The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 4

To Arms!

So hangs it, dubious, fateful, in the sultry days of July. It is the passionate printed advice of M. Marat, to abstain, of all things, from violence. (Avis au Peuple, ou les Ministres devoiles, 1st July, 1789 in Histoire Parlementaire, ii. 37.) Nevertheless the hungry poor are already burning Town Barriers, where Tribute on eatables is levied; getting clamorous for food.

The twelfth July morning is Sunday; the streets are all placarded with an enormous-sized De par le Roi, ‘inviting peaceable citizens to remain within doors,’ to feel no alarm, to gather in no crowd. Why so? What mean these ‘placards of enormous size’? Above all, what means this clatter of military; dragoons, hussars, rattling in from all points of the compass towards the Place Louis Quinze; with a staid gravity of face, though saluted with mere nicknames, hootings and even missiles? (Besenval, iii. 411.) Besenval is with them. Swiss Guards of his are already in the Champs Elysees, with four pieces of artillery.

Have the destroyers descended on us, then? From the Bridge of Sevres to utmost Vincennes, from Saint–Denis to the Champ-de-Mars, we are begirt! Alarm, of the vague unknown, is in every heart. The Palais Royal has become a place of awestruck interjections, silent shakings of the head: one can fancy with what dolorous sound the noon-tide cannon (which the Sun fires at the crossing of his meridian) went off there; bodeful, like an inarticulate voice of doom. (Histoire Parlementaire, ii. 81.) Are these troops verily come out ‘against Brigands’? Where are the Brigands? What mystery is in the wind? — Hark! a human voice reporting articulately the Job’s-news: Necker, People’s Minister, Saviour of France, is dismissed. Impossible; incredible! Treasonous to the public peace! Such a voice ought to be choked in the water-works; (Ibid.) — had not the news-bringer quickly fled. Nevertheless, friends, make of it what you will, the news is true. Necker is gone. Necker hies northward incessantly, in obedient secrecy, since yesternight. We have a new Ministry: Broglie the War-god; Aristocrat Breteuil; Foulon who said the people might eat grass!

Rumour, therefore, shall arise; in the Palais Royal, and in broad France. Paleness sits on every face; confused tremor and fremescence; waxing into thunder-peals, of Fury stirred on by Fear.

But see Camille Desmoulins, from the Cafe de Foy, rushing out, sibylline in face; his hair streaming, in each hand a pistol! He springs to a table: the Police satellites are eyeing him; alive they shall not take him, not they alive him alive. This time he speaks without stammering:— Friends, shall we die like hunted hares? Like sheep hounded into their pinfold; bleating for mercy, where is no mercy, but only a whetted knife? The hour is come; the supreme hour of Frenchman and Man; when Oppressors are to try conclusions with Oppressed; and the word is, swift Death, or Deliverance forever. Let such hour be well-come! Us, meseems, one cry only befits: To Arms! Let universal Paris, universal France, as with the throat of the whirlwind, sound only: To arms! — “To arms!” yell responsive the innumerable voices: like one great voice, as of a Demon yelling from the air: for all faces wax fire-eyed, all hearts burn up into madness. In such, or fitter words, (Ibid.) does Camille evoke the Elemental Powers, in this great moment. — Friends, continues Camille, some rallying sign! Cockades; green ones; — the colour of hope! — As with the flight of locusts, these green tree leaves; green ribands from the neighbouring shops; all green things are snatched, and made cockades of. Camille descends from his table, ‘stifled with embraces, wetted with tears;’ has a bit of green riband handed him; sticks it in his hat. And now to Curtius’ Image-shop there; to the Boulevards; to the four winds; and rest not till France be on fire! (Vieux Cordelier, par Camille Desmoulins, No. 5 (reprinted in Collection des Memoires, par Baudouin Freres, Paris, 1825), p. 81.)

France, so long shaken and wind-parched, is probably at the right inflammable point. — As for poor Curtius, who, one grieves to think, might be but imperfectly paid, — he cannot make two words about his Images. The Wax-bust of Necker, the Wax-bust of D’Orleans, helpers of France: these, covered with crape, as in funeral procession, or after the manner of suppliants appealing to Heaven, to Earth, and Tartarus itself, a mixed multitude bears off. For a sign! As indeed man, with his singular imaginative faculties, can do little or nothing without signs: thus Turks look to their Prophet’s banner; also Osier Mannikins have been burnt, and Necker’s Portrait has erewhile figured, aloft on its perch.

In this manner march they, a mixed, continually increasing multitude; armed with axes, staves and miscellanea; grim, many-sounding, through the streets. Be all Theatres shut; let all dancing, on planked floor, or on the natural greensward, cease! Instead of a Christian Sabbath, and feast of guinguette tabernacles, it shall be a Sorcerer’s Sabbath; and Paris, gone rabid, dance, — with the Fiend for piper!

However, Besenval, with horse and foot, is in the Place Louis Quinze. Mortals promenading homewards, in the fall of the day, saunter by, from Chaillot or Passy, from flirtation and a little thin wine; with sadder step than usual. Will the Bust–Procession pass that way! Behold it; behold also Prince Lambesc dash forth on it, with his Royal–Allemands! Shots fall, and sabre-strokes; Busts are hewn asunder; and, alas, also heads of men. A sabred Procession has nothing for it but to explode, along what streets, alleys, Tuileries Avenues it finds; and disappear. One unarmed man lies hewed down; a Garde Francaise by his uniform: bear him (or bear even the report of him) dead and gory to his Barracks; — where he has comrades still alive!

But why not now, victorious Lambesc, charge through that Tuileries Garden itself, where the fugitives are vanishing? Not show the Sunday promenaders too, how steel glitters, besprent with blood; that it be told of, and men’s ears tingle? — Tingle, alas, they did; but the wrong way. Victorious Lambesc, in this his second or Tuileries charge, succeeds but in overturning (call it not slashing, for he struck with the flat of his sword) one man, a poor old schoolmaster, most pacifically tottering there; and is driven out, by barricade of chairs, by flights of ‘bottles and glasses,’ by execrations in bass voice and treble. Most delicate is the mob-queller’s vocation; wherein Too-much may be as bad as Not-enough. For each of these bass voices, and more each treble voice, borne to all points of the City, rings now nothing but distracted indignation; will ring all another. The cry, To arms! roars tenfold; steeples with their metal storm-voice boom out, as the sun sinks; armorer’s shops are broken open, plundered; the streets are a living foam-sea, chafed by all the winds.

Such issue came of Lambesc’s charge on the Tuileries Garden: no striking of salutary terror into Chaillot promenaders; a striking into broad wakefulness of Frenzy and the three Furies, — which otherwise were not asleep! For they lie always, those subterranean Eumenides (fabulous and yet so true), in the dullest existence of man; — and can dance, brandishing their dusky torches, shaking their serpent-hair. Lambesc with Royal–Allemand may ride to his barracks, with curses for his marching-music; then ride back again, like one troubled in mind: vengeful Gardes Francaises, sacreing, with knit brows, start out on him, from their barracks in the Chaussee d’Antin; pour a volley into him (killing and wounding); which he must not answer, but ride on. (Weber, ii. 75–91.)

Counsel dwells not under the plumed hat. If the Eumenides awaken, and Broglie has given no orders, what can a Besenval do? When the Gardes Francaises, with Palais–Royal volunteers, roll down, greedy of more vengeance, to the Place Louis Quinze itself, they find neither Besenval, Lambesc, Royal–Allemand, nor any soldier now there. Gone is military order. On the far Eastern Boulevard, of Saint–Antoine, the Chasseurs Normandie arrive, dusty, thirsty, after a hard day’s ride; but can find no billet-master, see no course in this City of confusions; cannot get to Besenval, cannot so much as discover where he is: Normandie must even bivouac there, in its dust and thirst, — unless some patriot will treat it to a cup of liquor, with advices.

Raging multitudes surround the Hotel-de-Ville, crying: Arms! Orders! The Six-and-twenty Town–Councillors, with their long gowns, have ducked under (into the raging chaos); — shall never emerge more. Besenval is painfully wriggling himself out, to the Champ-de-Mars; he must sit there ‘in the cruelest uncertainty:’ courier after courier may dash off for Versailles; but will bring back no answer, can hardly bring himself back. For the roads are all blocked with batteries and pickets, with floods of carriages arrested for examination: such was Broglie’s one sole order; the Oeil-de-Boeuf, hearing in the distance such mad din, which sounded almost like invasion, will before all things keep its own head whole. A new Ministry, with, as it were, but one foot in the stirrup, cannot take leaps. Mad Paris is abandoned altogether to itself.

What a Paris, when the darkness fell! A European metropolitan City hurled suddenly forth from its old combinations and arrangements; to crash tumultuously together, seeking new. Use and wont will now no longer direct any man; each man, with what of originality he has, must begin thinking; or following those that think. Seven hundred thousand individuals, on the sudden, find all their old paths, old ways of acting and deciding, vanish from under their feet. And so there go they, with clangour and terror, they know not as yet whether running, swimming or flying, — headlong into the New Era. With clangour and terror: from above, Broglie the war-god impends, preternatural, with his redhot cannon-balls; and from below, a preternatural Brigand-world menaces with dirk and firebrand: madness rules the hour.

Happily, in place of the submerged Twenty-six, the Electoral Club is gathering; has declared itself a ‘Provisional Municipality.’ On the morrow it will get Provost Flesselles, with an Echevin or two, to give help in many things. For the present it decrees one most essential thing: that forthwith a ‘Parisian Militia’ shall be enrolled. Depart, ye heads of Districts, to labour in this great work; while we here, in Permanent Committee, sit alert. Let fencible men, each party in its own range of streets, keep watch and ward, all night. Let Paris court a little fever-sleep; confused by such fever-dreams, of ‘violent motions at the Palais Royal;’ — or from time to time start awake, and look out, palpitating, in its nightcap, at the clash of discordant mutually-unintelligible Patrols; on the gleam of distant Barriers, going up all-too ruddy towards the vault of Night. (Deux Amis, i. 267–306.)

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30