On the subject of practice, I would not say any more if I could. By this time, it must have become so evident to everyone that nothing can be brought to any degree at all approaching perfection without assiduous attention to detail, that any repetition of my often-expressed injunctions to practice would become nauseating. But I ought to say something regarding the best method for learning new tricks or sleights from the foregoing text. It is a bad plan to read the description through, and then immediately try to produce the result right away. The whole trick should certainly be read carefully through first, so that the mind fully grasps what is required to be done; but, after that, the hands should be made to follow, step by step, the instructions given, and no progression made until it is certain that all is correct up to each point. It will be readily understood that my instructions have not been written without a large amount of care, or without making a due allowance for the great difference between teaching by word of mouth and by book. In many instances, a single word explains a great deal; so, if the reader scans the page carelessly, it is very possible that he may miss the point altogether, and perhaps conclude, in his own mind, that I am a charlatan and an impostor. With cards, this careful following of the text with the hands is especially essential, and attention to it will save much time, trouble, and annoyance at the outset, when everything new will naturally appear difficult, if not absurd. Thus much for the beginner. When he arrives at the dignity of an actual performer, let him be careful to prepare, and learn by heart, a little set speech to commence with, and also the accompanying talk for each trick. When he has exhibited for a year or two, he will perhaps be able to dispense with such preparation; but, at the commencement, few, if any, can do without it. The first appearance before an audience is in itself sufficiently unnerving, without any additional embarrassment in the shape of a consciousness that you do not know what you are going to say. Notwithstanding the most careful preparation, something is sure to go wrong at first, and unexpected difficulties will crop up on all sides, and to meet these successfully will require all the energies of the performer. It does not signify how superior the individual's natural aptitude or oratory may be—the task is too great for anyone at starting.
For the first few "shows," it is as well to perform such tricks as do not require the assistance of an attendant, for the performer must be entirely master of the situation, and dictate to his assistant at pleasure. This he could not do with freedom if he were uncertain about his own powers. Let it also be borne in mind that assistants are like money, which, when good, is a valuable acquisition, but, when bad, only gets one into trouble. Have no assistant at all rather than a bungler, or, what is, if possible, worse, one who endeavours to attach to himself some degree of consequence in the minds of the audience. Except when it is to assist the trick, he should never open his mouth, and all his work should be done as silently and unobtrusively as possible, without absolutely scurrying away. His presence on the stage should be as brief as possible, and his appearance must always be excused by the performance of some very insignificant and subordinate task. The best assistant to have is one who looks so stupid that the combined efforts of fifty conjurors could not drum into him the method for making the "pass." The worst is the one who conveys by his appearance and actions that he "knows all about it." The spectators at once attribute the greater portion of the results to his agency—not incorrectly, perhaps; but it is unnecessary that they should have any cause to do so. On no account should the attendant attempt to perform any impromptu act, however clever he may be, for he is sure to confuse the performer by so doing, and so lead to awkward results.
On many occasions, it is inconvenient, or, at any rate, highly inadvisable, to take the conjuring table. At the houses of friends it is exceedingly difficult to keep everything secret without being absolutely rude. The host (possibly followed by a friend or two—"men who understand things of this sort, you know, so you needn't be afraid") is nearly certain to take the fullest advantage of his position, and to penetrate into the performer's sanctum with all possible alacrity, and there worm from him valuable secrets. Of course, he wouldn't dream of telling anyone, not he; yet, somehow, if the tricks are exhibited on another occasion, the juveniles display an inexplicable and annoying knowledge of the why and the wherefore of them. It is of no use to say, "Oh! but no one would take the liberty," and such like; my experience teaches me (and I do not think that I, in particular, have fallen among thieves) that they do, so there is an end of it. Such articles as multiplying balls, cups, reticules, &c., are easily put out of sight; but an unwieldy table is quite another thing. Of course, immediately the trap in it is discovered, away goes your reputation for miraculous sleight of hand; and, when you really do exhibit a genuine specimen of it, you will not get credit for it. No, no risks must be run on this head—that is, if the performer cares anything for his reputation.
As an excellent substitute for the table, I have an oblong box, the rough dimensions of which are 18in. × 8in. × 6in. It has a removable sliding lid, and is covered with a dark cloth. In this I carry such of my belongings as will go into it; so, when it is seen during the performance, it is only regarded in the light of an ordinary deal box. One of the 8in. sides, however, has a trap cut in it, with a little bag inside the box for catching articles passed through. The box, minus the lid, and plus such articles as would be ordinarily placed upon the shelf, is brought boldly on, along with some of the articles which the performer will first require, as a "blind." It is placed carelessly, down within three or four inches of the back of the table, with the open side, naturally, at the back, and the trap uppermost. The table itself plays the part of the shelf, and articles are now and then placed upon the box, as they would be, in the usual way, upon a table.
Another way, much more deceptive, is to have a trap made in the top of an ordinary high hat. The crown lining should form the bottom of a collapsible bag, so that the inside of the hat can be first shown, but, so soon as it is placed upon the table brim downwards, the bag falls down. The brim should be tolerably flat, as the hat should not rock about. The crown itself will require some strengthening material, such as very thick pasteboard, glued to it before the trap is cut out, or the latter will curl up in an unseemly way. This trap hat serves for vanishing articles only. Its presence is very opportune at times. The presence of the shelf is by no means indispensable; indeed, I may safely say that I do not require it myself, except in important performances. If it be inconvenient to take the table, a programme can easily be arranged so as to dispense with the shelf entirely, but, if it can be used, then, by all means, make the most of it. Young conjurors must avoid the error of adapting their tricks to the shelf, instead of the shelf to the tricks. Experience will show what an astonishing quantity of things can be concealed in the large breast and tail pockets for hat "loading" purposes. The tail pockets will carry a bundle of fifty cups with ease, and without fear of detection; and when these can be introduced, and produced without once leaving the audience, I need hardly say that the effect is considerably enhanced. When you are using a table, be careful never to go behind it without some good reason, and let your stay there be as brief as possible. Stand at the sides as often and as long as you like.
The arrangement of the stage and the seating of the audience are matters of vital importance, and due regard must be paid to angles of vision. One of the greatest bugbears a performer meets with in private audiences is he (no lady ever sins in this way) who, under pretence of being at hand in case of need, or by means of some even more transparent excuse, plants himself, in close proximity to the stage, between it and the body of the audience. It is all very well for the reader to say, "Oh, but I would never allow that under any circumstances!" If he be young, he will find that people will patronise him, do what he may, or be as clever as he will; and it is in the interest of the young beginner that I am making these remarks. There will generally be somebody who thinks himself a privileged person, and who will put himself just where he is not wanted. We know what mean things people will do for money: to find out the secret of a conjuring trick they will descend almost as low. I am not romancing, but stating plain truths, such as have forced themselves upon me time after time. Under these circumstances, the table should be placed as far back as is possible or convenient, and, if little tables are used, they should be well on one side and not too far forward. But more important than this even is the placing of some large object such as a vase with flowers on a pedestal, a statue, or such like at each corner, as it is from thence that the best view of the conjuror's secrets can be obtained. A person stationed at a corner can see half of what the performer does in the vesting line, and he has an unfair advantage, which must not be permitted, when avoidable. If a pianoforte be in use, by all means put it close to one of the corners. Curtains are not of much use, as they are easily pulled aside. If he have the opportunity, let the performer arrange the seats himself, and also take the bearings of his table from the corners. Be careful that no looking-glasses are in a position to reflect back to the audience those things which are not meant for them to see, and have the light as evenly distributed as possible; but do not have any candles or lamp on the table. I object even to an upright candelabrum being placed at each front corner. They are in the way.
Programmes are a decided addition, and they should be made as interesting as possible without foreshadowing what is about to follow. The cheapest way is to have a quantity printed, with the performer's complete catalogue upon them, numbered, and then the numbers of the tricks to be performed can be announced in any convenient way. This will only do for private audiences. In performing in public the case is entirely altered.
By all means call in the assistance of a pianoforte; but see that the player of the instrument is one who will not be likely to egotistically launch out into any brilliant fantasia. Waltzes, and such pieces as can be stopped suddenly, should be chosen. The performer must be as quick as he can between tricks; but to a waiting audience one minute seems ten, so it is quite necessary to have a little music when it is obtainable. The player should finish off directly the performer comes on the stage, without waiting for any word or sign. In such a trick as the Rising Cards a little "magic music"—of the gentle trickling order—will be found very effective. The cards would ascend to the music.
The performer should always provide himself with a private programme, to be hung or pasted up behind his screen, or wherever his retiring place may be. On this programme should be detailed every property of each trick, down to the veriest trifle, for on trifles, be it remembered, often depends the whole success of a trick. It is also well to have written down beforehand what articles should be upon the shelf at the commencement of each part, and any preconceived pieces of appropriate wit should be put against the particular trick to which they belong. These precautions will save the performer—the beginner more especially—a world of trouble and anxiety. As a trick once written out is done for ever, it is as well to have each one on a separate card. In this case the writing out of an elaborate programme before each performance would be avoided, besides which the cards are more portable. Have the properties of each trick complete. If a knife be required in three tricks, have three knives, and not one, and let this principle be observed throughout. It is as easy to take three knives as one, and there is, besides, the comforting assurance that one will be at hand when wanted.
Do not perform longer than forty-five or fifty minutes at a stretch. Both performer and audience are the better for a short rest at the end of that period, and an interval of ten minutes or so should be allowed. This will enable the performer to re-arrange his shelf, which should always be kept as clear as possible, and to remove articles from the trap bags, &c.
Above all things, keep the hands warm, and for this purpose be provided with a pair of woollen gloves, which wear indoors as well as out, previous to a performance. No one can palm with a hand like ice.
I do not know that I can say anything more without repeating what has already appeared in connection with such tricks as seemed to me to afford the most appropriate opportunities; so my work is done.
To use the words of Byron, "I have nothing further to add, save a general note of thanksgiving to readers, purchasers, and publishers," and to wish the learner all success—but only according to his deserts—with as much true enjoyment as has been experienced by me in the pursuit of Sleight of Hand.