Of late I have been transcribing articles by Ashley Sterne (1876-1939) for this blog. I enjoy the lightness and good cheer of his short-form comic writing. During the past week I have also been searching the Internet for early articles by Ernest Bramah (1868-1942). If Ashley Sterne can be likened to a sprinter — quick off the blocks with a quip or humorous allusion — Ernest Bramah might be described as a disciplined middle-distance runner. At its best, Bramah's humor is more substantial and carefully wrought than Sterne's bright entertainments; one literary critic described Bramah's tales as "gravely comic."
However, the formation of Bramah's precise and elegant style required a literary apprenticeship. His first short-form writing showed him adopting the forms and sentimental approaches common to the popular magazine fiction at the end of the nineteenth century. The following story, "A Bad Shot", is the earliest of Bramah's stories I could find on the Internet archive provided by the Hathi Trust. The story shows promise regarding its pacing and detail; but the perspective of the omniscient narration wobbles around in a peculiar manner and the story's ending is implausible.
By way of contrast, at the end of this blog entry I have appended the beginning of Bramah's first mature story, "The Story of Yung Chang", which introduced Kai Lung, Bramah's wonderful Chinese story-teller. The Yung Chang story was published a mere two years after "A Bad Shot" but shows a surprising advance in every aspect of the writer's craft.
To-day, v3, p. 319
July 14, 1894
A Bad Shot
It was the last evening of the engagement of Alcorez, the French juggler, at the Elysium Music Hall, and the house was crammed. The prestidigitator is not always a popular "turn"; he lacks piquancy and excitement, and very often originality; but Alcorez had got hold of one or two almost startling feats which current rumour gave him the credit of perilously stealing from Thibet. At all events his name on the bill was a feature, and he always took well.
The conjurer himself stood at the bar waiting his call, and drank sparingly with his admirers. He was in good spirits that night, for on the following week he was to start on a big American tour which was almost certain to result in further engagements and assure his future.
On the stage, the Sisters de Leari were singing the third and last encore verse of their great success, "We get there all the same." At that early period they dressed as their grandmother. Thirty years later they will make up as nearly as possible like their grandchildren. Art demands such sacrifices from its votaries.
Alcorez made his final adieus, and went behind to his dressing-room. The Sisters de Leari gave place to a low comedian, then the curtain went up on Alcorez's table and appliances, his name blazoned in letters of gold upon a black background.
At different times and in all places there are sympathetic audiences and exacting audiences. Why, and what controls them, none can say. As the juggler bowed, his experienced eye took in the sea of faces, and he smiled.
He generally began with a very simple trick that is as easy as it looks impossible, and older than the necromancers. He would borrow a watch, get a stranger from amongst the audience to come upon the stage and hold it, and then cause it to disappear and be found in someone else's possession. It is very absurd when you see how it is done, but it is capable of endless variations, and can always be made to raise a laugh, which is the conjurer's first object.
To-night, Alcorez borrowed the watch. Almost before he had made the request a man from the front row of stalls stepped upon the stage to assist him. This alacrity was so unusual that Alcorez looked at the man curiously, and wondered that his face seemed half familiar to him. A word from the audience caught the juggler's ear, and he turned quickly to the stranger.
"Sir, are you my friend, my accomplice, my servant? A gentleman in the audience distrusts me. Is it so?"
"Certainly not," said the stranger.
"Have you ever assisted me before, and become familiar with my ways?" continued the conjurer.
There was just the suggestion of a pause, but the "No" was firm and emphatic, and Alcorez proceeded.
Generally, it was easy to reduce the assistant to the necessary state of confusion at a very early stage, but the stranger did not indulge in any of the humorisms by which the volunteers lay themselves open. Alcorez, a little puzzled, placed the watch in a handkerchief, gave the ends to the stranger to hold, and crossed the stage.
There was still an almost unfailing ruse. Few men — those accustomed to powder least of all — can face a gun or pistol without a tremor. This gives the conjurer a double advantage; by means of a weapon he can bring a too-observant assistant into such a condition of nervousness that he is unable to proceed, and he can, for a moment, startle an entire audience out of watchfulness by the sudden flash and report. Alcorez picked up a glittering revolver, raised it quickly, and drew the sight dead on the other's face.
"Are you ready?" he called sharply.
"Quite," unflinchingly replied the stranger.
Alcorez lowered the weapon.
"The danger is small," he said, with a lightness he was far from feeling at that moment, "but I like not to take a fellow-creature unprepared. But then" — with professional facetiousness — "I have killed only one man as yet."
"There's no luck in even numbers," said the other quietly. "Perhaps I shall be the second."
Alcorez shrugged his shoulders. After all, it mattered little. He could create a diversion and make the pass afterwards.
He took up the revolver again, judged the sight well above the head, and fired.
The effect was instantaneous. The stranger pressed his hand to his forehead, gave a long, gurgling sigh, and sank down on the boards, while from the Hall came the shrieks of women and the horrified shouts and threats of men as they surged for the doors and the stage.
Alcorez stood for a moment stupefied. In that short second a dozen possibilities whirled round one dull central fact — irretrievable ruin. Possibly he had mixed his cartridges; perhaps, even, someone had tampered with his pistol. Ah! after all the poltroon might only have fainted. He rushed across, bent down, and grew ghastly as he saw a red fresh streak on the fallen man's brow. Theatrical to the last, he faced the raging crowd and, tearing open his shirt, placed the weapon to his own heart and fired. A renewed burst of shrieks and cries greeted this. He neither fell nor moved, but stood with uplifted hands as if mutely calling on Heaven to witness his innocence.
They carried the dying man into a dressing room and placed him on a couch while Alcorez followed, sickly with terror and agitated beyond words. The manager was there already. "See if there is a doctor here," he said briefly to an attendant.
"There is no need," said the stranger suddenly, as he rose from the couch and stood firm. "I was not hurt." He took a cloth, wiped his forehead clean, and showed his hand smeared with fresh red paint.
There was a hushed pause, broken by the sound of Alcorez falling heavily to the ground. From the little group of men came a word:
"Perhaps," said the stranger unmoved, "but listen. Once before — months ago — I stepped upon the stage to assist that man. Never mind why. I went to help him, that is enough. He repaid me by making me a laughing-stock for all present. As it happened, it involved more than either he or I knew at the time. I have taken the only means I could of humiliating him. Ask him how it feels. Now we are quits." And before anyone could move, he passed out of the room and was gone.
He was more than quits. Alcorez's name appeared on the bills no more. His nerve was completely gone, and from that night his hand never again knew its cunning.
Chapman's Magazine of Fiction, v5, p. 142
The Story of Yung Chang
Ho, illustrious passers-by!" said Kai Lung, the story-teller, as he spread out his embroidered mat under the mulberry-tree. "It is indeed unlikely that you would condescend to stop and listen to the foolish words of such an insignificant and altogether deformed person as myself. Nevertheless, if you will but retard your elegant footsteps for a few moments, this exceedingly unprepossessing individual will endeavour to entertain you with the recital of the adventures of the noble Yung Chang, as recorded by the celebrated Pe-ku-hi."
Thus adjured, the more leisurely minded drew near to hear the history of Yung Chang. There was Sing You the fruit-seller, and Li Ton-ti the wood-carver; Hi Seng left his clients to cry in vain for water; and Wang Yu, the idle pipe-maker, closed his shop of "The Fountain of Beauty," and hung on the shutter the gilt dragon to keep way customers in his absence. These, together with a few more shopkeepers and a dozen or so loafers, constituted a respectable audience by the time Kai Lung was ready.
"It would be more seemly if this ill-conditioned person who is now addressing such a distinguished assembly were to reward his fine and noble-looking hearers for their trouble," apologized the story-teller. "But, as the Book of Verses says, 'The meaner the slave, the greater the lord'; and it is, therefore, not unlikely that this majestic concourse will reward the despicable efforts of their servant by handfuls of coins till the air appears as though filled with swarms of locusts in the season of much heat. In particular, there is among this august crowd of mandarins one Wang Yu, who has departed on three previous occasions without bestowing the reward of a single cash. If the feeble and covetous-minded Wang Yu will place in this very ordinary bowl the price of one of his exceedingly ill-made pipes, this unworthy person will proceed."
"Vast chasms can be filled, but the heart of man never," quoted the pipe-maker in retort. "Oh, most incapable of story-tellers, have you not on two separate occasions slept beneath my utterly inadequate roof without payment?"
But he, nevertheless, deposited three cash in the bowl, and drew nearer among the front row of the listeners.
[If your appetite is whetted by this elaborate drollery, you can find this story in Bramah's 1900 collection, The Wallet of Kai Lung.]