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seemed to be terribly alarmed, but I coldly ordered the
slaves to seize him, place him in the chest, the cover of
which was immediately nailed down, and lay it across the
trestle. Then, taking up a saw, I prepared to cut the
chest asunder, when piercing cries were heard from behind
the gilt lattice the Sultan's wives were protesting against
my barbarity. I stopped a moment to give them time to
recover ; but so soon as I set to work again, new protes-
tations, in which I distinguished threats, compelled me to
suspend my operations.

Not knowing if I might be allowed to address the gilt
lattice, I determined to reassure these sympathizing ladies

" Gentlemen," I said to my numerous audience, " have
no fears, I beg, for the culprit ; instead of feeling any
pain, I assure you he will experience the most delightful

It was evident that my statement was believed, for
silence was restored, and I could continue my experiment.
The chest was at length divided into two parts ; I raised
them so that each represented a pedestal ; I then placed
them side by side, and covered them with an enormous
wicker cone, over which I threw a large black cloth, on
which cabalistic signs were embroidered in silver. This
duly performed, I recommenced my little farce of magic
circles and bombastic words ; when suddenly the deep
silence was interrupted by two voices performing an ex-
quisite duet beneath the black cloth.

During this time Bengal lights were kindled all around
as if by enchantment. At length the fires and the voices
having gradually died away, a noise was heard, the cone
and the cloth were upset, and All the spectators


uttered a cry of surprise and admiration : for two pages,
exactly alike, appeared on the pedestals, holding a silver
salver, on which lay the collar of pearls. My two Anto-
nios walked up to the Sultan, and respectfully offered him
his rich ornament.

The whole audience had risen as if to give more effect
to the applause bestowed on me ; the Sultan himself
thanked me in his own language, which I did not under-
stand, but I fancied I read in his face an expression of
deep satisfaction. The next day an officer of the palace
came to compliment me on behalf of his master, and offered
me the collar which had been so cleverly juggled away
the previous evening.

The trick of the two pages, as I called it, was one of the
best I ever performed, and yet it was probably one of the
most simple. Of course you understand, my dear boy,
that Antonio disposed of the collar while I distracted
public attention by my incantations. You also under-
stand that, while he was being nailed up in the chest, he
escaped through an opening corresponding with a trap in
the stage; hence I had only to cut through planks.
Lastly, by the aid of the cone and the cloth, Antonio and
his sister, dressed precisely alike, came up through the
trap and took their places on the pedestals. The mise en
scene, and the coolness of the performers, did the rest.

This trick created great excitement in the city ; the
story, passing from mouth to mouth, soon attained the
proportions of a miracle, and contributed much to the
success of my remaining performances.

I might have realized a large fortune by making a tour
through the Turkish provinces, but I was mortally tired
of the peaceful life I was leading, and I felt the need of
changing my ground and seeking fresh excitement. Be-


sides, I began to feel a degree of nostalgia, and as my
wife begged me to return to Italy, or some other Christian
country, as she did not wish our first-born to come into
the world among Pagans, we set out for France.

It was my intention to proceed to Paris, but, on arriv-
ing at Marseilles, I read in the papers the advertisements
of a conjurer of the name of Olivier. His programme
contained the whole of Pinetti's tricks, which was almost
my own. Which of the two was the plagiarist ? I have
reason to believe it was Olivier. At any rate, having no
desire to engage in a new passage of arms, I evacuated
the town.

It is impossible for me, my friend, to describe to you
my itinerary during sixteen years; suffice it to say, I
traversed the whole of Europe, stopping, of preference, in
the chief towns. For a long time my reputation remained
at its zenith, but suddenly, like Pinetti, I was destined to
experience the inconstancy of Fortune.

One fine day I found my star beginning to pale ; the
public did not flock so eagerly to my performances. I no
longer heard the bravos that used to greet my appearance
on the stage, and the spectators appeared to me indifferent.
How was this ? What could be the cause of this capricious
change ? My repertoire was still the same : it was my
Italian one, of which I was so proud, and for which I had
made such sacrifices ; I had introduced no change ; the
tricks I submitted to the public were the same which had
been so warmly accepted. I felt, too, that I had lost none
of my vigor, skill, or spirit.

Precisely because I had made no change, the public had
begun to grow indifferent ; as an author has observed, very
justly, "the artist who does not rise, descends;" and this
was peculiarly applicable to my position : while civiliza-


tion had been progressing, I remained stationary hence,
I was going down.

When this truth struck me, I made a complete reform
in my programme. The card tricks no longer possessing
the charm of novelty, as the meanest jugglers could do
them, were nearly all suppressed, and I substituted other

The public like, and run after, touching scenes ; I in-
vented one, which, in this respect, would certainly satisfy
them, and draw them back to me. But why did Heaven
allow me to succeed ? why did my brain conceive this fatal
idea ? (Torrini exclaimed, raising his hands to heaven, and
his eyes filling with tears.) Had it not been so, I should
still have my son, and should not have lost my Antonia !

It was some time before Torrini could continue his nar-
rative, for these terrible reminiscences caused him mental
torture. At length, after holding his hand over his eyes
for some time, as if trying to concentrate himself in his
grief, he continued :

About two years ago I was at Strasburg ; I was per-
forming at the theatre, and every one was anxious to see
my touching scene, which I had named " The Son of
William Tell." My son Giovanni played the, part of
Walter, the son of the Swiss hero, but, instead of placing
the apple on his head, he held it between his teeth. On a
given signal, a spectator armed with a pistol, fired at Gio-
vanni, and the ball lodged in the heart of the fruit.

Owing to the success of this trick, my money-box was soon
filled again. This restored my confidence in the future,
and, far from profiting by the lessons of adversity, I re-
assumed my luxurious habits, as I fancied I had again
pinioned Fortune, and she could not slip from me.


This illusion was fearfully dispelled.

" The Son of William Tell," of which I had made a
separate act, usually terminated the performance. We
were about to execute it for the thirtieth time, and I had
ordered the curtain to be dropped in order to have the
stage arranged as the public square of Altorf, but all at
once my son, who had just put on the traditional Helvetic
costume, came to me, complaining of a sudden indisposi-
tion, and begging me to hurry on the performance. I had
just seized the bell-rope to warn the carpenters to raise
the curtain, when my son fell down in a fainting fit.

Without caring for the impatience of the public, we paid
all attention to my poor Giovanni, and I bore him to a
window. The fresh air soon restored him still, there
was a mortal pallor on his face, which would prevent his
appearance in public. I was myself assailed by a strange
presentiment, which urged me to stop the performance,
and I resolved to announce it to the public.

The curtain was drawn up, and, with features contracted
by anxiety, I walked to the footlights, Giovanni even paler
than myself, and scarce able to stand, being at my side. I
briefly explained the accident that had happened, ren-
dering it impossible to perform the final experiment, and
offered to* return the entrance money to any who might
feel dissatisfied. But at these words, which might excite
great confusion and grave abuses, my courageous son,
making a supreme effort, stated that he felt better, and
able to perform his share in the trick, which, after all, was
passive, and not at all fatiguing.

The public received this intimation with lively applause,
and I, the insensate and barbarous father, taking no heed
of the warning that heaven had sent me, had the cruelty,
the madness, to accept this generous act of devotion. Only


one word was needed to prevent ruin, dishonor, and death,
yet that word died away on my lips ! Listening solely to
the noisy applause of the audience, I allowed the perform-
ance to commence.

I have already stated the nature of the trick that at-
tracted the whole town ; it consisted in substituting one
ball for another. A chemist had taught me how to make a
metallic composition bearing an extraordinary resemblance
to lead. I had made balls of it which, when placed by the
side of the real ones, could not be detected. The only pre-
caution ncccessary was not to press them too hard, as they
were of a very friable nature ; but for the same reason,
when inserted in the pistol, they fell into an impalpable
powder, and did not go further than the wad.

Till now I had never dreamed of any danger in the
performance of this trick, and, indeed, I had taken all
possible precautions. The false bullets were contained in
a small box, of which alone I had the key, and I only
opened it at the moment of action. That evening I had
been peculiarly careful ; then how can I explain the fright-
ful error? I can only accuse fatality. So much is cer-
tain a leaden bullet had been mixed with the others
in the box, and was inserted in the pistol.

Conceive all the horrof of such an action ! Imagine a
father, with a smile on his lips, giving the signal which
will deprive his son of life it is frightful, is it not?

The pistol was fired, and the spectator, with cruel
adroitness, had aimed so truly that the bullet crashed
through my son's forehead. He fell forward with his face *
to the ground, rolled over once or twice, and

For a moment I remained motionless, still smiling at
the audience, and incapable of believing in such a misfor-
tune. In a second a thousand thoughts crossed my brain.



Could it be an illusion, a surprise I had prepared, and
which I had momentarily forgotten ? or was it the return
of my son's attack?

Paralysed by doubt and horror, my feet clung to the
stage ; but the blood welling profusely from the wound
violently recalled me to the terrible reality. At last I
understood all, and, mad with agony, I cast myself on
my son's lifeless corpse.

I know not what took place afterwards, or what became
of me. When I recovered the use of my senses, I found
myself in prison, with two men before me, a physician and
a magistrate. The latter, sympathising with me, was
kind enough to perform his painful mission with all pos-
sible regard for my feelings ; but I could scarce under-
stand the questions he addressed to me ; I knew not what
to reply, and I contented myself with shedding tears.

I was fully committed, and brought up at the next
assizes. I assure you I took my place in the dock with
indescribable delight, hoping I should only leave it to re-
ceive the just punishment of the crime I had committed. I
was resigned to die ; I even Ayished it, and I determined to
do all in my power to get rid of a life which was odious
to me. Hence, I offered no defence ; but the court re-
quested a barrister to undertake my cause, and he defend-
ed me with great skill. I was found guilty of " Homicide
through imprudence," and sentenced to six months' im-
prisonment, which I passed in an infirmary. Here I saw
Antonio again for the first time, who brought me terrible
news: my dear Antonia, unable to endure such compli-
cated misery, had died of a broken heart.

This new blow affected me so much that I was nearly
dead. I spent the greater period of my imprisonment
in a state of weakness akin to death ; but at length my


vigorous constitution overcame all these shocks, and I,
regained my health. I had quite recovered when the doors
of my prison were opened.

Grief and remorse accompanied me wherever I went,
and cast me in a state of apathy from which nothing could
arouse me. For three mouths I behaved like a madman,
running about the country, and only eating just enough
to keep me from perishing of hunger. I went forth at
daybreak, and did not return till night. I could not pos-
sibly have said what I did during these lengthened excur-
sions, but I probably walked about with no other object
than to change place.

Such an existence could not last long ; poverty, and
her mornful handmaids, soon preyed upon me. My wife's
illness, my imprisonment, and our expenses during these
three months of listlessness, had swallowed up, not only
my money, but also all my apparatus. Antonio explained
our situation to me, and begged me to recommence my

I could not leave this good brother, this excellent friend,
in such a critical position ; I therefore acceded to his en-
treaties, on condition that I should change my name to
Torrini, and never perform in any theatre. Antonio
offered to arrange everything to my wish. By selling the
valuable presents I had received on various occasions, and
which he had managed to secrete from the officers, he paid
my debts, and had the carriage built in which we suffered
this painful accident.

From Strasburg we proceeded to Basle. My first per-
formances were stamped with the deepest sorrow, but I
gradually substituted skill and care for my gaiety and
good spirits, and the public accepted the change. After
visiting the principal towns in Switzerland, we returned to


France, ana it was thus I found you my dear boy, on the
road between Tours and Blois.

I saw by Torrini's last sentences, and the manner in
which he tried to shorten his narrative, that he not only
required rest, but also to recover from the painful emotions
these melancholy reminiscences had evoked. A few words,
too, Torrini had dropped confirmed my notion that he was
in a pecuniary dilemma ; hence, I left him under the pre-
tence of letting him sleep, and begged Antonio to take a
walk with me. I wanted to remind him it was time to
carry out the plan we had formed, which consisted in giv-
ing a few performances at Aubussen, without dropping a
word of it to our dear master. Antonio was of my opin-
ion; but when it came to deciding which of us should
perform, he positively asserted he knew no more of the
conjuring art than he had been obliged to learn he could
slip a card, a handkerchief, or a coin into a person's
pocket, if required, but nothing more. I learned later
that Antonio, though not very skillfuj, knew more than he

We decided that I should represent the sorcerer ; and
I must have been animated with a great desire to help
Torrini, and pay him in part the debt of gratitude I owed,
ere I consented to mount a stage so suddenly. For,
although I had shown my friends some of my tricks, the
performance had always been gratuitous ; now I had to do
with spectators who paid for their seats, and this caused
me considerable apprehension.

Still, my resolution once formed, I proceeded with An-
tonio to the mayor's, in order to obtain permission to per-
form. This magistrate was an excellent man ; aware of
the accident that had happened to us, and that he had it


in his power to do a good deed, he offered us the gratui-
tous use of a concert-room. More than this, to give us a
chance of forming some acquaintances who might be of
use to us, he begged us to come to his house the next
Sunday evening. We accepted this offer gratefully, and
had reason to congratulate ourselves on it. The mayor's
guests, pleased with certain tricks I showed them, faith-
fully kept their promise of attending my first performance,
and not one was missing.

My heart panted audibly when the curtain rose, and I
was obliged to whisper to myself that the spectators, aware
of the object of my performance, would be inclined to
look over much. Some cheering applause restored my
confidence, and' I got through my first tricks very de-
cently. This success heightened my assurance, and at
length I acquired a degree of coolness I did not think
myself capable of.

It is true, I was perfectly aufait in my tricks, through
having seen Torrini perform them so often. The princi-
pal ones were, the Trowel, the Pyramids of Egypt, the
Bird Dead and Alive, and the Omelette in the Hat. I
concluded with the Blind Man's Game of Piquet, which I
had carefully studied ; I was fortunate enough to succeed,
and was warmly applauded.

An accident that happened during the performance sin-
gularly lessened the joy I felt in my triumph. I had
borrowed a hat to make an omelette in. Those who have
seen this trick are aware that it is chiefly intended to
produce a laugh, and that the object borrowed runs no
risk. I had got through the first part excellently, con-
sisting in breaking the eggs, beating them, throwing in tho
salt and pepper, and pouring it all into the hat. After
this, I had to feign the frying of the omelette j I placed


a candle on the ground, then, holding the hat sufficiently
high above it to escape the flame, I began turning it
gently round, while making some of the stereotyped jokes
adapted to the trick. The public laughed so heartily and
loudly that I could scarce hear myself speak, but I could
not suspect the cause of their hilarity. Unfortunately, I
detected it only too soon. A strong scent of burning
made me turn my eyes on the candle: it had gone out.
I then looked at the hat : the crown was quite burned and
stained. I had kept on turning the hat round unsuspect-
ingly, until I at length put it on the top of the candle and
covered it with grease.

Quite dazed by this sight, I stopped, not knowing how
to escape. Fortunately for me, my alarm, though so
truthful, was regarded as a well played farce : it was sup-
posed this was only a heightened effect, and this confi-
dence in my skill was an additional torture, for my super-
natural power could not repair a hat. My only chance
was to gain time ; so I continued the trick, with a tolera-
bly easy air, and produced to the public a splendidly
cooked omelette, which I had enough courage left to
season with a few jokes.'

Still, that quarter of an hour of which Rabelais speaks
had arrived. I must restore the hat, and publicly confess
myself a clumsy blockhead. I had resigned myself to
this, and was going to do so, with all the dignity I could
muster, when I heard Antonio call me from the side. His
voice restored my courage, for .1 felt assured he had pre-
pared some way for escape. I went up to him, and found
him standing with a hat in his hand.

" Look here," he said, exchanging it for the one I held,
" it's yours ; but no matter, keep a good face : rub it as
if you were removing the stains, and, on handing it to
the owner, ask him, gently, to read what is at the bottom."


I did as he told me ; and the owner of the burnt hat,
after receiving mine, was going to betray me, when I
pointed to the note fastened in the crown. It ran as
follows :

" An act of carelessness caused me to commit a fault,
which I will repair. To-morrow I will do myself the
honor of asking your hatter's address : in the meanwhile,
be kind enough to act as my accomplice."

My request was granted, for my secret was honestly
kept, and my professional honor saved. The success of
this performance induced me to give several others : the
receipts were excellent, and we realized a very fair sum.
Immense was our joy when we carried our treasure tri-
umphantly to Torrini. That worthy man, after listening
to all the details of our plot, was half inclined to scold
us for our secrecy, but he could not find heart to do so.
He thanked us most heartily, and we began to set matters
straight again, as our master was now convalescent, and
could attend to his own business. Torrini paid all his
creditors in full, purchased two horses, and, having
nothing further to do at Aubusson, he determined on

The moment of our separation had arrived, and my old
friend had been arming himself for it during several days.
The parting was painful to us all ; a father quitting his
son, without hope of ever seeing him again, could not
have displayed more violent grief than did Torrini when
pressing me in his arms for the last time. I, too, felt in-
consolable at the loss of two friends with whom I would
so gladly have passed my life.



The Prodigal Son Mademoiselle Houdin I go to Paris My Mar-
riage Comte Studies of the Public A skillful Manager Rose-
colored Tickets A Musky Style The King of Hearts Ventrilo-
quism The Mystifiers Mystified Father Roujol Jules de Rorere
Origin of the word prestidigitatuer.

How my heart beat when I returned to my native
town ! I felt as if I had been absent an age, and yet it
was only six months. The tears stood in my eyes as I
embraced father and mother : I was stifled with emotion.
I have since made long journeys in foreign countries ; I
have always returned to my family safely, but never, I can
declare, have I been so profoundly affected as on this
occasion. Perhaps it is the same with this impression as
with so many others, habit at last renders it flat.

I found my father very quiet on my account, for I had
employed a trick to ease his mind. A watchmaker of my
acquaintance had sent him my letters, as if from Angers,
and he had also forwarded me the replies. Still, I must
furnish some reason for' my return, and I hesitated about
describing my stay with Torrini. At length, however,
urged by that desire, common to all travellers, of narrat-
ing their travelling impressions, I gave an account of my
adventures, even to their minutest details.

My mother, frightened, and thinking I was still brain-
struck, did not await the end of my narrative to send for


a physician, who reassured her by stating, what my face
indeed confirmed, that I was in a state of perfect health.

It may be thought, perhaps, that I have dwelt too long
on the events that followed my poisoning; but I was com-
pelled to do so, for the experience I acquired from Torrini,
his history, and our conversations, had a considerable in-
fluence on my future life. Before that period my inclina-
tion for conjuring was very vague : from that time it
gained a complete mastery over me.

Still, I was bound to wrestle against this feeling with
all my energy, for it was not presumable that my father,
who had unwillingly yielded to my passion for watch-
making, would be so weak as to let me try a novel and
most singular profession. I could, certainly, take advan-
tage of my being of age, and my own master ; but, besides
my unwillingness to grieve my father, I reflected, too, that
as my fortune was very small, I ought not to risk it with-
out his consent. These reasons induced me to defer, if
not renounce, my plans.

Besides, my success at Aubusson had not altered my
decided opinion about conjuring, that a man who wishes to
be thought capable of performing incomprehensible things
should have attained an age which leaves it to be supposed
that his superiority is the result of lengthened study.
The public may permit a man of forty to deceive them,
but they will not bear it from a young man.

After a few days devoted to killing the fatted calf, I
entered the shop of a Blois watchmaker, who set me to
work cleaning and brushing. As I have already said, this
mechanical and wearisome task reduces the journeyman
watchmaker to the level of an automaton. Each day was
spent in the same monotonous round, here a spring to
repair, there a pin to replace (for cylinder watches were


rare at that period,) a chain to refasten ; lastly, after a
cursory examination of the works, a turn of the brush to
makj all bright again. I am far from wishing to run

Online LibraryUnknownMemoirs of Robert-Houdin, ambassador, author, and conjurer → online text (page 9 of 30)