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

. (page 4 of 30)
Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 4 of 30)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and loss" account.

Although my time was fully occupied here, I managed
to continue my pocket practice ; and I daily noticed with
joy the progress I was making. I had learned how to
make any object I held in my hand disappear with the
greatest ease ; and as for the practice of card tricks, they
were only child's play to me, and I could produce some
delightful illusions.

I confess to feeling a degree of pride in my humble
power of amusing my friends, and I neglected no occasion
of displaying it. On Sunday, for instance, after the in-
variable game of loto, which was played in this patriarchal
family, I gave a small performance of sleight-of-hand,
which enlivened the melancholy victims of this most mo-
notonous of all games. I was honored with the name of
an "agreeable droll," and this compliment delighted me.

My regular habits, my perseverance, and perhaps a cer-


tain degree of gaiety I possessed at the time, had gained
me the friendship and sympathy of both my master and
mistress. At last I became an indispensable member of
the family, and shared in all their amusements. Among
these were frequent excursions in the country. On one of
these, on the 25th of July, 1828, (I shall never forget that
memorable date, as it was all but registered on my tomb-
stone,) we went to a fair at an adjacent village. Before
leaving Tours, we had promised to be home to dinner at
five ; but, finding ourselves much amused, we did not keep
military time, nor find our way home till eight.

After enduring the scolding of the cook, whose dinner
had got cold, we sat down and ate like people whose ap-
petite has been whetted by a long walk in the open air,
and eight or ten hours' fasting.

Whatever Jeannette might say, everything she sent up
was found excellent, except a certain ragout, which every-
body declared detestable, and hardly touched. I, however,
devoured my share of the dish, without troubling myself
the least in the world about its quality. In spite of the
jests aroused by my avidity, I asked for a second relay,
and would certainly have eaten the whole dish, had not
my mistress, with due regard for my health, prevented it.

This precaution saved my life. In fact, dinner was
hardly over and the game of loto begun, when I felt most
uncomfortable. I went to my room, where atrocious pains
seized upon me, and a doctor was sent for. After a care-
ful investigation, the doctor discovered that a powerful
layer of verdigris had formed in the stewpan in which the
ragout had been cooked and said I was poisoned.

The consequences of this poisoning were most terrible
to me : for some time my life was despaired of, but even-
tually the sufferings seemed to be modified by the gentle


care bestowed on me, and I was granted some slight relief.
Strangely enough, it was not till this second phase of my
illness, when the doctor declared me out of danger, that I
was haunted by a certainty of speedy death, to which was
joined an immoderate desire to end my days in the bosom
of my family. This idea a species of monomania in-
cessantly assailed me, and I soon had no other thought
than that of escaping to Blois. As I could not hope to
obtain the doctor's permission to set out, when his most
urgent advice was to take care of myself, I determined to
take leave.

At six o'clock one morning, taking advantage of a mo-
ment when I was left to myself, I hastily dressed, went
down stairs, and found a stage-coach just starting for
Blois. I entered the rotonde, in which I happened to be
the only passenger, and the coach, lightly laden as it was,
soon set off at full gallop.

The journey was a horrible martyrdom to me. I was
devoured by a burning fever, and my head seemed to be
burst asunder by every jolt of the vehicle. In my frenzy
I tried to escape my agony, and yet it was continually
increasing. Unable to endure longer, I opened the door
of the compartment, and leaped, at an imminent risk of
my life, on to the -high road, where I fell in a state of in-

I cannot say what happened to me after my fainting fit ;
I can only remember long days of vague and painful ex-
istence, that appeared of eternal duration: I was in a
raging fever; my dreams were frightful, and I suffered
from the most dreadful hallucinations. One of them was
incessantly recurring it seemed as if my head opened
like a snuff-box ; a doctor, with turned-up cuffs, and armed
with an enormous pair of iron pincers, drew from my brain


roasted chesnuts, which, immediately burst like bombs, and
scattered myriads of scintillations before my eyes.

This phantasmagoria gradually faded away, and the ill-
ness at length succumbed ; but my reason was so shaken
that it did not avail me. I was reduced to a mechanical
existence. If I noticed anything, it seemed veiled in a
thick mist, and I could not perform any process of reason-
ing. It is true that all I did notice only served to increase
the confusion of my ideas. I felt as if being 'shaken in a
carriage, and, yet, I was in a capital bed, and the room
was exquisitely clean. How could I help fancying I was
still dreaming ?

At length, a spark of intelligence was aroused in me,
and the first startling impression was produced by the
sight of a man standing at my bedside. His features were
quite strange to me. Stooping over, he affectionately
urged me to swallow a draught. I obeyed ; and he then
begged me to keep silent, and remain as calm as I possibly

Unfortunately, my present state of weakness rendered
it but too easy to follow this prescription. Still, I tried
to guess who this man could be, and consulted my memory.
It was quite useless : I could remember nothing since the
moment when, yielding to frenzy, I had thrown myself
out of the diligence.



I return to Life A strange Doctor Torrini and Antonio: a Conjurer
and a Fanatic for Music A Murderer's Confession A perambulat-
ing House The Fair at Angers A portable Theatre I witness for
the first Time a Conjuring Performance The blind Man's Game at
Piquet A Dangerous Rival Signor Castelli eats a Man alive.

I AM by no means a fatalist ; and yet I cannot refrain
from remarking here that many events in human life seem
to encourage the views of fatalists.

Suppose, dear reader, that, on leaving Blois to proceed
to Tours, destiny had opened before me one of the fairest
pages of my life, I should certainly have been delighted at
such a glorious future, but in my heart I should have been
inclined to doubt its realization. In fact, I set out as a
simple workman, with the intention of making a tour of
France. This journey would have occupied much time, as
I intended to remafa^. a year or two in every city I visited,
and France is largW 1 ! Then, when I considered myself
skilful enough, I would return home and set up as a watch-

But fate decided otherwise, and I must be drawn back
to my real " groove " when I tried to escape from it. The
means employed were a poisoning, which turned me mad,
and hurled me lifeless on the high road.- But I was going
to recal my reminiscences after my fortunate catastrophe,
and I will take up the story from the point where I left off.

What had happened since my fainting fit ; where was I ;


why did this man treat me so kindly ? I longed for a so-
lution of these problems, and I should certainly have
cross-questioned my host, had it not been for the earnest
advice he had just given me. As thought, however, was
not forbidden, I tried to form a satisfactory conclusion
from surrounding objects.

The room I was in might be three yards long by two
broad. The walls were made of polished oak ; on either
side was a small window with muslin curtains ; while four
walnut chairs, shelves serving as tables, and my excellent
bed, composed the furniture of this moving room, which
bore a close resemblance to the cabin of a steamboat.

There must also be two other compartments, for, to my
left, I saw my doctor frequently disappear behind two red
damask curtains, where I heard him moving about, while
to my right I heard, through a thin partition, a voice
encouraging the horses. This circumstance made me con-
clude I was in a carriage, and that the latter voice be-
longed to the driver.

I already knew that hero's name, as I had often heard
the person I presumed to be his master use it. It was
Antonio : and he was, at any rate, a splendid musician,
for he was continually singing pieces from Italian operas,
which he broke off to swear harmlessly at his steeds. As
for the master, he was a man of about fifty, above the
average height, and his face, though sad and serious, dis-
played a degree of kindness which prepossessed me. His
long black hair fell on his shoulders in natural curls, and
he was dressed in a blouse and trousers of unbleached
cloth, with a yellow silk pocket-handkerchief as cravat.
But nothing in all this served to tell me what he was, and
my suprise was increased by finding him constantly at my
side, and nursing me like the fondest of mothers.


A day had clasped since his recommendation to keep
silent ; I had gained a little strength, and fancied myself
strong enough to talk ; I was, therefore, going to begin,
when my host, guessing my intention, prevented me.

"I can imagine," he said, "your impatience to know
where you are and whom with ; nor, will I conceal from
you that I am equally curious to learn the circumstances
that led to our meeting. Still, in regard for your health,
the responsibility of which I have assumed, I must ask you
to be patient for one night more ; to-morrow, I believe, we
shall be able to talk as long as you like, without any risk."

As I had no serious objection to raise, and as I had
been wont for some time to obey all my strange doctor
ordered, I yielded. The certainty of soon holding the
key to the enigma secured me a peaceful sleep, whose
good effects I noticed on waking. Thus, when the doctor
came to feel my pulse, he was surprised at the progress I
had made in a few hours, and, without awaiting my ques-
tions, he said, as if replying to the mute inquiry my eyes

"Yes, I will satisfy your just curiosity; I owe you an
explanation, and you shall not wait any longer. My
name is Torrini, and I am a conjurer by profession. You
are in my house that is, in the carriage I usually em-
ploy as my domicile. You will be surprised, I dare say,
to learn that the bedroom you now occupy can be length-
ened into a theatre, and in that room behind the red cur-
tains is the stage on which my apparatus is arranged."

At the word " conjurer " I could not repress a start of
satisfaction, which my sorcerer probably did not notice,
ignorant as he was that he had before him one of the most
fervent adepts of his profession.

"As for yourself,," he went on, "I need not ask you


any questions : your name, trade, as well as the cause of
your illness, are known to me, for I consulted your livret,
and some letters I found on you, in my desire to benefit
you. I must now tell you, though, all that has happened
since you lost consciousness. After giving some repre-
sentations at Orleans, I was proceeding to Angers, where
the fair will shortly begin, when, at some distance from
Amboise, I found you lying insensible, with your face to
the ground. Fortunately for you, I was then taking my
morning walk by the horses' side, and this circumstance
saved you from being run over. By Antonio's help I car-
ried you to my bed, and my knowledge of medicine re-
stored you to life. But, my poor fellow ! the fever caus-
ed you to make the most terrible outbreaks ; you threat-
ened me continually, and I had the greatest difficulty in
mastering you. At Tours I would have gladly stopped to
call in a doctor, for your situation was critical, and I had
not practiced for many years: but my hours were
counted: I must arrive in time at Angers, where I wish
to choose a good spot for my exhibition, and I had a strange
fancy I should save your life, which has proved true."

Not knowing how to thank this excellent Torrini, I
offered him my hand, which he pressed firmly: but must
I confess it I was checked in the effusion of my gratitude
by a thought which I deeply regretted later.

"To what motive," I asked myself, " can I attribute
this sudden affection ?" This feeling, however sincere it
might be, must have some cause, and in my ingratitude I
sought whether my benefactor did not conceal some inter-
ested design bohind his apparent generosity. Torrini, as
if he had guessed my thoughts, continued, in a kindly

"You expect a fuller explanation? Well, however
painful it may be to me, I will give it. It is this


"You arc surprised that a mountebank, a man belonging
to a class not generally erring on the side of sensibility,
should have evinced such compassion for your sufferings,
but your surprise will cease, my boy, on learning that
this compassion is produced by the sweet illusion of pa-
ternal love."

Here Torrini stopped an instant, tried to recover him-
self, and then proceeded :

" I had a son, a beloved son ; he was my hope, my life,
my happiness; but a dread fatality robbed me of him: he
died, and, terrible to say, he was assassinated, and his
murderer stands before you!"

At this unexpected confession I could not repress a
start of horror ; the cold drops beaded on my face.

"Yes, yes, his murderer !" Torrini went on, his voice
growing gradually firmer, "and, yet, the law could not
punish me ; it left me life. In vain I accused myself be-
fore my judges ; they treated me as a maniac, and my
crime was regarded as accidental homicide. But what do
I care, after all, for their judgment ? Whether through
carelessness, or imprudence as they say, my poor Gio-
vanni is not the less lost to me, and I shall reproach my-
self with his death my life long."

Torrini's voice was drowned by his sobs. He remained
for some time with his hands before his eyes ; then, mak-
ing an effort, he continued, in a calmer tone :

" To spare you emotions that might prove dangerous in
your present state, I will abridge the narrative of the
misfortunes to which this event was only a terrible prelude.
What I have said will suffice to explain the natural cause
of my sympathy towards you. When I first saw you, I
was struck by the likeness you bore in age and height to
my unhappy boy. I even fancied I could trace a certain


resemblance in your face, and yielding to this illusion, I
decided on keeping you near me, and nursing you as if
you were my own child. You can now form an idea of
the agony I endured during the week when I was com-
pelled to despair of your restoration to life. But Provi-
dence, taking pity on us both, has saved you. You are
now quite convalescent, and in a few days, I trust, will be
perfectly recovered. Such, my boy, is the secret of the
affection I displayed towards you."

Deeply moved by the father's misfortunes, and touched
by the tender care he had bestowed on me, I could only
express my gratitude in half-broken phrases, for I was
almost stifled by emotion. Torrini, also feeling the neces-
sity of shortening this painful interview, went out, prom-
ising to return soon.

No sooner was I alone than a thousand thoughts crossed
my mind. This mysterious and tragical event, the thought
of which seemed to overthrow Torrini's reason ; this crime
of which he accused himself so persistently ; this verdict
whose justice he disputed, perplexed me in the highest de-
gree, and gave me a great desire to obtain more complete
details about this domestic drama. Then, I asked myself
how a man possessing so agreeable a countenance, who
did not lack either judgment or talent, and who joined to
a solid education a readiness of conversation and distin-
guished manners, could have thus sunk to the lowest stage
of his profession.

While absorbed in these thoughts, the vehicle stopped :
we had arrived at Angers. Torrini left us, in order to
obtain the mayor's leave to perform, and so soon as he
had succeeded, he prepared to occupy the spot allotted to
him. As I have already stated, the room I occupied was
to be transformed into a theatre ; hence I was carried to


an adjacent inn, and placed in a capital arm chair ctose
to an open window. The weather was glorious ; the sun's
beneficent rays seemed to impart fresh life to me, and I
began to lose that egotistic indifference which a lengthened
illness usually produces.

I could see Antonio and his master, with their sleeves
tucked up, working at the theatre. In a few hours our
residence was completely transformed ; the moving house
had become a charming room. The arrangement of this
singular vehicle is so stamped on my memory, that I can
still supply an exact description of it, and I will fill up
the details I have already given of it.

The bed on which I had lain was drawn up through a
trap in the ceiling, where it occupied a very small space.
If clothes or linen were required, an adjoining trap was
opened, and by means of a ring, a chest of drawers was
produced, as if by magic. A similar process revealed a
small chimney, which, by a peculiar arrangement, expelled
the smoke below the hearth. Lastly, the larder, cooking-
range, and other accessories of the household, were ready
to hand, and could be easily restored to their respective
places. This strange furniture occupied all the space
between the wheels, so that the room, though amply fur-
nished, was not crowded.

But I was most surprised to see the vehicle, which was
scarcely six yards long, suddenly grow twice that length.
This was most ingeniously contrived : the body was double
and could be pulled out like a telescope. This prolonga-
tion, supported by trestels, was quite as secure as the rest
of the edifice. The partition, dividing the rooms off, had
been removed, so that they now formed but a single apart-
ment. The public entered on this side, and a staircase
led to the door, before which an elegant marquee formed


a vestibule, where the tickets were issued. Lastly, a
scaffolding was erected over the front, which represented
a stuccoed house.

The sight of this machine excited my imagination, and
I built castles in the air which I was never to inhabit. I,
too, would have a similar vehicle, though rather smaller,
as my exhibition would be different.

Here I must make room for a parenthesis, to supply an
explanation I think necessary. I have spoken so much
of sleight-of-hand, that it might be supposed I had quite
given up all thoughts about mechanism. On the contrary
I still passionately loved that science ; but I had modified
its application, since the love of the marvellous had in-
flamed my imagination. I proposed to call to my aid
automata, which I would eventually build ; then, I would
traverse the whole of Europe, perhaps the world, gaining
an ample amount of honor, pleasure and profit.

While engaged with these pleasant dreams I regained
my health and strength, and hoped that Torrini would
soon allow me to be present at one of his performances.
In fact, he soon offered me an agreeable surprise, for, one
evening, he led me to his theatre, and installed me on the
first row of seats, grandly denominated "the stalls."
Judging by my own enthusiasm, I expected the theatre
would be thronged so soon as the doors opened, but to my
great surprise and regret, the room was not more than
half full.

The hour fixed for commencing at length arrived ; the
bell rang thrice, the curtains were drawn back, and an
exquisite little stage was visible. The most striking thing
was the entire absence of all that apparatus by which
many performers compensate for their lack of skill, while
by a graceful innovation, a few candles artistically ar-


ranged, were substituted for that dazzling glare which, at
the period of which I write, was the indispensable orna-
ment of all performances of "amusing science."

Torrini appeared, walked towards the public with great
ease of manner, made a deep bow, then demanded the
indulgence of the spectators, and ended by paying a com-
pliment to the ladies. This slight address, though uttered
in a cold and melancholy tone, received a few encouraging
bravos from the audience.

The performance commenced in the most perfect si-
lence ; everybody seemed inclined to devote all attention
to it. I could hardly breathe, in my desire not to lose a
single word or gesture.

I will not describe the several tricks I saw ; they all
possessed extraordinary interest for me ; but Torrini ap-
peared to excel in card tricks. He possessed two most
precious qualities in the exercise of this art : these were
extreme skill and an incredible boldness of execution.
To these he added a most aristocratic way of touching the
cards ; his white and carefully-tended hands seemed hardly
to rest on them, and his tricks were so artistically per-
formed, that the audience involuntarily bestowed a sym-
pathising confidence upon him. Sure of the effect he
would produce, he performed the most difficult "passes,"
with a coolness no one could expect him to possess ; and
this produced the most successful results. To close the
performances, Torrini requested the audience to choose
some one to play a game of piquet with him, and a gen-
tleman immediately stepped on the stage.

"Pardon me, sir," said Torrini, "but it is indispen-
sable, for the success of the experiment, that I should know
your name and profession."

"Nothing easier $ sir. My name is Joseph Lenoir, at


your service; and my profession is that of a dancing-

Any other than Torrini would have made some jest on
the name and profession of this rival of Vestris ; but he
did nothing of the sort. He had only asked this question
to gain time, for he never indulged in any mystification ;
so he merely added :

"I thank you, sir, for your kindness ; and now we know
who we are, we can place confidence in each other. You
have come to play a game of piquet with me ; but do you
understand the game thoroughly?"

" I flatter myself I do, sir."

"Ah! ah!" Torrini said with a laugh. "Pray do not
flatter yourself till we have played our game. Still, not
to lower your self-esteem, I will allow you to be an excel-
lent player ; but that will not prevent you losing the game,
although the chances are all in your favor. Listen to me
carefully ; the trick I am going to perform, and which is
called the 'blind man's game of piquet,' requires that I
should be blinded, so have the goodness to bandage my
eyes carefully."

M. Lenoir, who, I may mention, wore spectacles, was
very distrustful, hence he took extraordinary precautions
to accomplish his task. First, he covered the patient's
eyes with tow, over which he fastened three thick band-
ages ; and, as if this fourfold covering were not enough to
blind his opponent, he fastened an enormous shawl round
his head. I know not how Torrini kept from suffocation
beneath these heavy bandages ; for my part, the perspi-
ration ran down my face at seeing him so muffled up. Not
knowing all the resources this skilful performer had at
command, I was rather fearful as to the result of the ex-
periment, and my alarm reached its climax when I heard
hin address his opponent as follows :


"Monsieur Lenoir, have the kindness to sit down oppo-
site me at this table. I have still a small service to ask
you before we begin our game. You have quite deprived
me of my sight, but that is not enough. You have now to
bind my hands, so that I may be quite incapable."

M. Lenoir raised his spectacles and looked at Torrini, as
if stupefied; but the latter, quietly placing his arms on the
table, and crossing his thumbs, said, "Now, sir, fasten
them securely."

The dancing-master took the piece of whipcord and per-
formed his task as conscientiously as he had done the first

"Am I now blinded, and deprived of the use of my
hands?" Torrini asked his vis-a-vis.

"I am certain of it," Joseph Lenoir replied."

" Well, then, to begin our game. But tell me first in
what suit you would like to be repiqued?"

"In clubs."

" Very good ; now deal the cards by twos or threes, as
you please. When they are dealt out, I will leave you to
select the hand you think will enable you best to prevent
a rcpique."

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 4 of 30)