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

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We visited two other large rooms, more simply deco-
rated than the first, and in one of them was an enormous
divan. Bou-Allem made us comprehend that was where
he slept.


These details would have been very interesting at any
other moment, but we were dying of hunger, and, accord-
ing to the proverb, " a starving belly has neither eyes nor
cars." I was just going to recommence my famous panto-
mime, when, in passing through a small room, in which
the only furniture was a carpet, our cicerone opened his
mouth, pointed with his finger that something was to be
placed in it, and thus made us understand we were in the
dining-room. I laid my hand on my heart to express all
the pleasure I experienced.

By Bou-Allem's invitation we sat down on the carpet,
round a large waiter put down in place of a table.

Once seated, two Arabs came in to wait on us.

In France, servants wait with their heads uncovered ;
in Algeria, they keep on their head-covering ; but, in re-
turn, as a mark of respect, they leave their shoes at the
door, and serve barefooted. Between our servants and
those of the Arabs the only difference is from head to

We were the only guests seated with Bou-Allem, for the
son had not the honor of dining with his father, who
always ate alone.

A species of salad-bowl, filled with something like pump-
kin soup, was brought in, and I am very fond of that dish.

"What a fortunate thing," I said to my wife, "Bou-
Allem has guessed my taste ; how I will do honor to his

My host, doubtlessly, understood the meaning of my
remark, for, after offering us each a clumsy wooden spoon,
he begged us to follow his example, and plunged his
weapon in up to the wrist. We imitated him.

I soon took out an enormous spoonful, which I hastily
lifted to my mouth ; but I had scarce tasted it ere I ex-
claimed with a horrible grimace :


"Pouah ! what can that be? My mouth is on fire."

My wife withdrew the spoonful she had raised to her
lips, but either her appetite or her curiosity induced her
to taste it. She did so, but soon joined me in coughing.
It was a regular pepper-pot.

While apparently vexed at this contretemps, our host
swallowed enormous spoonfuls of the soup, and each time
he stretched out his arm with an air of beatitude, in-
tended to convey to us, "And yet how good it is."

The soup-tureen was taken away almost empty.

" Bueno ! bueno !" Bou-Allem exclaimed, pointing to a
dish just placed before us.

Bueno is Spanish, and the worthy bash-aga, knowing
two or three words of that language, was not vexed to
display his learning to us.

This famous dish was a species of ragofit, bearing some
affinity to haricot mutton. When I lived at Belleville,
this was the masterpiece of Mme. Auguste, and I always
gave it a very good reception. Hence, in remembrance
of my good old cook, I was about to fall on the ragofit ;
but I looked around in vain for a fork, a knife, or even
the wooden spoon handed us for the soup.

Bou-Allem released me from the dilemma ; he showed
me, by himself plunging his fingers into the dish, that a
fork was a very useless instrument.

As hunger tormented us, we overcame our repugnance,
and my wife, to encourage me, delicately fished up a small
piece of mutton. The sauce was very highly spiced, but
still, by eating very little meat and a great deal of bread,
we were enabled to render the poison innocuous.

That I might be agreeable to my host, I unfortunately
repeated the Spanish words he had taught me. This com-
pliment, which ho believed sincere, caused him extreme


pleasure, and he drew out from the dish a bone with meat
hanging to it, and after tearing off some pieces with his
nails, offered them politely to my wife.

I wondered how Madame Houdin would get rid of this
singular present ; but she did so much more cleverly than
I expected. Bou-Allem having turned his head to give an
order, the piece of meat was restored to the dish with
astounding craft, and we were much inclined to laugh when
our host, unsuspectingly, took this very piece of mutton
for his own gratification.

We welcomed with great satisfaction a roast fowl served
after the ragout ; I took on myself to carve it, or, in other
words, to tear it asunder with my fingers, and I did so
most delicately. We found it so much to our taste that
not a particle was left.

The came other dishes, which we tasted with due care,
among them being the famous "couscoussou," which I
found detestable, and the meal terminated with sweet-

Our hands were in a deplorable condition, and an Arab
brought us each a basin and soap to wash them.

Bou-Allem, after performing the operation, and washing
his beard with the greatest care, took a handful of soap-
suds and rinsed his mouth. This was the only liquor
served at table.

After dinner we proceeded to another room, and, on the
road were joined by a young Arab whom Bou-Allem had
sent for. This man had been for a long time servant at
Algiers, and spoke French excellently; hence he would
serve as our interpreter.

We entered a small room very elegantly decorated, in
which were two divans.

" This," our host said, " is the room reserved for guests


of distinction ; you can go to bed when you like, but if
you are not tired, I would ask your leave to present to
you several chief men of my tribe, who, having heard of
you, wish to see you."

"Let them come in," I said, after consulting Madame
Houdin, "we will receive them with pleasure."

The interpreter went out, and soon brought in a dozen
old men, among whom were a Marabout and several
talebs, whom the bash-aga appeared to hold in great de-

They sat down in a circle on carpets and kept up a very
lively conversation about my performances at Algiers.
This learned society discussed the probability of the mar-
vels related by the chief of the tribe, who took great
pleasure in depicting his impressions and those of his co-
religionists at the sight of the miracles I had performed.

Each lent an attentive ear to these stories, and regarded
me with a species of veneration ; the Marabout alone dis-
played a degree of scepticism, and asserted that the spec-
tators had been duped by what he called a vision.

Jealous of my reputation as a French sorcerer, I thought
I must perform before the unbeliever a few tricks as a spe-
cimen of my late performance. I had the pleasure of as-
tounding my audience, but the Marabout continued to
offer me a systematic opposition, by which his neighbors
were visibly annoyed ; the poor fellow did not suspect,
though, what I had in store for him.

My antagonist wore in his sash a watch, the chain of
which hung outside.

I believe I have already mentioned a certain talent I
possess of filching a watch, a pin, a pocket-book, &c., with
a skill by which several of my friends have been vic-


T was fortunately born with an honest and upright heart,
or this peculiar talent might have led me too far. When
I felt inclined for a joke of this nature, I turned it to profit
in a conjuring trick, or waited till my friend took leave of
me, and then recalled him : " Stay," I would say, handing
him the stolen article, " let this serve as a lesson to
put you on your guard against persons less honest than

But to return to our Marabout. I had stolen his watch
as I passed near him and slipped into its place a five-franc

To prevent his detecting it, and while waiting till I
could profit by my larceny, I improvised a trick. After
juggling away Bou-Allem's rosary, I made it pass into
one of the numerous slippers left at the door by the guests ;
this shoe was next found to be full of coins, and to end
this little scene comically, I made five-franc pieces come
out of the noses of the spectators. They took such plea-
sure in this trick that I fancied I should never terminate
it. "Douros! douros !" they shouted, as they twitched
their noses. I willingly acceded to their request, and the
douros issued at command.

The delight was so great that several Arabs rolled on
the ground ; this coarsely expressed joy on the part of
Mohammedans was worth frenzied applause to me.

I pretended to keep aloof from the Marabout, who, as I
expected, remained serious and impassive.

When calm was restored, my rival began speaking hur-
riedly to his neighbors, as if striving to dispel their illu-
sion, and, not succeeding, he addressed me through the
interpreter :

"You will not deceive me in that way," he said, with a
crafty look.


"Why so?"

" Because I don't believe in your power."

" Ah, indeed ! Well, then, if you do not believe in my
power, I will compel you to believe in my skill."

"Neither in one nor the other."

I was at this moment the whole length of the room from
the Marabout.

" Stay," I said to him ; " you see this five-franc piece."


" Close your hand firmly, for the piece will go into it in
spite of yourself."

"I am ready," the Arab said, in an incredulous voice,
as he held out his tightly closed fist.

I took the piece at the end of my fingers, so that the
assembly might all see it, then, feigning to throw it at the
Marabout, it disappeared at the word "Pass !"

My man opened his hand, and, finding nothing in it,
shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, " You see, I told
you so."

I was well aware the piece was not there, but it was
important to draw the Marabout's attention momenta-
rily from the sash, and for this purpose I employed the

"That does not surprise me," I replied, "for I threw
the piece with such strength that it we-nt right through
your hand, and has fallen into your sash. Being afraid
I might break your watch by the blow, I called it to
me: here it is!" And I showed him the watch in my

The Marabout quickly put his hand in his waist-belt,
to assure himself of the truth, and was quite stupefied at
finding the five-franc piece.

The spectators were astounded. Some among them


began telling their beads with a vivacity evidencing a
certain agitation of mind ; but the Marabout frowned
without saying a word, and I saw he was spelling over
some evil design.

" I now believe in your supernatural power," he said ;
"you are a real sorcerer; hence, I hope you will not fear
to repeat here a trick you performed in your theatre ;"
and offering me two pistols he held concealed beneath his
burnous, he added, " Come, choose one of these pistols ;
we will load it, and I will fire at you. You have nothing
to fear, as you can ward off all blows."

I confess I was for a moment staggered; I sought a
subterfuge and found none. All eyes were fixed upon
me, and a reply was anxiously awaited.

The Marabout was triumphant.

Bou-Allem, being aware that my tricks were only the
result of skill, was angry that his guest should be so pes-
tered ; hence he began reproaching the Marabout. I stop-
ped him, however, for an idea had occurred to me which
would save me from my dilemma, at least temporarily ;
then, addressing my adversary :

"You are aware," I said, with assurance, "that I re-
quire a talisman in order to be invulnerable, and, unfor-
tunately, I have left mine at Algiers."

The Marabout began laughing with an incredulous air.

"Still," I continued, "I can, by remaining six hours
at prayers, do without the talisman, and defy your weapon.
To-morrow morning, at eight o'clock, I will allow you to
fire at me in the presence of these Arabs, who were wit-
nesses of your challenge."

Bou-Allem, astonished at such a promise, asked me
once again if this offer were serious, and if he should in-
vite the company for the appointed hour. On my affirrna-


tivc, they agreed to meet before the stone bench I have
already alluded to.

I did not spend my night at prayers, as may be sup-
posed, but I employed about two hours in ensuring my
invulnerability ; then, satisfied with the result, I slept
soundly, for I was terribly tired.

By eight the next morning we had breakfasted, our
horses were saddled, and our escort was awaiting the
signal for our departure, which would take place after the
famous experiment.

None of the guests were absent, and, indeed, a great
number of Arabs came in to swell the crowd.

The pistols were handed me ; I called attention to the
fact that the vents were clear, and the Marabout put in a
fair charge of powder and drove the wad home. Among
the bullets produced, I chose one which I openly put in
the pistol, and which was then also covered with paper.

The Arab watched all these movements, for his honor
was at stake.

We went through the same process with the second pis-
tol and the solemn moment arrived.

Solemn, indeed, it seemed to everybody to the spec-
tators who were uncertain of the issue, to Madame Houdin,
who had in vain besought me to give up this trick, for she
feared the result and solemn also to me, for as my new
trick did not depend on any of the arrangements made at
Algiers, I feared an error, an act of treachery I knew
not what.

Still I posted myself at fifteen paces from the sheik,
without evincing the slightest emotion.

The Marabout immediately seized one of the pistols,
and, on my giving the signal, took a deliberate aim at me.
The pistol went off, and the ball appeared between my teeth.


More angry than ever, my rival tried to seize the other
pistol, but I succeeded in reaching it before him.

"You could not injure me," I said to him, "but you
shall now see that my aim is more dangerous than yours.
Look at that wall."

I pulled the trigger, and on the newly whitewashed
wall appeared a large patch of blood, exactly at the spot
where I had aimed.

The Marabout went up to it, dipped his finger in the
blood, and, raising it to his mouth, convinced himself of
the reality. When he acquired this certainty, his arms
fell, and his head was bowed on his chest, as if he were

It was evident that for the moment he doubted every-
thing, even the Prophet.

The spectators raised their eyes to heaven, muttered
prayers, and regarded me with a species of terror.

This scene was a triumphant termination to my per-
formance. I therefore retired, leaving the audience under
the impression had I produced. We took leave of Bou-
Allem and his son, and set off at a gallop.

The trick I have just described, though so curious, is
easily prepared. I will give a description of it, while ex-
plaining the trouble it took me.

As soon as I was alone in my room, I took out of my
pistol-case without which I never travel a bullet mould.

I took a card, bent up the four edges, and thus made a
sort of trough, in which I placed a piece of wax taken from
one of the candles. When it was melted, I mixed with it
a little lamp-black I had obtained by putting the blade of
a knife over the candle, and then ran this composition in
the bullet-mould.

Had I allowed the liquid to get quite cold, the ball


would have been full and solid ; but in about ten seconds
I turned the mould over, and the portions of the wax not
yet set ran out, leaving a hollow ball in the mould. This
operation is the same as that used in making tapers, the
thickness of the outside depending on the time the liquid
has been left in the mould.

I wanted a second ball, which I made rather more solid
than the other ; and this I filled with blood, and covered
the orifice with a lump of wax. An Irishman had once*
taught me the way to draw blood from the thumb, without
feeling any pain, and I employed it on this occcasion to
fill my bullet.

Bullets thus prepared bear an extraordinary resemblance
to lead, and are easily mistaken for that metal when seen
at a short distance off.

With this explanation, the trick will be easily under-
stood. After showing the leaden bullet to the spectators,
I changed it for my hollow ball, and openly put the latter
into the pistol. By pressing the wad tightly down, the
wax broke into small pieces, and could not touch me at the
distance I stood.

At the moment the pistol was fired, I opened my mouth
to display the lead bullet I held between- my teeth, while
the other pistol contained the bullet filled with blood, which
bursting against the wall, left its imprint, though the wax
had flown to atoms.

After a pleasant journey, we reached Milianah at four in
the afternoon. The head of the Arab office, Captain Bour-
seret, received us most kindly, and begged us to regard
his house as our own during the whole time of our stay.

M. Bourseret resided with his mother, and that exceK
lent lady showed Madame Robert-Houdin all those deli-
cate attentions which only a friend of long standing could
have claimed.


Our trip across the D'jendel had fatigued us, hence we
passed the greater portion of the next day in resting our-

At night, the captain gave a grand dinner, to which the
general commanding, the lieutenant-colonel, and some
notabilities of the town were invited. After the repast, I
thought I could not better repay my polite reception than
by giving a small performance, in which I displayed all my
skill. As I had told M. Bourseret, during the day, of
my intention, he had invited a large evening party ; and I
must suppose my experiments pleased, if I may judge by
the greeting they received. Besides, my public were so
favorably disposed towards me, that they often applauded
on trust, as they could not all see very well.

Milianah was the end of my journey. I could only remain
three days, if I wished to return to Algiers in time for the
steamer that would convey us to France.

M. Bourseret arranged an excursion for the second day
of my stay at his house to visit the Beni-Menasseh, a
nomadic tribe at that time encamped a few leagues from

At six in the morning we took horse, accompanied by
some of the captain's friends, and went down the moun-
tain on which the town is built.

We were escorted by a dozen Arabs attached to the
office, all clothed in red mantles, and armed with guns.

Orders had certainly been given beforehand, for, on
reaching the plain, at the first goum we passed through,
ten Arabs mounted their horses and formed our escort.
A little further on another troop joined the first, and our
band, acting like a rolling snow-ball, ended by attaining
considerable proportions. It was composed of about two
hundred Arabs.


After two hours' inarch, we quitted the high road, and
entered a plain that extended an immense distance in
front of us.

Suddenly, the Arabs who accompanied us, probably in
obedience to a signal from the chief, started off at a gallop,
and proceeded five or six hundred yards ahead. There
the troop divided, formed four deep, and the men of the
first file rushed upon us, uttering frenzied cries as they
held their guns to their shoulders and prepared to fire.

Our little band happened to be in front at this moment.
The Arabs rushed upon us with the velocity of a steam-
engine, and in a few seconds we should have suffered a col-
lision that must have crushed us all.

A sound of firing was heard : all the horsemen had dis-
charged their guns with admirable precision over our heads.
Their horses plunged, turned on their hind legs, and started
off at full speed to join the troop.

The Arab might have been taken for a perfect Centaur,
when we saw him, while riding at this frantic speed, load
his gun, and perform with it all the tricks peculiar to the

The first file of horsemen had scarce retired when the
second came forward, and went through a similar perform-
ance, which was repeated at least twenty times. Our cap-
tain had arranged for us the surprise of a fantasia.

At the noise of the firing some of our horses had started,
but, the first moment of surprise passed, they remained
perfectly quiet. My wife's horse was an animal of ap-
proved docility, hence it was far less affected than its
rider ; still, every one did my wife the justice of stating
that, after the first shock was over, she remained as calm
as the boldest warrior among us.

The fantasia terminated, the Arabs took their place in


the escort again, and within an hour we reached the tents
of the Beni-Menasseh.

The Aga Ben-Amara was awaiting us. On our arrival
he advanced towards us, and humbly kissed the captain's
hand, while other men of his tribe, in order to do honor to
our visit, discharged their guns almost under our horses'
noses. But men and beasts were case-hardened, and there
was not the slightest movement in our ranks.

Ben-Amara conducted us into his tent, where each sat
down at his ease on a large carpet.

Our arrival caused a sensation in the tribe, for while
we were smoking and drinking coffee a large number of
Arabs, impelled by curiosity, ranged themselves in a circle
round us, and in their immobility resembled an avenue of
bronze statues.

We devoted about an hour to the pleasures of conversa-
tion, waiting for the diffa (meal), which we were impatiently
desiring. We even began to find the time very long, when
we saw a procession approaching, with banners at its head.

These banners puzzled me, and seemed very strange, for
they were folded up. All at once the ranks of our peace-
able spectators opened, and my surprise was great on find-
ing what I took for banners were only sheep roasted whole
and spitted on long poles.

Two of these sheep-bearers marched in front. They
were followed by some twenty men, ranged in line, each
of whom bore one of the dishes -intended to compose our

These consisted of ragouts and roasts of every descrip-
tion, the inevitable "couscoussou," and, lastly, a dozen
dishes of dessert, the handiwork of Ben-Amara's wives.

This perambulating dinner was a delicious sight, espe-
cially for people whose appetites had been singularly


sharpened by the fresh air and the emotions produced by
the fantasia.

The head cook marched in front, and, like M. Malbroug's
officer, carried nothing ; but, so soon as he joined us, he
set to work actively. Seizing one of the sheep, he un-
spitted it, and laid it before us on a lordly dish.

To my companions, nearly all Algerian veterans, this
gigantic roast was no novelty ; as for my wife and myself,
the sight of such food would have been enough to pacify
our hunger under other circumstances, but now we has-
tened to join the circle round this gigantic dish, which was
worthy of Gargantua.

We were obliged, as at Bou-Allem's, to pull the animal
piece-meal with our fingers ; each tore up a strip at will
I must confess, at starting, with some repugnance. Then,
impelled by a ferocious appetite, we fell on the sheep like
wolves, and I know not whether it was owing to the sauce
we all had, but the guests unanimously declared they had
never eaten anything so good as this roast mutton.

When we had selected the most delicate pieces, our cook
proposed to produce the other animal, but, on our refusal,
he served up roast fowls, to which we did our manly devoir.
Then, turning up our noses at the pepper-pot and " cous-
coussou," which smelled strongly of rancid butter, we x
made up for the want of bread during the meal by nibbling
excellent little cakes.

There was something really princely about the aga's
reception, so, to thank him, I proposed to give a small per-
formance before my numerous spectators, who, in their
passionate admiration, could not leave the ground. By
their chief's orders they drew nearer and formed a circle
round me. The captain was kind enough to act as my
interpreter, and thanks to him, I was enabled to perform



a dozen of my best tricks. The effect produced was such
that I could not possibly continue, for every one fled at
my approach. Ben-Ainara assured us they took me for
Shaitan himself, but, had I worn the Mohammedan cos-
tume, they would have cast themselves at my feet as an
envoy from Heaven.

On our return to Milianah, the captain, to crown this
delicious day of pleasure, gave us the spectacle of a chase,
in which the Arabs, galloping at full speed, caught hares
and partridges without once firing.

The following day we took leave of M. Bourseret and
his excellent mother, and proceeded towards Algiers, but
not by a cross-road, for we had had enough of them in
traversing the D jendel. This sort of party of pleasure,

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 28 of 30)