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948
CONJURING


litigation was to intensify the mystery surrounding the original box-trick. The whole matter has been publicly thrashed out. It has been learned that the trick, generally, consists of a movable panel fastened by a secret catch. Provided that the rope be not too severely knotted over that panel, the performer can escape; but otherwise failure is inevitable. Further, it is known that the original trick has never failed, even under the most severe tests, whereas the imitations have failed repeatedly. There can only be one reason for this—a great difference in the mechanical principles employed.

Like most forms of refined entertainment the conjuror’s magic appears to have kept well abreast of the times. Certainly, at no period of the world’s history has it ever been so popular as at present. As a natural consequence, so many skilled exponents of the art have never before existed. Yet there is one respect in which at the present day conjuring shows no advance upon the records of earlier times. The one great peculiarity in connexion with magic, at every period, has been the limited number of those who prove themselves capable of originating magical effects. This peculiarity has never been more thoroughly emphasized than at present. Since the days of Robert-Houdin, only two men have attained any remarkable degree of prominence—Mr Maskelyne and M. Buatier de Kolta. There are many who, as entertainers, are entitled to rank with the highest, but to those two only can prominence be justly given as originators. The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that to invent original illusions is a matter of no ordinary difficulty, and, indeed, all who have attempted work of that kind will admit that such is the case. When, however, an original principle has been invented, it may be utilized in producing many and apparently quite distinct effects. As an example of this, Maskelyne’s “Cleopatra’s Needle,” invented in 1879, may be mentioned. The trick consisted of a piece of mechanism representing an exceedingly light model of the famous obelisk. So light was it, in fact, that it could easily be lifted with one hand. Upon an isolated stand, previously examined by the audience, a sheet of ordinary brown paper was laid, and on this the “needle” was placed. Thus during the performance communication with the obelisk was obviously impossible. Yet from within it human beings emerged in a most startling manner. The secret consisted in the fact that the “needle” was capable of being lifted by invisible means, and from the outset contained two or three persons concealed within it. Notwithstanding the fact that this illusion was one of Mr Maskelyne’s simplest devices, it puzzled even experts for a considerable time. When at last the secret leaked out, the principle was seized upon with avidity and utilized in a variety of ways—for example, by M. Buatier de Kolta in his beautiful illusion, “The Cocoon,” first produced at the Egyptian Hall, London, in 1887. In this case de Kolta had the advantage of Mr Maskelyne’s assistance in perfecting the mechanical details. De Kolta’s smaller tricks have for years supplied the whole army of ordinary conjurors with novelties. In 1886, at the Eden Theatre, Paris, he introduced his famous illusion known as “The Vanishing Lady.” This mystery, performed as he alone could perform it, was one of the most effective tricks ever exhibited. Hundreds of “imitations” were, of course, produced; but, like the imitations of Mr Maskelyne’s box, they sink into insignificance when compared with the original; and in this case, unfortunately for the originator, the reputation of the original was speedily ruined by clumsy exponents, who only succeeded in exposing the principle. The effect produced by de Kolta was as follows:—Taking from his pocket what appeared to be an ordinary newspaper, folded, he opened it out and laid it upon the stage. Then a chair was shown, front and back, to the audience, and placed upon the paper. Madame de Kolta, in ordinary evening dress, then took her seat upon the chair, and a large piece of black silk was thrown over her, enveloping her from head to foot. Then de Kolta would shout, “I'll throw you in the air!”—or words to that effect—and to all appearance he grasped her round the waist, lifted her above his head, and she vanished, covering and all, at his finger-tips.

Among the illusions depending for their effect upon sudden disappearance, perhaps the most inexplicable was that produced by Mr Maskelyne in 1891 under the appropriate title of “Oh!”—that being an expression frequently used by spectators upon witnessing the startling effect. In the illusion the performer whose disappearance was to be effected seated himself upon a raised couch, above which a kind of canopy was supported upon brass rods. From the canopy depended curtains capable of being raised or lowered. The right hand of the performer was strapped to one end of this couch, and the left hand was secured by means of a strap attached to one end of a stout cord. The other end of the cord, having been passed through a hole in the framework of the canopy, was securely held by a member of the audience. The curtains were then lowered to within 18 in. of the ground, and through an aperture in the front curtain the performer’s right hand was passed. This hand, again, was held by a second member of the audience. Finally, a sheet of iron was placed beneath the couch, to prevent any possibility of the performer’s escape being effected through a trap in the stage. Thus, with the performer’s right hand in full view, his left drawn upwards by the cord attached to it, and a clear space below the couch, escape seemed impossible; yet, upon the word “Go!” the right hand disappeared, the cord became slack in the hands of the holder, the curtains were instantly raised, and the performer had vanished.

In 1886 M. Buatier de Kolta, in conjunction with Mr Maskelyne, presented at the Egyptian Hall, London, a series of illusionary effects upon an entirely novel principle, to which they gave the name of “Black Magic.” The main idea was based upon the fact—obvious when once it is pointed out—that visible form cannot exist in the absence of shadow or varying tint. In other words, we can only distinguish forms when they exhibit either variations in colour or shade. Absolute uniformity must, necessarily, mean invisibility. To bring about this uniformity, the entire stage was draped in black velvet, giving it the appearance of a dark and immensely deep cavern. There were no lights within it, though from the front it was brilliantly illuminated. Upon the stage, thus prepared, the most startling appearances and disappearances took place, within a few feet of the footlights. The illusions were produced by the simple method of covering anything to be concealed by screens of black velvet. These could be brought almost to the front of the stage, and yet would remain invisible; thus, in an instant, persons or articles would appear, apparently from space, or would disappear into it. The principle involved in the production of these illusions was adopted subsequently by many conjurors, and has served to produce an almost endless variety of effects.

The production of innumerable blossoms from a sheet of paper was undoubtedly the prettiest of M. Buatier de Kolta’s smaller tricks. A small sheet of cartridge-paper is twisted into a cone, which is shown to be empty, but immediately artificial blossoms begin to pour out of it, until quite a bushel of them are piled up. Unfortunately for the inventor, the first time he introduced the trick at the Eden Theatre, Paris, one or two of the “blossoms” were carried by a draught of air into the auditorium. These were at once sold to a manufacturer of conjuring appliances, and within a few days de Kolta’s “Spring Blossoms” were upon the market.

Another startling trick, by the same inventor, is “The Flying Cage.” A live bird is imprisoned within a small cage, held between the performer’s hands, when suddenly, by a quick movement of the arms, both bird and cage vanish. The cage simply collapses, and is drawn by a string up the coat-sleeve, the unfortunate bird being sometimes maimed, if not killed outright. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals once took action in the matter, and sought to prevent the performance of the trick at one of the London music-halls; but the conjuror in this case invited the officials to witness a private demonstration, and was clever enough to convince them that there was no cruelty. Conjuring with animals has a great charm for young folk, and happily it is very seldom that a trick involves any cruelty whatever. The animals, as a rule, quickly