Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume I/Chapter XII

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Journey to Arras—Father Lambert—Vidocq a schoolmaster—Departure for Holland—The "sellers of souls"—The mutiny—The corsair—Catastrophe.

The confidence of Villedieu flattered me very much; but yet I thought my rencontre with him might lead me into danger. I therefore told him a false tale when he enquired about my mode of life and domicile. For the same reason I took care not to be at the rendezvous which he had appointed for the next day; for it would have been attended with much risk to myself and no advantage to him. On leaving him, at eleven o'clock in the evening, I took the precaution of making many detours before I entered my auberge, for fear of being dogged by any police agents. My master, who had gone to bed, aroused me early in the morning to tell me to set out with him for Nogent le Rotrou, whence we were to proceed to his own farms, situated in the environs of this city.

In four days we arrived at the termination of our journey, and although received in the family as a hardworking and faithful servant, I still persisted in the intention I had formed for some time, of returning to my own country, whence I received neither information nor money. On returning to Paris with some cattle, I told my master of my determination, and he let me go with much reluctance. On quitting him, I entered a café in the Place du Chatelet, to procure a porter to fetch my luggage, and there taking up a newspaper, the first intelligence that met my eyes was an account of Villedieu's capture. He had not allowed himself to be taken before he had prostrated two of the agents of police, who had orders to apprehend him, and was himself severely wounded. On being executed, two months afterwards at Bruges, the last of eighteen, all his accomplices, he contemplated their headless and bleeding bodies as they fell one by one by his side, with a calmness and fortitude that never wavered for an instant.

This circumstance gave me reason to be satisfied with the step that I had taken. Had I staid with the cattle-dealer, I was under the necessity of coming twice a week to Paris; and the police, directing its attention against all plots and foreign agents, was assuming an extent and energy which might have brought detection on me, as they minutely watched individuals, who, perpetually called by business from the departments of the west, might serve as agents between the Chouans and their friends in the capital. I therefore set out without delay, and on the third day reached Arras, which I entered in the evening, at the time when the workmen were returning home from labour. I did not go directly to my father's house, but to one of my aunts, who informed my parents. They thought me dead, not having received any of my last letters; and I have never been able to discover how and by whom they were intercepted. Having related all my adventures at length, I asked news of my family, which necessarily led to my enquiring for my wife. I was told that my father had for some time received her at his house, but that her conduct was so scandalous, that she had been disgracefully expelled thence. She was, I was informed, pregnant by an attorney, who supplied most of her wants; but that for some time nothing had been heard of her, and they had ceased to trouble themselves concerning her.

I gave myself no care about her, for I had matters of much greater import which demanded my attention. I might be discovered at any moment; and if apprehended at my parents' house they would be involved in difficulties. It was imperative on me to find an asylum where the vigilance of the police was not so active as at Arras, and I threw my eyes upon a village in the vicinity, Ambercourt, where there resided a quondam carmelite friar, a friend of my father, who agreed to receive me. At this period (1798) priests were compelled still to say mass in secret, although direct hostilities towards them had ceased. Father Lambert, my host, celebrated his divine functions in a barn; and as he had no assistance but from an old man, feeble, and impotent, I offered to fulfil the duties of sacristan, which I did so satisfactorily, that one would have supposed it had been my calling all the days of my existence. I also became father Lambert's assistant in giving lessons to the children of the neighbourhood. My skill in teaching made some noise in the district, for I had taken an excellent method to advance my pupils rapidly; I traced the letters with a lead pencil, which they wrote over with the pen, and the Indian rubber effected the rest. The parents were delighted; only it was rather difficult for my scholars to perform without their master; but the Artesian peasants, however cunning in the common transactions of business, were good enough not to find this out.

This sort of life was rather agreeable to me. Clothed as a wandering friar, and tolerated by the authorities, I had no fear of detection or suspicion; on the other hand, my animal tastes, which I have always held in consideration due, were well supplied, the parents sending us perpetually, beer, poultry, and fruit. I had in my classes some pretty peasant girls, who were very teachable. All went on well for some time, but at length a distrust of me was evinced; I was watched, and it was discovered that I pushed my instructions occasionally rather too far, and complaint was made to father Lambert, who told me of the charges against me, which I stoutly denied. The complainants were silenced, but redoubled their vigilance; and one night, when, impelled by classic zeal, I was about to give a lesson in a hay-loft to a female scholar about sixteen years of age, I was seized by four brewers' men, dragged into a hop-ground, stripped of my clothes, and scourged, till the blood flowed copiously, with rods of nettles and thistles. The pain was so acute, that I lost my senses, and on reviving, found myself in the streets, naked, and covered with blisters and blood.

What was to be done? To return to father Lambert would be to incur fresh dangers. The night was not much advanced, and although eaten up with excess of fever, I determined to go on to Mareuil, to an uncle's house, and arrived there at two o'clock in the morning, worn out with fatigue, and only covered with a ragged mat which I had found near a pond. After having laughed unsparingly at my mishap, they rubbed my body all over with cream mixed with oil; and at the end of eight days I set out quite well for Arras, but it was impossible for me to remain there. The police might get information at some unlucky moment that I was there, and I therefore decided on starting for Holland, and fixing myself there, taking with me a supply of money which enabled me to remain at my ease until something should occur that would employ me usefully.

I passed through Brussels (where I learnt that the baroness d'I—— had settled in London), Anvers, and Breda, and then embarked for Rotterdam, in which city I put up at an inn that had been specially recommended to me. I there met with a Frenchman, who was remarkably attentive and civil to me, and frequently invited me to dinner. I received all his advances with mistrust, knowing that all means were resorted to by the Dutch government to recruit their navy. In spite of all my caution, my companion contrived to intoxicate me with a particular liquor, and on the next morning I awoke on board a Dutch brig of war. All doubt was at an end; intemperance had given me up as a prey to the "sellers of souls."

Lying near the shrouds, I was reflecting on my singular destiny, which multiplied so many incidents of my wayward career, when one of the crew, pushing me with his foot, desired me to rise and get on my sailor's clothes. I pretended not to understand him, and then the boatswain gave me the same orders in French. On my replying that I was not a sailor, since I had signed no agreement, he seized a rope's end to strike me with; on which, I grasped a knife belonging to a sailor, who was breakfasting at the foot of the main-mast, and, placing my back against a gun, I swore I would rip up the first man who should assault me. This occasioned much disturbance in the ship, and brought up the captain, who was a man about forty, of good appearance, and whose manners were free from that coarseness so usual with seafaring people. He listened to me with kindness, which was all he could do, for it was not in his power to change the maritime organization of his government.

In England, where the duty on board a man-of-war is more severe, less profitable, and, above all, less free than in the merchants' ships, the royal navy was manned, and is still manned by the press. In war time the press is carried into effect at sea, on board the merchants' ships, with whom they exchange useless or invalid sailors for vigorous and able-bodied men. On shore it is carried on in the midst of large cities, but it is customary only to press those individuals whose appearance and costume bespeak that they have not been unaccustomed to the sea. In Holland, on the contrary, at the period I now allude to, they acted in pretty nearly the same manner as at Turkey, where in time of need, they seize on and send to the ships of the line, masons, grooms, actors, barbers, &c. &c.; persons, as we may suppose, of the most useful kind. Thus, if on leaving port, a ship be compelled to engage with another, she fails in every manœuvre; and this circumstance may perhaps account for the number of Turkish frigates that have been captured or destroyed by the Greek pirates.

We had then on board men whose inclinations and habits of life were so totally foreign from naval service, that the very idea of compelling them to enter it was essentially ridiculous. Of the two hundred individuals pressed, like myself, there were not perhaps twenty who had ever set foot on shipboard before. The majority had been carried off by main force, or trepanned by drunkenness: they had inveigled others by a promise of a free passage to Batavia, where they wished to settle; amongst these were two Frenchmen, one a book-keeper from Burgundy, and the other a gardener of Lemosin, who, it is evident, were admirably calculated to make sailors. To console us, the crew told us that, for fear of desertion, we should not go ashore for six months, which is likewise a plan practised in the English fleets, where the sailor may be whole years without seeing any other land than the main-top-gallants of his ship: trustworthy men are made the boats' crews, and foreigners are sometimes employed amongst the crew. To soften the severity of this usage, they allow some of those women who swarm in all the seaports, and whom they call, I know not why, queen Caroline's daughters (les filles de la reine Caroline) to come on board. The English sailors, from whom I have since learnt these details, which we are not to consider as precisely true in every particular, add, that to disguise in some measure the immorality, some puritanical captains occasionally require that these lady visitors should assume the names of sister or cousin.[1]

To me, who had so long intended to enter the navy, the situation was not so repugnant, if I had not been constrained to it, and if I had not had in perspective the slavery which threatened me; added to which, was the ill treatment of the boatswain, who could not forgive my first essay with him, On the least false manœuvre or mistake, the rope's end descended on my back in a style so argumentative and convincing, that I even regretted the cudgel of the galley-serjeant at the Bagne. I was in despair, and twenty times resolved to let fall from the maintop a wooden pulley on the head of my tormentor, or else to fling him into the sea when I was on the watch. I should certainly have done one or the other of these, if the lieutenant, who had taken a liking to me because I taught him to fence, had not in some measure alleviated my sufferings. Besides, we were forthwith going to Helvoetsluys, where the Heindrack lay, of whose crew we were to form a part, and in the passage an escape might be effected.

The day of transhipment came, and we embarked, to the number of two hundred and seventy, in a small sloop, manned by twenty-five sailors, and with twenty-five soldiers to guard us. The weakness of this detachment determined me to attempt to disarm the soldiers and compel the sailors to conduct us to Anvers. One hundred and twenty of the recruits, French and Belgians, entered into the plot, and we resolved on surprising the men on guard at the moment their comrades were at dinner, whom we could then easily secure. This enterprise was executed with the more success, as they suspected nothing. The commandant of the detachment was seized at the moment he was taking his tea, but was not at all mal-treated. A young man of Tournai, engaged as supercargo, and reduced to work as a sailor, explained to him so eloquently the motives that led to our revolt, as he called it, that he allowed himself to be conducted into the hold, with his soldiers, unresistingly. As for the sailors, they were neutral; a man of Dunkirk only, who was in our plot, took the helm.

Night came on, and I wished to lie to, lest we should encounter any guard-ship, to which the sailors would make signals; but the Dunkirker obstinately refused, and we kept on our course, and at day-break we were under the cannon of a fort near Helvoetsluys. The Dunkirker then announced his intention of landing, to see if we could get on shore safely, and I saw then that we were sold; but it was impossible to recede: signals had doubtlessly been made, and, on the least movement, the guns of the fort could blow us out of water. It was compulsory then that we should await the event. Soon a boat, with twenty men on board, left the shore and approached the sloop: three officers who were in it came on deck, without testifying any fear, although it was the scene of a busy struggle between our comrades and the Dutch sentry, who wanted to free the soldiers from the hold. The first word of the eldest officer was to ask for the ringleader, and all remaining mute, I spoke in French:—"Indeed that there had been no plot, but that it was by a simultaneous movement that we had resolved on throwing off the slavery imposed on us; we had ill-treated no one, as the captain and sailors could testify, who knew it was our intention to have left them in possession of the vessel, after we had landed at Anvers." I know not what effect my harangue produced, for I was not allowed to finish it; only, whilst we were piled up in the hold, in the place of the soldiers whom we had confined there on the previous evening, I heard some one say to the pilot, "that more than one would swing at the yard-arm next morning." The sloop was then turned towards Helvoetsluys, and we reached that place the same day, at about four o'clock in the afternoon. In the roadstead was anchored the Heindrack. The commandant of the fort went in his cutter, and in an hour afterwards I was conducted thither also. I found there assembled a sort of maritime council, who questioned me as to the particulars of the mutiny, and the part I had taken in it. I asserted, as I had already done to the fort governor, that having signed no articles of engagement, I thought myself justified in effecting my escape by any means that presented.

I was then ordered to retire, to make way for the young man of Tournai, who had seized the captain. We were looked on as the leaders in the enterprize, and we know that in such cases it is the ringleaders who undergo the punishment, and we were to suffer nothing more or less than hailing; fortunately, the young man, who had had time for consideration, corroborated my statement, and asserted firmly that no one had suggested it, but that the idea had come across us all at the same moment; besides, we were quite sure of not being betrayed by our comrades, who showed much concern for us, and swore that if we were condemned, the ship on board which they should be placed, should jump like a rocket; that is, that they would fire the powder magazine, although they should be blown up with it; and these were lads who would have dared to do what they ventured to talk about. Whether they feared the results of these menaces, and the bad example that it would afford to the sailors of the fleet, who had been recruited in a similar way; or whether the council held that we were entrenched behind a rampart of legitimate defence, in seeking to withdraw ourselves from a compulsory service; they promised to ask for our pardon from the admiral, on condition that we kept our comrades in due subordination, which appeared not to be their favorite virtue. We promised all that they desired, for nothing makes one so easy to be persuaded or to promise, as the feeling a cord about one's neck.

These preliminaries agreed upon, our comrades were transferred on board the ship, and went between decks with the crew, whose complement they were to make up: all was done with the greatest order, neither was any complaint heard, nor was there the smallest disorderly symptom to be repressed. It is right to say, that we were not ill-treated, as we had been on board the brig, where our old friend the boatswain did all with the rope's end in his hand. Besides, by giving the marines instruction in fencing, I was treated with some attention, and was even made bombardier, with a pay of twenty-eight florins per month. Two months passed away thus, whilst the vigilance of the English cruisers would not allow of our quitting anchorage. I became reconciled to my new employment, and had no thoughts of leaving it, when news was brought that the French authorities were searching for all Frenchmen who were forming part of the Dutch crews. It was a good opportunity for those amongst us who disliked the service, and yet none cared to avail themselves of it, for they only wanted to embody us into French ships of the line, a change which presented no advantage; and besides, the greater part of my companions had, I believe, good reasons, as well as myself, not to be anxious to display themselves before the agents of the metropolis. All then were silent, and when they demanded from the captain the list of his crew, the examination of it had no other result, for the simple reason that we had all assumed false names. We thought we had weathered the storm.

Researches, however, were continued; only, instead of making inquiries, they stationed agents at the ports and taverns, who examined those men who landed by permission or otherwise. In one of my excursions, I was apprehended. I have long preserved my gratitude for it towards the ship's cook, who honored me with his personal animosity ever after that, I had found fault with his giving us swipes for beer, and stinking cod for fresh fish. Taken before the commanding officer, I said I was a Dutchman, and my knowledge of the language sufficed for me to keep up my assertion; and besides, I demanded to be taken back to my ship with a guard, that I might procure papers to substantiate my assertion, than which nothing could be more natural. A subaltern was ordered to accompany me, and we set out in the skiff that had conveyed me ashore. On getting near the ship, I made my friend with whom I had been talking very familiarly, get up alongside first; and when I saw him entangled amongst the rigging, I thrust off suddenly from the ship's side, calling to the boat's crew to pull their hardest, and that they should have something to drink. We were cutting through the water whilst my subaltern friend was jostled about amongst the crew, who did not or pretended not to know him. On getting ashore, I ran to conceal myself in a house which I knew, determined on quitting the vessel, in which it would be difficult for me to appear without being apprehended. My flight would confirm all suspicions raised against me, and therefore the captain gave me his authority, tacitly, to do what I might think best for my own security.

A Dunkirk privateer, the Barras, captain Fomentin, was in the roads. At this period, vessels of this kind were seldom overhauled, as they had in a measure a sort of asylum; and as it suited me to get on board it, I got a lieutenant, to whom I applied, to introduce me to Fomentin, who, on my own statement, admitted me on board as master-at-arms. Four days afterwards, the Barras set sail for a cruise in the Sound. It was at the beginning of the winter of 1799, when the tempestuous weather destroyed so many vessels on the coast of the Baltic. Scarcely were we at sea, when a northerly wind rose, quite contrary to our destination. We were compelled to put about, and the roll of the ship was so great, that I was excessively ill; so much so, that for three days I could take nothing but weak brandy and water, and half the crew were in the same state, so that a fishing-boat might have taken us without our striking a blow. At length the wind abated, and turned suddenly to the south-west; and the Barras, an admirable sailer, going ten knots an hour, all hands aboard soon recovered. At this moment, the man at the mast-head cried out, "A sail on the larboard tack!" The captain took his glass, and declared it to be an English coaster, under a neutral flag, and which the squalls had separated from the convoy. We bore down on her, with the wind on our bow, after hoisting French colours. At the second discharge of our guns she struck, before we could board her; and, putting the crew down into the hold, we made for Bergen in Norway, where our cargo of mahogany was soon disposed of.

I remained six months on board the Barras, and my share of the prizes was pretty considerable, when we went to lay up for a time at Ostend. We have already seen that this city was always unpropitious to me; and what now happened to me almost made me a convert to fatalism. We had scarcely got into the basin, when a commissary, gendarmes, and police agents, came on board to examine the papers of the crew; and I afterwards learnt that the object of this unusual visitation was, that a murder having been committed, it was conjectured that the assassin might have taken refuge with us.

When my turn came for examination, I asserted that I was Auguste Duval, born at l'Orient; and added, that my papers were at Rotterdam, in the office of the Dutch marine department. No notice was taken, and I thought I had well got rid of the affair. When the three hundred men who were on board had been questioned, eight of us were called, and told that we must go to the register-office, to give the requisite explanation. Not liking this, I turned off at the first angle of the street, and had already gained thirty yards on the gendarmes, when an old woman, who was washing the steps of a house, put her broom between my legs and I fell. The gendarmes came up to me and put on handcuffs, besides belabouring me pretty well with the butts of carbines and the flat sides of swords, and I was conducted thus to the commissary, who, after hearing me, asked me if I had not escaped from the hospital of Quimper. I saw that I was caught, for there was equal danger as Duval or Vidocq. However, I decided on the first name, which offered less unfavourable chances of the two; since the road from Ostend to l'Orient is longer than from Ostend to Arras, and thus afforded more opportunities and time for escape.

  1. Certainly M. Vidocq's statement, as he himself says, must be taken 'cum grano salis!'—Translator.