There were only ten or so people there the first time … the first time I saw him. I found out later that he’d been known for it at school – outperforming not only his classmates but his teachers. But, for some reason, it felt that day as if I were witnessing something momentous. As if it were the beginning of something. And so it became … at least, for me.
I’m still not sure why I found myself so engaged, but when I heard one of the bystanders on that afternoon speak of the upcoming contest at the Queen’s Grounds on a date that I could, with time on my hands, come to be in the neighbourhood of Sheffield, I thought that perhaps I might stop by. Simply to observe how Mr Darby might perform in the heat of competition.
So, you see, I didn’t mean to follow him. I didn’t for a moment expect that a blacksmith by the name of Joe would lead me to my life’s most memorable events. It all began quite benignly. On a stroll through Netherton in the Black Country. And until that year, I had rarely found myself north of Stevenage.
I have never believed in fate. Pure chance had me passing on that strange grey day. And then, it seems, I took it from there. To Yorkshire for Darby’s besting of a Mr Fillingham at a measure of near on nine feet. And then back to London where the exploits were a welcome distraction from the pressing enquiries I found myself subjected to at home. And further – quite surprisingly – to New York, Vienna, Paris and some of the many places that connect those major destinations. All to see Joe Darby jump.
To be clear, this wasn’t just any ordinary jumping. This was jumping such as the world had never seen.
And, as I recollect the astonishing feats from the comfort and perspective of my current existence, it becomes apparent that my customary claim of personal decisiveness in the path that I took is conceit on my part. In truth, the course of my life might not be attributable to ‘destiny’ but neither, at that time, was it my own authority that led to me to those places and periods of consequence. It was my distraction … my fascination – but I had no ready scheme to fill my empty calendar. So Joe Darby’s talent captivated me when I was seeking captivation. And, for some time after that, nothing seemed able to match his ability to enchant.
So it began.
He jumped and I followed.
With nothing more impressive than a spring in my step as I anticipated what might lie ahead. And, through it, I found the world. I met people. I lived life. All thanks to a chance encounter on a dreary day in the West Midlands.
I was, with little doubt, quite aimless at the time of that first canalside episode. I had taken time off from my studies – that was the way I had planned to explain it to my parents but, of course, study was something that I never actually did. So it seemed unreasonable to remain at university for too long when I had no conviction for its principal purpose. I was filling out the term with a meandering journey back to London before subjecting myself to the inevitable parental interrogation. In my own way, I suppose I was looking for life – having previously followed the pattern set out for me by others with none of the passion required for dedication. But I had no real inkling of my quest, let alone that I had found my Excalibur on the day that I observed a gathering by a rural canal. I was, as each maiden spectator to such events would find themselves, initially baffled by what I had seen. It was an illusion, a trick to my eyes. Or perhaps there was some mechanical assistance – springs, a platform of some kind. His only tool seemed to be a pair of small dumbbells – one in each hand – and though those might have assisted with momentum, I couldn’t see that they would enhance the initial lift. If anything, they would make for a greater weight that would be more challenging to elevate from a standing start. (I was later to discover that he would often discard such apparatus particularly for the more theatrical exploits he would undertake. So clearly the weights were no charmed vessels from whence his ability would emanate.) I was compelled to watch the man again – and again – to devise the method of his trickery. No one could jump such a distance from a standing start with feet firmly together. So I followed. I watched. And each time I saw him clear a new obstacle – first that canal and then a billiard table, ten chairs grouped together and so on – I would search. I scrutinised his technique. His physique. I enquired as to his preparation. But for all the jumps I witnessed, never did I see a single thing that made him different from any other man. Certainly he was excessively modest, particularly for one with such prowess and growing renown. So modest in fact, that in all my life, not once did I introduce myself or speak directly to him – in even an informal way. He would do what he had come to do, collect his winnings and then retire to whatever his life beyond those things had come to be. I believe that he had moved from making horse nails to the coal pits and then spent many years as a publican – all pursuits in marked contrast to the life of a ‘man bird’ performing for the crowned heads of Europe and receiving accolades from our own Edward VII – then the Prince of Wales – following a private exhibition. Perhaps that was what made his achievements so intriguing. An ordinary man doing extraordinary things. It was like magic before my eyes at times. And as I followed, I began to feel that I no longer wished to analyse the precise method or process that made it possible – my desire was solely to observe the wonder. To see something amazing and enjoy it for its spectacle. For the singular moment that it was. I had passed the time of childish puzzlement at the origins of a rainbow and had moved to simply glorying in its uncommon beauty.
He jumped onto water of immeasurable depth and then off again. Like some kind of bounding Saviour.
He soared more than twelve feet backwards.
He leapt, unaided, over a hansom cab.
He jumped over the back of a chair onto the face of his young daughter as she lay on the ground and then sprung off again leaving her with only painless whitening marks on her cheeks from the soles of his shoes.
He broke records for spring jumps, high jumps and leaps. And all to growing worldwide acclaim.
And so I followed. Seeking not my pot of gold, but merely the sight of one of nature’s wonders. And, in between, I found such things as I could never have anticipated.
In New York, I met Clara, a winsome girl with doe eyes and a delightfully frivolous disposition. She was not the marrying kind, thankfully, for neither was I then – but my time with her was a revelation. American girls!
That was a period of great gaiety and novelty and, for a brief episode, I saw through American eyes and was dazzled as a newborn awakening to a world of brightness and colour. And I embraced it all. I danced to jazz music in intriguing basement taverns and drank a new health-giving elixir – a dark brown syrup by the name of Coca-Coke – at an establishment called a ‘soda fountain’. And then, in a perfect acknowledgement of my newfound vivacity, I stood in the teeming streets and felt the rain of confetti from the mountainous buildings lining the caverns to celebrate the President’s ‘christening’ of the handsome towering woman who had been blossoming atop her pedestal on my arrival to the burgeoning country. The Statue of Liberty was more than a welcome sight signifying ‘land’ to my tired eyes at the end of a long voyage – she was, like me then, a traveller from foreign shores about to bury her feet in American soil and, in doing so, be seen as her true self amidst the potent mix of freedom and possibility. When I first saw her, she had no scaffolding to hold her up and she was not yet whole – with areas still to complete to give her a full armour of skin. But as I explored the city of New York, her beauty became absolute. She emerged, a hybrid of her French birth and her American fruition – not whole until she had ripened on the shores of that brave new world. So it was beyond fitting that I was there to celebrate her official dedication. The exuberance of that time is something I shall long remember, having spent a life until that point immersed in English reserve and pomposity only to find myself amidst people who would willingly allow themselves to gape open with uninhibited fervor and passion. Like Joe Darby, the Americans led me to marvel at humanity, something my years cosseted in society and academia had been unable to elicit. And I felt a kind of magic that I longed to perpetuate.
And so I kept following. For athletic matches and competitions. For public demonstrations across Europe.
In Belgium, I found myself one evening, without any personal design or intent, a player in a delightful diversion. The charming town of Spa had undertaken to administer what they termed the ‘Concours de Beauté’, a competition to find the greatest beauty on the planet. When a local gentlemen fell ill, I stepped in to lend my arm – escorting one of the luminous contestants in their final promenade before the judges. Dear Miss Soucaret – such striking exotic features – was ultimately pronounced the winner of the title and the five thousand franc prize and, though I had played but a fleeting role – not even permitted to converse with my companion during that stroll – I felt a strange pride in the achievement. The other twenty girls, though, were just as exquisite and perhaps made more intriguing than the ‘victress’ by the vulnerability evoked by their disappointment. I felt a need to console as many as I could … but such comfort was not to be. The thwarted ladies were escorted away, back into the careful seclusion from whence they had come. And I was left with a pleasant memory made all the sweeter by its transitory nature. I have noted that, since that time, beauty contests have been held throughout the world. However, having been present at the inaugural event, I cannot imagine beauty any greater than Miss Soucaret and her ladies-in-waiting. Such a cherished interlude during my bounding tour.
I saw perfection. I marvelled at the world. I laughed as I have never laughed. My exploits in the pursuit of jumping Joe are carved deeply in my memory.
In Arles, as I made my way to Paris, I joined some men at a bar imbibing absinthe and found myself in a kind of hysteria over the pronunciation of their names following initial introductions. I was tired and the liquor had its own mystical powers but my amusement at my own gurgling attempts to enunciate “Gauguin” and “van Gogh” in quick succession only led to continuing futile efforts. I think I both laughed and cried that night but I have no recollection of the reaction of my drinking companions to my idiocy. My time in that town was odd to say the least as, only a few nights after that strange intoxication, I was to encounter a young woman (I need not elaborate on the circumstances) who was still reeling over an incident in her place of work on the Rue du Bout d’Aeles the previous evening. A bloodied parcel had been left on the doorstep with a note indicating that it contained a keepsake for her as thanks for posing for a portrait. And when the contents were revealed, it seemed that the artist had gifted his own ear as a memento, crudely severed and then wrapped in paper. The young woman had been so filled with turmoil that her company that night was anything but soothing for me and I had seen fit to leave Arles within the week and move ever onwards in the direction of the capital.
In Paris, I found myself a front row spectator at the launch of the world’s first genuine automobile – not a horse-drawn carriage with no horses but a mechanical marvel whose creation matched the human accomplishments of the man who had taken me to that place. My inadvertent proximity to that event was the result of a chance meeting earlier that same day – one whose real truth still fully eludes me. I cannot abide a lady in distress, particularly when status and refinement have been reduced to a mass of sobs and vexed exclamations. And so, unable to extract the origins of her anguish – beyond the name of a loved companion by the name of Emma, I could only console my distinguished fellow diner with ambiguous words of comfort and the ordering of a snifter or two of brandy … which she insisted later were added to her bill. (I should note at this point that I have, in the past, been the beneficiary of the generosity of women of standing in society – those left in idle wealth by their sometimes less than judicious husbands. However, I must stress that any gifts I have received have been extraneous to my primary objective. I have sought only to provide solace, entertainment, the attendance a delightful dowager deserves … whether her husband has left his mortal coil or remains, only to ignore his marital responsibilities.) So I did what I could on that day at the Restaurant Russe and expected nothing in return. However, I was rewarded with attendance at a momentous occasion. When Frau Maybach (as I came to know her) became cognisant of the hour and, as a result, additionally flustered at her impending lateness, I was able to escort her with relative ease to the location at the Exposition Universelle where we were to watch Messers Daimler and Maybach unveil their revolutionary creation. And from there, I thought it best to leave my new acquaintance and take a step into the background from whence I had come.
I have never seen myself as simply one of the crowd but neither have I sought personal renown. As I meandered from feat to feat performed by my soaring countryman, I was content to be in the shadows, not the limelight. I was a spectator, not a spectacle – happy to view the world from my easy anonymity. But one cannot always remain so detached. Simple interaction with other people is often never as simple as it might seem. No matter where one’s intentions might lie. And so I found myself entangled for a moment in a web I had not seen approaching. It was a difficult period but one that reached a ready resolution. Still, it leaves me with a bitter taste for somewhere that had once held such delightful promise.
Vienna had seemed like a place of such serenity when I arrived. And all I sought were the usual comforts – shelter, sustenance and warmth. And a man looks for such things not only at a welcoming inn, a public house, a dining establishment but in the arms of his fellow creatures. It is perhaps a primitive urge, but it remains. And no man can deny his need for tender female company nor would he wish to. And so, my time in Vienna differed very little from the days and nights I had spent elsewhere. But for the unfortunate misunderstanding of a young woman I had come to know. She was too young – I see that now as clear as the sun above. But her charm and winning ways blinded me to the potential complications of her youth. So when sweet Mary announced to me that she was with child, it was natural that I should react with alarm. I had never suspected, though, that my credulous paramour would respond the way she did to my unease. Her eyes flashed with fury and her tongue with threats of retribution. She revealed herself in ways that illustrated my own naïvete in considering her an innocent girl and one whose family’s social standing made our own brief liaison aberrant. Mary professed to having another lover – a man of great esteem, repute and standing. A man who truly loved her, she sneered, and would not only protect her and take the child as his own but eventually make her his wife and therefore provide her with a title greater than her current noble designation. And that is where we parted ways … in a more turbulent manner than I would have chosen but quite definite. And of the lady’s choosing. And so Vienna was a tarnished jewel to me – tainted by the unpleasantness of that episode. Leaving me no option but to move on to a more welcoming arena, a place where I could make the muted impact that I found preferable. The timing of my departure was uncanny. Not long afterwards, I heard tell of a calamity that befell the ruling family of Austria – so unpleasant and so close to my own trauma that I did little to find out the particulars of the torrid incident and, to this day, I avoid the details of that unfortunate event. All I am able to recall is that the Crown Prince met his violent end in the company of his young mistress, leaving his cousin, Franz Ferdinand, the inevitable successor to the throne. I am not one for politics but perhaps the change in ruler will prove beneficial to the country. Who can tell? However, it is of no real consequence – the minor goings-on in that part of the globe are of little import. But for composers and, I hear tell, a scientist or two, their greatest prominence lies in mountainous terrain and the river Danube, neither of which were conquests of the man on whom I based my travel plans.
The man whose aerial prowess took me to so many places.
Until, for me, it reached a natural conclusion.
I had seen every kind of jump. World records fell. Vehicles that had not been invented at the time of my introduction to the sport had been cleared with ease. Again and again. And so, I left Joe Darby’s shadow to finally step into the light. Such as it was. And is. To make my own way in the world. My father’s threats to disown me had little influence on my decision to take my rightful role in the family business. It was simply time for me to enact my birthright. And so I set aside my wandering ways to do my duty and undertake the responsibility that would provide me with a comfortable future – for I have never desired excess but merely the modest means for ample security and nourishment for the body and the soul.
And so, only days ago, I found myself on matters of business in the north. I stopped briefly at a public house in the village of Dudley – to quench my thirst and take advantage of the local hospitality before my return to London. I was already prone to reminiscing on my previous momentous encounter thanks to the evocative West Midlands countryside – however, when I noticed the sign indicating the licensee to be one J. Darby, I felt a flush of youth and memory overtake me. It was a jolly place and the landlord himself, though wide of girth, seemed a soul comfortable in his skin. Welcoming though not effusive. Helpful but not excessively talkative. I watched him from my seat by the window with a veneer of quiet composure, studying the face I had thought I would recognise from so many years of regular attendance at his challenges. But I realised that I had rarely examined his expressions through all that time. His face had not been the focus of my interest. But still, all these years later in this spring of the year 1914, I knew him. I knew the set of his shoulders. I knew his gait, though now encumbered by a sizeable paunch. And still I didn’t know him well enough to meet him. Or perhaps I preferred to keep the relationship as it has always been. Darby centre stage as I watched from the wings.
And so I left to travel south engrossed in ruminations of the past, thinking of the man’s achievements and my own quiet meanderings. Wondering how one man can travel the world and leave his mark so deeply while the other can barely scratch the surface.
And now it seems that there are rumblings of an assassination somewhere in Europe – yet another reminder of one’s personal insignificance. The major events take place wherever I might find myself – in state of mind or physical location. And I, it appears, will continue on my unobtrusive way with no influence on any person or event and no remnants from my journeying save for my private recollections.
There are luminaries and there are bystanders. And, through following Joe Darby, I learnt my place in life. A lesson that not all have the insight to ascertain nor the courage to accept. So I am thankful. And I owe it all to a day in the Black Country. A canal bank. A blacksmith who became a publican. And a few delightful ladies whose company blessed me and then dissolved into the quiet nothing of the past.
Following Joe Darby. Significant to me. Inconsequential to everybody else.
* * *
Though this story is fictional, the following incidents have been widely reported as truth, many taught as historical facts throughout the world:
Joe Darby was a renowned spring jumper whose abilities took him to exhibitions across the globe and to break world championship records for many years. All the information in the story relating to Joe Darby has been reported as historical record with a statue unveiled in Netherton, West Midlands in 1991 to commemorate his achievements.
On May the 8th 1886, Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, Georgia sold the first “Coca Cola” as a patent medicine. Within two years, several versions of the ‘tonic’ were available at soda fountains across the United Stated for the price of five cents a glass, marketed with the claim by John Pemberton – the formulator of the original recipe – that the carbonated liquid could cure many diseases (including morphine addiction, dyspepsia, headache and impotence).
The Statue of Liberty, a gift to the United States from the people of France, was designed by Frédéric Bartholdi and formally presented to the US Ambassador in Paris in 1884, with the Americans to provide the site and the pedestal for its ultimate construction. The statue was shipped from France in crates and, with the pedestal completed on what was then called Bedloe’s Island in April 1886, the iron framework was anchored within the concrete and the assembly was finalised with the attachment of the sections of skin. The width of the pedestal did not allow for the use of scaffolding, so workers hung by ropes from the armature for the installation of the pieces. On October the 28th 1886, President Grover Cleveland presided over a dedication ceremony for the statue which was celebrated by a grand parade through New York City where the streets were lined with spectators (of estimated numbers ranging from several hundred thousand to a million people) and traders on the New York Stock Exchange threw ticker tape from the windows of the Wall Street buildings. This was the beginning of the New York tradition of ticker tape parades.
The World’s first Beauty Contest is reported to have been held in the town of Spa in Belgium in September, 1888. It’s said that pageant participants were kept from the general public – housed in a secluded building and brought to the event in a closed carriage to be judged by a men-only jury. The winner, 18 year old Bertha Sourcaret of Guadeloupe, received a five thousand franc prize and was expected at that time to progress to a career on the stage.
In December, 1888, the artists, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gaugin were sharing a small room in Arles, France. Only days after a reported outburst from van Gogh in a bar where the two were drinking the epileptogenic, absinthe, the Dutch post-Impressionist cut off the lower part of his ear with a razor. After giving it to a prostitute, he returned home but was then taken for medical assistance the following day. Suggested provocations for his self-mutilation are the deterioration of the relationship between the two artists, the side-effects of an epileptic seizure, an hereditary mental illness and a reaction to his brother’s engagement. Whatever the cause, his death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound ended a life troubled with long periods of depression, hallucination and extreme loneliness.
In 1889, engineers Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach built their first automobile that was not an adaptation of a horse-drawn carriage. The vehicle had a four-speed transmission and was able to reach speeds of up to ten miles per hour. It was licensed to be built in France and had its public unveiling at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. In that same year, Daimler’s wife, Emma Kunz, died. More than a decade before, Maybach had married Emma’s friend, Bertha Wilhemine Habermass.
In 1889, just outside Vienna, an event referred to subsequently as the Mayerling Incident was to be the catalyst of political turbulence of historic proportions. Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera were found dead in a hunting lodge at Mayerling following an apparent murder-suicide. Though rumours of political conspiracy and assassination have been put forward, it has also been postulated that the young woman died accidentally as the result of an abortion and that the Archduke consequently shot himself. Mary’s pregnancy before or during the time of her death has never been confirmed or ruled out. The facts of the incident remain uncertain. The Crown Prince’s death, however, immediately led to a dynastic crisis with his father’s brother renouncing his own succession right in favour of his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand. Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination by a Serbian nationalist on the 28th of June, 1914, would set off a chain of events that would lead to the start of World War I.