that.

"Excuse me. sir," I said and. reaching quickly forward, I drew a lady’s stocking from his pocket.

That made him laugh. "Well, show your stuff,” he said. So 1 began producing various small objects from the stocking

cards, dice, a glove, a handkerchief, a wineglass. Then I did tricks with these and kept him guessing. He became more and more interested.

“Good work,” lie said at last. “Sit down and let’s talk business.”

He offered me a cigar.

“This is the real America,” I thought. "This man doesn’t know who I am and doesn't care, so long as I fill the bill.”

Rath first asked me if I had ever seen the great Karl Endor. I told him:

“Yes. In England. When I was a boy.”

“Well, I’m Karl Endor’s right-hand man.” he said, “and Karl's retiring. In fact between the two of us—he drinks too much. I'm taking his company on the road, and I need an act to take the place of his sleight-of-hand performance at the start of the show.”

“You’re asking me,” I gasped, “to appear as the new Karl Endor?” There flashed into my mind the vision of a crowded theatre. Me, with my little stock of tricks, my English accent !

“No. no." he chuckled. “I’m not engaging you to fill Karl Endor's shoes. This show is mine, not yours. It’s going to feature ‘Amrath. Master of Magic.’ You’re good, young man. you’re very good, but you’re no good alone. ^ ou don’t know how to talk to an American audience. Now, I can handle everything except the sleight of hand, and there I need some help.”

“Some help?”

’ Some well-paid expert assistance. You'll be my servant in the act. I want you to arrange all my tricks so that the sleight of hand is up to you. while the trick is mine. Get the idea? I m the Grand Gee Whiz and you're nobody. 1 hat way, we 11 have ’em fooled right from the start. You, with your simple, honest face—you’re absolutely made-toorder for me. Boy, it wall be a cinch.”

That was a queer proposition, sir. 1 was to supply the skill, and Rath would take the credit. What he was offering

me was a secret partnership. I didn't like the idea of helping him to run a bluff, but the main risk would be his. I needed a job; I needed the experience. What surprised me most was that a man like Rath should put his reputation so entirely in my hands. It showed he trusted me. and that was flattering. I might have guessed that he had little to lose.

He was already making out a contract. Seventy-five a week ! I signed.

WELL, AFTER SOME rehearsing we began a tour of the country, and I found that our teamwork gave me remarkable freedom and made sleight of hand easy. Amrath’s nerve was amazing. He had the quality of personal magnetism and his talk always held the house. No one had eyes for me, his soldier servant in a George III uniform, although my scarlet coat with its big pockets

fairly shouted for attention. My costume was, of course, deliberately chosen. It made me look wooden and stupid, a mere lay figure in contrast with the sleek, smooth, supplekngered "Master of Magic.”

The main jxirt of our show was illusions, and a girl who appeared in these was a great attraction wherever we played. She was billed as “Fay L’Estrange.” Fay had beauty of the soft, appealing kind that wins an audience's sympathy. Folks came by hundreds to see her. and it was funny to watch their white, tense faces when she was doing lier part in the Indian Basket Trick.

We ust'd that trick for our last number, with a sensational twist. Someone is put in a basket, you know, and a sword run through it. Now, look at this. Here’s a three-inch nail driven right through my finger. A little blood, and the illusion’s perfect. There’s half a finger ring, you see. connecting the ends. We had a sword hidden in the basket that was made like this nail, with a metal band to lit snugly to Fay’s waist. Well, Amrath would shut Fay up in the basket and show the house that the sword in his hand was genuine. I le would pretend to work himself into a rage as he thrust his sword through and through the wickerwork, and at last, in a passion of fury, he would fling back the lid and make one deliberate downward thrust. Instant remorse followed. I lorrified at what he had done, he bent down over the o|X'n basket. Fay was already adjusting the trick sword, and when he lifted her gently out and held her in his arms her body limp and apparently lifeless with the sword thrust through it well, the effect was thoroughly convincing. We had to have a quick curtain followed by Fay’s prompt reapix'arance to assure the house she was alive.

Working together, on and off the stage. Amrath and I soon came to know each other pretty well, and it wasn t long Ix'fore 1 Ix-gan to suspect that lie had not told me the whole truth concerning his relations with Karl Endor. I learned that he and Fay had lx»th been trusted helpers in Karl's company. But the present company apparently was Amrath’s own. and Karl was reaping no financial benefit.

I noted there was always a shade of contempt in the way Amrath sjxrke of Karl. Fay also sjxike of him with a kind of mockery. Neither of them seemed to care what had hapix-ned to the man whose illusions they were presenting. To me. Karl Endor would always be the greatest of magicians, and I was curious enough to want to know the reason for his sudden eclipse.

The truth, so far as I could gather it. was this. Karl Endor l<x>k Fay on at first for his Indian Basket Trick. I’ve told you Fay was beautiful. Karl was a simple, warmhearted man with no experience of women. He held her in his arms night after night in that illusion and fell hopelessly in love with her!

Karl was no longer young. He meant nothing to hay. but Fay meant everything to him. Fortune had never smiled on him, and now he prospered. It was for her that he invented new illusions. He paid her an excessive salary, flashed her name on Broadway with his own. She was his angel, his gcxxl fairy. Like a shy boy, he worshipped her.

Fay did her work and saved her money. “Old Karl,” she knew, was crazy over her, but that was hts affair and no fault of hers. She Ix'tame more than friendly with his helper, Rath the man I knew as Amrath and it was this that drove |xx>r Karl to drink. Half-drunk, he could retain his illusion of an ideal Fay.

He was t drunk, one night, to carry on. Then Fay and Amrath put their heads together and decided they could finance a show of their own. They dropped Karl Endor like a squeezed orange.

“THOSE WERE the facts, and when I knew them I felt I like throwing up my job. But I was under contract for the season. I thought, too, that there might be another side to the story. So I decided I would question Amrath and see what he could say for himself.

“How did you and Fay come to leave Karl?” I asked him bluntly.

“Karl drank txj much. Didn’t I tell you that? So I pulled out and set up for myself.”

“And brought Fay with you?”

“Sure.”

“And Karl’s illusions, too?”

“No. All the apparatus is my own.”

“But the ideas were his?”

“Well, yes. Of course. I used my knowledge. You have to knowa trick or you can’t perform it.”

“What kind of mán is Karl?” I asked him.

"He’s like a child. Simple and good-natured.”

“If I were you,” I said, “I’d feel a bit uneasy.”

He laughed. “Why should I? Karl hasn't made me any trouble. He knew I always planned to start a show of my own.”

“Wasn’t there something else that hit him pretty hard?” “Fay hit him hard,” said Amrath. “Fay’s an ungrateful little baggage. I admit. It worked out well for me, though.” “Well, you certainly took advantage of the breaks,” I said.

Amrath turned red.

”1 know what you're thinking,” he blustered. “You think I stole the show, and the girl, too. But I had to make a start wdth what I knew, didn’t I? Karl w’as through, anyway. He made a fortune out of these old tricks. Next summer, boy, we’ll plan some better ones. We’ll hit Broadw'ay w'ith a new show and make New' York forget it ever heard of Karl.”

He told me then that he had in mind an illusion which would be staged like a play. The heroAmrath—was to be a medieval monk who had broken his vows for love, and w'as accused of having made a compact with Satan. Condemned to public execution, he would ascend the scaffold, and when his head w'as on the block and the axe descending on his neck, he would disappear!

“Boy, I can see it now,” he said. “A great black scaffold, with just a rail around the platform at the top.”

“How w'ill you disappear?” I asked him.

“Well, you can see I’ll have to do my disappearing early. Here’s the idea: The first few feet of the scaffold are boarded in, and the stair goes up behind. We have a double there —a dummy figure with a face my own mother wouldn’t know' from mine -and the guards take him on up to have his head cut off.”

“But how' are you going to make the dummy vanish?” “That’s up to you, my boy. You’ll be the executioner. Work it to suit yourself.”

“And you think I can spirit away a full-size figure of a man while I am busy chopping off its head?”

“Oh, you can do it, somehow'.”

WELL, I COULD SEE the main idea was good. An execution scene was bound to be a thriller, and crowds would come to set' the axe descend on the neck of a stage hero. But Amrath wras asking altogether too much from me, I thought.

He had a habit of dodging difficulties.

Amrath returned to the subject night after night, and by degrees he aroused my enthusiasm.

“We’ll have a stageful of soldiers dressed like the Three Musketeers. Blue and gold uniforms, high boots, plumed hats, rapiers, pistols. We’ll have the scaffold centre front, and old French houses for a background. I’ll feature Fay as chief mourner.

We’ll have everyone in tears with our last embrace, and a dramatic illusion so strong the house will feel that the guards and soldiers make my escape impossible. I’ll bt' wearing a soldier’s uniform under my monk’s robe, so all 1 have to do behind the scaffold is slip off the roix*, pull on a pair of boots, add a mustache and a plumed hat, and I can join the army. I’ll be a soldier, then. I’ll march right off the stage while I’m being executed.”

He had the dummy all figured out. too.

A mask, molded from life, and workable glass eyes. The robe and cowl would be a help; so would grease paint and stage lighting. He would give it a pair of live hands with the old Dwarf Trick. A skirting board around the platform would hide the weakness of its feet, and he could anticipate that by appearing hardly able to walk as he was brought to the scaffold.

“That’s fine, as far as it goes,” I used to say to him;

“but how the deuce am I to make the dam thing vanish?”

I lay awake, night after night, puzzling over my part of the trick, until at last I hit on a solution of the problem.

It was so simple that I had to laugh — pneumatic pillows!

Yes, sir. we made that dummy’s body of rubberized silk. There was so little “body” to it. you amid put it in your pocket. The axe that cut off its head would let

out the air. the bulky figure would collapse, and all I had to do was help to make its deflation quick and thorough, and make the illusion perfect by getting rid of what remained.

The crux of the trick w'as right there. The dummy must appear to vanish. No one must see it go.

I planned to have four soldiers on the scaffold, besides two prison guards and a priest. The guards and soldiers were to be alert—as if they feared that Amrath might escape by suj>ernatural meansand when the axe came down they must act as if lie really w'ere escaping. Then it would be natural for them to close in, and we could flatten out that windbag easily.

You must remember, the house would be convinced the form wras Amrath’s. He could have left his robe behind him when he disappeared, but it was better to make the costume vanish with him. That was not difficult. The robe would fall behind the headsman’s block; the mask and cow'l, falling in front of it, would be completely hidden by the skirtingboard.

OUR FIRST REHEARSAL proved the illusion workable, but when I chopped, the air came out with a hiss. That served to warn me there might even be a bang w'hen the bag was trampled on. So I had the soldiers draw' their pistols, with the appearance of taking all precautions against Amrath’s escape, and fire a scattered volley into the ixx>r dummy as I cut off its head. The effect w'as admirable. Those noisy bangs would make all lesser sounds unnoticeable, the shots would startle the audience enough to break their concentration, and the pow'der would provide a haze of smoke to screen my disposal of what remained of the dummy.

We rehearsed with a full company till Amrath and I were both completely satisfied. I could not tell you how many details w'ent to make our illusion perfect, but here is one of them: Each robe of the duplicate costumes was tied with a rope, and each rope had a knot in it. Each robe was patched, and each patch was coming unsew'n at one comer. No one w'ould guess that there was any significance in a badly sewn patch, but there, if it was needed, was the evidence that the prisoner who appeared on the scaffold w'as the man w'ho had been led to the stairs.

The day we w'ere to open our season at the Coliseum, a man stopjxîd me on Broadway. He w'as a fine-looking man with a humorous face and a mop of white hair that showed below the rim of his hat. I knew at once that I had seen him somewhere, but I couldn’t place him.

“I’m Karl Endor,” he said. “You’ve heard of me, I guess. How’s Amrath the Great?” “Amrath is much as usual,” I said. “I’m proud to meet you, sir.”

He shook hands with me, smiling.

“And how is—how is Fay?”

“Oh, in her usual good health.”

“I want to see that show of yours,” said Karl, “but I can’t get a seat anywhere near

the stage. I wonder, would Amrath oblige me by letting me sit in one of the stage boxes?”

Karl knew those boxes w'ould not be for sale. It w'as our custom to reserve them so that our tricks should not be seer, from an embarrassing angle.

“I’m sure he would,” I said. “We shall be honored.”

Karl gave me a queer smile.

“I shall enjoy your sleight of hand from there. Y’ou might tell Amrath, will you, that I’ve reformed? My day is over, but I can still amuse the children and myself with a fewold tricks.”

Well, sir, I never knew how yellow Amrath was until I told him of my talk with Karl. The man was thoroughly scared.

“I w'on’t have him in that box,” he cried. “I don’t want him anywhere in the house.”

“You can’t keep him out of the house,” I said, “and it seems to me you can afford to do him one small favor.” Here Fay cut in.

“What’s the matter, big boy? What’s all the fuss about?” “Karl Endor. He wants me to give him a box.”

“Well, let him have it. What’s the harm in that? Bet you he only wants to see his little girlie in the new act.”

“I promised him, and that’s the end of it,” I said. “Either Karl has that box, or you can stage the show without me.” “All right, all right,” growled Amrath. “Have it your own way.”

NOW, I HAD always thought Amrath had no nerves.

but he was so nervous that night he came near wrecking the first part of the programme. Karl Endor kept the curtains of his box drawn so that no person in the house could see him. He had a view of the stage, and once or twice he complimented me with a nod and a smile. He knew' too much to see me only as a servant.

Amrath apologized to me w'hen our act was over.

“It’s my heart,” he said. “You know I have a v'eak heart. We’re going to give ’em something big, and I’m excited. If it goes over it will be a knockout—but if it fails it will be awful.”

“It can’t go w'rong,” I assured him. “You do your part and leave the rest to me.”

That was the first I had heard of Amrath’s heart. I thought, myself, it w'as his conscience that w'as making him feel shaky. Life squares its own accounts.

Well, the middle part of our programme went over fairly well, but there was nothing new in it. We w'ere repeating the best of Karl’s illusions, for most of our time and thought had been spent on our one big final act.

That act was good. It pleased the house right from the start.

Up went the curtain on a blaze of light and color; and in the middle of the brightness, the grim black scaffold and the headsman. Soldiers in blue and gold were parading on a town square. Folks in gay clothing looked from the windows of old houses whose w'alls were all aglow' with sunshine.

I must have made a most impressive figure as I stood leaning on my axe. I was stripped to the waist, and my face was villainous with a stubble of beard and a black mask. My eyes, glinting through the mask, seemed to cast a spell on the house. There was no music, and a deathly stillness told me the tableau was producing the effect intended.

Our orchestra began to play a funeral march, the troops formed a cordon round the scaffold, and a procession entered, bringing Amrath to his death.

First came an officer and two soldiers. Amrath was next, supported by a pair of grimy gaolers. A priest, w'ith bowed head, follow'ed him, and tw'o more soldiers.

Amrath was dragging his feet as if exhausted. His face w’as pale; his eyes had a fixed, glassy stare.

As the procession was about to pass inside the cordon. Fay came running out from one of the houses, flew straight to Amrath and flung her arms around his neck. He he'd her in a passionate embrace, but she was tom from his grasp and thrust back through the door, and the commanding officer detailed men to guard the door and pace the square. (This was to make Amrath’s departure easy w'hen he himself became a soldier. We could not, as cne might easily imagine, have them all drawn up in line.)

AS THE procession / \ began to climb the stair, I tried the balance of my axe and felt its edge, leaving the house no idle moment for reflection. The soldiers reappeared without a second’s delay —you could have counted their steps all the way up —but now the two gaolers were supporting the dummy.

Out of the comer of my eye I caught a glimpse of Amrath stripping off his robe, but I was careful not to turn my head to look

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at him. My glance and scowl were for his double, and as I shook my fist at it. I could have laughed, it was so lifelike. The glassy eyes in the pale face moved slightly and stared at me with a hopeless expression.

We didn’t give the house much time to inspect that dummy. The soldiers stood behind it, and the gaolers held it while the priest was whispering a word of consolation into its ear. A pair of arms, thrust through its loose sleeves from behind, made a gesture of resignation; then it was forced to kneel and put its head over the block.

That was the cue for Fay to appear at a I window, crying "Amrath!” and when she ! screamed the soldiers on the scaffold drew ! their pistols.

Up went my axe and every pair of eyes i in the house followed the swing of the blade.

! Four pistols, promptly pointed at the ! dummy's body, banged as the blow was struck. There was a gasp from the house and j several individual shrieks, and before our ! audience had recovered from the shock the "body” was trampled flat and out of sight.

We on the scaffold then stood back in a I half-circle, leaving it open for inspection.

I We had an amazed look on our faces as we I stared at the oak block. Nothing to be seen ! except the block with the axe stuck firmly j in it and a fragment of the monk's robe ! caught by the blade.

The house began to cheer and cheer. For a few seconds the guards and soldiers on the scaffold held their pose, then they all made a rush for the stairs, as if in panic, and I was left alone, staring stupidly at the axe.

Amrath. I knew, was changing in the j wings. He had walked right off the stage in ; his soldier's uniform, for in the moment of : his execution a soldier more or less meant : nothing to anyone. I was to hold the crowd j till he apjx?ared to take the applause.

Still registering bewilderment. I released the bit of cloth and held it up. It was the one visible, concrete piece of evidence that I had struck my blow at something real and solid, and I expected the whole house would share in the inspection I was giving it. To my surprise, it was the axe-blade, not the cloth, that held their interest. And then I saw there was a splash of blood on the blade. Yes, sir, a splash of blood !

I hadn't time to more than notice it when I Amrath’s entry caused a buzz of excited j comment. He was to have the scaffold to i himself, so I turned to go down.

We met behind the boards of the lower ; part.

! “Amrath.” I whispered, “there’s blood on the axe!”

He was in too much of a hurry to stop and listen.

THE CHEERS were deafening as Amrath took his stand on the spot where his double had vanished. He bowed and bowed; then stood erect and smiling, waiting for the clamor to subside. And, standing in the wings, close to the curtained box, I heard through all the uproar a sound like the crack of a whip.

I saw Amrath stagger and put his hand to his heart. I could not see what everybody out in front could see a splash of blood staining his white shirt-front but I saw him raise his hand and look at it, and with bent head look down at that spreading stain upon his breast. There was surprise and terror in his face. He stood a moment, swaying slightly. Then down he went.

The house was shocked into silence. Then someone guessed that this was just another trick, and started a fresh outburst of applause. But I knew better, and the curtain came down with a run.

That was our final curtain. The orchestra struck up a patriotic air. and everybody rose. Some made for the exits; others, alarmed or fearing something had gone wrong, came crowding up toward the stage, but they were reassured, and no one was allowed in the wings.

Amrath was dead.

As eoon as I was sure of that, I went in search of Karl.

His box was empty. He had left behind him nothing but a smell of powder smoke.

Amrath was dead -but one glance at his shirt front told me he had died without a wound.

What killed him? Well, the doctors gave the cause of death in scientific language, but in plain English I should say he died of fright.

All Karl had done, you see. was to fire two harmless pellets made of wax. hollowed and filled with crimson dye. An old trick, sir; a very old one. There was no evidence of criminal intent, and the inquest left no case for the police.

No, sir; not murder. And if the motive was revenge, then Karl’s revenge was like himself, good-natured. He gave our trick a touch of his own genius with that first splash of blood upon the axe. The second shot was mischievous, perhaps—but what a target!

I never found it in my heart to blame Karl Endor. He may have blamed himself. He disappeared that night, and though we tried to find him for the inquest, I never saw him again.