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

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This proposal so startled me, that I rose from the table,
as if fearing to hear more. But Pinetti was gifted with
such persuasive eloquence, and he seemed to promise him-
self so much pleasure from my future triumph, that at
length I ended by yielding all he asked.

" That is right," Pinetti said to me ; " dismiss such want
of confidence in yourself, which could be hardly pardoned
in a schoolboy. Now, matters settled so far, we have no
time to lose. Let us draw up the bill : choose among my


tricks those you prefer, and, as for the preparations trust
to me : I will take care all is in order."

The greater number of Pinctti's tricks were performed
by the help of accomplices, who brought to the theatre
various objects of which the conjurer had doubles. This
singularly facilitated the pretended marvels, and I had no
doubt of success.

We soon drew up the bill, at the top of which I wrote
my name with great emotion ; then came a list of the
tricks I proposed to do. Just as we finished this, the
usual guests entered the room, offering excuses more or
less specious to explain their delay. Still their tardy ap-
pearance aroused no suspicion in my mind ; for Pinetti's
was open all hours of the night, and his door was only
closed from daybreak till two P. M., the time he devoted to
sleep and dress.

As soon as the new arrivers heard of my resolution,
they noisily congratulated me, and promised to support
me by their hearty applause. Not that I wanted it, they
added, for my performance would create an extraordinary
enthusiasm. Pinetti gave one of his servants the bill,
telling him to order the printer to have it posted all over
the city before daybreak.

An impulse made me stretch out my hand to take back
the paper, but Pinetti checked me with a laugh.

" Come, my dear friend," he said, " do not try to fly an
assured triumph, and to-morrow at this hour we shall all
be toasting your success."

All the visitors joined in chorus, and they drank in an-
ticipation of my approaching triumph. A few glasses of
champagne dispelled my hesitation and scruples.

I returned home very late, and went to bed without
thinking of what had occurred. At two the next afternoon


I was still asleep, when I was aroused by Pinetti s voice.

"Get up, Edmond!" lie shouted through the door.
" Up, man ! we have no time to lose : the great day has
arrived. Open the door : I have a thousand things to say
to you."

I hastened to open.

"Ah ! my dear count," he said, " allow me to congratu-
late you on your good fortune. Your name is in every
mouth : the whole theatre is taken ; the last tickets are
being positively fought for ; the king and the royal family
will do you the honor of being present ; we have just been
informed of the fact."

At these words the whole affair flashed across my mind :
a cold perspiration stood on my forehead : the terror that
assails every novice rendered me dizzy. In my confusion
I sat down on the foot of my bod.

" Do not reckon on me, chevalier," I said, with firm-
ness. " Whatever may happen, I will not perform."

"What! you will not perform?" my perfidious friend
said, affecting the most perfect tranquility ; " but my good
fellow, you cannot be thinking of what you are saying.
There is no possibility of drawing back : the bills are put
up, and it is your duty to keep the engagement you have
made. Besides, you should remember this performance is
for the poor, who have already begun to bless you, and
you cannot abandon them, while a refusal would be an in-
sult to the king. Come, come," he added, " summon up
your courage, my dear friend. Meet me at the theatre at
four : we will have a rehearsal, which I consider useless,
but it may restore your pluck. Till then, good-by !"

So soon as I was left to myself, I remained for nearly
an hour absorbed in thought, trying in vain to elude the
performance. An insurmountable barrier ever prevented


escape: the king, the poor, the entire city all, in short,
rendered it an imperious duty to keep my rash promise.
At length I began to think there was no serious difficulty
about the performance, for a great number of the tricks,
as I have already said, being performed by the help of
friends, these took the chief labor on themselves. En-
couraged by this idea, I gradually regained my courage,
and at four o'clock joined Pinetti at the theatre with a
degree of assurance that surprised even him.

As the performance did not begin till eight, I had ample
time to make my preparations, and I employed it so well,
that, when the moment arrived to appear on the stage, my
foolish fears were coirnletely dissipated, and I presented
myself before the public with sufficient coolness for a

The theatre was crowded. The king and his family,
seated in a stage box, appeared to regard me with sympa-
thizing glances ; for his majesty was probably aware of
my being a French e'migre'.

I boldly commenced my performance with a trick which
must eminently excite the imagination of the spectators.
I had to borrow a ring, place it in a pistol, and fire through
a window opening from the stage into the sea that bathed
the theatre-walls. This done, I would open a box, pre-
viously examined, closed, and sealed by the audience, and
in it would be found an enormous fish bearing .the ring in
its mouth.

Full of confidence in the success of the trick, I pro-
ceeded towards the pit to borrow a ring. Of twenty
offered me I selected one belonging to an accomplice of
Pinetti's, and begged him to place it with his own hands
in the barrel of the pistol I handed to him. Pinetti had
told me that his friend would use for this purpose a copper



ring, which would be sacrificed, and that I should return
him a gold one in its place.

The spectator obeyed me. I then opened the window
and fired the pistol. Like the soldier on the battle-field,
the smell of powder excited me ; I felt full of fun and
gaiety, and ventured on a few jests, which pleased the au-
dience. Taking advantage of the general hilarity, I
seized my magic wand and traced my cabalistic circles
round the box. At length I broke the seals and triumph-
antly produced the fish, which I carried to the owner of
the ring, that he might take it out of the fish's mouth.

If the accomplice play his part well, he must evince the
greatest stupefaction, and, indeed, the gentleman, on re-
ceiving the ring, began looking around him, and his face
grew very long. Proud of my success, I went back on
the stage and bowed in reply to the applause I received.
Ah, my dear Robert! this triumph lasted but a short
time, and became to me the prelude of a terrible mystifi-

I was proceeding to another trick, when I saw my spec-
tator gesticulating to his neighbors, and then turning to
me as if wishing to address me. I fancied he was going
on with the farce to dispel any suspicion of collusion ; still
I thought he went too far. What was my surprise, then,
when the man rose and said :

" Excuse me, sir, but it seems as if your trick is not
over, since you have given me a copper ring set with paste
instead of my diamond solitaire."

As a mistake seemed to me impossible, I turned on my
heel and commenced my preparations for the next trick.

" Sir," my obstinate spectator again took the word,
" will you have the goodness to reply to my question ? If
the end of your trick be a jest, I acknowledge it as such,


and you can return me my ring presently. If it be not
so, I cannot accept the horrible substitute you have handed

Every one was silent : none knew the meaning of this
protest, though many fancied it was on ordinary mystifi-
cation, which would end in still greater glory for the per-
former. The claimant, the public, and myself found our-
selves in the same state of uncertainty ; it was an enigma
which I alone could solve and I did not know the word.

Hoping, however, to escape from a position as critical
as it was ridiculous, I walked up to my pitiless creditor,
and, on looking at the ring I had given him, I was startled
at finding it was really coarsely gilt copper. " Could the
spectator to whom I applied have been no accomplice ?" I
thought. "Could Pinetti desire to betray me?" This
supposition appeared to me so hateful that I rejected it,
preferring to attribute the fatal mistake to chance. But
what should I do or say ? My head was all on fire.

In my despair, I was about to offer the public some ex-
planation of this untoward accident, when an inspiration
temporarily relieved me from my embarrassment.

" Do you still believe, sir," I said to the plaintiff, after
assuming an extreme degree of calmness, " that your ring
has been changed into copper while passing through my

fl Yes, sir ; and, besides, the one you have returned me
does not in the slightest degree resemble mine in shape."

"Very good, sir," I continued, boldly; "that is the
real marvel of the trick ; that ring will insensibly assume
its old form on your finger, and by to-morrow morning
you will see it is the one you lent me. That is what we
term in the language of the cabala the * imperceptible
transformation.' "


This reply gained me time. I intended to see the
claimant when the performance was over, pay him the
price of the ring, whatever it might be, and beg him to
keep my secret. After this happy escape I took up a
pack of cards and continued my performance, and as the
accomplices had nothing to do in this trick, I felt sure of
success. Approaching the royal box, I begged his majesty
to do me the honor of drawing a card. He did so very
affably ; but to my horror, the king had no sooner looked
at the card he had drawn, than he threw it angrily on the
stage, with marks of most profound dissatisfaction.

The blow dealt me this time was too direct for me to
attempt parrying it or turning it aside. But I was anx-
ious to know the meaning of such a humiliating affront,
so I picked up the card. Imagine, my dear boy, the full
extent of my despair when I read a coarse insult to his
majesty, written in a hand I could not mistake. I at-
tempted to stammer some excuse, but by a gesture the
king disdainfully commanded silence.

Oh, I cannot describe to you all that then passed in my
mind, for a dizziness attacked my brain, and I felt as if I
were going mad.

I had, at length, obtained a proof of Pinetti's perfidy.
He had determined on covering me with disgrace and ridi-
cule, and I had fallen into the infamous snare he had so
treacherously laid for me. This idea restored my wild
energy : I was seized by a ferocious desire for revenge,
and I rushed to the side scene, where my enemy should be
stationed. I meant to seize him by the collar, drag him
on the stage like a malefactor, and force him to demand

But the juggler was no longer there. I ran in every
direction like a maniac, but wherever I might turn, cries,


hisses, and shouts pursued me, and distracted my brain.
At length, bowed -down by the -weight of such intense
emotions, I fainted.

For a week I remained in a raging fever, incessantly
yelling for revenge on Pinetti. And I did not know all

I learned afterwards that this unworthy man, this false
friend, had emerged from his hiding-place on my fainting.
He had gone on the stage at the request of some of his
accomplices, and continued the performance, to the great
satisfaction of the entire audience.

Thus, then, all this friendship all these protestations
of devotion were only a farce a very juggling trick.
Pinetti had never felt the slightest affection for me ; his
flattery was only meant to draw me into the trap he had
laid for my vanity, and he wished to destroy by a public
humiliation a rival wh'o annoyed him.

He was perfectly successful in this respect, for from
that day my most intimate friends, fearing probably,
that the ridicule I endured might be reflected on them,
suddenly turned their backs on me. This desertion affected
me deeply, but I had too much pride to beg the renewal
of such passing friendship, and I resolved on quitting
Naples immediately. Besides, I was planning a scheme
of vengeance, for which solitude was necessary.

Pinetti, like the coward he was, had fled after the atro-
cious insult he had offered me. To have challenged him
would be doing him too much honor, so I vowed to fight
him with his own weapons, and humiliate the shameful
traitor in my turn.

This was the plan I drew up :

I determined to devote myself ardently to sleight-of-
hand, and study thoroughly an art of which I as yet knew


only the first principles. Then, when quite confident in
myself when I had added many new tricks to Pinetti's
repertoire I would pursue my enemy, enter every town
before him, and continually crush him by my superiority.

Full of this idea, I sold everything I possessed, and
took refuge in the country, where, completely retired from
the world, I prepared my plans for vengeance. I cannot
describe to you, my friend, what patience I devoted and
how I toiled during the six months my voluntary retreat
lasted; but I was more than compensated for it, as my
success was complete. I gained a degree of skill to which
I had never dared to pretend : Pinetti was no longer my
master, and I became his rival.

Not satisfied with these results, I intended also to
eclipse him by the richness of my stage. I, therefore, or-
dered apparatus of unknown brilliancy in those days,
spending in this every farthing I possessed. With what
delight did I regard these glittering instruments, each of
which seemed to me a weapon capable of inflicting mortal
wounds on my adversary's vanity. How proudly my heart
beat at the thought of the contest I would commence with
him !

Henceforth, it would be a duel of skill between Pinetti
and myself, but a mortal duel ; one of us must remain on
the ground, and I had reason to hope that I should be the
victor in the struggle.

Before commencing my tour I made some inquiries
about my rival, and learned that, after traversing Southern
Italy, he had just left Lucca, en route for Bologna. I
learned, too, that, on leaving that city, he intended to
visit Modena, Parma and Piacenza.

Without loss of time I set out for Modena, in order to
precede him there, and thus prevent him performing.


Enormous bills announced the representations of " THE
gramme was most attractive, for it contained all Pinetti's
tricks. The papers had puffed the latter so extravagantly
for some time past, that I felt sure my performance would
be gladly witnessed.

In fact, my room was taken by storm, as eagerly as on
my disastrous performance at Naples ; but this time the
result was very different. The improvements I had intro-
duced in my rival's tricks, and the great skill I displayed
in performing them, gained me a unanimous verdict.

From this time my success was insured, and the follow-
ing performances raised my name above that of all the
most fashionable magicians of the day. According to the
plan I had laid down, I left Modena when I heard of
Pinetti's approach, and went to Parma. My rival, full
of faith in his merits, and not believing in my success,
took the theatre I had just left. But he began to be
bitterly undeceived ; the whole city was satiated with the
style of amusement he announced ; no one responded to
his appeal, and, for the first time, the success to which he
was accustomed slipped from his grasp.

Chevalier Pinetti, who had so long held undivided sway,
was not the man to yield to a person he called a novice.
He had guessed my plans, and, far from awaiting the at-
tack, he acted on the offensive, and came to Parma, where
he opened a room exactly opposite mine. But this town
was lost to him like the last : he had the misery of seeing
my theatre continually filled, while his was quite deserted.

I must tell you, too, my friend, that all the money I
netted only covered my luxurious outlay. What did I
care for gold and silver ? I only dreamed of revenge, and
to satisfy that feeling I squandered my money. I wished,


above all, to pale that star which had formerly eclipsed
me. I displayed regal pomp in my performances; the
theatre and its approaches were literally covered with
tapestry and flowers, while the house and the stage, glis-
tening with light, presented to the dazzled eyes of the
audience numerous escutcheons, bearing compliments to
the ladies, who were thus quite gained over to the side of
the gallant Count de Grisy.

In this way I crushed Pinetti, although he did all in his
power to offer me a vigorous resistance. But what could
his tinsel and old-fashioned ornaments avail against what I
may fairly term my elegance and distinguished manners ?

Piacenza, Cremona, Mantua, Vicenza, Padua, and Ve-
nice, were witnesses of our desperate struggle, and, des-
pite his rage and despair, the arrogant Pinetti was obliged
to endure my superiority, if he did not recognize it.
Abandoned by even his most zealous admirers, he deter-
mined to quit the field, and proceeded towards Russia.
Some slight success partly consoled his late defeats, but,
as if Fortune were determined on making him repay the
favors she had so long lavished on him, a tedious and
painful illness exhausted his strength as well as his slight
savings. Reduced to a state of abject misery, he died at
the village of Bartitchoff, in Volhynia, at the house of a
nobleman, who sheltered him from compassion.

Pinetti once gone, my revenge was satiated, and, being
master of the battle-field, I might have abandoned a pro-
fession ill fitted for my birth. But my medical connexion
was broken up, and, on the other hand, I yielded to a
motive which you will appreciate some day ; when a man
has once tasted the intoxication produced by the applause
of the public, it is very difficult to renounce it ; with my
will or against, I must continue my profession as conjurer.


I therefore determined on profiting by the reputation I
had gained, and proceeded to Rome, as a brilliant termi-
nation to my Italian representations. Pinetti had never
dared to enter that city, less through distrust of himself
than through fear of the Inquisition, of which he could
only speak with terror. The chevalier was extremely
prudent whenever he was personally concerned : he feared
being treated like a sorcerer, and ending his days in an
auto da fe. More than once he had bid me take warning
by the unhappy Cagliostro, who was condemned to death,
and only owed to the clemency of the Pope the commuta-
tion of the penalty into perpetual imprisonment.

Confiding in the intelligence of Pius VII., and, besides,
having no pretensions to the necromancy Pinetti affected,
nor to the charlatanism of Cagliostro, I proceeded to the
capital of the Christian world, where my performances
created a great sensation. His Holiness himself, on hear-
ing of me, did me the signal honor of requesting a per-
formance, at which I was advised all the dignitaries of the
Church would form my audience.

You can fancy, my lad, with what eagerness I acquiesced
in his wish, and what care I devoted to my preparations.
After selecting all my best tricks, I ransacked my brains
to invent one worthy of my illustrious spectators. But I
had no need to search long, for chance, that most ingeni-
ous of inventors, came to my aid.

On the day prior to the performance I was in the shop
of one of the first watchmakers of Rome, when a servant

came in to ask if his eminence the Cardinal de 's

watch was repaired.

" It will not be ready till this evening," the watchmaker
replied ; " and I will do myself the honor of carrying it to
your master myself."


When the servant had retired, the tradesman said to
me :

" This is a handsome and capital watch. The cardinal
to whom it belongs values it at more than 10,000 fr. ; for,
as he ordered it himself of the celebrated Bre'guet, he
fancies it must be unique of its kind. Strangely enough,
though, only two days ago, a young scamp belonging to
this city offered me a precisely similar watch, made by the
same artist for 1000 fr."

While the watchmaker was talking to me, I had already
formed a plan.

" Do you think," I said to him, "that this person is
still inclined to dispose of his watch?"

"Certainly," the watchmaker replied. "This young
prodigal, who has spent all his fortune, is now reduced to
sell his family jewels : hence the 1000 fr. will be welcome."

" Is he to be found ?"

"Nothing easier: in a gambling-house he never quits."

" Well, then, sir, I am anxious to purchase the watch,
but it must be to-day. Have the kindness, then, to buy
it for me. After that, you will engrave on it his emi-
nence's arms, so that the two watches may be perfectly
similar, and on your discretion the profit you make by the
transaction will depend."

The watchmaker knew me, and probably suspected the
use I intended to make of the watch ; but he was assured
of my discretion, as the honor of my success would depend
on it. Hence he said :

" I only require a quarter of an hour to go to the
gambling-house, and I am confident your offer will be

The quarter of an hour had not elapsed ere my negotia-
tor returned with the chronometer in his hand.


"Here it is!" he said, with an air of triumph. "My
man received me like an envoy from Providence, and gave
me the watch without even counting the money. To-night
all will be ready."

In fact, that same evening the watchmaker Drought me
the two chronometers, and handed me one. On compar-
ing them, it was impossible to detect the slightest differ-
ence. It cost me dear, but I was now certain of perform-
ing a trick which must produce a decided effect.

The next day I proceeded to the Pontiff's palace, and
at six o'clock, upon a signal given by the Holy Father, I
stepped on the stage. I had never appeared before such
an imposing assembly. Pius VII., seated in a large arm-
chair on a dais, occupied the foreground : near him were
seated the cardinals, and behind them were the different
prelates and dignitaries of the Church.

The Pope's face breathed benevolence, and it was for-
tunate for me, for the sight of this smiling and gentle face
dissipated an unpleasant idea which had been strangely
troubling me for some moments.

"Suppose this performance," I said to myself, "were
merely a feigned examination to make me confess my
connexion with the infernal powers ? May not my words
be taken down, and perhaps Cagliostro's perpetual im-
prisonment be reserved as the punishment for my innocent
experiments ?"

My reason soon dismissed such an absurdity it was
not probable the Pope would lend himself to such an un-
worthy snare. Although my fears were completely re-
moved by this simple reasoning, my opening address dis-
played my feelings in some degree, for it seemed more
like a justification than the prelude to a performance.

"Holy Father!" I said, bowing respectfully, "I am


about to show you some experiments to which the name
of ' White Magic ' has been most unjustly given. This
title was invented by charlatans to impress the multitude,
but it only signifies a collection of clever deceptions in-
tended to amuse the imagination by ingenious artifices."

Satisfied by the favorable impression my address pro-
duced, I gaily commenced my performance. I could not
describe to you, my dear lad, all the pleasure I felt on
this evening ; and the spectators seemed to take such
lively interest in all they saw, that I felt myself in
unusual spirits. The Pope himself was delighted.

" But, Monsieur le Comte," he continually said, with
charming simplicity, "how can you do that? I shall be
quite ill with merely trying to guess your secrets."

After the "blind man's game of piquet," which literally
astounded the audience, I performed the trick of the " burnt
writing," to which I owe an autograph I set great store
by. This is how the trick is done :

A person writes a sentence or two : he is then requested
to burn the paper, which must be afterwards found intact
in a sealed envelope. I begged his Holiness to write a
sentence : he consented, and wrote as follows :

" I have much pleasure in stating that M. le Comte de
Grisy is an amiable sorcerer."

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 7 of 30)