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

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but an Englishman can understand the possibility of ob-
taining a theatrical success during the dog-day heats. I
must say,then, that among our brethren beyond the Channel,
where all our customs are inverted, the season for concerts
is from May to the end of August. In September the
aristocracy retire to their estates, where they remain the
the other six months of the year.

I followed the example of my audience : I quitted Lon-
don at the beginning of September, not like them to take
rest, but, on the contrary, to commence a life even more


agitated than the one I was leaving. I went to the Man-
chester Theatre, where Knowles, the manager, had made
an engagement with me for fifteen performances.

The theatre in this city is immense; like the vast arence
of ancient Rome, it can hold an entire people. To give
an idea of its size, I need only say that twelve hundred
spectators scarcely filled the pit.

When I took possession of the stage, I was startled at
its huge proportions ; for I feared I should be lost upon
it, and my voice be unheard.

The reasons for the erection of -this immense building
were explained to me afterwards.

Manchester, as an eminent manufacturing city, counts
its workmen by thousands. Well, these hardy artisans
are all fond of the stage, and in their hand-to-mouth ex-
istence they often give up one or two nights a week to
this style of amusement ; hence a large space was required
to house them all.

Judging by the size of the house, I saw that many of
the tricks I performed at St. James's were unsuited for
the Manchester Theatre ; hence, I was obliged to draw up
a programme containing merely tricks that could be seen
from a distance, and whose effect would strike the masses.

So soon as my performances were announced, the
"hands" flocked in in shoals, and the pit, their favorite
place, was literally crammed ; while the rest of the house
was nearly empty. This is, however, generally the case
at a first performance in England; for many people wait
for the newspaper critiques, which are sure to appear on
the following day, ere they make up their mind.

The audience entered the house with a noise unexampled
in any French theatre, except at those gratuitous per-
formances given in Paris on grand occasions. Before the


curtain was raised, I was obliged to wait, and give my
noisy public time to cool down, and order and silence be-
ing gradually established, I began my performance.

Instead of the fashionable world, the elegant toilettes,
and those spectators who seemed to spread an aristocratic
perfume over the St. James's Theatre, I now found myself
in the presence of simple workmen, modestly and uni-
formly attired, rough in their manner, and eager for

But this change, far from displeasing me, stimulated my
energies and dash, aad I was soon at my ease with my
new spectators, when I saw that they took a lively interest
in my experiments. Still, an accident at the outset nearly
aroused the popular dissatisfaction.

The Manchester artisans, far from coming to my per-
formances to improve their French accent, were greatly
surprised at hearing themselves addressed in any language
but their own. Protests were put in on every side, and
soon shouts were heard of "Speak English!"

As for my complying with the request, it was simply
impossible ; for though I had been six months in London,
as I was always among my own countrymen, or persons
who talked French, I had no occasion to apply myself to
the English language. Still, I tried to satisfy a claim
that appeared to me legitimate, and make up for my defi-
ciencies by boldness and good-will. I began by pronounc-
ing the few English words I knew ; when my vocabulary
was at fault, and I was about to run short, I invented ex-
pressions which, owing to their strange shape, greatly
amused my audience. Often, too, when in a difficulty, I
boldly asked them to come to my aid, and it was my turn
to feel a great inclination to laugh.

" How do you call it?" I said, with a serio-comic air, as


I held up the article whose name I wished to know ; and
straightway a hundred voices responded to my appeal.
Nothing could be more pleasant than a lesson thus taken,
when my teachers, contrary to the usual fashion, paid for
the privilege of giving it.

Through my condescension I succeeded in making peace
with my audience, who warmly cemented it on several oc-
casions by their hearty applause. The last trick especially
created a tremendous excitement I mean the inexhausti-
ble bottle, produced with scenery and decorations never be-
fore witnessed on any stage. *

The picture presented by this trick is indescribable, and
a skillful pencil could alone reproduce its numerous de-
tails. Here, however, is a sketch as accurate as possible :

I have already said that although the spectators were
few and far between in some parts of the house, the pit
was crowded, and it consequently contained more than
twelve hundred persons.

I own it was a really curious sight to see all these heads
issuing invariably from dark-colored waistcoats, heightened
by that ruddiness of face which can be only produced by
the beef and porter of Great Britain.

In order that I might communicate more freely with my
numerous spectators, the machinist had put up a plank
running from the stage to the end of the pit, and as I
also wished to address persons at the sides, two other
" practicables," much shorter than the centre one, ran
across to the boxes. The latter did not occupy room like
the first, for they were just over a passage, while those
who entered by it had to stoop down to reach their seats ;
but what was that slight inconvenience to the pleasure
they promised themselves in seeing the "French con-


The public were still entering the pit after my perform-
ance had commenced, and so many persons were allowed
to come in that there was soon no room for the laggards.

Several of them had the courage to remain bent under
the " practicables," and, looking out right and left in turn,
they could follow my tricks. But one of these bold spec-
tators, doubtlessly fatigued by the inconvenient posture he
was obliged to keep, ingeniously passed his head through
the narrow space between the "practicable" and the boxes.
He managed it very cleverly, and his action was precisely
that of a button going into its corresponding hole.

This innovation was, it may be easily supposed, gaily
and noisily welcomed by the audience, and the unfortunate
man had to endure the fate reserved for all innovators
he was laughed at and " chaffed" tremendously. But he
did not trouble himself about that, and his coolness dis-
armed his opponents.

Encouraged by his example, a neighbor tried the but-
ton-hole mano3uvre, then a second and a third, and thus,
by the middle of the performance, half a dozen heads
without bodies were symmetrically arranged on either side
the pit, looking for all the world like skittle-pins waiting
to be knocked down.

I had arrived at the bottle trick, which consists in pro-
ducing from an empty bottle every liquor that may be
asked for, no matter the number of drinkers.

The reputation of this famous bottle was already estab-
lished in Manchester, for the London papers had fully
described the experiment. Hence, a general hurrah was
heard when I appeared armed with my marvellous bottle ;
for, in addition to the merit of the trick itself, the work-
men also counted on the pleasure of drinking a glass of
brandy, or any other liquor.


Flattered by this reception, I proceeded to the centre
of the pit, followed by my servant, who carried an enor-
mous tray of wine-glasses. But I had scarce arrived there
when a thousand voices began exclaiming, " Brandy, whis-
ky, gin, cura9oa, shrub, rum," &c.

It was impossible to satisfy all at once ; hence, I wished
to proceed in rotation, and, after filling a glass, I offered
it to the man who I thought had made the first claim;
but the gentleman was utterly disappointed. Twenty
hands were stretched out to dispute the precious liquor,
and the glass was speedily upset. The spectators,
suffering the punishment of Tantalus, shouted for the
liquid, which was not fated to reach their lips. I filled a
second glass it shared the fate of the previous one, and
was fought for so obstinately that the glass was broken.

Further on, the same request was made ; I complied,
and none could profit by it.

Without troubling myself as to the result, I poured out
the liquor profusely, and left my audience to fight for its

Soon all the glasses had disappeared, and in vain I
asked for them back to continue my bounty ; not a trace
of them was to be found. My experiment was, therefore,
in danger of sudden termination, when a clever spectator
Lcld out his hand in the shape of a cup.

The process was as simple as it was ingenious ; it was
tlio egg of Christopher Columbus. The astonishment his
r.iMghbots felt permitted the inventor to profit by his dis-
covery, which is unfortunately a rarity.

This improvised cup was unanimously accepted, but the
imitators saw their piracy suffer the same fate, minus the
breakage, as the glasses.

Quite tired, I was about to withdraw, when a new im-


provement was introduced by a spectator, as thirsty as tie
was obstinate ; throwing back his head and opening an
enormous mouth, he made me signs to pour in curagoa.
Finding the idea original, I immediately complied.

" What capital curagoa," the man said, as he licked his

This seductive exclamation was scarce heard ere every
mouth was open and heads thrown back ; it was enough to
make me fly in terror. Still, not to leave so curious a
scene incomplete, I took a watering tour, holding the
mouth of the bottle as straight as I could. At times, the
bottle being pushed by the neighbors, sent the liquor over
a man's coat, but, save this slight inconvenience, all went
on famously, and I fancied I had fulfilled the rude task of
quenching the thirst of my audience. Still, I heard a few
more appeals ; and a glass of whisky was earnestly im-
plored by one of the men who had thrust his head between
the plank and the boxes, and seemed in a perfect state of

My son, who helped me on the stage, and was one of
the first to hear this request, understood all the longing
the poor suppliant felt; hence he ran on the stage for a
glass, which I filled, and he carried to the man.

But a difficulty suddenly arose ; the claimant and his
comrades were shut up in their pillory, side by side, and
could not raise their arms. My son, unthinkingly, offered
the glass, and seeing no one take it, was about to carry it
back on the stage ; but a groan made him turm round,
and, by the patient's air, he understood he was begging
him to stoop down and place the glass to his lips.

This delicate operation was performed with considerable
skill on both sides, and, despite the laughter of the public,
each of the pilloried men asked the same service in turn.


This little scene appeared to have calmed the ardor of
the public ; and I thought it possible to terminate my
trick in the usual way. When my bottle appears ex-
hausted, I end by filling an enormous glass with liquor,
but a scene then began which I had been far from expect-

Many writers have described the saturnalia produced by
the frightful distribution of food and wine at the Restora-
tion. Well, these orgies were respectable meals compared
with the assault attempted to reach the glass I held in my

A human avalanche suddenly rose before me, and from
this living pyramid emerged two hundred hands to dispute
their prey, while a hundred mouths were opened to swal-
low it.

I thought it high time to beat a retreat, in the fear of
being buried beneath this shapeless mass. It was impos-
sible ; behind me a file of thirsty drinkers barred my

The danger was pressing, for the pyramid was bending
forward to reach me, and might lose its balance at any
moment ; the cries of the unhappy beings supporting its
weight explained the dangerous position in which I might
soon find myself; hence, I rushed with my head down
through the mass, and reached the stage in time to notice
the curious sight of a falling mountain.

I will not attempt to describe the cries, shouts, and ap-
plauses that accompanied this fall, while the victims were
loud in their abuse, and found no way of getting up, save
by stepping on their companions in misfortune. The noise
was atrocious.

The curtain fell on this strange scene, but shouts and
clapping were immediately heard : " The conjurer !"
Houdin must come out to be complimented.


I obeyed this order, and when I made my appearance,
either because I had been too liberal with my bottle, or
because, as I would sooner think, my spectators were
satisfied with my performance, the shouts and applause
broke out in such a formidable manner that I was quite
stupefied, while feeling acutely the pleasure they produced
me. For I must say that the noise of the hands struck
together, though so trying in itself, has nothing to shock
the ear of a performer ; on the contrary, the more deafen-
ing it becomes, the more harmonious it appears to the

The following performances were far from being so
tumultuous as the first, and the reason is very simple.
The merchants and traders, who form the aristocracy of
Manchester, having heard of my performances, came with
the families to witness them, and their presence contri-
buted to keep the workmen in order. The house assumed
a different aspect, and henceforth I could only praise the
quietness of the pit.

Fifteen consecutive performances had not exhausted the
curiosity of the inhabitants, and I could certainly have
given fifteen more, at leastj whan, to my great regret, I
was obliged to make way for two celebrities Jenny Lind
and Roger whom Knowles had engaged to follow my

Though I felt vexed at throwing such a chance away,
on the other hand I was glad to escape as soon as possible
from that heavy and smoky atmosphere, which makes the
industrial capital of England resemble a city of chimney-
sweeps. I could not accustom my lungs to inhale, instead
of air, the flakes of soot constantly floating about. I fell
into a state of melancholy almost akin to spleen, which
did not abandon me till I reached the gay city of Liver-
pool, where I intended to remain several weeks.


I was at that time at the height of my fashion ; my per-
formance began with applause and ended with famous re-
ceipts. I need only add, that, after performing in turn at
the theatres of Liverpool, Birmingham, Worcester, Chel-
tenham, Bristol, and Exeter, I returned to London to give
fifteen performances ere I started for France.

A few days after my return to St. James's Theatre, the
Queen, bearing in mind the desire she had expressed at
Fulham, commanded a performance at Buckingham Palace.

This invitation being most agreeable, I willingly ac-
cepted it.

At eight in the morning of the appointed day, I pro-
ceeded to the royal residence, and the steward of the
palace, to whom I was directed, led me to the place se-
lected for my performance. It was a long and magnifi-
cent picture gallery, and a theatre had been put up, on
which the scenery represented a saloon in the Louis
Quinze style, white and gold, much resembling the one I
had at St. James's Theatre.

My guide then showed me an adjoining dining-room,
belonging, he said, to the ladies of honor, and he begged
me to state at what hour I should like to breakfast.

I was too busy to think about eating, for I had my per-
formance to prepare ; however, I ordered the meal for one
o'clock at any risk, and set to work directly.

Aided by my secretary (a species of factotum) and my
two boys, who helped me as well as their strength per-
mitted, I managed to overcome all the difficulties produced
by the provisional arrangement of the stage. But I had
not finished all my preparations till two o'clock, and I was
almost dying of inanition, for, less fortunate than my
companions, I had eaten nothing the whole day. Hence
it was with real joy I led the route to the dining-room.



As the performance was not to take place till three, I
had just an hour to recruit my strength.

I had scarce walked a dozen steps, when I heard some
one calling me. It was a palace official who wanted to
speak to me.

"There will be a ball, sir, in this gallery," he said, in
excellent French, "after your performance, and conse-
quently preparations will have to be made which may take
more time than has been allowed for them. Hence, the
Queen requests you to begin your performance an hour
sooner ; she is quite ready, and will be here directly.'

" I am very sorry I cannot obey her Majesty's com-
mands," I replied ; " my preparations are not yet ended,
and I must add, that "

" Monsieur Robert-Houdin," the officer replied, politely,
but with all the coolness, of a Briton, " such are her Ma-
jesty's orders, and I can say no more." And without
awaiting any explanation, he bowed to me and retired.

"We shall still have time to take a hasty snack," I said
to my secretary, "so off to the dining-room as quickly as
you please."

I had not finished the sentence, when the Queen, Prince
Albert and the royal family entered the gallery, followed
by a numerous suit.

At this sight I had not the courage to go further ; I
returned, and armed myself with resignation. Protected
by the curtain that concealed me from the spectators, I
hastily made my few remaining preparations, and five
minutes later I received the order to begin.

When the curtain rose, I was dazzled at the sight that
met my gaze.

Her Majesty, the Prince Consort, the Queen Dowager,
the Duke of Cambridge and the royal children occupied


the first rank. Behind them were a portion of the Or-
leans family ; Avhile in the rear sat the highest functiona-
ries, among whom I recognized ambassadors dressed in
their national costumes, and general officers covered with
brilliant decorations.. All the ladies were in ball toilette,
and richly adorned with jewels.

A wonderful change came over me when I began my
performance : all my languor had been suddenly dispelled,
and I felt in excellent spirits.

Still this change can be easily explained. It is well
known that a performer feels no suffering while on the
stage ; a species of exaltation suspends all feelings foreign
to his part, and hunger, thirst, cold, or heat, even illness
itself, is forced to retreat in the presence of this excite-
ment, though it takes its revenge afterwards.

This slight digression was necessary to explain the
spirits I felt in when I appeared before my noble audi-

Never, I believe, did I throw such dash and boldness
into the performance of my experiments ; never, either,
had I an audience which appreciated them so kindly.

The Queen deigned to encourage me several times by
flattering remarks, while Prince Albert, ever so kind to
professionals, heartily clapped his hands.

I had prepared a trick, called the Bouquet d la Heine.
This is what the Court Journal says of it when describing

my performance :


" The Queen evinced an extreme pleasure in these ex-
periments ; but the one which seemed to strike her most
was the Bouquet d la Reine, a very graceful surprise, and
charmingly apropos. Her Majesty having lent her glove
to M. Robert-Houdin, the latter immediately produced


from it a bouquet, which soon grew so large that it could
be scarely held in both hands. Finally, this bouquet,
after being placed in a vase, and bedewed with magic
water, was transformed into a garland, in which the flowers
formed the word VICTORIA.

" The Queen was equally astonished at the surprising
lucidity of M. Robert-Houdin's son, in the experiment of the
second-sight. The most complicated objects had been pre-
pared in order to embarrass and foil the sagacity of the
father and the marvellous faculty of the son. Both
emerged victoriously from this intellectual combat, and
defeated every scheme."

After the performance, the same officer with whom I had
already spoken came to offer me the thanks of the Queen
and Prince Albert. The Duchess of Orleans had also
been kind enough to add her compliments and those of her

So soon as the curtain had fallen, and I was no longer
supported by the presence of my audience, I felt ready to
drop. I had taken a seat, and could hardly rise to go
and enjoy the meal which I stood in such need of.

Still, I was about to do so, when I was roused from my
exhaustion by the appearance of a large body of workmen,
who had come to take down the theatre in all speed and
prepare the gallery for the ball.

My readers can judge of my embarrassment and trouble
when I found I must pack up all my machinery at once,
lest it might be broken.

I tried to protest and defer the execution of the task,
but it was all in vain : orders had been given, and they
must be obeyed. Hence, I was obliged to summon up
fresh energy to finish my packing, which took me an hour
and a half.


Six o'clock struck when all was finished. I had taken
no food for exactly four-and-twenty hours.

Leaning on my manager who had taken the precaution
of ordering up the dinner, I dragged myself as far as the

Twilight had commenced, and the room was not yet
lighted, and it was with some difficulty we could dis-
tinguish a table. I fell rather than sat down upon a chair
I found near me, and while my son was ringing for lights,
I commenced a second-sight performance of my own. I
succeeded famously ; I laid my hand on a fork, and prick-
ing at whatever might be before me, found something at-
tached to the instrument. I prudently raised the object
to my nose, and, satisfied with this inspection, I took a
triumphant bite.

It was delicious ; and I fancied I could recognize a salmi
of partridge.

I made a second exploring tour to assure myself of the
truth, and, after a few mouthfuls, I convinced myself I
was not mistaken. My manager and boys followed my
example, and set to work manfully.

It seems that the attendance must be slow in royal
houses, for before the lights arrived we had plenty of time
to grow used to the darkness.

However, this meal, through its originality, became a
delightful amusement, and I had seized a bottle to pour
out some wine, when the door of the room suddenly
opened, and two servants came in bearing candelabra.
On seeing us thus seated at table and eating in the coolest
way, they nearly fell backwards in surprise. I am per-
suaded they took us at the moment for real sorcerers, for
we had great difficulty in inducing them to remain in the
room and wait on us.


We then took our ease. The table was well served,
the wines were excellent, and we could rest from the
fatigues and emotions of the day. At the end of the din-
ner the palace steward paid us a visit, and on hearing of
my misfortunes, he expressed his deep regret. The Queen,
he assured me, would be the more vexed, if she heard of
it, because she had given the strictest orders that I should
want for nothing in her palace.

I replied, that I was amply repaid for a few moments
of pain by the satisfaction I felt at having been called to
perform before his gracious sovereign. And this was, in-
deed, the truth.



An Optimist Manager Three Spectators in a Boom A Magical Col-
lation The Colchester Public and the Nuts I return to France I
give up my Theatre A Farewell Tour I retire to St. Qervais
An Academician's Predictions.

A SHORT time after this performance my engagement
with Mitchell terminated.

Instead of returning to France, as I should much have
desired after so lengthened an absence, I thought it better
to continue my excursions in the English provinces till
the end of September, when I hoped to reopen my theatre
at Paris.

Consequently, I drew up an itinerary, in which the first
station would be Cambridge, celebrated for its university ;
and set out.

Possibly the reader may feel no inclination to follow me
on this tour, but he may be assured I will not drag him
after me, especially as my second passage through Eng-

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 24 of 30)