Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter II
Joseph Lebon—The orchestra of the guillotine, and the reading of the bulletin—The aristocrat parrot—Citizeness Lebon—Address to the Sans Culottes—The apple-woman—New amours— I am imprisoned—The jailor Beaupré—The verification of the broth—M. de Bethune—I get my liberty—The sister of my liberator—I am made an officer—The quarters of St Sylvester Capelle—The revolutionary army—The retaking of a vessel— My betrothed—A disguise—The pretended pregnancy—I marry —I am content without being beaten—Another stay at the Baudets—My emancipation.
On entering the city, I was struck with the air of consternation which every countenance wore; some persons whom I questioned looked at me with contempt, and left me without making any reply. What extraordinary business was being transacted? Penetrating the crowd, which was thronging in the dark and winding streets, I soon reached the fish-market. Then the first object which struck my sight was the guillotine, raising its blood-red boards above the silent multitude. An old man, whom they had just tied to the fatal plank, was the victim; suddenly I heard the sound of trumpets. On a high place which overlooked the orchestra, was seated a man, still young, clad in a Carmagnole of black and blue stripes. This person, whose appearance announced monastic rather than military habits, was leaning carelessly on a cavalry sabre, the large hilt of which represented the Cap of Liberty; a row of pistols ornamented his girdle, and his hat, turned up in the Spanish fashion, was surmounted by a large tri-coloured cockade: I recognised Joseph Lebon. At this moment his mean countenance was animated with a horrid smile; he paused from beating time with his left foot; the trumpets stopped; he made a signal, and the old man was placed under the blade. A sort of clerk, half drunk, then appeared at the side of the "avenger of the people," and read with a hoarse voice a bulletin of the army of the Rhine and Moselle. At each paragraph the orchestra sounded a chord; and when the reading was concluded, the head of the wretched old man was stricken off amidst shouts of "Vive la !" repeated by the satellites of the ferocious Lebon. I shall never forget, nor can I adequately depict the impression of this horrible sight. I reached my father's house almost as lifeless as the miserable being whose agony had been so cruelly prolonged; and then I learnt that he was M. de Mongon, the old commandant of the citadel, condemned as an aristocrat. A few days before, they had executed at the same place, M. de Vieux-Pont, whose only crime was that of having a parrot, in whose chatterings there were some sounds like the cry of "Vive le roi!" The parrot had escaped the fate of his master; and it was said that it had been pardoned at the entreaty of the citizeness Lebon, who had undertaken to convert it. The citizeness Lebon had been a nun of the abbey of Vivier: with this qualification added to many others, she was the fitting consort of the ex-curate of Neuville, and exercised a powerful influence over the members of the commission at Arras, in which were seated, as judges or jurymen, her brother-in-law and three uncles. The ex-nun was no less greedy of gold than blood. One evening at the theatre, she ventured to make this address to the crowded auditory:—"Ah, Sans Culottes, they say it is not for you that the guillotine is at work! What the devil, must we not denounce the enemies of the country? Do you know any noble, any rich person, any aristocratical shopkeeper? Denounce him and you shall have his moneybags." The atrocity of this monster was only equalled by that of her husband, who abandoned himself to the greatest excesses. Frequently after his orgies he was seen running through the city making bestial propositions to one young person, brandishing a sabre over another's head, and firing pistols in the ears of women and children.
An old apple-woman, with a red cap and sleeves tucked up to the shoulders, carrying a long stick of hazel-wood, usually attended him in his walks, and they were frequently met arm-in-arm together. This woman, called mother Duchesne, in allusion to the famous father Duchesne, figured as the Goddess of Liberty in several democratic solemnities. She regularly assisted at the sittings of the commission, for which she prepared the arrests by her speeches and denunciations. She thus brought to the guillotine all the inhabitants of one street, which was left entirely desolated.
I have often asked myself how, in the midst of such deplorable scenes, the taste for pleasure and amusement lost none of its relish. The fact is, that Arras continued to offer to me the same dissipations as ever; the ladies were as accessible; and I was easily convinced of that, as in a very few days I rose gradually in my amours from the young and pretty Constance, only child of corporal Latulipe, canteen-keeper of the citadel, to the four daughters of a notary, who had an office at the corner of the Rue des Capucines. Lucky should I have been had I confined myself to that, but I began to pay my homage to a beauty of the Rue de la Justice; and one day I met my rival in my walks. He, who was the old musician of the regiment, was one of those men who, without boasting of the success which they have obtained, hint in plain terms that they have experienced refusals. I charged him with boasting in this way, and he became enraged; I provoked him the more, and the more angry he grew: I had forgotten my own cause of anger with him, when I remembered that I had good grounds of offence. I demanded an explanation, which was useless; and he only consented to meet me after I had inflicted on him the most degrading humiliation. The rendezvous was fixed for the next morning. I was punctual; but scarcely had I arrived when I was surrounded by a troop of gendarmes and police officers, who demanded my sword and ordered me to follow them. I obeyed, and was soon enclosed within the walls of the Baudets, whose use had been changed since the terrorists had put the population of Arras in a state of periodical decapitation. The jailor, Beaupré, covered with an enormous red cap, and followed by two large black dogs, who never quitted him, conducted me to a vast garret, where he held in his keeping the principal inhabitants of the country. There, deprived of all communication from without, they scarcely received nourishment, and not even that until it had literally been overhauled by Beaupré, who carried his precaution so far as to plunge his filthy dirty hands in the broth, to assure himself that there were no arms or keys. If anybody complained, he said to him, "Umph! you are very difficult to please for the time you have left to live. How do you know that it will not be your turn tomorrow? Oh, by the way, what is your name?"—"So and so."—"Ah! by my faith it is your turn tomorrow!" And the predictions of Beaupré were the less likely to fail as he himself pointed out the individuals to Joseph Lebon, who, after his dinner, consulted him saying, "Who shall we bathe tomorrow?"
Amongst the gentry shut up with us was the count de Bethune. One morning they sent for him to the tribunal. Before leading him out to the fore court, Beaupré said to him abruptly, "Citizen Bethune, since you are going down there, am not I to have all you leave behind you?"—"Certainly, M. Beaupré," answered the old man tranquilly. "There are no misters now," said the grinning wretch of a jailor, "we are all citizens;" and at me gate he again cried out to him, "Adieu, citizen Bethune!" M. de Bethune was however acquitted. He was brought back to prison as a suspected person. His return rejoiced us all; we thought him saved, but the next day he was again called up. Joseph Lebon, during whose absence the sentence of acquittal had been passed, arrived from the country: furious at being deprived of the blood of so worthy a man, he had ordered the members of the commission to assemble immediately, and M. de Bethune, condemned at the next sitting, was executed by torchlight.
This event, which Beaupré announced to us with ferocious joy, gave me serious uneasiness: every day they condemned to death men who were ignorant even of the cause of their arrest, and whose fortune or situation in society never intended them for political commotion: and on the other hand, I knew that Beaupré, very scrupulous as to the number, thought not of the quality; and that frequently, not seeing immediately the number of individuals pointed out, sent the first who came to hand, that the service of the state might suffer nothing from delay. Every moment then might place me in the clutch of Beaupré, and you may believe that this idea was not the most satisfactory in the world.
I had been already detained sixteen days, when a visit from Joseph Lebon was announced; his wife accompanied him, and he had in his train the principal terrorists of the country, amongst whom I recognised my father's old barber, and an emptier of wells, called Delmotte, or Lantilette. I asked them to say a word for me to the representative, which they promised; and I augured the better of it as they were both in good estimation. However, Joseph Lebon went through the rooms, questioning the prisoners in a brutal manner, and pretending to address them with frightful harshness. When he came to me, he stared at me, and said in a tone half severe and half jesting, "Ah! ah! is it you, François? What, you an aristocrat,—you speak ill of the Sans Culottes,—you regret your old Bourbon regiment,—take care, for I can send you to be cooked (guillotined,) But send your mother to me." I told mm, that being so strictly immured (au secret) I could not see her. "Beaupré," said he to the jailor, "let Vidocq's mother come in;" and went away, leaving me full of hope, as he had evidently treated me with marked amenity. Two hours afterwards I saw my mother, who told me what I knew not before, that the musician whom I had challenged had denounced me. The denunciation was in the hands of a furious jacobin, the terrorist Chevalier, who, out of friendship to my rival, would certainly have been much against me, if his sister, at the persuasion of my mother, had not prevailed on him to exert himself to procure my discharge. Having left prison, I was conducted with great state to the patriotic society, where they made me take the oath of fidelity to the republic, and hatred to tyrants. I swore all they desired. What sacrifices will not a man make to procure his freedom!
These formalities concluded, I was replaced in the depôt, where my comrades testified much pleasure at seeing me again. After what had passed, I should have been deficient in gratitude had I not looked on Chevalier as my deliverer; I went to thank him, and expressed to his sister how much I was touched at the interest which she had so kindly testified to a poor prisoner. This lady, who was the most amorous of brunettes, but whose large black eyes did not compensate for their ugliness, thought that I was in love because I was polite; she construed literally some compliments which I paid her, and from the first interview, she so greatly misinterpreted my sentiments as to cast her regards upon me. Our union was talked of, and my parents were questioned on the point, who answered that eighteen was too young for marriage, and so the matter went on. Meanwhile battalions were formed at Arras, and being known as an excellent driller, I was summoned with seven other subaltern officers to instruct the 2d battalion of Pas-de-Calais, to which belonged a corporal of grenadiers of the regiment of Languedoc, named Cæsar, now garde champêtre at Colombre or Pateux, near Paris. He was our adjutant major. As for me, I was promoted to the rank of sub-lieutenant on arriving at St Sylvestre-Capelle, near Bailleul, where we quartered. Cæsar had been fencing-master in his own regiment, and my prowess with the advanced guard of Kinski's cuirassiers was well known. We resolved to teach the practice as well as the theory of fencing to the officers of the battalion, who were much pleased at such an arrangement. Our lessons produced us some money, but not enough for our wants, or if you please, the desires of men of our abilities. It was particularly in good living that we were found wanting. What increased our regrets and appetites was, that the mayor with whom we lodged (my comrade and I) kept an excellent table. We sought in vain the means of increasing our supplies; an old domineering servant, named Sixca always defeated our intentions, and disturbed our gastronomic plans. We were disheartened and starving.
At length Cæsar found out the secret of breaking the charm which kept us from the table of the municipal functionary. At his suggestion, the drum-major came one morning to beat the morning call under the mayor's windows. Judge of the disturbance. It may be surmised that the old Mægara did not fail to request an intervention in putting a stop to this uproar. Cæsar promised with a mild air to use all his influence to put a stop to the noise, and then ran to beg the drum-major to renew the cause of complaint; and the next morning there was a row sufficient to awaken the dead from the adjacent church-yard; and at length, not to do things by halves, he sent the drum-major to practice with his boys at the back of the house; a pupil of the abbé Sicard could not have endured it. The old woman came to us, and invited the cunning Cæsar and me very graciously; but that was not enough. The drummers continued their concert, which only concluded when their respectable chief was admitted, as well as ourselves, to the municipal banquet. From that time no more drums were heard at St Sylvestre-Capelle, except when detachments were passing by, and everybody was at peace except myself whom the old woman began to threaten with her obliging favours. This unfortunate passion brought on a scene which must still be remembered in that part of the country, where it made much noise at the time.
It was the village feast, dancing, singing, drinking went on; and I bore my part so ably that they were compelled to lead me to bed. The next day I awoke before daybreak: as after all similar orgies, I had a giddy head, my mouth parched, and my stomach disordered; I wanted something to drink; and on rising I felt a hand as cold as a well-rope encircling my neck; my head was still wandering and weak from the over-night's debauch, and I shrieked out lustily. The mayor, who slept in an adjoining chamber, ran with his brother and an old servant, both armed with cudgels. Cæsar had not returned, and reflection had convinced me that the nocturnal visitor could only be Sixca; and pretending to be greatly alarmed, I told them that some hobgoblin had come to my side, and had glided out at the foot of the bed. They then laid on several blows with their sticks; and Sixca, perceiving that she would soon be killed, cried out "Gentlemen, do not strike, it is I—it is Sixca. I walked in my sleep to the officer's bed." At the same time she showed her head, and did well; for although they recognised her voice, yet the superstitious Flemings were about to renew the application of the bastinado. As I have said, this adventure, which almost realizes certain scenes of "My Uncle Thomas," and "The Barons of Felsheim," made much noise throughout the place. It spread even to Cassel, and procured me many intrigues. I had, amongst others, one with a pretty bar-maid, whom I should not allude to if she had not first taught me, that at the counter of some coffee-houses a good-looking fellow may get change for cash which he has not paid.
We had been quartered for three months when the division was ordered to Stinward. The Austrians had given tokens of an intention to proceed to Poperingue, and the 2d battalion of the Pas-de-Calais was placed in the first rank. The night after our arrival the enemy surprised our outposts, and penetrated to the village of Belle, which we occupied, and we formed in battle array in the greatest haste. In this nocturnal manœuvre our young recruits evinced that intelligence and alacrity which are only to be found in Frenchmen. About six o'clock in the morning, a squadron of Wurmser hussars debouched on our left, and charged us without being able to break through our ranks. A column of infantry which followed them, attacked us at the same time with the bayonet; and it was only after a brisk encounter that our inferiority of numbers compelled us to fall back upon Stinward, our head-quarters.
On arriving there I received the congratulations of general Vandomme, and a billet for the hospital of St Omer, for I had had two sabre cuts in fighting with an Austrian hussar, who was killed whilst crying "Ergib dich! ergib dich! (surrender, surrender.)"
My wounds were not very severe, since at the end of two months I was enabled to rejoin the battalion which was at Hazebrouek. I then saw the strange corps called the Revolutionary Army.
The men with pikes and red caps, who composed it, took with them everywhere the guillotine. The convention had not, they said, found any better way of securing the fidelity of the officers of the fourteen armies which it had on foot, than by placing before their eyes the instrument of punishment reserved for traitors. All that I can say is, that this mournful sight almost killed with fear the inhabitants of the country through which it passed. It did not much flatter the military, and we had many quarrels with the Sans-culottes, who were called the body guard of the guillotine. I beat one of the party, who took upon himself to censure my gold epaulettes, when the regulation only ordered those of worsted. My fine array would have brought misfortune on me, and I should have paid dearly for my disregard of the sumptuary law, if I had not been allowed to start for Cassel, where I was joined by my battalion, which was then arrayed like the other regiments: these officers became plain soldiers, and it was in that capacity that I was directed to enter the 28th battalion of volunteers, which formed part of the army destined to drive the Austrians from Valenciennes and Condé.
The battalion was quartered at Fresnes. In the farm house in which I was billeted, there arrived one day the whole family of a pilot, consisting of the husband, wife, and two children, one of whom was a girl of eighteen, who was remarkably handsome. The Austrians had taken the boat, laden with grain, which was their whole fortune; and these poor people, reduced to the garments which covered them, had no resource left but to take refuge with my host, their relation. This circumstance, their pitiable condition, and the beauty of the young girl Delphine, touched my heart.
During a foraging party, I discovered the boat, which the enemy were only gradually unlading and measuring out. I proposed to a dozen of my comrades to carry off the spoils from the Austrians. They acceeded to the proposition; our colonel gave his consent; and on a stormy night, we approached the vessel without being observed by the officer in charge, whom we despatched to feed the fish of the Escaut with five strokes of the bayonet. The wife of the pilot, who would follow us, instantly ran for a bag of florins which she had concealed in the grain, and gave them to my charge. We then loosened the boat, to let it float to a point where we had an entrenched post, but at the moment it got into the stream, we were surprised by the challenge of a guard, whom we had not observed amongst the bulrushes which concealed him. At the report of his gun which accompanied his second call to us, the next piquet flew to arms, and in a moment the bank was covered with soldiers, who fired a shower of balls at the boat, which we were compelled to quit. My comrades and I cast ourselves on a sort of raft which we had, and the woman did the same; but the pilot, forgotten in the confusion, or stopping with a hope of escape, was taken by the Austrians, who were not sparing of their blows and kicks. This experiment had besides lost us three men, and I had two fingers broken by a musket ball. Delphine loaded me with caresses. Her mother having set out for Ghent, where she knew her husband had been sent as prisoner of war, we betook ourselves to Lille. I there passed my time of convalescence. As Delphine had a portion of the money found in the grain, we led a very pleasant life. We talked of marriage, and the affair was so far arranged that I started one morning for Arras, whence I was to return with the licence and my parents' consent. Delphine had already procured that of her parents, who were still at Ghent. A league from Lille, I remembered that I had forgotten my hospital billet, which it was indispensably necessary to produce before the municipality of Arras, and I returned for it. Arrived at the hotel, I went to the room we occupied and knocked; no one answered. It was impossible that Delphine could be out so early, it being scarcely six o'clock. I knocked again, and Delphine opened the door, stretching her arms and rubbing her eyes like some one who has been suddenly awakened. To prove her, I proposed that she should go with me to Arras, that I might present her to my parents, and she very tranquilly agreed. My suspicions were disappearing, and yet something whispered to me that she was deceiving me. I at length perceived that she frequently glanced towards the wardrobe. I pretended a desire to open it, which my chaste betrothed opposed, and gave me one of those excuses which a woman always has ready. But I was determined; and at length opened the closet, where I found concealed, beneath a neap of dirty linen, the doctor who had attended me during my convalescence. He was old, ugly, and misshapen. The first feeling was the humiliation of having such a rival; and yet I should have been more enraged at finding a good looking fellow, but this I leave for the decision of the numerous lovers who have been similarly circumstanced. As for me, I wished to begin by knocking out the brains of the intriguing Esculapius, but (which seldom happened to me) reflection restrained me. We were in a town of war, where they might play me some trick about my leave of absence. Besides Delphine was not my wife; I had no right over her. I determined on kicking her out; after which, I threw her from the window her clothes, and money enough to take her to Ghent. I allowed myself to retain the remainder of the money, which I thought I had lawfully acquired, since I had directed the splendid expedition which had rescued it from the clutch of the Austrians. I forgot to say that I allowed the doctor to return unmolested.
Having got rid of my faithless she, I determined on remaining at Lille, until the time of my furlough should expire; but it is as easy to conceal ourself in this city as at Paris, and my residence would have been undisturbed but for an affair of gallantry of which I shall spare the details. It will suffice to say, that being arrested in female attire, at the moment I was flying from the rage of a jealous husband, I was taken to the police office, where I at first obstinately refused to give any account of myself; for in fact, by speaking, I should either destroy the female who had been kind to me, or announce myself as a deserter. Some hours confinement changed my resolution; a superior officer to whom I had appealed to receive my declaration, and to whom I candidly stated the facts, seemed to take some interest for me. The commandant-general of the division wished to hear from my own lips this recital, which made him laugh to excess. He then gave orders that I should be set at liberty; and caused a line forthwith to be given to me to rejoin the 28th battalion at Brabant: but instead of following this destination, I went to Arras, determined only to enter the service again at the last extremity.
My first visit was to the patriot Chevalier. His influence with Joseph Lebon made me hope that I should obtain through his interest an extension of leave, which he procured for me, and I was again introduced to the family of my benefactor. His sister, whose kind intentions towards me are already known, redoubled her kindness; and on the other hand, the habit of seeing her daily familiarised me with her ugliness; in short, matters came to such a point that I was not at all surprised to hear her one day declare that she was pregnant. She made no mention of marriage, not even pronouncing the word; but I saw but too clearly that to this complexion it must come at last, lest I should incur the vengeance of her brother, who would not have hesitated to denounce me as an aristocrat, and moreover a deserter. My parents, struck with all these considerations, and conceiving the hope of keeping me near them, gave their consent to the marriage, which the Chevalier family were very anxious about. It was at last settled, and I became a husband at eighteen years of age. I thought myself also almost the father of a family, but scarcely had a few days elapsed, when my wife confessed that her pretended pregnancy was the result of a plan to induce me to marry her. The excessive satisfaction which such an avowal gave me may be conceived; but the same motives which had decided me on contracting the alliance compelled me to be silent; and I determined to keep my own counsel, enraged as I was. A mercer's shop which my wife had opened turned out very badly; I thought that I found the cause of it in the repeated absence of my wife, who was all day at her brother's. I made my observations; and received orders to rejoin my regiment at Tournai. I might have complained of this expeditious mode of getting rid of a troublesome husband; but I was so much tired of the yoke of Chevalier, that I resumed with joy my uniform, which I had cast off with so much pleasure.
At Tournay, a veteran officer of the Bourbon regiment, then adjutant-general, attached me to his office as a deputy, and particularly in the serving out of clothing. Business soon demanded that a man of trust should be dispatched to Arras. I set out post, and arrived in the city at eleven o'clock at night. As I was charged with orders, the gates were opened to me, and by an impulse for which I cannot account, I was induced to run to my wife's abode. I knocked for a long time, and no one answered. A neighbour, at length, opened the door, and I ran up stairs with all speed to my wife's chamber. On approaching, I heard the clank of a falling sabre, then a window opened, and a man leaped out into the street. It is needless to say that they had recognised my voice. I went down stairs with great haste, and soon overtook my Lovelace, in whom I recognised an adjutant-major of the 17th horse chasseurs, quartered at Arras. He was half naked; I led him back to my conjugal domicile, when he finished his toilette, and we then separated, on agreeing to fight the next day.
This scene had roused the whole neighbourhood. The greater part of the people, assembled at their windows, had seen me seize on the guilty adjutant, who had been found guilty of the fact in their presence. I had no lack of witnesses to prove and obtain the divorce, and that was what I intended to do; but the family of my chaste wife, who were desirous of keeping a protector for her, exerted themselves to check my measures, or at least to paralyze them. The next day, before I could meet the adjutant-major, I was arrested by the police and by gendarmes, who spoke of placing me in the Baudets. Fortunately for me, I plucked up courage, as I saw that there was nothing discouraging in my situation: I demanded to be carried before Joseph Lebon, which could not be denied me. I appeared before the representative of the people, whom I found surrounded by an enormous pile of letters and papers—"What, is it you," said he to me, "who come here without permission—and for maltreating your wife too?" I saw what course I should pursue, I produced my orders, I called for the testimony of my neighbours against my wife, and that of the adjutant-major himself, who could not gainsay the facts. Indeed, I so clearly explained the affair, that Joseph Lebon was forced to confess that the wrongs were not of my committing; but out of regard, however, to his friend Chevalier, he made me promise not to remain long at Arras; and as I feared the wind might veer against me, as I had seen it with many others, I undertook to comply with his request as promptly as possible. Having completed my mission, I bade farewell to all my friends, and the next morning found me on the road to Tournay.