Four spotlights blazed mercilessly on the tiny figure silhouetted against the dark of a summer night and below him a vast crowd sat silent watching a drama which they knew could well end in death
Pierre Hurette was about to walk the high wire 100 feet above the Paris Olympiadrome in July 1930 against all the advice of doctors, friends and wellwishers and he knew it could well be the climax — or the end — of his career.
Four weeks earlier Hurette had been taken deeply unconscious from a circus ring in the French city of Limoges and rushed to hospital with a fractured arm and numerous other injuries. His partner of ten years, Paul de Champ had made a more leisurely trip. To the mortuary.
Hurette had been born into circus life. His parents were trapeze artistes and there was no question that he would become one, too.
By the summer of 1930 Hurette and his partner de Champ were Europe's most successful high-wire act appearing before the rich and famous, including Britain's King George V.
Hurette was the strong man of the team, balancing heavy poles vertically on his shoulders as he stepped out into space on a half-inch steel hawser, while de Champ, perched precariously on the poles, would perform intricate juggling routines.
They had no safety net, no ropes to grab should anything go wrong, and for 10 years nothing had. But this was to change tragically and dramatically in June 1930 when near the end of their act Hurette was seen to falter.
A split second later, de Champ had toppled from his shoulders and plunged 70ft to the ground. Hurette, trying to grab him as he fell, tumbled off the wire, grabbed it with one hand and hung there in the spotlights glare.
Then he too fell, but by then a safety net had been swung underneath him which partially broke his fall. He was in hospital for several weeks, racked with pain and remorse over his partner's death, which he believed was his fault.
Against all medical advice he discharged himself from hospital and caught a train to Paris where the act had been booked for the Olympiadrome. His manager had tried to cancel the engagement but Hurette wouldn't hear of it.
"Paul would want me to carry on," he said. "I must do it, if only for him." But patently he was in no state to venture onto the high wire. His arm was still bandaged and his ribs strapped with tape.
An hour before the performance friends were still trying to persuade him to call off the performance or at least postpone it but he refused. His manager, Georges Pamentier was later to recall: "I told him he was mad to even contemplate performing but if he insisted I would assemble the equipment, as I always did, but would take no responsibility for what might happen.
"I was so convinced he would fall that I arranged for a doctor and an ambulance to be standing by. Then I went out into the audience and prepared for the worst."
The vast open-air arena was crammed to capacity for the gala performance which included the best of French and European circus acts. A hush fell on the crowd as Pierre Hurette climbed the rope-ladder leading to the high wire.
He was 30, a stocky dark-haired man with a determination and hard-headedness and certainly not the sort to believe in the paranormal. But the next few minutes were to change all that.
Georges Parmentier later remembered: "He began to walk along the high wire and I held my breath. It was the first time he had been up there since the accident and I knew what torture he must be suffering.
"Halfway across he began to sway. The crowd thought it was all part of the act but I knew differently. I knew he was going to fall. It was then, according to countless eye-witnesses that something astonishing happened...It was as though someone else was on the tightrope, too.
Said Georges Pamantier: "As we watched some unseen force steadied Pierre and then moved along the wire to where a safety rope was hanging. As we watched, the rope was swung towards Pierre, who grabbed it and was able to reach safety.
"Pierre couldn't possibly have reached the rope himself — it was a good 20 feet away. It was as though someone was on the hire wire with him, looking after him and saving his life."
When he reached the ground, dazed and shaking, Hurette was in no doubt about what had happened. He told Pamentier: "Paul was up there with me. He held me and he gave me the rope.
"At least it shows that he bears me no grudge over what happened. I will always be grateful for knowing that." For the rest of his life, until his death in 1969, Pierre Hurette remained convinced that a ghost had saved his life on the high wire.
And 30,000 spectators in the Paris Olympiadrome could bear witness to that. After all, they saw it happen.