Houdini had just finished his famous cabinet escape at the Hansa Theatre when news arrived that I had raised Pennington. The escapologist flew immediately from Hamburg to Africa in his new French Voisin boxed-wing biplane. (You object that this is hardly possible: that the Voisin might have been capable of reaching the River Elbe from the military parade ground outside Hamburg but certainly not Africa! Will you never understand that anything is possible where Africa is concerned?)
"Is it true you've done a Lazarus?" Houdini asked, pulling off his insect-spattered goggles.
"Raised the dead!" he shouted, so great was his impatience.
"Only once, and the 'Lazarus,' as you call him, wasn't happy."
Houdini looked as if he might go mad. I would not have been at all surprised had he rolled in the dust, or gibbered like a gibbon.
"Then it's true!" he shouted.
He rubbed his hands together in a visible display of exultation.
"If a single instance is enough to make it so, then yes -- it is," I replied, not at all impressed by this excitable dandy in his pointed brown- and-white shoes.
"You must show me how it's done!" he said, opening his wallet and
spilling a variety of colorful currency onto the African plain.
I sat in my tent, listening to Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml rolls.
The player-piano was a gift from Albert Einstein, whom I'd once had the
pleasure of escorting through Africa.
Houdini stood outside the tent and wheedled:
"I'll do anything you want if you'll only teach me the trick of resurrection!"
I shied an old boot towards the tent-flap.
"You can have my Voisin ...?" he cajoled, undeterred.
"I dislike aviation!"
(You have only to recall my desperate flight from Mombasa on the wing of Wilbur's flying-machine to know why.)
"How about a pretty young girl to play with? You must be lonely living the life of a -- what is it you do do here?"
"Adventurous, outdoor things," I said. I was determined to keep silent about the audacious, metaphysical things I did in Africa.
"A lonely life."
"I don't like women," I lied, unwilling to fall under any obligation to this ridiculous "magician."
"And boys?" he leered.
I threw the other boot.
"Watch this!" Houdini called.
He climbed into the packing crate in which my player-piano had arrived from Switzerland; and Ali, my once faithful tent-boy, nailed the lid shut. I bitterly resented Houdini's appropriation of one of the porters. Ali
pushed the crate off the cliff, and together we watched it splash into the
"That's that," I said with no little satisfaction.
But when I returned to my tent, Houdini was already there.
"Will you show me the secret now?" he screamed.
"You are dripping on my Turkish carpet," I said, turning away to hide my fury.
"Why not?" Houdini asked, lifting the mosquito net.
He had waked me in the middle of the night to resume his siege.
"The dead are cranky -- they have nothing to say to us. They are disappointing company and ungrateful. They guard their secrets closely."
Not to be dissuaded, he crawled into bed with me.
"I'll introduce you to the crowned heads of Europe," he promised.
"I'm from Cincinnati!" I bristled. "We are unmoved by crowned heads."
"I'll trade you all my secrets for just this one."
He ran outside and jumped into a quagmire. I watched him disappear beneath the moonlit muck. But next morning, he was there, in the dining- tent, eating an alligator-egg omelet and stinking of swamp. He looked at me in mute appeal; I returned his gaze without flinching.
He brought me a dead rabbit.
"Just a small revival?" he begged.
I shook my head no.
He brought me a foot.
"Make it dance!" he beseeched.
I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.
He brought me a finger.
"Just the tiniest twitch of life?" he implored.
He set himself on fire and jumped into the Indian Ocean with rocks in his pockets. Later, I passed him on the trail to the bathing-machine, his eyebrows singed and his face black with soot.
"I can escape everything but death itself," he said disconsolately.
"I'm sorry, I cannot help you."
He went into the bathing-machine and wept.
Why not give him the secret? I wasn't pledged to secrecy, nor had the Kikuyu man who taught me the art of resurrection imposed such a condition. True, my experience with Pennington had been disagreeable; but that in itself was not reason enough to conceal it from Houdini. Did I dislike Houdini? Neither more nor less than I disliked anyone else. Why then did I so stubbornly refuse to grant him what he so desperately sought? Was it the use he would make of it -- resurrection as vaudeville routine? Was this my only scruple? I was not religious; I had, at times, been decidedly irreligious. And yet I found the idea of "doing a Lazarus" -- for the crowned heads of Europe! -- repugnant. But hadn't I, in my lifetime, done worse?
But still I could not bring myself to hand over the secret! Not for love or money.
We made the rounds of the local mediums and clairvoyants.
The wine glass moved. The table did a clog-dance on the floor. The
candles flickered and went out. Ethereal music and the smell of gardenias
filled the darkened room. The table began to rise into the air.
Houdini jumped up, crying, "Fakery!"
Dressed as a woman, he exposed the concealed wires, the smoke and mirrors, the Victrola, and the perfumed sachet.
"I must know what is on the Other Side!" he shouted, tearing off his frumpy wig.
I offered to kill him, but he declined.
"Hold out your hands," he said, giving me an amusing wink.
I did so; and before I knew it, he'd handcuffed me and put me in a trunk.
"There's a speaking tube by your mouth," he called from outside the trunk. "Tell me the secret, and I'll dig you up at once."
And then he buried me!
Can you imagine the horror, listening to the gravel raining on the lid, the thudding clods of earth? Then nothing: silence. (If you cannot, ask a friend to bury you in the yard -- then you'll know!)
"I can't remember!" I shouted through the speaking tube.
"Liar!" he shouted back in a distant, tinny voice.
But I had forgotten. In my panic, I could not remember a single Kikuyu syllable.
I screamed until I blacked out.
"I am not a murderer," Houdini said sadly.
We were sitting on camp stools, watching the elephants. He had
uprooted me after my screams had abruptly ceased.
"Shall I tell you my greatest fear?" he asked after a long pause.
I shrugged indifferently. I confess I was not in the most charitable of
moods. If I'd had my Winchester, I would have satisfied his curiosity concerning the afterlife then and there.
"That death is irreversible: that there is no way back. I have made a career of standing on the brink, but never once have I crossed it."
"One day you will," I promised him with absolute assurance.
"And return to tell the tale?"
"Who knows?" I said.
I think now that if anyone can, surely it must be Houdini.
He rose and shook my hand warmly, begging my pardon for having persecuted me. No more was said about the strange words with the power to quicken. I was grateful: to make a present of the form when the spirit is mean is folly. I believe he had resigned himself to the ineluctable end -- the "tight spot" from which there can be no wriggling, the final cabinet from which there is no escape.
But I may have been wrong.
As he climbed into his Voisin, he winked at me and said:
"Who knows? Perhaps it's not so bad after all."
He started his motor; and in a moment his aeroplane escaped earth and all of us who crawl, for a brief time, upon it. At least this is how it seemed to me.
To stand at the brink takes courage, I thought later that night as I readied myself for sleep, remembering with a shudder how I had stood there and screamed.