A Conjurer's Confessions
by M. Robert-Houdin
Sleight-of-hand theories alone cannot
explain the mysteries of "magic" as
practiced by that eminent Frenchman who
revolutionized the entire art, and who was finally
called upon to help his government out of a
difficulty--Robert-Houdin. The success of his
most famous performances hung not only on an
incredible dexterity, but also on high ingenuity
and moral courage, as the following pages from his
"Memoirs" will prove to the reader. The
story begins when the young man of twenty was
laboring patiently as apprentice to a watchmaker.
IN order to aid my progress and afford me relaxation, my
master recommended me to study some treatises on mechanics
in general, and on clockmaking in particular. As this
suited my taste exactly, I gladly assented, and I was
devoting myself passionately to this attractive study, when
a circumstance, apparently most simple, suddenly decided my
future life by revealing to me a vocation whose mysterious
resources must open a vast field for my inventive and
One evening I went into a bookseller's shop
to buy Berthoud's "Treatise on Clockmaking," which
I knew he had. The tradesman being engaged at the moment on
matters more important, took down two volumes from the
shelves and handed them to me without ceremony. On
returning home I sat down to peruse my treatise
conscientiously, but judge of my surprise when I read on the
back of one of the volumes
AMUSEMENTS." Astonished at
finding such a title on a professional work, I opened it
impatiently, and, on running through the table of contents,
my surprise was doubled on reading these strange phrases:
The way of performing tricks with the
cards--How to guess a persons thoughts--To cut off a
pigeon's head, to restore it to life, etc., etc.
The bookseller had made a mistake. In his
haste, he had given me two volumes of the Encyclopædia
instead of Berthoud. Fascinated, however, by the
announcement of such marvels, I devoured the mysterious
pages, and the further my reading advanced, the more I saw
laid bare before me the secrets of an art for which I was
I fear I shall be accused of exaggeration, or
at least not be understood by many of my readers, when I say
that this discovery caused me the greatest joy I had ever
experienced. At this moment a secret presentiment warned me
that success, perhaps glory, would one day accrue to me in
the apparent realization of the marvelous and impossible,
and fortunately these presentiments did not err.
The resemblance between two books, and the
hurry of a bookseller, were the commonplace causes of the
most important event in my life.
It may be urged that different circumstances
might have suggested this profession to me at a later date.
It is probable; but then I should have had no time for it.
Would any workman, artisan, or tradesman give up a
certainty, however slight it may be, to yield to a passion
which would be surely regarded as a mania? Hence my
irresistible penchant for the mysterious could only be
followed at this precise period of my life.
How often since have I blessed this
providential error, without which I should have probably
vegetated as a country watchmaker! My life would have been
spent in gentle monotony; I should have been spared many
sufferings, emotions, and shocks; but, on the other hand,
what lively sensations, what profound delight would have
I was eagerly devouring every line of the
magic book which described the astounding tricks; my head
was aglow, and I at times gave way to thoughts which plunged
me in ecstasy.
The author gave a very plain explanation of
his tricks; still, he committed the error of supposing his
readers possessed of the necessary skill to perform them.
Now, I was entirely deficient in this skill, and though most
desirous of acquiring it, I found nothing in the book to
indicate the means. I was in the position of a man who
attempts to copy a picture without possessing the slightest
notion of drawing and painting.
In the absence of a professor to instruct me,
I was compelled to create the principles of the science I
wished to study. In the first place, I recognized the
fundamental principle of sleight-of-hand, that the organs
performing the principal part are the sight and touch. I
saw that, in order to attain any degree of perfection, the
professor must develop these organs to their fullest
extent--for, in his exhibitions, he must be able to see
everything that takes place around him at half a glance, and
execute his deceptions with unfailing dexterity.
I had been often struck by the ease with
which pianists can read and perform at sight the most
difficult pieces. I saw that, by practice, it would be
possible to create a certainty of perception and facility of
touch, rendering it easy for the artist to attend to several
things simultaneously, while his hands were busy employed
with some complicated task. This faculty I wished to
acquire and apply to sleight-of-hand; still, as music could
not afford me the necessary elements, I had recourse to the
juggler's art, in which I hoped to meet with an analogous
It is well known that the trick with the
balls wonderfully improves the touch, but does it not
improve the vision at the same time? In fact, when a
juggler throws into the air four balls crossing each other
in various directions, he requires an extraordinary power of
sight to follow the direction his hands have given to each
of the balls. At this period a corn-cutter resided at
Blois, who possessed the double talent of juggling and
extracting corns with a skill worthy of the lightness of his
hands. Still, with both these qualities, he was not rich,
and being aware of that fact, I hoped to obtain lessons from
him at a price suited to my modest finances. In fact, for
ten francs he agreed to initiate me in the juggling art.
I practiced with so much zeal, and progressed
so rapidly, that in less than a month I had nothing more to
learn; at least, I knew as much as my master, with the
exception of corn-cutting, the monopoly in which I left him.
I was able to juggle with four balls at once. But this did
not satisfy my ambition; so I placed a book before me, and,
while the balls were in the air, I accustomed myself to read
without any hesitation.
This will probably seem to my readers very
extraordinary; but I shall surprise them still more, when I
say that I have just amused myself by repeating this curious
experiment. Though thirty years have elapsed since the time
of which I am writing, and though I scarcely once touched
the balls during that period, I can still manage to read
with ease while keeping three balls up.
The practice of this trick gave my fingers a
remarkable degree of delicacy and certainty, while my eye
was at the same time acquiring a promptitude of perception
that was quite marvelous. Presently I shall have to speak
of the service this rendered me in my experiment of second
sight. After having thus made my hands supple and docile, I
went on straight to sleight-of-hand, and I more especially
devoted myself to the manipulation of cards and palmistry.
This operation requires a great deal of
practice; for, while the hand is held apparently open,
balls, corks, lumps of sugar, coins, etc., must be held
unseen, the fingers remaining perfectly free and limber.
Owing to the little time at my disposal, the
difficulties connected with these new experiments would have
been insurmountable had I not found a mode of practicing
without neglecting my business. It was the fashion in those
days to wear coats with large pockets on the hips, called
à la propriétaire, so whenever my hands
were not otherwise engaged they slipped naturally into my
pockets, and set to work with cards, coins, or one of the
objects I have mentioned. It will be easily understood how
much time I gained by this. Thus, for instance, when out on
errands my hands could be at work on both sides; at dinner,
I often ate my soup with one hand while I was learning to
sauter la coupe with the other--in short, the
slightest moment of relaxation was devoted to my favorite
A thousand more trials of patience and
perseverance finally brought to the conjurer a
Parisian theater and an appreciative clientele.
But he never ceased to labor and improve the
quality of his marvelous effects.
THE experiment, however, to which I owed my
reputation was one inspired by that fantastic god to whom
Pascal attributes all the discoveries of this sublunary
world: it was chance that led me straight to the invention
of second sight.
My two children were playing one day in the
drawing-room at a game they had invented for their own
amusement. The younger had bandaged his elder brother's
eyes, and made him guess the objects he touched, and when
the latter happened to guess right, they changed places.
This simple game suggested to me the most complicated idea
that ever crossed my mind.
Pursued by the notion, I ran and shut myself
up, in my workroom, and was fortunately in that happy state
when the mind follows easily the combinations traced by
fancy. I rested my hand in my hands, and, in my excitement,
laid down the first principles of second sight.
My readers will remember the experiment
suggested to me formerly by the pianist's dexterity, and the
strange faculty I succeeded in attaining: I could read while
juggling with four balls. Thinking seriously of this, I
fancied that this "perception by appreciation"
might be susceptible of equal development, if I applied its
principles to the memory and the mind.
I resolved, therefore, on making some
experiments with my son Emile, and, in order to make my
young assistant understand the nature of the exercise we
were going to learn, I took a domino, the cinq-quatre for
instance, and laid it before him. Instead of letting him
count the points of the two numbers, I requested the boy to
tell me the total at once.
"Nine," he said.
Then I added another domino, the
"That makes sixteen," he said,
without any hesitation.
I stopped the first lesson here; the next day
we succeeded in counting at a single glance four dominoes,
the day after six, and thus we at length were enabled to
give instantaneously the product of a dozen dominoes.
This result obtained, we applied ourselves to
a far more difficult task, over which we spent a month. My
son and I passed rapidly before a toy-shop, or any other
displaying a variety of wares, and cast an attentive glance
upon it. A few steps farther on we drew paper and pencil
from our pockets, and tried which could describe the greater
number of objects seen in passing. I must own that my son
reached a perfection far greater than mine, for he could
often write down forty objects, while I could scarce reach
thirty. Often feeling vexed at this defeat, I would return
to the shop and verify his statement, but he rarely made a
My male readers will certainly understand the
possibility of this, but they will recognize the difficulty.
As for my lady readers, I am convinced beforehand they will
not be of the same opinion, for they daily perform far more
astounding feats. Thus, for instance, I can safely assert
that a lady seeing another pass at full speed in a carriage,
will have had time to analyze her toilet from her bonnet to
her shoes, and be able to describe not only the fashion and
quality of the stuffs, but also say if the lace be real or
only machine-made. I have known ladies do this.
This natural, or acquired, faculty among
ladies, but which my son and I had only gained by constant
practice, was of great service in my performances, for while
I was executing my tricks, I could see everything that
passed around me, and thus prepare to foil any difficulties
presented me. This exercise had given me, so to speak, the
power of following two ideas simultaneously, and nothing is
more favorable in conjuring than to be able to think at the
same time both of what you are saying and of what you are
doing. I eventually acquired such a knack in this that I
frequently invented new tricks while going through my
performances. One day, even, I made a bet I would solve a
problem in mechanics while taking my part in conversation.
We were talking of the pleasure of a country life, and I
calculated during this time the quantity of wheels and
pinions, as well as the necessary cogs, to produce certain
revolutions required, without once failing in my reply.
This slight explanation will be sufficient to
show what is the essential basis of second sight, and I will
add that a secret and unnoticeable
between my son and myself, by which I could announce to him
the name, nature, and bulk of objects handed me by
As none understood my mode of action, they
were tempted to believe in something extraordinary, and,
indeed, my son Emile, then aged twelve, possessed all the
essential qualities to produce this opinion, for his pale,
intellectual, and ever thoughtful face represented the type
of a boy gifted with some supernatural power.
Two months were incessantly employed in
erecting the scaffolding of our tricks, and when we were
quite confident of being able to contend against the
difficulties of such an undertaking, we announced the first
representation of second sight. On the 12th of February,
1846, I printed in the center of my bill the following
"In this performance M.
Robert-Houdin's son, who is gifted with a marvelous second
sight, after his eyes have been covered with a thick
bandage, will designate every object presented to him by the
I cannot say whether this announcement
attracted any spectators, for my room was constantly
crowded, still I may affirm, what may seem very
extraordinary, that the experiment of second sight, which
afterwards became so fashionable, produced no effect on the
first performance. I am inclined to believe that the
spectators fancied themselves the dupes of accomplices, but
I was much annoyed by the result, as I had built on the
surprise I should produce; still, having no reason to doubt
its ultimate success, I was tempted to make a second trial,
which turned out well.
The next evening I noticed in my room several
persons who had been present on the previous night, and I
felt they had come a second time to assure themselves of the
reality of the experiment. It seems they were convinced,
for my success was complete, and amply compensated for my
I especially remember a mark of singular
approval with which one of my pit audience favored me. My
son had named to him several objects he offered in
succession; but not feeling satisfied, my incredulous
friend, rising, as if to give more importance to the
difficulty he was about to present, handed me an instrument
peculiar to cloth merchants, and employed to count the
number of threads. Acquiescing in his wish, I said to my
boy, "What do I hold in my hand?"
"It is an instrument to judge the
fineness of cloth, and called a thread counter."
"By Jove!" my spectator said,
energetically, "it is marvelous. If I had paid ten
francs to see it, I should not begrudge them."
From this moment my room was much too small,
and was crowded every evening.
Still, success is not entirely rose-colored,
and I could easily narrate many disagreeable scenes produced
by the reputation I had of being a sorcerer; but I will only
mention one, which forms a résumé of
all I pass over:
A young lady of elegant manners paid me a
visit one day, and although her face was hidden by a thick
veil, my practiced eyes perfectly distinguished her
features. She was very pretty.
My incognita would not consent to sit down
till she was assured we were alone, and that I was the real
Robert-Houdin. I also seated myself, and assuming the
attitude of a man prepared to listen, I bent slightly to my
visitor, as if awaiting her pleasure to explain to me the
object of her mysterious visit. To my great surprise, the
young lady, whose manner betrayed extreme emotion,
maintained the most profound silence, and I began to find
the visit very strange, and was on the point of forcing an
explanation, at any hazard, when the fair unknown timidly
ventured these words:
"Good Heavens! sir, I know not how you
will interpret my visit."
Here she stopped, and let her eyes sink with
a very embarrassed air; then, making a violent effort, she
"What I have to ask of you, sir, is very
difficult to explain."
"Speak, madam, I beg," I said,
politely, "and I will try to guess what you cannot
explain to me."
And I began asking myself what this reserve
"In the first place," the young
lady said, in a low voice, and looking round her, "I
must tell you confidentially that I loved, my love was
returned, and I--I am betrayed."
At the last word the lady raised her head,
overcame the timidity she felt, and said, in a firm and
"Yes, sir--yes, I am betrayed, and for
that reason I have come to you."
"Really, madam," I said, much
surprised at this strange confession, "I do not see how
I can help you in such matter."
"Oh, sir, I entreat you," said my
fair visitor, clasping her hands--"I implore you not to
I had great difficulty in keeping my
countenance, and yet I felt an extreme curiosity to know the
history concealed behind this mystery.
"Calm yourself, madam," I remarked,
in a tone of tender sympathy; "tell me what you would
of me, and if it be in my power----"
"If it be in your power!" the young
lady said, quickly;
"why, nothing is more easy, sir."
"Explain yourself, madam."
"Well, sir, I wish to be avenged."
"In what way?"
"How, you know better than I, sir; must
I teach you? You have in your power means to----"
"Yes, sir, you! for you are a sorcerer,
and cannot deny it."
At this word sorcerer, I was much inclined to
laugh; but I was restrained by the incognita's evident
emotion. Still, wishing to put an end to a scene which was
growing ridiculous, I said, in a politely ironical tone:
"Unfortunately, madam, you give me a
title I never possessed."
"How, sir!" the young woman
exclaimed, in a quick tone, "you will not allow you
"A sorcerer, madam? Oh, no, I will
"You will not?"
"No, a thousand times no, madam."
At these words my visitor rose hastily,
muttered a few incoherent words, appeared suffering from
terrible emotion, and then drawing near me with flaming eyes
and passionate gestures, repeated:
"Ah, you will not! Very good; I now
know what I have to do."
Stupefied by such an outbreak, I looked at
her fixedly, and began to suspect the cause of her
"There are two modes of acting,"
she said, with terrible volubility, "toward people who
devote themselves to magic arts--entreaty and menaces. You
would not yield to the first of these means, hence, I must
employ the second. Stay," she added, "perhaps this
will induce you to speak."
And, lifting up her cloak, she laid her hand
on the hilt of a dagger passed through her girdle. At the
same time she suddenly threw back her veil, and displayed
features in which all the signs of rage and madness could be
traced. No longer having a doubt as to the person I had to
deal with, my first movement was to rise and stand on my
guard; but this first feeling overcome, I repented the
thought of a struggle with the unhappy woman, and determined
on employing a method almost always successful with those
deprived of reason. I pretended to accede to her wishes.
"If it be so, madam I yield to your
request. Tell me what you require."
"I have told you, sir; I wish for
vengeance, and there is only one method to----"
Here there was a fresh interruption, and the
young lady, calmed by my apparent submission, as well as
embarrassed by the request she had to make of me, became
again timid and confused.
"Well, sir, I know not how to tell
you--how to explain to you--but I fancy there are certain
means--certain spells--which render it
impossible--impossible for a man to be--unfaithful."
"I now understand what you wish, madam.
It is a certain magic practice employed in the middle ages.
Nothing is easier, and I will satisfy you."
Decided on playing the farce to the end, I
took down the largest book I could find in my library,
turned over the leaves, stopped at a page which I pretended
to scan with profound attention, and then addressing the
lady, who followed all my movements
"Madam," I said confidentially,
"the spell I am going
to perform renders it necessary for me to know the name of
the person; have the kindness, then, to tell it me."
"Julian!" she said, in a faint
With all the gravity of a real sorcerer, I
solemnly thrust a pin through a lighted candle, and
pronounced some cabalistic words. After which, blowing out
the candle, and turning to the poor Creature, I said:
"Madam, it is done; your wish is
"Oh, thank you, sir," she replied,
with the expression of the profoundest gratitude; and at the
same moment she laid a purse on the table and rushed away.
I ordered my servant to follow her to her house, and obtain
all the information he could about her, and I learned she
had been a widow for a short time, and that the loss of an
adored husband had disturbed her reason. The next day I
visited her relatives, and, returning them the purse, I told
them the scene the details of which the reader has just
This scene, with some others that preceded
and followed it, compelled me to take measures to guard
myself against bores of every description. I could not
dream, as formerly, of exiling myself in the country, but I
employed a similar resource: this was to shut myself up in
my workroom, and organize around me a system of defense
against those whom I called, in my ill-temper, thieves of
I daily received visits from persons who were
utter strangers to me; some were worth knowing, but the
majority, gaining an introduction under the most futile
pretexts, only came to kill a portion of their leisure time
with me. It was necessary to distinguish the tares from the
wheat, and this is the arrangement I made:
When one of these gentlemen rang at my door,
an electric communication struck a bell in my workroom; I
was thus warned and put on my guard. My servant opened the
door, and, as is customary, inquired the visitor's name,
while I, for my part, laid my ear to a tube, arranged for
the purpose, which conveyed to me every word. If, according
to his reply, I thought it as well not to receive him, I
pressed a button; and a white mark that appeared in a
certain part of the hall announced I was not at home to him.
My servant then stated I was out, and begged the visitor to
apply to the manager.
Sometimes it happened that I erred in my
judgment, and regretted having granted an audience; but I
had another mode of shortening a bore's visit. I had placed
behind the sofa on which I sat an electric spring,
communicating with a bell my servant could hear. In case of
need, and while talking, I threw my arm carelessly over the
back of the sofa, touching the spring, and the bell rang.
Then my servant, playing a little farce, opened the front
door, rang the bell, which could be heard from the room
where I sat, and came to tell me that M. X---- (a name
invented for the occasion) wished to speak to me. I ordered
M. X--- to be shown into an adjoining room, and it was very
rare that my bore did not raise the siege. No one can form
an idea how much time I gained by this happy arrangement, or
how many times I blessed my imagination and the celebrated
savant to whom the discovery of galvanism is due!
This feeling can be easily explained, for my
time was of inestimable value. I husbanded it like a
treasure, and never sacrificed it, unless the sacrifice
might help me to discover new experiments destined to
stimulate public curiosity.
To support my determination in making my
researches, I had ever before me this maxim:
IT IS MORE DIFFICULT TO SUPPORT
ADMIRATION THAN TO EXCITE IT.
And this other, an apparent corollary of the
THE FASHION AN ARTIST ENJOYS
CAN ONLY LAST AS HIS TALENT DAILY INCREASES.
Nothing increases a professional man's merit
so much as the possession of an independent fortune; this
truth may be coarse, but it is indubitable. Not only was I
convinced of these principles of high economy, but I also
knew that a man must strive to profit by the fickle favor of
the public, which equally descends if it does not rise.
Hence I worked my reputation as much as I could in spite of
my numerous engagements, I found means to give performances
in all the principal theaters, though great difficulties
frequently arose, as my performance did not end till
half-past ten, and I could only fulfill my other engagements
after that hour.
Eleven o'clock was generally the hour fixed
for my appearance on a strange stage, and my readers may
judge of the speed required to proceed to the theater in so
short a time and make my preparations. It is true that the
moments were as well counted as employed, and my curtain had
hardly fallen than, rushing toward the stairs, I
got out before
my audience, and jumped into a vehicle that bore me off at
But this fatigue was as nothing compared to
the emotion occasionally produced by an error in the time
that was to elapse between my two performances. I remember
that, one night, having to wind up the performances at the
Vaudeville, the stage manager miscalculated the time the
pieces would take in performing, and found himself much in
advance. He sent off an express to warn me that the curtain
had fallen, and I was anxiously expected. Can my readers
comprehend my wretchedness? My experiments, of which I
could omit none, would occupy another quarter of an hour;
but instead of indulging in useless recriminations, I
resigned myself and continued my performance, though I was a
prey to frightful anxiety. While speaking, I fancied I
could hear that cadenced yell of the public to which the
famous song, "Des lampions, des lampions,"
was set. Thus, either through preoccupation or a desire to
end sooner, I found when my performance was over I had
gained five minutes out of the quarter of an hour.
Assuredly, it might be called the quarter of an hour's
To jump into a carriage and drive to the
Place de la Bourse was the affair of an instant; still,
twenty minutes had elapsed since the curtain fell, and that
was an enormous time. My son Emile and I proceeded up the
actors' stairs at full speed, but on the first step we had
heard the cries, whistling, and stamping of the impatient
audience. What a prospect! I knew that frequently, either
right or wrong, the public treated an artiste, no matter
whom, very harshly, to remind him of punctuality. That
sovereign always appears to have on its lips the words of
another monarch: "I was obliged to wait."
However, we hurried up the steps leading to the stage.
The stage manager, who had been watching, on
hearing our hurried steps, cried from the landing:
"Is that you, M. Houdin?"
"Raise the curtain!" the same voice
"Wait, wait, it is imp----"
My breath would not allow me to finish my
objection; I fell on a chair, unable to move.
"Come, M. Houdin," the manager
said, "do go on the stage, the curtain is up,
and the public are so impatient."
The door at the back of the stage was open,
but I could not pass through it; fatigue and emotion nailed
me to the spot. Still, an idea occurred to me, which saved
me from the popular wrath.
"Go on to the stage, my boy," I
said to my son, "and prepare all that is wanting for
the second-sight trick."
The public allowed themselves to be disarmed
by this youth, whose face inspired a sympathizing interest;
and my son, after gravely bowing to the audience, quietly
made his slight preparations, that is to say, he carried an
ottoman to the front of the stage, and placed on a
neighboring table a slate, some chalk a pack of cards, and a
This slight delay enabled me to recover my
breath and calm my nerves, and I advanced in my turn with an
attempt to assume the stereotyped smile, in which I signally
failed, as I was so agitated. The audience at first
remained silent, then their faces gradually unwrinkled, and
soon, one or two claps having been ventured, they were
carried away and peace was made. I was well rewarded,
however, for this terrible ordeal, as my
"second-sight" never gained a more brilliant
An incident greatly enlivened the termination
of my performance.
A spectator, who had evidently come on
purpose to embarrass us, had tried in vain for some minutes
to baffle my son's clairvoyance, when, turning to me, he
said, laying marked stress on his words:
"As your son is a soothsayer, of course
he can guess the number of my stall?"
The importunate spectator doubtless hoped to
force us into a confession of our impotence, for he covered
his number, and the adjacent seats being occupied, it was
apparently impossible to read the numbers. But I was on my
guard against all surprises, and my reply was ready. Still,
in order to profit as much as possible by the situation, I
feigned to draw back.
"You know, sir," I said, feigning
an embarrassed air, "that my son is neither sorcerer
nor diviner; he reads through my eyes, and hence I have
given this experiment the name of second sight. As I cannot
see the number of your stall, and the seats close to you are
occupied, my son cannot tell it you."
"Ah! I was certain of it," my
persecutor said, in triumph, and turning to his neighbors:
"I told you I would pin him."
"Oh, sir, you are not generous in your
victory," I said, in my turn, in a tone of mockery.
"Take care; if you pique my son's vanity too sharply,
he may solve your problem, though it is so difficult."
"I defy him," said the spectator,
leaning firmly against the back of his seat, to hide the
number better--"yes, yes--I defy him!"
"You believe it to be difficult,
"I will grant more: it is
"Well, then, sir, that is a stronger
reason for us to try it. You will not be angry if we
triumph in our turn?" I added, with a petulant smile.
"Come, sir; we understand evasions of
that sort. I repeat it--I challenge you both."
The public found great amusement in this
debate, and patiently awaited its issue.
"Emile," I said to my son,
"prove to this gentleman that nothing can escape your
"It is number sixty-nine," the boy
Noisy and hearty applause rose from every
part of the theater, in which our opponent joined, for,
confessing his defeat, he exclaimed, as he clapped his
hands, "It is astounding--magnificent!"
The way I succeeded in finding out the number
of the stall was this: I knew beforehand that in all
theaters where the stalls are divided down the center by a
passage, the uneven numbers are on the right, and the even
on the left. As at the Vaudeville each row was composed of
ten stalls, it followed that on the right hand the several
rows must begin with one, twenty-one, forty-one, and so on,
increasing by twenty each. Guided by this, I had no
difficulty in discovering that my opponent was seated in
number sixty-nine, representing the fifth stall in the
fourth row. I had prolonged the conversation for the double
purpose of giving more brilliancy to my experiment, and
gaining time to make my researches. Thus I applied my
process of two simultaneous thoughts, to which I have
As I am now explaining matters, I may as well
tell my readers some of the artifices that added material
brilliancy to the second sight. I have already said this
experiment was the result of a material communication
between myself and my son which no one could detect. Its
combinations enabled us to describe any conceivable object;
but, though this was a splendid result, I saw that I should
soon encounter unheard-of difficulties in executing it.
The experiment of second sight always formed
the termination of my performance. Each evening I saw
unbelievers arrive with all sorts of articles to triumph
over a secret which they could not unravel. Before going to
see Robert-Houdin's son a council was held, in which an
object that must embarrass the father was chosen. Among
these were half-effaced antique medals, minerals, books
printed in characters of every description (living and dead
languages), coats-of-arms, microscopic objects, etc.
But what caused me the greatest difficulty
was in finding out the contents of parcels, often tied with
a string, or even sealed up. But I had managed to contend
successfully against all these attempts to embarrass me. I
opened boxes, purses, pocketbooks, etc., with great ease,
and unnoticed, while appearing to be engaged on something
quite different. Were a sealed parcel offered me, I cut a
small slit in the paper with the nail of my left thumb,
which I always purposely kept very long and sharp, and thus
discovered what it contained. One essential condition was
excellent sight, and that I possessed to perfection. I owed
it originally to my old trade, and practice daily improved
it. An equally indispensable necessity was to know the name
of every object offered me. It was not enough to say, for
instance, "It is a coin"; but my son must give its
technical name, its value, the country in which it was
current, and the year in which it was struck. Thus, for
instance, if an English crown were handed me, my son was
expected to state that it was struck in the reign of George
IV, and had an intrinsic value of six francs eighteen
Aided by an excellent memory, we had managed
to classify in our heads the name and value of all foreign
money. We could also describe a coat-of-arms in heraldic
terms. Thus, on the arms of the house of X---- being handed
me, my son would reply: "Field gules, with two croziers
argent in pale." This knowledge was very useful to us
in the salons of the Faubourg Saint Germain, where we
were frequently summoned.
I had also learned the characters--though
unable to translate a word--of an infinity of languages,
such as Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, etc. We
knew, too, the names of all surgical instruments, so that a
surgical pocketbook, however complicated it might be, could
not embarrass us. Lastly, I had a very sufficient knowledge
of mineralogy, precious stones, antiquities, and
curiosities; but I had at my command every possible resource
for acquiring these studies, as one of my dearest and best
friends, Aristide le Carpentier, a learned antiquary, and
uncle of the talented composer of the same name, had, and
still has, a cabinet of antique curiosities, which makes the
keepers of the imperial museums fierce with envy. My son
and I spent many long days in learning here names and dates,
of which we afterwards made a learned display. Le
Carpentier taught me many things, and, among others, he
described various signs by which to recognize old coins when
the die is worn off. Thus, a Trajan, a Tiberius, or a
Marcus Aurelius became as familiar to me as a five-franc
Owing to my old trade, I could open a watch
with ease, and do it with one hand, so as to be able to read
the maker's name without the public suspecting it: then I
shut up the watch again and the trick was ready; my son
managed the rest of the business.
But that power of memory which my son
possessed in an eminent degree certainly did us the greatest
service. When we went to private houses, he needed only a
very rapid inspection in order to know all the objects in a
room, as well as the various ornaments worn by the
spectators, such as châtelaines, pins, eyeglasses,
fans, brooches, rings, bouquets, etc. He thus could
describe these objects with the greatest ease, when I
pointed them out to him by our secret communication. Here
is an instance:
One evening, at a house in the
Chaussée d'Antin, and at the end of a performance
which had been as successful as it was loudly applauded, I
remembered that, while passing through the next room to the
one we were now in, I had begged my son to cast a glance at
a library and remember the titles of some of the books, as
well as the order they were arranged in. No one had noticed
this rapid examination.
"To end the second-sight experiment,
sir," I said to the master of the house, "I will
prove to you that my son can read through a wall. Will you
lend me a book?"
I was naturally conducted to the library in
question, which I pretended now to see for the first time,
and I laid my finger on a book.
"Emile," I said to my son,
"what is the name of this work?"
"It is Buffon," he replied quickly.
"And the one by its side?" an
incredulous spectator hastened to ask.
"On the right or left?" my son
"On the right," the speaker said,
having a good reason for choosing this book, for the
lettering was very small.
"The Travels of Anacharsis the
Younger," the boy replied. "But," he added,
"had you asked the name of the book on the left, sir, I
should have said Lamartine's Poetry. A little to the right
of this row, I see Crébillon's works; below, two
volumes of Fleury's Memoirs"; and my son thus named a
dozen books before he stopped.
The spectators had not said a word during
this description, as they felt so amazed; but when the
experiment had ended, all complimented us by clapping their
THE MAGICIAN WHO BECAME AN AMBASSADOR
It is not generally known that
Robert-Houdin once rendered his country an
important service as special envoy to Algeria.
Half a century ago this colony was an endless
source of trouble to France. Although the rebel
Arab chieftain Abd-del-Kader had surrendered in
1847, an irregular warfare was kept up against the
French authority by the native Kabyles, stimulated
by their Mohammedan priests, and particularly
through so-called "miracles," such as
recovery from wounds and burns self-inflicted by
the Marabouts and other fanatic devotees of the
Thus in 1856 the hopes of the French
Foreign Office rested on Robert-Houdin. He was
requested to exhibit his tricks in the most impressive
form possible, with the idea of proving to the deluded
Arabs that they had been in error in ascribing
supernatural power to their holy men.
IT was settled that I should reach Algiers by
the next 27th of September, the day on which the great
fêtes annually offered by the capital of Algeria to
the Arabs would commence.
I must say that I was much influenced in my
determination by the knowledge that my mission to Algeria
had a quasi-political character. I, a simple conjurer, was
proud of being able to render my country a service.
It is known that the majority of revolts
which have to be suppressed in Algeria are excited by
intriguers, who say they are inspired by the Prophet, and
are regarded by the Arabs as envoys of God on earth to
deliver them from the oppression of the Roumi
These false prophets and holy Marabouts, who
are no more sorcerers than I am, and indeed even less so,
still contrive to influence the fanaticism of their
coreligionists by tricks as primitive as are the spectators
before whom they are performed.
The government was, therefore, anxious to
destroy their pernicious influence, and reckoned on me to do
so. They hoped, with reason, by the aid of my experiments,
to prove to the Arabs that the tricks of their Marabouts
were mere child's play, and owing to their simplicity could
not be done by an envoy from Heaven, which also led us very
naturally to show them that we are their superiors in
everything, and, as for sorcerers, there are none like the
Presently I will show the success obtained by
these skillful tactics.
Three months were to elapse between the day
of my acceptance and that of my departure which I employed
in arranging a complete arsenal of my best tricks, and left
St. Gervais on the 10th of September.
I will give no account of my passage, further
than to say no sooner was I at sea than I wished I had
arrived, and, after thirty-six hours' navigation, I greeted
the capital of our colony with indescribable delight.
On the 28th of October, the day appointed for
my first performance before the Arabs, I reached my post at
an early hour, and could enjoy the sight of their entrance
into the theater.
drawn up in companies,
was introduced separately, and led in perfect order to the
places chosen for it in advance. Then came the turn of the
chiefs, who seated themselves with all the gravity becoming
Their introduction lasted some time, for
these sons of nature could not understand that they were
boxed up thus, side by side, to enjoy a spectacle, and our
comfortable seats, far from seeming so to them, bothered
them strangely. I saw them fidgeting about for some time,
and trying to tuck their legs under them, after the fashion
of European tailors.
The caïds, agas, bash-agas, and other
titled Arabs, held the places of honor, for they occupied
the orchestra stalls and the dress circle.
In the midst of them were several privileged
officers, and, lastly, the interpreters were mingled among
the spectators, to translate my remarks to them.
I was also told that several curious people,
having been unable to procure tickets, had assumed the Arab
burnous, and, binding the camel's-hair cord round their
foreheads, had slipped in among their new coreligionists.
This strange medley of spectators was indeed
a most curious sight. The dress circle, more especially,
presented an appearance as grand as it was imposing. Some
sixty Arab chiefs, clothed in their red mantles (the symbol
of their submission to France), on which one or more
decorations glistened, gravely awaited my performance with
I have performed before many brilliant
assemblies, but never before one which struck me so much as
this. However, the impression I felt on the rise of the
curtain, far from paralyzing me, on the contrary inspired me
with a lively sympathy for the spectators, whose faces
seemed so well prepared to accept the marvels promised them.
As soon as I walked on the stage, I felt quite at my ease,
and enjoyed, in anticipation, the sight I was going to amuse
I felt, I confess, rather inclined to laugh
at myself and my audience, for I stepped forth, wand in
hand, with all the gravity of a real sorcerer. Still, I did
not give way, for I was here not merely to amuse a curious
and kind public, I must produce a startling effect upon
coarse minds and prejudices, for I was enacting the part of
a French Marabout.
Compared with the simple tricks of their
pretended sorcerers, my experiments must appear perfect
miracles to the Arabs.
I commenced my performance in the most
profound, I might almost say religious, silence, and the
attention of the spectators was so great that they seemed
petrified. Their fingers alone moving nervously, played
with the beads of their rosaries, while they were,
doubtless, invoking the protection of the Most High.
This apathetic condition did not suit me, for
I had not come to Algeria to visit a waxwork exhibition. I
wanted movement, animation, life in fact, around me.
I changed my batteries, and, instead of
generalizing my remarks, I addressed them more especially to
some of the Arabs, whom I stimulated by my words, and still
more by my actions. The astonishment then gave way to a
more expressive feeling, which was soon evinced by noisy
This was especially the case when I produced
cannon balls from a hat, for my spectators, laying aside
their gravity, expressed their delighted admiration by the
strangest and most energetic gestures.
Then came--greeted by the same success--the
bouquet of flowers, produced instantaneously from a hat; the
cornucopia, supplying a multitude of objects which I
distributed, though unable to satisfy the repeated demands
made on all sides, and still more by those who had their
hands full already; the five-franc pieces, sent
across the theater into a crystal box suspended above the
One trick I should much have liked to perform
was the inexhaustible bottle, so appreciated by the
Parisians and the Manchester "hands"; but I could
not employ it in this performance, for it is well known the
followers of Mohammed drink no fermented liquor--at least
not publicly. Hence, I substituted the following with
I took a silver cup, like those called
"punch bowls" in the Parisian cafés. I
unscrewed the foot, and passing my wand through it showed
that the vessel contained nothing; then, having refitted the
two parts, I went to the center of the pit, when, at my
command, the bowl was magically filled with
sweetmeats, which were found excellent.
The sweetmeats exhausted, I turned the bowl
over, and proposed to fill it with excellent coffee; so,
gravely passing my hand thrice over the bowl, a dense vapor
immediately issued from it, and announced the presence of
the precious liquid. The bowl was full of boiling coffee,
which I poured into cups, and offered to my astounded
The first cups were only accepted, so to
speak, under protest; for not an Arab would consent to
moisten his lips with a beverage which he thought came
straight from Shaitan's kitchen; but, insensibly seduced by
the perfume of their favorite liquor, and urged by the
interpreters, some of the boldest decided on tasting the
magic liquor, and all soon followed their example.
The vessel, rapidly emptied, was repeatedly
filled again with equal rapidity; and it satisfied all
demands, like my inexhaustible bottle, and was borne back to
the stage still full.
But it was not enough to amuse my spectators;
I must also, in order to fulfill the object of my mission,
startle and even terrify them by the display of a
My arrangements had all been made for this
purpose and I had reserved for the end of my performances
three tricks, which must complete my reputation as a
Many of my readers will remember having seen
at my performances a small but solidly built box, which,
being handed to the spectators, becomes heavy or light at my
order; a child might raise it with ease, and yet the most
powerful man could not move it from its place.
I advanced, with my box in my hand, to the
center of the "practicable," communicating from
the stage to the pit; then, addressing the Arabs, I said to
"From what you have witnessed, you will
attribute a supernatural power to me, and you are right. I
will give you a new proof of my marvelous authority, by
showing that I can deprive the most powerful man of his
strength and restore it at my will. Anyone who thinks
himself strong enough to try the experiment may draw near
me." (I spoke slowly, in order to give the interpreter
time to translate my words.)
An Arab of middle height, but well built and
muscular, like many of the Arabs are, came to my side with
"Are you very strong?" I said to
him, measuring him from head to foot.
"Oh, yes!" he replied carelessly.
"Are you sure you will always remain
"You are mistaken, for in an instant I
will rob you of your strength, and you shall become as a
The Arab smiled disdainfully as a sign of his
"Stay," I continued; "lift up
The Arab stooped, lifted up the box, and said
to me, coldly, "Is that all?"
"Wait--!" I replied.
Then, with all possible gravity, I made an
imposing gesture, and solemnly pronounced the words:
"Behold! you are weaker than a woman;
now, try to lift the box."
The Hercules, quite cool as to my
conjuration, seized the box once again by the handle, and
gave it a violent tug, but this time the box resisted, and,
spite of his most vigorous attacks, would not budge an inch.
The Arab vainly expended on this unlucky box
a strength which would have raised an enormous weight,
until, at length, exhausted, panting, and red with anger, he
stopped, became thoughtful, and began to comprehend the
influences of magic.
He was on the point of withdrawing; but that
would be allowing his weakness, and that he, hitherto
respected for his vigor, had become as a little child. This
thought rendered him almost mad.
Deriving fresh strength from the
encouragements his friends offered him by word and deed, he
turned a glance round them, which seemed to say: "You
will see what a son of the desert can do."
He bent once again over the box: his nervous
hands twined round the handle, and his legs, placed on
either side like two bronze columns, served as a support for
the final effort.
But, wonder of wonders! this Hercules, a
moment since so strong and proud, now bows his head; his
arms, riveted to the box, undergo a violent muscular
contraction; his legs give way, and he falls on his knees
with a yell of agony!
An electric shock, produced by an inductive
apparatus, had been passed, on a signal from me, from the
further end of the stage into the handle of the box. Hence
the contortions of the poor Arab!
It would have been cruelty to prolong this
I gave a second signal, and the electric
current was immediately intercented. My athlete, disengaged
from his terrible bondage, raised his hands over his head.
"Allah! Allah!" he exclaimed, full
of terror; then wrapping himself up quickly in the folds of
his burnous, as if to hide his disgrace, he rushed through
the ranks of the spectators and gained the front entrance.
With the exception of my stage boxes and the
privileged spectators who appeared to take great pleasure in
this experiment, my audience had become grave and silent,
and I heard the words "Shaitan!"
"Djenoum!" passing in a murmur round the circle of
credulous men, who, while gazing on me, seemed astonished
that I possessed none of the physical qualities attributed
to the angel of darkness.
I allowed my public a few moments to recover
from the emotion produced by my experiment and the flight of
the herculean Arab.
One of the means employed by the Marabouts to
gain influence in the eyes of the Arabs is by causing a
belief in their invulnerability.
One of them, for instance, ordered a gun to
be loaded and fired at him from a short distance, but in
vain did the flint produce a shower of sparks; the Marabout
pronounced some cabalistic words, and the gun did not
The mystery was simple enough; the gun did
not go off because the Marabout had skillfully stopped up
Colonel de Neveu explained to me the
importance of discrediting such a miracle by opposing to it
a sleight-of-hand trick far superior to it, and I had the
I informed the Arabs that I possessed a
talisman rendering me invulnerable, and I defied the best
marksman in Algeria to hit me.
I had hardly uttered the words when an Arab,
who had attracted my notice by the attention he had paid to
my tricks, jumped over four rows of seats, and disdaining
the use of the "practicable," crossed the
orchestra, upsetting flutes, clarionets, and violins,
escaladed the stage, while burning himself at the
footlights, and then said, in excellent French:
"I will kill you!"
An immense burst of laughter greeted both the
Arab's picturesque ascent and his murderous intentions,
while an interpreter who stood near me told me I had to deal
with a Marabout.
"You wish to kill me!" I replied,
imitating his accent and the inflection of his voice.
"Well, I reply, that though you are a sorcerer, I am
still a greater one, and you will not kill me."
I held a cavalry pistol in my hand, which I
presented to him.
"Here, take this weapon, and assure
yourself it has undergone no preparation."
The Arab breathed several times down the
barrel, then through the nipple, to assure himself there was
a communication between them, and after carefully examining
the pistol, said:
"The weapon is good, and I will kill
"As you are determined, and for more
certainty, put in a double charge of powder, and a wad on
"It is done."
"Now, here is a leaden ball; mark it
with your knife, so as to be able to recognize it, and put
it in the pistol, with a second wad."
"It is done."
"Now that you are quite sure your pistol
is loaded, and that it will explode, tell me, do you feel no
remorse, no scruple about killing me thus, although I
authorize you to do so?"
"No, for I wish to kill you," the
Arab repeated coldly.
Without replying, I put an apple on the point
of a knife, and, standing a few yards from the Marabout,
ordered him to fire.
"Aim straight at the heart," I said
My opponent aimed immediately, without the
The pistol exploded, and the bullet lodged in
the center of the apple.
I carried the talisman to the Marabout, who
recognized the ball he had marked.
I could not say that this trick produced
greater stupefaction than the ones preceding it: at any
rate, my spectators, palsied by surprise and terror, looked
round in silence, seeming to think, "Where the deuce
have we got to here!"
A pleasant scene, however, soon unwrinkled
many of their faces. The Marabout, though stupefied by his
defeat, had not lost his wits; so, profiting by the moment
when he returned to me the pistol, he seized the apple,
thrust it into his waist belt, and could not be induced to
return it, persuaded as he was that he possessed in it an
For the last trick in my performance I
required the assistance of an Arab.
At the request of several interpreters, a
young Moor, about twenty years of age, tall, well built, and
richly dressed, consented to come on the stage. Bolder and
more civilized, doubtless, than his comrades of the plains,
he walked firmly up to me.
I drew him toward the table that was in
center of the stage, and pointed out to him and to the other
spectators that it was slightly built and perfectly
isolated. After which, without further preface, I told him
to mount upon it, and covered him with an enormous cloth
cone, open at the top.
Then, drawing the cone and its contents on to
a plank, the ends of which were held by my servant and
myself, we walked to the footlights with out heavy burden,
and upset it. The Moor had disappeared--the cone was
Immediately there began a spectacle which I
shall never forget.
The Arabs were so affected by this last
trick, that, impelled by an irresistible feeling of terror,
they rose in all parts of the house, and yielded to the
influence of a general panic. To tell the truth, the crowd
of fugitives was densest at the door of the dress circle,
and it cold be seen, from the agility and confusion of these
high dignitaries, that they were the first to wish to leave
Vainly did one of them, the Caïd of the
Beni-Salah, more courageous than his colleagues, try to
restrain them by his words:
"Stay! stay! we cannot thus lose one of
our coreligionists. Surely we must know what has become of
him, or what has been done to him. Stay! stay!"
But the coreligionists only ran away the
faster, and soon the courageous caïd, led away by their
example, followed them.
They little knew what awaited them at the
door of the theater; but they had scarce gone down the steps
when they found themselves face to face with the
The first movement of terror overcome, they
surrounded the man, felt and cross-questioned him; but,
annoyed by these repeated questions, he had no better
recourse than to escape at full speed.
The next evening the second performance took
place, and produced nearly the same effect as the previous
The blow was struck: henceforth the
interpreters and all those who had dealings with the Arabs
received orders to make them understand that my pretended
miracles were only the result of skill, inspired and guided
by an art called prestidigitation, in no way
connected with sorcery.
The Arabs doubtless yielded to these
arguments, for henceforth I was on the most friendly terms
with them. Each time a chief saw me, he never failed to
come up and press my hand. And, even more, these men whom I
had so terrified, when they became my friends, gave me a
precious testimony of their esteem--I may say, too, of their
admiration, for that is their own expression.
FACING THE ARAB'S PISTOL
The severest trial of all was unexpectedly
encountered during a visit paid by the conjurer and his
wife to Bou-Allem-ben-Shenfa Bash-Aga of the Djendel, a
tribe of the desert interior.
We entered a small room very elegantly
decorated, in which were two divans.
"This," our host said, "is the
room reserved for guests of distinction; you can go to bed
when you like, but if you are not tired, I would ask your
leave to present to you several chief men of my tribe, who,
having heard of you, wish to see you."
"Let them come in," I said, after
consulting Madame Houdin, "we will receive them with
The interpreter went out, and soon brought in
a dozen old men, among whom were a Marabout and several
talebs, whom the bash-aga appeared to hold in great
They sat down in a circle on carpets and kept
up a very lively conversation about my performances at
Algiers. This learned society discussed the probability of
the marvels related by the chief of the tribe, who took
great pleasure in depicting his impressions and those of his
coreligionists at the sight of the miracles I had
Each lent an attentive ear to these stories,
and regarded me with a species of veneration; the Marabout
alone displayed a degree of skepticism, and asserted that
the spectators had been duped by what he called a vision.
Jealous of my reputation as a French
sorcerer, I thought I must perform before the unbeliever a
few tricks as a specimen of my late performance. I had the
pleasure of astounding my audience, but the Marabout
continued to offer me a systematic opposition, by which his
neighbors were visibly annoyed; the poor fellow did not
suspect, though, what I had in store for him.
My antagonist wore in his sash a watch, the
chain of which hung outside.
I believe I have already mentioned a certain
talent I possess of filching a watch, a pin, a pocketbook,
etc., with a skill by which several of my friends have been
I was fortunately born with an honest and
upright heart, or this peculiar talent might have led me too
far. When I felt inclined for a joke of this nature, I
turned it to profit in a conjuring trick, or waited till my
friend took leave of me, and then recalled him:
"Stay," I would say, handing him the stolen
article, "let this serve as a lesson to put you on your
guard against persons less honest than myself."
But to return to our Marabout. I had stolen
his watch as I passed near him and slipped into its place a
To prevent his detecting it, and while
waiting till I could profit by my larceny, I improvised a
trick. After juggling away Bou-Allem's rosary, I made it
pass into one of the numerous slippers left at the door by
the guests; this shoe was next found to be full of coins,
and to end this little scene comically, I made five-franc
pieces come out of the noses of the spectators. They took
such pleasure in this trick that I fancied I should never
terminate it. "Douros!
they shouted, as they twitched their noses. I willingly acceded
to their request, and the douros issued at command.
The delight was so great that several Arabs
rolled on the ground; this coarsely expressed joy on the
part of Mohammedans was worth frenzied applause to me.
I pretended to keep aloof from the Marabout, who, as I
expected, remained serious and impassive.
When calm was restored, my rival began
speaking hurriedly to his neighbors, as if striving to
dispel their illusion, and, not succeeding, he addressed me
through the interpreter:
"You will not deceive me in that
way," he said, with a crafty look.
"Because I don't believe in your
"Ah, indeed! Well, then, if you do not
believe in my power, I will compel you to believe in my
"Neither in one nor the other."
I was at this moment the whole length of the
room from the Marabout.
"Stay," I said to him; "you
see this five-franc piece."
"Close your hand firmly, for the piece
will go into it in spite of yourself."
"I am ready," the Arab said, in an
incredulous voice, as he held out his tightly closed fist.
I took the piece at the end of my fingers, so
that the assembly might all see it, then, feigning to throw
it at the Marabout, it disappeared at the word
My man opened his hand, and, finding nothing
in it, shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, "You see,
I told you so."
I was well aware the piece was not there, but
it was important to draw the Marabout's attention
momentarily from the sash, and for this purpose I employed
"That does not surprise me," I
replied, "for I threw the piece with such strength that
it went right through your hand, and has fallen into your
sash. Being afraid I might break your watch by the blow, I
called it to me: here it is!" And I showed him the
watch in my hand.
The Marabout quickly put his hand in his
waist belt, to assure himself of the truth, and was quite
stupefied at finding the five-franc piece.
The spectators were astounded. Some among
them began telling their beads with a vivacity evidencing a
certain agitation of mind; but the Marabout frowned without
saying a word, and I saw he was spelling over some evil
"I now believe in your supernatural
power," he said; "you are a real sorcerer; hence,
I hope you will not fear to repeat here a trick you
performed in your theater"; and offering me two pistols
he held concealed beneath his burnous, he added, "Come,
choose one of these pistols; we will load it, and I will
fire at you. You have nothing to fear, as you can ward off
I confess I was for a moment staggered; I
sought a subterfuge and found none. All eyes were fixed
upon me, and a reply was anxiously awaited.
The Marabout was triumphant.
Bou-Allem, being aware that my tricks were
only the result of skill, was angry that his guest should be
so pestered; hence he began reproaching the Marabout. I
stopped him, however, for an idea had occurred to me which
would save me from my dilemma, at least temporarily; then,
addressing my adversary:
"You are aware," I said, with
assurance, "that I require a talisman in order to be
invulnerable, and, unfortunately, I have left mine at
The Marabout began laughing with an
"Still," I continued, "I can,
by remaining six hours at prayers, do without the talisman,
and defy your weapon. To-morrow morning, at eight o'clock, I
will allow you to fire at me in the presence of these Arabs,
who were witnesses of your challenge."
Bou-Allem, astonished at such a promise,
asked me once again if this offer were serious, and if he
should invite the company for the appointed hour. On my
affirmative, they agreed to meet before the stone bench in
the market place.
I did not spend my night at prayers, as may
be supposed, but I employed about two hours in insuring my
invulnerability; then, satisfied with the result, I slept
soundly, for I was terribly tired.
By eight the next morning we had breakfasted,
our horses were saddled, and our escort was awaiting the
signal for our departure, which would take place after the
None of the guests were absent, and, indeed,
a great number of Arabs came in to swell the crowd.
The pistols were handed me; I called
attention to the fact that the vents were clear, and the
Marabout put in a fair charge of powder and drove the wad
home. Among the bullets produced, I chose one which I
openly put in the pistol, and which was then also covered
The Arab watched all these movements, for his
honor was at stake.
We went through the same process with the
second pistol and the solemn moment arrived.
Solemn, indeed, it seemed to everybody--to
the spectators who were uncertain of the issue, to Madame
Houdin, who had in vain besought me to give up this trick,
for she feared the result--and solemn also to me, for as my
new trick did not depend on any of the arrangements made at
Algiers, I feared an error, an act of treachery--I knew not
Still I posted myself at fifteen paces from
the sheik, without evincing the slightest emotion.
The Marabout immediately seized one of the
pistols, and, on my giving the signal, took a deliberate aim
at me. The pistol went off, and the ball appeared between
More angry than ever, my rival tried to seize
the other pistol, but I succeeded in reaching it before him.
"You could not injure me," I said
to him, "but you shall now see that my aim is more
dangerous than yours. Look at that wall."
I pulled the trigger, and on the newly
whitewashed wall appeared a large patch of blood, exactly at
the spot where I had aimed.
The Marabout went up to it, dipped his finger
in the blood, and, raising it to his mouth, convinced
himself of the reality. When he acquired this certainty,
his arms fell, and his head was bowed on his chest, as if he
It was evident that for the moment he doubted
everything, even the Prophet.
The spectators raised their eyes to heaven,
muttered prayers, and regarded me with a species of terror.
This scene was a triumphant termination to my
performance. I therefore retired, leaving the audience
under the impression I had produced. We took leave of
Bou-Allem and his son, and set off at a gallop.
The trick I have just described, though so
curious, is easily prepared. I will give a description of
it, while explaining the trouble it took me.
As soon as I was alone in my room, I took out
of my pistol case--without which I never travel--a bullet
I took a card, bent up the four edges, and
thus made a sort of trough, in which I placed a piece of wax
taken from one of the candles. When it was melted, I mixed
with it a little lampblack I had obtained by putting the
blade of a knife over the candle, and then ran this
composition in the bullet mold.
Had I allowed the liquid to get quite cold,
the ball would have been full and solid; but in about ten
seconds I turned the mold over, and the portions of the wax
not yet set ran out, leaving a hollow ball in the mold.
This operation is the same as that used in making tapers,
the thickness of the outside depending on the time the
liquid has been left in the mold.
I wanted a second ball, which I made rather
more solid than the other; and this I filled with blood, and
covered the orifice with a lump of wax. An Irishman had
once taught me the way to draw blood from the thumb without
feeling any pain, and I employed it on this occasion to fill
Bullets thus prepared bear an extraordinary
resemblance to lead, and are easily mistaken for that metal
when seen at a short distance off.
With this explanation, the trick will be
easily understood. After showing the leaden bullet to the
spectators, I changed it for my hollow ball, and openly put
the latter into the pistol. By pressing the wad tightly
down, the wax broke into small pieces, and could not touch
me at the distance I stood.
At the moment the pistol was fired, I opened
my mouth to display the lead bullet I held between my teeth,
while the other pistol contained the bullet filled with
blood, which bursting against the wall, left its imprint;
though the wax had flown to atoms.
It is no wonder that after such
exhibitions Robert-Houdin's success was complete.
The Arabs lost all confidence in Marabout
"miracles," and thus a dangerous
smoldering flame of disaffection to the French was
(2) Brigade of native soldiers under French
command. It was this influential native
faction that the Foreign Office wished
particularly to impress, through
(3) Gold Arabic coin.