When Joe saw the boy, his son, join the motley crowd that had convened on the observation deck to observe as a rash and imaginary promise was fulfilled, he suddenly remembered a remark that his teacher Bernard Kornblum had once made. “Only love,” the old magician had said, “could pick a nested pair of steel Bramah locks.”
He had offered this observation toward the end of Joe’s last regular visit to the house on Maisel Street, as he rubbed a dab of calendula ointment into the skin of his raw, peeling cheeks. Generally, Kornblum said very little during the final portion of every lesson, sitting on the lid of the plain pine box that he had bought from a local coffin maker, smoking and taking his ease with a copy of Di Cajt while, inside the box, Joe lay curled, roped and chained, permitting himself sawdust-flavored sips of life through his nostrils, and making terrible, minute exertions. Kornblum sat, his only commentary an occasional derisive blast of flatulence, waiting for the triple rap from within which signified that Joe had loosed himself from cuffs and chains, prized out the three sawn-off dummy screw heads in the left-hand hinge of the lid, and was ready to emerge. At times, however, if Joe was particularly dilatory, or if the temptation of a literally captive audience proved too great, Kornblum would begin to speak, in his coarse if agile German—always limiting himself, however, to shoptalk. He reminisced fondly about performances in which he had, through bad luck or foolishness, nearly been killed; or recalled, in apostolic and tedious detail, one of the three golden occasions on which he had been fortunate enough to catch the act of his prophet, Houdini. Only this once, just before Joe attempted his ill-fated plunge into the Moldau, had Kornblum’s talk ever wandered from the path of professional retrospection into the shadowed, leafy margins of the personal.
He had been present, Kornblum said—his voice coming muffled through the inch of pine plank and the thin canvas sack in which Joe was cocooned—for what none but the closest confidants of the Handcuff Ring, and the few canny confreres who witnessed it, knew to be the hour when the great one failed. This was in London, Kornblum said, in 1906, at the Palladium, after Houdini had accepted a public challenge to free himself from a purportedly inescapable pair of handcuffs. The challenge had been made by the Mirror of London, which had discovered a locksmith in the north of England who, after a lifetime of tinkering, had devised a pair of manacles fitted with a lock so convoluted and thorny that no one, not even its necromantic inventor, could pick it. Kornblum described the manacles, two thick steel circlets inflexibly welded to a cylindrical shaft. Within this rigid shaft lay the sinister mechanism of the Manchester locksmith—and here a tone of awe, even horror, entered Kornblum’s voice. It was a variation on the Bramah, a notoriously intransigent lock that could be opened—and even then with difficulty—only by a long, arcane, tubular key, intricately notched at one end. Devised by the Englishman Joseph Bramah in the 1760s, it had gone unpicked, inviolate, for over half a century until it was finally cracked. The lock that now confronted Houdini, on the stage of the Palladium, consisted of two Bramah tubes, one nested inside the other, and could be opened only by a bizarre double key that looked something like the collapsed halves of a telescope, one notched cylinder protruding from within another.
As five thousand cheering gentlemen and ladies, the young Kornblum among them, looked on, the Mysteriarch, in black cutaway and waistcoat, was fitted with the awful cuffs. Then, with a single, blank-faced, wordless nod to his wife, he retreated to his small cabinet to begin his impossible work. The orchestra struck up “Annie Laurie.” Twenty minutes later, wild cheering broke out as the magician’s head and shoulders emerged from the cabinet; but it turned out that Houdini wanted only to get a look at the cuffs, which still held him fast, in better light. He ducked back inside. The orchestra played the Overture to Tales of Hoffmann. Fifteen minutes later, the music died amid cheers as Houdini stepped from the cabinet. Kornblum hoped against hope that the master had succeeded, though he knew perfectly well that when the first, single-barreled Bramah was, after sixty years, finally picked, it had taken the successful lock-pick, an American master by the name of Hobbs, two full days of continuous effort. And now it turned out that Houdini, sweating, a queasy smile on his face, his collar snapped and dangling free at one end, had merely—oddly—come out to announce that, though his knees hurt from crouching in the cabinet, he was not yet ready to throw in the towel. The newspaper’s representative, in the interests of good sportsmanship, allowed a cushion to be brought, and Houdini retreated to his cabinet once more.
When Houdini had been in the box for nearly an hour, Kornblum began to sense the approach of defeat. An audience, even one so firmly on the side of its hero, would wait only so long while the orchestra cycled, with an air of increasing desperation, through the standards and popular tunes of the day. Inside his cabinet, the veteran of five hundred houses and ten thousand turns could doubtless sense it, too, as the tide of hope and goodwill flowing from the galleries onto the stage began to ebb. In a daring display of showmanship, he emerged once again, this time to ask if the newspaper’s man would consent to remove the cuffs long enough for the magician to take off his coat. Perhaps Houdini was hoping to learn something from watching as the cuffs were opened and then closed again; perhaps he had calculated that his request, after due consideration, would be refused. When the gentleman from the newspaper regretfully declined, to loud hisses and catcalls from the audience, Houdini pulled off a minor feat that was, in its way, among the finest bits of showmanship of his career. Wriggling and contorting himself, he managed to pluck from the pocket of his waistcoat a tiny penknife, then painstakingly transfer it to, and open it with, his teeth. He shrugged and twisted until he had worked his cutaway coat up over to the front of his head, where the knife, still clenched between his teeth, could slice it, in three great sawing rasps, in two. A confederate tore the sundered halves away. After viewing this display of pluck and panache, the audience was bound to him as if with bands of steel. And, Kornblum said, in the uproar, no one noticed the look that passed between the magician and his wife, that tiny, quiet woman who had stood to one side of the stage as the minutes passed, and the band played, and the audience watched the faint rippling of the cabinet’s curtain.
After the magician had reinstalled himself, coatless now, in his dark box, Mrs. Houdini asked if she might not prevail upon the kindness and forbearance of their host for the evening to bring her husband a glass of water. It had been an hour, after all, and as anyone could see, the closeness of the cabinet and the difficulty of Houdini’s exertions had taken a certain toll. The sporting spirit prevailed; a glass of water was brought, and Mrs. Houdini carried it to her husband. Five minutes later, Houdini stepped from the cabinet for the last time, brandishing the cuffs over his head like a loving cup. He was free. The crowd suffered a kind of painful, collective orgasm—a “Krise,” Kornblum called it—of delight and relief. Few remarked, as the magician was lifted onto the shoulders of the referees and notables on hand and carried through the theater, that his face was convulsed with tears of rage, not triumph, and that his blue eyes were incandescent with shame.
“It was in the glass of water,” Joe guessed, when he had managed to free himself at last from the far simpler challenge of the canvas sack and a pair of German police cuffs gaffed with buckshot. “The key.”
Michael Chabon, ‘The amazing adventures of Kavalier & Clay’. p.532.