Memoirs of Vidocq, Volume II/Chapter XXV
In so populous a capital as that of Paris, there are usually a vast many places of bad resort, at which assemble persons of broken fortune and ruined fame; in order to judge of them under my own eye, I frequented every house and street of ill fame, sometimes under one disguise and sometimes under another, assuming indeed all those rapid changes of dress and manner which indicated a person desirous of concealing himself from the observation of the police, till the rogues and thieves whom I daily met there firmly believed me to be one of themselves; persuaded of my being a runaway, they would have been cut to pieces before I should have been taken; for not only had I acquired their fullest confidence, but their strongest regard; and so much did they respect my situation, as a fugitive galley-slave, that they would not even propose to me to join in any of their daring schemes, lest it might compromise my safety. All however did not exercise this delicacy, as will be seen hereafter. Some months had passed since I commenced my secret investigations, when chance threw in my way St Germain, whose visits had so often filled me with consternation. He had with him a person named Boudin, whom I had formerly seen as a restaurateur in Paris, in the Rue des Prouvaires, and of whom I knew no more than that trifling acquaintance which arose from my occasionally exchanging my money for his dinners. He however seemed easily to recollect me, and, addressing me with a bold familiarity, which my determined coolness seemed unable to subdue, "Pray," said he, "have I been guilty of any offence towards you, that you seem so resolved upon cutting me?"—"By no means, sir," replied I; "but I have been informed that you have been in the service of the police."—"Oh, oh, is that all?" cried he, "never mind that, my boy; suppose I have, what then? I had my reasons; and when I tell you what they were, I am quite sure you will not bear me any ill will for it."—"Come, come," said St Germain, "I must have you good friends; Boudin is an excellent fellow, and I will answer for his honour, as I would do for my own. Many a thing happens in life we should never have dreamt of, and if Boudin did accept the situation you mention, it was but to save his brother: besides, you must feel satisfied, that were his principles such as a gentleman ought not to possess, why, you would not find him in my company." I was much amused with this excellent reasoning, as well as with the pledge given for Boudin's good faith: however, I no longer sought to avoid the conversation of Boudin. It was natural enough that St Germain should relate to me all that had happened to him since his last disappearance, which had given me such pleasure.
After complimenting me on my flight, he informed me that after my arrest he had recovered his employment, which he however was not fortunate enough to keep; he lost it a second time, and had since been compelled to trust to his wits to procure a subsistence. I requested he would tell me what had become of Blondy and Deluc? "What," said he, "the two who slit the waggoner's throat? Oh, why the guillotine settled their business at Beauvais." When I learnt that these two villains had at length reaped the just reward of their crimes, I experienced but one regret, and that was, that the heads of their worthless accomplices had not fallen on the same scaffold.
After we had sat together long enough to empty several bottles of wine, we separated. At parting St Germain having observed that I was but meanly clad, enquired what I was doing, and as I carelessly answered that at present I had no occupation, he promised to do his best for me, and to push my interest the first opportunity that offered. I suggested that, as I very rarely ventured out for fear of being arrested, we might not possibly meet again for some time. You can see me, whenever you choose, said he; I shall expect that you will call on me frequently. Upon my promise to do so, he gave me his address, without once thinking of asking for mine.
St Germain was no longer an object of such excessive terror as formerly in my eyes; I even thought it my interest to keep him in sight, for if I applied myself to scrutinizing the actions of suspicious persons, who better than he called for the most vigilant attention? In a word, I resolved upon purging society of such a monster. Meanwhile I waged a determined war with all the crowd of rogues who infested the capital. About this time robberies of every species were multiplying to a frightful extent: nothing was talked of but stolen palisades, out-houses broken open, roofs stripped of their lead; more than twenty reflecting lamps were successively stolen from the Rue Fontaine au Roi, without the plunderers being detected. For a whole month the inspectors had been lying in wait in order to surprise them, and the first night of their discontinuing their vigilance the same depredations took place. In this state, which appeared like setting the police at defiance, I accepted the task which none seemed able to accomplish, and in a very short time (to the great disappointment of all the Arguses of the Quai du Nord) I was enabled to bring the whole band of these shameless plunderers to public justice, which immediately consigned them to the gallies. One amongst them was named Cartouche. I do not know whether the name he bore had any particular influence over him, or whether he possessed any quality peculiar to his family; probably he might be a descendant of the celebrated Cartouche. I leave to genealogists the trouble of deciding the question.
Each day encreased the number of my discoveries. Of the many who were committed to prison, there were none who did not owe their arrest to me, and yet not one of them for a moment suspected my share in the business. I managed so well, that neither within nor without its walls, had the slightest suspicion transpired. The thieves of my acquaintance looked upon me as their best friend and true comrade; the others esteemed themselves happy to have an opportunity of initiating me in their secrets, whether for the pleasure of conversing with me, or in the hope of benefiting by my counsels. It was principally beyond the barriers that I met with these unfortunate beings. One day that I was crossing the outer boulevards, I was accosted by St Germain, who was still accompanied by Boudin. They invited me to dinner; I accepted the proposition, and over a bottle of wine they did me the honour to propose that I should make a third in an intended murder.
The matter in hand was to dispatch two old men, who lived together in the house which Boudin had formerly occupied in the Rue des Prouvaires. Shuddering at the confidence placed in me by these villains, I yet blessed the invisible hand which had led them to seek my aid. At first I affected some scruples at entering into the plot, but at last feigned to yield to their lively and pressing solicitations, and it was agreed that we should wait the favourite moment for putting into execution this most execrable project. This resolution taken, I bade farewell to St Germain and his companion, and (decided upon preventing the meditated crime) hastened to carry a report of the affair to M. Henry, who sent me without loss of time to obtain more ample details of the discovery I had just made to him. His intention was to satisfy himself whether I had been really solicited to take part in it, or whether from a mistaken devotion to the cause of justice, I had endeavoured to instigate those unhappy men to an act which would render them amenable to it. I protested that I had adopted no such expedient, and as he discovered marks of truth in my manner and declaration, he expressed himself satisfied. He did not, however, omit to impress on me the following discourse upon instigating agents, which penetrated my very heart. Ah, why was it not likewise heard by those wretches, who since the revolution have made so many victims! The renewed era of legitimacy would not then in some circumstances have recalled the bloody days of another epoch. "Remember well," said M. Henry to me in conclusion, "remember that the greatest scourge of society is he who urges another on to the commission of evil. Where there are no instigators to bad practices, they are committed only by the really hardened; because they alone are capable of conceiving and executing them. Weak beings may be drawn away and excited: to precipitate them into the abyss, it frequently requires no more than to call to your aid their passions or self-love; but he who avails himself of their weakness to procure their destruction, is more than a monster—he is the guilty one, and it is on his head that the sword of justice should fall. As to those engaged in the police, they had better remain for ever idle, than create matter for employment."
Although this lesson was not required in my case, yet I thanked M. Henry for it, who enjoined me not to lose sight of the two assassins, and to use every means in my power to prevent their arriving at the completion of their diabolical plan. "The police," said he, "is instituted as much to correct and punish malefactors, as to prevent their committing crimes; but on every occasion I would wish it to be understood, that we hold ourselves under greater obligations to that person who prevents one crime, than to him who procures, the punishment of many." Conformably with these instructions, I did not allow a single day to pass without seeing St Germain and his friend Boudin. As the blow they meditated was to procure them a considerable quantity of gold, I concluded that I might, without overacting my part, affect a degree of impatience about it. "Well," said I to them, every time we met, "and when is this famous affair to take place?"—"When!" replied St Germain, "the fruit is not yet ripe; when the right time comes," added he, pointing to Boudin, "my friend there will let you know." Already had several meetings taken place, and yet nothing was decidedly arranged; once more I hazarded the usual question. "Ah! ah!" said St Germain, "my good friend, now I can satisfy your natural curiosity; we have fixed upon tomorrow evening, and only waited for you to deliberate upon the best way of going to work." The meeting was fixed a little way out of Paris. I was punctual to the time and place, nor did St Germain keep me waiting. "Hark ye," said he, "we have reflected upon this affair, and find that it cannot be put into execution for the present. We have, however, another to propose to you; and I warn you, you must say at once, without any equivocation, 'yes' or 'no.' Before we enter upon the object of my coming hither, it is but fair I should let you into a little confidential story respecting yourself, which was told to me by one Carré, who knew you at la Force. The tale runs, that you only escaped its walls upon condition of serving the police as its secret agent!"
At the words 'secret agent,' a feeling almost approaching to suffocation stole over me, but I quickly rallied upon perceiving that, however true the report might be, it had obtained but little faith with St Germain, who was evidently waiting for my explanation or denial of it, without once suspecting its reality. My ever ready genius quickly flew to my aid, and without hesitation I replied, "that I was not much surprised at the charge, and for the simple reason that I myself had been the first to set the rumour afloat." St Germain stared with wonder. "My good fellow," said I, "you are well aware that I managed to escape from the police whilst they were transferring me from la Force to Bicêtre. Well! I went to Paris, and stayed there till I could go elsewhere. One must live, you know, how and where one can. Unfortunately, I am still compelled to play at hide and seek, and it is only by assuming a variety of disguises that I dare venture abroad, to look about and just see what my old friends are doing; but in spite of all my precautions, I live in constant dread of many individuals, whose keen eye quickly penetrated my assumption of other names and habits than my own; and who, having formerly been upon terms of familiarity with me, pestered me with questions I had no other means of shaking off, than by insinuating that I was in the pay of the police; and thus I obtained the double advantage of evading in my character of 'spy,' both their suspicions and ill will, should they feel disposed to exercise it in the procuring my arrest."
"Enough—enough," interrupted St Germain; "I believe you; and, to convince you of the unbroken confidence I place in you, I will let you into the secret of our plans for to-night.—At the corner of the Rue d'Enghien, where it joins the Rue Hauteville, lives a banker, whose house looks out upon a very extensive garden; a circumstance greatly in favour both of our expedition and our escape after its completion. This same banker is now absent, and the cash-box, in which is a considerable sum in specie, besides bank notes, &c. is only guarded by two persons—Well, you can guess the rest. We mean to make it our own, by the law of possession, this very evening. Three of us are bound by oath to do the job, which will turn out so profitably, but we want another; and now that you have cleared your character and given scandal the lie, you shall make the fourth. Come, no refusal!—we reckon on your company and assistance, and if you refuse, you are a regular set-down sneak."
I was as eager in accepting the invitation as St Germain could possibly be in giving it; both Boudin and himself seemed much pleased with my zeal. Who my remaining coadjutor was I knew not, but my surmises on the subject were soon settled by the arrival of a man, a perfect stranger to myself, named Debenne. He was the driver of a cabriolet, the father of a large family, and a man, who, more from weak than bad principles, had allowed himself to be seduced by the temptations of his guilty companions. Whilst a mixed conversation was going on between them, my thoughts were busily at work upon the best method of causing them to be taken in the very act they were then discussing. What was my consternation to hear St Germain, at the moment we all rose to pay our score, address us in these words:—
"My friends, when a man runs his neck into the compass of a halter, it behoves him to keep a sharp look out. We have this day decided upon playing a dangerous, but, as I take it, a sure game; and in order that the chance may be in our favour, I have determined upon the following measure, which I think you will all approve. About midnight, all four of us will obtain access into the house in question. Boudin and myself will undertake to manage the inside work, whilst you two remain in the garden, ready to second us in case of surprise. This undertaking, if successful, will furnish us with the means of living at our ease for some time; but it concerns our mutual safety, that we should not quit each other till the hour for putting our plan into execution."
This finale, which I feigned not to hear, was repeated a second time, and filled me with a thousand fears that I might not be able to withdraw myself from the affair, as I had intended. What was to be done? St Germain was a man of uncommon daring, eager for money, and always ready to purchase it either with his own blood or that of others; however, as yet it was but ten o'clock in the morning; I hoped that, during the long interval between that hour and mid-night, some opportunity would present itself of dexterously stealing away and giving information to this police. Meanwhile, I made not the slightest objection to the proposition of St Germain, which was indeed the best pledge we could separately have of the good faith of the others. When he perceived that we were all agreed, St Germain, who, by his energy, his talents for plotting and carrying his schemes into execution, was the real head of the conspiracy, expressed his satisfaction, and added further—"this unanimity is what I like; and I beg to say, that, for myself, I will leave nothing undone to merit the continuance of so flattering a consent to my wishes and opinions."
It was agreed that we should take a hackney coach, and proceed together to his house, situated in the Rue St Antoine. Arrived there, we ascended into his chamber, where he was to keep us under lock and key until the instant of departure. Confined between four walls, in close converse with these robbers, I knew not what saint to invoke, and what pretext to invent, to effect my escape. St Germain would have blown out my brains at the least suspicion; and how to act, or what was to be done, I knew not. My only plan was to resign myself to the event, be it what it might; and this determination taken, I affected to busy myself with the preparatives for our crime, the very sight of which redoubled my perplexity and horror. Pistols were laid on the table, in order to have the charges drawn and to be properly reloaded. Whilst they underwent a strict scrutiny, St Germain remarked a pair which seemed to him no longer able "to do the state any service;" he laid them aside—"Here," said he, "these 'toothless barkers' will never do; whilst the rest of you are loading and priming your batteries, I will get these changed for others more likely to aid our purpose. As he was preparing to quit the room, I bade him remember that, according to our contract, none of us could quit the place without being accompanied by a second. "Right—quite right," replied he; "I like people not only to make, but to keep engagements; so come with me."—"But," said I, "these other two gentlemen?"—"Oh!" laughed St Germain, "they shall be kept out of harm's way till our return;" so saying, he very coolly double-locked the door upon them, and then taking me by the arm, led me to a shop from which he generally supplied himself with what he required for his various expeditions. Upon the present occasion he purchased some balls, powder, flints, exchanged the old pistols for new ones, and then declaring his business completed, returned with me to his house. On entering I felt a fresh thrill of horror, from perceiving how earnestly and yet calmly the wretch Boudin was occupied in sharpening two large dinner-knives on a hone;—the sight froze my blood, and I turned away in disgust.
Meanwhile the time was passing away; one o'clock struck, and no expedient of safety had yet presented itself. I yawned and stretched, feigning weariness, and going into an apartment adjoining the one in which we had assembled, threw myself on a bed, as if in search of repose; after a few instants, I appeared still more fidgetty with this indolence, and I could perceive that the others were not less so than myself. "Suppose we have a glass of something to cheer us," cried St Germain. "An excellent idea!" I replied, almost leaping for joy at the unexpected opening it seemed likely to afford my scheme; "a most capital thought—and by way of helping it, if you can manage to send to my house, you may have a glass of Burgundy, such as cannot be met with every day." All declared the thought a most seasonable relief to the ennui which was beginning to have hold of them, now that all their work of preparation was at an end; and St Germain without further delay dispatched his porter to Annette, who was requested to bring the promised treat herself. It was agreed that nothing relative to our plan should be uttered before her; and whilst my three companions were indulging in rough jokes upon the unexpected pleasure thus offered them, I carelessly resumed my place on the bed, and whilst there traced with a pencil these few lines—"When you leave this place, disguise yourself; and do not for an instant lose sight of myself, St Germain, or Boudin. Be careful to avoid all observation; and, above all, be sure to pick up anything I may let fall, and to convey it as directed." Short as was this hurried instruction, it was, I knew, sufficient for Annette, who had frequently received similar directions, and I felt quite assured that she would comprehend it in its fullest sense. It was not long before she joined us, bringing with her the basket of wine. Her appearance was the signal for mirth and gaiety. She was complimented by all; and as for myself, under the semblance of thanking her for her ready attendance with an embrace, I managed to slip the billet into her hand: she understood me, took leave of the company, and left me far happier than I had felt an hour before.
We made a hearty dinner, after which I suggested the idea of going alone with St Germain, to reconnoitre the scene of action, in order to be provided with the means of guarding against any accident. As this seemed merely the counsel of a prudent man, it excited no suspicion; the only difference in his opinion and mine, was, that I proposed taking a hackney-coach, whilst he judged it better to walk. When we reached the part he considered most favourable for scaling, he pointed it out to me; and I took care to observe it so well, that I could easily describe it to another, without fear of any mistake arising. This done, St Germain recollected that we had all better cover our faces with black crape; and we proceeded towards the Palais Royal, for the purpose of buying some; and whilst he was in a shop, examining the different sorts, I managed to scrawl hastily on paper every particular and direction which might enable the police to interfere and prevent the crime. St Germain, whose vigilance never relaxed, and who had as much as possible kept his eye upon me with calm scrutiny, conducted me to a public-house, where we refreshed ourselves with some beer: quitting this place, we walked again homewards, without my having been enabled to dispose of the billet I had written; when, just as we were re-entering his odious den of crimes, my eye caught sight of Annette, who, disguised in a manner that would have effectually deceived every other but myself, was on the watch for our return. Convinced that she had recognized me, I managed to drop my paper as I crossed the threshold; and relieved, in a great measure, of many of my former apprehensions, I committed myself to my fate. As the terrible hour for the fulfilment of our scheme approached, I became a prey to a thousand terrors. Spite of the warning I had sent through Annette, the police might be tardy in obeying its directions, and might perhaps arrive too late to prevent the consummation of the crime. Should I at once avow myself, and, in my real character, arrest St Germain and his accomplices? Alas! what could I do against three powerful men, rendered furious by revenge and desperation? And besides, had I even succeeded in my attempt, who could say that I might be believed, when I denied all participation with them, except such as was to further the ends of justice. Instances rose to my recollection, where, under similar circumstances, the police had abandoned its agents, or confounding them with the guilty wretches with whom they had mingled, refused to acknowledge their innocence. I was in all the agony of such reflections, when St Germain roused me, by desiring I would accompany Debenne, whose cabriolet was destined to receive the expected treasure of money-bags, and was for that purpose to be stationed at the corner of the street. We went out together, and, as I looked around me, I again met the eye of my faithful Annette, whose glance satisfied me that all my commissions had been attended to. Just then, Debenne enquired of me the place of rendezvous. I know not what good genius suggested to me the idea of saving this unhappy creature. I had observed that he was not wicked at heart, and that he seemed rather drawn towards the abyss of guilt by want and bad advice, than by any natural inclination for crime. I hastily assigned to him a post, away from the spot which had been agreed on; and, happy in having saved him from the snare, rejoined St Germain and Boudin, at the angle of the boulevard St Denis. It was now about half-past ten, and I gave them to understand that the cabriolet would require some time in getting ready; that I had given orders to Debenne, that he should take his station in the corner of the Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, ready to hasten to us at the slightest signal. I observed to them, that the sight of a cabriolet, too near to the place of our labours, might awaken suspicion; and they agreed in thinking my precautions wisely taken.
Eleven o'clock struck—we took a glass together in the fauxbourg St Denis, and then directed our steps towards the banker's habitation. The tranquillity of Boudin and his infamous associate, had something in it almost fiend-like: they walked coolly along, each with his pipe in his mouth, which was only removed to hum over some loose song.
At last we arrived at the part of the garden wall it had been determined to scale, by means of a large post, which would serve as a ladder. St Germain demanded my pistols;—my heart began to beat violently, for I fully expected, that, having by some ill chance penetrated my real share in the affair, he meant that I should answer for it with my life: resistance would have been useless, and I put them into his hands; but, to my extreme relief, he merely opened the pan, changed the priming, and returned them to me. After having performed a similar operation on his own pistols and those of Boudin, he set the example of climbing the post; Boudin followed; and both of them, without interrupting their smoking, sprung into the garden: it became my turn to follow them: trembling, I reached the top of the wall; all my former apprehensions crowded back upon me. Had the police yet had time to lay their ambuscade? Might not St Germain have preceded them? These and a thousand similar questions agitated my mind. My feelings were, however, wrought up to so high a pitch, that, in the midst of such a moment of cruel suspense, I determined on one measure, namely, to prevent the commission of the crime, though I sunk in the unequal struggle. However, St Germain seeing me still sitting astride on the top of the wall, and becoming impatient at my delay, cried out, "Come, come, down with you." Scarcely had he said the words, than he was vigorously attacked by a number of men. Boudin and himself offered a desperate resistance. A brisk firing commenced—the balls whistled—and, after a combat of some minutes, the two assassins were seized, though not before several of the police had been wounded. St Germain and his companion were likewise much hurt. For myself, as I took no part in the engagement, I was not likely to come to any harm: nevertheless, that I might sustain my part to the end, I fell on the field of battle, as though I had been mortally wounded. The next instant I was wrapped in a covering, and in this manner conveyed to a room where Boudin and St Germain were; the latter appeared deeply touched at my death; he shed tears, and it was necessary to employ force to remove him from what he believed to be my corpse.
St Germain was a man of about five feet eight inches high, with strongly developed muscles, an enormous head, and very small eyes, half closed, like those of an owl; his face, deeply marked with the small pox, was extremely plain; and yet, from the quickness and vivacity of his expression, he was by many persons considered pleasing. In describing his features, a strong resemblance would suggest itself to those of the hyena and wolf, particularly if the attention were directed to his immensely wide jaws, furnished with large projecting fangs; his very organization partook of the animal instinct common to beasts of prey; he was passionately fond of hunting; the sight of blood exhilarated him: his other passions were gaming, women, and good eating and drinking. As he had acquired the air and manners of good society, he expressed himself when he chose with ease and fluency, and was almost always fashionably and elegantly dressed; he might be styled a "well-bred thief." When his interest required it, no person could better assume the pleasant mildness of an amiable man; at other times he was abrupt and brutal. His comrade Boudin was diminutive in stature, scarcely reaching five feet two inches; thin, with a livid complexion; his eyes dark and piercing, and deeply sunk in his head. The habit of wielding the carving-knife, and of cutting up meat had rendered him ferocious. He was bow-legged; a deformity I have observed amongst several systematic assassins, as well as amongst many other individuals distinguished by their crimes.
I cannot remember any event of my life which afforded me more real satisfaction than the taking of these two villains. I applauded myself for having delivered society from two monsters, at the same time that I esteemed myself fortunate in having saved Debenne from the fate which would have befallen, him, had he been taken with them. However, the share of self-satisfaction produced by the feeling of having been instrumental in rescuing a fellow-creature from destruction, was but a slight compensation for the misery I experienced at being in a manner compelled by the stern duties of the post I filled, either to send a fresh succession of victims to ascend the scaffold, or to mount it myself. The quality of 'secret agent' preserved, it is true, my liberty, and shielded me from the dangers to which, as a fugitive galley-slave, I was formerly exposed; true, I was no longer subjected to the many terrors which had once agitated me: but still I was not pardoned; and until that happy event took place, the liberty I enjoyed was but a precarious possession, which the caprice of my employers could deprive me of at any moment. Again, I was not insensible to the general odium attached to the department I filled. Still, revolting as were its functions to my own choice and mind, it was a necessary evil, and one from which there was no escape. I therefore strove to reconcile myself to it by arguments such as these:—Was I not daily occupied in endeavouring to promote the welfare of society? Was I not espousing the part of the good and upright against the bad and vicious? And should I by these steps draw down upon me the contempt of mankind? I went about dragging guilt from its hidden recesses, and unmasking its many schemes of blood and murder; and should I for this be pointed out with the finger of scorn and hatred? Attacking thieves, even on the very theatre of their crimes—wresting from them the weapons with which they had armed themselves, I boldly dared their vengeance; and did I for this merit to be despised? My reason became convinced; and my mind, satisfied of the upright motives which guided me, regained its calmness and self-command; and thus armed, I felt that I had courage to dare the ingratitude and obloquy of an unjust opinion respecting me and my occupation.