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

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an admirable mixture of dissimulation and deceptions ?

As for the art I cultivated, what would it be without
falsehood ?

Encouraged by Torrini, I regained my assurance. I
continued practising all my tricks, and showed him several
new inventions of my own. My master paid me some
compliments, to which he added sensible advice.

"I recommend you," he said, "to moderate your viva-
city. Instead of displaying so much petulence in your
movements, affect, on the contrary, extreme calmness, and
thus you will avoid those clumsy gesticulations by which
conjurers generally fancy they distract the attention of
their spectators, when they only succeed in wearying them."

My professor then, adding example to precept, took
the cards from my hands, and showed me in the same
passes I had performed the finesses of dissimulation allied
to sleight-of-hand. I looked on with sincere admiration :
probably flattered by the impression he had produced on
me, Torrini said :

"As we are now on the subject of card tricks, I will
explain to you my game of piquet ; but, in the first place,
you must see the box I employ in its performance."

And he handed me a small box, which I turned over a
score times without detecting its use.

" You will seek in vain," he said to me ; "a few words
would put you on the right track, but I prefer, although
the remembrances it summons up are very painful, to tell
you how this box fell into my hands, and for what pur-
pose it was originally invented.

"About twenty years ago I was living at Florence,


where I practised as a physician. I was not a conjurer
in those days (he added, with a profound sigh), and would
to Heaven I had never become so !

" Among the young men of my own age, I was particu-
larly intimate with a German of the name of Zilbermann.
Like myself, he was a doctor, and equally like myself
without practice. We passed the greatest part of our lei-
sure hours together : in other words, we were almost in-
separable. Our tastes were much the same, save on one
point, where we differed essentially. Zilbermann was
passionately fond of gambling, while I felt no attraction
for play. My antipathy for cards must indeed have been
excessive to prevent me yielding to the force of contagion,
for my friend won large sums, enabling him to live like a
great gentleman, while I, though most economical, could
not help incurring debts. However this may be, Zilber-
mann and I lived on terms of fraternal intimacy. His
purse was at my service, but I used it discreetly, as I
knew not when I should be able to return what I borrowed.
His delicacy and generosity towards me led me to believe
he was frank and loyal with all the world, but I was de-

" One day, when I had only left him a few hours before,
one of his servants came hastily to summon me, stating
that his master had been dangerously wounded, and
begged to see me at once. I ran off directly, and found
my unhappy friend lying on his couch with a face of
deadly pallor. Overcoming my grief, I proceeded to offer
him succor. Zilbermann stopped me, motioned me to sit
down, dismissed his attendants, and, after being assured
we were alone, begged me to listen to him. His voice,
weakened by the pain he was suffering, scarcely reached
my ear, and I was forced to stoop down over him.



"'My dear Edmond,' he said to me, 'a man accused
me of cheating. I challenged him we fought with pis-
tols and his bullet is lodged in my chest.'

"And when I urged Zilbermann to let me attend to him,
he added :

"'Itis useless, my friend. I feel I am wounded to
death. I have hardly time to make a confession, for which
I claim all your indulgent friendship. Learn, then,' he
added, offering me a hand damp with death, ' I was not
unjustly insulted. I am ashamed to confess that, for a
long time, I have lived at the expense of my dupes.
Aided by a fatal skill, and still more by an instrument I
invented, I daily cheated at play.'

"'How you, Zilbermann?' I said, withdrawing my
hand sharply.

'"Yes, I !' the dying man replied, seeming by a glance
to supplicate my mercy.

"'Edmond!' he added, collecting all his remaining
strength, ' in the name of our old friendship do not aban-
don me ! For the honor of my family, let not this proof
of my infamy be found here. I implore you to remove
this instrument.' And he showed me a small box attached
to his arm.

" I unfastened it, and like yourself, my boy, looked at
it, without understanding its use. Revived by a thought
of his culpable passion, Zilbermann added, with the most
lively admiration,

" ' And yet see how ingenious it was. This box can be
attached to the arm without perceptibly increasing its size.
Ready packed cards are put in it beforehand ; when you
are going to cut, you put your hand quietly over the cards
on the table, so as to cover them completely ; then you
press this spring by resting your arm gently on the table.


The prepared cards come out while a pair of pincers seize
the other pack and draw it up into the box. To-day, for
the first time, the instrument failed me the pincers left
a card on the table. My adversary '

" Zilbermann could not complete the phrase ; he had
drawn his last gasp.

" Zilbermann's confessions and death had overpowered
me, and I hastened fyom his room. On returning home,
I began to reflect on what had happened, and, imagining
that my known intimacy with the deceased would forbid
my stay at Florence, I determined on proceeding to
Naples. I took with me the unlucky box, though not
foreseeing the use I should eventually make of it ; and
for a long time I forgot its existence. However, when I
turned my attention to conjuring, I thought about my
piquet trick, and the fortunate use I made of the box
gained me one of my most remarkable triumphs as profes-
sor of sleight-of-hand." ,

At this recollection, Torrini's eyes sparkled with un-
usual brilliancy, and prepared me for an interesting anec-
dote. He proceeded as follows :

"A conjurer, named Comus, had invented a trick at
piquet, which he performed, I must allow, with extra-
ordinary dexterity. The praise he acquired in conse-
quence rendered him very boastful ; and thus he never
failed to announce on his bills that he alone could perform
this incomparable trick, thus challenging all the sleight-
of-hand professors known. I had some degree of reputa-
tion in those days, and Comus's assertion stung me.
Knowing his way of doing the trick, and my own to be
far superior, I resolved to pick up the glove he threw to
all his rivals.


I therefore went to Geneva, where he happened to be,
and offered him a share performance, in which a jury
should decided on our relative merits. Comus gladly ac-
cepted, and on the day fixed an immense number of spec-
tators assembled. Being my senior, my opponent com-
menced. But, in order that you, my dear Robert, may
also act as jury, I will first explain to you how he per-
formed his trick.

" Taking a new pack of cards, he undid the cover, had
them shuffled, and then taking them in his hand, he man-
aged to get them, as if by accident, either face to face or
back to back. This disarrangement gave him time to
manipulate the cards, while appearing to be merely putting
them in order ; thus, when he had finished, I could easily
see that he had made an almost imperceptible crease on
certain cards, which must give him a suit of eight cards, a
king, and fourteen in aces.

" This doije, Comus handed the cards to his adversary,
begging him to shuffle them again ; and, during this time,
he had his eyes bandaged. This was a useless precaution,
let me observe en passant, for whatever care may be taken
to deprive a person of sight in this way, the projection of
the nose always leaves a vacuum sufficient to see clearly.

" When the other player had finished, Comus again
took up the cards as if to shuffle them ; but you can easily
understand that he only arranged them so that the cards
he had marked must fall to him in the deal. The saute de
coupe, as you are aware, neutralises the effect of cutting;
hence Comus was certain of success. In fact, matters
ended so on this occasion, and hearty applause greeted
my rival's victory.

" I have reason to believe that a great number of these
bravos emanated from his friends and accomplices, for


when I came forward in my turn to perform my trick, a
murmur of dissatisfaction greeted my appearance on the
stage. The ill-will of the spectators was so manifest that
it would have intimidated me, had I not then been quite
steeled against all applause or dissatisfaction on the part
of the public.

" The audience were far from suspecting the surprise I
had prepared for them, for instead of asking any one to
come from the house as my playman, I requested Comus
himself to play with me. At this request I saw the people
begin to look at each other ; but what were the exclama-
tions when, after asking my rival to bandage my eyes and
tie my hands, I not only declined to touch the cards, but
left him at liberty, after stating in what suit he would be
repiqued, to deal the cards by twos or threes, and choose
the hand he preferred !

" I had a pack ready prepared in my box, and I was
sure of my instrument need I say that I gained the

" Owing to my secret arrangements, my mode of acting
was so simple, that it was impossible to find out how I did
it, while Comus's preliminary manipulations led to the
supposition that his dexterity gained the game. I was
declared victor unanimously. Shouts greeted this deci-
sion ; and even Comus's own friends, deserting my rival,
came to offer me a pretty gold pin, surmounted by a cup,
the symbol of my profession. This pin, as one of the
audience told me, had been ordered by poor Comus, who
felt certain of winning it back.

"I may (Torrini added) fairly boast of this victory;
for, though Zilbermann left me the box, he had not taught
me the game of piquet, which I invented myself. Was
not this trick, I ask you, far superior to Comus's, which,


it is true, deceived the multitude, but the poorest sleight-
of-hand performer could easily detect?"

Torrini was extremely proud of his inventive skill ; but
this, I believe, was his sole defect, and he made up for it
by his readiness to praise other persons. His story
ended, I complimented him most sincerely, not only on
his invention, but on the victory he had gained over
Comus. v

Travelling in this way, and stopping at times to per-
form in towns where we might hope to clear a profit, we
passed through Limoges, and found ourselves on the road
leading from that town to Clermont. Torrini proposed to
give some performances in the chief town of the Puy-de-
Dome, after which he intended returning straight to Italy,
whose gentle climate and quaint ovations he regretted.

I had made up my mind to part from him there. We
had been travelling together about two months ; this was
about the time I had fixed for the repair of the automaton,
and my work was almost concluded. On the other hand,
I had a right to ask my dismissal, with no fear of being
considered ungrateful. Torrini's health had become as
good as we might ever expect, and I had given up to him
all the time I could reasonably spare.

Still I did not like to speak about our separation, for
the professor, delighted with my progress and skill, could
not conceive I could have any other wish but to travel
with him, and eventually become his successor. This
position would certainly have suited me in many respects,
for, as I have said, my vocation was irrevocably fixed.
But, whether new instincts were kindled in me, or that
the intimacy I lived in with Torrini had opened my eyes
to the unpleasantness of such a mode of life, I aimed at
something higher than being his successor.


I had therefore made up my mind to leave him ; but
painful circumstances deferred the moment of separation.

We had just arrived at Aubusson, a town celebrated for
its numerous carpet factories. Torrini and his servant
were on the box of the carriage: I was at work. We
were going down a hill, and Antonio was pulling at the
rope which dragged our wheels, when, suddenly, I heard
something break, and the carriage started off at full
speed. The slightest obstacles produced a tremendous
shock, and every moment I expected the carriage to go

Trembling, and hardly able to breathe, I clung to my
bench as a plank of safety, and with my eyes closed,
awaited the death that appeared inevitable. For a mo-
ment we were on the point of escaping the catastrophe.
Our powerful horses, skillfully guided by Antonio, had
kept up bravely during this rapid descent, and we had
passed the first houses in Aubusson, when, as misfortune
willed it, an enormous hay-cart emerged from a side
street, and barred our passage. The driver did not see
the danger till it was too late to avoid it. The accident
was inevitable, the collision frightful.

I was momentarily stunned by the pain, but as soon as
I recovered I stepped out of the carriage to look after my
comrades. I found Antonio covered with harmless contu-
sions, supporting Torrini, whose arm was dislocated, and
leg broken. Our two horses lay dead in the road ; as for
the carriage, only the body remained intact : all the rest
was knocked to atoms.

A doctor, hurriedly sent for, reached an adjoining inn to
which we had been directed, almost as soon as ourselves.
And here I could not refrain from admiring Torrini's
magnanimity, when he insisted on our being looked to


first ; and, in spite of our entreaties, we could not alter
his determination. Antonio and myself were soon all
right again, but this was not the case with Torrini : he
was obliged to undergo all the operations and different
phases of a broken leg.

Although he treated the accident so coolly, it might
produce terrible consequences for him : the repair of the
carriage, the physician, our forced stay at an inn, would
cost him very dear. Could he continue his performances
replace his horses? This idea caused Antonio and
myself cruel anxiety : Torrini alone did not despair of the

"No matter," he said, with entire confidence in him-
self; "once I have recovered, all will go on well. Why
ought a courageous and healthy man to fear aught ? Help
yourself, and Heaven will help you ! our good La Fontaine
wrote. Well, we will all, then, help ourselves, and no
doubt we shall escape from this dilemma."

In order to give my company to this excellent man, and
distract his thoughts, I put up my bench by his bedside,
and, while working, continued the conversations which
had been so unfortunately interrupted.

The day at length arrived when I gave the last touch
to the automaton, and made it perform before Torrini,
who appeared delighted with it. Had our patient been
less unfortunate, I should have now quitted him ; but
could I leave the man who had saved my life in this way ?
Besides, another thought had occurred to me. Although
Torrini told us nothing of his pecuniary position, Antonio
and I' fancied he was greatly embarrassed. Was it not
my duty to try and relieve him, were it in my power ? I
imparted to Antonio a scheme he approved, though beg-
ging me to defer it a little longer, till. we found whether
our suppositions were correct.


Still the days were very long by my patient's side, for
my mechanical job was finished, and sleight-of-hand was
a subject of conversation long exhausted. One day, when
Torrini and I were seeking some topic to talk about, I
remembered his promise to tell me his life history, and
reminded him of it.

At this request Torrini sighed. "Ah !" he said, "if I

could suppress many sad incidents in my story, I should

delight to read you a few pleasant pages from an artist's

life. However, it may be," he added, "I have contracted

.a debt with you which I must pay.

" Do not expect me to give you a journal of my life ;
that would be tedious both to you and to myself. I will
only quote some interesting episodes, and describe to you
some tricks you possibly have not heard of. This will be
the most amusing portion of my story," Torrini added,
with a smile, " for whatever may be your present resolu-
tions about following my art, I need not be a Nostradamus
to predict that you will devote yourself to it some day,
and gain immense success. What you are about to hear,
my friend, will show you that it is not every man who can
eay, with the popular proverb, ' Spring, I will not drink
thy water !' "



Torrini relates his Life Treachery of Chevalier Pinetti A Conjurer
through Malice A Race between two Magicians Death of Pinetti
Exhibits before Pius VII. The Cardinal's Chronometer Twelve
Hundred Francs spent on a Trick Antonio and Antonia The most
bitter of Mystifications Constantinople.

MY name is Edmond de Grisy, and that of Torrini be-
longs to Antonio, my brother-in-law. That worthy young
man, whom you wrongfully took for my servant, has been
good enough to follow me in my evil fortune, and help me
in my performances. You must have seen, though, by
the way I treat him, that while leaving to him the toil
better suited for his age than mine, I regard him as my
equal, and consider him my best friend at least I should
have called him so before knowing you but now, one of
my best friends.

My father, the Count de Grisy, resided on his property
in Languedoc, the sole resource left him of a once large
fortune, which circumstances had sadly diminished. De-
voted to Louis XVI., and one of his most faithful ser-
vants, on the day of danger he offered his body as a ram-
part for his sovereign, and was killed at the storming of
the Tuilleries on the 18th of August.

I was at that time in Paris, and, profiting by the dis-
orders in the capital, I was enabled to pass the barriers,
and reach our small family domain. There I dug up a
hundred louis my father had concealed for any unforseen


accident ; to this money I added some jewels left by my
mother, and with these modest resources proceeded to

The value of my entire property was 5000 francs. On
the interest of this sum I could not live ; hence I was
obliged to seek some profession to support me. I soon
formed my decision : taking advantage of the excellent
education I had received, I devoted myself to the study
of medicine. Four years later I took my degree as doc-
tor ; I was then twenty- seven.

I established myself at Florence, where I hoped to form
a connexion. Unfortunately for me, in this town, with
its gentle climate and reinvigorating sun, the number of
physicians was greater than that of the patients, and my
new profession was a perfect sinecure.

I have told you how Zilbermann's death compelled me
to quit the capital of Tuscany, and I established myself
at Naples. More fortunate than at Florence, immediately
on my arrival I was called in to a patient whose illness
had defied the skill of the first Italian physicians. He
was a young man, of very high family; his recovery
gained me great renown, and I soon took my place among
the best Neapolitan physicians. This success, and the
fashion I gained by it, opened to me the doors of all the
salons, and my name, aided by the manners of a gentle-
man brought up at the court of Louis XVI., rendered mo
indispensable at all soire'es and festivals.

What a happy and calm existence I might still be en-
joying had not destiny, jealous of my happiness, destroy-
ed my future prospects of felicity by hurling me into the
vivid and ardent emotions of an artistic life !

The carnival of 179G had just commenced. At that
time one man was the popular idol of the Italians ; no-


thing was spoken of but the marvels achieved by Che-
valier Pinetti. This celebrated conjurer came to Naples,
and the whole city attended his interesting performances.
As I was madly attached to this sort of spectacle, I spent
every evening at the theatre, trying to guess the chevalier's
tricks, and unfortunately for myself, I discovered the key
to many of them.

But I did not stop here ; I also wished to perform them
before a few friends : success stimulated me, and made me
desirous of increasing my repertoire. At length I could
perform all Pinetti's tricks. The chevalier was eclipsed;
nothing was spoken of but my skill and address ; and every
one besought a performance from me. But I did not ac-
cede to all these requests, for I was chary in displaying
my talent, hoping thus to increase its value.

My privileged spectators were only the more enthu-
siastic, and asserted that I equalled Pinetti, if I did not
surpass him.

The public is so happy, my dear lad (Torrini said, with
a look of melancholy regret), when it can oppose some
rising talent to any artist in renown. It seems as if this
sovereign dispenser of fashion and favor takes a malicious
pleasure in reminding the man it adores that every reputa-
tion is fragile, and that the idol of to-day may be shat-
tered to-morrow.

My vanity forebade my thinking of this. I believed in
the sincerity of the praise bestowed on me ; and I, the
earnest student, the clever doctor, was proud of my futile

Pinetti, far from seeming jealous of my triumph, evinc-
ed a desire to form my acquaintance, and even came to
call upon me. He might have been about forty-six years
of age at this time, but his elegant toilet made him ap-


pear much younger. There was something distinguished
in his face, though the features were common-place and
irregular, and his manners were excellent. Still, by an
inexplicable want of judgment, he used, when perform-
ing, to wear a brilliant general's uniform, on which nu-
merous decorations glistened.

This peculiarity, which bordered too much on the char-
latan, ought to have enlightened me as to the man's moral
value ; but my passion for conjuring rendered me blind.
We met like old friends, and our intimacy was almost in-
stantaneous. Pinetti was most affable, talked about his
secrets unreservedly, and even offered to take me to the
theatre and show me his stage arrangements. I accepted
the offer with the greatest readiness, and we entered his
richly ornamented carriage.

From that moment the chevalier treated me with the
utmost familiarity. In any other this would have wound-
ed my pride, or at least aroused my suspicion, and I should
have been on my guard. On the contrary, I was en-
enchanted with Pinetti, for, by his unbounded luxury, he
had gained such consideration, that the noblest young
gentlemen in the city were proud of his friendship. Why,
then, should I be more haughty than they ? In a few
days we had become almost inseparable friends, only part-
ing at the time of our mutual performances.

One evening, after one of my private exhibitions, I
proceeded to sup as usual with Pinetti, my head still a-glow
with the compliments I had received. I found him alone.
On seeing me enter, the chevalier ran up to me, embraced
me affectionately, and asked how my performance, had
gone off. I did not hide my success from him.

" Ah ! my friend," he said, " that does not surprise me ;
you are incomparable : indeed, I should not be paying you


a forced compliment if I said you might challenge the
most skillful among us."

And during the whole supper, despite my efforts to stop
him, he would only speak of my skilland address. Though I
tried to decline his compliments, the chevalier seemed so
sincere, that I ended by accepting them. In fact, I was
so convinced of their truth, that I began to pay myself
some compliments ; for how could I believe it was all a
trick to make a fool of me ? When Pinetti saw I had ar-
rived at this stage, and that the champagne had turned my
head, he said:

"Do you know, my dear count, that you could offer the
Neapolitans a surprise to-morrow, worth its weight in gold
for the poor?"

"How?" I asked.

" Suppose, my dear friend, you take my place in a per-
formance I am going to give on behalf of the poor. We
will put your name in the bills instead of mine, and it will
be regarded as a noble and honorable understanding be-
tween two artists. One repesentation the less will not in-
jure my reputation, while it will cover you with glory ; I
shall thus have the double satisfaction of helping the un-
fortunate, and displaying my best friend's talent to ad-

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 6 of 30)