Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer online

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sible to Italy. The Count dc Grisy was anxious to reas-
sume his name and revisit the scenes of past successes, for
he hoped there to become again the brilliant magician of
yore. God decided otherwise. Just as we were about
leaving Lyons, where we had been giving some successful
performances, he was suddenly seized with typhus fever,
which carried him off in a few days.

" I was his residuary legatee, and after paying the last
honors to a man to whom I had pledged my life, I began
realizing my small fortune. I sold the horses and travel-,
ling-carriage, and kept the apparatus, as I intended to use
it. I had no profession, so I thought I could not do
better than to take up one, for which the road was clear
before me, and I hoped that my name, to which my
brother-in-law had given a certain celebrity in France,
would assist me. It was very bold in me to try and fill
the place of such a master, but I thought my impudence
would answer as well as talent.

" Hence I called myself Signer Torrini, and, after the
fashion of my rivals, I added the title of ' first magician
of France.' Each of us is always the first and the most
skillful in the country where he happens to be, unless he
think proper to call himself the first in the whole world.
Conjuring is a profession in which, as you know, no one
errs through excess of modesty, and the custom of produc-
ing illusions facilitates this issue of bad money, which the
public, it is true, appreciates and sets its true value on.

"So it behaved to me, for, despite my pompous an-
nouncements, I frankly confess it did not recognize the
celebrity I claimed. On the contrary, my performances
were so little attended, that my receipts were hardly suffi-
cient for my existence. Still I went from town to town,
giving my performances, and nourishing myself more often


on hope than on reality. But the moment arrived when
this unsubstantial food no longer sufficed me, and I was
forced to stop. I had exhausted my resources : I had
nothing left but my instruments. My clothes were re-
duced to the sheerest necessity, and threatened to desert
me at any moment : thus hesitation was impossible. I
decided on selling my instruments, and, provided with the
small sum they produced me, I set out for Paris, the last
refuge of those whose talent is neglected and position

" In spite of my ill success, I had lost none of my stock
of philosophy, and, though not very happy, I was full of
hope in the future. Yes, my friend yes, I had a pre-
sentiment at that time of the brilliant position fate re-
served for me, and to which it lead me, I may say, by the

" Once arrived at Paris, I hired a modest room, and
determined to live as savingly as possible, in order to make
my money hold out. You see that, in spite of my confi-
dence in the future, I took some precautions, so as not to
run the risk of dying of hunger; but you will allow I
acted wrong in not trusting entirely to my lucky star.

" I had hardly been in Paris a week, when I met an old
comrade, a Florentine, who used to perform as second
basso in my old theatre. He, too, had been maltreated
by Fortune, and having come to Paris, he found himself
reduced to accept a situation in the chorus of the Opera.
When I had revealed my position to him, he told me a tenor
situation was vacant in the chorus, and advised me to try
and get it : I accepted the offer with pleasure, though, of
course, as merely transitional, for I felt a pang at my
descent. Still, prudence suggested I had better guard
against want.


"I have often noticed," Antonio continued, "that those
events which inspire us with the greatest doubt, turn out
the most favorable, and mine was a case in point. As I
had a good deal of spare time, I thought I would employ
it in giving singing lessons. I, therefore described myself as
a singer at the Opera, while concealing the position I occu-
pied there. Procuring my first pupil was as difficult as
saving the first hundred pounds towards a fortune, and I
had to wait a long time. At length I caught him ; then
others ; and, gradually, I had enough pupils to enable me
to leave the theatre.

" I must tell you this determination had another reason.
I loved one of my lady pupils, and she returned my affec-
tion. Under such circumstances, it was not prudent
to remain a chorus-singer, which might have impeded
my views. You naturally expect some romantic adven-
ture ; but nothing could be more simple than the event
which crowned our loves it was marriage.

"Madame Torrini, whom you will see presently, was
the daughter of a retired laceman. Her father, a widower,
with no other children, had no will but his daughter's, and
he accepted my offers. He was the worthiest of men;
but, unfortunately we lost him two years ago. I retired
from my professional duties on the fortune he left us, and
I now live happily and calmly, in a position which realizes
my most brilliant dreams of old. This is another proof,"
my philosophic friend said, in conclusion, "that, however
precarious may be the position in which a man finds him-
self, he ought never to despair of luck turning."

My story was not so long as Antonio's, for with the
exception of my marriage, there was no event worthy nar-
rating. I told him, however of my long illness, and tho
work that had brought it on, and I had scarce ended, when


Madame Torrini entered the room. My friend's wife re-
ceived me most kindly, saying :

"I have known you, sir, for a long time, as Antonio
told me your history, which caused me to feel the greatest
interest, and my husband and myself often regretted we
could not hear of you. Now, however, M. Robert," she
added, " that we have found you, consider yourself an old
friend of the family and come to see us often."

I profited by this kind invitation, and more than once
went to seek consolation and encouragement from these
worthy friends.

Antonio still took an interest in conjuring, although it
was a mere distraction by which he amused his friends.
Still, not a conjurer announced his performance but he
went to see him. One morning he entered my workshop
in great haste.

"Look here," he said, offering me a paper, "as you run
after all the celebrated conjurers, here is one that will
astonish you. Read."

I took the paper eagerly, and read the following puff:

" The famous Bosco, who can conjure away a house as
easily as a nutmeg, is about to give his performances at
Paris, in which some miraculous tricks will be executed."

"Well, what do you say to that?" Antonio asked me.

" A man must possess very great talent to undertake
the responsibility of such praise. After all, I think the
journalist is amusing himself at the expense of his readers,
and that the famous Bosco only exists in his columns."

" You are quite wrong, my dear Robert : this conjurer
is not an imaginary being, for not only have I read this
puff in several papers, but I even saw Bosco last night at
a cafe", giving some specimens of his skill, and announcing
his first performance for next Tuesday."


" If it be so," I said to my friend, " I must ask you to
spend the evening with M. Bosco, and I will come and
call for you."

" Done," said Antonio, " mind and call for me on Tues-
day at half-past seven, as the performance commences at

: At the appointed time we proceeded to the Rue Chan-
tereine, where the performance was announced. At the
money-taker's we found ourselves face to face with a stout
gentleman, dressed in a coat adorned with frogs and
trimmed with fur, making him look like a Russian prince
on his travels. Antonio nudged me with his elbow, and
said, in a whisper, " That's he !"

"Who's he?"

"Why, Bosco."

" All the worse," I said ; " I am sorry for him."

" Explain yourself, for I do not understand the harm a
Boyard's dress can do a man."

" My friend, I do not blame M. Bosco so much for his
dress as for occupying his present place. I think an ar-
tiste cannot be too chary of his person off the stage ; there
is so much difference between the man whom an entire au-
dience listens to and applauds, and the director who
comes openly to watch his paltry interests, that the latter
must injure the former."

During this conversation, my friend and myself had en-
tered the room and taken our seats. According to the
idea I had formed of a magician's laboratory, I expected
to find myself before a curtain whose large folds, when
withdrawn, would display before my dazzled eyes a bril-
liant stage ornamented with apparatus worthy of the
celebrity announced ; but my illusions on this subject soon
faded away.


A curtain had been considered superfluous, and the
stage was open. Before me was a long three-storied side-
board, entirely covered with black serge. This lugubrious
buffet was adorned with a number of wax candles, among
which glistened the apparatus. At the topmost point of
this strange etargere was a death's-head, much surprised,
I have no doubt, at finding itself at such a festival, and it
quite produced the effect of a funeral service.

In front of the stage, and near the spectators, was a ta-
ble covered by a brown cloth, reaching to the ground, on
which five brass cups were symmetrically arranged. Fi-
nally, above this table hung a copper ball, which strangely
excited my curiosity.*

For the life of me I could not imagine what this was
for, so I determined to wait till Bosco came to explain it.
Antonio had entered into conversation with his neighbor,
who spoke in the most enthusiastic manner of the perform-
ance we were about to witness. The silvery sound of a
small bell put an end to my reverie and to my friend's
conversation, and Bosco appeared on the stage.

The artiste had changed his costume : he had substituted
for the Russian great-coat a little black velvet jacket, fas-
tened round the waist by a leathern belt of the same color.
His sleeves were excessively short, and displayed a hand-
some arm. He wore loose black trousers, ornamented at
the bottom with a ruche of lace, and a large white collar
round his neck. This strange attire bore considerable re-
semblance to the classical costume of the Scapins in our

* Since this period Bosco has changed his stage decorations : his
cloths have altered their colors, his candles are shorter, but the death's-
head, the ball, the costume, and the tricks, have ever remained the


After making a majestic bow to his audience, the cele-
brated conjurer walked silently and with measured steps
up to the famous copper ball. After convincing himself
it was solidly hung, he took up his wand, which he wiped
with a white handkerchief, as if to remove any foreign in-
fluence ; then, with imperturbable gravity, he struck the
ball thrice with it, pronouncing, amid the most solemn
silence, this imperious sentence : Spiriti miei infernali,

I, like a simpleton, scarce breathed in my expectation
of some miraculous result, but it was only an innocent
pleasantry, a simple introduction to the performance" with
the cups. I was, I confess, rather disappointed, for, in
my opinion, this performance was only suited for the pub-
lic streets, and I did not expect any one would venture it
on a Paris stage in 1838. I was justified in this view, as
two persons, Miette and Lesprit, might be daily seen going
through this performance in the streets. Still, I must say
that Bosco displayed great skill, and was heartily ap-
plauded by the public.

"Well," Antonio's neighbor said, victoriously, "was I
not right is he not remarkably clever? But you'll see,
that's nothing as yet."

Either Antonio was in a bad temper, or the performance
did not please him, for he could not "plant " the admira-
tion he had been quite prepared to bestow. In fact, he
became most impatient when Bosco commenced the
"pigeon trick." Still, it must be allowed that the mise
en scene and the execution were of a nature to irritate
nerves even less sensitive than my friend's.

A servant placed on small tables on either side the stage
two small blocks of black wood, on each of which a death's-
head was painted. They were the blocks for the culprits.


Bosco then came forward, holding a knife in one hand and
a black pigeon in the other.

" Here is a pizon" (I forgot to state that Bosco spoke
with a strong Italian accent) " zat has behaved badly. I
am going to cut off his head ; zall it be, ladies, wiz blood
or wizout ?" (This was one of his strong points.)

Some people laughed, but the ladies hesitated to reply
to this strange question.

"Without blood," a spectator said. Bosco then placed
the pigeon's head on the block and cut it off, being careful
to press the neck, and prevent the effusion of blood.

"You zee, ladies," the operator said, "zat ze pizon
does not bleed, as you ordered."

"With blood," suppose another spectator said. Then
Bosco loosened the artery, and let the blood run on a
plate, which he handed round for inspection. The head,
after being cut off, was placed upright on one of the
blocks; and Bosco, taking advantage of a convulsive
movement, which caused the beak to open, made this bar-
barous jest: "Come, mossiou, bow to zis amiable com-
pany now once more. Ah, ah, zat is right."

The public listened, but no longer laughed.

The same operation was performed on a white pigeon
without the slightest variation, after which Bosco placed
the bodies in two false-bottomed boxes, being careful to
put the black head with the white pigeon, and the white
head with the black one. Then he repeated his conjura-
tions over the boxes, and when he opened them, a black
pigeon came with a white head, and a white one with a
black head. Each of the culprits, according to Bosco,
had been restored to life, and assumed its comrade's head.

" Well, what do you think of that ?" Antonio's neighbor
asked him, as he clapped vociferously.


"To tell you the truth," my friend replied, "I must
say the trick is not very wonderful. Besides, I should
like it better were it performed with less cruelty."

"Ah, you have delicate nerves, I see," the neighbor
said ; " perhaps you experience similar sensations when
you see a fowl killed and put on the spit?"

"Allow me, sir, before answering you," my friend re-
plied, sharply, to ask if I have come here to see a kitchen
performance ?

The discussion was growing warm, and was rather
savage in its tone, when a third party terminated the dis-
pute by the following jest :

" Hang it, sir," he said to Antonio, " if you do not like
cruelty, at any rate do not disgust other people with it."

Bosco now returned on the stage with a canary in his

"Zentlemen," he said, "this is Piarot: he is very
polite, and zall zalute you. Come, Piarot, do your duty."
And he pinched the bird's claws with such force that the
unfortunate tried to escape from this cruel clutch. Over-
come by pain, it bent down over the juggler's hand, utter-
ing cries of distress.

" Zat is good ; I am zatisfied wiz you. You see, ladies,
he not only zalutes you, but he says * Good-night.' Con-
tinue, Piarot, you zall be rewarded."

The same torture made the bird bow twice more, and to
reward it its master placed it in the hands of a lady,
begging her to keep it. But during the passage the bird
had ended its life, and reached the lady's hand dead.
Bosco had strangled it.

" Oh, gt>od Heavens, madam !" the conjurer exclaimed,
"I believe you have killed my Piarot you zall have
squeezed him too moch. Piarot Piarot!" he added,


tossing the bird in the air, " Piarot, answer to me. Ah,
madam, he is dezidedly dead. What zall my wife say
when she sees Bosco arrive wizout his Piarot : quite zurely
I zall be beaten by Madame Bosco." (I must observe,
here, that all I describe is literally true.)

This bird was interred in a large box, whence, after
fresh conjurations, a living bird came out. This new
victim was fated to suffer shorter agony. It was thrust
alive into the barrel of a large pistol, and Bosco, holding a
sword in his hand, begged a spectator to fire at the point
of the weapon he held out to him. The pistol was fired,
and a third victim was seen spitted on the point of the

Antonio rose. "Let us go," he said, "for I am turn-
ing sick."

I have seen Bosco several times since then, and each
time I studied him carefully, not only to try and explain
the cause of the great fashion he enjoyed, but also to be
able to compare the various opinions expressed about this
celebrated man. Here are some deductions drawn from
my observations.

Bosco's performances generally please a large number,
for the public suppose that, through some inexplicable ad-
dress, the bird-murders are simply feigned, and, tranquil,
on this point, they indulge in all the pleasure caused by
the talent of the conjurer and the originality of his accent.

Bosco has a quaint and full-sounding name, adapted to
become popular, and no one knows better than he how to
take advantage of it. Neglecting no opportunity for
notoriety, he performs at any hour of the day, whatever
may be the quality and number of the spectators. In a
coach, at a table d'hote, in cafe's or shops, he never fails
to give some specimen of his skill, by juggling a coin, a
ring, and so on.


The witnesses of these little improvised performances
consider themselves bound to return Bosco's politeness, by
attending his public performance. They have formed the
acquaintance of the celebrated conjurer, and are obliged
to sustain the reputation of their new friend. Hence, they
urge all their acquaintances to go also, puff off the per-
formance, and thus the room is always full.

It must also be mentioned that numerous accomplices
help Bosco's popularity materially. Each of them, it is
known, is instructed to hand the magician a handkerchief,
shawl, watch, &c., which he has in double. This allows
him to pass them with an appearance of magic or skill,
into a cabbage, a loaf, a box, or any other object. These
accomplices, while aiding in the conjurer's experiments,
have a great interest in securing their success : for their
self-love finds its profit in the success of the mystification.
Besides, they have no objection to accept some of the ap-
plause as their due : hence, the magician has as many
admirers as accomplices, and the influence a dozen intelli-
gent prompters can exert in a room is well known.

Such were the influences which, joined to Bosco's talent,
gained him a great renown for many years.



A Reverse of Fortune Cookery and Clockwork The Artist's Home
Invention of an Automaton Voluntary Exile A modest Villa
The Inconveniences of a Speciality Two August Visitors The
Throat of a mechanical Nightingale The Tiou and the Rrrrrrrrouit
Seven Thousand Francs earned by making Filings.

IN the meanwhile I worked indefatigably at my au-
tomata, hoping that when these were completed, I should
be able to establish myself permanently. But, in spite of
my activity, I advanced very slowly towards the realiza-
tion of my long-deferred hopes.

Only an inventor can know the value of a day's work
on the gloomy road to success in combining automata.
Numberless trials and deceptions of every nature foil at
any moment the best-conceived plans, and seem to realize
the pleasant story about reaching the end of a journey
by making two steps forward and three backward.

I performed this wearisome progress during six months,
and, at the end of -that time, though I had several speci-
mens far advanced, it was still impossible for me to fix the
period when they would be quite finished. In order not
to defer my appearance before the public, I therefore re-
solved to begin with my conjuring tricks and such au-
tomata as were ready. I had arranged with an architect,
who was to help me in finding a suitable site for a thea-
tre, but I had scarce taken my first steps, when an un-
foreseen catastrophe ruined both my father-in-law and


This reverse of fortune threw me into a state of abject
despondency, for I saw, to iny terror, the realization of
my plans indefinitely postponed. I could no longer think
of inventing machines, but must work, day by day, to
support my large family. I had four children, all very
young, and this was a heavy burden on a man who had
never yet thought of his own interests.

The vulgar truth, " Time dissipates the severest griefs,"
is not the less true from being so often repeated ; and it
was the case with me. I was at first as wretched as man
could well be ; then my despair gradually died away, and
made room for sorrow and resignation. At last, as it is
not my nature to keep up a melancholy character long, I
ended by accepting the situation. Then the future,
which had appeared so gloomy, assumed a different face,
and, by a gradual process of reasoning, I began to indulge
in reflections whose consoling philosophy restored my

" Why should I despair?" I said to myself. "At my
age, time itself is a fortune, and I have a . considerable
reserve fund of that. Besides, who knows whether
Providence, by sending me this trial, has not wished to
delay an undertaking that was not yet quite assured of

In fact, what had I to offer the public that would over-
come the indifference a new performer always inspires ?
improved conjuring tricks! Those, I thought, would
not prevent me failing, for I was unaware at that period
that, in order to please the public, an idea must be, if not
novel, at least completely transformed, so that it cannot
be recognized. Only in that way can an artiste escape a
remark that always fills him with dread "I have seen
thit before." My automata and mechanical curiosities



would not have betrayed the hopes I built upon them, but
I had too few, and the specimens I had in hand still re-
quired years of study and labor.

These wise reflections restored my courage, and, re-
signed to my new situation, I resolved to effect an utter
reform in my budget. I had nothing more to look for
than what I earned with my own hands, so I hired a
modest lodging, at three hundred francs a year, in the Rue
du Temple. It consisted of a room, a cabinet and a stove
in a cupboard, to which my proprietor gave the name of
kitchen. I converted the largest room into our common
sleeping apartment, the cabinet served as my workshop,
while the stove kitchen was used to prepare our modest

My wife, though in delicate health, undertook the house-
hold department. Fortunately, this was not very labori-
ous, as our meals were most modest ; and as our rooms
were limited in number, there was not much moving about
required. The proximity of our mutual laboratories had
also this double advantage, that, whenever my house-
keeper was absent,- I could watch the pot-au-feu or stir a
ragout without leaving my levers, wheels and cogs.

These vulgar occupations for an artiste will make many
a reader smile, but when a man cannot afford to keep a
servant, and the quality of the dinner, consisting of a
single dish, depends on the care devoted to it, it is better
to pocket one's dignity and attend to the culinary depart-
ment, at any rate, without feeling false shame. However,
it appears that I performed my confidential mission ad-
mirably, for my exactitude gained me abundant praise.
Still, I must confess that I had very slight talent foi
cooking, and this boasted exactitude was produced by my
fear of incurring the reproaches of my head cook.


This humble existence was less painful to me than I
had imagined. I had always been moderate, and the
privation of succulent dishes affected me very little. My
wife, surrounded by her children, to whom she devoted
her utmost care, seemed equally happy, while hoping for
better times to come.

I had resumed my first trade, that of repairing watches
and clocks. Still, this was only to secure our hand-to-
mouth existence, for all the while I was repairing I was
meditating a piece of clockwork, the success of which re-
stored some ease to our household. It was an alarum,
which was thus arranged :

You placed it by your side when you went to bed, and,
at the hour desired, a peal aroused the sleeper, while, at
the same time, a ready lighted candle came out from a

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 13 of 30)