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I fancied I heard the slight sound I hoped for as a signal.
I laid the brick on the mouth of the pitcher directly, and
raised it up ; the shrill cries inside convinced me of my
success, and I began a paean of triumph, both to celebrate
my victory and to frighten away my prisoner's comrades.
The porter, when he came to release me, helped me to
master my rat by fastening a piece of twine to one of his
hind legs, and burdened with my precious booty, I pro-
ceeded to the dormitory, where masters and pupils had
been asleep for a long time. I was glad enough to sleep
too, but a difficulty presented itself how should I bestow
my prisoner ?



A NOVEL RAT-TRAP. 23

At length a bright idea occurred to me, fully worthy of
a schoolboy : it was to thrust the rat headforemost into
one of my shoes. After fastening the twine to the leg
of my bed, I pushed the shoe into one of my stockings,
and placed the whole in the leg of my trousers. This
being accomplished, I believed I could go to bed without
the slightest cause for apprehension. The next morning,
at five exactly, the inspector took a turn through the dor-
mitory to arouse the sleepers.

"Dress yourself directly," he said, in that amiable voice
peculiaV to gentlemen who have risen too soon.

I proceeded to obey but I was fated to dire disgrace :
the rat I had packed away so carefully, not finding its
quarters airy enough, had thought proper to gnaw through
my shoe, my stocking, and my trouser, and was taking
the air through this improvised window. Fortunately, it
had not cut through the retaining string, so the rest was
a trifle.

But the inspector did not regard matters in the same
light as I did. The capture of a rat and the injury to
my clothes were considered further aggravations of my
previous offence, and he sent in a lengthy report to the
head-master. I was obliged to appear before the latter
dressed in the clothes that bore the proof of my offence,
and, by an unlucky coincidence, shoe, stocking and trou-
ser were all injured on the same leg. The Abbd Larivi&re
(our head-master) managed the college with truly paternal
care ; ever just, and prone by nature to forgiveness, he
was adored by his pupils, and to be out of favor with him
was regarded as the severest punishment.

"Well, Robert," he said to me, looking kindly over the
spectacles which bridged the end of his nose, " I under-
stand you have been guilty of grave faults. Come, tell
me the whole truth."



24 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.

I possessed at that time a quality which, I trust, I have
not lost since, and that is extreme frankness. I gave the
Abbe* a full account of my misdeeds, and my sincerity
gained me pardon. The head-master, after a vain attempt
to repress it, burst into a loud fit of laughter, on hearing
the catastrophe of my adventures. Still, he ended his
gentle lecture in the following words :

"I will not scold you any more, Robert. I believe in
your repentance : twelve hours' confinement are sufficient
punishment, and I grant you your release. I will do
more : though you are very young, I will treat you as
a man of honor, though you understand me? You
will pledge me your word not only that you will not com-
mit your old faults again, but, as your passion for me-
chanics makes you often neglect your lessons, you must
promise to give up your tools, and devote yourself hence-
forth to study."

" Oh yes, sir, I give you my word," I exclaimed, moved
to tears by such unexpected indulgence; "and I can
assure you, you will never repent having put faith in my
promise."

" I made up my mind to keep my pledge, although I
was fully aware of all the difficulties, which were so many
stumbling-blocks in that path of virtue I wished to follow.
Much trouble, I had too, at first, in withstanding the
jests and sarcasms of the idler of my comrades, who, in
order to hide their own bad conduct, strove to make all
weak characters their accomplices. Still, I broke with
them all. Sharpest pang of all, though, was the sacrifice
I made in burning my vessels that is, in putting aside
my cages and their contents ; I even forgot my tools, and
thus, free from all external distraction, I devoted myself
entirely to my Greek and Latin studies.



I LEAVE COLLEGE. 25

The praise I received from the Abbd Larivie're, who
prided himself in having noticed in me the stuff for an
excellent scholar, rewarded me for this sublime effort,
and I may say I became, thenceforth, one of the most
studious and attentive lads in the college. At times, I
certainly regretted my tools and my darling machinery,
but recollecting my promise to the head-master, I held
firm against all temptation. All I allowed myself was to
set down by stealth on paper a few ideas that occurred to
me, though I did not know whether I should ever have a
chance to put them in practice.

At length the moment arrived for my leaving college ;
my studies were completed I was eighteen years of age.



26 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.



CHAPTER II.

A Country Idler Dr. Carlosbach, Conjurer and Professor of Mystifica-
tion The Sand-bag and the Stirrup Trick I turn Lawyer's Clerk,
and the Minutes appear to me very long A small Automaton Are-
spectful Protest I mount a Step in the Office A Machine of Por-
ter's Power The Acrobatic Canaries; Monsieur Roger's Remon-
strances My Father decides that I shall follow my bent.

IN the story I have just narrated, only simple events
were noticeable hardly worthy, perhaps, of a man who
has often passed for a sorcerer but grant me a few
pages' patience, reader, as an introduction to my artistic
life, and what you seek in my book will be displayed be-
fore your eager gaze. You will know how a magician is
produced, and you will learn that the tree whence my
magic staff was cut was only that of persevering labor,
often bedewed by the sweat of my brow : soon, too, when
you come to witness my labors and my anxious hours of
expectation, you will be able to appreciate the cost of a
reputation in my mysterious art.

On leaving college, I at first enjoyed all the liberty I
had been deprived of for so many years. The power of
going right or left, of speaking or remaining silent, as I
listed, of getting up sooner or later, according to my
fancy, was an earthly paradise for a collegian. I enjoy-
ed this ineffable pleasure to the fullest extent : thus, in
the morning although habit made me wake at five



DR. CARLOSBACH. 27

when the clock announced that once so dreaded hour, I
burst into a loud laugh, and offered ferocious challenges to
any number of invisible superintendents ; then, satisfied by
this slight retrospective vengeance, I went to sleep again
till breakfast. After that meal I went out to indulge in
a pleasant lounge about the streets ; and I preferred walk-
ing in the public promenades, for thus I had better chances
of finding something to attract my attention. In a word,
not an event happened which I did not know, and I was
the real amateur "penny-a-liner" of my native town.

Many of these incidents afforded very slight interest ;
one day, however, I witnessed a scene which produced a
lasting effect upon me. One after-dinner, while walking
along the side of the Loire, engaged with the thoughts
suggested by the falling autumn leaves, I was aroused from
my reverie by the sound of a trumpet, evidently blown
by a practised performer. It may be easily supposed that
I was not the last to obey this startling summons, and a
few other idlers also formed a circle round the performer.

He was a tall fellow with a quick eye, a sunburnt face,
long and crispy hair, and he stemmed his fist in his side,
while he held his head impudently high. His costume,
though rather "loud," was still cleanly, and announced
a man who probably had "some hay in his boots," to use
a favorite phrase of gentlemen in the same profession.
He wore a maroon-colored frock-coat, trimmed with large
silver frogs, while round his neck was a black silk cravat,
the two ends being passed through a jewelled ring, which
a millionaire would not have disdained had it not un-
fortunately been paste. He wore no waistcoat, but his
shirt was remarkably white, and on it glistened a heavy
mosaic chain, with a collection of appendages, whose
metallic sound loudly announced his every movement.



28 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.

I had ample time to make these observations, for as the
audience collected but slowly, the stranger continued his
trumpet overture for a quarter of an hour ; at length, when
an average crowd had assembled, the trumpet made way
for the human voice. The artist laid the instrument on
the ground, and walked round majestically to form a ring ;
then, stopping, he passed his hand through his hair, and
began his address. Being little used to this charlatanism
in the streets, I regarded the man with confiding admira-
tion and determined not to lose a word of his address.

"Gentlemen," he commenced, in a firm and sonorous
voice, "pray hear me. I am not what I seem to be; I
may say more, I am what I do not seem to be. Yes, gen-
tlemen, yes confess it you take me for one of those
scurvy beggars who want to draw a few halfpence from
your generosity. Well, you may undeceive yourselves.
Though you see me on this spot to-day, I tell you that I
have only come here for the relief of suffering humanity
in general, then for your welfare in particular, as well as
for your amusement."

Here the orator, whose accent plainly showed that he
came from the banks of the Garonne, passed his hand
once more through his hair, raised his head, sucked his
lips, and, assuming an air of majestic dignity, continued :

"I will tell you presently who I am, and you will be
able to estimate me at my true value ; in the mean while
allow me to offer you a slight specimen of my skill."

The artist, having then formed the circle afresh, placed
before him a small table, on which he arranged three tin
goblets, so well polished that they might have been taken
for silver ; after which he fastened round his waist a red
cotton velvet bag, into which he thrust his hands for some
minutes doubtlessly to prepare the tricks he intended to
display and the performance commenced.



A PUBLIC BENEFACTOR. 29

During a long series of tricks, the nutmegs, at first in-
visible, appeared at the finger ends of the conjuror ; then,
they passed through the cups, under the table, into a
spectator's pockets, and finally emerged, to the general
delight, from the nose of a young looker-on. The latter
took the matter quite seriously, and half killed himself
with sneezing, to see whether a few more spice balls might
not be left in his brain. The address with which these
tricks were done, and the apparent simplicity of the oper-
ator in the execution of these ingenious artifices, produced
the most perfect illusion at least, as far as I was con-
cerned.

It was the first time I had ever witnessed such a sight :
I was stupefied, astounded ! The man who could perform
such marvels at his will seemed to me a superhuman being ;
hence I saw him put aside his cups with considerable re-
gret. The audience seemed equally charmed ; the artist
perceived it, and took advantage of it, by making a sign
that he had a few mere words to say. Then, resting his
hand on the table, he proceeded :

" Ladies and gentlemen ! I was very pleased to notice
the kind attention you devoted to my tricks, and I thank
you for it" (here the conjuror bowed to the ground);
" and, as I am anxious to prove that you have not to deal
with an ungrateful person, I will attempt to repay in full
the satisfaction you have made me feel. Deign to listen
to me for a moment.

" I promised to tell you what I am ; I will now satisfy
you." (Sudden change of countenance, and evidence of
great self-esteem.) "You behold in me the celebrated
Dr. Carlosbach : the composition of my name reveals to
you my Anglo-Francisco-Germanic origin. To praise
myself would be like painting the lily ; I will, therefore,



30 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.

content myself with saying that I possess an enormous
talent, and that my astounding reputation can only be
equalled by my modesty. Elected, by acclamation, mem-
ber of the most illustrious learned societies through the
whole world, I incline before their judgment, which pro-
claims the superiority of my skill in the grand art of
curing the human race."

This address, as strange as it was emphatic, was de-
livered with imperturbable assurance; still I fancied I
noticed a twitching of the lips, that revealed the grand
doctor's ill-restrained desire to laugh. For all that, I lis-
tened attentively to his discourse.

"But, gentlemen," he added, "I have said sufficient
of myself ; it is time to speak of my works. Learn then,
that I am the inventor of the Vermifuge Balsam, whose
sovereign efficaciousness is indisputable. Yes, gentlemen,
the worm, that enemy of the human race the worm, the
destroyer of everything existing the worm, that obsti-
nate preyer on the living and the dead, is at length con-
quered by my science ; a drop, an atom of this precious
liquor is sufficient to expel this fearful parasite for ever.

" And, gentlemen, such is the virtue of my marvellous
balsam, that it not only delivers man from this frightful
calamity during life, but his body has nothing to fear after
death. Taking my balsam is a mode of embalming one's
body prior to death; man is thus rendered immortal.
Ah! gentlemen, were you but acquainted with all the
virtues of my sublime discovery, you would rush upon me
and tear it from me ; but, as that would be illegal, I check
myself in time."

The orator, in fact, stopped, and dried his brow with
one hand, while with the other he motioned to the crowd
that he had not yet ended his discourse. A great number



BOUGHT AND SOLD. 31

of the audience were already striving to approach the
learned doctor; Carlosbach, however, did not appear to
notice it, and, reassuming his dramatic posture, he con-
tinued as follows :

" But, you will ask me, what can be the price of such
a treasure ? can we be rich enough to purchase it ? The
moment has now arrived, gentlemen, to make you under-
stand the full extent of my disinterestedness. This bal-
sam, in the discovery of which I have worn away my
days this balsam, which sovereigns have purchased at
the price of their crown this balsam, in short, which is
beyond all price well, I make you a present of it !"

At these unexpected words, the crowd, panting with
emotion, lifted up its eager arms, and implored the gene-
rosity of the doctor. But, what shameful deception !
Carlosbach the celebrated Dr. Carlosbach this bene-
factor of humanity, suddenly altered his tone, and burst
into an Homeric shout of laughter. The arms fell down
spontaneously ; the audience looked vacantly into each
other's faces. At length one laughed. The contagion
spread, and soon everybody was following the conjurer's
example. He was the first to stop, and demanded silence :

" Gentlemen !" he then said, in a perfectly respectful
tone, " do not be angry with me for the little trick I have
played you; I wished thus to put you on your guard
against those charlatans who daily deceive you, just as I
have done myself. I am no doctor, but simply a conjurer,
professor of mystification, and author of a book, in which
you will find, in addition to the discourse I have just de-
livered, the description of a great number of conjuring
tricks. Would you like to learn the art of amusing your-
self in society ? For sixpence you may satisfy your
curiosity."



32 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.

The conjurer produced from a box an enormous packet
of books ; then, going round the crowd, he soon disposed
of his wares, thanks to the interest his talent had excited.
The exhibition was over, and I returned home with my
head full of a world of unknown sensations.

It will be readily supposed that I purchased one of these
precious volumes. I hastened to examine it ; but the false
doctor continued his system of mystification in it, and
despite all my good will, I could not understand one of the
tricks he pretended to explain. However, I had the fa-
mous speech I have just quoted, as some sort of consolation.

I made up my mind to lay the book aside and think no
more of it ; but the marvels it announced returned to my
mind every moment. " Carlosbach !" I said in my
modest ambition, " if I possessed your talent, how happy
I should feel !" and, filled with this idea, I decided on
taking lessons of the learned professor. Unfortunately,
this determination was arrived at too late. When I pro-
ceeded to his lodgings, I learned that the conjuror had
resorted to his own tricks, and had left his inn the previous
evening, forgetting to pay the princely score he had run
up. The innkeeper gave me the account of this last
mystification on the part of the professor.

Carlosbach had arrived at his house with two trunks of
unequal size and very heavy ; on the larger of them was
painted " Conjuring Apparatus," on the other, " Cloth-
ing." The conjuror, who stated that he had received
various invitations to perform at the adjacent chateaux,
had set off the evening before to fulfil one of these engage-
ments. He had only taken with him one of his trunks,
that containing the apparatus ; and it was supposed he
had left the other in his room as a security for the bill he
had run up. The next day the host, surprised at finding his



THE STIRRUP TRICK. 33

lodger still absent, thought it advisable to place his traps
in some safe place. He, therefore, went into his bedroom ;
but the two trunks had disappeared, and in their place was
an enormous bag filled with sand, on which was written :

THE MYSTIFYING BAG.
THE STIRRUP TRICK.

^continued for some time longer to enjoy the contem-
plative life I had been pursuing ; but at last satiety assailed
me, and I was quite surprised one day at finding myself
wearied of this life of idleness. My father, like a man
who could read the human heart, had awaited this moment
to talk seriously with me ; he, therefore, took me aside
one morning, and said, without further preface, in a kindly
voice :

" My good boy, you have now quitted college with a
sound education, and I have allowed you to enjoy fully
the liberty for which you seemed to aspire. But you must
see this is not sufficient for a livelihood ; you must now
enter on the world resolutely, and apply your parts to the
profession you wish to embrace. That profession it is now
time to choose ; you have doubtlessly some inclination,
some bias, and you must let me know it ; speak, then, and
you will find me inclined to second your views."

Although my father had frequently expressed his fears
lest I should follow his trade, I thought, after these re-
marks, he had changed his mind, and I joyfully said :

" Of course I have an inclination, and you cannot be
ignorant of it, for it is of very old standing. You know I
never wished to be other than "

My father guessed my thoughts, and would not allow
me to finish.



34 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.

"I see," he objected, "that you did not understand
me, and I must explain my meaning more clearly. My
desire is for you to choose a profession more lucrative
than my own. Consider, it would be unreasonable to
bury the ten years' schooling for which I made such
heavy sacrifices in my shop ; remember, too, that, after
thirty-five years' hard work, I have been hardly able to
save sufficient provision for my old age. Then, pray,
change your resolution, and give up your mania for mak-
ing a * parcel of filings.' "

My father, in this, merely followed the idea of many
parents, who can only see the disagreeable side of their
own trade. To this prejudice, I must allow, he added the
praiseworthy ambition of the head of a family desirous
that his son should rise a step higher on the social ladder
than himself.

As I was utterly ignorant of all other professions or
trades save that of a mechanician, I was unable to appre-
ciate them, or consequently select one ; hence I remained
dumb. In vain did my father try to draw an answer from
me by explaining the advantages I should derive from
being a surgeon or chemist, a barrister or a solicitor.
I could only repeat that I placed implicit confidence in his
wisdom and experience. This self-denial and passive obe-
dience appeared to touch him ; I noticed it, and wishing
to make a final attack on his determination, I said to him :

" Before making up my mind to any decided choice of
profession, allow me to offer one observation. Are you
sure that it is your trade which is impossible of extension,
or is it owing to the smallness of the town in which you
have carried it on ? Let me follow my own bent, I be-
seech you, and when I have become a good workman by
your instruction, I will go to Paris and make a fortune
there; I feel quite convinced I can do so."



CHOOSING A PROEESSION. 35

Fearing lest he might give way, my father tried to cut
the conversation short by evading a reply to my objection.

" As you leave it to me," he said, " I advise you to be-
come a solicitor ; with your natural parts, aided by appli-
cation and good conduct, I am certain you will make your
way famously."

Two days later I was installed in one of the best offices
at Blois, and, owing to my caligraphy, I was employed as
a copying clerk, and in engrossing from morning till night,
though rarely understanding what I was writing. My
readers can readily guess that this mechanical work could
not long satisfy the turn of my mind ; pens, ink, and
paper were most unsuitable articles to carry out the in-
ventive ideas which continually occurred to me. Fortu-
nately, at that period, steel pens were unknown ; hence I
had a resource in making my pens, to which I devoted the
best part of my time. This simple fact will suffice to give
an idea of the deep spleen which weighed upon me like a
coating of lead, and I should have certainly fallen ill, had
I not found more attractive employment.

Among the mechanical curiosities entrusted to my father
for repair, I had noticed a snuff-box, on the top of which
a small piece of mechanism attracted my entire attention.
The top of the box represented a landscape. On pressing
a spring, a hare made its appearance, and went towards a
tuft of grass, which it began to crop ; soon after a sports-
man emerged from a thicket accompanied by a pointer.
The miniature Nimrod stopped at the sight of the game,
shouldered his gun and fired; a noise indicative of the
explosion of a fire-arm was heard, and the hare, apparently
wounded, disappeared in the thicket, pursued by the dog.

This pretty piece of mechanism excited my desires in
an eminent degree, but I could not hope to possess it, as



36 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.

the owner, in addition to the value he attached to it, had
no reason to dispose of it, and, besides, my pecuniary
means were insufficient. As I could not make the article
my own, I determined, at least, to keep it in remem-
brance, and drew a careful plan of it without my father's
knowledge. This only more inflamed my desires, and I
began to ask myself whether I could not make an exact
copy of it.

Seeing no extreme difficulty in this, I rose at daybreak
each morning, and, going down to my father's workshop,
I worked till the hour when he used to begin work. Then
I rearranged the tools exactly as I had found them, locked
up my work carefully, and proceeded to my office. The
joy I experienced in finding my mechanism act was only
equalled by the pleasure I felt in presenting it to my
father, as an indirect and respectful protest against the
determination he had formed as to my choice of a trade.
I had some difficulty in persuading him that I had not
been assisted by any one in my work, but when at last I
removed his doubts, he could not refrain from compliment-
ing me.

" It is a pity," he said, thoughtfully, " that you cannot
profit by your turn for mechanism ; but," he added, sud-
denly, as if seeking to dispel an idea that troubled him,
"you had better take no pride in your skill, for it may in-
jure your prospects."

For more than a year I performed the duties of amateur
that is, unpaid clerk and I was then offered a situa-
tion by a country solicitor as second clerk, with a small
salary. I accepted this unexpected promotion very readily ;
but, once installed in my new duties, I found that my em-
ployer had deceived me as to their range. The situation
I occupied was that of office-boy, having to run on errands,



A NOVEL ALARUM. 87

for the first and only clerk could more than attend to the
business. I certainly earned some money : it was the first



Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 2 of 30)