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SOUTHERN LITERARY MESSENGER.

A MAGAZINE devoted TO LITERATURE, SCIENCE AND ART.

RICHMOND, DECEMBER, 1859.

MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.*

Mr. Charles Dickens, in one of the most agreeable, but least known, of the books which he has given to the public, the Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, thus discourses of pantomimes:-"It is some years now since we first conceived a strong veneration for clowns, and an intense anxiety to know what they did with themselves out of pantomime time, and off the stage. As a child, we were accustomed to pester our relations and friends with questions out of number concerning these gentry-whether their appetite for sausages, and such like wares, was always the same; and if so, at whose expense they were maintained? Whether they were ever taken up for pilfering other people's goods, or were forgiven by everybody, because it was only done in fun? How it was they got such beautiful complexions, and where they lived? and whether they were born clowns, or gradually turned into clowns as they grew up? On these, and a thousand other points, our curiosity was insatiable; nor were our speculations confined to clowns alone: they extended to Harlequins, Pantaloons, and Columbines-all of whom we believed to be real and veritable personages, existing in the same forms and characters all the year round. How often have we wished that the Pantaloon were our god-father! and how often thought that to marry a Columbine

would be to attain the highest pitch of all human felicity!"

In our boyhood (it is some years now, as Mr. Dickens says) pantomimes were unknown in the place which had the honor of giving us birth and education. We were strangers even to Mr. Punch, till we had attained to the dignity of long-tailed coats, round hats, and Wellington boots. At the theatres, when the first play was over, and when (we quote Mr. Dickens again) "the lovers were united, the ghost appeased, the baron killed, and every thing made comfortable and pleasant," instead of the pantomime, there succeeded the English farce, and we relaxed our intense excitement, in sympathy with the wit, and roguery, and comic embarrassments, of Fag, and Scrub, and Jeremy Diddler-Jerry Sneak and Paul Pry. We do not complain of the exchange-we only lament that one source of boyish pleasure-one class of those early enchantments, which shed a twilight of romance over all the succeeding years of life-was not opened to our eyes.

But there was another, and a kindred delight, which we enjoyed in no slight degree, and in no stinted measure-the marvels of the Conjurer. The juggling with cups, balls, and boxes-the tricks with cards, handkerchiefs, and watchesthe empty bag, which produced dozens of

MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN, Ambassador, Author, and Conjurer. Written by himself. Edited by Dr. R. Shelton Mackenzie. Philadelphia. Geo. G. Evans. 1859.

VOL. XXIX-26

eggs, scores of turnips and cabbages, and a whole aviary of ducks and chickens the quart bottles, which poured out innumerable tumblers of all sorts of liquors (except lager beer, which Providence had not then inflicted upon us)-and the thousand other miracles, wrought for our wonder and delectation by the benevolent magicians in spangled tunics and embroidered small clothes-these things are all far more fresh in our memory now than matters of much greater consequence, that we have since labored hard to learn and to remember. Nor do we forget the kind, ingenuous, simplicity, with which the artists vouchsafed to explain their astounding evolutions, until we were no less mystified by their outlandish words, and the obscure rationale of their processes, than by the feats which they performed.

It was, therefore, with considerable eagerness that we saw the first announcement of the book, of which we have quoted the title above. At the risk of betraying a discreditable ignorance, we must admit that we had not before heard of the illustrious Robert-Houdin; but we have done what we could to make amends, for we have read his memoirs through and through, and laid them down with a sincere regret that he did not extend them to two volumes, instead of one. Something there is, perhaps as much as was necessary, of the description and explanation of his performances; but this is by no means the only, nor even the chief, topic of interest in his pages. They furnish what Mr. Dickens craved so much in respect of his clowns, and what he has given us himself as regards Grimaldithe life of the artist by daylight-his birth and connections-the events which influenced and determined his careerhis efforts, struggles, successes, and disappointments-his troubles and his joys, domestic, social, and professional-his occupations and amusements, tastes and habits-in a word, the personal history, revealing to us all those traits of character and conduct which draw out our feelings towards him as a fellow-man, while it discloses also the rare talents and peculiar gifts, which distinguish him

from ourselves. We must endeavour, by selections, to give our readers some idea of this entertaining-and, may we add, not wholly unprofitable-contribution to the light reading of the day. Whatever else criticism may find to say about it, we can safely aver that it is innocent. Not a word or sentiment will be found in it which can offend the most fastidious delicacy, or the most rigid morals.

Our hero was the son of a watchmaker at Blois, and gave tokens from his infancy of mechanical taste and talent. But the father, averse to the plan of bringing him up to his own business, discouraged the exercise of his ingenuity, kept him at school till the age of eighteen, and then put him into a lawyer's office. It was all in vain. The lad was one of those predestined unfortunates-if we may parody the lines

"A youth foredoomed his father's soul to

cross,

Who shapes a bird-cage when he should engross."

The result was that, by the lawyer's advice, the father yielded at last, and the son was apprenticed to his cousin, a watchmaker, who had succeeded the elder Robert in that vocation. Having spent some years in acquiring this trade, and at the same time in practising the construction of various mechanical toys, and perfecting himself in sleight-of-hand tricks (to which he was impelled by a sort of instinct), he went to live with a watchmaker at Tours. By a strange accident, so strange indeed as almost to make one suspect the autobiographer of assuming the novelist's privilege, he falls into the hands of a peripatetic conjurer, named Torrini, alias the Count de Grisy. By him M. Robert is kindly nursed through a dangerous illness, and with him he continues for several months, learning much of his art, and rendering no small service in mechanical repairs. At last he returns to his parents-soon after marries a Mademoiselle Houdin, whose name he adds to his own-and goes to Paris to establish himself in business. From this time, he proceeds to combine

the manufacture of watches and other articles with the study and practice of the art in which he was destined to excel, and after many vicissitudes attained the success and distinction so long and patiently pursued, through toil and privation.

His first lessons in the mystery of juggling are thus described:

"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-ofhand, 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 busily 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 result.

"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 practised 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 marvellous. 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.

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This operation requires a great deal of practice; for, while the hand is held apparently open, balls, corks, lumps of sugar, coins, &c., 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 practising without neglecting my busi

ness.

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 pursuit. As no one suspected that my paletôt was in some degree a study, this manner of keeping my hands in my pockets began to be regarded as a bad habit I had acquired; but after a few jests on the subject I was left in peace."

The allusion to his second-sight or clairvoyant performances derives a special interest from the great share which these exhibitions had in recommending to the public the pseudo-science of mesmerism. For ourselves, we never doubted that they were effected by some secret means of communication between the mesmeriser and his subject. Indeed, we were privy to some very curious experiments made by two young men for mere amusement, which defied the most jealous scrutiny of several intelligent spectators in a private circle. But M. Robert-Houdin and his son carried their dexterity and acuteness to a pitch that we had not thought pos

sible.

"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 doubtlessly 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.'

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Emile,' I said to my son, prove to this gentleman that nothing can escape your second sight.'

"It is number sixty-nine,' the boy answered, immediately.

"Noisy and hearty applause arose from every part of the theatre, 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 theatres where the stalls are divided down the centre 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 sixtynine, 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 already alluded.

"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.

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66

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, pocket-books, &c., 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 centimes.

"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 charactersthough unable to translate a word-of an infinity of languages, such as Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, &c. 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 piece.

"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

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