Of the first three questions asked a conjuror by a new acquaintance, one will infallibly be, "Can you do the gold-fish trick?" When it was first exhibited, it caused intense excitement, and, the secret being fairly well kept, the trick is but little known even now. The performer advances with a shawl or large handkerchief, and, after waving it about, he produces from it a large glass bowl full of water, in which gold-fish are complacently swimming. I have heard the wildest suggestions made in explanation of the trick. One says the bowls of water come up a trap door, regardless of the fact that the cloth does not reach the ground, consequently anything coming up through the floor must infallibly be seen at once. Another explains that the performer has the bowls empty about him, and has an india-rubber reservoir of water up his back, with a pipe coming down the sleeve. Where the fish come from is not explained. No one seems to be able to think of the real secret—an indiarubber cover. The bowls are flat, not more than two inches deep in the centre, resembling gigantic saucers made of glass. The indiarubber covers are made exactly the size of the rim of the bowls, and have a broad turn-under edge besides. The bowls are filled with water, the fish put in, and the covers are then stretched over. To put them on neatly and with dispatch two persons are required, as some force is necessary to pull the indiarubber out sufficiently far to enable it to go on the bowl. Deep, round-bellied bowls should be avoided, as the covers cannot get a good grip upon them. As, with ordinary care, there is no possible chance of a leakage taking place, the bowls can be placed anywhere the performer pleases, and in any position. The favourite places about the person are inside the vest, which will distend sufficiently if prepared with elastic behind, and inside the large breast pockets of the coat. Some conjurors, however, prefer placing the bowls simply under the armpits, inside the coat, and it is surprising how remarkably safe they are in such a position. They are certainly less liable to cause any extraordinary distension of the performer's person, and are far more easily got at. But this is a matter entirely for the consideration of the performer. Some go so far as to put a bowl up the back, which to me seems making the trick as difficult as possible. Wherever the bowls are put, they must be pushed well back, so that all the distension takes place behind, and the performer must necessarily always face the audience during the trick. A bowl is also sometimes placed upon the shelf of the table; but a far better place than this is the back of a chair, made opaque on purpose, where the bowl is held by means of two large wire hooks. As three bowls are generally sufficient for most audiences, one can always manage to carry a sufficient number about one's person. I usually have one in the vest and one in each breast pocket.
To produce the bowls, the performer takes a cloth by two corners, and, after waving it about a short time for effect, he throws it over one shoulder, allowing it to hang well down in front of him. If the bowl is to be taken from the left side, then the cloth must cover that side most, and the left arm must be held out so as to allow the right arm room to work. With the right hand, take the bowl from its hiding place, and hold it horizontally under the cloth, which then draw off the shoulder by means of the other hand, and let it hang over the bowl. Now, with the disengaged hand, grasp the indiarubber cover firmly on the edge of the bowl, through the cloth, and remove it from the bowl with a backward motion. This wants some little doing, as, although it greatly heightens the effect to spill a little water, it looks clumsy to three parts empty the bowl. Lay the cloth carelessly aside and take up a fresh one for each bowl. Some conjurors, Dr. Lynn amongst them, use only one cloth, which is provided with pockets, into which the covers are stowed away; but this is a totally unnecessary innovation, and often obliges the performer to fumble about before he can get the covers into the pockets. The idea that the audience think more of the trick if the bowls are all produced from one cloth is erroneous, for in most instances the fact is not noticed; and when the performer uses a fresh cloth for each bowl the spectators, when they give the subject any thought at all, attribute it to the cloths becoming wet and so disagreeable to use a second time. By using several cloths, greater freedom of action is obtained.
An innovation by Herrmann was calculated to make the trick even more wonderful that it is in its ordinary form. Herrmann, after producing no fewer than four bowls, used to go right amongst the audience, and there, from a borrowed handkerchief, produce a fifth. This bowl was carried either in the vest or in a breast pocket, and its production was the more extraordinary by reason of the handkerchief being held across the performer's breast by one of the spectators. It may be safely asserted that no such feat of daring has ever been performed by any other conjuror. Few men possessed such indomitable pluck and nerve as Herrmann, who, during a performance, was to be deterred by nothing. He took the precaution of using a very shallow bowl with sharp sides and a very thin cover. The instant the cover was off, the handkerchief containing it was rolled up in the hand and carried off along with the bowl as if by accident, to be immediately returned to its owner, minus the cover.
The most recent addition to the trick is causing the bowls to disappear after production. The simple method for doing this is to have a double handkerchief, as described in the die trick, with a circular piece of cardboard, the size of the bowl to be made to vanish, inside. The bowl is placed upon the table, and the handkerchief spread over it. As one hand raises the card the other hand places the bowl upon the shelf. The handkerchief is then brought forward with great care, and then shaken out in the midst of the audience. A piece of wet sponge is kept on the shelf, and this is squeezed when the performer goes forward with the supposed bowl. A far better method than this is to use a bowl the top of which is entirely of glass and made in one piece with the bowl, the water and fish being put in through a hole underneath, which is stopped with a cork or plug. It must not be quite filled with water, and when produced the surface must be held a little from the audience, so that the glass top cannot be noticed. When the bowl is to be vanished, all the performer has to do is to cover it with the cloth, and thence quietly put it back into his pocket or vest. It must, of course, be done quickly.
Some ludicrous mishaps have occurred with carelessly covered bowls. One celebrated conjuror produced two bowls with the contents of a third distributed impartially about his person, saturating his clothes and filling his boots. Another performer, a very skilful amateur, accidentally threw the whole of the water from a bowl into a lady's lap, much to the discomfiture of both parties. Had due care been taken, these accidents could never have taken place.
The bowls and covers can only be obtained at conjuring repositories.