“A secret is a funny thing, Harry. If you know a set of facts, they lie there in your brain like a potato – completely ordinary and not especially tasty. But if someone tells you, 'that set of facts is top-secret,' you won’t be able to wait to set it on a silver platter and show it to at least one other person. A secret will give you the bends, Harry, and you will want nothing as badly as to share it, just to take the pressure off. You must resist that impulse, boy. For if you share the secrets I’m about to tell you, that will be the end of all your hopes and dreams.”
I was 15 years old and in the first year of my apprenticeship when my teacher said those words to me. He was the great Professor X, the finest illusionist in Europe and the Americas, at the time.
We were seated in the parlor of the Ritz Hotel in Madrid before a roaring fireplace, and there was to be no show that night as it was Christmas eve. There was a plate of sweets before us and mulled wine spiced with Valencia oranges. Idly and effortlessly, he made the sweets disappear then reappear at various points around the room, although he never left his chair. A marzipan horse would leave the plate and rematerialize upon the mantelpiece. A star-shaped cookie vanished only to be found in the lap of a dowager lady at a whist table yards away.
My teacher did all this while quietly lecturing me on the need for utmost secrecy. And true to his word, he never told his audience how his tricks were done. I, and I alone, was privy to those instructions.
In the third year of my apprenticeship, I brought a set of drawings to the Master and asked him whether he would let me try to perform an act of dangerous and daring enterprise. I spread the plans on a long wooden table and explained that I would escape from a locked box submerged in a cattle trough of water after being handcuffed in full view of the audience.
“This,” I said, pointing to a sketch, “is how it can be done.”
He studied it closely for a long while, saying nothing. Then, “We will attempt to do it in a practice session tomorrow morning, when you are fresh,” he answered.
I was ecstatic. I wanted more than anything to prove my worth as an original magician. I went over the illusion time and time again, rehearsing each step mentally until I felt sure no harm would come to me whilst in performance.
The next morning, my Master hired a carriage. We loaded all my equipment on it with two burly assistants and headed out to the countryside to some land owned by a cattle farmer. My Master paid the man handsomely for the use of a giant cattle trough and for his discretion.
I set out all the necessary pieces – a pair of handcuffs, a trunk, plus sturdy iron chains and a lock to wrap around the trunk once I was inside.
My Master handcuffed me firmly, I ducked into the trunk, and then he and his assistants wrapped the chains. Finally, they heaved the trunk into the watering trough.
Minutes passed, and nothing happened. I did not pop out of the trunk. There was no noise or movement from within. When ten minutes had elapsed, an assistant became much concerned and said, “Oi, there’s not enough air in there for a man to last much longer!”
When another five minutes had passed, the group became alarmed and voted to reach into the water and unlock the chains so that the trunk might be opened and I might be freed. There was much fumbling and wetting of shirtsleeves, but soon the trunk lid was popped and the onlookers waited for me to emerge. That I did not do.
Prof. X leaned down and peered into the empty trunk in which there was my hat and a pair of empty handcuffs.
“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. And it was then that I walked up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said in my best British Bobby’s voice, “Eh? Wot’s all this, then?”
Ah, so many years have passed since that sunny morning, and I have amazed so many audiences great and small. But never have I enjoyed an illusion as much as that – my first – which brought shouts and murmurs of amazement from the lips of my beloved teacher.
He was right, of course: nothing burns as hotly as a secret kept.
And nothing feels as sweet as the begging of another magician who wants most desperately for you to tell it.
This story first appeared on LitFire in response to a prompt from Jared Handley.