Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter IV

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CHAPTER IV.


The gypsies—A Flemish fair—Return to Lille—Another acquaintance—The Bull's-eye—The sentence of punishment—St Peter's tower—The prisoners—A forgery.


Lille, as a fortified and frontier town, offered great advantages to all who, like myself, were likely to find there useful acquaintances, either amongst the military of the garrison, or that class of persons who, with one foot in France and the other in Belgium, have really no home in either; and I relied a little on this for recovering myself, and my hope was not groundless. In the 13th chasseurs I met several officers of the south, and amongst the rest a lieutenant named Villedieu, whom we shall presently hear more of. All these persons had only known me in the regiment under one of those noms de guerre, which it was the custom at this time to assume, and were therefore not astonished at seeing me bear the name of Rousseau. I spent the day with them at the café or fencing-rooms, but this was not very lucrative, and I actually began to be in want of money. At this juncture a visitor of the café, whom they called Rentier, from his regular life, and who had made me many compliments, of which he was very prodigal to all the world, enquired with some interest into my affairs, and asked me to travel with him.

To travel was all very well ; but in what quality ? I was no longer of an age to engage myself as Merry Andrew or valet-de-chambre of monkies and bears, and nobody would doubtless make me such a proposition; but yet it was necessary to know in what capacity. I asked my new protector very modestly what duties I had to perform in his service. "I am an itinerant doctor," said this man, whose bushy eye-brows and sun-burnt skin gave him a singular physiognomy; "I cure secret diseases with an infallible recipe. I cure animals, and lately restored the horses of a squadron of the 13th chasseurs, whom the veterinary surgeon had given over."—"Well," said I to myself, "once more a doctor." But there was no receding : we agreed to start next morning and to meet at five in the morning at the gate leading to the Paris road.

I was punctual at the rendezvous, and my friend, who was equally punctual, seeing my trunk strapped at the back of a lad, said that it would be useless to take it, as we should be only three days away, and must go on foot. At this observation I sent my goods back to the inn, and we walked on at a brisk rate, having, as my guide said, to make five leagues before mid-day. About this time we reached a solitary farm-house, where he was received with open arms and saluted by the name of Caron, which was strange to me who had always heard him called Christian. After a few words the master of the house went into his chamber and returned with two or three bags of crowns, which he spread on the table. My friend took them, and examining them singly with an attention which appeared to me affected, put aside one hundred and fifty and counted out a like sum for the farmer in different money, with a premium of six crowns : I understood nothing of this operation, which was carried on in a Flemish dialect, of which I understood but very little. I was then much astonished when on leaving the farm, where Christian had said he would soon return, he gave me three crowns, saying that I ought to have a share of the profits. I could not learn what the profits were, and said so. "That is my secret," said he, with a mysterious air; "you shall know it at a future time, if I am satisfied with you." I told him that he might rely on my discretion since I knew nothing, only that he had changed crowns for another coin. He told me that this was the only point on which I ought to be silent, to avoid difficulties, and I therefore took the money without knowing what was to result from all this.

For four days we made similar excursions to various farms, and every evening I touched two or three crowns. Christian, whom they all called Caron, was well known in this part of Brabant, but only as a doctor; for, although he everywhere carried on his change of monies, the conversation was always about healing man or beast. I found besides that he had a reputation for removing the charms cast on animals. A proposal, which he made me as we entered the village of Wervique, initiated me into this species of magic—"May I rely on you?" said he to me, stopping suddenly.—"Certainly," said I; "but for what and how?"—"Listen, and learn."

He took from a sort of game-bag four square packets made up like those of chemists, and apparently containing some specifics; he then said, "You see these four farms, situated at some distance from each other, you can enter them the back way, taking care that no one sees them; get into the stable, and throw into the manger the powder of one of these packets. Take great care that you are not discovered—I will take care of the rest." I objected to this, as I might be surprised at the moment I was climbing the gate and they would seize me, and perhaps put some awkward questions. I refused point blank, in spite of the perspective of the crowns, and all Christian's eloquence failed in persuading me. I even said that I would quit him at once, unless he would disclose to me his real condition and the mystery of his exchange of money, which seemed to me extremely suspicious. This declaration seemed to embarrass him, and, as we may learn, he endeavoured to draw me off the scent, in making me a half confidence.

"My country?" said he, answering my latter question, "I have none. My mother, who was hanged last year at Témeswar, belonged to a gang of gypsies (Bohemiens) who were traversing the frontiers of Hungary and Bannat, where I was born in a village on the Carpathian mountains. I say Bohemiens that you may understand, for that is not our proper name, we call ourselves Romamichels in a language which we are forbidden to teach to any persons; we are also forbidden to travel alone, and that is the reason why we are generally in troops of fifteen or twenty. We have had a long run through France, curing charms and spells of cattle, but this business is pretty well destroyed at present. The countryman has grown too cunning, and we have been driven into Flanders, where they are not so cunning, and the difference of money gives us a finer opportunity for the exercise of our industry. As for me, I have been at Brussels on private business which I have just settled, and in three days I rejoin the troop at the fair of Malines. It is at your pleasure to accompany me: you may be useful to us. But we must have no more nonsense now!"

Half embarrassed as to where I should shelter my head, and half curious to see the termination of this adventure, I agreed to go with Christian, without at all understanding how I could be useful to him. The third day we reached Malines, whence he told me we should return to Brussels. Having traversed the city, we stropped in the Faubourg de Louvain, before a wretched looking house with blackened walls, furrowed with wide crevices, and many bundles of straw as substitutes for window glasses. It was midnight, and I had time to make my observations by the moonlight, for more than half an hour elapsed before the door was opened by one of the most hideous old hags I ever saw in my life. We were then introduced to a long room where thirty persons of both sexes were indiscriminately smoking and drinking, mingling in strange and licentious positions. Under their blue loose frocks, ornamented with red embroidery, the men wore blue velvet waistcoats with silver buttons, like the Andalusian muleteers; the clothing of the women was all of one bright colour: there were some ferocious countenances amongst them, but yet they were all feasting. The monotonous sound of a drum, mingled with the howling of two dogs tied under the table, accompanied the strange songs, which I mistook for a funeral psalm. The smoke of tobacco and wood, which filled this den, scarcely allowed me to perceive in the midst of the room a woman who, adorned with a scarlet turban, was performing a wild dance with the most wanton postures.

On our entrance there was a pause in the festivity; the men came to shake hands with Christian and the women to embrace him, and then all eyes were turned on me, who felt much embarrassed at my present situation. I had been told a thousand strange stories of the Bohemiens, which did not encrease my comfortable feelings: they might take offence at any scruples I should make, and might get rid of me before it was even known where I had gone to, since no one could trace me to such a haunt. My disquietude became sufficiently apparent to attract the attention of Christian, who thought to assure me by saying that we were at the house of the duchess (a title which is equivalent to that of mother amongst such comrades), and that we were in perfect safety. My appetite decided me on taking my part at the banquet. The gin bottle was often filled and emptied, when I felt an inclination to go to bed. At the first word that I said Christian conducted me to a neighbouring closet, where were already on clean straw several Bohemiens. It did not suit me to be particular; but I could not prevent myself from asking my patron why he, who had always before selected such good quarters, had made choice of so bad a sleeping place? He told me that in all towns, where there was a house of the Romamichels they were constrained to lodge, under pain of being considered as a false brother, and as such punished by a council of the tribe. Women and children all slept in this military bed; and the sleep which soon overtook them, proved that it was a familiar couch.

At break of day everybody was on foot, and the general toilet was made. But for their prominent features, without their raven-black tresses and that oily and tanned skin, I should scarcely have recognised my companions of the preceding evening. The men, clad in rich jockey holland vests, with leathern sashes like those worn by the inhabitants of Poissy, and the women covered with ornaments of gold and silver, assumed the costume of Zealand peasants: even the children, whom I had seen covered with rags, were neatly clothed, and had an entirely different appearance. All soon left the house and took different directions, that they might not reach the market place all together where the country people were assembling in crowds. Christian, seeing that I was preparing to follow him, told me that he should not have need of me the whole day, and that I might go wherever I pleased until evening, when we were to meet at the house of the duchess. He then put some crowns in my hand and left me.

As in our conversation of the previous evening he had told me that I was not compelled to lodge with the troop, I began by ordering a bed at the inn. Then, not knowing how to kill time, I went to the fair, and had scarcely gone round it four or five times when I met face to face an old officer of the recruiting battalions, named Malgaret, whom I had known as making one of the gambling set at the Café Turc at Brussels. After the first salutations, he asked me why I was staying at Malines. I told him a history, and he was equally communicative about his travels; and we were thus content, each thinking that he had imposed on the other. Having taken some refreshments we returned to the fair, and every part where there was a crowd I met some of the lodgers of the duchess. Having told my companion that I had no acquaintance at Malines, I turned my head that they might not recognise me, for I did not much care to confess that I had such friends; but I had too cunning a fox to deal with. "Look," said he to me, looking me full in the face, "look at those people who are regarding you so attentively. Pray do you know them?" Without turning my head I replied that I had never seen them before, and did not even know who they were. "Who they are!" replied my companion, "I will tell you—supposing you to be ignorant—they are robbers!"—"Robbers!" I replied. "How do you know it?" "In the same way that you shall soon know if you will follow me, for it is a fair bet that we shall not have far to go without finding them at work. Come along—here they are."

Raising my eyes towards a crowd in front of a menagerie, I perceived one of the false jockeys taking the purse of a fat grazier, whom we saw the next moment seeking for it in his pockets: the Bohemien then entered a jeweller's shop, where were already two of the pretended Zealand peasants, and my companion assured me that he would not come out until he had pilfered some of the jewels that were shown to him. We then left our post of observation to go and dine together: and, at the end of the repast, seeing my companion disposed to talk, I pressed him to tell me precisely who the people were whom he had pointed out to me, assuring him that, in spite of appearances, I knew but very little of them. He complied, and told me as follows:

"It was in the prison (Rasphuys) of Ghent, where I passed six months, some years since, at the end of a game at which some doctors (loaded dice) were discovered, that I made acquaintance with two men of the troop now at Malines. We were in the same cell, and as I passed myself off for an accomplished thief, they told me, without distrust, all their light-fingered tricks: and even gave me the minutest details of their singular existence. These people come from the country about Moldavia, where a hundred and fifty thousand of them vegetate, like the Jews in Poland, without the power of fulfilling any office but that of executioner. Their name changes with their change of country; they are ziguiners in Germany, gypsies in England, zingari in Italy, gitanos in Spain, and Bohemiens in France and Belgium. They thus traverse all Europe, exercising the lowest and most dangerous trades. They clip dogs, tell fortunes, mend crockery, repair saucepans, play wretched music at the public-house doors, speculate in rabbit-skins, and change foreign money which they find out of the usual circulation.

"They sell specifics against the illness of cattle, and to promote the business, they dispatch trusty envoys, who, under pretences of making purchases, get into the stables, and throw drugs into the mangers, which make the cattle sick. They then present themselves, and are received with open arms, and knowing the nature of the malady, they easily remove it, and the farmer hardly knows how to be adequately grateful. This is not all; for before they quit the farm, they learn whether the husbandman has any crowns of such and such a year, or such and such a stamp, promising to give a premium for them. The interested countryman, like all persons who but seldom find an opportunity of getting money, spreads his coin before them, of which they invariably contrive to pilfer a portion. What is almost incredible is, that they are seen to repeat with impunity the same trick frequently, at the same house. Indeed, what is most villanous of all in their transactions is, that they profit by these circumstances, and their knowledge of the localities of the country, to point out to burglars the detached farms in which there is money, and the means of getting at it, and it is needless to add, that they come in for their share of the spoil."

Malgaret gave further details concerning the Bohemiens, which determined me on quitting their dangerous society as speedily as possible.

He was speaking thus, looking into the street from time to time from the window near which we were seated, when suddenly I heard him exclaim, "Oh, the devil! My friend of the Rasphuys at Ghent!"—I looked out, and saw Christian walking very fast, and with an air of busy import. I could scarcely help exclaiming aloud. Malgaret, profiting by the trouble into which his explanation had thrown me, had not much difficulty in extracting from me how I was associated with the Bohemiens. Seeing me resolved on quitting their company, he proposed that I should accompany him to Courtrai, where, he said, he had some game in view. After having taken from the inn the few things I had brought from the house of the duchess, I set out with my new associate, but we did not find at Courtrai the friends whom Malgaret had relied on meeting there, and it was our cash, and not theirs, that was spent. Despairing of their appearance, we returned to Lille; I had still one hundred francs left, and Malgaret gambled with them on our mutual account, and lost them, together with what he had of his own, and I afterwards learnt that he had confederated with his antagonist to cheat me out of what I had left.

In this extremity, I had recourse to my abilities; and some fencing-masters, to whom I spoke of my situation, gave me a benefit at a fencing-match, which produced me a hundred crowns. Set up with this sum, which for a time secured me from want, I frequented public places, balls, &c. I then formed an intimacy, of which the circumstances and consequences decided the destiny of my whole life. Nothing could be more simple than the commencement of this important episode of my history. I met at the Bal de la Montagne with a young lady, with whom I was soon on good terms. Francine, for that was her name, appeared much attached to me, and at every moment made me protestations of fidelity, which did not, however, prevent her from giving private interviews to a captain of engineers.

I one day surprised them supping at a tavern in the place Riourt, and transported with rage, I heartily thumped the astonished pair. Francine, with her hair hanging loose, fled; but her partner remained, and making a charge against me, I was arrested and conducted to the prison of Petit Hôtel. Whilst my trial was preparing, I was visited by many females of my acquaintance, who made it a duty to offer me their consolations. Francine learnt this, and her jealousy aroused, she dismissed the unfortunate captain, withdrew the charge against me which she had made at the same time with his, and beseeching me to receive her, I weakly consented. The judges heard of this fact, which was tortured into a premeditated plan between me and Francine, and I was sentenced to three months imprisonment. From the Petit Hôtel I was transferred to St Peter's Tower, where I obtained a chamber called the Bull's-eye. Francine remained with me there for a part of the day, and the remainder I passed with the other prisoners, amongst whom were two old serjeant-majors, Grouard and Herbaux, the latter, son of a boot-maker at Lille, both condemned for forgeries; and a labourer, named Boitel, condemned to six years' confinement for stealing garden-tools; this latter, who was the father of a large family, was always bewailing his imprisonment, which, he said, deprived him of the means of working a small farm, which he only knew how to turn to advantage. In spite of the crime he had committed, much interest was evinced in his favour, or rather towards his children, and many inhabitants of his district had drawn up and presented petitions in his favour, which were as yet unanswered, and the unfortunate man was in despair, often repeating that he would give such and such a sum for his liberty. Grouard and Herbaux, who were in St Peter's Tower, waiting to be sent to the gallies, thought they could get him pardoned by means of a memorial, which they drew up, or rather plotted together; a plan which was ultimately so injurious to me.

Grouard began to complain that he could not work quietly in the midst of the uproar of the common room, in which were eighteen prisoners singing, swearing, and quarrelling all day. Boitel, who had done me some little kind offices, begged me to lend my chamber to the compilers of his memorial, and I consented, although very unwillingly, to give it up to them for four hours a day. From the next morning they were there installed, and the jailor frequently went there secretly. These comings and goings, and the mystery which pervaded them, would have awakened suspicions in a man accustomed to the intrigues of a prison, but ignorant of their plans, and occupied in drinking with the friends who visited me, I interested myself but too little with what was going on in the Bull's-eye.

At the end of eight days, they thanked me for my kindness, telling me that the memorial was concluded, and that they had every reason to hope for the pardon of the petitioner, without sending it to Paris, from the influence of the representations of the people at Lille. All this was not very clear to me, but I did not give it much attention, thinking it no business of mine; and there was no occasion for me to concern myself. But it took a turn which threw blame on my carelessness, for scarcely had forty-eight hours elapsed after the finishing of the memorial, when two brothers of Boitel arrived express, and came to dine with him at the jailor's table. At the end of the repast, an order arrived, which being opened by the jailor, he cried, "Goods news by my faith! it is an order for the liberation of Boitel;" at these words they all arose in confusion, embraced him, examined the order, and congratulated him; and Boitel, who had sent away his clothes, &c. the previous evening, immediately left the prison, without bidding adieu to any of the prisoners.

Next day, about ten o'clock in the morning, the inspector of the prisons came to visit us; and on the jailor's showing him the order for Boitel's liberation, he cast his eye over it, said that it was a forgery, and that he should not allow the prisoner to depart until he had referred to the authorities. The jailor then said that Boidel had left on the previous evening. The inspector testified his astonishment that he should have been deceived by an order signed by persons whose names were unknown to him, and at last placed him under a guard. He then took the order away with him, and soon made himself certain that, independently of the forgery of the signatures, there were omissions and errors in form which must have struck any person at all familiar with such papers.

It was soon known in the prison, that the inspector had placed the jailor under arrest, for having allowed Boitel to go out under a false order, and I began to surmise the truth. I desired Grouard and Herbaux to tell me the whole, observing indistinctly, that the affair might compromise me; but they swore most solemnly that they had done nothing but draw up the memorial, and were themselves astonished at its prompt success. I did not believe a word of this, but having no opposing proofs, I was compelled to wait for the event. The next day I was summoned to the court, before the judge, and answered, that I knew nothing of the framing of the forged order, and that I had only lent my room, as the only quiet place in the prison, for the preparation of the justificatory memorial. I added, that all these facts could be corroborated by the gaoler, who frequently went into the room during their work, appearing to be much interested for Boitel. Grouard and Herbaux were also interrogated, and then placed in solitary confinement, whilst I returned to my chamber. Scarcely had I entered it, when Boitel's bedfellow came to me, and told me the whole plot, which I had only before suspected.

Grouard, hearing Boitel so often repeat that he would willingly give a hundred crowns to procure his liberty, had planned with Herbaux the means of getting him out, and they had devised no mode so simple as that of forging a false order. Boitel was let into the plot, as may be supposed: they only told him, that as there were many persons to gain over, he must give four hundred francs. It was then that they applied for my chamber, which was indispensable for the due concoction and forging of the order, without being perceived by the other prisoners; moreover, the gaoler was in their confidence, to judge by his frequent visits, and the circumstances which had preceded and followed the departure of Boitel. The order had been brought by a friend of Herbaux, named Stofflet. He appeared besides only to decide Boitel on giving four hundred francs, which the forgers had persuaded him was to be shared with me, although I had rendered him no other service than that of lending my room.

Thus instructed, I at first wished the person who had given me these particulars to make a declaration of the particulars, but he obstinately refused, saying that he would not reveal to justice a secret confided to his oath; and besides, he did not feel desirous of being knocked on the head by the prisoners for turning nose (pour avoir mangé le morceau.) He dissuaded me even from informing the judge, telling me that I was in no danger. But on arresting Boitel in the country, and bringing him to Lille, and putting him in solitary confinement, he named as the aiders and abettors in his escape, Grouard, Herbaux, Stofflet, and Vidocq. On this confession, we were questioned at the tower, and I persisted in my first declaration, although I could have extricated myself in a moment, by disclosing all that Boitel's bedfellow had told me; but I was so fully convinced that it was impossible to substantiate any charge against me, that I was thunderstruck when, at the expiration of my three months, I was prevented from quitting the prison by an entry stating me as arraigned as an "accomplice in the forgery of authentic and public documents."