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down the trade of a repairing watchmaker, and I can
always honor the skill employed in repairing a watch by
doing as little as possible.

Sometimes, it may be remarked, a watch comes back
from the mender's in as bad a state as when it went. It
is true, but with whom is the fault ? In my belief, with
the public. In the country, more especially, it is impossi-
ble to perform repairs conscientiously, for the public bar-
gain about their watch or clock as they would do in buying
vegetables. The consequence is, the watchmaker is forced
to compound with his conscience, and the customer loses
his money.

One thing is certain : I did not like the trade, and I
was growing atrociously idle. But if I were cold and in-
dolent as regarded watch repairing, I felt a devouring
need for activity in some other department. To satisfy
this, I gave myself up entirely to an amusement which
delighted me I became an amateur actor.

No one, I fancy, can blame me for this ; for, among
those who read my confessions, I am sure there is hardly
one who has not performed in some shape. From the boy
who recites a speech at the school distribution of prizes,
up to the old gentleman who often accepts the part of
" heavy father " at one of those agreeable parties arranged
on long winter evenings, not one but enjoys the sweet
satisfaction of being applauded. I, too, had this weak-
ness ; and, urged on by my travelling recollections, I
wished to appear once more before the public, who had
already treated me so kindly.

Some young friends joined me in forming a light comedy


company, and I had the pleasure of performing all Perlet's
parts in the most fashionable pieces of the day. Our per-
formance was gratis : hence, I need not say we had
crowded audiences. Of course, too, we wore all wonder-
ful actors at least, people told us so and our gratified
self-love found no cause for refusing their praise.

Unfortunately for our brilliant success, rivalry and
wounded feelings, as so frequently happens, produced
discord among us, and at last only the hair-dresser and
candle-snuffer were left of our goodly company. These
two faithful followers, finding themselves thus abandoned,
held a council, and, after mature deliberation, decided that
they would accept each other's resignation, as they could
not perform alone. In order to explain the heroic per-
sistency of these two artistes, I may as well state they
were the only persons paid for their services.

My father regretted to see me leave work for pleasure,
and, in order to bring me back to healthy ideas, he formed
a plan which must have the double advantage of improv-
ing my conduct, and tying me down to his side : in short,
he meant to establish me in business, and make me marry.

I do not know or, rather, I will not say why I de-
clined the latter proposal, under the pretext that I felt no
inclination for marriage. As for my beginning business, I
easily made my father understand that I was too young
even to dream of it. But I had hardly intimated my re-
fusal^ when a very simple circumstance entirely changed
my views, and made me forget all my oaths of fidelity to
a certain party.

The success my acting had met with procured me ad-
mission to certain salons, where I often spent an agreeable
evening ; for acting went on here, too, in the shape of


One evening, we were requested, as usual, to enliven
the visitors by one of our proverbs. I do not remember
the word proposed ; I only know I was chosen to fill the
part of a bachelor gourmet. I sat down to table, and
while indulging in a meal like those usually served up at
a theatre, I improvised a warm defence of celibacy. This
apology was all the more easy to me, as I needed only to
repeat the fine arguments I had employed to my father
about his double proposition. Now, it happened that,
among the persons listening to this description of the
blessings of celibacy, was a young lady of seventeen, who
inclined a serious ear to my arguments against marriage.
It was the first time I had met her ; so I could not ascribe
any other reason for her fixed attention than her desire to
detect the word.

A man is always delighted to find an attentive listener,
more especially when it is a pretty young girl : hence, I
thought it my bounden duty to make some polite remarks
to her during the course of the evening. A conversation
ensued, and became so interesting, that we had a great
deal still to say to each other when the hour came for
separation, and I believe the regret at parting was not felt
by myself alone.

This simple event was, however, the cause of my mar-
riage with Mademoiselle Houdin, and this marriage took
me to Paris. The reader will now understand why my
name is Robert-Houdin ; but I have also to add that this
double name, which ,1 at first assumed to distinguish me
from my numerous homonymes, eventually became my
patronymic, by a decision of the council of state. I may
be pardoned for remarking that this favor, always so
difficult to obtain, was granted me in consideration of the
popularity my long and laborious toil had gained me while
using that name.


My father in-law, M. Houdin, a celebrated watchmaker,
was a native of Blois, and had gone to Paris, as a better
field for his talents. He was now engaged in the whole-
sale clock trade, while making, with his own hands, astro-
nomical clocks, chronometers, and regulators. It was
agreed that we should live together, and that I should help
him in his business.

M. Houdin was quite as fond as myself of everything
appertaining to mechanism, and was thoroughly versed in
the subject. Hence, we had long and interesting conver-
sations on the topic, and at the end of one of these I con-
fided to him my scheme of setting up a room for the dis-
play of mechanical toys and sleight-of-hand tricks. M.
Houdin understood me, adopted my plans, and urged me
to carry on my studies in the path I had chosen. Proud
of the approbation of a man with whose extreme prudence
I was acquainted, I gave myself up seriously, during my
leisure hours, to my favorite exercises, and began by con-
triving some instruments for my future cabinet.

My first care, on arriving at Paris, was to attend a per-
formance of Comte's, who had long lorded it in his theatre
at the Gallery Choiseul. This celebrated professor was
now resting on his laurels, and only performed once a
week. The other evenings were devoted to the perform-
ances of his young actors, who were perfect prodigies.

Many of my readers will remember his bills, with their
singular announcement of the principal parts performed
aged 6. These baby actors attracted the whole of Paris.

Comte might have left the stage entirely, and contented
himsely with being manager and dry-nurse to these child-
ren of Thalia, for he possessed a very comfortable fortune ;


but he made it a point to appear at least once a week,
from a double motive : his performances, owing to their
rarity, always exercised a beneficial effect on the receipts ;
and, on the other hand, by continuing to act he prevented
other professors of conjuring setting up in opposition to

Comte's tricks were all drawn from the same repertory
I knew by heart ; hence they had no great interest for me ;
still I derived some profit from attending his perform-
ances, for I was enabled to study the audience.

I listened attentively to all said around me, and often
heard very judicious remarks. These being generally
made by persons not apparently gifted with great penetra-
tion, led me to the conclusion that the conjurer ought to
distrust plain mother wit, and I worked out the problem
to my own satisfaction : " that it is easier to dupe a clever
man than an ignorant one."

This seems to be a paradox ; but I will explain it.

The ordinary man only sees in conjuring tricks a chal-
lenge offered to his intelligence, and hence representations
of sleight-of-hand become to him a combat in which he de-
termines on conquering. Ever on his guard against the
honeyed words by means of which the illusion is produced,
he hears nothing, and shuts himself up in this inflexible
reasoning :

" The conjurer," he says, " holds in his hand an object,
which he pretends he makes disappear. Well, whatever
he may say to distract my attention, my eyes shall not
leave his hand, and the trick cannot be done without my
finding out how he manages it."

It follows that the conjurer, whose artifices are princi-
pally directed to the mind, must double his address to de-
lude this obstinate resistance.


The clever man, on the contrary, when he visits a con-
juring performance, only goes to enjoy the illusions, and,
far from offering the performer the slightest obstacle, he
is the first to aid him. The more he is deceived the more
he is pleased, for that is what he paid for. He knows,
too, that these amusing deceptions cannot injure his repu-
tation as an intelligent man, and hence he yields to the
professor's arguments, follows them through all their de-
velopments, and allows himself to be easily put off the
right scent.

Is not my problem proved ?

Comte was also an object of interesting study to me,
both as manager and as artist. As manager, Comte could
have challenged the most skillful to a comparison, and he
was a famous hand at bringing grist to his mill. The
little schemes a manager employs to attract the public and
increase his receipts are tolerably well known ; but Comte,
for a long time, did not require to have recourse to them,
as his room was always crowded. At length the day
arrived when the benches allowed some elbow room ; then
he invented his " family tickets," his "medals," his "re-
served boxes for the prize-holders at schools and colleges,"
&c., &c.

The family tickets gave admission to four persons at
half price. Though all Paris was inundated with them,
every one into whose hands one of these tickets came be-
lieved himself specially favored by Comte, and none failed
to respond to his appeal. What the manager lost in
quality he amply regained in quantity.

But Comte did not stop here ; he also wished that his
rose-colored tickets (the name he gave his family tickets)
should bring him a small pecuniary profit, as compensation
for reduced prices. He therefore offered each person who


presented one of these tickets a copper medal, on which
his name was engraved, and asked in exchange the sum
of one penny. Suppose the ticket-holder declined, he was
not admitted, and when matters came to that pass, people
always paid.

It may be said that a penny was a trifle ; but with this
trifle Comte paid for his lights ; at least he said so, and
he may be believed.

During the holidays the pink tickets disappeared, and
made room for those reserved for the school prize boys,
which were far more productive than the others, for what
parents could deny their sons the acceptance of M. Comte's
invitation, when they could promise themselves the ex-
treme pleasure of seeing their beloved boys in a box ex-
clusively occupied by crowned heads? The parents, con-
sequently, accompanied their children, and for a gratis
ticket the manager netted six or seven fold the value of
his graceful liberality.

I could mention many other ways Comte augmented his
receipts by. but I will only allude to one more.

If you arrived a little late, and the length of the queue
made you fear the places would be all taken, you had only
to enter a small cafe* adjoining the theatre, and opening
into the Rue Ventadour. You paid a trifle more for your
cup of coffee or your glass of liqueur, but you were quite
sure that before the public were admitted the waiter would
open a secret door, allowing you to reach the paying-place
in comfort and choose your seat. In fact, Comte's cafe"
was a true box-office, except that the spectator received
something in return for the sum usually charged for re-
serving seats.

As artist, Comte possessed the double talent of ventri-
loquism and sleight-of-hand. His tricks were performed


skillfully and with a good share of dash, while his perform-
ances generally pleased, for the ladies were treated most
gallantly. My readers may judge for themselves from
the following trick, which I believe was his own invention,
and which always pleased me when I saw it.

This experiment was called " The Birth of the Flowers,"
and it began with a short address in the shape of agreea-
ble pleasantry.

" Ladies," the professor said, " I propose on the present
occasion to make twelve of you disappear from the pit,
twenty from the first circle, and seventy-two from the

After the burst of laughter this pleasantry always pro-
duced, Comte added : " Reassure yourselves, gentlemen ;
in order not to deprive you of the most graceful ornament
of this room, I will not perform this experiment till the
end of the evening," This compliment, spoken very mo-
destly, was always excellently received.

Comte proceeded to perform the trick in this way :

After sowing seeds in some earth contained in a small
cup, he spread over this earth some burning, liquid and
covered it with a bell, which, as he said, was intended to
concentrate the heat and stimulate vegetation. In fact, a
few seconds later, a boquet of varied flowers appeared in
the cup. Comte distributed them among the ladies who
graced the boxes, and during this distribution contrived
to "plant" the following graceful remarks: "Madam, I
keep a pansy (pensSe) for you. It will be my care, gen-
tlemen, that you find no cares (soucis) here. Mademoi-
selle, here is a rose which you have forced to blush with

Before long the little bouquet was exhausted, but sud-
denly the conjurer's hands were liberally filled with flowers.



Then with an air of triumph, he exclaimed, displaying the
flowers which had come as if by enchantment :

" I promised to metamorphose all these ladies : could I
choose a form more graceful and pleasing? In metam-
orphosing you all into roses, I am only offering a copy for
the original. Tell me, gentlemen, have I not succeeded?"

These gallant words were always greeted by a salvo of

On another occassion, Comte, while offering a rose and
a pansy to a lady, said : " I find you here, madam, exactly
depicted. The rose represents your freshness and beauty ;
the pansy your wit and talent."

He also said, in allusion to the ace of hearts, which he had
" passed " on one of the most beautiful women in the room :
" Will you be kind enough, madam, to lay your hand on
your heart ? You have only one heart I presume ? Par-
don my indiscreet question, but it was necessary; for,
though you have only one heart, you might possess them all. "

Comte was equally gallant towards sovereigns.

At the end of a performance he gave at the Tuilleries,
before Louis XVIII., he invited his majesty to select a
card from the pack. It may be that chance led the king to
draw his majesty of hearts ; it may be, though, that the
conjurer's address produced this result. During this time,
a servant placed on an isolated table a vase filled with

Comte next took a pistol loaded with powder, in which
he inserted the king of hearts as a wad ; then, turning to
his august spectator, he begged him to fix his eye on the
vase, as the card would appear just over it. The pistol
was fired, and the bust of Louis XVIII. appeared among
the flowers.

The King, not knowing how to explain this unexpected


result, asked Comte the meaning of this strange appari-
tion, adding, in a slightly sarcastic tone,

"I fancy, sir, that your trick has not ended as you

"I beg your majesty's pardon," Comte replied, assum-
ing the manner of a courtier; "I have quite kept my
promise. I pledged myself that the king of hearts should
appear on that vase, and I appeal to all Frenchmen
whether that bust does not represent the King of all

It may be easily supposed that this trick was heartily
applauded by the audience. In fact, the the Royal Journal
of the 20th December, 1814, thus describes the end of the
performance :

" The whole audience exclaimed, in reply M. Comte,
'We recognise him it is he the king of all hearts !
the beloved of the French of the whole universe Louis
XVIII., the august grandson of Henri Quatre?'

" The King, much affected by these warm acclamations,
complimented M. Comte on his skill.

" 'It would be a pity,' he said to him, l to order such a
talened sorcerer to be burnt alive. You have caused us
too much pleasure for us to cause you pain. Live many
years for yourself, in the first place, and then for us.' '

But though Comte was so amiable to the ladies, he was
pitiless to gentlemen. It would be a long story were I to
describe all the spiteful allusions and mystifications to which
his masculine spectators were exposed. For instance, there
was his ace of heart's trick, which he ended by producing
aces from every part of his victim's body, who knew not
what saint to implore in order to stop this avalanche of
cards. Then, again, there was the ball-headed gentlemen
who had politely lent his hat, and received a volley of com-
pliments of the following nature :


"This article must belong to you," said Comte, drawing
a wig from the hat. "Aha, sir! it appears you are a
family man. Here are socks then a bib a chemise
a charming little frock," and as the public laughed heartily,
"on my faith, a goody-two-shoes!" he added producing a
pair of shoes. " Nothing is wanting for the dress not even
the stays and their laces. I suppose, sir, you thought you
could stay my tongue when you placed that article in your

Ventriloquism added a great charm to Comte's perform-
ances, as it gave rise to numerous little scenes that pro-
duced a striking effect. This faculty too often suggested
to him curious mystifications, the best of them (if such a
thing can ever be good) being reserved for his travels,
when they served as a puff of his performances, and helped
to attract crowds.

At Tours, for instance, he induced the people to break
in four doors, in order to rescue an unhappy man supposed
to be dying of hunger. At Nevers he renewed the mira-
cle of Balaam's ass, by causing a donkey that was weary
of its master's weight, to lift up its voice in complaint.
One night, too, he caused a profound consternation in a
diligence, for a dozen brigands were heard at the doors
shouting, "Money, or your life!" The terrified passen-
gers hastened to hand their purses and watches to Comte,
who offered to treat with the robbers, and they retired
apparently satisfied with their spoil. The passengers
were glad to have escaped so cheaply, and the next
morning, to their still greater satisfaction, the ventriloquist
returned them the tribute they had paid to their fears,
and explained to them the talent by which they had
been duped.

Another time, at Macon fair, he saw a country-woman


driving a pig before her, which could hardly move, so laden
was it with fat.

" What's the price of your pig, my good woman ?"

" A hundred francs, my good looking gentleman, at your
service, if you wish to buy."

" Of course I wish to buy ; but it is a great deal too
much: I can offer you ten crowns."

" I want one hundred francs, no more and no less : take
it or leave it."

"Stay," Comte said, approaching the animal; "I am
sure your pig is more reasonable than you. Tell, me on
your conscience, my fine fellow, are you worth one hundred

"You are a long way out," the pig replied, in a hoarse
and hollow voice ; "I'm not worth one hundred pence. I
am meazled, and my mistress is trying to take you in."

The crowd that had assembled round the woman and pig
fell back in terror, fancying them both bewitched, while
Comte returned to his hotel, where the story was told him
with sundry additions, and he learned that some courageous
persons had gone up to the woman, begged her to be exor-
cised, and thus drive the unclean spirit out of the pig.

Still, Comte did not always escape so easily; and ho
almost paid dearly for a trick he played on some peasants
at Fribourg, in Switzerland. These fanatics took him for
a real sorcerer, and attacked with sticks ; and they were
even going to throw him into a lime-kiln, had not Comte
escaped by causing a terrible voice to issue from the kiln,
which routed them.

I will end my account of these amusing adventures with
a little anecdote, in which Comte and myself were in turn
mystifier and mystified.

The celebrated ventriloquist paid me a visit at the


Palais Royal, and I accompanied him to the foot of the
stairs on his departure. Comte walked down before me, still
talking, so that the pockets of his coat were at my mercy.
The opportunity was too good to neglect the chance of
playing a trick on my talented confrere, so I filched his
handkerchief and a handsome gold snuff-box : and I took
care to turn the pocket inside out, as a proof that my per-
formance had been properly executed.

I was laughing at the comic result my trick must have
when I returned Comte his property ; but it was " diamond
cut diamond:" for, while I was thus violating the laws of
hospitality, Comte was scheming against me. I had
scarce concealed the handkerchief and box, when I heard
a strange voice on the first floor landing.

" Monsieur Robert-Houdin, will you be kind enough to
step up to the box-office: I wish to speak to you."

My readers will guess that the ventriloquist had played
me a trick ; indeed, on reaching the office, I only found
the clerk, who could not understand what I was talking
about. I perceived, too late that I was victimised, and I
heard Comte celebrating his victory by shouts of laughter.
For a moment, I confess I felt vexed at having been taken
in, but I soon regained my equanimity on thinking I
might have the best of it yet. So I went down stairs very

"What did that person want ?" Comte asked, with ill-
repressed delight.

" Can't you guess ?"

"I? no."

" It was a penitent thief, who begged me to return you
the articles he had filched from you. Here they are, my
master !"

" I prefer it to end so !" Comte said, returning his


pocket to its place. " We are now quits, and I hope we
shall always be good friends."

from all the preceding remarks it may be concluded
that the fundamental principles of Comte's performances
were mystifying gentlemen (sovereigns excepted), compli-
menting ladies, and jesting with everybody. Comte was
right in employing these means, as he generally gained
his object; for he delighted and raised a laugh. At this
period French manners justified such behavior, and the
professor, by flattering the taste and instincts of the
public, was sure to please.

There has been a great change since, and puns are no
longer held in such esteem ; banished from good society,
they have sought refuge in studios, when the pupils too
often make an immoderate use of them, and though they
may be permitted now and then among intimate friends,
they are not proper in a performance of sleight-of-hand.
The reason is very simple : not only do puns raise a belief
that the artist fancies himself a wit, which may be injuri-
ous to him, but, if he succeed in raising a laugh, it weakens
the interest felt in his experiments.

It is a recognised fact that, in those performances where
imagination plays the chief part, " astonishment is a hun-
dred-fold better than a silly laugh;" for, though the mind
may remember what has delighted it, laughter leaves no
trace on the memory.

Symbolical or complimentary language is also com-
pletely out of fashion, at least the age does not err in
excess of gallantry, and " musky " compliments would be
badly received in public. I have always thought, too,
that ladies visit a performance like mine in order to re-
fresh their minds, and not to be put in evidence them-
selves. They possibly prefer to remain simple lookers-on
rather than expose themselves to florid compliments.


As for mystification, a more powerful pen than mine
must undertake its apology.

In saying this, I have no wish to cast censure on Comte.
I am writing at this moment in accordance with the spirit

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 10 of 30)