Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XX
I am admitted into the marine artillery—I become a corporal—Seven prisoners of war—Secret societies of the army, 'The Olympiens'—Singular duels—Meeting with a galley slave—The count de L—— a political spy—He disappears—The incendiary—I am promised promotion—I am betrayed—Once more in prison—Disbanding of the armée de la Lune—The pardoned soldier—A companion is sentenced to be shot—The Piedmontese bandit—The camp fortune-teller—Four murderers set at liberty.
I returned to Boulogne the same evening; where I learnt that, in consequence of an order from the general in command, all the individuals who, in each corps, were marked as black sheep, were to be immediately arrested, and sent on board the cruisers. It was a sort of press which was intended to purge the army, and to check its demoralization, which had increased to an alarming extent. Thus I judged it best to quit the 'Revanche,' on board which, to repair the losses of the late fight, the owner did not fail to send some of the men whom the general had deemed it expedient to get rid of. Since Canivet and his myrmidons were no longer in the camp, I thought there could be no ill result if I again turned soldier. Furnished with Lebel's papers, I entered a company of gunners, then employed in coast service; and as Lebel had formerly been a corporal in this division, I obtained that rank on the first vacancy; that is, a fortnight after my enrolment. Regular behaviour, and a perfect knowledge of my duties, with which I was well acquainted, as an artillery-man of the old school, soon acquired for me the favour of my officers; and a circumstance which might have gone greatly against me, still farther conciliated them towards me.
I was on guard at the fort of Eure, during the spring-tides, and the weather was excessively bad; mountains of water were dashed over the platform with so much violence, that the thirty-six pounders were shaken from the embrasures, and, at the dash of every wave, it seemed as if the whole fort was rent to pieces. Until the Channel should be calmer, it was evident that no ship would dare to venture out; and night having come on, I did not station sentinels, but allowed the soldiers to remain in bed until next day. I watched for them, or rather I could not sleep, as I had no need of repose; when, about three in the morning, some words which I knew to be English, struck on my ear; at the same time, a knocking commenced at a door under the steps, leading to the battery. I thought we were surprised, and immediately roused everybody. I put them under arms, and had already determined on selling my life dearly, when I heard a woman's voice, who supplicated our aid. I soon heard distinctly these words in French: "Open, we have been shipwrecked!" I wavered an instant, and then with due precaution and a determination to sacrifice the first who on entering should betray any hostile intent, I opened the door and saw a woman, an infant, and five sailors, all more dead than alive. My first care was to have them all placed before a roaring fire, for they were dripping with wet and almost motionless from cold. My men and I lent them shirts and clothing; and as soon as they were a little revived, they told us the accident to which their visit to us was attributable. Having sailed for the Havannah, in a three-masted vessel, and on the point of finishing a prosperous voyage, they had dashed upon the mole of our pier, and only escaped death by throwing themselves on our battery from the main-top. Nineteen of their crew, amongst whom was the captain, had perished in the waves.
The sea still blockaded us for several days, without any boat daring to venture out to us. At the end of the time, I was rowed on shore with my wrecked sailors, whom I conducted myself to the chief officer of the naval service, who congratulated me, as if I had taken so many prisoners. If it were so brilliant a capture, I could really have said that it had only caused me one single fright. However that may be, in the company, it procured for me a very high opinion.
I continued to fulfil my duties with exemplary punctuality, and three mouths glided away, during which I had nothing but praise. This I determined always to deserve, but an adventurer's career was still to be my lot. A fatality which I was compelled to submit to unresistingly, and often unknowingly, perpetually threw me in contact with persons and things which were most in opposition to the destiny I was attempting to cut out for myself. It was to this singular fatality, that, without being enrolled in the secret societies of the army, I was indebted for being initiated into its mysteries.
It was at Boulogne that these societies were first formed. The first of all, notwithstanding what M. Nodier says in his "History of the Philadelphes," was that of the Olympiens, whose founder was one Crombet of Namur. It was at first only composed of a few young naval officers, but it rapidly increased, and all military men were admitted; principally, however, those of the artillery corps.
Crombet, who was very young (only a volunteer of the first class), laid aside his title of "chief of the Olympiens," and returned to the ranks of the brotherhood; who elected a "Vénérable," and formed themselves into a masonic order.
The society had not at first any political motive; or if it had, it was only known to the influential members. The avowed intent was mutual advancement. The Olympien who got promotion was to exert all his influence to ensure the promotion of the brother Olympiens who were in inferior ranks. To be received, if belonging to the navy, it was necessary to be at least a volunteer of the second class; and at most, captain of a ship: if serving on land, the limits were, from a colonel to an adjutant, subaltern inclusive. I have never understood that, in their societies, the Olympiens ever discussed questions concerning the conduct of the government; but they proclaimed equality and brotherhood; and pronounced discourse which greatly contrasted with the imperial doctrines.
At Boulogne, the Olympiens constantly met at the house of a madame Hervieux, who kept a kind of coffee-house, but little frequented. It was there that they kept their meetings, and installed their members in a room consecrated to that purpose.
There was at the Military as well as at the Polytechnic Schools, lodges which were united with the Olympiens. In general, the initiation was confined to pass-words, signs, and tokens, which were taught to the members on entrance; but the real adepts knew and looked for other things. The symbol of the society sufficiently explains their intentions:—an arm, with the hand grasping a dagger, was emerging from a cloud; above was a bust reversed. It was that of Cæsar. This symbol, which is easily explained, was imprinted on the seal of their diplomas. This seal had been modelled in relief by an artillery-man named Beaugrand, or Belgrand; and the brass stamp was procured by means of welding and cutting.
To be received as an Olympien, a proof of courage was required, as well as of talent and discretion. Soldiers of distinguished merit were those who had the preference of enrolment. As much as possible it was endeavoured to attract to the society the sons of patriots who had protested against the erection of the imperial throne, or who had been persecuted. Under the empire, it was enough to belong to a family of non-contents, to be at once placed on the list of admissibles.
The real chiefs of the association were in the shade, and never communicated their projects. They plotted the overthrow of despotism, but admitted no person to their confidence. It was necessary that the men, by whose intervention they hoped to accomplish their ends, should be conspirators without knowing it. No one was ever to propose to them to join a conspiracy, but they were voluntarily to lend their power and inclination. It was by virtue of this combination, that the Olympiens at length included in their numbers the lowest ranks of the army and navy.
If a subaltern or soldier evinced talent, energy, firmness, independence, and spirit, the Olympiens sought him as a recruit, and he soon entered the brotherhood, or was bound by the influence of an oath to afford to them, as far as in him lay, "help and protection." The reciprocal support which was promised seemed to be the sole bond of the fraternity; but there was, beneath this seeming, a concealed but no less determined premeditation. It was found, after long experience, that out of one hundred individuals admitted, scarcely ten obtained a promotion proportioned to their merits: thus, amongst a hundred individuals, it was probable that, in a few years, ninety at least would be found opposed to the order of things in which it was impossible to advance a step. It was the sum of wisdom to have such men classed under a common denomination; men amongst whom it was certain that sooner or later a spirit of discontent would arise; men quite irritated and worn out by neglect or injustice, who would not hesitate to seize with eagerness on any opportunity of revenge. Thus was a league fomented, which had an existence of which it was itself unconscious. The elements of conspiracy were brought together, perfected themselves, and became more and more developed; but no conspirators were to be known or thought of until the conspiracy should be ripe for perpetration. They awaited a propitious moment.
The Olympiens preceded the Philadelphes by many years, and were at length united with them. The origin of their society is somewhat prior to the coronation of Napoleon. It is said that they were first united on the occasion of the disgrace of admiral Truguet, who was deprived because he had voted against the perpetual consulate. After the condemnation of Moreau, the society, constituted on a more extended basis included a great many men of Britanny and Franche Compté. Amongst these latter was Oudet, who unfolded to the Olympiens the first idea of Philadelphy.
The Olympiens existed for two years without giving any cause of uneasiness to the government. At length, in 1806, M. Devilliers, commissary-general of police at Boulogne, wrote to Fouché to denounce their meetings. He did not signalize them as dangerous; but he thought it his duty to have them watched, and having no agent with him to whom he could confide such a duty, he consequently begged the minister to send to Boulogne one of those expert spies which a politic police always has in pay. The minister replied to the commissary-general, thanking him cordially for his zeal for the emperor's service, but stating that he had long had his eye on the Olympiens, as well as on many similar fraternities; that the government was sufficiently strong not to fear any conspiracies they might engender; and that, besides, they could not have any schemes but some crotchets of ideology, for which the emperor cared nothing; and that, according to all appearances, the Olympiens were but dreaming speculists, and their union only one of those masonic puerilities invented by some fools to amuse others.
This security of Fouché was but feigned; for scarcely had he received the information which M. Devilliers had transmitted, than he sent for the young comte de L***, who was initiated into the secrets of nearly every society in Europe. He thus addressed him. "They write me from Boulogne, that a sort of secret association has been formed in the army under the title of 'Olympiens.' I am not informed of the objects of the society, but they tell me that its ramifications are most extensive. Perhaps they have some bond of union with the 'Conciliabules' who met at the houses of Bernadotte and de Staël. I know well enough what passes there: Garat, who thinks me his friend, and who has the goodness to suppose me still a patriot as I was in 93, tells me everything. There are some Jacobins who imagine that I regret the republic, and would do all in my power to restore it: they are the fools whom I exile or place as may suit me,—Truguet, Rousselin, Ginguené form no plan, say no word, of which I am not informed. They are gentry not very formidable; like all the Moreau gang, they talk much, and do little. However, for some time, they think they must have a party in the army; and it is necessary that I should know their plans: the Olympiens are perhaps their creation. It would be well that you should become an Olympien; you will disclose to me the secrets of these gentlemen, and I shall then know what steps to take."
The count de L*** told Fouché, that the proposed mission was a delicate affair; that the Olympiens would probably only receive members after they had been convinced of their fidelity and fitness; and that, besides, no one would be admitted to the brotherhood, who did not belong to the army. Fouché reflected a moment on these obstacles, and then said—"I have hit on a mode of causing you to be instantly admitted. Go to Genès; you will there find a detachment of Ligurian conscripts, who are under orders for Boulogne, to be incorporated in the eigth regiment of foot artillery. Amongst them is a count Boccardi, for whom his family have vainly endeavoured to procure a substitute. You shall offer to supply the place of the noble Genèse; and, to remove all difficulties, I give you a certificate, stating that you have, under the name of Bertrand, satisfied the laws of conscription. Thus you will be put in a straightforward path, and will march with the detachment. On reaching Boulogne, you will see your colonel, a fanatic in masonry, illuminatism, hermetism, &c. You must tell him who you are; and, as you have rank, he will be sure to protect you. You can then tell him all concerning your origin that you may choose, and that may aid your plans. This confidence will at first do away with the sort of mistrust that is usually shewn to a substitute, and will ultimately procure you the regard of the other officers. But it is indispensable that you should make them believe that you have turned soldier on compulsion. Under your real name you were exposed to persecution from the emperor; and, to escape proscription, you had concealed yourself in a regiment. This is your tale, which will circulate throughout the camp, and no one will doubt but that you are the victim and enemy of the imperial system. I have no occasion to enter into longer details; the consequences will naturally ensue;—besides, I rely much,—entirely, on your sagacity."
Thus instructed, the count de L*** set out for Italy, and soon afterwards he entered France with the Ligurian conscripts. Colonel Aubry received him like a brother after a long absence, dispensed with his military drillings, assembled the lodge of the regiment to receive and feast him, and showed him every attention; authorising him to wear plain clothes; and treated him, in a word, with the greatest distinction.
In a few days the army knew that M. Bertrand was a "somebody." They could not give him epaulets, but he was nominated sergeant; and the officers forgetting, in his case only, that he was in the inferior ranks of a military hierarchy, did not hesitate to admit him to an intimacy. M. Bertrand was the oracle of the corps: he was intelligent and full of information, and they were disposed to consider him more witty and well-informed than he really was. However, he soon got acquainted with several Olympiens, who each desired the peculiar honour of introducing him to the fraternity. M. Bertrand was initiated, and as soon as he succeeded in establishing a communication with the Olympien leaders, he forwarded his reports to the minister of the police.
What I have related of the society of the Olympiens and of M. Bertrand, was told me by M. Bertrand himself; and to confirm the veracity of my statement, it will not, perhaps, be superfluous to say, how he was led to confide to me the mission with which he was charged, and to reveal to me those circumstances, of which mention is here made for the first time.
Nothing was more common at Boulogne than duelling; and the mania had extended even to the dull and peaceable Netherlanders of the flotilla, under the orders of admiral Werhwel. There was not far from the camp on the left, at the foot of a hill, a small wood, which could be passed at no hour without observing on the turf a dozen individuals engaged in what they called an affair of honour. It was here that a celebrated amazon, the demoiselle Div***, fell under the sword of a quondam lover, colonel Camb***, who, not recognizing her in her male attire, had accepted from her a challenge to single combat. The demoiselle Div***, whom he had forsaken for another, had wished to perish beneath his hand.
One day I was casting my eyes on this scene of bloody encounter, from the extremity of the left camp which peopled the extensive plain, when I saw at some distance from the little wood two men, one of whom was advancing towards the other, who was retreating across the plain. By the white trowsers I knew me champions were Hollanders, and I paused a moment to look at them. Soon the assailant retrograded in his turn, and then, mutually alarmed, they both retreated, brandishing their sabres; one, plucking up a little courage, made a thrust at his adversary, and then pursued him to the brink of a ditch which he was unable to leap. Both then throwing down their swords, a pugilistic combat commenced between the heroes, who thus decided their quarrel. I was greatly amused at this comic duel, when I saw near a farm where we sometimes went to eat 'codiau' (a kind of white soup made with flour and eggs) two individuals who, stripped to the skin, were already prepared, sword in hand, attended by their seconds, who were respectively a quarter-master of the tenth regiment of dragoons and a forager of artillery. The weapons soon crossed, and the smaller of the two combatants, who was an artillery serjeant, skipped about in a very singular manner, and having traversed in a strange way at least fifty paces, I thought he must be infallibly run through, when in an instant he disappeared, as if the earth had opened and swallowed him up, and a loud burst of laughter succeeded. After the first shouting of this noisy mirth, the seconds approached, and I observed that they stooped down. Impelled by a feeling of curiosity, I went towards the spot, and arrived just in time to help them in pulling out from a hole dug for the formation of a large hog-trough, the poor devil whose sudden disappearance had so greatly astonished me. He was almost lifeless, and covered with mire from head to feet. The air soon brought him back to his senses, but he was afraid to breathe; he dared not open his eyes or mouth, so foul was the liquid in which he had been plunged. In this woful plight, the first words that saluted his ears were jokes. Feeling disgusted at such unfeeling conduct, I yielded to my just indignation, and darted at his antagonist one of those significant glances which between soldier and soldier need no interpreter. "Enough," said he, "I am ready for you;" and scarcely was I on my guard, when on the arm which held the foil, to which I had opposed mine, I saw a tattooing which I thought was not unknown to me. It was the figure of an anchor, of which the stem was encircled by the folds of a serpent. "I see the tail," I exclaimed, "take care of the head;" and with this word of advice I thrust at my man, and hit him on the right breast. "I am wounded," he then said, "that is first blood."—"It is," said I, "first blood;" and without another word I began to tear my shirt to staunch the blood that flowed from his wound. I necessarily exposed his breast, where, as I had judged, I saw the head of the serpent, which was delineated as if gnawing the extremity of his bosom.
Observing how earnestly I alternately examined his features and this mark, my adversary seemed to grow uneasy; but I hastened to assure him, by these words which I whispered in his ear: "I know you; but fear nothing, I am discreet."—"I know you too," he replied, squeezing my hand, "and I will be also silent." He who thus promised secrecy was a fugitive galley-slave from the Bagne of Toulon. He told me his assumed name, and stated that he was principal quarter-master of the 10th dragoons, where in expense he surpassed all the officers of his regiment.
Whilst this mutual recognition was taking place, the individual whose cause I had espoused as the champion of his wrongs, was endeavouring to wash off in a rivulet the thickest of the filth which covered him, and he soon returned to us, and all were now quiet and well behaved, so that there were no longer any grounds of difference, and the inclination for laughter was turned into an uncommon wish for reconciliation.
The principal quarter-master, whom I had wounded but slightly, proposed that we should ratify articles of peace at the Canon d'Or, where they had always ready excellent stewed eels and ready-plucked poultry. He there gave us a princely breakfast, which was kept up till supper came, for which his adversary paid.
On our separation, the quarter-master made me promise to meet him again, and the serjeant would not be contented unless I accompanied him home.
This serjeant was M. Bertrand, who lodged in the upper town, in the house of a superior officer. As soon as we were alone, he testified his gratitude with all the warmth of which he was capable; for after drinking, a coward who has been rescued from peril may evince some feeling. He made me offers of any kind of service, and as I would accept of none, he said, "You think, perhaps, that I have no influence; I should be but a paltry protector, certainly, comrade, if I had only the power of a subaltern; but that is because I do not wish to be otherwise. I have no ambition, and all the Olympiens are like me; they despise the miserable distinction which rank confers." I asked who the Olympiens were? "They are," he replied, "men who adore liberty, and seek equality: will you be an Olympien? For if so, say the word, and you shall be admitted instantly."
I thanked M. Bertrand, adding, that I did not see any necessity to enrol myself in a society to which the attention of the police would be drawn sooner or later. "You are right," he replied, and then with earnestness added, "do hot enter, for it will go badly with them." He then gave me details concerning the Olympiens, which I have already inserted in these Memoirs; and, as if impelled by the feeling of confidential communication which champagne so peculiarly excites, he told me, under the seal of secresy, the object of his mission to Boulogne.
After this first interview, I continued to see M. Bertrand, who remained for some time in his office of 'spy,' until the period having arrived when he was sufficiently instructed, he asked and procured a months' leave of absence, being about, as he said, to obtain a considerate estate; but at the expiration of the month M. Bertrand did not return, and the report spread that he had carried off the sum of 12,000 francs, which had been confided to his care by colonel Aubry, for whom he was to have brought back an equipage and horses; another sum, destined for purchases on account of the regiment, had also been carried off by the active M. Bertrand. It was known that in Paris he had alighted at the Rue Notre-Dame des Victoires, at the Hotel de Milan, where he had pushed his credit to the very utmost extent.
All these particulars caused a mystification, of which even the sufferers by it dared not openly to complain. It was only settled that M. Bertrand had disappeared: he was tried and condemned, as a deserter, to five years' labour. A short time afterwards, an order arrived for the arrest of the principal Olympiens, and for the dissolving of their society. But this order could be but partially enforced; as the leaders, aware that government was about to interfere with them, and cast them into the dungeons of Vincennes, or some other state prison, preferred death to a miserable existence, and five suicides took place on the same day. A serjeant-major of the twenty-fifth regiment of the line, and two other serjeants of another regiment, blew out their brains. A captain, who had the previous evening received his commission and a company, cut his throat with a razor. He lodged at the Lion d'Argent; and the innkeeper, M. Boutrois, astonished that he did not, as usual, come down to breakfast with the other officers, knocked at his door. The captain was stooping over a large basin which he had placed to receive the blood; he put on his cravat hastily, opened the door, and fell dead in the effort of speaking. A naval officer, who commanded a brig laden with powder, set fire to it, which communicated to another brig, which also blew up. The earth shook for several miles round, and all the windows in the lower town were broken; the fronts of several houses on the harbour were shaken down; pieces of wood, broken masts, and fragments of carcases, where hurled to a distance of eighteen hundred toises. The crews of the two ships perished. One man only was saved, and that most miraculously. He was a common sailor, and at the time of the explosion in the main-top; the mast to which he clung was carried almost to the clouds, and then fell perpendicularly into the basin of the harbour, which was dry, and planted itself to a depth of more than six feet. The sailor was found alive, but had lost both sight and hearing, which he never after recovered.
At Boulogne, these coincidences were the theme of general conversation. The doctors pretended that these simultaneous suicides were the result of a peculiar affection emanating from the atmosphere. They appealed, by way of proof, to an observation made at Vienna, where, the previous summer, a great many young girls, impelled by a sort of frenzy, had thrown themselves into the river on the same day.
Some persons thought they could explain what appeared most extraordinary in this circumstance, by saying, that most commonly one suicide, when very generally talked of, is followed by two or three others. In fact, the public understood the cause the less, inasmuch as the police, which feared to allow anything to appear that could characterise the opposition to the imperial regime, designedly circulated the wildest reports; and precautions were so well taken, that in this instance the name of Olympien was not once pronounced in the camps: but the real origin of these tragic events was in the denunciations of M. Bertrand. Doubtless, he was recompensed, although I know not in what manner; but what appears most probable is, that the minister of police, satisfied with his services, continued to employ him; for, some years afterwards, he was in Spain, in the regiment of Isembourg, where, as a lieutenant, he was no less thought of than Montmorenci, Saint-Simon, and other offsprings of some of the most illustrious houses of France, who had been placed in this corps.
A short time after the disappearance of M. Bertrand, my company was sent to St Leonard, a small village at a league from Boulogne. There our duties consisted in guarding a powder magazine, in which was kept a large quantity of warlike stores and ammunition. The service was not arduous, but the fort was thought dangerous, as many sentinels had been murdered on duty; and it was thought that the English had a design of blowing up this depôt. Some such attempts, which had taken place in various posts, left no doubt on the matter; and we had sufficient reason, therefore, for exercising unremitting vigilance.
One night, when it was my turn to keep guard, we were suddenly roused by the report of a musket, and every one was instantly on foot. I hastened, according to custom, to relieve the guard, who was a conscript, of whose courage there was some doubt; and, on being questioned, I thought, from his answers, that he had been needlessly alarmed. I then went round the magazine, which was an old church; I had all parts and places examined, but nothing was observable,—no trace of any person. Persuaded, then, that it was a false alarm, I reprimanded the conscript and threatened him with the black-hole. However, on the return of the relief-piquet, I interrogated him afresh; and, from the assured tone with which he asserted that he had seen some one, and by the details he gave, I began to think that his terror was not so causeless as I had imagined, and I consequently went out, and going a second time towards the magazine, of which I found the door ajar, I pushed it open, and on entering, my eyes were struck with the faint glimmering of a light which projected from between two rows of boxes filled with cartridges. I dashed along the passage, and on reaching the extremity, I saw a lighted lamp beneath the lowest cask, the flames of which already had smoked the wood, and a smell of turpentine pervaded the place. There was not a moment to lose, and without hesitation I overturned the lamp, and stamped out all the other appearances of sparks, &c. The profound darkness that ensued, guaranteed to me the certainty that I had prevented the explosion, but I was not at ease until the smell was entirely dissipated, and then I went away. Who was the incendiary? This I knew not; but there arose in my mind strong suspicions of the magazine-keeper, and to arrive at the truth I went forthwith to his residence. His wife was then alone, and told me that, kept at Boulogne on business, he would sleep there, and would return on the next morning. I asked for the keys of the magazine, but he had taken them with him; and this removal of the keys confirmed me in the opinion that he was guilty: but, before I made any report, I again visited his house at ten o'clock, to convince myself, and he had not then returned.
An inventory, which was made the same day, proved that the keeper must have the greatest interest in destroying the depôt entrusted to his care, as the only mode by which he could conceal the extensive robberies he had committed. Six weeks elapsed before we learnt what had become of him; and then some reapers found his dead body in a wheat field, with a pistol lying beside him.
As it had been my presence of mind which had prevented the blowing up of the powder magazine, I was promoted to the rank of serjeant; and the general, who desired to see me, promised to recommend me to the consideration of the ministry. As I thought I was now in a fair way to do well, I was very careful to lose as Lebel all the bad qualities of Vidocq; and, if the necessary duty of attending to the distribution of rations had not led me to Boulogne occasionally, I should have been a most exemplary fellow; but every time I went to the city, I had to visit the quarter-master-in-chief of dragoons, against whom I had espoused the cause of M. Bertrand: not that he exacted this from me, but I thought it needful to be on good terms with him. Then, however, the whole day was consecrated to Bacchus; and, in spite of myself, I lapsed from my good intentions of reform.
By the help of a suppositious uncle, a man of wealth and influence, whose property, he said, was secured to him, my old colleague of the Bagne led a very agreeable life; and the credit he obtained from the reputation of being a person of family, was unlimited. There was not a Boulognese citizen of wealth, but cultivated the acquaintance of a personage of such distinction most sedulously. The most ambitious papas desired nothing more ardently than to have him for a son-in-law; and, amongst the young ladies, it was the general wish to catch him: thus he had facilities of dipping into the purses of the one, and obtaining the good graces of the other. He had an equipment like a colonel,—dogs, horses, and servants; and affected the tone and manners of a nobleman; possessing, in a supreme degree, the art of throwing powder in people's eyes, and making himself appear a man of consequence: so much so, that the officers themselves, who are generally so extremely jealous of the prerogatives belonging to an epaulet, thought it very natural that he should eclipse them. In any place but Boulogne, the adventurer would have been soon detected as a swindler, as he had not received any education; but in a city where the citizens of a recent establishment were as yet genteel in costume only, it was an easy matter to carry on such an imposition.
Fessard was the real name of this quarter-master, who was only known at the Bagne as Hyppolyte. He was, I believe, from Low Normandy; and, with an exterior of much frankness, an open countenance, and the haughty air of a young rake, he combined that sly character which slander has attributed to the inhabitants of Domfront: in a word, he was a shrewd man of the world, and gifted with all that was necessary to inspire confidence. A rood of land in his own country would have been to him sufficient to have produced a thousand actions at law, and quite a sufficient possession to have enabled him to make his fortune by ruining his neighbour; but Hippolyte really had nothing in the world, and unable to turn pleader, he became a swindler, then a forger, then —— we shall learn what, and must not anticipate.
Every time I visited the town, Hippolyte paid for dinner; and one day, between dessert and cheese, he said to me; "Do you know I am astonished at you;—to live in the country like an anchorite; to be content with a daily pittance; to have just twenty-two sous per diem. I cannot conceive how a person can endure such a lot; as for me, I would father die at once. But you have your pickings somewhere, slily; you are not the lad to live without some such additions." I told him that my pay sufficed for me; and, besides, I was fed, clothed, and in want of nothing. "All very fine," he replied; "but yet we have some priggers (grinchisseurs) here: you have no doubt heard of the 'minions of the moon' (l’armée de la Lune)—You must be one; and, if you like, I will quarter you;—take the environs of Saint Leonard."
I was told that the army "de la Lune" was a band of malefactors, the leaders of whom were, up to this period, concealed from the scrutiny of the police. These brigands, who had organized a system of murder and robbery for a circuit of more than ten leagues, all belonged to various regiments. At night they ranged about the camps, or concealed themselves on the roads, making pretended rounds, and patroles stopping any person who presented the least hope of booty. That they might not be impeded, they provided themselves with uniforms of every denomination. At a time of need they were captains, colonels, generals, and used all the proper words of regimental order and discipline,—pass-words, countersigns, &c.; with which some trusty friends took care to inform them, from time to time, as they were altered.
From what I knew, the proposal of Hippolyte was well calculated to alarm me; for either he was one of the leaders of this army de la Lune, or he was one of the secret agents employed by the police to effect the breaking up of this army: perhaps he was both. My situation with him was most embarrassing, and the thread of my destiny was again entangled; nor could I, as at Lyons, extricate myself from this business by denouncing him; and then, what would it have availed me to have denounced him, had he been an agent?—This idea made me cautious of the mode in which I should reject his proposition, which I did by saying with firmness, that I was resolved to become an honest man. "Did'n't you see," said he, "that I was only joking, and you take up the matter seriously; I only wanted to try you. I am charmed, my comrade, to find in you such a determination. I have formed a similar one," he added, "and am on the highway to it; and the devil shall not again turn me from it." Then, turning the conversation, we left all farther mention of the army de la Lune.
Eight days after this interview, during which Hippolyte had made me this proposal, so promptly retracted, my captain, on going through the inspection, condemned me to four-and-twenty hours' confinement, for a spot, which, he said, was on my uniform. This cursed spot, although I opened my eyes as widely as possible, I was unable to perceive; but be it as it may, I went to the guard-house without a murmur. Four-and-twenty hours soon pass away! The next morning would terminate my sentence;—when, at five o'clock in the morning, I heard the trot of horses, and soon afterwards I heard the following dialogue:—"Who goes there?"—"France."—"What regiment?"—"The imperial corps of gendarmerie." At the word gendarmerie I felt an involuntary shudder, and suddenly my door opened and some one called "Vidocq." Never did this name, falling suddenly on the ears of a troop of villains, disconcert them more effectually than it did myself at this moment. "Come, follow us," cried out the officer; and, to prevent any possibility of escape, he fastened a rope round me. I was instantly conducted to prison, where I had a tolerable bed, on paying for it. I found a numerous and goodly assemblage. "Did I not say so?" cried a soldier of artillery, whom, by his accent, I knew to be a Piedmontese. "We shall have all the camp. Here is another. I will bet my head that he owes his imprisonment to that thief of a quarter-master. Will no one cut that villain's throat!"—"Go, look for him, then, your quarter-master;" interrupted a second prisoner, who also seemed to be a new comer. "Whatever he may have done, he is now at a distance; he has made himself scarce a week since. But, my lads, you must own that he is a crafty chap. In less than three months, forty thousand francs in debt in the city. What a lucky dog! And then how many little boys and girls has he left behind—I should be sorry to rather all his flock. Six young ladies, daughters of our leading burgesses, are in a fair way of becoming mammas! Each thought she had him to herself; but he seems to have cut his heart into small pieces, and shared it amongst them!"—"Oh! yes," said a turnkey, who was preparing my bed, "he has spent like a prodigal, and now must mind what he is about; for, if they catch him, handcuffs are the word. He is marked as a deserter. He will be caught, I think."—"Do not make too sure," I replied; "they will catch him as they caught M. Bertrand."—"Well, suppose he should be taken," resumed the Piedmontese, "would that prevent my being guillotined at Turin? Besides, I repeat it, I will bet my head—"—"What does the fool say about his head?" cried a fourth. "We are here in prison, and as it was to be, what consequence through whose means!" This reasoner was right. It would have been useless to lose oneself in a field of conjectures, and we must all have been blind not to have recognized Hippolyte as the author of our arrest. As for me, I could not be deceived, for he was the only person in Boulogne who knew that I had escaped from the Bagne.
Many soldiers of different ranks came against their will to fill up a chamber in which were assembled the principal leaders of the army de la Lune. Very seldom in the prison of so small a town, was there seen a more singular assemblage of delinquents; the 'prevôt,' that is, the elder of our room, named Lelievre, was a poor devil of a soldier, who condemned to death three years before, had perpetually before him the chance of the termination of the respite by virtue of which he still existed. The emperor, to whose mercy he had been recommended, had pardoned him; but as the pardon had not been registered, and as the indispensable official papers had not been transmitted to the chief judge, Lelievre continued a prisoner; and all that could be done in favor of this unfortunate being, was to suspend the execution until the moment when an opportunity should present itself of again calling the emperor's attention to his case. In this state, in which his life was uncertain, Lelievre deliberated between the hope of freedom and the fear of death; he laid down to sleep with the one, and awoke with the other. Every evening he thought himself sure of his liberty, and every morning he expected to be shot; sometimes gay even to folly, sometimes dull and spiritless, he never enjoyed a moment of equable calm. If he played a game of draughts or matrimony, he paused in the midst of it, threw down the cards, and striking his forehead with his clenched hands, jumped from his seat, and raving like a madman, he ended by flinging himself on his bed, where lying on his face, he remained for hours in a state of mental depression. The hospital was Lelievre's house of pleasure; and if he got wearied, he went there for consolation from sister Alexandrine who had a most tender heart, and sympathised with all the wretched. This compassionate sister was deeply interested in the prisoner, and Lelievre deserved it, for he was not a criminal but a victim; and the sentence against him was the unjust result of a feeling but too common in councils of war, that the innocent should even suffer if there are disorders to repress. The conscience and humanity of judges ought to be silent when necessity calls for exemplary punishment. Lelievre was one of the few of those men who, steeled against vice, can without danger to their morality remain in contact with the most contaminated. He acquitted himself in his duties of steward (prevôt) with as much equity as if he had been endued with all the powers of a licensed magistrate; he never let off a new comer, but explained to him his duties as a prisoner, endeavouring to render as easy as possible the first days of his captivity; and rather might be said to do the honours of the prison than to enforce his authority.
Another character also attracted the regard and affection of the prisoners, Christiern, whom we called the Dane. He did not speak French, and only understood by signs; but his intelligence seemed to penetrate our very thoughts: he was melancholy, thoughtful, and gentle; in his features there was a mixture of nobleness, candour, and sadness, which insinuated and touched at the same time. He wore a sailor's dress; but the flowing curls of his long black hair, his snowy white linen, the delicacy of his complexion and manners, the beauty of his hand, all announced a man of exalted condition. Although a smile was often on his lips, yet Christiern appeared a prey to the deepest sorrow; but he kept his grief to himself, and no one knew even the cause of his detention. One day he was summoned whilst he was engaged in tracing on the glass with a flint the drawing of a fleet, which was his sole amusement, except occasionally sketching the portrait of a female, whose resemblance he seemed delighted to be perpetually depicting. We saw him go out; and soon afterwards being brought back, scarcely was the door closed upon him, than taking from a leathern bag a prayer book, he was soon engrossed in its perusal. At night he slept as usual until day-break, when the round of a drum warned us that a detachment was entering the prison yard, and he then dressed himself hastily, gave his watch and money to Lelievre, who was his bedfellow; and having frequently kissed a small crucifix which he always wore round his neck, he shook hands with all us. The gaoler, who was present, was very deeply affected; and when Christiern left us, said, "They are going to shoot him; all the troops are assembled, and in less than a quarter of an hour all his misfortunes will terminate. This sailor, whom you all took for a Dane, is a native of Dunkirk; his real name is Vandermot; he served in the corvette Hirondelle, and was taken prisoner by the English, and placed in the hold of a prison ship with many others; when, exhausted with breathing infectious air and almost starving, he consented to a proposal of being removed from this living tomb, on condition that he would embark in a vessel belonging to the East India Company. On the return of the ship it was captured by a privateer, and Vandermot was brought here with the rest of the crew. He was to have been sent to Valenciennes, but at the moment of departure, an interpreter interrogated him, and it was found by his answers that he was not conversant with the English language; this gave rise to suspicions, and he declared that he was a subject of the king of Denmark; but as he had no proof of this assertion, it was decided that he should remain here until the whole affair should be cleared up. Some months elapsed, and Vandermot seemed to have been forgotten, when one day a woman and two children came to the gaol, and asked for Christiern. 'My husband!' she cried, seeing him. 'My wife! my children!' he exclaimed, embracing them with ardour. 'How imprudent you are!' said I in a whisper to Christiern; 'it is well that only I am with you!' I promised to be secret, but it was useless. In the joy of having news from him, his wife, to whom he had written, and who thought him dead, had shown his letters to her neighbours, and some of the most officious of them had already denounced him—the wretches! it is their deed which this day destroys him. For some old howitzers which the ship mounted, they have treated him as one taken in arms against his country. Are not such laws unjust?"
"Yes, yes, the laws are unjust," said a number of fellows who were sitting round a bed, playing at cards and drinking spirits. "Come, push round the glass," said one, handing it to his neighbour. "Holla!" said a second, who remarked the air of consternation expressed in Lelievre's features, and shook his arm; "do not put yourself in a fright about it! His turn to-day, our's to-morrow."
This conversation, horribly prolonged, degenerated into unfeeling jokes, until the sound of a drum and fifes, which, the echo of the river repeated in various quarters, indicated that the detachments of various corps were marching back to the camp. A death-like silence pervaded the prison for several minutes, and we thought that Christiern had already undergone his sentence; but at the instant when his eyes were covered with the fatal bandage, and on his knees he awaited the execution of his sentence, an aid-de-camp had stopped the fire of the musquetry. The prisoner again saw the light of heaven, and was to be restored to his wife and children, whose prayers and supplications to marshal Brune had been the means of saving his life. Christiern, led back to confinement, was still full of joy, as he had been assured of his speedy freedom. The emperor had been petitioned for his pardon, and the request made in the name of the marshal himself was so generously urged, that it was impossible to doubt of success.
The return of Christiern was an event on which we did not fail to congratulate him: we drank to the health of the returned prisoner; and the arrival of six new prisoners, who payed their entrance fees with much liberality, was an additional incentive to rejoicing. These men, whom I had known as a part of Paulet's crew, were sentenced to a few days' confinement, as a punishment for having in boarding a prize, in defiance of the articles of war, plundered the English captain. As they had not been compelled to refund, they brought their guineas with them, and spent them freely. We were all satisfied: the gaoler, who collected even to the very smallest portions of this golden shower, was so pleased with his new guests, that he relaxed his vigilance, although there were in one room three prisoners under sentence of death, Lelievre, Christiern, and the Piedmontese Orsino, a chief of barbets, who having encountered near Alexandria a detachment of conscripts marching towards France, had got into their ranks, where he had supplied the place and name of a deserter. Orsino, whilst serving under this flag, had conducted himself irreproachably, but had marred all by an indiscretion. A price was set upon his head in his own country, and the sentence was to be put into execution at Turin. Five other prisoners were under the weight of charges of the gravest nature. Four were marines; two of them Corsicans and two Provençals, charged with the assassination of a woman from whom they had stolen a golden cross and silver buckles; the fifth had been, as well as they, of the army de la Lune, and to him were attributed very peculiar powers: the soldiers asserted that he could render himself invisible, and metamorphose himself as he pleased; he had, besides, the gift of ubiquity; in fact, he was a sorcerer; and that because he was hump-backed, facetious, severe, a great tale-teller, and having been a sharper all his days, was clever in many tricks of legerdemain. With such company, most gaolers would have used the greatest precaution, but our's considered us as only skilful practitioners, and constantly associated with us. Besides, for ready cash he provided for all our wants, and had no idea that we could have any wish to leave him; and he was correct to a certain point; for Lelievre and Christiern had not the least wish to escape; Orsino was resigned; the marines did not anticipate a very severe sentence; the sorcerer relied on the insufficiency of evidence; and the privateers, always drinking, felt no sort of melancholy. I alone nourished the idea of getting away; but that I might not be suspected, I affected to be undisturbed; and so well did I conceal my intent, that it seemed as if the prison were my natural element, and all thought that I was there as comfortable as a fish in water. I did not drink but on one occasion, that of Christiern's return amongst us. That night we were all somewhat in liquor, and about two in the morning I felt a burning thirst which seemed to inflame my whole body; and on getting out of bed half awake, I groped about for the pitcher, and on drinking I found a most horrible mistake; I had taken one vessel for another, and was almost poisoned. By day-break I had scarcely repressed the violent commotions of my stomach, when one of the turnkeys came to tell us that there was some work to be done: as this afforded an opportunity for getting a little air, which I thought would revive me, I offered myself as substitute for a privateer, whose clothes I put on; and crossing the court-yard, I saw a subaltern officer of my acquaintance who came in with his cloak on his arm. He told me that he was sentenced to a month's imprisonment for having created an uproar in the theatre, and had just been entered on the prison book. "In that case," said I, "you can begin your work at once; here is the trough." The subaltern was accomodating, and did not require a second hint; and whilst he went to work, I passed boldly by the sentinel, who took no notice of me.
Leaving the prison, I made my way into the country, and did not stop till I reached the bridge of Brique, where I paused in a small ravine, whilst I reflected on the best mode of escaping pursuit; and at first resolved on going to Calais, but my unlucky stars suggested my return to Arras. In the evening I went to sleep in a barn, in which travellers rested. One of them, who had left Boulogne three hours after me, told me that the whole city was plunged in grief at the execution of Christiern. "It is the only thing they can talk about," said he. "It was expected that the emperor would pardon him, but the telegraph signalled that he was to be shot. He had once narrowly escaped, but to-day he has suffered. It was piteous to hear him cry 'Pardon, pardon,' whilst endeavouring to raise himself after the first fire, amidst the bowlings of some dogs behind him, whom the shots had struck! It went to the very heart, but yet they finished their work. It was his destiny!"
Although this information caused me great affliction, I could not help thinking that Christiern's death would effect a diversion in favour of my escape; and as he told me nothing which seemed as if I had been missed on the general muster-call, I thought myself in security. I reached Bethune without mishap, and went to lodge with an old regimental acquaintance, who received me kindly. But however prudent one may be, there are always some unexpected occurrences: I had preferred the hospitality of a friend to a lodging at an auberge, and I had thereby placed myself in the jaws of danger; for my friend was recently married, and his wife's brother was one of those obstinate brutes, whose hearts, insensible to glory, only desires inglorious peace. As a natural consequence, the abode I had chosen, as well as those of all the young fellow's relations, were frequently visited by the gendarmes; and these very agreeable gentlemen invaded the residence of my friend long before day-break, and, without any respect to my slumbers, demanded to see my papers. For want of a passport, I endeavoured to enter into certain explanations with them, which was but lost labour. The brigadier, after viewing me attentively, cried out, "I am not mistaken, 'tis he; I have seen him at Arras; 'tis Vidocq!" I was compelled to get up, and in less than a quarter of an hour found myself in the prison of Bethune.
Perhaps, before I proceed, my reader will not be sorry to learn the fate of my companions in captivity, whom I had left at Boulogne; and I can satisfy their curiosity with respect to some of them. We have learnt that Christiern was shot, brave, good fellow, as he was! Lelievre, who was equally worthy, lingered on between hope and fear till the year 1811, when the typhus fever terminated his existence. The four sailors, the murderers, were one night liberated, and sent to Prussia, where two of them received the cross of honour under the walls of Dantzic; and the Sorcerer was released without any sentence having been passed. In 1814 he called himself Collinet, and was the quarter-master of a Westphalian regiment, of which he hoped to get the chest for his own particular profit. This adventurer, not knowing how to dispose of his booty, went on the wings of haste to Burgundy, where, in the neighbourhood, he fell in with a troop of Cossacks, who compelled him to surrender, and give an account of himself. This was the last day of is life, for they ran him through with their lances.
My stay at Bethune was brief; for the day after my capture I was forwarded to Douai, whither I was conducted under good escort.
- "Histoire des Sociétés secrètes de l'Armée et des Conspirations Militaires qui ont eu pour objet la destruction du gouvernement de Bonaparte."—2nd ed. Paris.
- Colonel Aubry, inspector-general of artillery, who fell in his thirty-third year. He died a few days after the battle of Dresden, in which his two legs were carried off by a shot.