[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
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 quarter-tray.
"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
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 mistake.
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 correspondence existed between my son and myself,
by which I could announce to him the name, nature, and bulk of
objects handed me by spectators.
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 former disappointment.
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
"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
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
resume 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 continued:
"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 meant.
"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 assured voice:
"Yes, sir--yes, I am betrayed, and for that reason I have come to
"Really, madam," I said, much surprised at this strange confession,
"I do not see how I can help you in such a matter."
"Oh, sir, I entreat you," said my fair visitor, clasping her hands--
"I implore you not to abandon me!"
I had great difficulty in keeping my countenance, and yet I felt an
extreme curiosity to know the history concealed behind this
"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 are--"
"A sorcerer, madam? Oh, no, I will not."
"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 extraordinary conduct.
"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
"I have told you, sir; I wish for vengeance, and there is only one
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 anxiously,
"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 voice.
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 accomplished."
"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 perused.
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
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
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
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 preceding:
THE FASHION AN ARTIST ENJOYS CAN ONLY LAST AS HIS TALENT DAILY
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
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
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 he
called the quarter of an hour's grace.
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 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 shouted.
"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 bandage.
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 triumph.
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
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
"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, then?"
"I will grant more: it is impossible."
"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
"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 second sight."
"It is number sixty-nine," the boy answered, immediately.
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--
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 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 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 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
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 chatelaines, 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 Chaussee 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
"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
"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
"On the right or left?" my son asked.
"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 Crebillon'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 hands.
Next: The Magician Who Became An Ambassador
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