The Paris Sketch Book, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Cartouche

I have been much interested with an account of the exploits of Monsieur Louis Dominic Cartouche, and as Newgate and the highways are so much the fashion with us in England, we may be allowed to look abroad for histories of a similar tendency. It is pleasant to find that virtue is cosmopolite, and may exist among wooden-shoed Papists as well as honest Church-of-England men.

Louis Dominic was born in a quarter of Paris called the Courtille, says the historian whose work lies before me; — born in the Courtille, and in the year 1693. Another biographer asserts that he was born two years later, and in the Marais; — of respectable parents, of course. Think of the talent that our two countries produced about this time: Marlborough, Villars, Mandrin, Turpin, Boileau, Dryden, Swift, Addison, Molière, Racine, Jack Sheppard, and Louis Cartouche — all famous within the same twenty years, and fighting, writing, robbing à l’envi!

Well, Marlborough was no chicken when he began to show his genius; Swift was but a dull, idle, college lad; but if we read the histories of some other great men mentioned in the above list — I mean the thieves, especially — we shall find that they all commenced very early: they showed a passion for their art, as little Raphael did, or little Mozart; and the history of Cartouche’s knaveries begins almost with his breeches.

Dominic’s parents sent him to school at the college of Clermont (now Louis le Grand); and although it has never been discovered that the Jesuits, who directed that seminary, advanced him much in classical or theological knowledge, Cartouche, in revenge, showed, by repeated instances, his own natural bent and genius, which no difficulties were strong enough to overcome. His first great action on record, although not successful in the end, and tinctured with the innocence of youth, is yet highly creditable to him. He made a general swoop of a hundred and twenty nightcaps belonging to his companions, and disposed of them to his satisfaction; but as it was discovered that of all the youths in the college of Clermont, he only was the possessor of a cap to sleep in, suspicion (which, alas! was confirmed) immediately fell upon him: and by this little piece of youthful naïveté, a scheme, prettily conceived and smartly performed, was rendered naught.

Cartouche had a wonderful love for good eating, and put all the apple-women and cooks, who came to supply the students, under contribution. Not always, however, desirous of robbing these, he used to deal with them, occasionally, on honest principles of barter; that is, whenever he could get hold of his schoolfellows’ knives, books, rulers, or playthings, which he used fairly to exchange for tarts and gingerbread.

It seemed as if the presiding genius of evil was determined to patronize this young man; for before he had been long at college, and soon after he had, with the greatest difficulty, escaped from the nightcap scrape, an opportunity occurred by which he was enabled to gratify both his propensities at once, and not only to steal, but to steal sweetmeats. It happened that the principal of the college received some pots of Narbonne honey, which came under the eyes of Cartouche, and in which that young gentleman, as soon as ever he saw them, determined to put his fingers. The president of the college put aside his honey-pots in an apartment within his own; to which, except by the one door which led into the room which his reverence usually occupied, there was no outlet. There was no chimney in the room; and the windows looked into the court, where there was a porter at night, and where crowds passed by day. What was Cartouche to do? — have the honey he must.

Over this chamber, which contained what his soul longed after, and over the president’s rooms, there ran a set of unoccupied garrets, into which the dexterous Cartouche penetrated. These were divided from the rooms below, according to the fashion of those days, by a set of large beams, which reached across the whole building, and across which rude planks were laid, which formed the ceiling of the lower story and the floor of the upper. Some of these planks did young Cartouche remove; and having descended by means of a rope, tied a couple of others to the neck of the honey-pots, climbed back again, and drew up his prey in safety. He then cunningly fixed the planks again in their old places, and retired to gorge himself upon his booty. And, now, see the punishment of avarice! Everybody knows that the brethren of the order of Jesus are bound by a vow to have no more than a certain small sum of money in their possession. The principal of the college of Clermont had amassed a larger sum, in defiance of this rule: and where do you think the old gentleman had hidden it? In the honey-pots! As Cartouche dug his spoon into one of them, he brought out, besides a quantity of golden honey, a couple of golden louis, which, with ninety-eight more of their fellows, were comfortably hidden in the pots. Little Dominic, who, before, had cut rather a poor figure among his fellow-students, now appeared in as fine clothes as any of them could boast of; and when asked by his parents, on going home, how he came by them, said that a young nobleman of his schoolfellows had taken a violent fancy to him, and made him a present of a couple of his suits. Cartouche the elder, good man, went to thank the young nobleman; but none such could be found, and young Cartouche disdained to give any explanation of his manner of gaining the money.

Here, again, we have to regret and remark the inadvertence of youth. Cartouche lost a hundred louis — for what? For a pot of honey not worth a couple of shillings. Had he fished out the pieces, and replaced the pots and the honey, he might have been safe, and a respectable citizen all his life after. The principal would not have dared to confess the loss of his money, and did not, openly; but he vowed vengeance against the stealer of his sweetmeat, and a rigid search was made. Cartouche, as usual, was fixed upon; and in the tick of his bed, lo! there were found a couple of empty honey-pots! From this scrape there is no knowing how he would have escaped, had not the president himself been a little anxious to hush the matter up; and accordingly, young Cartouche was made to disgorge the residue of his ill-gotten gold pieces, old Cartouche made up the deficiency, and his son was allowed to remain unpunished — until the next time.

This, you may fancy, was not very long in coming; and though history has not made us acquainted with the exact crime which Louis Dominic next committed, it must have been a serious one; for Cartouche, who had borne philosophically all the whippings and punishments which were administered to him at college, did not dare to face that one which his indignant father had in pickle for him. As he was coming home from school, on the first day after his crime, when he received permission to go abroad, one of his brothers, who was on the look-out for him, met him at a short distance from home, and told him what was in preparation; which so frightened this young thief, that he declined returning home altogether, and set out upon the wide world to shift for himself as he could.

Undoubted as his genius was, he had not arrived at the full exercise of it, and his gains were by no means equal to his appetite. In whatever professions he tried — whether he joined the gipsies, which he did — whether he picked pockets on the Pont Neuf, which occupation history attributes to him — poor Cartouche was always hungry. Hungry and ragged, he wandered from one place and profession to another, and regretted the honey-pots at Clermont, and the comfortable soup and bouilli at home.

Cartouche had an uncle, a kind man, who was a merchant, and had dealings at Rouen. One day, walking on the quays of that city, this gentleman saw a very miserable, dirty, starving lad, who had just made a pounce upon some bones and turnip-peelings, that had been flung out on the quay, and was eating them as greedily as if they had been turkeys and truffles. The worthy man examined the lad a little closer. O heavens! it was their runaway prodigal — it was little Louis Dominic! The merchant was touched by his case; and forgetting the nightcaps, the honey-pots, and the rags and dirt of little Louis, took him to his arms, and kissed and hugged him with the tenderest affection. Louis kissed and hugged too, and blubbered a great deal: he was very repentant, as a man often is when he is hungry; and he went home with his uncle, and his peace was made; and his mother got him new clothes, and filled his belly, and for a while Louis was as good a son as might be.

But why attempt to balk the progress of genius? Louis’s was not to be kept down. He was sixteen years of age by this time — a smart, lively young fellow, and, what is more, desperately enamored of a lovely washerwoman. To be successful in your love, as Louis knew, you must have something more than mere flames and sentiment; — a washer, or any other woman, cannot live upon sighs only; but must have new gowns and caps, and a necklace every now and then, and a few handkerchiefs and silk stockings, and a treat into the country or to the play. Now, how are all these things to be had without money? Cartouche saw at once that it was impossible; and as his father would give him none, he was obliged to look for it elsewhere. He took to his old courses, and lifted a purse here, and a watch there; and found, moreover, an accommodating gentleman, who took the wares off his hands.

This gentleman introduced him into a very select and agreeable society, in which Cartouche’s merit began speedily to be recognized, and in which he learnt how pleasant it is in life to have friends to assist one, and how much may be done by a proper division of labor. M. Cartouche, in fact, formed part of a regular company or gang of gentlemen, who were associated together for the purpose of making war on the public and the law.

Cartouche had a lovely young sister, who was to be married to a rich young gentleman from the provinces. As is the fashion in France, the parents had arranged the match among themselves; and the young people had never met until just before the time appointed for the marriage, when the bridegroom came up to Paris with his title-deeds, and settlements, and money. Now there can hardly be found in history a finer instance of devotion than Cartouche now exhibited. He went to his captain, explained the matter to him, and actually, for the good of his country, as it were (the thieves might be called his country), sacrificed his sister’s husband’s property. Informations were taken, the house of the bridegroom was reconnoitred, and, one night, Cartouche, in company with some chosen friends, made his first visit to the house of his brother-inlaw. All the people were gone to bed; and, doubtless, for fear of disturbing the porter, Cartouche and his companions spared him the trouble of opening the door, by ascending quietly at the window. They arrived at the room where the bridegroom kept his great chest, and set industriously to work, filing and picking the locks which defended the treasure.

The bridegroom slept in the next room; but however tenderly Cartouche and his workmen handled their tools, from fear of disturbing his slumbers, their benevolent design was disappointed, for awaken him they did; and quietly slipping out of bed, he came to a place where he had a complete view of all that was going on. He did not cry out, or frighten himself sillily; but, on the contrary, contented himself with watching the countenances of the robbers, so that he might recognize them on another occasion; and, though an avaricious man, he did not feel the slightest anxiety about his money-chest; for the fact is, he had removed all the cash and papers the day before.

As soon, however, as they had broken all the locks, and found the nothing which lay at the bottom of the chest, he shouted with such a loud voice, “Here, Thomas! — John! — officer! — keep the gate, fire at the rascals!” that they, incontinently taking fright, skipped nimbly out of window, and left the house free.

Cartouche, after this, did not care to meet his brother-inlaw, but eschewed all those occasions on which the latter was to be present at his father’s house. The evening before the marriage came; and then his father insisted upon his appearance among the other relatives of the bride’s and bridegroom’s families, who were all to assemble and make merry. Cartouche was obliged to yield; and brought with him one or two of his companions, who had been, by the way, present in the affair of the empty money-boxes; and though he never fancied that there was any danger in meeting his brother-inlaw, for he had no idea that he had been seen on the night of the attack, with a natural modesty, which did him really credit, he kept out of the young bridegroom’s sight as much as he could, and showed no desire to be presented to him. At supper, however, as he was sneaking modestly down to a side-table, his father shouted after him, “Ho, Dominic, come hither, and sit opposite to your brother-inlaw:” which Dominic did, his friends following. The bridegroom pledged him very gracefully in a bumper; and was in the act of making him a pretty speech, on the honor of an alliance with such a family, and on the pleasures of brother-inlawship in general, when, looking in his face — ye gods! he saw the very man who had been filing at his money-chest a few nights ago! By his side, too, sat a couple more of the gang. The poor fellow turned deadly pale and sick, and, setting his glass down, ran quickly out of the room, for he thought he was in company of a whole gang of robbers. And when he got home, he wrote a letter to the elder Cartouche, humbly declining any connection with his family.

Cartouche the elder, of course, angrily asked the reason of such an abrupt dissolution of the engagement; and then, much to his horror, heard of his eldest son’s doings. “You would not have me marry into such a family?” said the ex-bridegroom. And old Cartouche, an honest old citizen, confessed, with a heavy heart, that he would not. What was he to do with the lad? He did not like to ask for a lettre de cachet, and shut him up in the Bastile. He determined to give him a year’s discipline at the monastery of St. Lazare.

But how to catch the young gentleman? Old Cartouche knew that, were he to tell his son of the scheme, the latter would never obey, and, therefore, he determined to be very cunning. He told Dominic that he was about to make a heavy bargain with the fathers, and should require a witness; so they stepped into a carriage together, and drove unsuspectingly to the Rue St. Denis. But, when they arrived near the convent, Cartouche saw several ominous figures gathering round the coach, and felt that his doom was sealed. However, he made as if he knew nothing of the conspiracy; and the carriage drew up, and his father, descended, and, bidding him wait for a minute in the coach, promised to return to him. Cartouche looked out; on the other side of the way half a dozen men were posted, evidently with the intention of arresting him.

Cartouche now performed a great and celebrated stroke of genius, which, if he had not been professionally employed in the morning, he never could have executed. He had in his pocket a piece of linen, which he had laid hold of at the door of some shop, and from which he quickly tore three suitable stripes. One he tied round his head, after the fashion of a nightcap; a second round his waist, like an apron; and with the third he covered his hat, a round one, with a large brim. His coat and his periwig lie left behind him in the carriage; and when he stepped out from it (which he did without asking the coachman to let down the steps), he bore exactly the appearance of a cook’s boy carrying a dish; and with this he slipped through the exempts quite unsuspected, and bade adieu to the Lazarists and his honest father, who came out speedily to seek him, and was not a little annoyed to find only his coat and wig.

With that coat and wig, Cartouche left home, father, friends, conscience, remorse, society, behind him. He discovered (like a great number of other philosophers and poets, when they have committed rascally actions) that the world was all going wrong, and he quarrelled with it outright. One of the first stories told of the illustrious Cartouche, when he became professionally and openly a robber, redounds highly to his credit, and shows that he knew how to take advantage of the occasion, and how much he had improved in the course of a very few years’ experience. His courage and ingenuity were vastly admired by his friends; so much so, that, one day, the captain of the band thought fit to compliment him, and vowed that when he (the captain) died, Cartouche should infallibly be called to the command-inchief. This conversation, so flattering to Cartouche, was carried on between the two gentlemen, as they were walking, one night, on the quays by the side of the Seine. Cartouche, when the captain made the last remark, blushingly protested against it, and pleaded his extreme youth as a reason why his comrades could never put entire trust in him. “Psha, man!” said the captain, “thy youth is in thy favor; thou wilt live only the longer to lead thy troops to victory. As for strength, bravery, and cunning, wert thou as old as Methuselah, thou couldst not be better provided than thou art now, at eighteen.” What was the reply of Monsieur Cartouche? He answered, not by words, but by actions. Drawing his knife from his girdle, he instantly dug it into the captain’s left side, as near his heart as possible; and then, seizing that imprudent commander, precipitated him violently into the waters of the Seine, to keep company with the gudgeons and river-gods. When he returned to the band, and recounted how the captain had basely attempted to assassinate him, and how he, on the contrary, had, by exertion of superior skill, overcome the captain, not one of the society believed a word of his history; but they elected him captain forthwith. I think his Excellency Don Rafael Maroto, the pacificator of Spain, is an amiable character, for whom history has not been written in vain.

Being arrived at this exalted position, there is no end of the feats which Cartouche performed; and his band reached to such a pitch of glory, that if there had been a hundred thousand, instead of a hundred of them, who knows but that a new and popular dynasty might not have been founded, and “Louis Dominic, premier Empereur des Français,” might have performed innumerable glorious actions, and fixed himself in the hearts of his people, just as other monarchs have done, a hundred years after Cartouche’s death.

A story similar to the above, and equally moral, is that of Cartouche, who, in company with two other gentlemen, robbed the coche, or packet-boat, from Melun, where they took a good quantity of booty — making the passengers lie down on the decks, and rifling them at leisure. “This money will be but very little among three,” whispered Cartouche to his neighbor, as the three conquerors were making merry over their gains; “if you were but to pull the trigger of your pistol in the neighborhood of your comrade’s ear, perhaps it might go off, and then there would be but two of us to share.” Strangely enough, as Cartouche said, the pistol DID go off, and No. 3 perished. “Give him another ball,” said Cartouche; and another was fired into him. But no sooner had Cartouche’s comrade discharged both his pistols, than Cartouche himself, seized with a furious indignation, drew his: “Learn, monster,” cried he, “not to be so greedy of gold, and perish, the victim of thy disloyalty and avarice!” So Cartouche slew the second robber; and there is no man in Europe who can say that the latter did not merit well his punishment.

I could fill volumes, and not mere sheets of paper, with tales of the triumphs of Cartouche and his band; how he robbed the Countess of O— — going to Dijon, in her coach, and how the Countess fell in love with him, and was faithful to him ever after; how, when the lieutenant of police offered a reward of a hundred pistoles to any man who would bring Cartouche before him, a noble Marquess, in a coach and six, drove up to the hotel of the police; and the noble Marquess, desiring to see Monsieur de la Reynie, on matters of the highest moment, alone, the latter introduced him into his private cabinet; and how, when there, the Marquess drew from his pocket a long, curiously shaped dagger: “Look at this, Monsieur de la Reynie,” said he; “this dagger is poisoned!”

“Is it possible?” said M. de la Reynie.

“A prick of it would do for any man,” said the Marquess.

“You don’t say so!” said M. de la Reynie.

“I do, though; and, what is more,” says the Marquess, in a terrible voice, “if you do not instantly lay yourself flat on the ground, with your face towards it, and your hands crossed over your back, or if you make the slightest noise or cry, I will stick this poisoned dagger between your ribs, as sure as my name is Cartouche?”

At the sound of this dreadful name, M. de la Reynie sunk incontinently down on his stomach, and submitted to be carefully gagged and corded; after which Monsieur Cartouche laid his hands upon all the money which was kept in the lieutenant’s cabinet. Alas! and alas! many a stout bailiff, and many an honest fellow of a spy, went, for that day, without his pay and his victuals.

There is a story that Cartouche once took the diligence to Lille, and found in it a certain Abbé Potter, who was full of indignation against this monster of a Cartouche, and said that when he went back to Paris, which he proposed to do in about a fortnight, he should give the lieutenant of police some information, which would infallibly lead to the scoundrel’s capture. But poor Potter was disappointed in his designs; for, before he could fulfil them, he was made the victim of Cartouche’s cruelty.

A letter came to the lieutenant of police, to state that Cartouche had travelled to Lille, in company with the Abbé de Potter, of that town; that, on the reverend gentleman’s return towards Paris, Cartouche had waylaid him, murdered him, taken his papers, and would come to Paris himself, bearing the name and clothes of the unfortunate Abbé, by the Lille coach, on such a day. The Lille coach arrived, was surrounded by police agents; the monster Cartouche was there, sure enough, in the Abbé‘s guise. He was seized, bound, flung into prison, brought out to be examined, and, on examination, found to be no other than the Abbé Potter himself! It is pleasant to read thus of the relaxations of great men, and find them condescending to joke like the meanest of us.

Another diligence adventure is recounted of the famous Cartouche. It happened that he met, in the coach, a young and lovely lady, clad in widow’s weeds, and bound to Paris, with a couple of servants. The poor thing was the widow of a rich old gentleman of Marseilles, and was going to the capital to arrange with her lawyers, and to settle her husband’s will. The Count de Grinche (for so her fellow-passenger was called) was quite as candid as the pretty widow had been, and stated that he was a captain in the regiment of Nivernois; that he was going to Paris to buy a colonelcy, which his relatives, the Duke de Bouillon, the Prince de Montmorency, the Commandeur de la Trémoille, with all their interest at court, could not fail to procure for him. To be short, in the course of the four days’ journey, the Count Louis Dominic de Grinche played his cards so well, that the poor little widow half forgot her late husband; and her eyes glistened with tears as the Count kissed her hand at parting — at parting, he hoped, only for a few hours.

Day and night the insinuating Count followed her; and when, at the end of a fortnight, and in the midst of a tête-à-tête, he plunged, one morning, suddenly on his knees, and said, Leonora, do you love me?” the poor thing heaved the gentlest, tenderest, sweetest sigh in the world; and sinking her blushing head on his shoulder, whispered, “Oh, Dominic, je t’aime! Ah!” said she, “how noble is it of my Dominic to take me with the little I have, and he so rich a nobleman!” The fact is, the old Baron’s titles and estates had passed away to his nephews; his dowager was only left with three hundred thousand livres, in rentes sur l’état — a handsome sum, but nothing to compare to the rent-roll of Count Dominic, Count de la Grinche, Seigneur de la Haute Pigre, Baron de la Bigorne; he had estates and wealth which might authorize him to aspire to the hand of a duchess, at least.

The unfortunate widow never for a moment suspected the cruel trick that was about to be played on her; and, at the request of her affianced husband, sold out her money, and realized it in gold, to be made over to him on the day when the contract was to be signed. The day arrived; and, according to the custom in France, the relations of both parties attended. The widow’s relatives, though respectable, were not of the first nobility, being chiefly persons of the finance or the robe: there was the president of the court of Arras, and his lady; a farmer-general; a judge of a court of Paris; and other such grave and respectable people. As for Monsieur le Comte de la Grinche, he was not bound for names; and, having the whole peerage to choose from, brought a host of Montmorencies, Créquis, De la Tours, and Guises at his back. His homme d’affaires brought his papers in a sack, and displayed the plans of his estates, and the titles of his glorious ancestry. The widow’s lawyers had her money in sacks; and between the gold on the one side, and the parchments on the other, lay the contract which was to make the widow’s three hundred thousand francs the property of the Count de Grinche. The Count de la Grinche was just about to sign; when the Marshal de Villars, stepping up to him, said, “Captain, do you know who the president of the court of Arras, yonder, is? It is old Manasseh, the fence, of Brussels. I pawned a gold watch to him, which I stole from Cadogan, when I was with Malbrook’s army in Flanders.”

Here the Duc de la Roche Guyon came forward, very much alarmed. “Run me through the body!” said his Grace, “but the comptroller-general’s lady, there, is no other than that old hag of a Margoton who keeps the ——” Here the Duc de la Roche Guyon’s voice fell.

Cartouche smiled graciously, and walked up to the table. He took up one of the widow’s fifteen thousand gold pieces; — it was as pretty a bit of copper as you could wish to see. “My dear,” said he politely, “there is some mistake here, and this business had better stop.”

“Count!” gasped the poor widow.

“Count be hanged!” answered the bridegroom, sternly “my name is CARTOUCHE!”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07