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The Daredevil Barber
by [?]

To roll over Niagara Falls in a barrel is an odd way of courting death, but it seems that death must be courted somehow. Danger is more attractive to many men than drink. They prefer gambling with their lives to gambling with their money. They have the gambler’s faith in their lucky star. They are preoccupied with the vision of victory to the exclusion of all timid thoughts. They have a dramatic sense that sets them anticipatorily on a stage, bowing to the applause of the multitude. It is the applause, I fancy, rather than the peril itself, that entices them. The average boy who performs a deed of derring-do performs it before his admiring fellows. Even in so small a thing as ringing a bell and running away he likes to have spectators. Few boys ring bells out of mischief when they are alone. Poor Mr Charles Stephens, the “Daredevil Barber” of Bristol, who lost his life at Niagara Falls in his six-foot barrel the other Sunday, made sure that there would be plenty of witnesses of his adventure. Not only had he a party of sightseers in motors along the road following the cask on its perilous voyage but he had a cinematograph photographer ready to immortalise the affair on a film. Two other persons, it is said, had already accomplished a similar feat. One of them, a woman, “was just about gone,” according to a witness, “when we got her out of the barrel.” The other “was a used-up man for several weeks.” This however, did not deter the daredevil barber. Had he not already on one occasion put his head into a lion’s mouth? Had he not boxed in a lion’s den? Had he not stood up to men with rifles who shot lumps of sugar from his head? It may seem an extraordinary way to behave in a world in which there are so many reasonable opportunities for heroism, but men are extraordinary creatures. There is no adventure so wild that they will not embark on it. There are men who, if they took it into their heads that there was one chance in a hundred of reaching the moon by being precipitated into space in some kind of torpedo, would volunteer for the adventure. They do these mad things alike for trivial and noble ends. They love a stunt even (or especially) at the risk of their lives. Half the aeroplane accidents are due to the fact that many men prefer risk to safety. To do some things that other people cannot do seems to them the only way of justifying their existence. It is an initiation into aristocracy. Every man is the rival of all other men, and he is not satisfied till he has beaten them. If he is a great cricketer, or a great poet, or a Cabinet Minister, or wins the Derby, his ambition as a rule is fulfilled and he does not feel the need of jumping down Etna or hanging by his toes from the Eiffel Tower in order to create a sensation. But if a man is no use at either poetry or football, he must do something. Blondin became a world-famous figure simply by walking along a tight-rope along which neither Shakespeare nor Shelley could have walked. It may be that they would have had no desire to walk along it, but in any case Blondin was able to feel that he could beat the greatest of men in at least one game. In his own business he stood above the Apostle Paul and Michelangelo and Napoleon. He was a king and, even if you did not envy him his trade, you had to envy him his throne. He was a man you would have liked to meet at dinner, not for the sake of his conversation, but for the sake of his uniqueness. One remembers how one stood with heart in mouth as he set out with his balancing-pole in his hand on his journey across the rope blindfolded and pretending to stumble every ten yards. A single false step and he would have fallen from the height of a tower to certain death, for there was no net to catch him. Strange that one should have cared whether he fell or not! But ninety-nine out of a hundred did care. We watched him as breathlessly as though he were carrying the future of the world in his hands. He knew that he was interesting us, engrossing us, and that was his reward. It was a reward, no doubt, that could be measured in gold. But it is more than greed of gold that sets men courting death in such ways. The joy of being unique is at least as great as the joy of being rich. And the surest way of becoming unique is to trail one’s coat in the presence of Death and challenge him to tread on the tail of it.