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-Sherifa,
Bash-Aga of the Djendel, a tribe of the desert interior.]
We entered a small room very elegantly decorated, in which were two
"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 pleasure."
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 deference.
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 performed.
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
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 victimized.
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 five-franc piece.
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! douros!" they shouted, as they twitched their noses. I
willingly acceded to their request, and the douros issued at
 Gold Arabic coin.
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 power."
"Ah, indeed! Well, then, if you do not believe in my power, I will
compel you to believe in my skill."
"Neither in one nor the other."
I was at this moment the whole length of the room from the
"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
"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 "Pass!"
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 the feint.
"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
The Marabout quickly put his hand in his waist belt, to assure
himself of the truth, and was quite stupefied at finding the five-
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 design.
"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 all blows."
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
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
The Marabout began laughing with an incredulous air. "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
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 famous experiment.
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 what.
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 my teeth.
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 were annihilated.
It was evident that for the moment he doubted everything, even the
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
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 mold.
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 my bullet.
Bullets thus prepared bear an extraordinary resemblance to lead,
and are easily mistaken for that metal when seen at a short
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 entirely smothered.--EDITOR.
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