Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter X

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CHAPTER X.


The pursuit after the galley-slave—The village mayor—The voice of blood—The hospital—Sister Françoise—Faublas the second—The mother of robbers.


I passed through the wicket without difficulty, and found myself in Brest, a place entirely unknown to me; and the fear that my doubt as to what road I would take might induce suspicion, increased my uneasiness. At length, after a thousand ins and outs, turnings and twistings, I reached the only gate of the city, where was always stationed an old galley-guard, named Lachique, who detected a convict by a look, a motion, or turn; and what rendered his observations more easy is, that whoever passes any time at the Bagne, drags habitually and involuntarily that leg to which the fetter has been fastened. However, it was necessary to pass this dreaded personage, who was smoking very sedately, fixing his hawk's eye on all who went in and came out. I had been warned, and determining to exercise all my effrontery, on getting up to Lachique, I put down a pitcher of buttermilk, which I had purchased to render my disguise the more complete, and filling my pipe, I asked him for a light. He gave it readily, and with all the courtesy he was capable of, and after we had blown a few whiffs in each others' faces, I left him and went on my way.

I went straight forward for three quarters of an hour, when I heard the cannon shots which were fired to announce the escape of a convict, so that the peasantry of the neighbourhood may be informed that there is a reward of one hundred francs to be obtained by the lucky individual who may apprehend the fugitive. I saw many persons armed with guns and scythes scour about the country, and beat every bush, and even the smallest tufts of heath. Some labourers appeared to take their arms out with them as a precaution, for I saw several quit their work with a gun which they took out of a furrow. One of these latter passed near me in a cross-road which I had taken on hearing the report of the cannon, but they had no suspicion of me, for I was clad very well, and my hat being off by reason of the heat, they saw my hair curled, which could not be the case with a convict.

I continued striking into all the bye-ways, and avoiding towns and detached houses. At twilight I met two women whom I asked about the road, but they answered me in a dialect which I did not comprehend, but on showing them some money, and making signs that I was hungry, they conducted me to a small village to a cabaret, kept by the garde-champêtre (patrole), whom I saw in the chimney nook, decorated with his insignia of office. I was for a moment disturbed, but soon recovering myself, I said I wished to speak to the mayor. "I am he," said an old countryman with a woollen cap and wooden shoes, seated at a small table and eating an oaten cake. This was a fresh disappointment to me, who relied on escaping in my way from the cabaret to the mayor's house. However, I had the difficulty to contend with, and surpass in some way or other. I told the wooden-shoed functionary, that having lost myself on leaving Morlaix for Brest, I had wandered about, and asking him at the same time how far it was from this latter city, and expressing a desire to sleep there that evening.—"You are five leagues from Brest," said he, "and it is impossible to reach it this evening; if you will sleep here, I will give you a bed in my barn, and tomorrow you can start with the garde-champêtre, who is going to carry back a fugitive convict whom we apprehended yesterday."

These last words renewed all my terrors, for by the tone in which they were uttered, I saw that the mayor had not credited the whole of my story. I, however, accepted his obliging offer; but after supper, at the instant we reached the barn, putting my hands in my pockets, I cried out with all the energy of a man in despair—"Oh, heavens! I have left at Morlaix my pocket-book, with my passport and eight double louis. I must return this moment, yes, this very moment, but how shall I find my way? If the patrole, who knows the road, would go with me, we should be back in time in the morning to set out early with the galley-slave." This proposal routed all suspicions, for a man who wishes to escape seldom solicits the company he would fain avoid; on the other hand, the garde-champêtre, smelling a reward, had buttoned on his gaiters at the first word. We set out accordingly, and at break of day reached Morlaix. My companion, whom I had taken care to ply well with liquor on the road, was already pretty well in for it, and I completed him with some rum at the first pot-house we reached in the city. He staid there to wait for me at the table, or rather under the table, and he might have waited long enough.

I asked the first person I met to direct me on the road to Vannes, and on being told, I set out, as the Dutch proverb has it, "with my feet shod by fear." Two days passed without accident, but on the third, some leagues from Guemené, at a turning of the road, I met two gendarmes, who were returning from duty. The unexpected vision of yellow breeches and laced hats gave me uneasiness, and I made an effort to escape, when my two gentlemen desired me to halt, making at the same time a very significant gesture with their carbines. They came up to me, and having no credentials to show them, I invented a reply on the spur of the moment. "My name is Duval, born at l'Orient, deserter from the Cocarde frigate, now in the roadstead at St Malo." It is useless to say, that I had learnt all this during my stay at the Bagne, where we had daily accounts from all parts. "What!" cried the chief, "you must be Auguste—son of father Duval, who lives at l'Orient, on the terrace near the Boule d'or." I did not deny this, for it would have been worse to have been detected as a fugitive convict. "Parbleu!" added the brigadier, "I am sorry you are caught, but that cannot now be helped; I must send you to l'Orient or to St Malo." I begged him not to send me to the former of these towns, not caring to be confronted with my new relation, in case they should desire to confirm the identity of my person. However, the quarter-master gave orders that I should be conducted thither, and the next day I reached l'Orient, when I was entered in the jailor's book, at Pontainau, the naval prison, near the new Bagne, which was to be peopled by convicts brought hither from Brest.

Being next day questioned by the commissary of the marine, I again declared that I was Auguste Duval; and that I had left my ship without permission, to go and see my parents. I was then led back to prison, where I found, amongst other sailors, a young man of l'Orient, accused of striking a lieutenant. Having talked sometime with him, he said to me one morning, "My boy, if you will pay for breakfast, I will tell you a secret worth knowing." His mysterious air disturbed me, and made me anxious to know all; and after breakfast he said to me, "Trust to me and then I can extricate you. I do not know who you are, but I am sure you are not young Duval, for he has been dead these two years, at Saint Pierre, at Martinique. (I started.) Yes, he has been dead these two years, but no one knows it, so well are our colonial hospitals regulated. Now I can give you such statements about his family, that you may pass for him even with his parents, for he left home when he was very young. To make quite sure, you can feign a weakness of intellect, produced by sea toil and sickness. Besides, before Auguste Duval went to sea, he had a mark tatooed on his left arm, as most sailors have; I know it well; it was an altar with a garland on it. If you will remain a fortnight in the cell with me, I will mark you in a similar manner, so that all the world could not detect the imposture."

My friend appeared frank and open-hearted, and I may account for the interest he took in me, by his desire to trick justice, a feeling that pervades the minds of all prisoners; for them to deceive it, mislead it, or delay it, is a pleasurable vengeance, which they willingly purchase at the expense of a few weeks' confinement. Here was such an opportunity, and the means were soon put in action. Under the windows of our room was a sentinel, and we began by pelting him with pieces of bread; and as he threatened to tell the jailor of us, we dared him to put his menaces into execution. On this, when he was relieved, the corporal, who was a meddling fellow, went to the office; and the next moment the jailor came to take us, without even telling us the reason of our removal. But we soon found it out, on entering a sort of hole in the sunken ditch, very damp, but tolerably light. Scarcely were we shut in, than my comrade commenced operations, in which he perfectly succeeded. It consisted only in pricking my arm with several needles tied together, and dipped in Indian ink and carmine. At the end of twelve days the wounds closed, so that it was impossible to tell how long they had been made. My companion also took advantage of this "leisure undisturbed," to give me additional details concerning the Duval family, whom he had known from childhood, and was in fact related to them, and instructed even in the minutest habitual trick of my Sosià.

These instructions were of unspeakable advantage to me, when, on the sixteenth day after of our detention in the dungeon, I was taken out to be confronted with my father, whom the commissary of marine had sent for. My comrade had so well described him, that I could not be mistaken on perceiving him. I threw my arms about his neck; he recognized me; his wife, who came soon after, recognized me; a female cousin and an uncle recognized me; and I was so undoubtedly Auguste Duval, that the commissary himself was convinced of it! But this was not sufficient to procure my liberation; as a deserter from the Cocarde, I was to be sent to Saint Malo, where she had left several men at the hospital, and then be tried before the maritime court. To tell the truth, I felt no alarm at all this; certain that I should find means of escape on my journey, I set out at length, bathed with my parents' tears, and the richer by several louis, which I added to the stock already concealed about me.

Until we reached Quimper, where I was to be handed over to another guard, no opportunity presented of bidding adieu to the company of gendarmes who guarded me, as well as many other individuals, robbers, smugglers, or deserters. We were placed in the town jail, and on entering the chamber where I was to pass the night, I saw at the foot of the bed a red frock, marked on the back gal., initials but too well known to me. There, covered with a tattered quilt, slept a man, whom, by his green cap decked with the tin plate numbered, I recognized as a galley-slave. Would he know, would he betray me? I was in a spasm of fear, when the individual, awakened by the noise of bolts and bars, sat up in his bed, and I knew him to be a young fellow named Goupy, who went to Brest at the same time as myself. He was condemned to chains for life, for a forcible burglary in the environs of Bernai, in Normandy; his father was a galley serjeant at Brest, where, most probably, he did not come first purely for change of air. Not wishing to have him continually before his sight, he had procured an order for his removal to the Bagne at Rochfort, and he was then on his road thither. I told him all my affairs, and he promised secresy, and kept his promise the more faithfully, as it would have profited him nothing to betray me.

However, the guard did not stir immediately, and fifteen days elapsed after my arrival at Quimper, without any mention of departure. This delay gave me the idea of penetrating the wall and escaping; but having found the impossibility of success, I managed so as to obtain the confidence of the jailor, and got an opportunity of executing my project by inspiring him with an idea of false security. After having told him that I had heard the prisoners plotting something, I pointed out to him the place in the prison where they had been at work. He made most minute search, and naturally enough found the hole I had made; and this discovery procured for me all his kindness. I sometimes found it overpowering, for the watch was kept so regularly that all my schemes were routed. I began to think of going to the hospital, where I hoped to be more fortunate in the execution of my projects. To give myself a high fever, it was only necessary to swallow tobacco juice for a couple of days, and then the doctors ordered my removal. On getting to the house, I got in exchange for my clothes a grey cap and cloak, and was then put along with the rest.

It was a part of my plan to remain for some time at the hospital, that I might know the ways in and out, but the illness caused by the tobacco juice would only last for three or four days, and it was necessary to find some recipe which would bring on another complaint; for, knowing no one in the place, it was impossible for me to get a supply of tobacco juice. At Bîcetre, I had been taught how to produce those wounds and sores, by means of which so many beggars excite public pity, and get those alms which cannot be worse bestowed. Of all these expedients, I adopted that which consisted in making the head swell like a bushel; first, because the doctors would be certainly mistaken; and then because it gave no pain, and all traces of it could be removed by the day following. My head became suddenly of a prodigious size, and great was the talk thereof amongst the doctors of the establishment, who, not being as it appeared blessed with a superabundance of skill, knew not what to think of it. I believe some of them spoke of elephantiasis, or of dropsy in the brain. But, be that as it may, their brilliant consultation ended in the prescription most common in hospitals, of putting me on the most strict regimen.

With money, such orders did not fret me; but yet I had only gold, and changing that might awaken suspicion. However, I determined to try a liberated convict, who acted as infirmary helper; and this fellow, who would do anything for money, soon procured for me what I desired. On my telling him that I was desirous of getting out into the town for a few hours, he said, that if I disguised myself, it would not be difficult, as the walls were not very high. It was, he said, the way he and his companions got out when they wanted anything. We agreed that he should provide me with clothes, and that he should accompany me in my nocturnal excursion, which was to be a visit to sup with some girls. But the only clothes he could procure for me inside the hospital were much too small, and we were compelled to suspend operations for a time.

Just at this time, one of the sisters of charity passed by my bed, whom I had already watched in performing very mundane duties; not that sister Françoise was one of those dandified nuns who were ridiculed on the stage, before the young nuns were transformed into boarders, and the white handkerchief was replaced by the green apron. Sister Françoise was about thirty-four, a brunette, with a deep colour, and her powerful charms created more than one unhappy passion, as well amongst the soldiers as the infirmary overseers. On seeing this seducing creature, who weighed perhaps nearly fifteen stone, the idea occurred to me that I would borrow for a short time her cloister garb. I spoke of it jestingly to my overseer, but he took it as it meant seriously, and promised on the ensuing night to get a part of sister Françoise's wardrobe. About two in the morning, I saw him come with a parcel, containing a gown, handkerchief, stockings, &c. which he had carried off from the sister's cell whilst she was at matins. All my bed-room companions, nine in number, were soundly asleep, but I went out to put on my attire. What gave me the most trouble was the head-dress. I had no idea of the mode of arranging it, and yet the appearance of disorder in these garments, always arranged with a scrupulous nicety, would have infallibly betrayed me.

At length, sister Vidocq finished her toilet, and we crossed the courts and gardens, and reached a place where the wall could be easily scaled. I then gave the overseer fifty francs, nearly all my store; he lent me a hand, and I was soon in a lonely spot, whence I reached the country, guided by my indefinite directions. Although much encumbered with my petticoats, I yet walked so fast as to get on. at least two leagues before sun-rise. A countryman whom I met, going to sell his vegetables at Quimper, and whom I questioned as to my road, told me that I was journeying towards Brest. This was not the way for me, and I made the fellow comprehend that I wished to go towards Rennes, and he pointed out to me a cross road leading to the high route to this city, which I immediately took, trembling at every moment, lest I should meet any of the soldiers of the English army. then lying in the villages between Nantes and Brest. About ten in the morning, on reaching a small hamlet, I enquired if there were any soldiers near, evincing much fear, which was real however, lest they should examine me, which would have led to a detection. The person whom I asked was a sacristan, full of chatter and inquisitiveness, who compelled me to enter the curate's house near at hand, to take some refreshment.

The curate, an elderly man, whose face betrayed that benevolence so rare amongst the ecclesiastics who come into towns to blazon forth their pretensions and conceal their immorality, received me very kindly. "My dear sister," said he, "I was about to celebrate mass; as soon as that is over, you shall breakfast with us." I was then compelled to go to church, and it was no trifling embarrassment for me to make the signs and genuflexions prescribed to a nun. Fortunately, the curate's old female servant was at my side, and I got through very well by imitating her in every particular. Mass concluded, we sat down to table, and interrogatories commenced. I told the good people, that I was going to Rennes to perform penance. The curate asked nothing more; but the sacristan, pressing me rather importunately to know why I was thus punished, I told him, "Alas! it was for curiosity!" This closed the little man's mouth. My situation was, however, one of difficulty; I was afraid to eat, lest I should betray too manly an appetite; and again, I more frequently said 'M. le curé' than 'my dear brother;' so that my blunders would have betrayed all, had I not terminated the breakfast. I found means, however, to learn the names of the villages of the district, and, strengthened by the blessings of the curate, who promised not to forget me in his prayers, I went on my way somewhat more accustomed to my new attire.

I met few people on my way, the wars of the revolution had depopulated the wretched country, and I traversed the villages whilst the inhabitants were all in bed. Arriving one night at a hamlet, composed of a few houses, I knocked at the door of a farm-house. An old woman came to open it to me, and conducted me to a good-sized parlour, but which might have disputed the pre-eminence in dirt with the filthiest hovels of Galicia or the Asturias. The family consisted of father, mother, a young lad, and two girls, from fifteen to seventeen years of age. When I went in, they were making a kind of cake of buck-wheat flour, and were all around the fryingpan; and the group, reflected on à la Rembrandt, by the light of the fire only, formed a picture which a painter would have admired: but as for me, who had scarcely time to pay attention to the effects of the light, I expressed my desire for some refreshment. Out of respect to my sacred office, they gave me the first cakes, which I devoured without even feeling that they were so burning hot as to scorch my palate. I have often since sat down at sumptuous tables, where I have had abundance of most exquisite wines, and meats of the most delicate and delicious flavour, but I can never forget the cakes of the peasant of Lower Brittany.

On the termination of supper we had prayers, and then the father and mother lighted their pipes. Suffering greatly from agitation and fatigue, I expressed a wish to retire. "We have no bed to give you," said the master of the house, who, having been a sailor, spoke very good French: "you shall sleep with my two girls. I observed to him that going on a vow I must sleep on straw, adding that I should be contented with a corner in the stable. "Oh;" replied he, "in sleeping with Jeanne and Madelon you will not break your vow, for the bed is only made of straw. Besides, you cannot be in the stable, for that is already occupied by a tinker and two soldiers, who asked my leave to pass the night there." I could say nothing more; and but too glad to escape the soldiery, I reached the boudoir of the young ladies. It was a loft filled with cider apples, cheese, and smoked bacon: in one corner a dozen fowls were roosting, and lower down were hutched eight rabbits. The furniture consisted of a dilapidated pitcher, worm-eaten joint-stool, and the fragment of a looking-glass; the bed, like all in that country, was only a chest shaped like a coffin, half-filled with straw, and scarcely three feet wide.

Here was a fresh embarrassment for me; the two young girls undressed very deliberately before me, who had many and good reasons for seeming very shy. Independently of circumstances that may be guessed, I had under my female attire a man's shirt, which would betray my sex and my incognito. Not to be detected I took out a few pins very slowly, and when I saw the two sisters had got into bed I overturned, as if by accident, the iron lamp which lighted us, and then took off my feminine habits without fear. On getting between the sail-cloth sheets I laid down so as to avoid all unlucky detection. It was a tormenting night: for without being pretty, mademoiselle Jeanne, who could not stir without touching me, had a freshness and plumpness but too attractive for a man condemned for so long a period to the rigours of absolute celibacy. Those, who have ever been in a similar situation, will believe without difficulty that I could not sleep for a single instant.

I was motionless, with my eyes open like a hare in its form, when long before daylight I heard a knocking with the butt end of a musket against the door. My first idea, like every man in similar circumstances, was that they had traced me, and were coming to apprehend me; but I did not know where to conceal myself. The blows were redoubled: and I then bethought me of the soldiers sleeping in the stable, which dissipated my fears. "Who is there?" said the master of the house, leaping up.—"Your soldiers."—"Well, what do you want?"—"Fire to light our pipes before we set off." Our host then arose, and blowing up the fire left in the ashes, he opened the door to the soldiers. One of these, looking at his watch by the lamp-light, said, "It is half-past four o'clock. Come, let us go; the rations are in good order. Come, to the march, my lads." They went away, and our host, putting out the lamp, went to bed again. As for me, not wishing to dress myself in presence of my bed-fellows any more than undress myself, I immediately rose, and lighting the lamp, put on my woollen gown, and then going down on my knees in a corner, pretended to pray until the family should awake. I did not remain long in waiting. At five o'clock in the morning the mother cried from her bed, "Jeanne, get up, and get some soup ready for the sister, who wishes to depart early." Jeanne got up, and the butter-milk soup having been made and eaten with good appetite, I left the good persons who had so kindly welcomed me.

Having walked all day without flagging, I found myself at the close of the day in a village near the environs of Vannes, when I remembered I had been deceived by false or mistaken directions. I slept at this village, and the next day I went through Vannes at a very early hour. My intention was to get to Rennes; but on leaving Vannes I met a person who induced me to change my intention. On the same route was a woman walking slowly, followed by a young child, and carrying on her back a box of relics; which she showed in the villages, whilst singing doleful ditties, selling rings of St Hubert, or holy chaplets. This woman told me that she was going to Nantes by cross roads. I was desirous of avoiding the high road, and did not hesitate to follow my new guide. Besides, at Nantes I had resources which would be lacking to me at Rennes, as we shall see.

At the end of eight days' walk, we reached Nantes, when I left the woman and her relics at her lodgings in the suburbs. As for me, I enquired for the Île Feydeau. When at the Bicêtre I had learnt from a man named Grenier, called the Nantais, that there was in this quarter a kind of auberge, where robbers met without fear of disturbance. I knew that by using a well-known name I should be admitted without difficulty; but I only remembered the address very vaguely, and scarcely knew how and where to find out the place. I adopted an expedient which succeeded. I went into many houses and asked for M. Grenier; at the fourth where I sought for this name, the hostess, leaving two persons with whom she was conversing, took me into a small room and said to me, "Have you seen Grenier? Is he still sick (in prison)?"—"No," answered I, "he is well (free)." And perceiving that I was all right with the mother of robbers, I told her unhesitatingly who I was, and how I was situated. Without replying, she took my arm, and opening a door let into the pannel, made me enter a low room where eight men and women were playing at cards and drinking brandy, &c. "Here," said my guide, presenting me to the goodly party, much astonished at the appearance of a nun, "here is a sister come to convert you all." At the same time I tore off my handkerchief, and three of the party, whom I had met at the Bagne, recognized me; they were Berry, Bidaut Mauger, and the young Goupy, whom I had met at Quimper; the others were fugitives from the Bagne of Rochfort. They were much amused at my disguise ; and when supper had made us all very jolly, one of the females put on my nun's habits, and her gestures and attitudes, contrasted so strangely with this costume, that we all laughed till we cried, until the moment when we went to bed.

On waking, I found on my bed new clothes, linen, and in fact everything necessary for my toilet. Whence did they come? But this was of no consequence. The little money which I had not expended at the hospital of Quimper, where I paid dearly for everything, had been used on my journey; and without clothes, resources, or acquaintances, I was compelled to wait until I could write to my mother; and in the mean time accepted all that was offered me. But one circumstance of a particular nature abridged my stay at the Île Feydeau. At the end of a week, my companions seeing me perfectly recovered from my fatigues, told me one evening that they intended on the next day to break into a house on the Place Graslin, and relied on my going with them; I was even to have the post of honour, that of working inside with Maguer.

But I did not intend to do this, and thought how I could make use of the circumstance to get away and go to Paris, where, near my family, my resources would not fail me; but it never entered into my calculations to enrol myself in a band of thieves; for although I had associated with robbers, and lived by my wits, I felt an invincible repugnance to entering on a career of crimes, of which early experience had taught me the perils and risks. A refusal would, on the other hand, render me suspected by my new companions, who, in this retreat, secure from sight or hearing, could knock me on the head with impunity, and send me to keep company with the salmons and smelts of the Loire; and I had only one course to take, which was to set out as quickly as possible, and this I resolved on doing.

Having exchanged my new clothes for a countryman's frock and eighteen francs to boot, I left Nantes, carrying at the end of a stick a basket of provisions, which gave me at once the appearance of an inhabitant of the environs. It is useless to observe, that I struck into the cross roads, where, by the bye, the gendarmes would be better stationed than on the high road, where persons who have any motives for avoiding justice rarely show themselves. This observation is applicable besides to the system of municipal police, whence, as I think, immense advantages could be drawn. Confined only to security, properly so called, it would then follow from one place to another the traces of malefactors who, now once striking out from the radius of large towns, defy all researches. At different periods, and always at seasons of great calamities, when the Chauffeurs were infesting the north; when famine desolated the districts of Calvados and Eure; when the Oise saw conflagrations nightly blazing; partial applications of this system were made, and the results proved the efficacy of the arrangement.