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A Book of Remarkable Criminals

What could be more satisfactory? That M. Derues was a substantial person there
could be no doubt. Through his wife he was entitled to a sum of 250,000 livres as
her share of the property of a wealthy kinsman, one Despeignes-Duplessis, a
country gentleman, who some four years before had been found murdered in his
house under mysterious circumstances. The liquidation of the Duplessis
inheritance, as soon as the law's delay could be overcome, would place the
Derues in a position of affluence fitting a Cyrano de Bury and a Nicolai.
At this time M. Derues was in reality far from affluent. In point of fact he was
insolvent. Nor was his lineage, nor that of his wife, in any way distinguished. He
had no right to call himself de Cyrano de Bury or Lord of Candeville. His wife's
name was Nicolais, not Nicolai--a very important difference from the genealogical
point of view. The Duplessis inheritance, though certainly existent, would seem to
have had little more chance of realisation than the mythical Crawford millions of
Madame Humbert. And yet, crippled with debt, without a penny in the world, this
daring grocer of the Rue Beaubourg, for such was M. Derues' present condition
in life, could cheerfully and confidently engage in a transaction as considerable
as the purchase of a large estate for 130,000 livres! The origin of so enterprising
a gentleman is worthy of attention.
Antoine Francois Derues was born at Chartres in 1744; his father was a corn
merchant. His parents died when he was three years old. For some time after his
birth he was assumed to be a girl; it was not until he was twelve years old that an
operation determined his sex to be masculine. Apprenticed by his relatives to a
grocer, Derues succeeded so well in the business that he was able in 1770 to set
up on his own account in Paris, and in 1772 he married. Among the grocer's
many friends and acquaintances this marriage created something of a sensation,
for Derues let it be known that the lady of his choice was of noble birth and an
heiress. The first statement was untrue. The lady was one Marie Louise Nicolais,
daughter of a non-commissioned artillery officer, turned coachbuilder. But by
suppressing the S at the end of her name, which Derues was careful also to
erase in his marriage contract, the ambitious grocer was able to describe his wife
as connected with the noble house of Nicolai, one of the most distinguished of
the great French families.
There was more truth in the statement that Mme. Derues was an heiress. A
kinsman of her mother, Beraud by name, had become the heir to a certain
Marquis Desprez. Beraud was the son of a small merchant. His mother had
married a second time, the husband being the Marquis Desprez, and through her
Beraud had inherited the Marquis' property. According to the custom of the time,
Beraud, on coming into his inheritance, took a title from one of his estates and
called himself thenceforth the lord of Despeignes-Duplessis. A rude, solitary,
brutal man, devoted to sport, he lived alone in his castle of Candeville, hated by
his neighbours, a terror to poachers. One day he was found lying dead in his
bedroom; he had been shot in the chest; the assassin had escaped through an
open window.