'Mirette on the High Wire' Editor's note: Mirette learns tightrope walking from Monsieur Bellini, a celebrated tightrope artist who has withdrawn from performing because of fear.

Story Time

September 06, 1998|By Emily Arnold McCully

One hundred years ago in Paris, when theaters and music halls drew traveling players from all over the world, the best place to stay was at the widow Gateau's, a boardinghouse on English Street.

Madame Gateau worked hard to make her guests comfortable, and so did her daughter, Mirette.

One evening a tall, sad-faced stranger arrived. He told Madame Gateau he was Bellini, a retired high-wire walker.

"I am here for a rest," he said.

The next afternoon, when Mirette came for the sheets, there was the stranger, crossing the courtyard on air! Mirette was enchanted.

Mirette worked up the courage to speak. "Excuse me, Monsieur Bellini, I want to learn to do that!" she cried.

Bellini sighed. "That would not be a good idea," he said. "Once you start, your feet are never happy again on the ground."

Finally she couldn't resist any longer. When Bellini was gone, she jumped up on the wire to try it herself. Her arms flailed like windmills. In a moment she was back on the ground. Bellini made it look so easy. Surely she could do it too if she kept trying.

In ten tries she balanced on one foot for a few seconds. In a day, she managed three steps without wavering. Finally, after a week of many, many falls, she walked the length of the wire. She couldn't wait to show Bellini.

He was silent for a long time. Then he said, "In the beginning everyone falls. Most give up. But you kept trying. Perhaps you have talent as well."

Bellini was a strict master.

"Never let your eyes stray," he told her day after day. "Think only of the wire, and of crossing to the end."

When she could cross dozens of times without falling, he taught her the wire-walker's salute. Then she learned to run, to lie down, and to turn a somersault.

One night an agent from Astley's Hippodrome in London rented a room. He noticed Bellini on his way to dinner.

"What a shock to see him here!" he exclaimed.

"See who?" asked a mime.

"Why, the great Bellini! Didn't you know he was in the room at the back?"

"Bellini ... the one who crossed Niagara Falls on a thousand-foot wire in ten minutes?" asked the mime.

Mirette raced to Bellini's room.

"Is it true?" she cried. "You did all those things? Why didn't you tell me? I want to do them too! I want to go with you!"

Bellini hesitated a long time. "Because I am afraid," he said at last.

Mirette was astonished. "Afraid?" she said. "But why?"

"Once you have fear on the wire, it never leaves," Bellini said.

Bellini paced his room for hours. It was terrible to disappoint Mirette! By dawn he knew that if he didn't face his fear at last, he could not face Mirette. He knew what he must do.

That night, when the agent returned, Bellini was waiting for him. The agent listened to Bellini's plan with mounting excitement.

L The next evening, Mirette heard the commotion in the street.

In the square was a hubbub. The crowd was so thick she couldn't see, at first, that the agent was aiming a spotlight at the sky.

"... return of the great Bellini!" he was yelling. Could it be? Mirette's heart hammered in her chest.

Bellini stepped out onto the wire and saluted the crowd. He took a step and then froze. The crowd cheered wildly. But something was wrong. Mirette knew at once what it was. For a moment she was as frozen as Bellini was.

Then she threw herself at the door behind her, ran inside, up flight after flight of stairs, and out through a skylight to the roof.

She stretched her hands to Bellini. He smiled and began to walk toward her. She stepped onto the wire, and with the most intense pleasure, as she had always imagined it might be, she started to cross the sky.

"Protegee of the Great Bellini!" shouted the agent. He was beside himself, already planning the world tour of Bellini and Mirette.

As for the master and his pupil, they were thinking only of the wire, and of crossing to the end.

From MIRETTE ON THE HIGH WIRE by Emily Arnold McCully Text and illustrations copyright 1992 by Emily Arnold McCully. Reprinted by permission of G.P. Putnam's Sons, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.