Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
On the Trapeze
By Rebecca Harding Davis (18311910)
[Born in Washington, Penn., 1831. Died in Mount Kisco, N. Y., 1910. Balacchi Brothers.Lippincotts Magazine. 1872.]
A ROPE was suspended from the centre of the dome, the lower end of which I held, standing in the highest gallery opposite the stage. Above the stage hung the trapeze on which George and the two posture-girls were to be. At a certain signal I was to let the rope go, and George, springing from the trapeze across the full width of the dome, was to catch it in mid-air, a hundred feet above the heads of the people. You understand? The mistake of an instant of time on either his part or mine, and death was almost certain. The plan we had thought surest was for South to give the word, and then that both should countOne, Two, Three! At Three the rope fell, and he leaped. We had practised so often that we thought we counted as one man.
When the song was over the men hung the rope and trapeze. Jenny and Lou Slingsby swung themselves up to it, turned a few somersaults, and then were quiet. They were only meant to give effect to the scene in their gauzy dresses and spangles. Then South came forward and told the audience what we meant to do. It was a feat, he said, which had never been produced before in any theatre, and in which failure was death. No one but that most daring of all acrobats, Balacchi, would attempt it. Now, I knew South so well that I saw under all his confident, bragging tone he was more anxious and doubtful than he had ever been. He hesitated a moment, and then requested that after we took our places the audience should preserve absolute silence, and refrain from even the slightest movement until the feat was over. The merest trifle might distract the attention of the performers and render their eyes and hold unsteady, he said. He left the stage, and the music began.
But the shadow of death seemed to have crept over me. When I took my stand in the lofty gallery, and looked down at the brilliant lights and the great mass of people, who followed my every motion as one man, and the two glittering, half-naked girls swinging in the distance, and heard the music rolling up thunders of sound, it was all ghastly and horrible to me, sir. Some men have such presentiments, they say: I never had before or since. South remained on the stage perfectly motionless, in order, I think, to maintain his control over the audience.
The trumpets sounded a call, and in the middle of a burst of triumphant music George came on the stage. There was a deafening outbreak of applause, and then a dead silence, but I think every man and woman felt a thrill of admiration of the noble figure. Poor George! the new, tight-fitting dress of purple velvet that he had bought for this night set off his white skin, and his fine head was bare, with no covering but the short curls that Susy liked.
It was for Susy! He gave one quick glance up at her, and a bright, boyish smile, as if telling her not to be afraid, which all the audience understood, and answered by an involuntary, long-drawn breath. I looked at Susy. The girls colorless face was turned to George, and her hands were clasped as though she saw him already dead before her; but she could be trusted, I saw. She would utter no sound. I had only time to glance at her, and then turned to my work. George and I dared not take our eyes from each other.
There was a single bugle note, and then George swung himself up to the trapeze. The silence was like death as he steadied himself and slowly turned so as to front me. As he turned he faced the stage-box for the first time. He had reached the level of the posture-girls, who fluttered on either side, and stood on the swaying rod poised on one foot, his arms folded, when in the breathless stillness there came a sudden cry and the words, Oh, Charley! Charley!
There was a moment of deathlike silence, and then a wild outcrywomen fainting, men cursing and crying out in that senseless, helpless way they have when there is sudden danger. By the time I had reached the floor they had straightened out his shattered limbs, and two or three doctors were fighting their way through the great crowd that was surging about him.
Well, sir, at that moment what did I hear but Georges voice above all the rest, choked and hollow as it was, like a man calling out of the grave: The women! Good God! dont you see the women? he gasped.
Looking up then, I saw those miserable Slingsbys hanging on to the trapeze for life. What with the scare and shock, theyd lost what little sense they had, and there they hung helpless as limp rags high over our heads.
Damn the Slingsbys! said I. God forgive me! But I saw this battered wreck at my feet that had been George. Nobody seemed to have any mind left. Even South stared stupidly up at them and then back at George. The doctors were making ready to lift him, and half of the crowd were gaping in horror, and the rest yelling for ladders or ropes, and scrambling over each other, and there hung the poor flimsy wretches, their eyes starting out of their heads from horror, and their lean fingers loosing their hold every minute. But, sirI couldnt help itI turned from them to watch George as the doctors lifted him.
I thought he was dead. I couldnt see that he breathed, when he opened his eyes and looked up for the Slingsbys. Put me down, he said, and the doctors obeyed him. There was that in his voice that they had to obey him, though it wasnt but a whisper.
It was the only way their lives could be saved, and he was the only man to see it. He watched us until the girls touched the floor more dead than alive, and then his head fell back and the life seemed to go suddenly out of him like the flame out of a candle, leaving only the dead wick.