Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XXIV

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M. Henry, surnamed the Evil Spirit—MM. Bertaux and Parisot—A word respecting the police—My first capture—Bouhin and Terrier are arrested upon my information.

The names of baron Pasquier and M. Henry will never be effaced from my recollection; these two generous men were my liberators; how many thanks do I not owe them! They restored me more than my life; for them I would cheerfully sacrifice it; and the reader will believe me, when he learns that I have frequently exposed it to obtain from them a single word, or a glance of satisfaction. I breathed once more the air of liberty; my blood flowed freely through my veins; I no longer feared anything. The secret agent of government, I had duties marked out, and the kind and respectable M. Henry took upon himself to instruct me in their fulfilment; for in his hands were entrusted nearly the entire safety of the capital: to prevent crimes, discover malefactors, and to give them up to justice, were the principal functions confided to me. The task was difficult to perform. M. Henry kindly guided my first steps; he smoothed the difficulties of it for me; and if in the end I acquired some celebrity in the police, I owe it to his counsels, as well as to the excellent lessons I received from him. Gifted with a cool and reflective character, M. Henry possessed, in its utmost perfection, that tact of observation which can detect culpability under the greatest appearance of innocence: he had an astonishing memory; an acute penetration, from which nothing escaped; added to which, he was an excellent judge of countenances. By thieves he was styled the Evil Spirit; and well did he merit the surname, for with him, cunning and suavity of manners were so conjoined as seldom to fail in their purpose. Rarely indeed did a criminal, interrogated by him, quit his closet without having confessed his crime, or given, unknown to himself, some clue by which to convict him. With M. Henry it was a sort of instinct which conducted him to the discovery of truth; it was not an acquired possession; and whoseover might have sought to assume his manner, to obtain me same results, would find himself continually perplexed and uncertain; for, cameleon-like, he changed with every circumstance, and varied with each character with whom he had to deal. Devoted to the duties of his post, he, in a manner, lived but for it, and was at all times accessible to the public business. It was not necessary under his management to wait till the hour of twelve before his offices were open to receive complaints, or, according to the present practice, to wait for hours in an antichamber ere an audience could be obtained. Industrious and persevering, no species of fatigue disheartened him; and to this undeviating course of life may be attributed the many infirmities with which he was afflicted, when, at the close of thirty-five years hard service, he retired from office. I have frequently seen him passing two or three nights in the week, and the greater part of his time, meditating upon the instructions he was about to give me, or to effect the prompt repression of crimes of every species. Illnesses (and he had many very severe ones) were scarcely permitted to interrupt his labours; it was only when carried into his study that he would listen to the directions of his physicians. In a word, he was a man, such as there are but very few, if indeed there exist any, like him; his very name was a terror to offenders, and when brought before him, audacious as they were, they trembled and became confused; they blundered in their answers, firmly believing that equivocation or denial was useless with one whom they firmly imagined had the power of reading their most inward thoughts.

One remark which I have often had occasion to make is, that efficient men are always the best seconded; perhaps in verification of the old proverb, that "birds of a feather flock together." I leave the decision of the point to wiser heads than mine; but this I know, that M. Henry had coadjutors worthy of him; amongst the number was M. Bertaux, a cross-examiner of great merit, whose particular talent consisted in sifting a thing to the bottom, however intricate it might appear. The proofs of his talent may be found in the archives of the court. Next to him, I have great pleasure in naming M. Parisot, governor of the prisons. In a word, MM. Henry, Bertaux, and Parisot, formed a veritable triumvirate, which was incessantly conspiring against the perpetrators of all manner of crimes; to extirpate rogues from Paris, and to procure for the inhabitants of this immense city a perfect security: such was their mutual aim, their only thought, and the effects amply repaid them for the attempt. It is true, that there existed at this time amongst the heads of the police, a frankness, an unanimity, and a cordiality, which have disappeared in the last five or six years. In the present day, chiefs or subalterns mistrust each other; they reciprocally fear and hate each other; a continual state of hostilities is kept up; each dreads in his comrade a foe who will denounce him; there is no longer a sympathy of action in the different departments of the administration: and from whence does this proceed? Because each man's post and duties are not sufficiently definite. Nothing is distinctly defined; and no person, even of those highest in office, is placed in the department for which he is best fitted. Most usually, the préfet himself, on being elected to fill that important situation, is wholly ignorant of the duties of the police, and yet he ascends at once to the highest rank in it, there to pass through his apprenticeship. In his train follow a crowd of protegés, whose least fault is that of being destitute of decided talent, but who, for want of being equal to other employment, occupy themselves with flattering their patrons, and preventing the truth from reaching their ears. Thus have I seen, from time to time, sometimes under one direction and sometimes under another, the police organized, or rather indeed disorganized, each change of a préfet introducing into it fresh novices, and causing the dismissal of experienced officers. I shall hereafter dwell more at length upon the consequences of these changes, which have originated solely in the desire of bestowing appointments upon the creatures of the last comer. Meanwhile I will resume the thread of my narrative.

So soon as I was installed in my new office of secret agent, I commenced my rounds, in order to take my measures well for setting effectually to work. These journies, which occupied me nearly twenty days, furnished me with many useful and important observations, but as yet I was only preparing to act, and studying my ground.

One morning I was hastily summoned to attend the chief of the division. The matter in hand was to discover a man named Watrin, accused of having fabricated and put in circulation false money and bank notes. The inspectors of the police had already arrested Watrin, but, according to custom, had allowed him to escape. M. Henry gave me every direction which he deemed likely to assist me in the search after him; but unfortunately he had only gleaned a few simple particulars of his usual habits and customary haunts; every place he was known to frequent were freely pointed out to me; but it was not very likely he would be found in those resorts which prudence would call upon him carefully to avoid; there remained therefore only a chance of reaching him by some bye path. When I learnt that he had left his effects in a furnished house, where he once lodged, on the boulevard of Mont Parnasse, I took it for granted that, sooner or later, he would go there in search of his property; or at least that he would send some person to fetch it from thence; consequently, I directed all my vigilance to this spot; and after having reconnoitred the house, I lay in ambush in its vicinity night and day, in order to keep a watchful eye upon all comers and goers. This went on for nearly a week, when, weary of not observing anything, I determined upon engaging the master of the house in my interest, and to hire an apartment of him, where I accordingly established myself with Annette, certain that my presence could give rise to no suspicion. I had occupied this post for about fifteen days, when one evening, at eleven o'clock, I was informed that Watrin had just come, accompanied by another person. Owing to a slight indisposition, I had retired to bed earlier than usual; however, at this news I rose hastily, and descended the staircase by four stairs at a time; but whatever diligence I might use, I was only just in time to catch Watrin's companion; him I had no right to detain, but I made myself sure that I might, by intimidation, obtain further particulars from him. I therefore seized him, threatened him, and soon drew from him a confession, that he was a shoemaker, and that Watrin lived with him. No. 4 Rue des Mauvais Garçons. This was all I wanted to know: I had only had time to slip an old great coat over my shirt, and, without stopping to put on more garments, I hurried on to the place thus pointed out to me. I reached the house at the very instant that some person was quitting it: persuaded that it was Watrin, I attempted to seize him; he escaped from me, and I darted after him up a staircase; but at the moment of grasping him, a violent blow which struck my chest drove me down twenty stairs. I sprung forward again, and that so quickly, that to escape from my pursuit he was compelled, to return into the house through a sash window. I then knocked loudly at the door, summoning him to open it without delay. This he refused to do. I then desired Annette (who had followed me) to go in search of the guard, and whilst she was preparing to obey me, I counterfeited the noise of a man descending the stairs. Watrin, deceived by this feint, was anxious to satisfy himself whether I had actually gone, and softly put his head out of window to observe if all was safe. This was exactly what I wanted. I made a vigorous dart forwards, and seized him by the hair of his head: he grasped me in the same manner, and a desperate struggle took place: jammed against the partition wall which separated us, he opposed me with a determined resistance. Nevertheless, I felt that he was growing weaker; I collected all my strength for a last effort; I strained every nerve, and drew him nearly out of the window through which we were struggling: one more trial and the victory was mine; but in the earnestness of my grasp we both rolled on the passage floor, on to which I had pulled him: to rise, snatch from his hands the shoemaker's cutting-knife with which he had armed himself, to bind him and lead him out of the house, was the work of an instant. Accompanied only by Annette, I conducted him to the prefecture, where I received the congratulations first of M. Henry, and afterwards those of the prefect of police, who bestowed on me a pecuniary recompense. Watrin was a man of unusual address; he followed a coarse clumsy business, and yet he had given himself up to making counterfeit money, which required extreme delicacy of hand. Condemned to death, he obtained a reprieve the very hour that was destined for his execution; the scaffold was prepared; he was taken down from it, and the amateurs of such scenes experienced a disappointment. All Paris remembers it. A report was in circulation that he was about to make some very important discoveries; but as he had nothing to reveal, a few days afterwards he underwent his sentence.

Watrin was my first capture, and an important one too; this successful beginning awoke the jealousy of the peace-officers, as well as those under my orders; all were exasperated against me, but in vain; they could not forgive me for being more successful than themselves. The superiors, on the contrary, were highly pleased with my conduct; and I redoubled my zeal to render myself still more worthy their confidence.

About this period a vast number of counterfeit five-franc pieces had got into general circulation; several of them were shown to me; whilst examining them, I fancied I could discover the workmanship of Bouhin (who had informed against me) and of his friend, doctor Terrier. I resolved to satisfy my mind as to the truth of this; and in consequence of this determination, I set about watching the steps of these two individuals; but as I durst not follow them too closely, lest they might recognise me, and mistrust my observation. It was difficult for me to obtain the intelligence I wanted. Nevertheless, by dint of unwearied perseverance, I arrived at the certainty of my not having mistaken the matter, and the two coiners were arrested in the very act of fabricating their base coin; they were shortly after condemned and executed for it. It has been publicly asserted, in consequence of a report set on foot by the inspectors of the police, that Dr Terrier had been led away by me, and that I had in a manner placed in his hands the instruments of his crime.

Let the reader remember the reply which this man made to me, when, at Bouhin's house, I sought to persuade him to renounce his guilty industry, and he will judge whether Terrier was a man to allow himself to be drawn away.