Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter V
Three escapes—The Chauffeurs—The suicide—The interrogatory—Vidocq accused of assassination—Sent back on a complaint—Fresh escape—Departure for Ostend—The smugglers—Vidocq retaken.
I then began to think that this affair might turn out badly for me; but any others without proof would be more dangerous to me than silence, which it was now too late to think of breaking. All these reflections affected me so much, that I had a severe illness, during which time Francine attended me most carefully. I was scarcely convalescent, when, unable to support the state of incertitude in which I found my affairs, I resolved on escaping, and to escape by the door, although that may appear a difficult step. Some particular observations made me choose this method in preference to any other. The wicket-keeper at St Peter's Tower was a galley-slave from the Bagne (place of confinement) at Brest, sentenced for life. After the revision of the penal laws and the code of 1791, he had obtained a commutation of six years confinement in the prison at Lille, where he had made himself useful to the jailor, who, persuaded that a man who had passed four years at the Bagne must be as watchful as an eagle, since he must know every method of escape, promoted him to the office of gate-keeper, which he thought he could not confide to more trustworthy hands. It was, however, on the stupidity of this prodigy of cunning that I relied for the success of my project; and it appeared the more easy to deceive him, as he was so confident in his own sagacity. In a word, I relied on passing by him under the disguise of a superior officer, charged with visiting St Peter's Tower, which was used as a military prison, twice a-week.
Francine, whom I saw daily, got me the requisite clothing, which she brought me in her muff. I immediately tried them on, and they suited me exactly. Some of the prisoners who saw me thus attired assured me that it was impossible to detect me. I was the same height as the officer whose character I was about to assume, and I made myself appear twenty-five years of age. At the end of a few days, he made his usual round, and whilst one of my friends occupied his attention, under pretext of examining his food, I disguised myself hastily, and presented myself at the door, which the gaol-keeper, taking off his cap, opened, and I went out into the street. I ran to a friend of Francine's, as agreed on in case I should succeed, and she soon joined me there.
I was there perfectly safe, if I could resolve on keeping concealed; but how could I submit to a slavery almost as severe as that of St Peter's Tower. As for three months I had been enclosed within four walls, I was now desirous to exercise the activity so long repressed. I announced my intention of going out; and, as with me an inflexible determination was always the auxiliary of the most capricious fancy, I did go. My first excursion was safely performed, but the next morning, as I was crossing the Rue Ecremoise, a serjeant named Louis, who had seen me during my imprisonment, met me, and asked if I was free. He was a severe practical man, and by a motion of his hand could summon twenty persons. I said that I would follow him; and begging him to allow me to bid adieu to my mistress, who was in a house of Rue de l'Hopital, he consented, and we really met Francine, who was much surprised to see me in such company; and when I told her that having reflected that my escape might injure me in the estimation of my judges, I had decided on returning to St Peter's Tower, to wait the result of the process.
Francine did not at first comprehend why I had expended three hundred francs, to return at the end of four months to prison. A sign put her on her guard, and I found an opportunity of desiring her to put some cinders in my pocket whilst Louis and I took a glass of rum, and then set out for the prison. Having reached a deserted street, I blinded my guide with a handful of cinders, and regained my asylum with all speed.
Louis having made his declaration, the gendarmes and police-officers were on the full cry after me; and there was one Jacquard amongst them who undertook to secure me if I were in the city. I was not unacquainted with these particulars, and instead of being more circumspect in my behaviour, I affected a ridiculous bravado. It might have been said that I ought to have had a portion of the premium promised for my apprehension. I was certainly hotly pursued, as may be judged from the following incident.
Jacquard learnt one day that I was going to dine in Rue Notre-Dame. He immediately went with four assistants, whom he left on the ground-floor, and ascended the staircase to the room where I was about to sit down to table with two females. A recruiting serjeant, who was to have made the fourth, had not yet arrived. I recognised Jacquard, who never having seen me, had not the same advantage, and besides my disguise would have bid defiance to any description of my person. Without being at all uneasy, I approached, and with the most natural tone I begged him to pass into a closet, the glass door of which looked on the banquet-room. "It is Vidocq whom you are looking for," said I; "if you will wait for ten minutes you will see him. There is his cover, he cannot be long. When he enters, I will make you a sign; but if you are alone, I doubt if you can seize him, as he is armed, and resolved to defend himself."—"I have my gendarmes on the staircase," answered he, "and if he escapes——" "Take care how you place them then," said I with affected haste. "If Vidocq should see them he would mistrust some plot, and then farewell to the bird."—"But where shall I place them?"—"Oh, why in this closet—mind, no noise, that would spoil all; and I have more desire than yourself that he should not suspect anything." My commissary was now shut up in four wails with his agents. The door, which was very strong, closed with a double lock. Then, certain of time for escape, I cried to my prisoners, "You are looking for Vidocq—well, it is he who has caged you; farewell." And away I went like a dart, leaving the party shouting for help, and making desperate efforts to escape from the unlucky closet.
Two escapes of the same sort I effected, but at last I was arrested and carried back to St Peter's Tower, where, for greater security, I was placed in a dungeon with a man named Calendrin, who was also thus punished for two attempts at escape. Calendrin, who had known me during my first confinement in the prison, imparted to me a fresh plan of escape, which he had devised by means of a hole worked in the wall of the dungeon of the galley-slaves with whom we could communicate. The third night of my detention all was managed for our escape, and eight of the prisoners who first went out were so fortunate as to avoid being detected by the sentinel, who was only a short distance off.
Seven of us still remained, and we drew straws, as is usual in such circumstances, to determine which of the seven should first pass. I drew the short straw, and undressed myself that I might get with greater ease through the hole, which was very narrow, but to the great disappointment of all, I stuck fast without the possibility of advancing or receding. In vain did my companions endeavour to pull me out by force, I was caught as if in a trap, and the pain of my situation was so extreme, that not expecting further help from within, I called to the sentry to render me assistance. He approached with the precaution of a man who fears a surprise, and presenting his bayonet to my breast, forbade me to make the slightest movement. At his summons the guard came out, the porters ran with torches, and I was dragged from my hole, not without leaving behind me a portion of my skin and flesh. Torn and wounded as I was, they immediately transferred me to the prison of Petit Hotel, when I was put into a dungeon, fettered hand and foot.
Ten days afterwards I was placed amongst the prisoners, through my intreaties and promises not to attempt again to escape. Up to this time I had lived with men who were sharpers, robbers, and forgers; but here I found myself in the midst of most hardened villains, and of this number was one of my fellow-townsman, named Desfosseux, a man of wonderful ingenuity, prodigious strength, and who, condemned to the gallies from the age of eighteen, had escaped from the Bagne three times, whence he was to be sent again with the next chain of convicts. He told all his exploits and hair-breadth 'scapes with much coolness, and said that no doubt "one day or other the guillotine would make sausage-meat of his flesh." In spite of the secret horror with which this man inspired me, I took a pleasure in conversing with him of the wild life he had led, and what most induced me to make so many enquiries of him, was that I hoped he would be able to aid me with some means of escape. With the same motive, I associated with many individuals imprisoned as part of a band of forty or fifty Chauffeurs, who infested the adjacent districts, under the command of the famous Sallambier. They were named Chopine (called the Nantzman), Louis (of Douay), Duhamel (called Lilleman), Auguste Poissard (called the Provençal), Caron the younger, Caron the Humpback, and Bruxellois (called the Daring), an appellation which he deserved for an act of courage which is seldom heard of even in bulletins.
At the moment of entering a farm with six of his comrades, he thrust his left hand through an opening in the shutter to lift the latch, but when he was drawing it back, he found that his wrist had been caught in a slip knot. Awakened by the noise, the inhabitants of the farm had laid this snare, although too weak to go out against a band of robbers which report had magnified as to numbers. But the attempt being thus defeated, day was fast approaching, and Bruxellois saw his dismayed comrades looking at each other with doubt, when the idea occurred to him that to avoid discovery they would knock out his brains. With his right hand he drew out his clasp knife with a sharp point, which he always had about him, and cutting off his wrist at the joint, fled with his comrades without being stopped by the excessive pain of his horrid wound. This remarkable deed, which has been attributed to a thousand different spots, really occurred in the vicinity of Lille, and is well authenticated in the northern districts, where many persons yet remember to have seen the hero of this tale, who was thence called Manchot (or one-armed), executed.
Introduced by so distinguished a worthy as my townsman Desfosseux, I was received with open arms in the circle of bandits, where from morning to night the means of escape was our only theme. Under these circumstances, as in many others, I remarked that with prisoners, the thirst for liberty, becoming the engrossing idea, produced plots inconceivable by the man who discusses them at his ease. Liberty!—in this word all is centered, this thought pursues the prisoner throughout the tedious day, and during the wintry nights spent in utter darkness, when abandoned to all the tormenting impulses of impatience. Enter any prison, you will hear shouts of noisy mirth, you may almost imagine yourself at a place of entertainment; approach—mouths grin horribly a ghastly smile, but the eyes betray no pleasure, they are stern and haggard; this assumed gaiety is forced in its hideous yells, like that of the jackal, which dashes against its cage, striving to burst the bars.
Well knowing what men they had to guard, our jailors watched us with a care that marred all our plans, the only opportunity which gave a chance of success, however, at last offered itself, and I seized on it before my companions, cunning as they were, had even thought of it. We were about eighteen of us in the anti-room of the examining judge, where we had been conducted for the purpose of being interrogated, which was guarded by soldiers and two gendarmes, one of whom had laid down his hat and cloak near me, whilst he went to the bar, whither his companion was also summoned by the ringing of a bell. I put his hat on my head instantly, and wrapping myself in his cloak, took a prisoner under my arm as if I was taking him out for a pressing necessity; I went to the door, which the corporal of the guard immediately opened, and we got out once more. But what could we do without money or papers? My comrade went into the province, and I, at the risk of being retaken, returned to Francine, who, overjoyed at seeing me, determined on selling her furniture, and flying with me to Belgium. This was determined on, when a most unexpected event, attributable only to my incredible carelessness, completely overthrew our plan.
The night before our intended departure, I met in the dusk of the evening a woman of Brussels, named Eliza, with whom I had been on intimate terms. She embraced me, and begged me to go and sup with her, and, conquering my weak objections, kept me with her until the next day. I persuaded Francine, who had sought me everywhere, that, pursued by police-officers, I had been compelled to take refuge in a house which I could not quit till daybreaks, She was at first satisfied; but having by accident discovered that I had passed the night with a female, her jealousy burst forth in overwhelming and tearful reproaches against my ingratitude, and in her rage she swore that she would have me arrested. To put me in prison was certainly the best mode of putting a stop to my infidelities; but Francine was a woman of her word, and I deemed it prudent to allow her anger to evaporate, intending to return after some time, and start with her as we had agreed on. However, as I needed my clothes, and did not wish to ask for them, for fear of a fresh burst of temper, I went alone to our chamber, of which she had the key, and forcing a shutter, I took out what I wanted, and led the house.
At the end of five days, clothed like a countryman, I left the place I had inhabited in the suburbs, and going into the city, I went to the house of a seamstress, a friend of Francine's, on whose mediation I relied for reconciling us. This woman seemed so greatly embarrassed, that fearing I should implicate her, I only begged her to go and seek my mistress. "Yes," said she, with a very remarkable air, and without looking at me. She went out, and I was left alone to reflect on my strange reception.
A knock at the door was heard, which I hastened to open, thinking that I should receive Francine in my arms, when, a crowd of gendarmes and police-officers appeared, who seizing me, I was carried before the magistrate, who began by asking me where I had been during the last five days. My answer was brief, as I never implicated those who sheltered me. The magistrate observed, that my obstinacy in refusing him any explanation would go much against me, and that my head was in jeopardy, &c. &c. I only laughed, as imagining this remark to be a trap to force me to confess through fear. I persisted in my silence, and was remanded to the Petit .
Scarcely had I set foot in the street, when all eyes were fixed on me. People called to each other and whispered, which I thought was caused by my disguise, and I scarcely heeded it. They made me enter a cell, where I was left alone in the straw heavily ironed. At the end of two hours the jailor came, who, pretending to pity me, and take an interest in me, told me that my resolution not to confess where I had spent the last five days, would injure me in the estimation of the judges; but I was immoveable, and two more hours elapsed, when the jailor returned with a turnkey, who took off my fetters, and desired me to go down to the office, where two judges were in attendance. I was again questioned, and made a similar reply, and they then stripped my clothes entirely off, and stamped on my right shoulder a blow that would have killed an ox, which was to mark me; my clothes were taken away, after being described in the procès-verbal; and I was sent back to my cell, covered with a shirt of sail-cloth, in a surtout half black and half grey, in rags, which had served at least two generations of prisoners.
All this gave me food for reflection. It was evident that the seamstress had denounced me, but for what? She had no complaint to make of me. In spite of her fury, Francine would have reflected twice, before she denounced me; and if I had withdrawn for some days, it was rather because I did not wish to irritate her by my presence, than from any fear of consequences. Why these reiterated inquiries, these mysterious words of the jailor, and this description of my attire? I was lost in a labyrinth of conjecture, and for twenty-five hours I was kept in the strictest solitary confinement; I then underwent an examination which informed me of all.
"What is your name?"
"Eugène François Vidocq."
"What is your profession?"
"Do you know the girl Francine Longuet?"
"Yes; she is my mistress."
"Do you know where she is at this moment?"
"She should be at a friend's house, for she sold her own furniture."
"What is the name of this friend?"
"Where does she live?"
"At a baker's in the Rue St André."
"How long had you left the woman Longuet when you were arrested?"
"Why did you leave her?"
"To avoid her anger; she knew that I had passed the night with another female, and in a fit of jealousy threatened to have me arrested."
"Who was the woman with whom you passed the night?"
"A former mistress."
"What is her name?"
"Eliza—I only know her by that name."
"Where does she live?"
"At Brussels, whither, I believe, she has returned."
"Where are the things which you had in the house of the woman Longuet?"
"In a place that I can point out if need be."
"How could you get them, having quarrelled with her, and not wishing to see her?"
"After our quarrel in the café, where she found me, she threatened to call for the guard to seize me; knowing her perverseness, I ran down the bye streets, and reached the house before her, which I had hoped to do, and wanting some clothes, I forced a shutter to effect my entrance, and then took out what I wanted. You just now asked me where these things are, and I will now tell you, they are in the Rue Saint-Sauveur, at the house of Duboc, who will corroborate this."
"You do not speak truth—before you left Francine at her house, you had a great quarrel; it is said that you struck her."
"That is false; I did not see Francine at her own home after the quarrel, and consequently I could not have maltreated her. She can corroborate this."
"Do you know this knife?"
"Yes; it is the one I generally use at my meals."
"You see the blade and haft are covered with blood. Does not the sight of it make any impression on you? You are agitated!"
"Yes," I replied with emotion; "but what has happened to Francine? Tell me, and I will give every possible explanation."
"Did nothing particular happen to you when you carried off your clothes?"
"Nothing that I can at all call to mind."
"You persist in your declarations?"
"You are imposing on justice;—that you may have time for reflection on your position, and the consequences of your obstinacy, I shall now delay the remainder of your examination until to-morrow.—Gend'armes, watch this man most carefully—Go."
It was late when I returned to my cell, where they brought me my allowance, which the trouble I experienced from the result of the interrogatory, would not allow me to eat; I would not sleep, and passed the whole night without closing an eye. Some crime had been committed, but on whom? By whom? Why was I inculpated? I had asked myself that question a thousand times, without getting at any rational solution, when they came to fetch me on the following morning to renew my examination. After the usual questions, a door was opened, and two gendarmes entered, supporting a female. It was Francine—Francine pale, and altered so as to be scarcely recognizable. On seeing me, she fainted; and when I wished to approach her, I was withheld by the gendarmes. They took her away, and I alone remained with the examining judge, who asked me if the sight of the unfortunate woman did not prompt me to confess all? I protested my innocence, asserting that I did not know till that instant that Francine was ill. I was led back to prison, but not to solitary confinement, and I could then hope that I might be informed of all the events of which I was so singularly the victim. I questioned the jailor, but he would not answer me; I wrote to Francine, although I was told that the letters would be detained by the judge, and that she was dismissed. I was on thorns, and at last determined on sending for counsel, who, after having learnt the accusation, told me that I was charged with attempting to assassinate Francine. On the very day I left her, she had been found expiring, stabbed with a knife in five places, and bathed in blood. My precipitate flight—the secret carrying away of my clothes, which it was known that I had taken from one place to another, as if to elude the search of justice—the broken shutter in my room—the footmark which resembled mine,—all tended to confirm the suspicions of my guilt, and my disguise still more corroborated it.
It was thought that I only disguised myself and returned, to learn whether she had died without accusing me. One particular, which would have been in my favour under any other circumstances, now aggravaged the charge against me; as soon as the physicians would allow Francine to speak, she declared that she had stabbed herself, in despair, at finding that she was abandoned by a man for whom she had sacrificed all. But her attachment to me rendered her testimony suspected, and it was believed that she only spoke thus to save me.
My counsel had terminated this narrative at least a quarter of an hour, and I was still listening like a man oppressed with the night-mare. At the age of twenty I was suffering under the weight of the twofold accusation of forging and assassination, without having even dreamt of committing such crimes. I even reflected whether I would not hang myself at the bars of my cell with a straw rope. I was losing my senses, but at last collected myself sufficiently to detail all the facts requisite for my exculpation. In the after-examination they insisted strongly on the blood which the porter, who had carried my luggage, stated he had seen on my hands. This blood had flowed from a cut inflicted by the glass of a window which I had broken to remove the shutter, and I could produce two witnesses of this fact. My counsel, to whom I told all my grounds of defence, assured me, that united with the testimony of Francine, which alone had been of no avail, I should be acquitted, which was the case a few days afterwards. Francine, although still very weak, came immediately to see me, and confirmed all the particulars which the examination had first acquainted me with.
I was thus relieved of an enormous weight, without being yet entirely freed from uneasiness: my repeated escapes had delayed the decision of the accusation of forgery, in which I had been implicated, and nothing indicated its termination, for Grouard had also escaped. The result of the charge from which I had just been freed, had, however, given me a hope, and I thought nothing of attempting to escape, when an opportunity presented, which I seized, as it were, by instinct. In the chamber in which I was placed, were the temporary prisoners, and on fetching away two of them one morning, the jailor forgot to close the door, which I perceived, and descending to the ground-floor, found, on looking about me, that I had a chance. It was scarcely daybreak, and the prisoners were all asleep; I had met no one on the staircase, and there was no one at the gate which I cleared; but the jailor, who was drinking a dram at a public-house opposite the prison, pursued me, crying loudly, "Stop him! Stop him!" He cried in vain, for the streets were empty, and the desire of liberty gave me wings. In a few minutes, I got out of sight of the jailor, and soon reached a house in Rue Saint Sauveur, where I was very certain they would not come to seek for me. I was now compelled to quit Lille as quickly as possible, as I was too well known there to be long in safety.
At nightfall, all were on the look out, and I learnt that all the gates were closed, and no one was let out but through the wicket, where police-officers and disguised gendarmes were stationed to examine all comers. The gates thus closed on me, I resolved on descending the ramparts, and knowing the spot well, I went at ten o'clock at night to the bastion of Notre-Dame, which I judged the most propitious place for the execution of my project. Having tied to a tree a cord, which I had procured for the purpose, I began to slide down, but the weight of my body impelling me more rapidly than I anticipated, the friction of the cord made my hands so hot that I was compelled to let go about fifteen feet from the ground, and fell so heavily on my right foot, that I sprained it, and in endeavouring to get out of the ditch I thought I should never be able to effect it. Unheard-of efforts at length extricated me, but on reaching the plain I could move no farther.
There I was, swearing most emphatically against all ditches, ropes, and sprains, but this did not relieve my embarrassment, when a man passed me with one of those cars so common in Flanders. A crown-piece, my only one, prevailed on him to place me on his car, and convey me to the next village. On reaching his house he laid me on a bed, and rubbed my foot with brandy and soap, whilst his wife assisted him very efficiently, although staring with wonder at my clothes, stained with the mud of the ditch. They did not ask for any explanation, but I thought it expedient to give one; and to prepare myself for it, I pretended that I was greatly in want of sleep, and my host left me. At the end of two hours I called them, like a man just awaking, and told them in a few words, that in conveying smuggled tobacco up the ramparts, I had fallen, and my comrades, pursued by the custom-house officers, had been compelled to leave me in the ditch; and I added, that I left myself in their hands to do as they pleased with me. These good creatures, who hated the custom-house officers as cordially as the inhabitant of any frontier town ever does, assured me that they would not for the world betray me. To try them, I asked if there was no means of conveyance to my father's house, who lived at the other side, and they said that such a step would expose me, and that it would be better to wait a few days, until I was well. I consented, and to remove all suspicions, it was agreed that I should pass for a relation on a visit. No one, however, made the least observation.
Quieted on this head, I began to reflect on my next step, and what I must do. I determined on leaving these parts, and going into Holland. But to execute this plan money was indispensable, add except my watch, which I had offered to my host, I possessed only four shillings and tenpence. I might go to Francine, but then, of course, she was closely watched; and to send her any message would infallibly hazard her safety. At least, I must wait until the heat of the first pursuit was over. I did wait, and at the end of a fortnight I determined to write to Francine, which I entrusted to my host, telling him that, as this female was the go-between of the smugglers, he must use much caution in visiting her. He fulfilled his commission with much care, and brought me next day one hundred and twenty francs in gold. The next day I bade farewell to my friends, whose charges were extremely moderate, and at the end of six days reached Ostend.
My intention, as at my first visit to this city, was to go to America or India, but I only met with Danish and Dutch skippers, who refused to take me without credentials. The little cash which I had brought from Lille diminished rapidly, and I was approaching that situation with which we become more or less familiarized, but which is not the less disagreeable on that account. Money certainly does not produce wit, nor talents, nor understanding; but the quiet of mind which it superinduces, the equanimity which it affords, amply supply the place of these qualities; whilst in the absence of this equanimity these gifts are of no avail with many who possess them. The result is, that at the moment when we have most need of all the resources of the invention to procure money, we are derived of these resources by the very want of the money itself. I was assuredly placed in the latter of these conditions, and yet I must dine—an operation frequently more difficult than may be imagined by those happy mortals who think that appetite can be the only thing lacking.
I had heard much of the adventurous and lucrative life of the coasting smugglers, of whom the prisoners had boasted with enthusiasm; for this profession was often followed through inclination, by individuals whose fortune and situation did not compel them to adopt so perilous a life. I confess, for my part, that I was not seduced by the prospect of passing whole nights under cliffs, in the midst of rocks, exposed to all winds, and above all, to the shots of the custom-house officers.
It was with real repugnance that I went to the house of a man named Peters, to whom I was directed, as one deeply engaged in the pursuit, and able to introduce me to it. A sea-gull nailed on his door with extended wings, like the owls and weasels that we see on barns, guided me. I found the worthy in a sort of cellar, which by the ropes, sails, oars, hammocks, and barrels, which filled it, might have been taken for a naval depôt. From the midst of a thick atmosphere of smoke which surrounded him, he viewed me at first with a contempt which had not a good appearance, and my conjectures were soon realized, for I had scarcely offered my services than he fell upon me with a shower of blows. I could certainly have resisted him effectually, but astonishment had in a measure deprived me of the power of defence; and I saw besides, in the court-yard, half a dozen sailors and an enormous Newfoundland dog, which would have been powerful odds. Turned into the street, I endeavoured to account for this singular reception, when it occurred to me that Peters had mistaken me for a spy, and treated me accordingly.
This idea determined me on returning to a dealer in hollands, who had told me of him, and he, laughing at the result of my visit, gave me a pass-word that would procure me free access to Peters. Thus empowered, I again went to his formidable abode, having first filled my pockets with large stones, which, in case of a second attack, might protect my retreat. Fortunately I had no need of them. At the words "Beware of the sharks" (custom-house officers), I was received in a most amicable manner, for my strength and activity made me a valuable acquisition to the fraternity, who are often compelled to carry with speed from one spot to another the most oppressive loads. A Bourdeaux man, who was one of the gang, undertook to initiate me, and teach me the stratagems of the profession, which, however, I was called on to put in practice before my tuition had progressed very far.
I slept at Peters's house with a dozen or fifteen smugglers, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Portuguese, and Russian; there were no Englishmen, and only two Frenchmen. The day after my installation, as we were all getting into our hammocks, or flock beds, Peters entered suddenly into our chamber, which was only a cellar contiguous to his own, and so filled with barrels and kegs that we could scarcely find room to sling our hammocks. Peters had put off his usual attire, which was that of ship-caulker, or sail-maker, and had on a hairy cap, and a long red shirt, closed at the breast with a silver pin, fire-arms in his belt, and a pair of thick large fishermen's boots, which reach the top of the thigh, or may be folded down beneath the knee.
"A-hoy! a-hoy!" cried he, at the door, striking the ground with the butt end of his carbine, "Down with the hammocks, down with the hammocks! We will sleep some other day. The Squirrel has made signals for a landing this evening, and we must see what she has in her, muslin or tobacco. Come, come, turn out my sea-boys."
In a twinkling everybody was ready. They opened an arm-chest, and every man took out a carbine or blunderbuss, a brace of pistols, and a cutlass or boarding pike, and we set out, after having drank so many glasses of brandy and arrack that the bottles were empty. At this time there were not more than twenty of us, but we were joined or met, at one place or another, by so many individuals, that on reaching the sea-side we were forty-seven in number, exclusive of two females and some countrymen from the adjacent villages, who brought hired horses, which they concealed in a hollow behind some rocks.
It was night, and the wind was shifting, whilst the sea dashed with so much force that I did not understand how any vessel could approach without being cast on shore. What confirmed this idea was, that by the starlight I saw a small boat rowing backwards and forwards, as if it feared to land. They told me afterwards that this was only a manœuvre to ascertain if all was ready for the unloading, and no danger to be apprehended. Peters now lighted a reflecting lanthorn, which one of the men had brought, and immediately extinguished it, the Squirrel raised a lanthorn at her mizen, which only shone for a moment and then disappeared like a glow-worm on a summer's night. We then saw it approach, and anchor about a gun shot off from the spot where we were. Our troop then divided into three companies, two of which were placed five hundred paces in front, to resist the revenue officers if they should present themselves. The men of these companies were then placed at intervals along the ground, having at the left arm a packthread which ran from one to the other: in case of alarm, it was announced by a slight pull, and each being ordered to answer this signal by firing his gun, a line of firing was thus kept up, which perplexed the revenue officers. The third company, of which I was one, remained by the sea-side, to cover the landing and the transport of the cargo.
All being thus arranged, the Newfoundland dog already mentioned, and who was with us, dashed at a word into the midst of the waves and swam powerfully in the direction of the Squirrel, and in an instant afterwards returned with the end of a rope in his mouth. Peters instantly seized it, and began to draw it towards him, making us signs to assist him, which I obeyed mechanically. After a few tugs, I saw that at the end of the cable were a dozen small casks, which floated towards us. I then perceived that the vessel thus contrived to keep sufficiently far from the shore, not to run a risk of being stranded.
In an instant the casks, smeared over with something that made them water-proof, were unfastened and placed on horses, which immediately dashed off for the interior of the country. A second cargo arrived with the same success; but as we were landing the third, some reports of fire-arms announced that our out-posts were attacked. "There is the beginning of the ball," said Peters, calmly; "I must go and see who will dance;" and taking up his carbine, he joined the out-posts, which had by this time joined each other. The firing became rapid, and we had two men killed, and others slightly wounded. At the fire of the revenue officers, we soon found that they exceeded us in number, but alarmed, and fearing an ambuscade, they dared not to approach, and we effected our retreat without any attempt on their part to prevent it. From the beginning of the fight the Squirrel had weighed anchor and stood out to sea, for fear that the noise of the firing should bring down on her the government cruiser. I was told that most probably she would unload her cargo in some other part of the coast, where the owners had numerous agents.
On the return to Peter's house, at break of day, I threw myself into my hammock, and did not leave it for eight and forty hours: the fatigue of the night, the moisture which penetrated my clothes, whilst exercise had made me perspire profusely, and the uneasiness of my new situation, all combined to make me ill, and a fever seized me. When it left me, I told Peters that I found the employment too hard, and that I should be glad if he would allow me to go. He agreed more quietly than I expected, and gave me a hundred francs. I have since learnt that he had me followed for several days, to be assured whether or no I took the road to Lille, which I had told him was my intention.
I did go to that city, led by a childish wish to see Francine, and take her with me to Holland, where I had formed a plan of a small establishment. But my imprudence was soon punished; for two gendarmes, who were drinking in a pot-house, saw me crossing the street, and they resolved on following me to ask for my papers. They overtook me at a turning, and the trouble which their appearance caused me, determined them on apprehending me. They took me to the brigade prison, where I was already looking out for means of escape, when I heard some one say to the gendarmes, "Here is the guard of Lille; is there any one for the prison?" Two men of the Lille brigade came to the prison and asked if there was any game in the trap? "Yes," said the fellows who took me, "we have one named Leger (my assumed name) whom we found without a passport." They opened the door, and the brigadier or Lille, who had often seen me at the Petit Hôtel, cried "By Jove, 'tis Vidocq!" I was compelled to confess it, and setting out^ I entered Lille a few hours afterwards, between my two body guards.