Hocus Pocus

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The Mystical Circus of Cesare the Magnificent and its performances always attracted wide public attention. Jugglers and acrobats, equilibrists and clowns, sword and fire swallowers, athletes and magicians, animal trainers and horse riders of the Circus had truly unprecedented skill. Indeed, you must admit that not every travelling circus has a talented stuntman who can ride a unicycle on a stretched string without a safety net, holding a bunch of people on his head. And not everywhere you can find an athlete who is able to take a handful of nails into his mouth, then chew them and spit out iron pressed and bent beyond recognition.

There were also various attractions, for instance, ordinary carousels, a house of mirrors, a fear house and a wax museum; fortunetellers and musicians such as Elvira the Mysterious and a one-man band; numerous bright tents sold all kinds of sweets, candies, lollipops, and different trinkets, such as whistles, rattles and masks.

The venerable public had always been interested in automatons and clockwork mechanisms of varying degrees of complexity. Here, cymbal-banging dolls attracted attention; walking statues and dancers with raising legs invited guests to the performance; golden quacking ducks synchronously performed complex movements in a special pool; peacocks displayed their artificial tails. The Circus also had some unique automatons that could paint pictures, play musical instruments and even perform more complex actions according to public choice.

Among the myriad of clockwork devices, the one invariably took the special love of the audience. The Indian was a chess machine in the form of a stern man in a turban, ready to meet anyone who dares to challenge it in a game battle. Volunteers were always there, and the reputation of an unsurpassed chess player, able to defeat even prominent champions, didn’t scare away the players; on the contrary, they were attracted by the hard task. In fact, during the entire history of the travelling circus, the Indian lost only twice, and both times the event was perceived as something out of the ordinary.

The first time, the Indian lost the game to a high-ranking official who was known as an eccentric person. He patronized the travelling circus in exchange for certain personal services. The official had a reputation of an avid, but rather mediocre chess player, which made many people doubt the naturalness of his win because before that, the automaton had easily crushed the opponents surpassed the winner by a huge margin.

The second time, the Indian lost the most difficult game in its career and gave up a laurel wreath of the chess champion in an unequal battle with Cesare the Magnificent. In this case, the stakes were high, and although it wasn’t known what Cesare risked, the outcome was obvious to everyone. After winning a wager, this mysterious and creepy man with a charm of Mephistopheles that one day appeared as if out of nowhere, replaced the former circus owner, changed its name first, and then its specifics.

In addition to the two memorable defeats of the Indian, there was also one memorable draw in the game with a midget circus artist, known under the pseudonym of Hocus Pocus. But of course, this event wasn’t so important as aforementioned matches.

However, few people knew what exactly distinguished the Indian from other automatons. Before the start of each game, Gustav, the circus mechanic responsible for the conditions of all machines, solemnly presented the Indian and the list of its victories to the venerable public, showing a wax statue with many elaborate details and joints that gave it a fairly developed facial expression, ability to open its mouth, move eyes, bend and move hands and fingers and clench a fist. Then Gustav opened a massive box, which replaced the Indian lower body. There was a chessboard on the top of the box, stylized as a circus arena with bright multi-coloured squares of emphasized dark and light shades. There were also massive chess pieces in the form of athletes, acrobats, fakirs, a vaulting artist, a ringmaster and clowns on the one side, and various applauding and laughing spectators on the other. Below the small door was located, and behind it, the public could see a very complex mechanism with many gears, driving belts and chains.

Of course, there was a mechanism responsible for the Indian’s game, but not the one that was shown to the audience. It was partly a dummy, which hid August, Gustav’s twin brother and assistant, who was also a professional chess player. A complex system of reflecting mirrors and levers allowed him to observe the situation around, manipulate the Indian’s facial expressions and rearrange chess pieces. A different kind of trick also facilitated tracking turns: a magnet was attached to the bottom of each piece, and a small metal ball was suspended under each square, and when the piece was moved from one place to another, the balls were detached and stuck again, identifying the current position.

Before each turn of the Indian, Gustav started the mechanism demonstratively, giving August extra time to think, then August used the levers to move, bend, clench and unclench the automaton wax hands, and replaced the selected piece. If the Indian took a piece, performed a check, checkmate, or some specific action, such as castling, winning the queen, promoting a pawn into a different piece, or something alike, it expressed “emotions” with grimaces and gestures. For example, in the case of the check, the automaton nodded three times, and if the opponent mistakenly made an unacceptable move (moved the queen like a knight, or vice versa) or tried to cheat somehow (rearrange the piece to the wrong place or steal it from the board) — the Indian shook his head and stopped the game.

Sometimes it could simply solve the chess puzzle to the public’s delight, like the one in which you must make a sequence of moves with the knight, visiting every square on the chessboard only once.

Earlier, the games of draughts had been played too, but in the end, it was decided to limit options to chess, because for spectators (who paid for the very fact of being at the game), chess pieces looked more diverse and interesting. Besides, chess games lasted much longer, and solving puzzles, problems and endgame studies gave a fascinating sight for connoisseurs. Sometimes they had original solutions and could be solved in various ways or using rules that rarely had practical value in the real game, but could be useful in solving chess problems (vertical castling for example). In addition to the purely classical format, games could be played in a more exotic way, with optional or rarely used rules, special methods of arranging pieces, new experiments, handicaps, and other things that were agreed before the game, though this didn’t happen often.

Of course, the Indian wasn’t the first invention of that kind, but just one of the many descendants of the famous Turk by Von Kempelen, and Edgar Allan Poe in his article had exposed its secret. And yet only sophisticated people knew about this. Moreover, all the Indian’s tricks were intended solely to maintain the illusion of the gaming automaton’s rationality, while the game itself was conducted honestly and without any cheating. Therefore, if someone publicly declared that a man actually played instead of the machine, he would sound no better than someone who stated during the Faust spectacle that Mephistopheles wasn’t a genius of evil, but only a disguised actor. There was no low action, meanness or fraud here, just following the necessary laws of performance.

Anyway, for the time being, the circus seemed a magical place, a unique world that existed in parallel with the grey routine. Full of bright colours, smiles and laughter, it served for entertainment, while trying to make the world and men more happy and joyful, if not better. People in the most depressed mood came there, leaving their sadness behind the threshold, and soon thoughts about poison and bullet, a rope and soap disappeared, like drops of water, carried away by a rapid stream.

But with the arrival of Cesare the Magnificent, whose real name and origin remained a mystery even to the circus staff, things changed and not for the better. Of course, speaking about the financial situation exclusively, it was impossible not to see that the modernized circus became more profitable. But, as we know, not everything in this life is measured by money. Some workers left, not wanting to put up with the current state of affairs, but the majority of them had nowhere to go.

The so-called “Collection of graceful deformities” was in special demand, and for its replenishment the troupe wandered around the world, finding unusual people and animals (living, or not), never lingering for a long time in one place. Giants and midgets, bearded women and hermaphrodites, owners of rudimentary tails, Siamese twins and people covered with thick hair from head to toe, looked like the most ordinary representatives of this part of the performance against the general background. For the most part, these were initially good-natured people, who became embittered, growing up in conditions of the surrounding cynical cruelty.

Many years later, this kind of amusement would be closed everywhere since the entertainment destroyed a person’s honour and dignity. On the one hand, that would be certainly the right thing, but at the same time, the measure would leave a lot of people without means of livelihood because of their inability to do anything else.

Among the circus visitors, some came to stare at people completely different from them, poke their fingers and laugh heartily at someone else’s expense or shout enthusiastically, watching the blood sport of unusual animals fighting. At the same time, many of them liked to speculate out loud about the decline of morality in other places, considering themselves cultured and highly spiritual ladies and gentlemen.

Hocus Pocus never understood what a mysterious force attracted viewers like a magnet, making them taunt anyone who looked different. What’s so funny in fact that a person was too tall or, on the contrary, too small in comparison to the mass of those around him? Perhaps the same principle worked here, the one that gave rise to bullying in any communities, whether it was an educational institution or a military unit. People consolidated against someone with a different appearance, origin or character, wanting, on the one hand, to feel themselves a step higher in the social hierarchy and on the other hand not to become an object for humiliation themselves. Similarly, the concierge, who was able to complicate the lives of others, began to create problems for people just because she could do it, imagining herself Caesar with power when actually she had one authority — to let someone into the house or not (and the legality of the matter was still questionable).

At the heart of meanness lied a banal fear of being lower, weaker or worse than someone, and finding themselves on the sidelines of life (as moral freaks and weaklings unconsciously imagined). On this fear, other negative traits layered one after another: envy, greed, pride, mockery and other rubbish. Still, the fear was central and gave rise to the desire of acquiring “mandatory” external attributes of a “strong personality” in order to prove something to others and, first of all, to himself. However, this sort of people would never admit it to themselves openly — neither school bullies, who were looking for victims, nor ordinary cads, found in abundance even in the most cultured cities of the planet, or the high society mob, whose stinking souls exuded a stench that couldn’t be concealed by aristocratic manners.

In any case, Hocus Pocus was a man without complexes. He loved and appreciated the world as it was, accepting and respecting himself as he was. And, going to the arena, he entertained the audience with short gags between the parts of the performance, knowing full well that the true freaks didn’t appear in the middle of a circus tent or wander from town to town in a caravan of multi-coloured wagons. No, they sat on paid places and mockingly pointed fingers at artists.


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