“The trick, my friend,” The Illusionist once told me, “Is to always let them think they’ve seen you three times. They stop looking after that.”
Despite having been told this, I could never spot how he did it. I knew the Great Lafayette better than most and I could never tell the difference between the real him and his doubles.
He was a cut above other entertainers. He could appear and reappear seemingly at will. He could take very specific and distinctive objects and send them to different parts of the theatre in the blink of an eye. He could destroy things and heal them again with a simple touch. He could enchant animals to do things I never dreamed possible.
But it was his finales that really set him above everyone else.
An audience watched as a lion roared. He shook his mane and paced the length of his cage. Around him jugglers swallowed fire and balanced knives, contortionists folded themselves in to glass boxes so small I think I would have struggled to get my feet in them. And the Great Illusionist Lafayette sat so still that a flock of doves came to rest peacefully on him.
A young woman walked on stage. Slowly and deliberately she made her way towards the lion’s cage. Lafayette did not move. She opened the door of the cage and still he did not move. She locked it behind her. He remained still.
Then two things happened at once. The lion rose up on his hind legs. The doves around Lafayette sensed the danger and moved in a flurry of fearful feathers. The lion made to pounce on the defenceless girl. She screamed.
Then the lion’s skin fell away from it’s body and out stepped the Great Lafayette.
The crowd were on their feet. On the other side of the stage, the doves came to settle back down on an empty chair.
The Great Lafayette let himself and his assistant out of the cage and stepped forward to take a final bow. As he did so something snapped. A crack. A crash. And the curtains went up in flames.
The audience stayed on their feet. The stage was obscured by smoke, but they peered around. Where would he come from next? Would he be in amongst us somewhere? A door at the back burst open. There was a gasp, but it was not him. It was an usher, wide-eyed and pale.
“GET OUT!” he shouted. “THIS IS NOT PART OF THE SHOW!”
It took a few moments before anyone believed him and then chaos rained down on all of us. There was a stampede out of the door.
The fire spread quickly. I could still smell it when I reached the evening air outside. I could see smoke pouring out of the stage door. And there he was- my friend, The Great Lafayette, coughing and choking on the smoke. I remember it because he looked me in the eye.
“Where is my horse?” he looked around at us all. “Where is Magic?”
When nobody could answer him he ran back in to the flames.
They found his body under the front of the stage the next morning, charred beyond recognition but still wearing his costume. We buried him, I paid my respects and they continued to clear out the theatre.
Then they found his body for a second time.
Charred beyond recognition, but definitely wearing his rings.
Who was the first man? The real Illusionist? A stunt double?
I stood in the burnt out skeleton of the Empire Theatre trying to distinguish any feature on this body that might have belonged to my friend. I found myself smiling and the scorched skull grinned back at me.
“Always let them think they’ve seen you three times,” I muttered to myself.
From deep in the wings I thought I heard a chuckle and a voice that whispered, “They always stop looking after that.”
*This is a fictitious account of the real death of the Illusionist Lafayette at Edinburgh’s Empire (now Festival) Theatre in 1911.