THE CRIME OF CHAMBLES
THE INN OF THE GROTTO
In these Exploits of Ravachol, the Man with the Dynamite, we will not write a novel, but a history.
Why would we take the trouble to invent, when it is enough for us, in order to make the most riveting, original and dramatic narrative that could be imagined, to let speak only the facts, so strange and so striking, the completely unknown facts that we are going to make known,—and to simply recount the life of the man who, after having been a counterfeiter and assassin in Saint Étienne, has acquired a horrible celebrity in Paris.
No, we will invent nothing, but we will try as much as possible to bring to full light the strange personality of this already legendary bandit.
That said, we enter upon our subject.
On June 21, 1891, a bit before nightfall, a young man and young woman, very properly dressed, almost elegant even, disembarked at Unieux, a large and wealthy village, not far from Firminy and in one of the most picturesque parts of the department of the Loire.
We say that our personages disembarked, for no one in the country seemed to know them, and yet, strangely enough, these voyagers did not carry with them any baggage, not even the lightest bag.
The man, slightly above average in size, could have been thirty or thirty-two years old.
Very thin, with a bony face, he had a long, strong nose, a sallow complexion and sickly appearance, his hair dark brown like the full beard that he wore.
His expression was bold and cunning, and his brow, marked with a large scar, indicated intelligence and will.
As to the woman who accompanied him, it would have been quite difficult to give her exact age.
Whether she was only twenty-five years old or was already more than thirty, it would have been impossible to say.
Though quite petite, tiny really, with a very dark complexion and thick lips, she had beautiful eyes, magnificent eyes, but her expression was perhaps even more bold, and let’s say it, even more cynical than that of her companion.
Yet, while moving slowly through the streets of the village, the man seemed to search around him, and what he sought was doubtless an inn, for as soon as he saw one, he walked quickly up to the door, hesitated for some seconds, and then set off again.
— Hey! Why don’t we go in there? the woman said quickly, seeing him stop again.
But he had already resumed his way.
— No, no, not far! He responded brusquely. I know what I’m doing.
And he had not traveled more than fifty paces, when once again he stopped short.
Then, indicating the house that stood in front of him:
— Hello! That’s what I wanted!… That’s what I was looking for! he repeated.
— That room there?
— Don’t joke!… I know what I said… The best inn in the country!…
Then, looking up at the sign, he read aloud:
THIBAULT THE ELDER
INN OF THE GROTTO
Carriages available. —Excursions to Notre-Dame-de-Gràce.
We don’t know what thought these last words gave rise to in the mind of the unknown, but he gave, in pronouncing them, a very strange and singular smile.
— Let’s go. Come on! he cried. And they entered.
Since the inn was empty, the stranger knocked his fist on the table:
— Well! Is there nobody here?
And at the same instant the patron appeared, all smiles and eager.
— Here! Here I am!… How can I serve you? he said.
— Dinner first! the young man replied. But, sacrebleu! hurry, for I’m as hungry as a wolf…
But master Thibaut had already disappeared with the speed of lightning, and the young man and the little woman remained alone, seated opposite each other.
Then the latter, leaning towards her companion, her voice very low:
— Come, now, speak! she said. Why have we left Saint-Etienne? Why the devil have you brought me here?…
— I have already told you that I have had an idea, he responded, and an excellent idea, an idea worth its weight in gold, I must say…
The young man, whose eyes sparkled, had yet another smile at least as strange, at least as singular as he had earlier.
— And that idea, my little Ravachol? asked the woman keenly and curiously.
But at that name, she had said almost aloud, the other had a violent start, and then quickly putting a finger on his mouth, said:
— Shh! he said imperiously. I’ve already warned you that I don’t want you to shout my name from the roofs!…
— In Saint-Etienne!
— In Saint-Etienne as here… at Saint-Etienne as elsewhere…
And he added:
— Since my first name hurts your mouth…
— No, my Léon! she said, laughing.
— Call me Léger, if you want, it’s still one of my names.
— Or Kœningstein, like your wretched German father?
— Or Kœningstein, if your must… But Ravachol, never! his voice was sharp, almost furious.
And he fell suddenly silent, for the landlord returned carrying the dinner ordered.
Then, when he had left them alone again, it was Ravachol who in his turn leaned towards his companion.
— You see, my girl, he said, there’s no denying it, the counterfeiting doesn’t go well, it no longer goes!… At first, when I had entered Fachard’s gang,—which brought me the pleasure of making your acquaintance,— we could still make out and do his little jobs…
— Yes, that is true! she interrupted with a sigh of regret. In those days, we raked in some nice dough!
— Well! yes, but we have been too hasty and let the cat out of the bag, so that today, — and I don’t just speak of Saint-Etienne, nor only of Saint-Chamond, but also of Montbrison, of everywhere, — the stuff is no longer worth anything and we can only pass a miserable five-franc piece.
— You’re telling me! she sighed again. Wasn’t it just the other day I was nearly put away?
— Well! He said fiercely, if I have led you here, it is because I dream of a big job… it is because I dream of a grand strike which will enrich us immediately, and quite simply.
— Right now!… Pronto!
-— So! You’re not crazy?
— Look at me closely! Is that how I look?… No, I am not crazy, and I’m speaking to you very seriously…
“Yes, tomorrow. Yes, in a few hours perhaps, my dear Julie, we will have our pockets filled with gold, and of the good, true sort!… not the gold counterfeited by Fachard!…
And they both started to laugh.
Then, as there was a moment of silence, Ravachol abruptly turned to look around, as if he was afraid that someone had heard his words.
And suddenly a made a movement of surprise, for his gaze had just by chance encountered, hung in front of him, a rather crude painting, a portrait which depicted a white-haired man, dressed in a long monk’s habit.
—Ah bah! He cried in a low voice. But that must be him!… That must be my man!…
— Your man? That calotin there?… What do you mean? Asked Julie sharply, following his glance.
— Yes, that is him, I would say!… Yes, that must be the holy hermit of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce! cried Ravachol.
Then, as at that moment the innkeeper appeared in the doorway of his kitchen, he called:
— Hey! Say there, boss?… a little information, if you please?
— At your service.
— Who is that fellow there?
— That fellow?… Why, that is Jacques Brunel, our hermit, our holy man.
— He has a good face! sniggered Ravachol anew.
— A rogue. Off with you! said the innkeeper, with a wink, a cunning sort who understood life and didn’t need to go to so much trouble as the camarades in order to make his little pile…
— Ah! Is he rich?
— Heh! You make me laugh!… A sly dog who receives money from everyone and never spends anything… Have you seen his grotto? his hermitage?
— No, but I would certainly like to see that…
— Well! When you go, I would be really astonished if you find yourself alone. There are always a bunch of idiots up there who come to ask him for prayers, and miracles, and who never neglect, when they do, to grease his palm with pretty pieces of silver…
— Could you drive me there? Ravachol asked excitedly.
-— But certainly. Haven’t you read my sign: Excursions to Notre-Dame-de-Gràce!…
— But here’s the thing! the young man said, the devil of it is that I don’t have much time… Is there someone who could that me there this evening? . .
— Indeed, you are in a real hurry, responded the innkeeper. But why not? I will tell you exactly very soon, when my boy has returned.
However the night had long since tout à fait venue, and it was now perhaps a little after nine o’clock.
Ravachol, who had without thinking drawn the curtain from the window beside which he found himself, looked out at the street, and was astonished to find it so somber and black.
In fact, save at the Inn of the Grotto, there were no lights anywhere, no light at all.
The counterfeiter wondered aloud:
— Your country, it is not gay, he said. It goes to sleep with the chickens…
But the hotelkeeper’s face had become very serious all of a sudden.
— Yes, isn’t that so? he responded. But it has not always been the same; and it is only for awhile that as soon as night comes each hastens to play dead and to double-lock themselves at home…
— For how long?
— Yes, since all these crimes, all these murders which have bloodied the region. So it started with the case of Varizelle…
Ravachol had become suddenly very pale and he could not prevent a sudden shudder
— Varizelle? he said, his voice a bit low.
— Yes, yes… Haven’t you heard about that crime?
— Faith, no.
— Oh! An atrocious crime, horrible, dreadful, which, sadly, remains unpunished.
— Tell us, then! cried Julie. What has happened over there, at Varizelle?
Ravachol, always pale, shot a furious glance at his mistress, a terrible look that she did not notice.
— Oh! My god, madame, here is the story in a few words, said the innkeeper.
“There was a man in Varizelle, an old man that everyone loved, that everyone adored.
“That man was able to amass a small fortune, and as he was not a selfish man, he used it to do the greatest possible good around him. So there was not much misfortune around “the Little God”….
— “The Little God”? asked Julie, astonished.
— Yes, that was what, in the village, they called the old man that I told you about.
“That was the nickname they had given him, and it should suffice to portray the goodness of that man.
“But, one day, they were surprised to find his house remained shut up.
“They banged on the day: Nothing!
“They called: Nothing!
“A sinister premonition seized everyone. Finally, weary of knocking and of calling, they placed a ladder up to one of the windows and entered the home of “the Little God.”
— And then?
— And then, madame, everyone recoiled, with a cry of horror, with a cry of fright. The “Little God” was there, his skull opened by hatchet blows, and close by him, in a sea of blood, his maid, his old maid of eighty-eight years, her head equally cracked, equally smashed…
— And the guilty party has not been arrested?
— Non, madame, the guilty one is still at large…
— And do they suspect no one?… Have they found no clue? no trace?
— How silly you are! cried Ravachol with a forced laugh. Since the gentleman informs us that the crime remains unpunished… Is that clear?
— Then, some time after that, continued the innkeeper, there was yet another crime as atrocious and as horrible…
— Where was that? asked Julie.
— At Granay.
— A Granay? I don’t know it!
— It is close to Rive-de-Gier.
—Ah! And what happened there?
— Well! There, it was a farmer who suffered in the same way a the “Little God,” And like the “Little God” he was not the sole victim of the assassins, for his young wife was also found at his side, riddled with God knows how many stab wounds.
— But that is dreadful! cried Julie.
— And was justice more fortunate that time? Ravachol asked quietly. Were they finally able to get their hands on the murderers?
But the innkeeper just shook his head, while a wry smile glided over his lips.
— No, no, he responded, this time as well the guilty still roams free… Ah! Between us, those murdering gentlemen can boast of having good luck!
“But that is not all,” he added fiercely. “After the double crime at Varizelle and the double crime at Granay, we have still the murder at Côte-Bois…”
— Côte-Bois!… But that is where I am from! cried Julie, looking at Ravachol.
— Indeed, was all he said, quietly, in response.
— I’m talking about the Côte-Bois, in the suburbs of Saint-Chamond, said the innkeeper.
— Yes, yes…
— Well! There again, it was an old man who was murdered in order to rob him. But since you are from that country, he added, you should doubtless know that affaire much better than I…
—- That is possible… I have perhaps heard talk of it… But I do not recall it, said Ravachol swiftly.
Then, abruptly changing his tone:
— Anyway, boss, time is passing, and if it continues, I won’t be able to make my pilgrimage. Isn’t your boy back yet?
— Yes, I believe I hear him.
And taking a few steps towards the kitchen, he cried:
— Hey! Germain, are you there?… We’ve waited for you more than an hour.
Then Germain, a large, young lad, with a slightly vacuous air about him, came in, advancing slowly and heavily.
— Go hitch up, you, and be nimble about it! said the innkeeper.
— Hitch up?
— Yes, yes… And be sure not to drag your feet. Monsieur wants to make a visit to our hermit. Go, scoot, off with you!… I give you five minutes.
And five minutes later, indeed, the carriage that carried Ravachol and his mistress flew at a full gallop on the road to Chambles, that is, in the direction of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.
— Oh! The beautiful night! exclaimed Julie suddenly, snuggling up still more closely, more amorously against her lover.
But that gentleman did not respond.
Arms crossed, brows knit, eyes fixed, he seemed sunk in who-knows-what somber and sinister thoughts. Then Julie looked at him, taking him by the hand:
— What will you do over there?… Come on, tell me all, she whispered in his ear.
— Haven’t you caught on yet?
— I’m afraid to catch on!
He shrugged his shoulders.
— Come on!… didn’t you just hear that good innkeeper?… Didn’t he say, in telling you those stories: “Among us, messieurs the murderers can boast of being in luck?”
But Julie could not prevent herself from shivering.
— And if you had not! she said sharply. If you had been pinched!… And if one day or the other I had been condemned as your accomplice!
But Ravachol snickered. She was insistent.
— No, no, listen to me, she said, listen to me while there is still time… Let us go no further… Let’s return to Saint-Etienne…
— Without the loot! said the bandit. Not on your life! And in a strong voice, he cried:
— Coachman, faster!… You’re hardly moving!
The coachman lashed his horses, and Ravachol, drawing Julie closer to him, said:
— And you, he said, you listen to me as well, listen to me in turn, and try to be more calm, to keep your cool… If I pull this off, there is not only a bit of profit for me, but for you as well… Isn’t that true?
— Well! I rather think it is not you who will denounce me… And why would I be pinched? One more time, he added with a strange emphasis, have they pinched those from Varizelle?… those from Granay?… have they nabbed those from Côte-Bois?…
— But that was not the same thing! cried Julie.
— Not the same thing?
— Without doubt. There was no witness to their crime; no one saw them, no one could testify against them, while you would have to point you out to the police, you would have to ruin you first that innkeeper that you have questioned at such length about the hermit, then this young man here, this coachman who drives us.
“And then, how could you get away with it?… Tell me, do you understand?
But Ravachol had no time to respond.
The coach had slowed down and the driver turned towards them.
— We are at the foot of the mountain, he said. A few more minutes and we will be there.
Then, designating with the end of his whip a black spot which rose against the luminous heavens, he added:
— Hold on, look… There is the hermitage.
— Good! Good! said Ravachol. But there is no need to weary the horses… Wait for us here.
He had already stepped down from the coach and, followed by his mistress, he rapidly disappeared across the folds of the mountain.
Julie was very pale, shivering and trembling all over, but Ravachol already showed that extraordinary sang-froid that, later, would astonish those who knew him.
A few minutes later, they had indeed arrived before the abode of the hermit.
Julie trembled, shivered more and more.
— Let’s go!… Let’s go!… Listen to me! she still begged.
But Ravachol grabbed her brusquely by the wrist and spoke to her in a very low voice, as if, in that solitude, he still feared that someone could hear him.
And he added, very quickly:
— Do you understand?
— Yes, yes.
— That man could perhaps be overzealous. He could perhaps come to seek us here. In that case you must warn me. Is that clear?
— Yes, she said, her voice still more faint.
And before she had finished Ravachol was already gone.
The hermit’s grotto, tapestried with greenery, had for a door only a very thin partition which always remained ajar and through the cracks of which it was very easy, especially on a bright, starry night, to distinguish what was happening inside.
Ravachol put his eye to one of these cracks and looked.
Then, so close to committing a crime, so close to risking his hide, he laughed.
— Ah! The animal! he murmured. If the pilgrims could see him!..,
And always immobile, with his cocky smile always on his lips, he continued to look into the grotto.
His face flushed, his eyes shining brightly, the hermit remained seated before the remains of a meal which seemed to have been sufficiently hearty.
From time to time he poured himself another bumper, and drank it in one gulp; then, a gourmand’s smile, a smile full of beatitude on his lips, he crossed his hands on his belly and resumed the slightly sleepy pose in which Ravachol had found him.
And now the bandit seemed to measure his victim with his regard. And old man and half-asleep, half-drunk perhaps… Oh! The struggle would not be long and the job would be rapidly done!…
“And the pile for me!… For me, the savings of the holy man!” he said to himself.
Then, all at once, a very long, broad knife flashed in his hand.
He looked around.
Julie was at her post.
No noise in this deserted place.
“Let’s go!” he said.
And very softly, very slowly, he pushed open the door, poked his head in, and looked.
The hermit, now with eyes closed, and hands still crossed on his belly, had not flinched or stirred.
Standing now on the threshold, and even so a little pale, Ravachol took a surprised look around him.
The furnishings of the grotto, needless to say, were of the most rough and ready sort.
A little table table, a stool; in a corner, a sort of pallet; against the wall, some dried plants suspended, and some rosaries, some pious images hung up, and that was all.
So where then did the holy personage lock up his money? In what corner? In what hole? In what hiding place? That began to intrigue and also to worry Ravachol a bit, as he feared would could not do the deed swiftly enough.
“Is it perhaps on him?” he said to himself. “Pshaw! We shall see! And he spring, fast as lightning.
Throat slit, the hermit fell without a cry, without a gasp, without a moan. [Ravachol’s own account was that he accidentally strangled the hermit.—Translator.]
Yet he still moved, fists clenched, face livid, a bloody foam on his lips.
Ravachol threw down his knife and crouched over him.
He felt around him, seeking the money, but nothing…
In the pockets of the dead man there was only an old prayer-book and a little snuff box.
Ravachol rose up furious, shocked, and again his gaze searched, rummaged around him.
Suddenly he ran to the pallet, believing that there would doubtless find the treasure. But no!
There again there was nothing! It was discouraging.
Ravachol took up the small iron lamp that burned on the table, then, bent over, on his knees, he inspected the ground, looking for a hole…
But there was none!
The anger of the bandit increased, becoming rage. Ah! Had he killed for nothing!
Would he be obliged to return to Saint-Etienne with empty pockets!
“And yet this joker should have money!” he said aloud. “But where the devil could it be?… Where the hell has he buried it?
And as he returned to the dead man, he shook him furiously, as if he could talk.
“Come on, then, answer me!” he cried out. “What have you done with your money?”
And as he now, his lamp raised, felt the walls, he suddenly made a surprised gesture, and a cry of joy.
He had just noticed a loose stone, a stone which concealed a hole.
To remove that stone, to push his arms into this large, deep hole, wa for Ravachol only the work of a second.
Finally, he held the loot!
Finally, he held the money from the offerings, the money of the half-wit pilgrims!
In the end, he had not burdened his conscience with the crime for nothing! But with his joy the bandit still felt some disappointment. Yes, there was a very fine, a very great sum, a small fortune, but except for a few louis and crowns, with which he began to stuff his pockets, all the rest were coins of billon, gros sous, and there were so many of them, so heavy in weight, so huge, that it was impossible that a man could carry it.
And Ravachol thought, reflecting.
What to do?
Which way to turn?
He could not, however, be so stupid, so foolish, as to leave that money, that money which others, who had gone to less trouble than him, would profit when the murder was discovered.
But Ravachol was not only an energetic man, full of resolution, he was also an ingenious and inventive spirit.
The only thing to do then, was to return immediately to Saint-Étienne…
There, he would hire a car in which he would come back to load the treasure, and he would also see his friend Fachard, the leader of a band of counterfeiters, who would certainly not refuse to give him a hand.
But the was no a minute, not a second to lose, if he wanted to return here bright and early, that is, before the crime could be discovered.
Already Ravachol had rushed out of the grotto and ran to rejoin his mistress.
It is done!” he said.
“Ah!” said Julie, stricken.
“Yes, he is done in… But there was a hitch!”
The bandit jingled his pockets:
“I have some beautiful, brand new crowns, some fine, shiny gold pieces, but it is impossible to take the pile…
“It is all small change!”
“Yes, gros sous!… And there was… There was… I’ll just say this!… Oh! It is a good business!… But it is not finished and we’ll have to stretch a bit… we have to return quickly to Saint-Étienne and come back here pronto… I have my plan… Be bold, come on!”
And five minutes later, Ravachol and Julie had returned to the foot of the mountain.
Then the bandit had another idea.
Why not propose to the innkeeper’s boy to take them back to Saint-Etienne?
“And you know,” he said to him, “I do not skimp!… There will be a good tip for you… OK?…
“Yes, that’s fine,” responded the other, delighted by the windfall.
“But I’m in a hurry… it is a question of burning up the pavement…”
“Oh! Calm down. You will be satisfied.”
And the carriage did indeed sash towards Saint-Etienne at a breathtaking gallop.
Some hours later, a bit after sunrise, Ravachol returned to the hermit’s dwelling.
Plunging his arm into the hole, the bandit tumbled out the small change, which Fachard and another fellow, who was also part of the band of counterfeiters, piled up in sacks that they had carried.
As soon as a sack was full, one of the men loaded it on a cart which was parked by the door.
“Well! Is there no end to it?” said Fachard, suddenly. “There is still more?”
“Yes, yes!… Oh! You can slave away!” responded Ravachol, laughing. “Hold on! I would rather listen to this pretty little shower… Here now, catch!…
And plunging his arm back into the hole, he made it stream coins…
However, despite his cheek and all his sang-froid, there were moments when the murderer was not without apprehension and anxiety.
Then he interrupted his work and ran to plant himself at the door.
Sometimes he even took a few steps outside, watching out and listening for the slightest noise that he could hear, the least sound that could reach him.
Then, abruptly, he reentered and returned to his task.
And always the small change, always the sous tumbled and rained down, and while the two others, exhausted, backs aching, continued to fill the sacks swiftly, he, full of joy, let out a great burst of cynical laughter.
“Oh! The pig!… he had some savings!…”
But, finally, now it was finished.
Ravachol’s hand found nothing more in the hole.
Now, the three companions crawled on the floor, searching for coins that had got loose.
“My children, do not lose anything,” said the bandit, jeering. And first there were two coins, then two more, which makes four, then two more which makes six.
“Search well!… Money is so hard to gain!…”
And as they found nothing more, Ravachol himself loaded the last sack on his shoulder and went to throw it into the carriage.
They had laid out the corpse of the hermit on his pallet, and his assassin, always laughing, always snickering, went and took one of the rosaries hanging on the wall and wound it around his fingers.
“This way,” he said, “he will pray for the rest of his soul!”
But the sun rose, rose more and more, and if they did not want to risk being discovered, it was time to head back to Saint-Etienne.
So they hurried to throw a tarp over the cart, in a manner that concealed the sacks that contained the dead man’s money, the three men climbed onto the seat, and they left.
[To be continued…]
[Working translation by Shawn P. Wilbur]