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

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more courageous than his colleagues, try to restrain them
by his words :

" Stay ! stay ! we cannot thus lose one of our co-reli-


gionists. Surely we must know what has become of him,
or what has been done to him. Stay ! stay !"

But the co-religionists only ran away the faster, and
soon the courageous caid, led away by their example, fol-
lowed them.

They little knew what awaited them at the door of the
theatre ; but they had scarce gone down the steps when
they found themselves face to face with the " resuscitated

The first movement of terror overcome, they surrouuded
the man, felt and cross-questioned him ; but, annoyed by
these repeated questions, he had no better resource than
to escape at full speed.

The next evening the second performance took place,
and produced nearly the same effect as the previous one.

The blow was struck : henceforth the interpreters and
all those who had dealings with the Arabs received orders
to make them understand that my pretended miracles were
only the result of skill, inspired and guided by an art
calle.d prestidigitation, in no way connected with sorcery.

The Arabs doubtlessly yielded to these arguments, for
henceforth I was on the most friendly terms with them.
Each time a chief saw me, he never failed to come up and
press my hand. And, even more, these men whom I had
so terrified, when they became my friends, gave me a pre-
cious testimony of their esteem I may say, too, of their
admiration, for that is their own expression.

Three days had elapsed since my last performance, when
I received a despatch from the governor, ordering me to
be at the palace by twelve o'clock, military time.

Of course I kept the appointment, and the last stroke
of twelve was still striking by the clock of the neighboring


mosque when I sent in my name at the palace. A staff
officer immediately came to me.

" Come with me, M. Robert-Houdin," he said, with a
half mysterious air. "I am ordered to conduct you."

I followed my conductor, and, as the door of a magnifi-
cent room was open at the end of a gallery we Crossed, I
saw a strange sight. Some thirty of the most important
Arab chiefs were arranged in a circle, of which I natu-
rally formed the centre when I entered the room.

" Salam aleikoum !" they said, in a grave and almost
solemn voice, as they laid their hands on their hearts.

I first returned this salutation by bowing in the French
fashion, and then by several hand-shakings, beginning
with those chiefs whose acquaintance I had already

At the head was the Bash-Aga Bou-Allem, the African
Rothschild, in whose tent I had drunk my coffee at the
Arab camp during the races.

Next came the Ca'id Assa, with a wooden leg, who had
also offered me pipes and coffee in the same encampment.
As this chief did not understand a word of French,, my
friend Boukandoura was enabled, during a visit we paid
him, to tell me the history of the wooden leg in his

" Assa," my friend said, "having had his leg shattered
in an affair against the French, owed his escape to the
speed of his horse. Once in a place of safety, he himself
cut off his leg above the knee, and then, in his wild energy,
thrust the mutilated stump into a vessel full of boiling
pitch, in order to stop the hemorrhage."

Wishing to return the salutations I had received, I went
round the group, offering my hand to each in turn. But
my task was remarkably abridged, for the ranks thinned


at my approach, as many of the company had not the cour-
age to take the hand of a man they had seriously regarded
as a sorcerer or the demon in person.

This incident, however, did not disturb the ceremony in
any way. After a laugh at the pusillanimity of the fugi-
tives, each re-assumed that gravity which is the normal
condition of the Arab countenance.

Then the most aged chief in the assembly advanced
towards me, and unrolled an enormous MS. It was an
address, written in verse, a perfect masterpiece of native
caligraphy, and adorned with graceful arabesques drawn
by hand.

The worthy Arab, who was at least seventy years of age,
then read, in a loud voice, the piece of Mussulman poetry,
which was perfectly unintelligible to me, as I knew only
three words of Arabic.

When the reading was ended, the orator drew from his
belt the signet of his tribe, and solemnly placed it at the
bottom of the page. The principal Arab chiefs and dig-
nitaries followed his example, and when all the seals had
been affixed, my old friend took the paper, and after as-
suring himself the imprints were quite dry, he rolled it up
and presented it to me, saying, in excellent French, and
in a tone that revealed his sincerity :

" To a merchant, gold is given ; to a warrior, arms are
offered ; to thee, Robert-Houdin, we present a testimony
of our admiration, which thou canst hand down to thy
children." And, translating a verse he had just read in
Arabic, he added, " Pardon us for presenting thee with
such a trifle, but is it fitting to offer mother-o'-pearl to the
man who possesses the real jewel ?"

I avow very frankly that never in my life did I experi-
ence such sweet emotion never had my success pene-


trated so fully to my heart ; and, moved more than I can
express, I turned to wipe away a tear of sympathy.

These details, as well as the following, certainly wound
my modesty a little, but I cannot make up my mind to
pass them over in silence ; hence, I must beg the reader
to accept them as a mere picture of manners.

I declare, too, that the thought never entered my mind
of having deserved such praise, and yet I cannot refrain
from feeling as much flattered as grateful for this homage,
and regarding it as the most precious souvenir of my pro-
fessional career.

This declaration made, I will furnish a translation of
the address, in the words used by the caligrapher him-

" Homage offered to Robert-Houdin, by the chiefs of the
Arab tribes, after his performances given at Algiers on tho
28th and 29th of October, 1856.


who teaches us what we know not, and enables us to ex-
press the treasures of the mind by the flowers of eloquence
and the signs of writing.

" Generous-handed destiny has sent down from above,
in the midst of lightning and thunder, like a powerful and
fertilizing rain, the marvel of the moment and the age,
him who cultivates the surprising arts and marvellous sci-
ences the iSM-Robert-Houdin.

" Our century has seen no one comparable with him.
The splendor of his talent surpasses the most brilliant
productions of past ages. Our age is the more illustrious
because it has possessed him.


" He has known how to stir our hearts and astonish our
minds, by displaying to us the surprising facts of his
marvellous science. Our eyes were never before fascinated
by such prodigies. What he accomplishes cannot be de-
scribed. We owe him our gratitude for all the things by
which he has delighted our eyes and our minds ; hence,
our friendship for him has sunk into our hearts like a per-
fumed shower, and our bosoms preciously conceal it.

"We shall in vain attempt to raise our praises to the
height of his merit; we must lower our brows before him
and pay him homage, so long as the benevolent shower
fertilizes the soil, so long as the moon illuminates the
night, so long as the clouds come to temper the heat of
the sun.

" Written by the slave of God,


"Pardon us for presenting thee with," &c. &c.

Then follow the seals and signatures of the chiefs of the

After the ceremony was over, and the Arabs had left
us, the marshal-governor, whom I had not seen since my
performances, being desirous to give me an idea of the ef-
fect they had produced on the minds of the natives, quoted
the following incident:

A Kabyle chief, who had come to Algiers to make his
submission, was taken to my first performance.

The next day, at an early hour, he went to the palace,
and asked to speak with the governor.

"I have," he said to the marshal, "to ask your permis-
sion to return immediately to my tribe."

"You must be aware," the marshal replied, "that the


forms are not yet filled up, and the papers will not be in
order for three days ; you will, therefore, remain for that

"Allah is great," the Arab said, " and if it pleaseth
Him I shall go away before, you will not be able to stop

" You will not go, I feel certain, if I forbid it. But
tell me, why are you in such a hurry to leave?"

"After what I saw yesterday I don't wish to stay in
Algiers; a misfortune would happen to me."

" Did you regard the miracles as real?"

The Kabyle surveyed the marshal with an air of aston-
ishment, and, without replying directly to the question
addressed him, said :

"Instead of killing your soldiers in conquering the
Kabyles, send your French Marabout to the most rebel
tribes, and before a fortnight he will bring them all to

The Kabyle did not leave, for the interpreters managed
to remove his fears ; still he was one of those who kept
furthest aloof from me during the ceremony I have de-

Another Arab also said, on leaving one of my perform-
ances :

" Our Marabouts must now do very great miracles to
astonish us."

These statements from the governor's own lips were
very agreeable to me, for up to that moment I had felt
rather uneasy ; and although I was certain I had produced
a startling impression by my performances, I was en-
chanted at learning that the object of my mission had
been carried out according to the wishes of government.
In addition, before I started for France, the marshal was


kind enough to assure me once again that my performances
in Algeria had produced the happiest effect in the minds
of the natives.

Although my performances were ended, I was in no
hurry to return to France. I was curious, in my turn, to
witness a conjuring performance of the Marabouts, or
other native jugglers. I had also promised several Arab
chiefs to visit them in their douars, and I wished to enjoy
this double pleasure.

There are few Frenchmen who, after a short stay in
Algeria, have not heard of the Aissaoua and their mar-
vels. The stories I had been told of the experiments per-
formed by the followers of Sid-Aissa had inspired me with
the liveliest desire to see them, and I was persuaded that
all their miracles were only more or less ingenious tricks,
jrhich I should be able to detect.

As M. le Colonel Neveu had promised me the oppor-
tunity of seeing them, he kept his word.

On a day chosen by the Mokaddem, the usual president
of this sort of meeting, we went, accompanied by several
staff officers and their wives, to an Arab house, and pro-
ceeded through a low archway into the inner court, where
the ceremony was to take place. Lights artistically fixed
on the walls, and carpets spread on the pavement, awaited
the arrival of the brothers, while a cushion was reserved
for the Mokaddem.

We all took our seats where we should not disturb the
performance, and our ladies went up to a gallery on the
first floor, and thus represented our dress-boxes.

But I will let Colonel Neveu himself describe this scene,
by copying verbatim from his interesting work " The Re-
ligious Orders among the Mussulmans of Algeria:"

"The Aissaoua entered, formed a circle in the court-


yard, and soon began their chants. These were at first
slow and solemn chants, and lasted a long time ; then came
the praises of Sidi-Muhammad-Ben-Aissa, founder of the
order ; after which the Brethren and the Mokaddem, tak-
ing up cymbals and tambourines, gradually increased the
speed of the chanting.

" After about two hours the songs had become wild
cries, and the gestures of the Brethren had followed the
same impulse. Suddenly some of them rose and formed a
line, dancing, and pronouncing as gutturally as they could,
and with all the vigor of their energetic lungs, the sacred
name of Allah. This word, issuing from the mouths of
the A'issaoua, seemed rather a savage growl than an invo-
cation addressed to the Supreme Being. Soon the noise
increased, the most extravagant gestures began, while tur-
bans fell off and exposed their shorn heads, which look
like those of vultures ; the long folds of their red sashes
became unfastened, embarrassing their movements and in-
creasing their disorder.

" Then the A'issaoua moved about on their hands and
knees, imitating the movements of wild animals. They
seemed to be acting under the influence of some muscular
force, and they forgot they were men.

" When the excitement had reached its height, and the
perspiration was running down their bodies, the A'issaoua
began their juggling. They called the Mokaddem their
father, and asked him for food; he gave to some pieces
of glass, which they champed between their teeth; he
placed nails in the mouths of others, but, instead of swal-
lowing them, they carefully hid their heads in the folds
of the Mokaddem's burnous, in order not to let the audi-
ence see them remove them. Some devoured thorns and
thistles ; others passed their tongues over a red-hot iron


and took them in their hands without burning themselves.
One man struck his left arm with his right hand : the flesh
appeared to open, and the blood poured forth abundantly ;
then he passed his hand over his arm, the wound closed,
and the blood disappeared. Another leaped on to the
edge of a sabre held by two men, and did not cut his feet ,
while others produced from small leathern sacks scorpions
and serpents, which they boldly placed in their mouths."

I had concealed myself behind a pillar, whence I could
survey everything without being noticed. I insisted on
not being the dupe of these mysterious tricks : hence I
paid the closest attention.

Both through the remarks I made on the scene of ac-
tion, and the ulterior researches I undertook, I am now in
a position to give a satisfactory explanation of the miracles
of the A'issaoua. But, not to interrupt my narrative, I
will refer the reader who is anxious for these details to the
end of this volume, and the special chapter I have chris-

I believe myself the more competent to supply these
explanations, as some of the tricks belong to conjuring
proper, and others are based on phenomena drawn from
the physical sciences.



Excursion in the Interior of Africa The Abode of a Bash-Aga A
comical Kepast A Soire"e of Arab Dignitaries A Marabout mys-
tified Tent-life in Algeria I return to France A terrible Storm

ONCE possessed of the secret of the juggling performed
by the A'issaoua, I was able to start for the interior of Af-
rica. I therefore set out, provided with letters from
Colonel de Neveu, to several heads of the Arab depart-
ment, his subordinates, and I took with me Mme. Robert-
Houdin, who was quite delighted at the thought of making
this excursion.

We were going to visit the Arab beneath his tent or in
his house; eat his "couscoussou," which we only knew by
name ; study for ourselves the domestic manners and cus-
toms of Africa : this was certainly enough to inflame our
imagination. So much was this the case, that I hardly
ever thought that the month in which we should re-embark
for France would be the one in which the Mediterranean
is so stormy.

Among the Arabs who had invited me to visit them, Bou-
Allem-Ben-Sherifa, Bash-Aga of the D 'jendel, had pressed
me so strongly that I determined on commencing my
round of visits with him.

Our journey from Algiers to Me'de'ah was most prosaic,
for a diligence conveyed us there in two days.

Apart from the interest inspired in us by the peculiar


vegetation of Algeria, as well as the famous peak of the
Mouza'ia, which we passed at a gallop, the incidents of the
journey were the same as on any French high road. The
hotels were kept by Frenchmen, and you dined at the
table d'hote on the same fare, at the same price, and with
the same attendance. This bagman's existence was not
what we had anticipated on leaving Algiers. Hence, we
were delighted to get out at Me'de'ah, as the diligence did
not follow the same road as ourselves beyond this point.

Captain Ritter, head of the Arab office at Me'de'ah, to
whom I went, had seen my performances at Algiers : hence,
I had no occasion to hand him the letter of recommenda-
tion addressed to him by M. de Neveu. He received me
with great affiability, and Mme. Ritter joined her entrea-
ties to her husband's that we should visit the town. I
indeed regretted being obliged to leave such agreeable
persons the next morning ; but I was obliged to hurry my
tour over before the autumnal rains set in, which render
the roads impracticable, and often, indeed, very dangerous.

The captain acceded to my wishes ; he lent us two
horses from his stable, and gave us as a guide to Bou-Al-
lem's a ca'id who spoke French excellently.

This Arab had been caught when quite a youth in a hut
which Abd-ul-Khadr had been forced to abandon after one
of his numerous defeats. The government sent the lad to
the Louis-le Grand College, where he got on excellently
in his studies. But, constantly pursued by the remem-
brance of his African sky, and the national " couscoussou"
our bachelor of arts asked the favor of being sent back to
Algeria. Owing to his education he was made cai'd of a
small tribe, whose name I have forgotten, but which lay
on the route we were going to take.

My guide whom I will call Muhammad, because I


have forgotten his name also (for Arab names are difficult
to remember by those who have not lived some time in Al-
geria) Muhammad, then, was accompanied by four Arabs
of his tribe : two of them were to carry our baggage, and
the other two wait upon us. All were mounted, and pro-
ceeded before us.

We started at eight in the morning, as our first stage
was not to be long, for Muhammad assured me that, if it
pleased God (a formula a true believer never omits in
speaking of the future), we should arrive at his house in
time for breakfast. In fact, about three hours after we
had set out, our little caravan reached Muhammad's
modest douar, and we dismounted in front of a villa, en-
tirely composed of branches, of which the roof was hardly
of man's height. This was the caid's reception-room.

The door was opened, and our guide showed us the way
by walking in first. Only one piece of furniture orna-
mented the interior ; it was a small wooden stool, which
my wife converted into a seat. Muhammad and I seated
ourselves on a carpet, which an Arab had spread at our
feet, and breakfast was soon served up. Muhammad, who,
I fancy, wished to gain our pardon for a grave crime he
was about to commit, treated us sumptuously, and almost
in the French style. A rich soup, roast fowls, various
ragofits, which I cannot describe, as my culinary studies
have been very limited, and pastry, which Felix himself
would not have disowned, were placed before us in turn.
More than that, my wife and I had been handed an iron
knife, fork and spoon an unheard of thing at an Arab's.

The meal had been brought from an adjacent gourbi,
where the caid's mother resided. This lady had lived in
Algiers for a long time, where she had acquired the skill
of which she had just oifered us a specimen.


As for Muhammad, he had resumed the fashions of his
ancestors, with the Mussulman costume, and lived on dates
and "couscoussou," save when he had any guests, which
was extremely rare.

Our breakfast over, the host advised to set out again,
if we wished to reach Bou-Allem's before nightfall ; and
we followed his advice.

From Mdde'ah to Muhammad's douar we had followed a
tolerable road, but on leaving his house we entered on a
barren and desert country, where we saw no other signs
of a road than those left by ourselves. The sun poured
its most torrid beams upon our heads, and we found no
shade along our route to protect us from it. Frequently,
too, our progress became very laborious, for we came to
ravines, into which we had to descend at the risk of our
horses' knees and our own necks. To restore our patience,
our guide told us we should soon reach more even ground,
and we continued our journey.

About two hours after leaving our first halt, Muhammad
quitted us at full gallop, saying he would soon return, and
disappeared behind a mound.

We never saw our caid again.

I learned, afterwards, that in his jealousy of Bou-Al-
lem's wealth, he preferred incurring a punishment sooner
than pay a visit to his rival.

This flight rendered my wife and myself very uncom-
fortable, and we exchanged our ideas on the subject, with
no fear of being understood by our guides. We were
alarmed by the bad example given by Muhammad. Sup-
pose the four Arabs were to imitate their chief, and also
abandon us ! What would become of us in a country
where, even if we were to meet anybody, we could not
make him understand our wishes ?



But we escaped with the fear. Our worthy guides re-
mained faithful to us, and were even very polite and atten-
tive during the journey. Besides, as Muhammad had told
us, we soon reached a road leading us straight to the
abode of Bou-Allem.

Compared with the caid's house, the bash-aga's might
be considered a princely residence, less, however, through
the architectural beauty of the buildings than through
their extent. As in all Arab houses, only walls could be
seen from without ; all the windows looked on court-yards
or gardens.

Bou-Allem and his son, warned of our arrival, came to
meet us, and paid us in Arabic compliments I did not un-
derstand, but which I supposed to be the usual salamalecks,
that is to say :

" Be ye welcome, oh ye invited of Deity ! "

Such, however, was my confidence, that, whatever might
have been said to me, I should have accepted it as a com-

We dismounted, and sat down upon a stone bench,
where coffee was soon served up to us. In Algeria people
drink coffee and smoke the whole day long. It is true
that this beverage is not made so strong as in France, and
the cups are very small.

Bou-Allem, after lighting a pipe, handed it to me : it
was an honor he did me to let me smoke after him, and I
could not decline it, though I might have preferred it to
be just the "other way about."

As I have already stated, I only knew three or four
words of Arabic, and with such a poor vocabulary it was
difficult to talk with my hosts. Still, they evidenced great
joy at my arrival, for every moment they renewed their
protestations, while laying their hands on their hearts. I


replied by similar signs, and hence had not to draw on
my imagination to keep up the conversation.

Later, however, urged by an appetite whose prompt
satisfaction I did not calculate on, I ventured on a new
pantomime. Laying my hand on the pit of my stomach,
and assuming a suffering air, I tried to make Bou-Alleni
comprehend that we required more substantial food than
civil compliments. The intelligent Arab understood me,
and gave orders for the meal to be hastened on.

In the meanwhile, and to keep us quiet, he offered, by
gestures, to show us his apartments.

We ascended a small stone staircase, and, on arriving
at the first floor, our guide opened a door, which offered
this peculiarity, that, to pass through it, you were obliged
to lower your head and lift your foot simultaneously. In
other words, this door was so low, that a man of ordinary
height could not pass through it without stooping, and, as
the floor was raised, you were obliged to step up on it.

This chamber was the bash-aga's reception-room ; the
walls were covered with red arabesques relieved with gold,
and the ground strown with magnificent Turkey carpets.
Four divans, covered with rich silk stuffs, completed the
entire furniture, with a small mahogany table, on which
were spread pipes, porcelain coffee cups, and other objects
especially used by Mussulmen. Among them, Bou-Allem
took up a flask filled with rose-water, and poured it on our
hands. The perfume was delicate ; unfortunately, our
host wished to do things grandly, and in order to show the
esteem he held us in, employed the rest of the bottle in
literally sprinkling us from head to foot.

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 27 of 30)