Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XXVII
Gueuvive's gang—A girl helps me to discover the chief—I dine with the thieves—One of them takes me to sleep at his house—I pass for a fugitive galley-slave—I engage in a plot against myself—I wait for myself at my own door—A robbery in the Rue Cassette—Great surprise—Gueuvive with four of his men are arrested—The girl Cornevin points the others out to me—A batch of eighteen.
Nearly about the same time in which the event mentioned in the last chapter occurred, a gang had formed itself in the Faubourg St Germain, which was more particularly the scene of its exploits. It was composed of individuals who acted under the guidance of a captain named Gueuvive, alias Constantin, shortened by abbreviation into Antin; for the same custom exists amongst thieves as amongst bullies, spies, and informers, of being called only by the last syllable of the christian name. Gueuvive, or Antin, was a fencing master, who after having served as bully to the lowest prostitutes, and for the humblest wages, was completing in his present character the many vicissitudes of his ill-spent life. It was well known that he was capable of any action, however bad, and although murder had never been proved against him, yet few doubted his willingness to shed blood, if by so doing he could reap the most trifling advantage. His mistress had been murdered in the Champs Élysées, and suspicions were strongly directed against him as the author of the crime. However this may be, Gueuvive was a man of enterprising character, extreme boldness, and possessed of the most unblushing effrontery; at least, this was the estimate formed of him by his companions, amongst whom he enjoyed a more than common celebrity.
For some time the attention of the police had been directed to this man and his associates, but without being enabled to secure any of them, although each day teemed with fresh accounts of their continued attacks upon the property of the citizens of Paris. At length it was seriously resolved to put an end to the misdeeds of these plunderers, and I received, in consequence, orders to go in search of them, and to endeavour to take them in the very fact. This last point was particularly insisted upon, as being of the utmost importance; I accordingly provided myself with a suitable disguise, and that very evening opened the campaign in the Faubourg St Germain, frequenting every place of ill-fame in it. About midnight, I went to the house of a person named Boucher, in the Rue Neuve Guillemain, where I took a glass of brandy with some common girls; and whilst sitting with them, I heard the name of Constantin pronounced at the table adjoining mine. I at first imagined he was present; but upon cautiously questioning one of the girls, she assured me he was not; although, added she, "he seldom fails being here every day to meet his numerous friends." From the tone in which she spoke I fancied I could perceive that she was perfectly conversant with the habits of these gentry, and in the hope of drawing further particulars from her, I invited her to sup with me. The offer was accepted, and by the time I had well plied her with liquor, she gave me the information I required, and with the more readiness, as from my dress, actions, and expressions, she had set me down in her own mind as one of the light-fingered brethren. We passed a part of the night together, and I did not quit her till she had fully explained to me the different haunts of Gueuvive.
The next day, at twelve o'clock, I repaired to the house of Boucher, where I again met my companion of the preceding night. I had scarcely entered when she saw me, and immediately addressing me, cried, "Now is your time if you wish to speak with Gueuvive: he is here;" and she pointed to an individual of from twenty-eight to thirty years of age, neatly dressed, although but in his waistcoat; he was about five feet six inches high, extremely good looking, fine black hair and whiskers, regular teeth, in fact, precisely as he had been described to me; without hesitation I addressed him, requesting he would oblige me with a little tobacco from his box. He examined me from head to foot, and inquired, "if I had served in the army?" I replied, that I had been in an Hussar regiment, and soon over a glass of good drink we fell into a deep conversation upon military affairs.
Time passed whilst we were thus engaged, and dinner was talked of; Gueuvive declared that I should make one in a party he had been arranging, and that my company would afford him much pleasure. It was not very probable I should refuse: I accepted his invitation without further ceremony, and we went away together to the Barrière du Maine, where four of his friends were awaiting his arrival. We immediately sat down to the dinner-table, and as I was a stranger to all, the conversation was very guarded. However, a few cant words which occasionally escaped them, soon served to convince me that all the members of this charming society were cracksmen (thieves).
They were all very curious to hear what I did for my living, and I soon fudged a tale which satisfied them, and induced them not only to suppose I came from the country, but likewise that I was a thief on the look-out for a job. I did not explicitly state these particulars, but affecting certain peculiarities which betray the profession, I allowed them to perceive that I had great reasons for wishing to conceal my person.
The wine was not spared, and so well did it loosen every tongue, that before the close of the repast, I had learned the abode of Gueuvive, as well as that of his worthy coadjutor, Joubert, and the names of many of their comrades; at the moment of our separating I hinted that I did not exactly know where I should procure a bed, and Joubert immediately offered to give me a night's lodging with him, and conducted me to Rue St Jaques, where he occupied a back room on the second-floor, there I shared with him the bed of his mistress, the girl Cornevin.
We conversed together for some time, and before we fell asleep, Joubert overwhelmed me with questions; his object was to sift out my present mode of existence, what papers I had about me, &c. His curiosity appeared insatiable, and in order to satisfy it, I contrived either by a positive falsehood, or an equivocation, to lead him to suppose me a brother thief. At last, as if he bad guessed my meaning, he exclaimed, "Come, do not beat about the bush any longer; I see how it is, you know you are a prig." I feigned not to understand these words; he repeated them; and I, affecting to take offence, assured him that he was greatly mistaken, and that if he indulged in similar jokes, I should be compelled to withdraw from his company. Joubert was silenced, and nothing further was said till the next day at ten o'clock, when Gueuvive came to awaken us.
It was agreed that we should go and dine at La Glacière. On the road Gueuvive took me aside and said, "Hark'ye, I see you are a good fellow, and I am willing to do you a service if I can; do not be so reserved then, but tell me who and what you are." Some hint I had purposely thrown out having induced him to believe that I had escaped from the Bagne at Toulon, he recommended me to observe a cautious prudence with my companions, "for though they are the best creatures living," said he, "yet they are rather fond of chattering."—"Oh," replied I, "I shall keep a sharp look out, I promise you; besides, Paris will never do for me, I must be off; there are too many sneaking informers about for me to be safe in it."—"That's true," added he, "but if you can keep Vidocq from guessing at your business, you are safe enough with me, who can smell those beggars as easily as a crow scents powder."—"Well," said I, "I cannot boast of so much penetration, yet I think, too, that from the frequent description I have heard of this Vidocq, his features are so well engraved in my recollection, that I should pretty soon recognise him, if I came unexpectedly in his way."—"God bless you!" cried he, "it is easy to perceive you are a stranger to the vagabond: just imagine now, that he is never to be seen twice in the same dress; that he is in the morning perhaps just such another looking person as you; well, the next hour so altered, that his own brother could not recognise him, and by the evening, I defy any man to remember ever having seen him before. Only yesterday, I met him disguised in a manner that would have deceived any eye but mine, but he must be a deep hand if he gets over me; I know these sneaks at the first glance, and if my friends were as knowing as myself, his business would have been done long ago."—"Nonsense," cried I; "everybody says the same thing of him, and yet you see there is no getting rid of him."—"You are right," replied he, "but to prove that I can act as well as talk, if you will lend me a helping hand, this very evening we will waylay him at his door, and I warrant we'll settle the job, so as to keep him from giving any of us further uneasiness."
I felt curious to learn whether he really was acquainted with my residence, and promised readily to join his scheme, and accordingly, about the dusk of the evening, we each tied up in handkerchiefs a number of heavy ten-sous pieces, in order to administer to this scamp of a Vidocq a few effectual blows the moment he should issue from his house. Having fastened the money in a hard knot at the corner of our handkerchiefs, we set out; and Constantin, who seemed just in the humour for the task he had undertaken, led the way to the Rue Neuve St François, and stopped before a house, No. 14—my exact abode. I could not conceive how he had procured my address, and must confess the circumstance gave me great uneasiness, whilst it redoubled my wonder, that being so well acquainted with my dwelling, he should appear to have so little knowledge of my person. We kept watch for several hours, but Vidocq, as may be well imagined, did not make his appearance; Constantin, was highly enraged at this disappointment. "We must give it up for to-night," said he at length, "but the first time I meet the rascal, by heavens he shall pay doubly for keeping me waiting now."
At midnight we retired, putting off the execution of our project till the ensuing night. It was amusing enough to see me thus assisting in laying an ambuscade for myself to be caught in. The readiness with which I embarked in the scheme quite won the good-will of Constantin, who from this moment treated me with the greatest confidence, he even invited me to make one in a projected plan for robbing a house in the Rue Cassette. I agreed to join the party, but declared that I neither could nor would venture out in the night, without first going home for the necessary papers which would serve me in case of our scheme failing, and our getting into the hands of the police. "In that case," replied he, "you may as well just keep watch for us whilst we do the job." At length the robbery took place, and as the night was excessively dark, Constantin and his companions wishing to hurry faster than the absence of all light permitted them, had the boldness to take down a lamp from before a door, and to carry it before them. Upon their return home, this watchlight was placed in the middle of the room, whilst they seated themselves around it to examine and divide their booty; in the midst of their exultation at the rich results of their expedition, a sudden knocking was heard at the door: the robbers surprised and alarmed, looked at each other in silent dread. This was a surprise for which they were indebted to me. Again the knocking was heard. Constantin then by a sign commanding silence, said in a whisper, "'Tis the police; I am sure of it." Amidst the confusion occasioned by these words, and the increased knocking at the gate, I contrived, unobserved, to crawl under a bed, where I had scarcely concealed myself when the door was burst open, and a swarm of inspectors and other officers of the police entered the room, a general search took place, even the bed where the mistress of Joubert slept did not escape: they struck their sticks both over and under the bed which served as my hiding-place without discovering me, but that, of course, I was prepared for.
The commissioner of the police drew up a procès verbal, an inventory of the stolen property, and it was packed off with the five thieves to the prefecture. This operation completed, I quitted my hiding-place, and found myself alone with the girl Cornevin, who was all astonishment at my good fortune, the reason of which she was far from suspecting. She urged me to remain where I was. "What are you thinking of?" said I. "Suppose the police return! No, no; let me get away now the coast is clear, and I promise to join you at l'Estrapade." I sought my own house to procure the repose I so greatly needed, and at the hour agreed on went to fulfil my appointment with Cornevin, who was expecting me. It was on her I depended to procure a complete list of all the friends and associates of Joubert and Constantin; and as I stood rather high in her good graces, she soon furnished me with the desired information; so that in less than a fortnight, thanks to an auxiliary I contrived to introduce amongst the gang, I succeeded in causing them to be arrested in the very commission of their crimes. There were eighteen in all, who, with Constantin, were condemned to the gallies.
At the moment when the chain to which they belonged was about to set out, Constantin having perceived me, became perfectly furious, and broke out into the most violent imprecations and invectives; but, without feeling any offence at his gross and vulgar appellations, I contented myself with approaching him and saving coolly, "that it was very surprising how a man like him, who knew Vidocq, and could boast of the precious faculty of 'smelling out an informer as far off as a crow scents powder,' should have allowed himself to be done in that manner." This was a knock-down blow to Constantin; he could make no reply, but with an air of sullen confusion, turned away from me, and was silent.