The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

Give us Arms.

On Monday the huge City has awoke, not to its week-day industry: to what a different one! The working man has become a fighting man; has one want only: that of arms. The industry of all crafts has paused; — except it be the smith’s, fiercely hammering pikes; and, in a faint degree, the kitchener’s, cooking off-hand victuals; for bouche va toujours. Women too are sewing cockades; — not now of green, which being D’Artois colour, the Hotel-de-Ville has had to interfere in it; but of red and blue, our old Paris colours: these, once based on a ground of constitutional white, are the famed TRICOLOR, — which (if Prophecy err not) ‘will go round the world.’

All shops, unless it be the Bakers’ and Vintners’, are shut: Paris is in the streets; — rushing, foaming like some Venice wine-glass into which you had dropped poison. The tocsin, by order, is pealing madly from all steeples. Arms, ye Elector Municipals; thou Flesselles with thy Echevins, give us arms! Flesselles gives what he can: fallacious, perhaps insidious promises of arms from Charleville; order to seek arms here, order to seek them there. The new Municipals give what they can; some three hundred and sixty indifferent firelocks, the equipment of the City–Watch: ‘a man in wooden shoes, and without coat, directly clutches one of them, and mounts guard.’ Also as hinted, an order to all Smiths to make pikes with their whole soul.

Heads of Districts are in fervent consultation; subordinate Patriotism roams distracted, ravenous for arms. Hitherto at the Hotel-de-Ville was only such modicum of indifferent firelocks as we have seen. At the so-called Arsenal, there lies nothing but rust, rubbish and saltpetre, — overlooked too by the guns of the Bastille. His Majesty’s Repository, what they call Garde–Meuble, is forced and ransacked: tapestries enough, and gauderies; but of serviceable fighting-gear small stock! Two silver-mounted cannons there are; an ancient gift from his Majesty of Siam to Louis Fourteenth: gilt sword of the Good Henri; antique Chivalry arms and armour. These, and such as these, a necessitous Patriotism snatches greedily, for want of better. The Siamese cannons go trundling, on an errand they were not meant for. Among the indifferent firelocks are seen tourney-lances; the princely helm and hauberk glittering amid ill-hatted heads, — as in a time when all times and their possessions are suddenly sent jumbling!

At the Maison de Saint–Lazare, Lazar–House once, now a Correction–House with Priests, there was no trace of arms; but, on the other hand, corn, plainly to a culpable extent. Out with it, to market; in this scarcity of grains! — Heavens, will ‘fifty-two carts,’ in long row, hardly carry it to the Halle aux Bleds? Well, truly, ye reverend Fathers, was your pantry filled; fat are your larders; over-generous your wine-bins, ye plotting exasperators of the Poor; traitorous forestallers of bread!

Vain is protesting, entreaty on bare knees: the House of Saint–Lazarus has that in it which comes not out by protesting. Behold, how, from every window, it vomits: mere torrents of furniture, of bellowing and hurlyburly; — the cellars also leaking wine. Till, as was natural, smoke rose, — kindled, some say, by the desperate Saint–Lazaristes themselves, desperate of other riddance; and the Establishment vanished from this world in flame. Remark nevertheless that ‘a thief’ (set on or not by Aristocrats), being detected there, is ‘instantly hanged.’

Look also at the Chatelet Prison. The Debtors’ Prison of La Force is broken from without; and they that sat in bondage to Aristocrats go free: hearing of which the Felons at the Chatelet do likewise ‘dig up their pavements,’ and stand on the offensive; with the best prospects, — had not Patriotism, passing that way, ‘fired a volley’ into the Felon world; and crushed it down again under hatches. Patriotism consorts not with thieving and felony: surely also Punishment, this day, hitches (if she still hitch) after Crime, with frightful shoes-of-swiftness! ‘Some score or two’ of wretched persons, found prostrate with drink in the cellars of that Saint–Lazare, are indignantly haled to prison; the Jailor has no room; whereupon, other place of security not suggesting itself, it is written, ‘on les pendit, they hanged them.’ (Histoire Parlementaire, ii. 96.) Brief is the word; not without significance, be it true or untrue!

In such circumstances, the Aristocrat, the unpatriotic rich man is packing-up for departure. But he shall not get departed. A wooden-shod force has seized all Barriers, burnt or not: all that enters, all that seeks to issue, is stopped there, and dragged to the Hotel-de-Ville: coaches, tumbrils, plate, furniture, ‘many meal-sacks,’ in time even ‘flocks and herds’ encumber the Place de Greve. (Dusaulx, Prise de la Bastille, p. 20.)

And so it roars, and rages, and brays; drums beating, steeples pealing; criers rushing with hand-bells: “Oyez, oyez. All men to their Districts to be enrolled!” The Districts have met in gardens, open squares; are getting marshalled into volunteer troops. No redhot ball has yet fallen from Besenval’s Camp; on the contrary, Deserters with their arms are continually dropping in: nay now, joy of joys, at two in the afternoon, the Gardes Francaises, being ordered to Saint–Denis, and flatly declining, have come over in a body! It is a fact worth many. Three thousand six hundred of the best fighting men, with complete accoutrement; with cannoneers even, and cannon! Their officers are left standing alone; could not so much as succeed in ‘spiking the guns.’ The very Swiss, it may now be hoped, Chateau–Vieux and the others, will have doubts about fighting.

Our Parisian Militia, — which some think it were better to name National Guard, — is prospering as heart could wish. It promised to be forty-eight thousand; but will in few hours double and quadruple that number: invincible, if we had only arms!

But see, the promised Charleville Boxes, marked Artillerie! Here, then, are arms enough? — Conceive the blank face of Patriotism, when it found them filled with rags, foul linen, candle-ends, and bits of wood! Provost of the Merchants, how is this? Neither at the Chartreux Convent, whither we were sent with signed order, is there or ever was there any weapon of war. Nay here, in this Seine Boat, safe under tarpaulings (had not the nose of Patriotism been of the finest), are ‘five thousand-weight of gunpowder;’ not coming in, but surreptitiously going out! What meanest thou, Flesselles? ’Tis a ticklish game, that of ‘amusing’ us. Cat plays with captive mouse: but mouse with enraged cat, with enraged National Tiger?

Meanwhile, the faster, O ye black-aproned Smiths, smite; with strong arm and willing heart. This man and that, all stroke from head to heel, shall thunder alternating, and ply the great forge-hammer, till stithy reel and ring again; while ever and anon, overhead, booms the alarm-cannon, — for the City has now got gunpowder. Pikes are fabricated; fifty thousand of them, in six-and-thirty hours: judge whether the Black-aproned have been idle. Dig trenches, unpave the streets, ye others, assiduous, man and maid; cram the earth in barrel-barricades, at each of them a volunteer sentry; pile the whinstones in window-sills and upper rooms. Have scalding pitch, at least boiling water ready, ye weak old women, to pour it and dash it on Royal–Allemand, with your old skinny arms: your shrill curses along with it will not be wanting! — Patrols of the newborn National Guard, bearing torches, scour the streets, all that night; which otherwise are vacant, yet illuminated in every window by order. Strange-looking; like some naphtha-lighted City of the Dead, with here and there a flight of perturbed Ghosts.

O poor mortals, how ye make this Earth bitter for each other; this fearful and wonderful Life fearful and horrible; and Satan has his place in all hearts! Such agonies and ragings and wailings ye have, and have had, in all times:— to be buried all, in so deep silence; and the salt sea is not swoln with your tears.

Great meanwhile is the moment, when tidings of Freedom reach us; when the long-enthralled soul, from amid its chains and squalid stagnancy, arises, were it still only in blindness and bewilderment, and swears by Him that made it, that it will be free! Free? Understand that well, it is the deep commandment, dimmer or clearer, of our whole being, to be free. Freedom is the one purport, wisely aimed at, or unwisely, of all man’s struggles, toilings and sufferings, in this Earth. Yes, supreme is such a moment (if thou have known it): first vision as of a flame-girt Sinai, in this our waste Pilgrimage, — which thenceforth wants not its pillar of cloud by day, and pillar of fire by night! Something it is even, — nay, something considerable, when the chains have grown corrosive, poisonous, to be free ‘from oppression by our fellow-man.’ Forward, ye maddened sons of France; be it towards this destiny or towards that! Around you is but starvation, falsehood, corruption and the clam of death. Where ye are is no abiding.

Imagination may, imperfectly, figure how Commandant Besenval, in the Champ-de-Mars, has worn out these sorrowful hours Insurrection all round; his men melting away! From Versailles, to the most pressing messages, comes no answer; or once only some vague word of answer which is worse than none. A Council of Officers can decide merely that there is no decision: Colonels inform him, ‘weeping,’ that they do not think their men will fight. Cruel uncertainty is here: war-god Broglie sits yonder, inaccessible in his Olympus; does not descend terror-clad, does not produce his whiff of grapeshot; sends no orders.

Truly, in the Chateau of Versailles all seems mystery: in the Town of Versailles, were we there, all is rumour, alarm and indignation. An august National Assembly sits, to appearance, menaced with death; endeavouring to defy death. It has resolved ‘that Necker carries with him the regrets of the Nation.’ It has sent solemn Deputation over to the Chateau, with entreaty to have these troops withdrawn. In vain: his Majesty, with a singular composure, invites us to be busy rather with our own duty, making the Constitution! Foreign Pandours, and suchlike, go pricking and prancing, with a swashbuckler air; with an eye too probably to the Salle des Menus, — were it not for the ‘grim-looking countenances’ that crowd all avenues there. (See Lameth; Ferrieres, &c.) Be firm, ye National Senators; the cynosure of a firm, grim-looking people!

The august National Senators determine that there shall, at least, be Permanent Session till this thing end. Wherein, however, consider that worthy Lafranc de Pompignan, our new President, whom we have named Bailly’s successor, is an old man, wearied with many things. He is the Brother of that Pompignan who meditated lamentably on the Book of Lamentations:

Saves-voux pourquoi Jeremie

Se lamentait toute sa vie?

C’est qu’il prevoyait

Que Pompignan le traduirait!

Poor Bishop Pompignan withdraws; having got Lafayette for helper or substitute: this latter, as nocturnal Vice–President, with a thin house in disconsolate humour, sits sleepless, with lights unsnuffed; — waiting what the hours will bring.

So at Versailles. But at Paris, agitated Besenval, before retiring for the night, has stept over to old M. de Sombreuil, of the Hotel des Invalides hard by. M. de Sombreuil has, what is a great secret, some eight-and-twenty thousand stand of muskets deposited in his cellars there; but no trust in the temper of his Invalides. This day, for example, he sent twenty of the fellows down to unscrew those muskets; lest Sedition might snatch at them; but scarcely, in six hours, had the twenty unscrewed twenty gun-locks, or dogsheads (chiens) of locks, — each Invalide his dogshead! If ordered to fire, they would, he imagines, turn their cannon against himself.

Unfortunate old military gentlemen, it is your hour, not of glory! Old Marquis de Launay too, of the Bastille, has pulled up his drawbridges long since, ‘and retired into his interior;’ with sentries walking on his battlements, under the midnight sky, aloft over the glare of illuminated Paris; — whom a National Patrol, passing that way, takes the liberty of firing at; ‘seven shots towards twelve at night,’ which do not take effect. (Deux Amis de la Liberte, i. 312.) This was the 13th day of July, 1789; a worse day, many said, than the last 13th was, when only hail fell out of Heaven, not madness rose out of Tophet, ruining worse than crops!

In these same days, as Chronology will teach us, hot old Marquis Mirabeau lies stricken down, at Argenteuil, — not within sound of these alarm-guns; for he properly is not there, and only the body of him now lies, deaf and cold forever. It was on Saturday night that he, drawing his last life-breaths, gave up the ghost there; — leaving a world, which would never go to his mind, now broken out, seemingly, into deliration and the culbute generale. What is it to him, departing elsewhither, on his long journey? The old Chateau Mirabeau stands silent, far off, on its scarped rock, in that ‘gorge of two windy valleys;’ the pale-fading spectre now of a Chateau: this huge World-riot, and France, and the World itself, fades also, like a shadow on the great still mirror-sea; and all shall be as God wills.

Young Mirabeau, sad of heart, for he loved this crabbed brave old Father, sad of heart, and occupied with sad cares, — is withdrawn from Public History. The great crisis transacts itself without him. (Fils Adoptif, Mirabeau, vi. l. 1.)

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