A Frenchman who, coming to England, became by his Politeness and Gallantry on the Road the Romantic Darling of the Ladies. Executed 21st of January, 1670
SOME have affirmed that this very celebrated highway- man was born in Smock Alley, without Bishopsgate; but this is without ground, for he really received his first breath at a place called Damfront in Normandy. His father was a miller, and his mother the daughter of a tailor. By these parents he was brought up strictly in the Roman Catholic religion, and his promising genius was cultivated with as much learning as qualified him for a footman.
But though the father was so careful as to see that his son had some religion, we have good reason to think that he had none himself. He used to talk much more of good cheer than of the Church, and of great feasts than great faith; good wine was to him better than good works; and a sound courtesan was far more agreeable than a sound Christian. Being once so very sick there were great hopes of his dying a natural death, a ghostly father came to him with his Corpus Domini, and told him that, hearing of the extremity he was in, he had brought him his Saviour to comfort him before his departure. Old Du Vall, upon this, drew aside the curtain and beheld a goodly fat friar with the Host in his hand. "I know," said he, "that it is our Saviour, because He came to me in the same manner as He went to Jerusalem: C'est un asne que le porte" ("It is an ass that carries Him.")
Neither father nor mother took any notice of young Claude after he was about thirteen years of age. Perhaps their circumstances might then oblige them to send him abroad to seek his fortune. His first stage was at Rouen, the capital city of Normandy, where he fortunately met with post-horses to be returned to Paris, upon one of which he got leave to ride, by promising to help dress them at night. At the same time falling in with some English gentlemen who were going to the same place, he got his expenses discharged by those generous travellers. They arrived at Paris in the usual time, and the gentle men took lodgings in the Faubourg St Germain, where the English generally quarter. Du Vall was willing to be as near as possible to his benefactors, and by their intercession he was admitted to run errands and do the meanest offices at the St Esprit in the Rue de Bourchiere, a house of general entertainment, something between a tavern and an ale-house, a cook's shop and a bawdy-house. In this condition he continued till the restoration of King Charles II. in 1660 at which time, multitudes of all nations flocking into England, among them came Du Vall, in the capacity of a footman to a person of quality.
The universal joy upon the return of the Royal family made the whole nation almost mad. Everyone ran into extravagances, and Du Vall, whose inclinations were as vicious as any man's, soon became an extraordinary proficient in gaming, whoring, drunkenness, and all manner of debauchery. The natural effect of these courses is want of money; this our adventurer experienced in a very little time; and as he could not think of labouring he took to the highway to support his irregularities. In this profession he was within a little while so famous as to have the honour of being named first in a proclamation for apprehending several notorious highwaymen. And here we have reason to com plain that our informations are too short for our assistance in writing the life of such a celebrated offender. However, such stories as have been delivered down to us we shall give our readers faithfully, and in the best manner we are able.
He had one day received intelligence of a knight and his lady who were travelling with four hundred pounds in their coach. Upon this he takes four or five more along with him and overtakes them on the road. The gentry soon perceived they were likely to be beset when they beheld several horsemen riding backwards and forwards, and whispering to one another; whereupon the lady, who was a young sprightly creature, pulls out a flageolet, and begins to play very briskly. Du Vall takes the hint and plays excellently well upon a flageolet of his own, in answer to the lady, and in this posture rides up to the coach door. "Sir," says he to the knight "your lady plays excellently, and I make no doubt but she dances as well. Will you please to step out of the coach and let me have the honour to dance one courant with her on the heath?" "I dare not deny anything, sir," the knight readily replied, "to a gentleman of your quality and good behaviour. You seem a man of generosity, and your request is perfectly reasonable. Immediately the footman opens the door and the knight comes out; Du Vall leaps lightly off his horse and hands the lady down. It was surprising to see how gracefully he moved upon the grass; scarce a dancing-master in London but would have been proud to have shown such agility in a pair of pumps as Du Vall showed in a great pair of French riding-boots. As soon as the dance was over he waits on the lady back to the coach, without offering her the least affront; but just as the knight was stepping in —- "Sir," says he, "you have forgot to pay the music." His worship replied that he never forgot such things; and instantly put his hand under the seat of the coach and pulled out a hundred pounds in a bag, which he delivered to Du Vall, who received it with a very good grace, and courteously answered: "Sir, you are liberal, and shall have no cause to repent your being so. This hundred given so generously is better than ten times the sum taken by force. Your noble behaviour has excused you the other three hundred which you have in the coach with you." After this he gave him the word, that he might pass undisturbed if he met any more of their crew, and then very civilly wished them a good journey.
It happened another time, as Du Vall was upon his vocation of robbing on Blackheath, he meets with a coach richly fraught with ladies of quality, and with one child who had a silver sucking-bottle; he robs them rudely, takes away their money, watches, rings, and even the little child's sucking-bottle; nor would he, upon the child's tears, nor the ladies' earnest intercession, be wrought upon to restore it, until at last one of his companions forced him to deliver it.
A little after the above-mentioned action another lucky turn in Du Vall's favour happened, as much as that to his advantage. In the course of his rambles he came into the Crown Inn, in Beaconsfield where he heard great singing, dancing, and playing upon the hautboy and violin. He instantly inquired into the reason of it, and found that there was a wake or fair kept there that day, at which were present most of the young men and maids for several miles about. This, he thought, was a promising place; and therefore he set up his horse for that evening, went into the kitchen, and called for a pint of wine. Here he met with an old rich farmer, who had just received a hundred pounds, and had tied it up in a bag, putting it into his coat pocket. Du Vall was very attentive to all that passed, and by this means he heard the farmer tell an acquaintance what money he had about him, which our sharper immediately put down for his own; more especially did he depend upon it when the countryman asked leave to go into the room where the music was, to see and hear the diversions. It was his next business to ask the same favour, which he as easily obtained, and very innocently to all appearance entered to see the country dancing, making an apology to the company when he came in, and telling them that he hoped it would be no offence, they replying as courteously that he might stay there and welcome.
His business now was more to watch the old farmer's bag of money than to mind the diversions of the young people; and, after considering some time for a way to execute his designs in the most dexterous manner, he observed a chimney with a large funnel, which he thought would favour his project. Having contrived the whole affair, he went out and communicated it to the ostler, who, being a downright ostler, consented for a reward of two guineas to assist him. He was to dress up a great mastiff dog in a cowhide, which he had in the stable, placing the horns directly on his forehead, and then by the help of a ladder and a rope to let him down the chimney. All this he performed while the company were merry in the chamber. Du Vall being re turned from the yard, the dog howling as he descended the chimney, and pushing among them in this frightful manner, they were all put into a hurry and confusion. The music was silenced, the table overthrown, and the drink spilt; the people all the while screaming, and crowding downstairs as fast as they were able, everyone crowding to be foremost, as they supposed the devil would unavoidably take the hindmost. Their heels flew up, the women's coats flew over their heads, and the pipe and the fiddle were trod to pieces. While they were in this condition the supposed devil made his way over them all and got into the stable, where the ostler instantly uncased him; so that when the company came to examine the matter, as they could hear no more of him, they concluded he had vanished into the air.
Now was the time for Du Vall to take care of the farmer's hundred pounds, which he very easily did by diving into his pocket. As soon as he had got the money he took horse, and spared neither whip nor spur until he came to London, where he thought himself safe. As soon as things were a little in order again at the inn there was a dismal outcry for the money. All the suspicious persons were searched, and the house was examined from top to bottom, to no purpose. What could they suppose after this but that the devil had taken it away? It passed in this manner, and was looked upon as a judgment inflicted by permission of Providence on the farmer for his covetousness; the farmer being, in reality, a miserable wretch, who made it his business to get money by all the methods he could, whether lawful or otherwise.
One time Du Vall met with Esquire Roper, master of the buck-hounds to King Charles II., as he was hunting in Windsor Forest. As their rencounter happened in a thicket, Du Vall took advantage of the place, and commanded him to stand and deliver his money, or else he would shoot him. Mr Roper, to save his life, gave our adventurer a purse full of guineas, containing at least fifty, and Du Vall afterwards bound him neck and heels, fastened his horse by him, and rode away across the country.
The hunting, to be sure, was over for that time, but it was a pretty while before the huntsman could find his master. When the squire was unbound, he made all the haste he could to Windsor, and as he entered the town was met by Sir Stephen Fox, who asked him whether or no he had had any sport. Mr Roper replied in a great passion: "Yes, Sir, I have had sport enough from a son of a whore, who made me pay damned dear for it. He bound me neck and heels, contrary to my desire, and then took fifty guineas from me, to pay him for his labour, which I had much rather he had omitted."
But the proclamation which we spoke of at the beginning of this life, and the large reward that was promised for taking him, made Du Vall think it unsafe to stay any longer in England; whereupon he retired into France. At Paris he lived very highly, boasting prodigiously of the success of his arms and amours, and affirming proudly that he never encountered with any one person of either sex whom he did not overcome. He had not been long here before he relapsed into his old disease, want of money, which obliged him to have recourse to his wits again. He had an uncommon talent at contrivance, particularly at suiting his stratagems to the temper of the person they were designed to ensnare, as the following instance will prove.
A learned Jesuit, who was confessor to the French King, was as much noted for his avarice as he was for his politics, by which latter he had rendered himself very eminent. His thirst for money was insatiable; and though he was exceeding rich, his desires seemed to increase with his wealth. It came immediately into Du Vall's head that the only way to squeeze a little money out of him was to amuse him with hopes of getting a great deal, which he did in the following manner.
He put himself into a scholar's garb, to facilitate his admittance into the miser's company, and then waited very diligently for a proper time to make his address, which he met with in a few days. Seeing him alone in the piazza of the Faubourg, he went up to him very confidently and said: "May it please your reverence, I am a poor scholar who has been several years travelling over strange countries, to learn experience in the sciences, purely to serve my native country, to whose advantage I am determined to apply my knowledge, if I may be favoured with the patronage of a man so eminent as yourself." "And what may this knowledge of yours be?" replied the father, very much pleased. "If you will communicate anything to me that may be beneficial to France, I assure you no proper encouragement shall be wanting on my side." Du Vall, upon this, growing yet bolder, proceeded: "Sir, I have spent most of my time in the study of alchemy, or the transmutation of metals, and have profited so much at Rome and Venice, from great men learned in that science, that I can change several base metals into gold, by the help of a philosophical powder, which I can prepare very speedily."
The father confessor appeared to brighten with joy at this relation. "Friend," says he, "such a thing as this will be serviceable indeed to the whole state, and peculiarly grateful to the King, who, as his affairs go at present, stands in some need of such a curious invention. But you must let me see some experiment of your skill before I credit what you say so far as to communicate it to his Majesty, who will sufficiently reward you if what you promise be demonstrated." Upon this, he conducted Du Vall home to his house, and furnished him with money to build a laboratory and purchase such other materials as he told him were requisite in order to proceed in this invaluable operation, charging him to keep the secret from every living soul until he thought proper, which Du Vall promised to perform.
The utensils being fixed, and everything in readiness, the Jesuit came to behold the wonderful operation. Du Vall took several metals and minerals of the basest sort and put them into a crucible, his reverence viewing every one as he put them in. Our learned alchemist had prepared a hollow stick, into which he had conveyed several sprigs of pure gold, as blacklead is in a pencil. With this stick he stirred the preparation as it melted, which with its heat melted the gold in the stick at the same time; so that it sunk imperceptibly into the vessel. When the excessive fire had consumed in a great measure all the lead, tin, brass and powder which he had put in for a show, the gold remained pure to the quantity of an ounce and a half. This the Jesuit caused to be assayed, and finding it what it really was —- all fine gold —- he was immediately so devoted to Du Vall, and blinded with the prospect of future advantage, that he believed everything our impostor could say, still furnishing him with whatever he demanded, in hopes to be at last made master of this extraordinary secret, the whole fame as well as profit of which, he did not question, would redound to him, as Du Vall was but an obscure person.
Thus were our alchemist and Jesuit, according to the old saying, as great as two pickpockets; which proverbial sentence, if we examine it a little closely, hits both their characters. Du Vall was a professed robber, and what is any Court favourite but a picker of the common people's pockets? So that it was only two sharpers endeavouring to outsharp one another. The confessor was as open as Du Vall could wish. He showed him all his treasure, and among it several rich jewels which he had received as presents from the King, hoping by these obligations to make him discover his art the sooner. In a word, he grew by degrees so importunate and urgent that Du Vall began to apprehend a too close inquiry if he denied the request any longer; and therefore he appointed a day when everything was to be communicated. In the meantime he took an opportunity to steal into the chamber where all the riches were deposited, and where his reverence generally slept after dinner, and finding him at that time very fast, with his mouth wide open, he gagged and bound him, then took his keys, and unhoarded as much of his wealth as he could conveniently carry out unsuspected; and so bade farewell to both him and France.
Du Vall had several other ways of getting money besides these which I have mentioned, particularly by gaming, at which he was so expert that few men in his age were able to play with him. No man living could slip a card more dexterously than he, nor better understood all the advantages that could be taken of an adversary; yet, to appearance, no man played fairer. He would frequently carry off ten, twenty, thirty, or sometimes a hundred pounds at a sitting, and had the pleasure commonly to hear it all attributed to his good fortune so that few were dissuaded by their losses with him from playing with him a second, third or fourth time.
He was moreover a mighty man for laying wagers, and no less successful in this particular than any of the former. He made it a great part of his study to learn all the intricate questions, deceitful propositions and paradoxical assertions that are made use of in conversation. Add to this the smattering he had attained in all the sciences, particularly the mathematics, by means of which he frequently won considerable sums on the situation of a place, the length of a stick, and a hundred such little things, which a man may practise without being liable to any suspicion, or casting any blemish upon his character as an honest man, or even a gentleman, which Du Vall affected to appear.
But what he was most of all celebrated for, was his conquests among the ladies, which were almost incredible to those who had not been acquainted with intrigue. He was a handsome man, and had abundance of that sort of wit which is most apt to take with the fair sex. Every agreeable woman he saw he certainly died for, so that he was ten thousand times a martyr to love. "Those eyes of yours, madam, have undone me." "I am captivated with that pretty good-natured smile." "Oh, that I could by any means in the world recommend myself to your ladyship's notice!" "What a poor silly loving fool am I!" These, and a million of such expressions, full of flames, darts, racks, tortures, death, eyes, bubbies, waist, cheeks, etc., were much more familiar to him than his prayers, and he had the same fortune in the field of love as Marlborough had in that of war —- viz. never to lay siege but he took the place.
There is no certain account how long Du Vall followed his vicious courses in England before he was detected, after his coming from France, and fell into the hands of justice. All we know is, that he was taken drunk at the Hole-in-the-Wall in Chandois Street, committed to Newgate, arraigned, convicted, condemned, and (on Friday the 21st day of January, 1670) executed at Tyburn in the twenty-seventh year of his age.
Abundance of ladies, and those not of the meanest degree, visited him in prison, and interceded for his pardon. Not a few accompanied him to the gallows, under their vizards, with swollen eyes and blubbered cheeks. After he had hanged a convenient time he was cut down, and, by persons well dressed, conveyed into a mourning coach. In this he was carried to the Tangier tavern at St Giles's, where he lay in state all night. The room was hung with black cloth, the hearse covered with 'scutcheons, eight wax tapers were burning, and as many tall gentlemen attended with long cloaks. All was in profound silence, and the ceremony had lasted much longer had not one of the judges sent to interrupt the pageantry.
As they were undressing him, in order to his lying-in-state, one of his friends put his hand into his pocket and found therein the following paper, which, as appears by the contents, he intended as a legacy to the ladies. It was written in a very fair hand: —-
"I should be very ungrateful to you, fair English ladies, should I not acknowledge the obligations you have laid me under. I could not have hoped that a person of my birth, nation, education and condition could have had charms enough to captivate you all; though the contrary has appeared, by your firm attachment to my interest, which you have not abandoned even in my last distress. You have visited me in prison, and even accompanied me to an ignominious death.
"From the experience of your former loves, I am confident that many among you would be glad to receive me to your arms, even from the gallows.
" How mightily and how generously have you rewarded my former services! Shall I ever forget the universal consternation that appeared upon your faces when I was taken; your chargeable visits to me in Newgate; your shrieks and swoonings when I was condemned, and your zealous inter- cession and importunity for my pardon! You could not have erected fairer pillars of honour and respect to me had I been a Hercules, able to get fifty of you with child in one night.
"It has been the misfortune of several English gentlemen to die at this place, in the time of the late usurpation, upon the most honourable occasion that ever presented itself; yet none of these, as I could ever learn, received so many marks of your esteem as myself. How much the greater, therefore, is my obligation.
" It does not, however, grieve me that your intercession for me proved ineffectual; for now I shall die with a healthful body, and, I hope, a prepared mind. My confessor has shown me the evil of my ways, and wrought in me a true repentance. Whereas, had you prevailed for my life, I must in gratitude have devoted it to your service, which would certainly have made it very short; for had you been sound, I should have died of a consumption; if otherwise, of a pox."
He was buried with many flambeaux, amid a numerous train of mourners (most of them ladies), in Covent Garden. A white marble stone was laid over him, with his arms and the following epitaph engraven on it: —-
"Here lies Du Vall, reader, if male thou art,
Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.
Much havoc hath he made of both; for all
Men he made stand, and women he made fall.
The second conqueror of the Norman race,
Knights to his arms did yield, and ladies to his face.
Old Tyburn's glory, England's bravest thief,
Du Vall the ladies' joy! Du Vall the ladies' grief."