And For My Next Trick
Elsa, known as Stanley for reasons soon to be made clear, stood in line at the base of the great stairway leading up to the ship. A porter had seen to her luggage and her cabin would have been prepared this morning or even yesterday. She would like to have spirited herself up this gangplank but was wary of drawing too much attention, especially when in light disguise and travelling on a fake passport.
The well to do families and couples were crowding the top deck. The ladies waved their white handkerchiefs at well-wishers and friends watching from Southampton Dock, as if surrendering their resistance, their virtue, their souls… The men were more circumspect, allowing themselves only a casual tipping or raising of their hats as the boat began its voyage. Elsa had no one special observing her departure so settled into her quarters, checking her slicked-down dark hair and the pencil-thin moustache she had carefully applied - a look she had patterned on a young music hall star named Chaplin - along with the corset that flattened her small breasts beneath a thick white shirt and dinner jacket.
One day, perhaps soon, the brave sacrifices and campaigning of Emmeline Pankhurst and others would bring greater freedom to the female sex, opening all modes of employment at all levels. Until then Elsa performed as an alter ego - Stanley Dornish, magician, mesmerist, illusionist extraordinaire. Meeting with the head of onboard entertainments at his plush office in London, Elsa known as Stanley had convinced the be-whiskered pipe smoker of her worth on this prestigious maiden voyage. As well as a house band playing in one corner of the restaurant, the passengers would be delighted by a theatrical act that required no stage but instead worked up close and personal, going from table to table most likely, performing impossible and uncanny legerdemain next to the dessert plates and downstream from the after-dinner brandy glasses. The White Star Line was known for its modernity and forward thinking; the two parties came to an arrangement, so long as Stanley, really Elsa, paid his/her own fare for the transatlantic cruise.
This was how Elsa had earned her keep for some time. Showbusiness at swanky eateries, at country retreats and, for the next few days, on the high seas. It wasn't the choice of career that she held in her heart but it would have to do for now.
Having been something of a child prodigy, she was as well read as almost any woman alive in these early years of the blessed century. Science was her focus, her passion, her religion almost. But she had delved beyond the regulation core of knowledge, heading back to the arcane and eldritch roots of the discipline, reassessing the ideas of the alchemists and philosophers from earlier centuries - and discovering much that she could use. Indeed, her talents lay most clearly in this esoteric direction. For pennies, for social mobility, in order to stay out of the prying gaze of those with a theological or political axe to grind, she dressed her abilities up as mere tricks, fun illusions that delighted the mind but were all surely just smoke and mirrors, thank you for not enquiring too deeply, sir, madam, let's not spoil the moment by exposing the inner workings.
Her natural - some might say preternatural - abilities often delighted and amazed Elsa even more than they did any audience members. Sometimes there were unintended effects and outcomes from the incredible feats of prestidigitation she achieved. But she didn't like to dwell too much on any dire consequences she might be causing.
Dinner the first night. Five courses and this: her little entertainment, a bonus sixth.
"I can make things disappear. I can change their atomic construction. Let me borrow your wife's diamond earrings."
"Humph, I'm not sure about that."
"Here's a sovereign from my own pocket, sir. Will you match it against my magic?"
"All right, Dornish."
"Please call me, Stanley, sir. We are at least good acquaintances now. There, look - diamonds, the hardest material known to man and the most valuable known to woman. But as I pass my hand across - well, now, what do we have here? Surely this is mere coal, another perfect example of pure carbon but much less highly prized."
"Why, you charlatan, what have you done! Those diamonds were a gift from Lady Brucknell. Away with your trickery. Restore the gems; at once, I say!"
"Your wish is granted, sir. But the monetary prize is mine; as a fine, upstanding gentleman, I think you will have to concur."
The man's wife had come over all red in the face and begged leave to head back to her cabin. Elsa observed her departure with the slightest sneer. We need stronger constitutions, girls, for the battle that is looming.
"So, Mr Rothberg, how do you like your whisky? On the rocks? Oh hang on, what happened to your ice cubes?"
"I saw you pass your hand over my glass is what happened, you young rapscallion. Show me your fingers, your palm… why, they are not wet in the slightest. Clever stuff. Where are the ice cubes?"
"I have sent them to where they will be more comfortable. Will you allow me to undertake more mesmerism and illusion?"
"Chicanery, more like. Let me look up your right sleeve, Dornish. Why, your skin is very smooth and hairless, almost like a girl's. I doubt that you have ever done a day's proper manual labour in your life."
"We may be peas in a pod there, Mr Rothberg."
"Call me David. Yes, I think you have spent much of your time improving your mind through study. Doubtless some of the classics from Ancient Greece and maybe the works of Mr Wilde. We should talk literature and art some time."
"That would be fine. Here's my cabin number. But come alone."
Elsa moved to other tables. The ice cube trick was something she could pretty much do in her sleep. The transformation of jewellery to paste and back again was slightly harder and involved sub-vocal incantations that she might mask with a little cough. Sometimes she undertook the process in reverse - changing worthless theatrical costume accoutrements into sparkling and highly polished precious metals that she could hawk around the shadier alleys in the shadow of Hatton Garden. Although, unfortunately, the transformations were often time limited; which had made her persona non grata at a couple of seedy establishments. Time to branch out into other markets: New York, Boston…
Elsa spent the next morning gazing out of her porthole. There wasn't much to see: just grey, riled sea, undulating like a blanket in the wind, stretching forever in all dull directions. No wonder the pre-Columbian sailors feared they would fall off the edge of the world or sail off into nothingness. Even in this plush bubble with its high-end décor and five star cuisine, one was perhaps merely hiding from the striations and eternally harsh visage of the natural world. Yet she'd conquered and transcended much of what passed for the known physical laws of the Earth and, quietly, brought material comforts to her solitary life. Of course, even beyond the turning of base metals into gold there remained the great quest that motivated alchemists and all other branches of humanity: and this was to achieve immortality. Some did so in a vicarious way with great soliloquies or masterful paintings; or else through the winning of important battles and the building of bridges, roads, ocean liners… Elsa sought the true version, the one promised but never empirically delivered by religion. It was surely there somewhere in those dusty tomes that populated her secret library in Bloomsbury. Maybe after this trip she would come back with her eyes refreshed and her studious search would be successful at last.
Tonight, the band was playing a selection of waltzes mixed with an occasional inoffensive popular song and the sort of hymns soldiers hummed on their glorious march to war. She had heard tell of new exciting music being created by the black urban poor of New Orleans, Chicago and other creative hotbeds. Clearly, none of this had yet filtered into the house band's staid repertoire. Whatever: tonight the rich marks were a tad less receptive to her ruses. Disappearing ice cubes, golden bracelets reduced to leather, coins of the realm suddenly made malleable. How about that trick she used to do of taking a lock of hair and conjuring it into a living spider? That had gone down well in some of the drinking dens she'd frequented during the previous two months in the capital. But it probably wouldn't find great favour with these stuck-up, pampered parasites. You wretch, are you saying my dear Agatha has creatures living in her scalp?
On the third night, Rosberg knocked on Elsa's cabin door. His face was flushed like the naughty, self-serving schoolboy he had always been.
"You are a most handsome young gentleman, Stanley," he wheezed, popping the braces that held his trousers upright and his gut inwards. "I know you are a clean-living sort," he continued, his words alcohol-slurred, "quite boyish, you fortunate sod."
"And I know that boys are your preference, David."
"I married for money, Stanley. A business deal. Isn't everything? I even took my wife's surname."
Elsa turned down the lantern. She removed enough of her clothing that they could commit the act to her satisfaction. Lithe as a hunting cat, she positioned her body so that the half-cut Rosberg would believe he was entering her anus when in fact his well-girthed penis was lodged comfortably within her vagina. She sent him packing an hour later - back to the bar or to his frigid wife unconscious from her sleeping draught - whilst she reapplied the make-up and disguises that kept her identity masculine on this voyage.
But not too carefully or permanently. There was trouble brewing a few hundred miles ahead, she could sense it with her enhanced perception. Not certain yet of the whys and where but a big, big problem looming on the horizon. Unavoidable. Inevitable. Time to make plans for departure.
Naturally skinny, like a ferret or a mongoose, Elsa kept her winnings, her money and fixed gemstones tightly wadded in a purse that fitted beneath her clothing without arousing any suspicions or comment about size or weight issues. Pickings had become lighter as the voyage progressed but not to worry about that. Her prescience was giving her headaches. She made her way up on deck, bracing her body against the sub-Arctic chill, hoping the low temperature would clear the stuffiness. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, nigh on unbearable but the moment of crisis was approaching. She busied herself in the lee of a lifeboat, removing the pencil moustache, teasing out the curls of her usually slicked-back hair, feminising her appearance into elfin comeliness after these days and weeks of masculine subterfuge.
When the ship hit the iceberg she felt it like a hard kick in the stomach. She stayed hidden at first, straining her ears to hear for the moment when the annoyance turned to genuine concern and then spilled over into panic. Step out; reveal her true self. Catch the eye of the purser, hold his gaze with her imploring orbs.
"Form an orderly queue, please, folks. No Pushing please; we're British. Women and children first. Yes, of course, young madam, we can squeeze you into this craft over here."
It was bitter in the lifeboat. Elsa found herself joining in the wails and desperate lamentation of these chilled survivors as they watched the "Titanic" sink along with their friends, loved ones and prospects. The tragedy felt almost Biblical in its proportions. If Elsa never discovered the full secrets of the immortal life, she had certainly had her brush with never to be forgotten history.
Later, on board the rescue ship "RMS Carpathia", wrapped in a blanket and sipping warm tea, she wondered briefly whether the ice cubes she'd carelessly sent fleeing away from her skilful fingers had somehow contributed to the night's events. She had a spell of sobbing, complete with mutterings along the lines of: "No, no, it's all my fault." A young ensign with shaving rash sat and comforted her for a while.
Perhaps she would be more cautious with her transformative powers in future. She clearly hadn't yet explored their full extent and maybe her prestidigitation caused greater damage than she had ever realised.
So be it. Life went on.