Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XVI
Residence at Arras—Disguises—The false Austrian—Departure—Residence at Rouen—Arrest.
Many reasons which may be divined, did not allow of my proceeding at once to my paternal abode; and, alighting at the house of one of my aunts, I learnt the death of my father, which sad intelligence was soon confirmed by my mother, who received me with a tenderness widely contrasting with the treatment I had experienced during the two years of my absence. She was extremely anxious to keep me with her; but it was absolutely necessary that I should be constantly concealed, and I did not leave the house for three months. At the end of that time my confinement began to weary me, and I went out, sometimes under one disguise and sometimes under another. I thought I had not been recognised, when suddenly a report spread through the town that I was there, and the police began to search for me, making constant visits to my mother, without, however, discovering the place of my concealment, which was not very large, being only ten feet long and six wide; but I had so well contrived it, that a person, who afterwards purchased the house, lived in it nearly four years without suspecting the existence of this place, and would probably never have known it had I not revealed it to him.
Secure in my retreat, out of which I thought it would be difficult to surprise me, I soon took fresh excursions. One day, on Shrove Tuesday, I even carried my daring to such an extent as to appear at a ball, in the midst of upwards of two hundred persons. I was dressed as a marquis; and a female, with whom I had been on intimate terms, having recognized me, told another, who thought that she had a cause of complaint against me; so that in less than a quarter of an hour everybody knew under what disguise Vidocq was concealed. The report reached the ears of two police serjeants, Delrue and Carpentier, who were on duty at the ball; and the former, coming up to me, said in a low voice that he wished to speak with me in private; a refusal would have been dangerous, and I followed him into the court, where Delrue asked my name. I did not hesitate to give him a false one; and proposing politely that he should untie my mask if he doubted me. "I do not require that," said he, "but I shall not object to look at you." "Well, then, untie my mask, which has got entangled with my hair." Full of certainty, Delrue went behind me, and at that instant I upset him with a forcible motion of my body backwards, and with a blow of my fist I sent his satellite rolling beside him on the earth. Without waiting until they arose, I fled with the utmost speed in the direction of the ramparts, relying on being able to climb over them, and get into the country; but scarcely had I run many paces, when I found myself in an alley which had been blocked up at one end since I had quitted Arras.
Whilst I was thus wandering out of my way, a noise of iron heels announced that the two serjeants were at hand; and I soon saw them approach me, sword in hand. I was unarmed; and seizing the large house key, as if it had been a pistol, I presented it at them, and compelled them to make way for me. "Pass quietly, François," said Carpentier, with a tremulous voice, "do not play any nonsense with us." I did not want to be told a second time, and in a few minutes reached my retreat.
This adventure was noised about, and in spite of the efforts which the two serjeants made to conceal it, they were laughed at by everybody. What was most annoying to me was, that the authorities redoubled their vigilance, so that it was almost impossible for me to go out. I remained thus immured for two months, which to me seemed as many centuries. Being no longer able to endure it, I resolved on quitting Arras, and they made me up a pack of lace; and one fine night, provided with a passport, which Blondel, one of my friends, had lent to me, I set out. The description did not answer; but for want of a better, I was compelled to put up with that; and, in fact, no objection was made to me on my route.
I reached Paris. Whilst engaged in disposing of my commodities, I made indirectly some steps towards finding out if it were not possible to obtain some reversal of my sentence. I learnt that I must, in the first instance, give myself up as a prisoner, but I could never resolve on again mixing with the wretches whom I knew so well. It was not the confinement that I dreaded; I would willingly have submitted to have been enclosed alone between four walls; and what proves this is, that I then requested leave from the minister to finish the term of my sentence in the madhouse at Arras; but my application remained unanswered.
My lace was sold, but with so little profit that I could not think of turning to this trade as a mode of life. A travelling clerk, who lived in the Rue Saint Martin, in the same hotel as I did, and to whom I partly stated my situation, proposed that I should enter the service of a seller of finery, who visited the fairs. I procured the situation, but only kept it for ten months, as we had some disagreements which determined me again to return to Arras. I was not long in returning to my nightly excursions. In the house of a young person to whom I paid some attentions, I frequently met the daughter of a gendarme, and endeavoured to learn from her all that was plotting against me. The girl did not know me; but as in Arras I was the constant subject of conversation, it was not extraordinary to hear her speak of me, and frequently in singular terms. "Oh," said she to me one day, "we shall soon catch that vagabond; there is our lieutenant (M. Dumortier, now commissary of police at Abbeville) who wants him too much not to catch him soon; I will bet that he would give a day's pay to get hold of him."
"If I were your lieutenant, and wanted to take Vidocq," replied I, "I would contrive that he should not escape me."
"You! Oh yes, you and everybody! He is always completely armed. You know they said that he fired twice at Delrue and Carpentier; and that is not all, for he can change himself into a bundle of hay whenever he likes."
"A bundle of hay!" cried I, surprised at the novel endowment assigned to me—"A bundle of hay! How?"
"Yes, sir; my father pursued him one day; and at the moment he laid his hand upon his collar, he found that he only held a handful of hay. He did not only say it, but all the brigade saw the bundle of hay, which was burnt in the barrack-yard."
I could not make out this history; but learnt afterwards that the police-officers, not being able to lay hold of me, had given circulation to this tale amongst the credulous citizens of Arras. With the same motive they obligingly insinuated that I was the double of a certain loup-garou, whose wonderful appearances froze with fear the superstitious inhabitants of the country. Fortunately, these terrors were not shared by some pretty women, whom I had interested in my favour; and if the demon of jealousy had not suddenly seized on one of the number, the authorities would not perhaps have given themselves so much trouble about me. In her anger she was indiscreet; and the police, who did not clearly know what had become of me, again learnt that I was certainly in Arras.
One evening, as, without mistrust and only armed with a stick, I was returning through the Rue d'Amiens, on crossing the bridge at the end of the Rue des Goquets, I was attacked by seven or eight individuals. They were constables disguised; and, seizing my garments, were already assured of their prize, when, freeing myself by a powerful jerk, I leapt the parapet, and threw myself into the river. It was in December; the tide was high, the current rapid, and none of the police-men had any inclination to follow me: they thought besides, that by waiting for me on the bank I should not escape them; but a sewer that I found enabled me to deceive them, and they were still waiting for me when I was at my mother's house.
Every day I experienced fresh dangers, and every day the most pressing necessity suggested new expedients for my preservation. However, at length, according to my custom, I grew weary of a liberty which the compulsion of concealment rendered illusory. Some nuns of the Rue —— had for some time harboured me; but I resolved on quitting their hospitable roof, and turned over in my mind the means of appearing in public without inconvenience. Some thousands of Austrian prisoners were then in the citadel, whence they went out to work with the citizens, or in the neighbouring villages, and the idea occurred to me, that the presence of these strangers might be useful to me. As I spoke German, I entered into conversation with one of them, and inspired him with sufficient confidence to confide to me his intention of escaping. This project was favourable to my views; the prisoner was embarrassed with his Kaiserlik uniform, and I offered to exchange it for mine; and for some money which I gave him to boot, he was glad to let me have his papers also. From this moment I was an Austrian, even in the eyes of the Austrians themselves, who, belonging to different corps, did not know all their body.
Under this new disguise, I joined a young widow, who had a mercery establishment in the Rue de ——: she found that I had ability, and wished that I would instal myself at her house; and we soon visited the fairs and markets together. It was evident that I could not aid her, unless I could understand the buyers, and I formed gibberish, half Teutonic, half French, which they understood wonderfully well, and which became so familiar to me, that I insensibly forgot that I knew any other language. Besides, the illusion was so complete, that after cohabiting together for four months, the widow did not suspect any more than the rest of the world, that the soi-disant Kaiserlik was one of the friends of her childhood. However, she treated me so well, that it was impossible to deceive her any longer; and one day I told her who I really was, and never was woman more astonished. But, far from its injuring me in her estimation, the confidence in some sort only made our intimacy the closer; so much are women generally smitten by any thing that bears the appearance of mystery or adventure! And then, are they not always delighted with the acquaintance of a wicked fellow? Who, better than myself, can know how often they are the providence of fugitive galley-slaves and condemned prisoners?
Eleven months glided away, and nothing occurred to disturb my repose. The frequency of my being in the streets, my constant meetings with the police officers, who had not even paid attention to me, all seemed to augur the duration of this tranquillity, when, one day as we were sitting down to dinner in the back shop, the faces of three gendarmes were visible through a glass door. I was just helping the soup; the spoon fell from my hands; but recovering soon from the stupor into which this unlooked-for visit had thrown me, I darted towards the door, which I bolted, and then jumping out of the window, I got into a loft, whence I gained the roof of the next house, and running down the staircase which led into the street, I found, on reaching the door, two gendarmes. Fortunately, they were but novices, who did not know me: "Go up," said I to them, "the brigadier has got him, but he resists; go up, and lend your aid, whilst I run for the guard." The two gendarmes ascended quickly, and I made off.
It was plain that I had been sold to the police. My friend was incapable of such a black deed, but she had, without doubt, been guilty of some indiscretion. Now that the cry was raised against me, ought I to tarry longer at Arras? It would be in vain to say, that I would always remain in my place of concealment; I could not reconcile myself to a life so wretched, and I determined on quitting the city. My little lady mercer insisted on accompanying me; she had means of conveyance; her commodities were soon packed, and we set out together, and, as usually happens in such cases, the police was informed last of the disappearance of a female, whose measures they ought not to have been in ignorance of. According to some old notions, they imagined that we should go towards Belgium, as if Belgium had still been the country of refuge; and whilst they were pursuing us in the direction of the old frontier, we were quietly progressing towards Normandy, by cross roads, which my companion had obtained a knowledge of in her mercantile journies.
It was at Rouen that we had made up our minds to fix our abode. Arrived in this city, I had with me the passport of Blondel, which I had procured at Arras: the description which it gave was so different from mine, that it was indispensably necessary to make myself a little more like it.
To achieve this, it was necessary to deceive the police, now become the more vigilant and inquisitive, as the communications of the emigrants in England were made through the Normandy coast. Thus did I contrive it. I went to the town-hall, where I had my passport visé for Havre. A visa was obtained without difficulty; it was sufficient that the passport was not entirely contradictory, and mine was not so. The formality gone through, I departed, and two minutes afterwards I entered ue office, and asked if any person had found a pocket-book. No one could give me any tidings of it, and then I was in despair; pressing business called me to Havre, and I wanted to start that very evening, but what was to be done without a passport?
"Is it only that?" said a clerk. "With the register of the visà you can get a duplicate passport. This was what I needed; the name of Blondel was kept but this time, at least my description was correctly given. To complete the effect of my stratagem, not only did I set out for Havre, but I advertised my pocket-book by little bills stuck about, although it had only passed from my hands to that of my companion.
By means of this little bit of good management, my reinstatement was complete; and, provided with fitting credentials, I had only to lead an honest life, and I actually began to think of it; and took, in Rue Mortainville, a repository for mercery and bonnets, in which we did so well, that my mother, whom I had informed secretly of my success, determined on coming to join us. For a year I was really happy, my business increased, my connexions extended, my credit was established, and more than one banking-house in Rouen may perhaps remember when the signature of Blondel was well respected in the place. At length, after so many storms, I thought I had reached port; when an incident, which I had never contemplated, involved me in a fresh series of vicissitudes. The lady mercer with whom I lived, this woman who had given me the strongest proofs of devotion and love, began to burn with other fires than those which I had kindled in her heart. I was desirous of persuading myself that she was not unfaithful, but the fault was so flagrant that the offender had not even the resource of those well-supported denials which enable the convenient husband to persuade himself that he is not wronged. At another time, I would not have submitted to such an affront without putting myself into a transport of rage, but how time had changed me! Witness of my misfortune, I coldly signified my determination to separate; prayers, supplications, nothing could bend me; I was immutable. I might have pardoned her, it is true, if only out of gratitude; but who would convince me that she who had befriended me would break off with my rival? And might I not have cause to fear, that, in a moment of tenderness, she would compromise my safety by some disclosure? We then divided our stock of goods, and my companion quitting me, I never heard of her after.
Disgusted with my residence at Rouen, through this adventure, I took to my old trade of travelling merchant; my journies comprised the circuit of Nantes, Saint Germain, and Versailles, where, in a short time, I formed an excellent connexion; my profits became sufficiently considerable to allow of my renting at Versailles, in the Rue de la Fontaine, a warehouse, with a small apartment, which my mother inhabited during my journies. My conduct was then free from any stigma; I was generally esteemed in the circle which I had formed; and again I hoped that I had overcome the fatality which so often cast me into the path of dishonour, whence all my efforts were now used to free myself; when, denounced by an early friend, who thus revenged himself for some disagreement we had once had together, I was arrested on my return from the fair of Nantes. Although I obstinately asserted that, I was not Vidocq, but Blondel, as my passport proved, I was sent to St Denis, whence I was to be sent to Douai. By the extraordinary care taken to prevent my escape, I perceived that I was recommended; and a glance which I threw over the book of the gendarmerie, revealed to me a precaution of a very particular nature. I was thus designated—
"Vidocq (Eugène François), condemned to death for non-appearance. This man is exceedingly enterprising and dangerous."
Thus, to keep the vigilance of my guards on the alert, I was described as a great criminal. I set out to St Denis in a car, pinioned, so that I could not move, and to Louvres the escort never took eyes off me. These arrangements announced the rigours in store for me, and I roused all the energy that had already so often procured me my liberty.
We had been put into the clock-house of Louvres, now transformed into a prison, where they brought me two mattresses, a counterpane, and sheets, which, cut and fastened together, would help us to descend into the church-yard. A bar was cut with the knives of three deserters confined with us, and at two o'clock in the morning I made the first attempt, and having reached the extremity of the rope, I perceived that it was nearly fifteen feet from the ground; hesitation availed nought, and I let go, but, as in my fall at the ramparts at Lille, I sprained my left leg so severely, that I could scarcely walk; however, I attempted to climb the walls of the churchyard, when I heard the key turn quietly in the lock. It was the jailor and his dog, who had noses alike for following a scent: the jailor, at first, passed beneath the cord without seeing it; and the mastiff near a ditch in which I lay, without smelling me. Having gone the round, they retired, and I thought that my companions would follow my example, but no one appearing, I climbed the wall and got into the plain. The pain of my foot became more and more acute, but I bore the pain, and courage giving me strength, I made considerable progress. I had nearly advanced a quarter of a league, when I suddenly heard the sound of the tocsin. It was in the middle of May. At the earliest dawn, I saw several armed peasants go out of their dwellings and spread themselves over the plains. They were probably ignorant of what was the cause of disturbance, but my sore leg was a token that might make me suspected. My face was unknown: in all probability, the first persons who met me would secure my person. Had I been in full possession of my limbs, I could have distanced all pursuit; I must yield at present; and scarcely had I got on two hundred paces, when overtaken by the gendarmes who were scouring the country, I was seized and conveyed back to the cursed clock-house.
The unpropitious result of this attempt did not discourage me. At Bapaume we were placed in the citadel, an old police station, guarded by a detachment of conscripts of the 30th regiment of the line; one sentinel only was placed over us, and he was under the window, and near enough for me to enter into conversation with him, which I did. The soldier, to whom I addressed myself appeared a good fellow enough, and I thought I could easily bribe him. I offered him fifty francs, to let us escape whilst he was on guard. He refused at first; but, by the tone of his voice, and by a certain twinkling of ms eyes, I thought I saw his impatience to get such a sum, only that he was afraid of consequences. To encourage him, I increased the dose, and showed him three louis, when he said he would aid us; at the same time adding, that his round would be from midnight till two o'clock. Having made our arrangements, I commenced operations; the wall was pierced so as to allow us a free egress, and we only waited until the opportunity should arrive. At length, midnight struck; the soldier announced to me that he was there, and I gave him the three louis, and made the necessary dispositions. When all was ready, I called out. "Is it time?" I said to the sentinel. "Yes, make haste;" he answered, after a trifling hesitation. I thought it singular that he did not answer instantly, and imagining that his conduct was somewhat dubious, I listened. He seemed to be marching; and, by the moonlight, I also perceived the shadow of several men in the ditch, and had no longer any doubt but that we were betrayed. However, as I might have been mistaken, to make quite sure, I took some straw, which I stuffed into some clothes, and put it at the aperture which we had made; and at the same instant, a sabre blow that would have cleft an anvil, informed me that I had well escaped, and confirmed me more and more in the opinion, that we must not always trust to conscripts. The prison was soon filled with gendarmes, who drew up a statement of facts: they examined us, wishing to know all, and I declared that I had given the conscript three louis, which he denied; he was examined, and on their being found in his shoes, he was put in the black-hole.
As for us, we were threatened most menacingly; but as they could not punish us, they contented themselves with doubling the guard. There was now no method of escape, without one of those opportunities for which I watched incessantly, and which presented itself earlier than I expected. The next day was the day of our departure, and we had descended into the barrack-yard, which was in great confusion from the arrival of a fresh number of prisoners and a detachment of conscripts from Ardennes, who were going to the camp at Boulogne. The adjutants were squabbling with the gendarmes about room for forming three divisions, and making the muster-call. While each were counting their men, I glided cautiously in at the tail of a baggage-waggon just leaving the court, and thus passed through the city, motionless, and in as small a compass as possible, to elude detection. Once beyond the ramparts, I had only to steal away; and I seized the opportunity whilst the waggoner, thirsty, as these people always are, had gone into an ale-house to refresh himself; and whilst his horses awaited him on the road, I lightened his conveyance of a load, of which he was not aware. I slept in a field of maize, and when night arrived, directed my steps eastward.