Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter III

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Residence at Brussels—Coffee-houses—The gastronomic gendarmes—A forger—The roving army—The baroness and the baker boy—The disappointment—Arrival at Paris—A gay lady—Mystification.

I did not find the adjutant-general at Tournay, he had set out for Brussels, and I set out on the following day by the diligence to join him there. At the first glance, I recognised amongst the travellers those individuals whom I had known at Lille, as passing the whole day at the public-houses, and living in a very suspicious manner. To my great astonishment, I found them clothed in uniforms of different regiments, one having the epaulettes of lieutenant-colonel, the others those of captain or lieutenant. How can they have got them, thought I, for they have never seen service. I was lost in conjecture. On their side, they appeared at first much confused at the rencontre; but soon recovering, they testified a mutual surprise at finding me only a plain soldier. When I had explained to them how the regulation of the battalion had deprived me of my rank, the lieutenant-colonel promised me his protection, which I accepted, although scarcely knowing what to think of my protector. I saw clearly, however, that he had plenty of money, and paid for all at the table d'hôte, where he testified a violent republican feeling, at the same time affecting to have sprung from an ancient family.

I was not more fortunate at Brussels than at Tournay; the adjutant-general, who seemed to fly from me, had gone to Liege, for which place I set out, relying on not taking an useless journey this time; but on arriving, I learnt that my man had taken the road to Paris on the previous evening, having been summoned to appear at the bar of the convention. His absence would not be longer than a fortnight. I waited, but no one arrived. Another month passed, and still no adjutant. My cash was sensibly diminishing, and I resolved on returning to Brussels, where I hoped to find some means of extricating myself from my embarrassment. To speak with that candour on which I pique myself in giving this history of my life, I must confess that I had begun not to be over scrupulous in my choice of these means; my education had not made me a very precise man in such matters, and the injurious society of a garrison, which I had been used to from my childhood, had corrupted a naturally honorable mind.

It was then, without doing much violence to my delicacy, that I saw myself installed, at Brussels, with a gay lady of my acquaintance, who, after having been patronised by general Van-der-Nott, had fallen a little lower into public society. Idle, as are all who have but a precarious mode of existence, I passed whole days and nights at the Café Turc or the Café de la Monnaie, the rendezvous of knights of the post, and professed gamblers. These fellows spent liberally, and played the devil's games; and as they had no ostensible means of living, I could not divine how they managed to carry on the war. A young fellow with whom I had associated myself, and whom I questioned on this subject, appeared struck at my inexperience, and I had the greatest difficulty in persuading him that I was really a novice. "The men whom you see there every day, and all day," said he, "are sharpers; those who only come once, and do not appear again, are dupes, who lose their money."

Thus instructed, I made many remarks, which till then had escaped me, I saw tricks of sleight of hand almost incredible; and what proved that there was still something good within me, I was often tempted to tell the pigeon whom they plucked. What happened to me will prove that my intentions were guessed.

A party was one evening engaged at the Café Turc; the dupe (le gonse) lost fifty louis, and demanding his revenge on the next day, went away. Scarcely had he gone out, when the winner, whom I now see daily in the streets of Paris, approached me, and said with an air of simplicity, "On my word, sir, we have played with luck, and you were right to bet on me; I have won ten games, which at four crowns a game, will make your share ten louis—here they are." I told him that he was mistaken, and that I had not interested myself in his play; he made me no answer, but put the ten louis into my hand. "Take it," said the young man who had initiated me into these mysteries, and who was sitting next to me, "take it and follow me." I obeyed mechanically, and when we reached the street, my Mentor added, "They have discovered that you watch the games, and fear lest you should blow the concern; and as there are no means of intimidating you, because they know that you have a strong arm and a mischievous hand, they have resolved on giving you a slice of the cake, so you have a good means of existence before you, the two coffee-houses will be milch cows to you, whence you may draw your four or six crowns a day." In spite of the accommodating propensity of my conscience, I was desirous of replying, and making some observations—"You are a child," said my honourable friend; "we do not talk of robbery here—it is fortune only; and believe me, matters pass in the drawing-room as they do at the tavern—there they bubble, that is the word; and the merchant, who in the morning whilst at his desk would think it a crime to rob you of an hour's interest, would very quietly cheat you at the gaming-table in the evening." How could I answer such unanswerable arguments? I had nothing to reply but to keep the money, which I did.

These small dividends, joined to a remittance of a hundred crowns from my mother, enabled me to dash a little, and to show my gratitude to Emily, whose devotion to me I was not insensible of. Matters were in this agreeable train when I was one evening arrested at the Theatre du Parc, by several police-officers, and desired to produce my papers. This would have been a dangerous exhibition, and I said that I had none. They conducted me to the Madelonettes; and the next morning, at my examination, I found that I was unknown, and they had mistaken me for another person. I said that my name was Rousseau, born at Lille, and added, that I had come to Brussels on pleasure, and had not thought it expedient to provide myself with papers. I then asked to be conducted to Lille, at my own expense, by two gendarmes, which was granted, and for a few crowns my escort agreed that poor Emily should accompany me.

Having left Brussels, I was so far safe; but it was still more important that I should not reach Lille, where I should be certainly recognised as a deserter. Escape must be made at all risks, and this was Emily's opinion when I communicated my intention to her, and we executed our preconcerted plan on reaching Tournay. I told the gendarmes that before they left me at Lille the next day, where I should be at once set at liberty, I wished to treat them with a good supper. Already taken with my liberality and mirth, they accepted the invitation with much willingness, and in the evening, whilst they were sleeping on the table, stupified with rum and beer, thinking me in the same condition, I descended by the sheets from the second-floor window. Emily followed, and we struck into the cross-roads, where they would not think of pursuing us. We thus reached the suburbs of Notre-Dame at Lille, when I dressed myself in the cloak of the horse-chasseurs, taking the precaution to put a black patch on my left eye, which made it impossible to recognise me. But I did not judge it prudent to remain long in a city so near my birth-place, and we started for Ghent. There, by a rather romantic incident, Emily found her father, which determined her to return to her family. It is true, that she would not consent to part from me, but with an express stipulation that I should rejoin her as soon as matters, which I said called me to Brussels, should be arranged.

My business at Brussels was to begin again to levy rates on the Café Turc and the Café de la Monnaie. But to present myself at this city, I wanted papers which should prove that I was really Rousseau, born at Lille, as I had said at my examination before I made my escape. A captain of Belgian carabineers in the French service, named Labbre, undertook for fifteen louis to supply me with the necessary credentials. At the end of three weeks he brought me a copy of my register of birth, a passport, and a certificate of half-pay in the name of Rousseau, all done better than I ever saw them executed by any other forger. Thus protected, I went to Brussels; the commandant of the place, an old comrade of Labbre's, undertook to make all right.

Quieted in this particular, I hastened to the Café Turc. The first persons whom I saw in the room were the pretended officers with whom I had travelled. They received me with acclamation; and judging from the recital of my adventures that my situation was not over splendid, proposed that I should take the rank of sub-lieutenant of horse chasseurs, doubtless because they saw the cloak I wore. So advantageous a promotion was not to be refused; and it was then conferred on me: and when I said Rousseau was only an assumed name, the worthy lieutenant-colonel told me to take any one which I preferred. It was impossible to be more obliging. I resolved on keeping the name of Rousseau, on which they gave me, not a brevet, but a line of route for a sub-lieutenant of the 6th chasseurs, travelling with his horse, and being entitled to lodgings and rations.

I thus found myself incorporated with the roving army (armée roulante) composed of officers without brevet, and without troops, and who, furnished with false certificates and false lines of march, imposed the more easily on the commissaries at war, as there was less method at this period in the military arrangements. It is certain, that during a tour which we made through the Netherlands, we got all our allowances without the least demur. Yet the roving army was not then composed of less than two thousand adventurers, who lived like fishes in water. What is still more curious is, that they promoted themselves as rapidly as circumstances would allow: an advancement was the more profitable, as increase of rank brought increase of allowances. I passed in this manner to be captain of hussars; one of my comrades became chief of a battalion; but what most astonished me was, the promotion of Auffray, our lieutenant-colonel, to the rank of brigadier-general. It is true, that if the importance of the rank and the notoriety of a promotion of this kind rendered it more difficult to keep up the deception, yet the very audacity of such a step bade defiance to suspicion.

Returned to Brussels, we showed our billets, and I was sent to a rich widow, the baroness d'I——. I was received in the manner in which all Frenchmen were welcomed at Brussels at this period—that is, with open arms. A very handsome bed-chamber was placed at my sole disposal, and my hostess, delighted at my reserved conduct, assured me in the most gracious manner, that if her hours suited me, a place at her table would always be prepared for me. It was impossible to resist such pressing politeness, and I was profuse in my thanks, and I took my seat at her board the same day with three other guests, who were ladies, older than the baroness, who was about fifty. They were all charmed with the prepossessing manners of the captain of hussars. At Paris I should have felt somewhat awkward in such society, but I did very well at Brussels for a young man whose premature introduction to the world had necessarily injured his education. The baroness doubtlessly made some such reflections, for she paid me such little attentions as gave me much food for thought.

As I was sometimes absent to dine with the general, whose invitations I told her it was impossible to refuse, she desired me to present him and my other friends to her. At first I was not over desirous of introducing my associates to the society of this lady, who saw much company, and might have guests at her house who might guess our little speculations. But the baroness insisted on it, and I consented, at the same time stipulating that the general should only meet a small party, as he was desirous of keeping up a sort of incognito. He came;and the baronesss, who received him with marked attention, seated him near her, and talked to him for so long a time in an under tone that I was rather piqued. To disturb this tête-à-tête, I imagined that it would be a good plan to ask the general to sing us something, and accompany himself on the piano. I knew that he could not make out a note, but I relied that the usual persuasions which guests make on such occasions would at least occupy his attention for some minutes. My stratagem only half succeeded; the lieutenant-colonel, who was of the party, seeing that the general was so much pressed, kindly offered himself as his substitute, and accordingly seated himself at the piano, and sung some little ditties with sufficient taste to procure him universal approbation, whilst I all the time wished him at the devil.

At last this interminable evening concluded, and each person withdrew, I raging with anger and plotting revenge against the rival who I imagined was about to carry off from me, I will not say the love, but the kind attentions of the baroness. Full of this idea, I went to my general at his rising, who was much surprised to see me so early. "Do you know," said he, without giving me time to break in upon his conversation, "do you know, my friend, that the baroness is——" "Who spoke of the baroness?" interrupted I abruptly, "it is no matter what she is or what she is not."—"So much the worse," he replied, "if you are not speaking of her, I have nothing to understand." And, continuing thus to puzzle me for some time, he ended by telling me that his conversation with the baroness was concerning me only, and that he had so far pushed my interest, that he believed that she was quite disposed to—to marry me.

I at first thought that my poor comrade's head was turned. That one of the richest women of rank in the United Provinces would marry an adventurer, of whose family, fortune, and ancestors she knew nothing, was an idea that would have staggered the most credulous. Ought I, moreover, to engage in a deceit which must be discovered, sooner or later, and must ruin me? Besides, was I not really and actually married at Arras? These objections, and many others, which the remorse I must experience at deceiving the excellent woman who had treated me so kindly, excited in my mind, did not for an instant stop my comrade, who thus answered them:—

"All you say is very fine, and I am quite of your opinion; and to follow my natural bias for virtuous behaviour, I only want 10,000l. a-year. But I see no reason for being scrupulous in your case. What does the baroness want? A husband, and a husband to her liking. Are you not that husband? Are you not determined to pay her every attention and to treat her as a person who is necessary to you, and of whom you have had no cause to complain? You talk of the inequality of your fortunes,—the baroness thinks not of that. You only want, to complete the matter, one single thing—a title of rank, which I will give you,—yes, I will give it to you! Why do you stare so? Listen, and do not interrupt me. You must be acquainted with some young nobleman of your own age and country; you are he, and your parents have emigrated and are now at Hamburgh. You entered France to endeavour to recover a third of the value of your paternal property, and to carry off the plate and a thousand double-louis concealed beneath the flooring of the drawing-room at the breaking out of the revolution: the presence of some strangers, the haste of departure, which an arrest issued against your father would not allow you to delay, has prevented you from getting this treasure. Arrived in this country, disguised as a journeyman tanner, you were denounced by the very person who had pledged himself to aid your enterprise; outlawed by the sentence of the republican authorities, you were nearly losing your head on the scaffold, when I fell in with you, half dead from inquietude and necessity. An old friend of the family, I procured for you the brevet of an officer of hussars, under the name of Rousseau, until an opportunity should offer of rejoining your noble parents at Hamburgh. The baroness already knows all this; yes, all, except your name, which, for appearances' sake, I did not tell her; but in fact, because I did not know what appellation you might chuse to assume. That is a confidence which I left for yourself to communicate.

"Thus the affair is quite settled, and you are a gentleman, nothing can be said against that. Say nothing to me of your jade of a wife; you were divorced at Arras under the name of Vidocq, and you are married at Brussels under the name of count B——. Now listen to me. So far our business has gone on well, but that may be entirely marred at any moment. We have already met with some very inquisitive commissaries, and we may find others still less civil, who may cut off our supplies, and send us to the fleet at Toulon. You understand me, I know. The best that can happen to you will be to take up your knapsack and accoutrements in your old regiment, or else be shot for a deserter; but by marrying you acquire the means of a splendid life, and will be enabled to assist your friends. Since we have come to this point, let us understand each other; your wife has a hundred thousand florins a-year; there are three of us, and you shall give us each a pension of a thousand crowns, payable in advance, and I shall expect besides a premium of thirty thousand francs for having made a count of a baker's son."

I was quite stupified: but this harangue, in which the general had so skilfully stated all the difficulties of my situation, overcame all my opposition, which, to say the truth, was not very obstinate. I agreed to everything, and then returned to the baroness. The count de B—— fell at her feet; and the scene was so well played, and, though it may be scarcely believed, I entered so completely into the spirit of my part, that I even for a moment surprised myself—which I am told sometimes happens to impostors. The baroness was charmed at the sallies and sentiment with which my situation inspired me. The general was rejoiced with my success, as was every other person. Several expressions escaped me which savoured a little of the canteen, but the general had told the baroness that political events had caused my education to be strangely neglected, and this explanation was satisfactory to her. Subsequently, marshal Suchet was no less easily satisfied, when Coignard, addressing him as "M. le duque d’Albufera," excused himself by the plea, that having emigrated when very young, he could consequently have but a very imperfect knowledge of the French language.

We sat down to table and dined in high spirits. After the dessert the baroness whispered me thus:—"I know, my dear sir, that your fortune is in the hands of the jacobins, and your parents at Hamburgh may be in some difficulty, oblige me by remitting to them a bill for three thousand florins, which my banker will send you to-morrow morning." I was about to express my thanks, when she rose from table and went into the drawing-room. I took the opportunity of telling the general what had just occurred. "Well, simpleton," said he, "do you think you are telling me any news? Was it not I who hinted to the baroness that your parents must be in want of money? We are at this moment your parents,—our funds are low; and to run any risk in procuring more, would be to hazard too foolishly the success of this adventure; I will undertake to negociate the bill. At the same time I suggested to the baroness that a supply of cash was needful for you to make some figure before your marriage, and it is understood that from now until the consummation of the marriage you shall have five hundred florins a month." I found the next day this sum on my dressing-table, where also was placed a handsome dressing-case and some trinkets.

Yet the register of my birth, as count de B—— whose name I had assumed, and which the general wished to procure, thinking that the other credentials might be forged, did not arrive; but the baroness, whose blindness must appear inconceivable, to those who are not in a situation to know to what extent credulity can go, and the audacity of some rogues, consented to marry me under the name of Rousseau. I had all the necessary papers to justify my claim to that. Nothing was wanting but my father's consent; that was easily procured through the instrumentality of Labbre, whom we had under our thumb; but although the baroness had consented to marrying me under a name which she knew was not my own, yet she felt some repugnance at being as it were an accomplice in a falsehood, for which the only excuse was, that it saved my head from the block. Whilst we were planning a means for avoiding this, we learnt that the number of the armée roulante had become so considerable, that the eyes of government were opened, and that the most severe orders had been issued to check the abuse. We divested ourselves of uniforms, believing that we should then have nothing to fear, but the enquiries were so active that the general was compelled to set out suddenly for Namur, where he thought he should be less liable to detection. I explained his abrupt departure to the baroness, by attributing it to the general's having been in fear of a reprimand for having procured me a commission under an assumed name. This circumstance made her very uneasy for me, and I could only calm her fears by setting out for Breda, to which place she would accompany me.

I am not very well calculated to play the sentimental, and it would compromise the tact and finesse, for which I have some credit, if I made a parade and fuss, but I may be believed when I say that so much attachment affected me. The whispers of remorse, to which we cannot be always deaf at nineteen, were heard; I saw the abyss into which I was leading an admirable woman who had been so generous towards me; I pictured her as driving from her with horror the deserter, the vagabond, the bigamist, the forger; and this idea determined me to tell her all. Away from those who had drawn me into this imposture, and who had just been arrested at Namur, I decided on the measures I would adopt; and one evening, after supper, I determined on breaking the ice. Without detailing my adventures, I told the baroness, that circumstances which I could not explain compelled me to appear at Brussels under the two names by which she knew me, but that neither was the real one. I added, that events forced me to quit the Netherlands without the power of contracting an union which would have ensured my happiness, but that I should for ever preserve the recollection of the kindness which she had so generously evinced for me.

I spoke long, and with an emotion which increased my utterance and warmth of manner—and I am now astonished at the facility of my own eloquence when I think of it—but I feared to hear the reply of the baroness. Motionless, pale, and with a glazed eye, she heard me without interruption; then looking at me with a glance of horror, she rose abruptly and ran to shut herself up in her room. I never saw her again. Enlightened by my confession, and by some words which without doubt fell from me in the embarrassment of the moment, she saw all the dangers from which she had escaped, and unjustly suspected me perhaps of being even more culpable than I was; she might think that she had escaped from some vile criminal, whose hands might have been embrued in blood! On the other hand, if this complication of disguises might render her more apprehensive, the spontaneous avowal that I had made was sufficient to have quelled her fears; and this idea probably took hold of her, for the next day when I arose, the landlord gave me a casket, containing fifteen thousand francs in gold, which the baroness had left for me before her departure, at one o'clock in the morning, which I was glad to hear of, as her presence would have troubled me. Nothing now detaining me at Breda, I packed my trunks, and some hours afterwards set out for Amsterdam.

I have already said, and now repeat, that certain portions of this adventure may appear unnatural, and some may call them altogether false, but nothing is more true. The initials I have given will suffice to explain it to any person who knew Brussels thirty years ago. Besides, there is nothing uncommon in the affair, nothing more than is read of in the commonest romance. If I have entered into minute details, it is not to ensure a melo-dramatic effect, but with the intention of putting too credulous persons on their guard against a species of deception more frequently employed, and with more success than may be generally thought, in all classes of society; and such is the aim of these Memoirs. Let them be reflected on in every particular, and who knows but that some fine morning the duties of attorney-general, judge, gendarme, and agent of police, may be discovered to have become sinecures.

My stay at Amsterdam was very short. Having converted into cash two bills of those left me by the baroness, I set out, and on the 2d of March 1796 made my entrance into the capital, where at a future day my name was destined to make some noise. I put up at the hotel du Gaillard-Bois in Rue de l'Échelle, and first employed myself in changing my ducats into French money, and in selling a quantity of small jewellery and trinkets, now superfluous to me, as I resolved on establishing myself in some village in the environs, and entering into some business; but this project was not to be resized. One evening, one of those persons who are always to be found in hotels seeking acquaintance with travellers, proposed to present me at a house where there was a party. I unfortunately consented, confiding in my experience of the Café Turc and the Café de la Monnaie; but I soon found that gamblers of Brussels were but bunglers in comparison with these gentlemen, of whose society I now formed one. Now the games of chance are better managed and more equal; but at that time, the police tolerating those places called etouffoirs, they were not contented with slipping a card or managing the suits as they liked—sometimes at M. Lafitte's, Messrs de S——, jun., and A. de la Rock's—the knowing ones had conventional signs so combined that they must succeed. Two sittings cleared me of a hundred louis; I had enough to spare still, but it was decreed that the money of the baroness should soon leave my company. The destined agent of its dissipation was a very pretty woman, whom I met at a table d'hote which I sometimes frequented. Rosine, for that was her name, at first showed an exemplary disinterestedness. A month afterwards I was her acknowledged lover, without having spent anything but for dinners, theatres, coach-hire, gowns, gloves, ribands, flowers, &c., all which things cost nothing at Paris, when we do not pay for them.

More and more enamoured of Rosine, I never left her. One morning, whilst at breakfast, I found her thoughtful; I pressed her with enquiries, which she resisted, and finished by avowing to me that she was troubled about a trifle due to her milliner and upholsterer. I offered my services instantly, which were refused with remarkable magnanimity, and I could not even learn the names of her two creditors. Many very excellent people would have left the matter here, but, like a true knight, I had not a moment's rest until Divine, the waiting-maid, had given me the desired addresses. From the Rue Vivienne, where Rosine lived, who was called madame de Saint Michel, I ran to the upholsterer, in the Rue de Clery. I told him the purpose of my visit, and he immediately overwhelmed me with politenesses, as is usually the case under such circumstances. He handed me the bill, which, to my consternation, amounted to twelve hundred francs; but I was too far gone to recede now. At the milliner's the same scene took place, with an additional hundred francs; it was sufficient to have intimidated the boldest, and yet matters had not reached their climax. Some days after I had paid the creditors, they brought me jewels to purchase, to the amount of two thousand francs, and other similar expenses perpetually occurred. I saw my money fly away in this way, but fearing that it would not be so easily replenished, I parted with it less freely from day to day. However, I went on, and found that at the end of two months I had spent the moderate sum of fourteen thousand francs. This discovery made me serious, and Rosine immediately perceived it. She guessed that my finances were getting low. Women have great tact in this respect, and are but rarely deceived; and without being exactly cold towards me, she yet showed a kind of reserve, and on my manifesting astonishment, she answered me with singular abruptness, "that private matters put her out of temper." That was a trick, but I had been too deeply a sufferer already by my interference in these private matters to proffer again to arrange them, and I advised her with an air of coolness to have patience. She became only more contemptuous, passed some days in pouting, and then the storm burst.

At the conclusion of some trifling discussion, she said with a very flippant tone "that she did not choose to be crossed, and that those who could not put up with her ways had better remain at home." That was plain speaking; but I was weak enough to appear not to understand her. New presents brought back a temporary renewal of kindness, which however could no longer impose upon me. Then knowing all that she could get from my blind infatuation, Rosine soon returned to the charge for cash for a letter of credit for two thousand francs, which she had to pay or go to prison. Rosine in prison! The idea was insupportable, and I was about to discharge the debt at once, when chance placed in my way a letter which opened my eyes.

It was from the platonic friend of Rosine, who was staying at Versailles, and the interesting personage asked "when the pigeon would be quite plucked," that he might make his appearance. I intercepted this agreeable missive in the hands of Rosine's porter. I went to the perfidious woman, but she was absent: and enraged and humiliated at the same time, I could not restrain myself. I was in the bed-room, and at one kick I overthrew a stand covered with china, and a cheval glass was shivered to atoms. Divine, the waiting-maid, who had followed me, went down on her knees and begged me to pause from what would cost me so dear: I looked at her and hesitated, and a remnant of common sense induced me to think that she was right. I questioned her—and the poor girl, who had always been gentle and attentive, told me all about her mistress. It is the more in place to mention her statement, as the same things occur daily at Paris.

When Rosine met me she had not had anybody for two months: and thinking me fair game, from the expensive way I got rid of my money, conceived the plan of profiting by it; and her lover, whose letter I had intercepted, had consented, and went to Versailles to stay until my money should be exhausted. It was in the name of this lover that the proceedings had been carried on for the bill of exchange which I had formerly taken up, and the debts of the milliner and upholsterer were equally false.

Although cursing my egregious folly, I was yet astonished not to see the honourable lady, who had so well tricked me, return. Divine told me that most probably the porter had told her that I had got the letter, and that she would not very speedily appear. This conjecture was well founded. On learning the catastrophe which had prevented her from plucking the last feather from my wing, Rosine had set out in a hackney-coach for Versailles to rejoin her friend. The finery, which she left in her furnished apartments, was not sufficient to pay for the two months' lodging due to the landlord, who, when I was going out, compelled me to pay for the china and cheval glass which I had broken in my first transports of anger.

Such violent inroads had dreadfully reduced my finances. Fourteen hundred francs alone remained of the ducats of the baroness! I left the capital with horror, as it had been so unpropitious to me, and resolved to regain Lille, where, knowing the localities, I might at least find resources which I should in vain seek for at Paris.