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

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an idea of the conjuring trick which enabled me to produce
those startling instances of second sight to which I owed
my deliverance.

I have already said that the director wore a paletot,
with large pockets, so, profiting by the art by which I had
so cleverly emptied Comte's pockets some time before, I
found out what he had in them, and my son consequently
learned it from me. As for the piece of sugar, it was easy
enough to perceive by its regular shape that it had come


from a cafe* besides, I could have no doubt that a lump of
sugar, taken from the pocket of a man of fifty, and, above
all, a Belgian, must be saved from his after-dinner coffee.

At the Brussels station, a postillion who had thj-ee horses
out of work, offered to take our heavy carriage to the
Tirlemont Hotel, and I consented, for I really knew not
what hotel to go to. After driving through the city at
full speed, we entered a winding street, in the midst of
which our driver began smacking his whip loudly to an-
nounce our arrival, and with the skill of a practised driver,
he turned into an archway that opened on to the hotel
yard. We made a princely entre'e here, which reminded
me of our departure from Paris, for the master of the
hotel, his wife, and the servants, were all at their posts
ready to receive us worthily. We had gone safely through
about half the narrow entry, when our vehicle suddenly
stopped, as if riveted to the pavement : blows fell like hail
on the unhappy steeds, but these, though accompanied by
vigorous oaths and stimulants of every description, could
not conquer the unknown obstacle.

Being quite convinced that the road was clear on either
side, our postillion decided on trying a final effort ; so he
got down rapidly from his seat, took the horses by the bit,
and drew them forward sharply. The carriage appeared
to yield to this powerful attraction, and began to move
slowly. All at once a sound of breaking was heard, while
at the same moment cries of alarm issued from both com-
partments of the carriage.

The doors were hurriedly opened, women and children
emerged, and the last of our party was still on the step,
when the impe'riale gave way, and the numerous heavy
trunks crashed into the centre of the carriage. In the
emotion produced by such danger, I looked round my


party, and thanks to Heaven, we were all safe and sound.

My wife and children were carefully attended to, while
I, though not entirely recovered from my terror, sought
the cause of this unforeseen catastrophe. I soon dis-
covered that our carriage, being too highly loaded, had
caught in the projecting sides of the archway, and that
this gradual and powerful pressure had forced the moul-
dering framework of our old vehicle to give way.
. In comparison with the misfortune from which we had so
miraculously escaped, the injury to the carriage was an
accident of no importance a loss which would be quickly
forgotten in the success that awaited us. The carriage
was sent to be repaired, and the accident was soon a thing
of the past, as we sought to recover from the fatigue of
our long and wearying journey.

My first walk in Brussels led me straight to the mana-
ger, who appeared delighted at my keeping my word, and
gave me a most polite reception : thence, I proceeded to
the Park Theatre, where I was to give my performances.

This building, lately destroyed by fire, was situated on
one of the most agreeable sites in the city, for it formed
the angle of a magnificent park, which is to Brussels what
the Tuilleries are to Paris.

During the summer no theatrical performance took
place, and it was to fill up this gap that the engagement
had been formed with me.

This theatre was city property, and I learned the fact
in the following way. The porter, whom the manager
ought to have recommended to give me all necessary in-
formation, stated to me that he was attached to the
theatre, both as keeper and head machinist. He also told
me, with pedantic gravity, that I could not drive in a nail,
form an opening in the stage, or, in a word, make the


slightest change, until he, as responsible official, had
referred the point to the city architect.

" Such supervision is not possible," I said to this im-
portant personage. " How do you manage, then, when
the theatrical performances are on?"

" Ah, that is different. As the architect places confi-
dence in me, he allows me to do whatever I think proper,
and I am responsible for everything."

" If that is all, I can take the responsibility on myself,
and the matter can be settled at once."

" If you think so," the porter replied, in an ironical
tone, " you can apply to the city authorities ; the council
will take it into consideration, and you will receive per-
mission in a fortnight."

I saw that the crafty gentleman wished to force himself
upon me, but I soon destroyed his hopes by making him
understand I would allow no stranger to be initiated into
my mysterious arrangements.

This conversation had taken place on the stage, by the
light of a candle which the conservator of the royal theatre
held in his hand, but so soon as I had intimated my inten-
tion of doing without him, he turned on his heel and re-
tired to his den, leaving us in perfect darkness.

"Wait a moment, sir," I cried to him; "we cannot be
groping about in this way ; so, open the windows."

"Windows!" the machinist said, with a laugh ; "who
ever heard of windows in a theatre ? What use would they
be when the rehearsals always take place by candle-light ?"

"Excellently reasoned, my worthy man," I replied,
checking my inclination to laugh ; " I always thought like
you that windows could be done without if you had lights,
but when you have no lights "

" Why, then, you do as I do, you go money in hand to


the grocer's and buy candles; I see no difficulty in that."

And, while making this reply, the porter and his candle
were gradually eclipsed. I had no time to lose in arguing,
and besides, this man, whom I would have gladly brought
to his senses under other circumstances, might play me
some trick that might prevent me performing mine. My
instruments would remain, so to speak, at his mercy
during the night, and he would have all possible facility
to do me some injury, which he could deny in safety.
Hence, I sent my servant straight to the grocer's, that
natural providence of any one who wants a light.

All my readers have probably read descriptions of theat-
rical interiors, and they are all much alike, although their
cleanliness and arrangement vary according to the intelli-
gence of the stage-manager. Nor is the same luxury of
decorations and accessories visible in all theatres; some
are literally encumbered with them, while others are
almost entirely wanting in these qualities.

I remember that, when giving a dozen performances at
Chester, I found the theatrical decorations charmingly
original. Properly speaking, there was only one scene ;
but, as it would have been impossible to produce the scenic
effect with this, the machinist had very cleverly painted a
forest on the back, and the scene moved on a pivot, which
my friend turned by the aid of a winch, and thus could
display a hall or a forest at will.

With such feeble resources, the scenic illusion was often
compromised, but, according to the machinist, the actors
corrected any glaring anachronisms of place by ingenious
new readings, and sometimes, too, by the expression of
their faces.

This machinist was like his scenery, for he filled many
parts; he was in turn porter, painter, wig-maker, pro-



perty man, tailor, and ticket-taker; but with so many
strings to his bow, this worthy man found himself out of
work during three-parts of the year, for during that period
there were no performances at Chester.

But to return to the porter, machinist, and keeper of
the Park Theatre. This man could never forgive my re-
fusal of his services, and his impertinence and ill-will pur-
sued me to the close, and occasioned me continual annoy-
ance ; and although I complained to the manager, I could
obtain no redress. The porter, being paid by government,
claimed the right, like his brethren the porters of Paris,
of making his tenants feel his power and his independence.

I have performed in many royal theatres, but I never
had to deal with any but most polite machinists and mana-
gers, who could flatter themselves they were masters in
their own house.

However, I managed to surmount difficulties of every
description, and the day of my first representation arrived.

On this very day was opened that fiery furnace which
was called "the summer of 1846;" and the heat was as-
tounding. Still, the theatre was full, and the success of
my experiments was as great as I could desire. The
second sight, especially, produced an enthusiasm which
the generally cold inhabitants of Brussels expressed by
noisy bravos.

I was proud and happy, for, in addition to the satisfac-
tion success always produces, I foresaw the realization of
the theatrical agent's brilliant promises. Thus, to take a
slight revenge for my cashier's obstinacy, I never failed,
each time I left the stage, to say to her in a tone of tri-

" Well ! do you believe in the one hundred thousand
francs now? That's how I like business."


And I returned on the stage with a smiling and ani-
mated face.

The performance over, the curtain fell on the illusions
I had produced, as well as on those I had nursed as to my
receipts. They were equally ephemeral in either case, for
I had scarcely left the stage when I saw my manager
coming towards me in the attitude once assumed by the
steeds of Hippolytus, according to Theramene's recital.
He, so joyous at the commencement of the performance,

L'oeil inornc maintenant et la tete baiss^e,
Semblait se conformer a sa triste pense.

" Here, sir," he said, pointing to a small rouleau, " is
your share."

" What ! my share ?" I exclaimed, in a tone of inde-
scribable disappointment ; " and the rest ?"

" The rest, sir, has gone in the expenses, and the poor-

"But the rest," I still insisted "the rest, what has
become of it?"

"Well, sir," my manager replied, in a lamentable tone,
" the cashier states that the greater part of the audience
received free admissions."

Irritated by such an explanation, I hurried to the office,
and opened and closed the door violently. The employe*
turned towards me, and without being affected by my
abruptness, he bowed to me politely (another instance of
Belgian courtesy).

" How is it," I said, without replying to his bow, "that
so many free admissions were given without my sanction ?"

" They were given, sir, by the manager's orders," the
man replied, with a calmness that made me believe he was
used to such scenes, " and you must be aware," he added,


in a conciliatory tone, " that there are numerous claims on
the first night of a new performance at a royal theatre.
Thus we have, for instance, the authorities, the city archi-
tect, the manager of the gas company, the newspaper
writers, the manager's relations and friends, the police
inspector, who has a right to a box ; and all these gentle-
men, as you may suppose, bring their families with them.
We have, again *-"

"Oh, sir," I replied, ironically, "for goodness' sake,
stop, for if you go on at that rate I shall begin to fear you
had not a seat left for the paying public. To-morrow, I
presume, I shall have to hand you back the modest sum
you Have just sent me. However, I shall certainly insist
on an explanation with the manager."

The next day I proceeded to call on M. X , with

the firm intention of evincing to him my dissatisfaction ;
but he was so ready with his explanations that I could not
be angry, and we ended by agreeing that, henceforth, all
free admissions should have my signature, and that they
should not be dispensed quite so liberally.

This measure, perhaps, checked some new abuses, but
was not enough to suppress them all,, for though the thea-
tre grew more and more crowded, my strong-box did not
follow the same progression.

Far from netting the fabulous sum which had so dazzled
me, I only brought back from my trip to Brussels an illu-
sion dispelled and experience, while, as my cashier had
predicted, my expenses rather more than balanced my re-

I have great reason for believing that, during my stay
at the Park Theatre, I was cheated out of my proper
share. It was my first affair of the kind, and I was
obliged to study at my own expense ; but, from that pe-


riod, I was on my guard, and evaded every attempt at
fraud. I will add, too, that at a later date I had the
satisfaction of dealing only with managers of well-known
probity, to whom I gave my entire confidence without
ever having any reason to regret it.



Reopening of my Fantastic Soirees Minor Miseries of Good Luck
Inconvenience of a small Theatre My Room taken by Storm A
gratuitous Performance A conscientious Audience Pleasant Story
about a Black Silk Cap I perform at the Chateau of St. Cloud
Cagliostro's Casket Holidays.

THE recommencement of the performances on my own
stage largely recompensed me for my bitter impressions de
voyage. My room was taken a week beforehand for my
first performance, as well as for the following, and I had
to send away four times as many persons as I could re-

This success had been foreseen by the theatrical agent,
and I owed it as much to my absence from the capital as
to the attraction my experiments held out. My repertory
was still a novelty to the Parisian public, as I had started
for Brussels at the height of my success. This did not
prevent me, however, from offering some new tricks, one
of which more especially produced a striking effect.

After my son had mounted on a very small table, I cov-
ered him with an enormous stuffed cone, which concealed
him from sight, and then, at the sound of a pistol, the
cone was thrown over, and at the same instant the lad
appeared at my side. Afterwards, in large theatres, and
especially in London, this trick was improved upon, and
Beemed more marvellous still. Instead of appearing by


my side, the boy was instantaneously transported to a box
at a long distance from the stage, where every body could
easily see him.

It is a well-known fact that a man cannot enjoy perfect
happiness in this world, and that the greatest prosperity
has its disagreeable side; this is what is called "the
minor evils of good luck." One of my special annoyances

was having a room much too small, which disabled me

. *

from satisfying all the demands made for places, and,

though I racked my brain, I could hit on no expedient to
remedy this inconvenience.

As I have already said, my room was often taken be-
forehand ; in that case the office was not opened, and a
placard on the door announced it was useless for any non-
holders of tickets to apply. But it daily happened that
persons, annoyed at being unable to enjoy a promised
treat, took no heed of the notice and went straight to the
pay place. On being refused admission, they abused the
money-taker, and still more the management.

These complaints were generally absurd, and of the fol-
lowing description :

" Such an abuse is most improper," one of these disap-
pointed persons said, with great simplicity; "I will cer-
tainly go to-morrow and complain to the prefect of police,
and we shall see whether Monsieur Robert-Houdin has a
right to have too small a theatre."

When these recriminations went no further, I confess I
laughed at them, but they did not always end in such a
pacific manner. My employe's were sometimes personally
attacked, and on one occasion my theatre was taken by
storm. The story is worth telling :

One evening a dozen young men, after heating their
brains by an excellent dinner, presented themselves at the


door of my theatre ; the notice they read only appeared to
them an excellent jest. Consequently, paying no atten-
tion to the observations made to them, they collected
round the door, and to employ the usual expression in such
cases, they began to form "the head of the tail." Other
visitors, encouraged by their example, collected, and gradu-
ally a considerable crowd assembled in front of the

The manager, informed of what was happening, came
forward, and prepared to address the crowd from the head
of the stairs, after coughing to render his voice clearer.
But he had scarce commenced his address, when his voice
was drowned by derisive laughter and shouts, which com-
pelled his silence. In his despair, he came to tell me the
dilemma, and ask what he had better do.

"Do not disturb yourself," I said; "all will end better
than you expect. Stay," I added, looking at my watch ;
" it is now half-past seven, and the ticket-holders will begin
to arrive ; so, open the doors, and, as soon as the room is
full the public outside will be compelled to abandon the

I had sarcely uttered the words, when a servant came
in all haste to tell me that the crowd had broken down
the barrier, and rushed into the room. I hastened on to
the stage, and through the hole in the curtain, could as-
sure myself of the truth of the statement : the room was full.

I confess I was much embarrassed as to what I should
do. To have the room cleared by the neighboring guard
was a scandal I wished to avoid, and I could not calculate
the consequences. Besides, if the police interfered, I
should have to attend at the court, and thus lose precious
time. Lastly, the Prefecture, which had hitherto imposed
but a single sentry on me, would not fail to send a corpo-


ral's guard, at least, to the great increase of my daily ex-

I immediately formed a decision.

"Have the doors closed," I said to my manager, "and
put up a notice that, owing to a sudde^indisposition, the
evening's performance is postponed till to-morrow. As
this measure applies to the ticket-holders, be in readiness
to return the money to those who will not exchange their
tickets. As for me," I continued, "I have made up my
mind. I will give a gratis performance, and my revenge
will consist in compelling the public to be ashaWd of the
schoolboy trick they have played."

This plan arranged, I prepared to do the honors of my
house properly, and the curtain soon rose.

When I appeared on the stage, I noticed that the greater
number of the spectators evinced considerable embarrass-
ment ; still, I soon put them at their ease by the noncha-
lant air I assumed, as if ignorant of what had occurred.
I did even more. I performed with an unusual amount
of dash ; and when the time arrived to offer my small pre-
sents, I was so liberal with them that not a single specta-
tor was overlooked.

I need not say that I was heartily applauded. The
public vied with me in "reciprocating" compliments, and
thus hoped to compensate me for the annoyance they fan-
cied they had caused me.

An original and extremely comic scene was performed
when my audience lingcringly departed.

Nearly all the persons present had only seen in this
assault on my room a means to obtain places, and each
intended to pay for his seat after having occupied it.

But, for my part, I determined on maintaining the origi-
nal character of my gratuitous performance, even if my


pocket suffered. Thus, foreseeing this feeling of delicacy,
I had ordered all my attendants to leave before the per-
formance was over, and they had obeyed me so well, that
manager, money-taker, and box-openers had disappeared.

I then posted ^gnyself where I could see everything
without being noticed. The spectators looked for the
office; searched all around to find some official; thrust
their hands in their pockets, and collected in small groups,
until, worn out, they went away.

Still, the public would not allow themselves to be beaten,
and for several days I had a regular procession of people
coming to pay their debt. Some persons added their
apologies, and I also received by post a note for 100 fr.,
with the following letter :

" SIR, Having been dragged into your room last night
by a party of thoughtless young men, I tried in vain, after
the performance, to pay for the seat I had occupied.

" I do not wish, however, to quit France without paying
the debt I have contracted. In consequence, estimating
the price of my stall by the pleasure you caused me, I
send you a hundred-franc note, which I beg you to accept
in payment of the debt I involuntarily contracted.

" Still, I should not consider myself out of your debt
were I not also to offer you my compliments for your in-
teresting performance, and beg you to accept, sir, the
assurance of my consideration."

As the loss entailed on me by the assault on my room
was light, I had no cause to repent the decision I had
formed. On the other hand, the adventure became known,
and added still more to my credit, as it is notorious the
public prefer going to theatres where they are certain of
finding no room.


As a general rule, family parties came to see me, but it
was not unusual for a number of persons to form a rendez-
vous at my theatre. The following incident will offer an
instance :

The ingenious author of those eccentric caricatures,
which delight everybody who is not himself attacked, Dan-
tan the younger, came one day to my box-office.

" Madam," he said to the lady in command, " how many
stalls have you to let ?"

"I will consult my book," the lady replied. "Do you
wish them for to-night ?"

"No, madam, for this day week."

" Oh, in that case, you can have as many as you like."

" How, as many as I like ? Why, your room must be
made of india-rubber."

" No, sir, I merely mean to say that of fifty stalls I
have at my disposal, you can take as many as you please."

"Very good, madam, I now understand," Dantan con-
tinued, laughingly ; " then, if I can have as many as I
please, have the goodness to keep me sixty."

The lady, much embarrassed to solve this problem, sent
for me, and I easily arranged the affair by converting the
first pit row into stalls.

The reason why the sculptor required so many seats
was as follows :

Dantan, junior, has an enormous number of friends, and
the original idea had occurred to him of inviting a certain
number of them to Robert-Houdin's performance, and for
that purpose he had engaged these sixty seats.

I have mentioned this incident, because it both proves
the renown my theatre enjoyed at that time, and reminds
me of the commencement of one of the most agreeable ac-
quaintances I ever made in my life. From this moment I


became, and have always remained, one of the intimate
friends of the celebrated sculptor.

Before knowing him personally, like the majority of his
admirers, I was unacquainted with his serious works, but
when I was admitted to his studio, I could appreciate the
full extent of his talent.

Dantan has in this room, arranged on enormous shelves,
the most perfect collection of busts of contemporary celeb-
rities. I do not think a single illustrious person of the
age is missing. Each is properly classified and arranged
as in a museum ; monarchs and statesmen, less numerous
than the others, are collected on one shelf; then come
authors, musicians, singers, composers, physicians, war-
riors, dramatic artists in a word great men of every
description and country. But the most interesting thing
in the gallery is that every bust is accompanied by its
caricature, so that, after admiring the original, you laugh
heartily at noticing all the comic details of the other.

On seeing these numberless heads, it is difficult to
imagine that one man's life could suffice for such a toil.
Dantan, however, has a remarkable talent in catching the
characteristic features of a face, and often enough he need
only see a person once in order to produce an extraordi-
nary likeness. Witness the following fact, which I will
cite as much for its singularity as because it bears an
affinity, in some degree, to sleight-of-hand :

The son of Lieutenant-General Baron D came one

day to Dantan, begging him to make a bust of his father.
"I will not hide from you," he said to the artist, "that
you -will encounter an almost insurmountable difficulty in

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 20 of 30)