Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter XI

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The market-place at Cholet—Arrival at Paris—History of captain Villedieu.

On quitting Nantes, I walked for a day and two nights without stopping at any village, and my provisions were exhausted; still I went on hap-hazard, although decided on reaching Paris or the sea shore, hoping to get to sea in some ship, when I reached the first habitations of a town which appeared to have been lately the scene of a combat. The greater part of the houses were nothing but a heap of rubbish, blackened by fire, and all that surrounded the place had been entirely destroyed. Nothing was standing but the church tower, whence the clock was striking the hour for inhabitants who no longer existed. This scene of desolation presented at the same time the most whimsical occurrences. On the only piece of wall which remained belonging to an auberge, were still the words "Good entertainment for man and horse;"—there the soldiers were watering their horses in the holy-water vessels;—farther on, their companions were dancing to the tune of an organ with the countrywomen, who, ruined and wretched, had prostituted themselves to the Blues (republicans) for bread. By the traces of this war of extermination we might have thought ourselves in the midst of the wilds of America, or the oases of the desert, where barbarous tribes were cutting each others' throats with blind fury. Yet there had only been there, on both sides, Frenchmen: but every species of fanaticism made rendezvous there. I was in La Vendée, at Cholet.

The master of a wretched cabaret, thatched with broom, where I halted, gave me my cue, by asking me if I had come to Cholet for the next day's market. I answered in the affirmative, much astonished that one should be held in the midst of these ruins, and even that the farmers of the environs had anything to sell; but my host told me that scarcely anything was brought to this market but cattle from distant districts; on the other hand, although no one had yet done anything to repair the disasters of the war, the amnesty was nearly terminated by general Hoche, and if republican soldiers were still found in the country it was that they might keep down the chouans,[1] who were becoming formidable.

I went to the market early the next day, and thinking to take advantage of it, I accosted a cattle-dealer, whose face was familiar to me, asking him to listen to me for a moment. He looked at me with distrust, taking me probably for a spy, but I hastened to relieve his suspicions, telling him that it was only a personal affair. We then entered a hovel where they sold brandy, and I then told him, that having deserted from the 36th demi-brigade to see my parents, who lived at Paris, I was desirous of getting some situation which would allow me to reach my destination without fear of arrest. This good fellow told me that he had no situation to offer me, but that if I would drive a drove of oxen as far as Sceaux, I might go with him. No proposal was ever accepted with more readiness, and I entered on my duties instantly, anxious to show my new master all the return I could testify for his kindness.

In the afternoon he sent me to carry a letter to a person in the town, who asked me if my master had desired me to take anything back with me; I said no, "Never mind," said the person, who was, I believe, a notary, "take him this bag with three hundred francs." I delivered this sum to the cattle dealer, to whom my punctuality gave confidence. We set out next day, and on the third morning my master calling to me, said, "Louis, can you write?"—"Yes, sir." "Reckon?"—"Yes, sir." "Keep an account?"—"Yes, sir."—"Ah, well; as I must go out of the road to see some lean beasts, at St Gauburge, you will drive the oxen on to Paris, with Jacques and Saturnin: you will be head man." He then gave me his instructions and left us.

By reason of my advancement, I no longer travelled on foot, which was a great relief to me; for the drivers of cattle are always stifled with dust, or up to their knees in mud, which increases as they proceed. I was besides, better paid and better fed, but I did not abuse these advantages, as I saw many other head drovers do on the journey. Whilst the food of the animals was converted by them into pullets, or legs of mutton, or exchanged with the innkeepers, the poor brutes grew visibly thinner.

I behaved myself most faithfully, so that on joining us at Verneuil, my master, who had preceded us, complimented me on the state of the drove. On reaching Sceaux, my beasts were worth twenty francs a-head more than any others, and I had spent ninety francs less than my companions for my travelling expenses. My master, enchanted, made me a present of forty francs, and cited me as the Aristides of cattle drovers, and I was in some sort quite an object of admiration at the market of Sceaux, and, in return, my colleagues would willingly have knocked me on the head. One of them, a chap of Lower Normandy, famed for strength and skill, endeavoured to disgust me with my avocation, by taking upon himself to inflict the popular vengeance upon me; but what could such a clumsy yokel do against the pupil of the renowned Goupy! The Low Norman cried craven, after one of the most memorable boxing matches of which the inhabitants of a fat cattle market ever preserved a remembrance.

My conquest was the more glorious, as I had testified much forbearance, and had only consented to fight when it would have been impossible to avoid it. My master, more and more satisfied with me, wished absolutely to engage me for a year, as foreman, promising me a small share of the profits. I had received no news of my mother; and here I found resources which I was about to seek at Paris; and, besides, my new dress disguised me so much that I felt no fear of detection in my frequent excursions to Paris. I passed, in feet, many persons of my acquaintance, who paid no attention to me. But one evening as I was passing along the Rue Dauphine, to get to the Barrière d’Enfer, some one tapped me on the shoulder. My first thought was to run for it, without turning round, being aware that, whoever thus stops you, relies on your looking back to seize you; but a stoppage of carriages choked up the passage. I therefore waited the result, and in a twinkling discovered that it was a false alarm.

The person who had so much alarmed me, was no other than Villedieu, the captain of the 13th chasseurs, with whom I had been intimately acquainted at Lille. Although surprised to see me with a hat covered with waxed cloth, a smock frock, and leathern gaiters, he testified much pleasure at the meeting, and invited me to supper, saying that he had some marvellous narratives to tell me. He was not in his uniform, but this did not astonish me, as the officers commonly wore common clothes when staying in Paris. What struck me most was his uneasy air and excessive paleness. As he expressed a wish to sup out of the barriers, we took a coach which conveyed us to Sceaux.

On reaching the Grand Cerf, we asked for a private room. We were scarcely served with what we asked for, when Villedieu, double-locking the door and putting the key in his pocket, said to me, with tears m his eyes, and with a wild air, "My friend, I am a lost man! Lost! undone! I am pursued, and you must get me a habit similar to your own. If you want it, I have money, plenty of money, and we will start for Switzerland together. I know your skill at escapes, and you, and you only can extricate me."

This commencement did not place me upon a seat of velvet; already much embarrassed myself, I did not much care to place myself again in the way of being apprehended, and to unite my fortunes with those of a man hotly pursued might lead to my detection. This reasoning, which I made to myself, decided me on being wary with Villedieu; and besides, as yet I did not know exactly what he wished to do. At Lille, I had seen him spending much more than his pay; but a young and handsome officer has so many ways of procuring money, that no one thinks any harm of that. I was then greatly astonished at the following details.

"I will not speak to you of those circumstances in my life which preceded your acquaintance with me; it will suffice to say, that as brave and intelligent as most, and backed with good interest, I found myself, at the age of thirty-four, a captain of chasseurs, when I met you at Lille, at the Café de la Montagne. There I associated with an individual whose honest appearance prepossessed me in his favour, and our intimacy ripened into so close a friendship that he introduced me to his house. It was one replete with comfort and elegance, and I received every attention and token of amity; so good a fellow was M. Lemaire, so charming a woman was madame Lemaire. A jeweller, travelling about with his articles of trade, he made frequent absences of six or eight days; but still I visited his wife, and you may guess that I soon became her lover. Lemaire did not perceive, or would not perceive it. I led, to be sure, a most agreeable life, when one morning I found Josephine in tears. Her husband, she told me, had just been apprehended, with his clerk, for having sold unstamped plate, and as it was probable that his house would be soon visited, all its contents must be speedily removed. The most valuable goods were then packed in my portmanteau, and conveyed to my lodgings. Josephine then entreated me to go to Courtrai, where the influence of my rank might be of avail to her husband. I did not hesitate for a moment, for so deeply was I enamoured of this woman that I would have given up the exercise of my faculties if I did not think as she thought, and wish what she wished.

"Having obtained my colonel's permission, I sent for horses and a post chaise, and set out with the express who had brought the news of Lemaire's arrest. I did not at all like this man's face, and what prejudiced me against him was, to hear him thee and thou (tutoyer) Josephine, and treat her with much familiarity. Scarcely had I got into the carriage, when he installed himself at ease in one corner and slept till we reached Menin, where I stopped to take some refreshment. 'Captain, I do not wish to get out,' said he familiarly and rousing himself; 'be so good as to bring me a glass of brandy.' Much surprised at this tone, I sent what he asked for by the waiting-maid, who returned to me, saying that he would not answer her, but was asleep. I went to the chaise, where I saw my gentleman motionless in his corner, his face being covered with a handkerchief, 'Are you asleep?' said I in a low tone. 'No,' he replied, 'nor do I wish to be, but why the devil did you send a servant when I tell you that I do not wish to face these gentry. I gave him his glass of brandy and we started again. As he did not appear disposed for sleep, I asked him carelessly his reason for preserving so strict an incognito, and concerning the business which led me to Courtrai, of which I knew no details. He then told me, that Lemaire was accused of belonging to a band of Chauffeurs, and added, that he had not told Josephine, for fear of increasing her affliction. We drew near Courtrai, and about four hundred paces from the town my companion called to the postillion to stop for an instant; he then put on a wig, concealed in the crown of his hat, stuck a large plaster on his left eye, took from under his waistcoat a brace of pistols, primed them, returned them to the belt under is vest, opened the door, jumped out and disappeared.

"All these manœuvres, which were perfect mysteries to me, only served to create great uneasiness. Could it be that Lemaire's arrest was only a pretext. Was he laying a snare for me? Did he wish me to play some part in an intrigue of any kind? I could not explain it to myself, nor think it was so. I was still very uncertain what to do, and was pacing the chamber with long strides at the Hotel du Damier, where my mysterious companion had advised me to alight, when the door suddenly opened and I saw—Josephine. At her appearance all suspicions vanished. Her abrupt entrance, her hurried journey made without me, and some hours after, whilst she might easily have had part of my chaise and my protection, ought rather perhaps to have excited them. But I was in love, and when Josephine told me that she could not endure an absence, I thought her argument and explanation admirable and unanswerable. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and Josephine dressed herself, and, going out, did not return till ten o'clock. She was accompanied by a man dressed like a peasant of Liège, but whose manner and expression of countenance did not agree with his costume.

"Some refreshments were brought in, and the servants then leaving us, Josephine immediately throwing herself on my neck, begged me to save her husband, repeating, that it only depended on me to do this. I promised all she asked, and then the pretended peasant, who had till this time been perfectly silent, spoke in very good language, and unfolded to me what I was required to do. Lemaire, he said, reached Courtrai, with several travellers, whom he did not know, and had only met on the road, when they were surrounded by a body of gendarmes, who summoned them to surrender. The strangers stood on the defensive, and pistol shots were exchanged, and Lemaire, who, with his clerk, had remained neuter on the field of battle, had been seized without making any effort to escape, feeling a consciousness of innocence, and that he had nothing to fear. But very serious charges had been produced against him; he was unable to give a very precise account of his business in the district, because, said the assumed countryman, he was then smuggling; besides, they had found in a bush two pair of pistols, which it was asserted had been thrown there by himself and clerk, at the moment they were apprehended, and finally, a woman swore that she had seen him the week before on the road to Ghent, with the identical travellers, whom he said he had not met before the morning of the engagement with the gendarmes.

"'Under these circumstances,' added my peasant interlocutor, 'we must find means of proving—

"'1st. That Lemaire has only left Lille three days, and that he had then been there for the entire month previously.

"'2nd. That he never carries pistols.

"'3rd. That before starting he received sixty louis from some person.'

"This confidence ought to have opened my eyes as to the nature of the steps required of me; but, intoxicated with Josephine's caresses, I drove away all thoughts, and compelled myself not to think of what might be the results. We all three sat out the same night for Lille, and on arriving I ran about all day making the necessary arrangements, and by evening all my witnesses were ready.[2] Their depositions had no sooner reached Courtrai, than Lemaire and his clerk were set at liberty. We may imagine their joy; and it was in fact so excessive, that I could not help thinking that the case must have been critical indeed, if their liberation could occasion such transports. The day after his arrival, dining with Lemaire, I found in my napkin a rouleau of a hundred louis. I was weak enough to accept them, and from that hour my ruin was decreed.

Playing high, treating my comrades, and having habits of luxury, I soon spent this sum. Lemaire daily made me fresh offers of service, by which I profitted to borrow several sums of him, amounting to two thousand francs, without being any the richer or more moderate. Fifteen hundred francs borrowed of a Jew, on a post obit for a thousand crowns, and twenty-five louis which the quarter-master advanced me, disappeared with the same alacrity. At last I spent even a sum of five hundred francs which my lieutenant had begged me to keep for him until the arrival of his horse-dealer, to whom he owed this sum. This I lost on one evening at the Café de la Montagne, with a man named Carré, who had already ruined half the regiment.

"The night that followed was a fearful one; agitated by the shame of having abused the confidence of the lieutenant, by squandering what was his little all; enraged at being duped, and tormented with the desire of still playing on; I was twenty times tempted to blow my brains out. When the trumpets sounded the turn-out, I had not closed my eyes; it was my week, and I went out to go through the examination of the stables; the first person I met was the lieutenant, who told me that the horse-dealer had arrived, and he would send his servant for the five hundred francs. My agitation was so great that I answered I scarcely knew what, and the obscurity of the stable alone prevented him from observing my confusion. There was not a moment to lose, if I would not forfeit my good name with my superiors and brother officers.

"In this horrid situation I did not even think of applying to Lemaire, so much I already imagined that I had abused his friendship; but I had no other resource, and, at length, I resolved on writing him a note, stating the embarrassment in which I was placed. He came to me instantly, and laying on the table two gold snuff boxes, three watches and twelve engraved spoons, he told me that he had no ready money at the moment, but that I could easily procure it by taking these valuables to the pawnbrokers, and he left them at my disposal. After overwhelming him with thanks, I sent the whole to be pledged by my servant, who brought me twelve hundred francs for them. I first paid the lieutenant, and then led by my unlucky star, I flew to the Café de la Montagne, when Carré, after much persuasion, was induced to give me my revenge, and the remaining seven hundred francs passed from my purse to his.

"Aghast at this last stroke of fortune, I wandered for some time about the streets of Lille, whilst a thousand mad ideas flashed through my brain. It was in this mood that I imperceptibly drew near to Lemaire's house, which I entered mechanically; they were sitting down to dinner, and Josephine, struck by my extreme paleness, questioned me with interest concerning my affairs and my health; I was in one of those dejected moods whence the consciousness of his weakness makes the most reserved more communicative. I confessed all my extravagancies, adding that within two months I must pay more than four thousand francs, of which I had not a single sous.

"At these words Lemaire looked fixedly at me, with a gaze I can never forget all my life, be it long or short. 'Captain,' said he, 'I will not forsake you in your difficulties, but one confidence deserves another; nothing should be kept from a man who has saved you from—' and with a horrid smile he passed his hand across his throat. I trembled, and looked at Josephine. She was perfectly calm! It was a horrible moment! Without seeming to notice my perturbation, Lemaire continued his fearful confidence. I learnt that he was one of Sallambier's band, and that, when the gendarmes had apprehended him near Courtrai, they were returning from a party of plunder in a country-house in the vicinity of Ghent. The servants had defended themselves, and three had been killed, and two wretched women were hung up in a cellar. The valuables I had pawned were the produce of the robbery which had followed these atrocities! After having explained to me how he had been apprehended near Courtrai, whilst making off, Lemaire added that henceforward it was only for me to repair my losses and better my fortune by accompanying him in two or three expeditions.

"I was annihilated! Up to this period the conduct of Lemaire, the circumstances of his arrest, the nature of the service which I had rendered him, appeared to me very suspicious; but I carefully drove from my thoughts all that could convert my suspicions into reality. As if tormented by a frightful nightmare, I waited till I should awake, and my waking was more horrible still!

"'Well,' said Josephine, with an inquiring tone, 'you do not answer—Ah! I see, we have lost your friendship; and I shall die!' She burst into tears: my head was in a whirl: forgetful of Lemaire's presence, I threw myself on my knees like a madman, crying out, 'I quit you? no, never, never!' , Tears choked my utterance, and I saw a tear in Josephine's eyes, but she instantly resumed her firmness. For Lemaire, he offered us orange-flower water with as much calmness as a cavalier presents an ice to his partner at a ball.

"I was thus enlisted in this band, the terror of the departments of the North, la Lys and l'Escaut. In less than fifteen days I was introduced to Sallambier, in whom I recognized the peasant of Liège; to Duhamel, Chopiné, Calandrin, and the principal Chauffeurs. The first business in which I took a share was in the environs of Douai. Duhamel's mistress, who accompanied us, introduced us to the house, in which she had been waiting-maid. The dogs having been poisoned by a wood-cutter employed on the premises, we only waited until the family should be asleep, to commence our operations. No locks could resist Calandrin, and we reached the drawing room with the utmost silence. The family, consisting, of the father, mother, great aunt, two young persons, and a relation on a visit, were playing at Bouillotte. We only heard the words, 'Pass, I hold; I play Charlemagne,' &c.; when Sallambier, opening the door quickly, appeared, followed by ten men with blackened faces, and pistols and daggers in their hands. At this sight the cards fell from the hands of all; the females shrieked for mercy, until, with a motion of his hand, Sallambier compelled silence, whilst one of our band, jumping like a monkey on the mantlepiece, cut the ropes of the bells. The women fainted, but were not heeded. The master of the house alone retained some presence of mind. After having opened his mouth at least twenty times without uttering a word, he at length contrived to ask what we wanted? 'Money,' said Sallambier, whose voice seemed to me entirely changed; and taking the candle from the card-table, he made signs to the master of the house to follow him into the next room, where we knew that the money and jewels were deposited. It was precisely Don Juan preceding the statue of the Commandant.

"We remained in the dark, motionless at our posts, only hearing the stifled sobs of the females, the chink of money, and these words, 'More, more,' which Sallambier repeated from time to time in a sepulchral tone. At the end of twenty minutes he returned with a red handkerchief, tied together by the corners and filled with pieces of money; the jewels were in his pockets. To neglect nothing, they took from the old aunt and the mother their earrings, as well as the watch of the relation who had so well chosen the time to make his visit. We set out at last, after having carefully locked up the whole party, without the servants, who had been for some time in bed, being at all disturbed or aware of the attack in the château.

"I had a share also in several other enterprizes, more hazardous than that I now mention. We were resisted, or else the proprietors had concealed their money, and to make them produce it they were put to most dreadful tortures. At first they confined themselves to burning the soles of their feet with red-hot shovels; but adopting more expeditious measures, they began to tear out the nails of those who were obstinate, or blow them as large as balloons with bellows. Some of these unfortunates, having really no money, as was supposed, died in the midst of these tortures. See, my friend, on what a career I had entered; I, an officer well born, for whom twelve years of active service, some exploits of bravery, and the testimony of my comrades, had created an universal esteem, which he had ceased to deserve for a very long time, and which he was about to lose for ever."

Here Villedieu paused and dropped his head upon his breast, like one overwhelmed by his recollections. I left him undisturbed for a moment, but the names he mentioned were too well known to me not to excite the most lively curiosity in my mind to hear the whole of his recital. A few glasses of champagne restored his energy, and he thus continued:—

"But crimes multiplied so alarmingly, that the gendarmes not being sufficiently powerful to check them, columns of the military were taken from the various garrisons. One was placed under my command. You may suppose that this measure had an entirely contrary effect to that intended; for warned by me, the Chauffeurs avoided the places that I was to watch with my division. Thus matters went on worse than ever, and the authorities were at a loss what plans to adopt, when they learnt that the majority of the Chauffeurs resided at Lille, and the order was given for redoubling the superintendence (surveillance) at the gates. We found means however to render all these precautions useless. Sallambier procured at a broker's of the town, who clothed a regiment, fifteen uniforms of the 13th chasseurs, and disguised with them that number of Chauffeurs, who, with me at their head, went out at twilight, as if going on a detachment of a secret enterprize.

"Although this stratagem completely answered, I thought I perceived myself to be the object of particular surveillance. A report spread about that there were men in the vicinity of Lille disguised as horse chasseurs. The colonel appeared to mistrust me, and one of my brother officers was appointed alternately to direct the moving columns before entrusted to my charge alone. Instead of giving me the watch-word, as to the other officers of gendarmes, I was not informed of it until the moment of departure. At length I was so directly accused, that I was under the necessity of enquiring of the colonel, who, without any disguise, told me that I was reported to have communication with the Chauffeurs. I defended myself as well as I could, and thus matters remained, only that I left the service of the moving columns, which began to be so active that the Chauffeurs scarcely durst show themselves.

"Sallambier, unwilling to remain long in inaction, redoubled his audacity in proportion as obstacles multiplied about us. In one night he committed three robberies in the same district. But the proprietors of the first of the houses attacked having divested themselves of their gags and bonds, gave the alarm. The tocsin was sounded for two leagues round, and the Chauffeurs only owed their safety to the fleetness of their horses. The two brothers Sallambier were hotly followed, and it was only on approaching Bruges that they distanced their pursuers. In a large village where they were, they hired a chaise and two horses, to go, as they said, some leagues and return in the evening.

"A coachman drove them, whom, on getting to the water's edge, the elder Sallambier struck from behind with his knife, and knocked him from his seat. The two brothers then threw him into the sea, hoping that the waves would retain the corpse. Masters of the conveyance, they went on their journey, when, towards the close of day, they met a countryman who bade them good evening. As they did not answer, the man approached, saying, 'Ah! Vandeck, do you not know me? It is I—Joseph.' Sallambier then told him that he had hired the carriage for three days without a conductor. The tone of this answer, the condition of the horses, covered with sweat, and which their master would never have let without a driver, all made the interrogator suspicious. Without prolonging the conversation, he ran to the adjacent village and gave the alarm; seven or eight men on horseback pursued the carriage, which they soon perceived travelling slowly along. They increased their speed and overtook it. It was empty. Rather disappointed, they drove it into an auberge where they intended to pass the night; but scarcely were they seated, when a great noise was heard, occasioned by a crowd conveying before the magistrate two travellers accused of the murder of a man whom some fishermen had found with his throat cut on the sea shore. All ran out, and Joseph recognized the individuals whom he had seen in the carriage, and which they quitted because the horses could go no farther. They (the two Sallambiers) appeared greatly disconcerted when confronted with Joseph. Their identity was soon settled. Under a suspicion that they might belong to some band of Chauffeurs, they were transferred to Lille, where they were recognized on reaching the Petit Hotel.

"There the elder Sallambier, pressed by the agents of police, denounced all his companions, and pointed out when and where they might be taken. In consequence of this information forty-three persons of both sexes were apprehended. Amongst them were Lemaire and his wife. At the same time an order of arrest was issued against me; but informed by a quarter-master of gendarmes, whom I had served, I escaped and reached Paris, where I have been these ten days. When I met you I was looking for the house of an old sweetheart, where I intended to conceal myself, or obtain some means of escape to a foreign country, but I am now easy, since I meet with Vidocq."

  1. Chouans, a contraction of the word chat-huant, a screech-owl; a title given to parties of Vendéeans, and afterwards to bands formed for plunder, who ravaged the western part of France subsequently to 1793, and were called by this name because, like owls, they came out only at night.—Translator.
  2. This may appear surprising, but astonishment will cease when we learn by how many testimonies of such a nature the course of justice is perverted. We have recently seen, at the court of assize at Cahors, half the inhabitants of a corporation state a plain fact in direct opposition to the assertion of the other half.