by Maurice Level
He was neither wicked nor cruel, but he hungered for the
unexpected. The theatre did not interest him, yet he attended often,
hoping for the outbreak of a fire. He went to the fair at Neuilly to
see if perhaps one of the menagerie animals might go wild and mangle
its trainer. Once he even visited the bullring, but its calculated
bloodshed was mundane, too controlled. Meaningless suffering revolted
him; he craved the thrill of sudden catastrophe.
Then, after ten years of waiting, fire indeed ravaged the Opera
Comique one night when he was there. He escaped uninjured, but soon
afterwards he saw the celebrated lion-tamer Frederick torn to pieces
by his cats. The madman was only a few feet away from the cage when it
happened. He lost interest in wild beast shows and the theatre and
fell into a deep depression.
But then one morning he saw a garish poster, one of many that
covered the walls of Paris.
Against a blue background, a peculiar slanted track descended,
curled itself into a circular loop and then plummeted straight down.
The top of the billboard depicted a tiny cyclist about to dare the
The newspapers ran a story explaining that the cyclist intended to
ride down just such a track.
"When I reach the loop," he told reporters, "you'll actually see me
round it upside down!" The press was invited to inspect the track and
the bicycle. "I use no mechanical trickery," the daredevil bragged,
"nothing but precise scientific calculation. That—and my ability to
keep up my nerve."
When the madman read the article, his good spirits returned. He
immediately went to buy a ticket. He did not want his attention
distracted when the rider looped the loop, so he purchased an entire
box of seats opposite the track and sat alone on opening night. After a
suspenseful wait, the cyclist appeared high above the audience at the
top of the ribbon of road. A moment of tense anticipation, then down
he sped. As promised, he circled the loop with head underneath and feet
in the air—and then it was all over.
The performance certainly thrilled the madman, but as he exited
with the crowd, he knew he might experience the same intense sensation
once or twice more and then, as always, the novelty would die. Still .
. . bicycles break, road surfaces wear out . . . and no man's nerve
holds out forever. Sooner or later, there must be an accident.
The cyclist was scheduled to perform for three months in Paris and
then tour the provinces.
The madman decided to go to every single performance, even if he
had to follow the show on its travels. He bought the same box for the
entire Parisian run and sat in the same seat night after night.
One evening two months later, the performance had just ended and
the madman was on his way out when he noticed the performer standing
in one of the corridors of the auditorium. He walked up to him, but
before he could utter a word, the cyclist greeted him affably.
"I know you. You come to my show every night."
"That's true. Your remarkable feat fascinates me. But who told you
I'm always here?"
"No one," the rider smiled. "I see you myself."
"But how can you, so high up? At such a moment, are you actually
able to study the audience?"
The cyclist laughed. "Hardly. It'd be dangerous for me to look at a
crowd shifting around and.prattling. But confidentially, there's a
little trick involved in what I do."
"A trick?" The madman was surprised and dismayed.
"No, no, I don't mean a hoax. But there's something I do which the
public is unaware of." The cyclist winked. "This'll be our little
secret, yes? When I mount my bicycle and grasp the handlebars, I never
worry about my own strength and coordination, but the total
concentration the ride demands concerns me. It's almost impossible for
me to empty my mind of all but one idea. My greatest danger is that my
eyes may stray. But here's my trick—I find one spot in the auditorium
and focus all my attention on it. The first time I rode in this hall, I
spied you in your box and chose you as my spot. The next evening,
there you were again . . ."
The madman sat in his customary seat. The usual excited buzz filled
the hail. A hush fell when the rider made his entrance, a black speck
far overhead. Two men held his bicycle. The cyclist gripped the
handlebars, stared out over the heads of the crowd and shouted the
signal. The men gave the machine a shove.
At that instant, the madman rose and walked to the opposite side of
his box. The audience screamed as cycle and rider shot off the track
and plunged into the midst of the crowd.
The madman donned his coat, smoothed his hat against one sleeve and