While in Paris, in the spring of 1878, I witnessed an accident in a circus, which for a time made me renounce all athletic exhibitions. Six horses were stationed side by side in the ring before a spring-board, and the whole company of gymnasts ran and turned somersaults from the spring over the horses, alighting on a mattress spread on the ground. The agility of one finely developed young fellow excited great applause every time he made the leap. He would shoot forward in the air like a javelin, and in his flight curl up and turn over directly above the mattress, dropping on his feet as lightly as a bird. This play went on for some minutes, and at each round of applause the favorite seemed to execute his leap with increased skill and grace. Finally, he was seen to gather himself a little farther in the background than usual, evidently to prepare for a better start. The instant his turn came he shot out of the crowd of attendants and launched himself into the air with tremendous momentum. Almost quicker than the eye could follow him, he had turned and was dropping to the ground, his arms held above his head, which hung slightly forward, and his legs stretched to meet the shock of the elastic mattress.
But this time he had jumped an inch too far. His feet struck just on the edge of the mattress, and he was thrown violently forward, doubling up on the ground with a dull thump, which was heard all over the immense auditorium. He remained a second or two motionless, then sprang to his feet, and as quickly sank to the ground again. The ring attendants and two or three gymnasts rushed to him and took him up. The clown, in evening dress, personating the mock ringmaster, the conventional spotted merryman, and a stalwart gymnast in buff fleshings, bore the drooping form of the favorite in their arms, and, followed by the bystanders, who offered ineffectual assistance, carried the wounded man across the ring and through the draped arch under the music gallery. Under any other circumstances the group would have excited a laugh, for the audience was in that condition of almost hysterical excitement when only the least effort of a clown is necessary to cause a wave of laughter. But the moment the wounded man was lifted from the ground, the whole strong light from the brilliant chandelier struck full on his right leg dangling from the knee, with the foot hanging limp and turned inward. A deep murmur of sympathy swelled and rolled around the crowded amphitheatre.
I left the circus, and hundreds of others did the same. A dozen of us called at the box-office to ask about the victim of the accident. He was advertised as “The Great Polish Champion Bareback Rider and Aerial Gymnast.” We found that he was really a native of the East, whether Pole or Russian the ticket-seller did not know. His real name was Nagy, and he had been engaged only recently, having returned a few months before from a professional tour in North America. He was supposed to have money, for he commanded a good salary, and was sober and faithful. The accident, it was said, would probably disable him for a few weeks only, and then he would resume his engagement.
The next day an account of the accident was in the newspapers, and twenty-four hours later all Paris had forgotten about it. For some reason or other I frequently thought of the injured man, and had an occasional impulse to go and inquire after him; but I never went. It seemed to me that I had seen his face before, when or where I tried in vain to recall. It was not an impressive face, but I could call it up at any moment as distinct to my mind’s eye as a photograph to my physical vision. Whenever I thought of him, a dim, very dim memory would flit through my mind, which I could never seize and fix.