Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XV
A receiver of stolen goods—Denouncement—First treaty with the police—Departure for Lyons—A mistake.
After the dangers I had undergone whilst remaining with Roman and his band, some idea may be formed of the joy which I experienced on quitting them. It was evident that the government, once determinately settled, would adopt the most efficacious measures for ensuring the safety of the interior. The remains of the bands, which, under the name of "Chevaliers du Soleil, or the Compagnie de Jésus," owed their formation to a political re-action, deferred indefinitely, could not fail to be destroyed as soon as was desired. The only honest excuse for their brigandage—royalism—no longer existed; and although Hivèr, Leprêtre, Boulanger, Bastide, Jansein, and other 'sons of the family,' made a boast of attacking the couriers, because they found their profit in it, it began to be no longer in good taste to think that it was quite correct to appropriate to oneself the money of the state. All the incroyables who had thought it a service to check, pistol in hand, the circulation of dispatches and the collection of the imposts, withdrew now to their fire-sides, and those who had profited by their exertions, or wished for other reasons to be forgotten, betook themselves to a distance from the scene of their exploits. In fact, order was re-established, and the time was at hand when robbers, whatever might be their pretext or motive, were no longer to be tolerated. I should have been very desirous, under such circumstances, to have enrolled myself in a band of robbers, only, the infamy of such a procedure apart, I should have been kept from it by the certainty of being speedily brought to the scaffold. But another thought animated me; I wished to avoid, at any cost, the opportunities and means of committing crimes: I wished to be free. I knew not how this wish was to be realised, or did it matter: my determination was made, and I had, as they say, marked a cross on the prison. In haste to get at a considerable distance, I took the road to Lyons, avoiding the high roads, until I reached the environs of Orange; there I fell in with some Provençal waggoners, whose packages soon revealed to me that they were about to take the same road as myself. I entered into conversation with them; and as they appeared to me to be hearty jovial fellows, I did not hesitate to tell them that I was a deserter, and that they would serve me materially if, to aid me in avoiding the vigilance of the gendarmes, they would agree to bestow their patronage on me. This proposal did not surprise them, and it even seemed as if they had suspected that I should claim their protection and secresy. At this period, and particularly in the south, it was not rare to meet with fine fellows, who had left their colours and committed themselves to the care of heaven. It was then very natural to take my word, and the waggoners received me kindly; and some money which I displayed, as if by chance, completed the interest which I had already excited. It was agreed that I should pass for the son of the person who had these conveyances in charge. I was accordingly clothed with a smock-frock, and was supposed to be making my first journey. I was decorated with ribands and nosegays, emblems which at each public-house, procured for me the congratulation of all the inmates.
A new 'John of Paris,' I filled my part very well; but the donations necessary to support it adequately made such inroads on my purse, that, on reaching the guillotiere, where I was to leave my party, I had only twenty-eight sous left. With resources so ineffecient, I had no thoughts of fixing my abode at the hotels of the Place des Terreaux. Having wandered about for some time in the dirty and dark streets of the second city in France, I remarked, in the Rue des Quatre-Chapeaux, a sort of tavern where I thought that I might procure a supper commensurate with my finances. I was not mistaken; the supper was light enough, and soon dispatched. To remain hungry is indeed a disagreeable thing; and not to know where to find shelter for one's head is equally annoying. When I had wiped my knife, which, however, had not been much engaged, I was reflecting, that I must pass the night under the canopy of heaven, when, at a table near to mine, I heard a conversation in that bastard German so much spoken in some districts of the Netherlands, and with which I was well acquainted. The speakers were a man and woman about to retire, and whom I found to be Jews. Informed that at Lyons, as in many other towns, these people kept furnished houses, in which they received smugglers, I asked if they could direct me to a public house. I could not have addressed myself to better persons; for they were lodging-keepers, and offered to become my hosts, which, on agreeing to, I accompanied them to the Rue Thomassin. Six beds were in the room in which I was placed, none of which were occupied, although it was ten o'clock, and I fell asleep under the idea that I should have no companions in my room.
On awaking, I heard the following conversation in a slang language which was familiar to me.
"It is half past six," said a voice, which was not unknown to me, "and you lie snoring still."
"Well, and what then? We wanted to break open the old goldsmith's shop to night, but he was on his guard, and we ought to have given him a few inches of cold steel, and then the blood would have flowed."
"Ah ha! but you fear the guillotine too much. But that is not the way to go to work to get the money."
"I would rather murder on the highway, than break open shops; the gendarmes are always at your heels."
"Well, then, you have got no booty; and yet there were snuff-boxes, watches, and gold chains enough. The Jew will have no business to day."
"No; the false key broke in the lock, the citizen cried for help, and we had to run for it. . . ."
"Holla!" said a third person; "do not wag your tongue so fast; there is a man in bed, who may be listening."
The advice was too late, but it silenced them, and I half-opened my eyes to see the faces of my companions; but my bed being very low, I could not perceive them. I remained quiet, that they might suppose me asleep; when one of the speakers having arisen, I recognised him as an escaped prisoner from Toulon, named Neveu, who had left some days before me. His comrade jumped out of bed, and him I knew to be Cadet-Paul, another fugitive; a third, and then a fourth arose, and I knew them all then to be galley-slaves.
I almost fancied myself in my room. No. 3. At length I got up from my bed, and scarcely had I put foot on the floor, when they all exclaimed "'Tis Vidocq!" They surrounded and congratulated me. One of be robbers, Charles Deschamps, who had escaped a few days after me, told me, that the whole Bagne were fall of admiration at my boldness and success. Nine o'clock having struck, they conducted me to breakfast, where we joined the brothers Quinét, Bonnefoi, Robineau, Metral, and Lemat, names well known in the south. They overwhelmed me with kindnesses, procured me money, clothes, and even a mistress.
I was here situated precisely as I had been at Nantes, but I was not more desirous of following the profession of my friends than I had been in Bretagne; but until I had a remittance from my mother I must live somehow. I thought I might manage to support myself for a time without labour. I proposed most determinately only to receive subsistence from the robbers; but man proposes and God disposes. The fugitives, discontented that I, under various pretexts, always avoided joining their daily plundering parties, at once denounced me, to get rid of a troublesome witness, who might become dangerous. They imagined that I should escape, as a matter of course, and relied, that once known by the police, and having no refuge but with their band, I should then unite myself to their party. In this circumstance, as in all others of a similar kind, in which I have been found, if they were so desirous of my companionship, it was because they had a high opinion of my penetration, my adroitness, and particularly of my strength,—a valuable quality in a profession in which profit is too often attained by peril.
Arrested at Adele Buffin's, in the passage Saint Come, I was taken to the prison of Roanne, where I learnt from my examination that I had been sold. In the rage which this discovery threw me into, I took a sudden step, which was in a measure my introduction to a career entirely new to me. I wrote to M. Dubois, commissary-general of the police, requesting a private interview, and the same evening I was conducted to his private closet. Having explained my situation to him, I offered to put him in the way of seizing the brothers Quinet, then pursued for having assassinated the wife of a mason of the Rue Belle-Cordaire. I proposed besides to point out the means of apprehending all the persons, lodging as well at the Jew's as at Caffin's, the joiner's, in the Rue Écorche-Bœuf. In return, I only asked for liberty to quit Lyons. M. Dubois had doubtless been before the dupe of such proposals, and I saw that he hesitated to trust me. "You doubt my word," said I to him: "should you still suspect me if I should escape on my way back to prison, and return and surrender myself as your prisoner?"—"No," he replied. "Well, then, you shall soon see me again, provided that you consent not to give my guards any additional orders for my security." He agreed, and I went away; but on arriving at the corner of the Rue de la Lanterne, I knocked down the two tipstaffs, who had each an arm of mine, and regained the Hotel de Ville with all possible speed, where I found M. Dubois, who was greatly surprised at my prompt re-appearance; but certain from that that he might rely on me, I was allowed to go at liberty.
The next day I saw the Jew, whose name was Vidal, who directed me to a house in the Rue Croix Rousse, where, he said, my friends had gone to live, and thither I went. They knew of my escape; but as they had no idea of my understanding with the commissary-general of police, and did not think that I knew who had directed the blow which struck me, they gave me a very cordial reception. During the conversation, I gathered details from the brothers Quinet, which I transmitted to M. Dubois the same evening, and who, convinced of my sincerity, reported my conduct to M. Ganier, secretary-general of the police, and now commissary at Paris. I gave this gentleman all necessary information, and must say that he acted on his part with much tact and activity.
Two days before they commenced operations, as I had advised on Vidal's house, I thought it expedient that I should be again arrested. I was again conducted to the prison of Roanne, where the next day Vidal, Coffin, Neveu, Cadet Paul, Deschamps, and many others, whom they had caught in the same snare, were brought in. I was at first kept from communicating with them, because I had thought it best that I should be put 'au secret.' When I was released from it, at the end of several days, to join the other prisoners, I pretended much surprise at finding all the party here; none appeared to have the least idea of the part which I had played. Neveu alone regarded me with distrust; and on my demanding the cause, he said, that by the way in which they had been pursued and interrogated, he could not help suspecting that I was the denouncer. I feigned much indignation, and fearing that this opinion might be disseminated, I assembled the prisoners, and informing them of Neveu's suspicions, I demanded if they thought me capable of selling my comrades? and on their answering in the negative, Neveu was compelled to apologise to me. It was important to me that these suspicions should be thus destroyed; for I knew that certain death would be my doom if they had been confirmed. There had been many instances at Roanne of this distributive justice, which the prisoners exercised towards one another. One named Moissel, suspected of having given information relative to a robbery of church plate, had been knocked on the head in the court, without the assassin being detected. More recently, another individual accused of a similar indiscretion, had been found one morning hung with a straw band at the bars of his window, and the perpetrator was never discovered.
In the mean time, M. Dubois sent for me to his closet, where, to avoid suspicion, the other prisoners were conducted with me, as if about to undergo an examination. I entered first, and the commissary-general told me that many very expert robbers had arrived at Lyons, from Paris, and the more dangerous, as being supplied with regular credentials, they might wait in safety for the opportunity of making some decided stroke, and then immediately go away: their names were Jaillier, called Boubanec, Bouthey, called Cadet, Buchard, Garard, Mollin, called the Chapellier, Marquis, called Main d'Or, and some others less notorious. These names, by which they were mentioned, were then entirely new to me; and I told M. Dubois so, adding, that possibly they might be false. He wished to release me immediately, that by seeing these individuals in some public place, I might assure myself whether had ever seen them before; but I observed to him, that so abrupt a liberation would certainly compromise me with the prisoners, in case that the good of the service should require me again to be entered as prisoner on the jailor's books. The reflection appeared just; and it was agreed that they should devise a means of sending me away the next day without incurring suspicion.
Neveu, who was amongst the prisoners, was also examined after me in the commissaries' closet. After some minutes he came out in a rage, and I asked him what had happened?
"What do you think?" said he, "the old covey wanted me to turn nose on the cracksmen who have just arrived. If they find no one to blow them but me they are all right."
"Why, I did not think you such a flat," said I, the idea flashing on my mind, that I might turn this to advantage, "I have promised to blow the gang, and ensure them a lodging in the stone jug."
"What! you turned nose? Besides, you are not fly to the gang."
"What matters that? I shall get out of quod, and show them my heels, whilst you are still clinking the darbies."
Neveu appeared struck with the idea, and expressed much regret for having refused the offers of the commissary-general; and as I could not get rid of him, I begged him to return to M. Dubois and recall his refusal. He agreed; and as I had arranged, we were one evening conducted to the great theatre; then to the Celestins, where Neveu pointed out to me all the men. We then retired, escorted by the police agents, who kept close upon us. For the success of my plan, and to avoid suspicion, it was expedient to make the attempt to escape, which would at least confirm the hope which I had given to my companion, and I told him of my intention. On passing Rue Merciere, we entered abruptly into a passage and closed the door; and whilst the officers ran to the other end, we went out quietly by the way we had entered. When they returned, ashamed of their stupidity, we were already at a considerable distance.
Two days afterwards, Neveu, who was no longer wanted, and could not suspect me, was again arrested. I, knowing then the robbers whom we wanted, pointed them out to the police-officers, in the church of Saint Nizier, where they had one Sunday assembled, in the hope of making a good booty on the termination of the prayers. Being no longer useful to the authorities, I then quitted Lyons to go to Paris, where, thanks to M. Dubois, I was sure of arriving in safety.
I set out on the Burgundy road by the diligence, which then only travelled by day. At Lucy-le-Bois, where I slept with the other travellers, I was forgotten; and on waking, learnt that the vehicle had been gone two hours. I trusted to overtake it, in consequence of the ruggedness of the road, which is very steep in these districts; but on reaching Saint Brice, I was convinced that it was too much in advance to allow of my overtaking it, and I accordingly slackened my pace. A person who was travelling in the same direction, seeing me in a great heat, looked attentively at me, and asked me if I had come from Lucy-le-Bois; and on my replying in the affirmative, our conversation rested there. This man stopped at Saint Brice, whilst I pushed on to Auxerre. Spent with fatigue, I entered an inn, where, after having dined, I desired to be conducted to a bed.
I slept for several hours, when I was awakened by a great noise at my door, at which some persons were knocking violently. I got up, half dressed, and my eyes, heavy from sleep, gazed, as I opened the door, on tri-coloured scarves, yellow trowsers, and red facings. It was the commissary of police, attended by the quarter-master and two gendarmes, a sight which I could not see without some emotion. "See how pale he turns," said one of them; "it is he." I raised my eyes, and recognised the man who had spoken to me at Saint Brice; but nothing explained to me as yet the motive of this sudden invasion.
"Let us proceed methodically," said the commissary; "five feet five inches (French measure), that is right; brown hair—eye-brows and beard, idem—common forehead—grey eyes—prominent nose—good sized mouth—round chin—full face—good colour—tolerably stout."
"It is he," said the quarter-master, the two gendarmes, and the man of Saint Brice.
"Yes, it is indeed," said the commissary in his turn; "Blue surtout—trowsers of grey casimere—white waistcoat—black cravat."
This was my dress, certainly.
"Well, did I not say so," said the officious guide of the police: "he is one of the robbers!"
The description tallied exactly with mine. But I had stolen nothing; and yet in my situation I could experience all the disquiets of having done so. Perhaps it was a mistake; perhaps also . . . . The party were transported with joy. "Peace!" said the commissary; and turning over the leaf, he continued, "We shall easily recognise his Italian accent. He has besides the thumb of the right hand injured by a shot." I spoke, and showed my right hand, which was in a perfectly sound state. All the party stared; and particularly the man of Saint Brice, who appeared singularly disconcerted: as for me, I felt relieved of an enormous weight. The commissary, whom I questioned in my turn, told me, that on the preceding night a considerable robbery had been committed at Saint Brice. One of the suspected individuals wore clothes similar to mine, and there was a similarity of description. It was to this combination of circumstances, to this strange sport of fortune, that I was indebted for the disagreeable visit which I received. They made excuses, which I accepted with a good grace, very happy at getting off so well; but yet, in the fear of some new catastrophe, I put myself the same evening into a packet-boat, which conveyed me to Paris, whence I started immediately for Arras.