The Magician's Wife: A Novel

The Magician's Wife: A Novel

by Brian Moore

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The restless wife of an illusionist becomes embroiled in a North African holy war in this “tour de force” of historical fiction (The New York Times).
Early in her marriage to renowned prestidigitator Henri Lambert, Emmeline had exulted in his fame, the foreign tours, and the command performances of his “Magical Evenings.” Now, Henri’s given it all up to pursue a quiet life in their remote country manor, but restless, devoted Emmeline longs to see her husband return to his former glory.
It all changes again when, in service to their country, Henri and Emmeline are invited to spend seven days at Compiègne as guests of Napoléon III. The emperor wants Henri to work his magic on a charismatic Algerian marabout who’s influencing his followers to overthrow the French in a holy war. For Henri, convincing a man of where his allegiance should lie will be the performance of a lifetime. But for Emmeline, ushered from the lavish royal courts to the barren Sahara, it will prove to be an illuminating journey that will challenge her views on God and faith, open her eyes to her husband’s weaknesses, and expose the treachery of her own country.
“Flashing his own sleight of hand, [Moore] transforms a historical fact into a story both true to its time and relevant to the present day.” —The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504050319
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/17/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Brian Moore (1921–1999) was born in Ireland and lived most of his adult life in Canada and the United States. He was the author of many novels, including The Colour of Blood, Lies of Silence, and The Doctor’s Wife—all shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize—as well as Catholics, The Statement, I Am Mary Dunne, and The Magician’s Wife. The Luck of Ginger Coffey was awarded Canada’s most prestigious book prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

Read an Excerpt


The colonel left the house at five o'clock. As his carriage drove out towards the main gates Emmeline put down her petit point and went to look through the window of her sitting room. She wondered about this visitor. He must be important. For the last two weeks her husband had refused to see anyone, remaining locked up in his workroom with orders that he not be disturbed. As the Colonel's carriage reached the gate, a painted mechanical gatekeeper wheeled jerkily out of its lodge, legs moving on an electric track as it approached and touched the lock of the gate. The gate swung open, the automaton stiffly raising its right arm in salute. When the carriage had crossed the hidden trip wire which lay at the entrance the gate began to close. As the carriage moved off in a wall of dust down the rutted road which led to Tours, the automaton trundled back into its lodge and an electric bell sounded within the house, signalling that the visitor had departed. A moment later she heard a second bell. She looked up at the bell panel installed in her sitting room. That would be for Jules. Soon Jules would come upstairs to tell her that the Master could not leave his work to join her for supper.

Two weeks ago a new mechanical figurine had arrived on schedule from the workshop, where her husband's artisans had constructed it exactly to his specifications. But something was wrong with the mechanism. The automaton's hand, which was supposed to draw silhouettes in ink on a sheet of paper, behaved erratically, producing a series of scribbles. He had at once begun to take it apart painstakingly, obsessively, as always when a marionette developed some flaw. There was no reasoning with him, not that she had tried. He no longer thought of himself as a magician. Now he was an inventor, a scientist. But would a real scientist spend his days making mechanical marionettes?

A bell jangled on the panel above her head. That would be Jules. She went to her escritoire and pressed a button. The door opened electrically.

"I beg pardon, madame. Monsieur sends his compliments and asks that you meet with him in the green salon in ten minutes' time, if that is convenient?"

"Tell him yes."

As Jules withdrew, the electric beam automatically closed the door behind him. She went to her dressing table and sat in front of the triptych mirror, beginning to brush her hair. She set great store by this brushing and did it three times daily, tugging at the long thick mane of her hair, counting the strokes. She was not brushing it for him. These days she sometimes wondered if he noticed that she no longer used mascara or rouged her cheeks except on the rare occasions when they went out to dine. And even then, what was the point of dressing up and trying to look pretty? It was always the same: when they entered a room people looked at him, not at her, he, the famous Henri Lambert — and she? May I ask you, Madame Lambert, what it is like to be married to a great magician? It must be exciting to be the wife of a person like that?

At first it had been exciting. She was happy to escape Rouen for the pleasures of Paris. They lived in a furnished apartment in the seventh arrondissement which he told her was a gift to him from one of his admirers. He also owned an atelier in Neuilly, where he employed three artisans in the manufacture and painting of automata and electric devices, and a small theatre near the Palais Royal, where each season he performed his celebrated "Magical Evenings." In the first two years of their marriage he took her with him on two foreign tours, once to Berlin and once to Madrid. She had enjoyed seeing these cities and had hoped to see others. But after her first miscarriage Lambert decided that he no longer wished or needed to keep his Paris theatre or go on foreign tours. "I've long ago made my name as a performer," he told her. "Now is the time for me to devote more time to my inventions. And so, my darling, I've decided that we shall five in the country with servants and comforts in a home where we can bring up our children and I can work undisturbed."

At once, in his usual secretive way, he bought and furnished this manor outside Tours without even showing her the premises. And so, when she first entered the Manoir des Chênes, knowing it would be her home, she was pleased, disquieted, and disappointed. Pleased because the rooms were larger and more grand than those in her parents' home, disquieted by the strange displays, disappointed because the manor was down a rural road that led to Tours, a dull town far from Paris. It was, she felt, less a country house than a theatrical museum. There were magic boxes in almost every room, a large puppet theatre in the front hall, its stage electrically lit, and on the walls portraits of magicians from a bygone age and large framed posters of Lambert's command performances before the Queen of England, the Empress of Russia, King Louis Philippe, and Emperor Napoléon III. In addition to the chimes and tickings of forty-two clocks, an electric carillon sounded constantly in different tones, each tone telling the master of the house that a visitor had arrived or departed, that a servant was preparing a certain meal, that the gardeners were working in a specific area of the grounds, that the morning mail had arrived or been sent out, that the electric grottoes and displays had been activated by someone's entering them. In his workroom in the dungeonlike basement, Lambert controlled and watched over each of these activities.

And now, minutes after Jules's visit, clocks throughout the house began to chime the quarter-hour. She hurried out of her sitting room, down the main staircase and into the ground-floor reception room. As she entered she looked at once to the clock over the chimney piece, strategically placed to astonish all who had not seen it. Five feet in height, made of transparent glass, it kept perfect time. He kept perfect time. She knew that in less than one minute he would appear in the doorway.


As always, coming into a room he made an entrance, now opening his arms as if to embrace her, palms up to show that he had nothing to hide. Normally, while working at home he wore an old velvet coat, an open shirt, and checkered trousers which he bought in a store which provided uniforms for chefs and kitchen staff. But today he was dressed as for a performance, in a dark frock coat, a white linen waistcoat, a formal shirt with red silk cravat and narrow trousers of dark grey wool. This was the attire that had made him famous as the first magician to appear, not in ornate oriental robes or other extravagant stage costumes, but dressed soberly, a person no different from his audience and therefore ever more mysterious, ever more the sorcerer. Now, in a conjuring gesture he slid his slender white hand into an inside pocket of his frock coat and produced a gold-lettered invitation card which he held in front of her.

"We are going to Compiègne, my dear."


"Yes. We have been invited to a série for the last week of November."

A série? The Emperor inviting his guests to a week of hunting, shooting and parties — everyone had heard of those grand affairs, everyone in Paris talked about them. Was Henri to perform? — that must be it. But why me?

"Henri, if you're going to perform there, why would I be invited? Aristocrats, grand people ... They don't want me."

He handed her the gilded card. "Read it." She stared at the ornate lettering:

Maison de l'Empereur Palais des Tuileries, 20 October 1856.


By order of the Emperor I have the honor to inform you that you have been invited, together with Madame Henri Lambert, to spend seven days at the palace of Compiigne, from November 22nd to November 28th.

Court vehicles will be waiting to bring you to the Palace on the 22nd on arrival of the train which will leave Paris at 2 hours 30.

Accept, sir, the assurance of my distinguished sentiments,

The First Chamberlain Vicomte de Laferrière.

Monsieur, Madame Henri Lambert.

"It's an invitation for both of us. And I am not being asked to 'perform.' I'm told the Emperor wishes to see me on a matter of national importance."

She stared at him. "What are you talking about?" "I can't discuss it, not yet. It's highly confidential."

"But Henri, I can't go there. I'd be terrified."

He turned away and went to the window, which looked out on the main driveway. It was his habit when irritated to lapse into silence.

"Henri, there must be some mistake. Please?"

"There's no mistake. It's a great honor, don't you understand that? Everyone — society, aristocrats, millionaires, artists — everyone dreams of being invited to Compiègne. You who complain that life is dull here! This is the chance of a lifetime. We are to be the house guests of Napolèon III. And of the Empress! We have been invited for a whole week."

"A week? What are we going to wear? We don't belong in that world."

"Don't worry. Colonel Deniau has given me a list of the items we will need for our visit. In my case, I'll have to be fitted for court clothes. You'll have to have at least twenty dresses. The style for the ladies is that they should not be seen twice in the same costume. Emmeline, it's going to be wonderful. We'll be entertained, we will mingle with the gratin, we'll be in Their Majesties' company each night for dinner."

"But it's not — I don't want to go! Besides, it will cost a fortune! My dressmaker here wouldn't be able to make anything suitable. I'd have to go to Paris. I won't have time to do all that. And in Compiègne, what would I do all day among a lot of titled ladies who'll be looking down their noses at me? And you dressed up in court dress, dining among marquesses and counts. Henri, it's not our place. We must apologize, you must invent some excuse."

"Nonsense! And what do you mean, it's not our place? I've met royalty many times, I've been to the Tuileries, the Emperor knows me —"

"But as a performer, not a guest!"

"Emmeline, I am not being invited as a performer. I am being asked to do something for my country, something of the highest importance. That's why the Emperor wants to see me. They are trying to persuade me."

"Persuade you to do what?"

"I'll tell you later, if I decide to do it. Listen to me. When Colonel Deniau first spoke about this matter, that was two months ago. He came here specially, at the end of August, do you remember?"

"No, I don't. I never saw him, you never introduced him. And today I just saw the back of his head as he was leaving. Who is he, anyway?"

"He's the head of the Bureau Arabe — the political office of France in North Africa. At any rate, last August I refused his request. My mind was quite made up. I was too busy here. Now they have come back with this invitation. The Emperor himself wants to persuade me."

"The Emperor?"

"Yes! I am being wooed by Napoléon III. Think of it! And as far as being made to feel uncomfortable, you'll be treated as the wife of an inventor, which is just as high a calling as a sculptor or writer or any of the other intellectuals who have attended these seriés."

She looked at him, standing there by the window, his hand tucked into a fold of his waistcoat like Bonaparte, whom he admired, cocking his head slightly to the side as she had seen him do on stage when he listened to a question from his audience, his smile, his soft tone of voice aiming to distract her, to shift her attention away from her fears. But of course it wasn't a matter of how he would be treated; it was a matter of how she could survive a week in Compiègne, a week of blushes, feeling looked down on, not knowing what to say.

"I've read about the séries at Compiègne," she said. "Everyone knows you bring your own servants. I'd have to have a lady's maid. Can you see Thérèse in the part? She doesn't even have a uniform. And Jules, is he to be your valet? Henri, listen to me. Say that I'm sick. Tell them you'll go alone. If they're so anxious to have you do whatever it is, then it won't matter that you haven't brought me with you. And it will be a lot cheaper. Have you any idea what all those dresses will cost if I have them made up by a Paris dressmaker?"

"Don't worry," he said. "I'll pay for it. And you can engage a lady's maid for the trip. We'll dress Jules up."

"But that's only the beginning —"

"Listen to me, Emmeline. This is what we're going to do. I'm going to send you to Paris at once. Madame Cournet will advise you. She knows about these things. I've always consulted with her when I'm giving a royal performance. She'll find a dressmaker, a maid, everything you'll need. You'll have to stay in Paris for the fittings."

"In Paris? That could take weeks."

"We leave for Compiègne on the twenty-second. That's four weeks from now. That will give you time. A month in Paris, it will be a holiday for you. You're always saying how dull it is here."

"So I won't see you for four weeks?"

"I don't know. I may have to come to Paris for a day or two, but in the meantime I must get on with my work. Now what about you — do you think you could leave tomorrow? If so, I'll order the phaeton to be ready to take you to the station. The Paris train leaves at noon."

"But what if I say I won't go?"

"My dear, I have already accepted for both of us. Tomorrow, Colonel Deniau will convey my thanks to the First Chamberlain. Emmeline, we must do it. I can't give you a choice."

She felt tears. She heard him ring for Jules. "Perhaps you'd like me to join you for supper this evening," he said. "I'm at a delicate stage in my work, but if you're leaving tomorrow ...?"

"No. I'll have supper in my room. If I leave tomorrow, I'll have to pack."

He came towards her. She held back her tears. She did not turn to him. He bent and kissed the nape of her neck. "You're a darling," he said. "What would I do without you?"

The Emperor. Society. The Second Empire. Everyone talked about this new Paris. The year before last, in the rue de Rivoli at eight o'clock on a September evening, Emmeline stood in a crowd of spectators, watching a file of carriages move into the courtyard of the Palais des Tuileries. From these carriages she saw, descending, gentlemen in knee breeches and silk stockings, officers in dress uniforms and decorations, ladies in billowing crinolines, their breasts almost bare, their necks and arms adorned with pearls, rubies, and diamonds. A woman beside Emmehne pointed out two famous beauties, the Duchesse de Pourtales and the Marquesa de Contadades, as the guests moved under a marquee into the entrance hall of the Pavilion de l'Horloge. Swiss guards stood to attention there, halberds to hand, plumed helmets on their heads. It was a sight Emmehne would not forget, a sight she had gazed on that night with the pleasure of watching actors in some theatrical extravaganza, a glimpse of a grand world she would never know. And now, suddenly, her husband had entered it.

"My dear child," Madame Cournet said, smiling. "If you're worried about how you will be received, remember it's all-important that your clothes be designed by Monsieur West. Compiègne is a fashion show. In a West toilette you will be recognized as someone of the first rank. He's not a dressmaker, he's an artist. He dresses the Empress herself."

"The Empress?" Emmeline said. "But then it will cost a fortune."

Madame Cournet smiled and tapped the end of her nose with the silver lorgnette which she deployed much as a schoolteacher uses a pointer. "Not quite a fortune," she said. "Although an original toilette of the sort Monsieur West designs for ladies who attend the série will cost your husband a great deal. It is de rigueur that you change three times daily. You will need eight day costumes, including a travelling suit, seven ball dresses, and five gowns for tea. But it will be worth it. You will be the height of fashion, I assure you."

"I'll have to speak to my husband," Emmehne said. A flutter of hope rose within her. Twenty dresses made by the Empress's dressmaker? Perhaps now Henri would see sense.

"There's no need," Madame Cournet said. "I've already received Monsieur Lambert's permission to make the appointment. It's arranged for Thursday at three p.m in Monsieur West's villa at Suresnes. Believe me, it will be one of the most delightful experiences of your life. Such taste, such an artist! You'll be enchanted."


Excerpted from "The Magician's Wife"
by .
Copyright © 1997 Brian Moore.
Excerpted by permission of Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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