The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 6

Storm and Victory.

But, to the living and the struggling, a new, Fourteenth morning dawns. Under all roofs of this distracted City, is the nodus of a drama, not untragical, crowding towards solution. The bustlings and preparings, the tremors and menaces; the tears that fell from old eyes! This day, my sons, ye shall quit you like men. By the memory of your fathers’ wrongs, by the hope of your children’s rights! Tyranny impends in red wrath: help for you is none if not in your own right hands. This day ye must do or die.

From earliest light, a sleepless Permanent Committee has heard the old cry, now waxing almost frantic, mutinous: Arms! Arms! Provost Flesselles, or what traitors there are among you, may think of those Charleville Boxes. A hundred-and-fifty thousand of us; and but the third man furnished with so much as a pike! Arms are the one thing needful: with arms we are an unconquerable man-defying National Guard; without arms, a rabble to be whiffed with grapeshot.

Happily the word has arisen, for no secret can be kept, — that there lie muskets at the Hotel des Invalides. Thither will we: King’s Procureur M. Ethys de Corny, and whatsoever of authority a Permanent Committee can lend, shall go with us. Besenval’s Camp is there; perhaps he will not fire on us; if he kill us we shall but die.

Alas, poor Besenval, with his troops melting away in that manner, has not the smallest humour to fire! At five o’clock this morning, as he lay dreaming, oblivious in the Ecole Militaire, a ‘figure’ stood suddenly at his bedside: ‘with face rather handsome; eyes inflamed, speech rapid and curt, air audacious:’ such a figure drew Priam’s curtains! The message and monition of the figure was, that resistance would be hopeless; that if blood flowed, wo to him who shed it. Thus spoke the figure; and vanished. ‘Withal there was a kind of eloquence that struck one.’ Besenval admits that he should have arrested him, but did not. (Besenval, iii. 414.) Who this figure, with inflamed eyes, with speech rapid and curt, might be? Besenval knows but mentions not. Camille Desmoulins? Pythagorean Marquis Valadi, inflamed with ‘violent motions all night at the Palais Royal?’ Fame names him, ‘Young M. Meillar’; (Tableaux de la Revolution, Prise de la Bastille (a folio Collection of Pictures and Portraits, with letter-press, not always uninstructive, — part of it said to be by Chamfort).) Then shuts her lips about him for ever.

In any case, behold about nine in the morning, our National Volunteers rolling in long wide flood, south-westward to the Hotel des Invalides; in search of the one thing needful. King’s procureur M. Ethys de Corny and officials are there; the Cure of Saint–Etienne du Mont marches unpacific, at the head of his militant Parish; the Clerks of the Bazoche in red coats we see marching, now Volunteers of the Bazoche; the Volunteers of the Palais Royal:— National Volunteers, numerable by tens of thousands; of one heart and mind. The King’s muskets are the Nation’s; think, old M. de Sombreuil, how, in this extremity, thou wilt refuse them! Old M. de Sombreuil would fain hold parley, send Couriers; but it skills not: the walls are scaled, no Invalide firing a shot; the gates must be flung open. Patriotism rushes in, tumultuous, from grundsel up to ridge-tile, through all rooms and passages; rummaging distractedly for arms. What cellar, or what cranny can escape it? The arms are found; all safe there; lying packed in straw, — apparently with a view to being burnt! More ravenous than famishing lions over dead prey, the multitude, with clangour and vociferation, pounces on them; struggling, dashing, clutching:— to the jamming-up, to the pressure, fracture and probable extinction, of the weaker Patriot. (Deux Amis, i. 302.) And so, with such protracted crash of deafening, most discordant Orchestra-music, the Scene is changed: and eight-and-twenty thousand sufficient firelocks are on the shoulders of so many National Guards, lifted thereby out of darkness into fiery light.

Let Besenval look at the glitter of these muskets, as they flash by! Gardes Francaises, it is said, have cannon levelled on him; ready to open, if need were, from the other side of the River. (Besenval, iii. 416.) Motionless sits he; ‘astonished,’ one may flatter oneself, ‘at the proud bearing (fiere contenance) of the Parisians.’ — And now, to the Bastille, ye intrepid Parisians! There grapeshot still threatens; thither all men’s thoughts and steps are now tending.

Old de Launay, as we hinted, withdrew ‘into his interior’ soon after midnight of Sunday. He remains there ever since, hampered, as all military gentlemen now are, in the saddest conflict of uncertainties. The Hotel-de-Ville ‘invites’ him to admit National Soldiers, which is a soft name for surrendering. On the other hand, His Majesty’s orders were precise. His garrison is but eighty-two old Invalides, reinforced by thirty-two young Swiss; his walls indeed are nine feet thick, he has cannon and powder; but, alas, only one day’s provision of victuals. The city too is French, the poor garrison mostly French. Rigorous old de Launay, think what thou wilt do!

All morning, since nine, there has been a cry everywhere: To the Bastille! Repeated ‘deputations of citizens’ have been here, passionate for arms; whom de Launay has got dismissed by soft speeches through portholes. Towards noon, Elector Thuriot de la Rosiere gains admittance; finds de Launay indisposed for surrender; nay disposed for blowing up the place rather. Thuriot mounts with him to the battlements: heaps of paving-stones, old iron and missiles lie piled; cannon all duly levelled; in every embrasure a cannon, — only drawn back a little! But outwards behold, O Thuriot, how the multitude flows on, welling through every street; tocsin furiously pealing, all drums beating the generale: the Suburb Saint–Antoine rolling hitherward wholly, as one man! Such vision (spectral yet real) thou, O Thuriot, as from thy Mount of Vision, beholdest in this moment: prophetic of what other Phantasmagories, and loud-gibbering Spectral Realities, which, thou yet beholdest not, but shalt! “Que voulez vous?” said de Launay, turning pale at the sight, with an air of reproach, almost of menace. “Monsieur,” said Thuriot, rising into the moral-sublime, “What mean you? Consider if I could not precipitate both of us from this height,” — say only a hundred feet, exclusive of the walled ditch! Whereupon de Launay fell silent. Thuriot shews himself from some pinnacle, to comfort the multitude becoming suspicious, fremescent: then descends; departs with protest; with warning addressed also to the Invalides, — on whom, however, it produces but a mixed indistinct impression. The old heads are none of the clearest; besides, it is said, de Launay has been profuse of beverages (prodigua des buissons). They think, they will not fire, — if not fired on, if they can help it; but must, on the whole, be ruled considerably by circumstances.

Wo to thee, de Launay, in such an hour, if thou canst not, taking some one firm decision, rule circumstances! Soft speeches will not serve; hard grape-shot is questionable; but hovering between the two is unquestionable. Ever wilder swells the tide of men; their infinite hum waxing ever louder, into imprecations, perhaps into crackle of stray musketry, — which latter, on walls nine feet thick, cannot do execution. The Outer Drawbridge has been lowered for Thuriot; new deputation of citizens (it is the third, and noisiest of all) penetrates that way into the Outer Court: soft speeches producing no clearance of these, de Launay gives fire; pulls up his Drawbridge. A slight sputter; — which has kindled the too combustible chaos; made it a roaring fire-chaos! Bursts forth insurrection, at sight of its own blood (for there were deaths by that sputter of fire), into endless rolling explosion of musketry, distraction, execration; — and overhead, from the Fortress, let one great gun, with its grape-shot, go booming, to shew what we could do. The Bastille is besieged!

On, then, all Frenchmen that have hearts in their bodies! Roar with all your throats, of cartilage and metal, ye Sons of Liberty; stir spasmodically whatsoever of utmost faculty is in you, soul, body or spirit; for it is the hour! Smite, thou Louis Tournay, cartwright of the Marais, old-soldier of the Regiment Dauphine; smite at that Outer Drawbridge chain, though the fiery hail whistles round thee! Never, over nave or felloe, did thy axe strike such a stroke. Down with it, man; down with it to Orcus: let the whole accursed Edifice sink thither, and Tyranny be swallowed up for ever! Mounted, some say on the roof of the guard-room, some ‘on bayonets stuck into joints of the wall,’ Louis Tournay smites, brave Aubin Bonnemere (also an old soldier) seconding him: the chain yields, breaks; the huge Drawbridge slams down, thundering (avec fracas). Glorious: and yet, alas, it is still but the outworks. The Eight grim Towers, with their Invalides’ musketry, their paving stones and cannon-mouths, still soar aloft intact; — Ditch yawning impassable, stone-faced; the inner Drawbridge with its back towards us: the Bastille is still to take!

To describe this Siege of the Bastille (thought to be one of the most important in history) perhaps transcends the talent of mortals. Could one but, after infinite reading, get to understand so much as the plan of the building! But there is open Esplanade, at the end of the Rue Saint–Antoine; there are such Forecourts, Cour Avance, Cour de l’Orme, arched Gateway (where Louis Tournay now fights); then new drawbridges, dormant-bridges, rampart-bastions, and the grim Eight Towers: a labyrinthic Mass, high-frowning there, of all ages from twenty years to four hundred and twenty; — beleaguered, in this its last hour, as we said, by mere Chaos come again! Ordnance of all calibres; throats of all capacities; men of all plans, every man his own engineer: seldom since the war of Pygmies and Cranes was there seen so anomalous a thing. Half-pay Elie is home for a suit of regimentals; no one would heed him in coloured clothes: half-pay Hulin is haranguing Gardes Francaises in the Place de Greve. Frantic Patriots pick up the grape-shots; bear them, still hot (or seemingly so), to the Hotel-de-Ville:— Paris, you perceive, is to be burnt! Flesselles is ‘pale to the very lips’ for the roar of the multitude grows deep. Paris wholly has got to the acme of its frenzy; whirled, all ways, by panic madness. At every street-barricade, there whirls simmering, a minor whirlpool, — strengthening the barricade, since God knows what is coming; and all minor whirlpools play distractedly into that grand Fire–Mahlstrom which is lashing round the Bastille.

And so it lashes and it roars. Cholat the wine-merchant has become an impromptu cannoneer. See Georget, of the Marine Service, fresh from Brest, ply the King of Siam’s cannon. Singular (if we were not used to the like): Georget lay, last night, taking his ease at his inn; the King of Siam’s cannon also lay, knowing nothing of him, for a hundred years. Yet now, at the right instant, they have got together, and discourse eloquent music. For, hearing what was toward, Georget sprang from the Brest Diligence, and ran. Gardes Francaises also will be here, with real artillery: were not the walls so thick! — Upwards from the Esplanade, horizontally from all neighbouring roofs and windows, flashes one irregular deluge of musketry, — without effect. The Invalides lie flat, firing comparatively at their ease from behind stone; hardly through portholes, shew the tip of a nose. We fall, shot; and make no impression!

Let conflagration rage; of whatsoever is combustible! Guard-rooms are burnt, Invalides mess-rooms. A distracted ‘Peruke-maker with two fiery torches’ is for burning ‘the saltpetres of the Arsenal;’ — had not a woman run screaming; had not a Patriot, with some tincture of Natural Philosophy, instantly struck the wind out of him (butt of musket on pit of stomach), overturned barrels, and stayed the devouring element. A young beautiful lady, seized escaping in these Outer Courts, and thought falsely to be de Launay’s daughter, shall be burnt in de Launay’s sight; she lies swooned on a paillasse: but again a Patriot, it is brave Aubin Bonnemere the old soldier, dashes in, and rescues her. Straw is burnt; three cartloads of it, hauled thither, go up in white smoke: almost to the choking of Patriotism itself; so that Elie had, with singed brows, to drag back one cart; and Reole the ‘gigantic haberdasher’ another. Smoke as of Tophet; confusion as of Babel; noise as of the Crack of Doom!

Blood flows, the aliment of new madness. The wounded are carried into houses of the Rue Cerisaie; the dying leave their last mandate not to yield till the accursed Stronghold fall. And yet, alas, how fall? The walls are so thick! Deputations, three in number, arrive from the Hotel-de-Ville; Abbe Fouchet (who was of one) can say, with what almost superhuman courage of benevolence. (Fauchet’s Narrative (Deux Amis, i. 324.).) These wave their Town-flag in the arched Gateway; and stand, rolling their drum; but to no purpose. In such Crack of Doom, de Launay cannot hear them, dare not believe them: they return, with justified rage, the whew of lead still singing in their ears. What to do? The Firemen are here, squirting with their fire-pumps on the Invalides’ cannon, to wet the touchholes; they unfortunately cannot squirt so high; but produce only clouds of spray. Individuals of classical knowledge propose catapults. Santerre, the sonorous Brewer of the Suburb Saint–Antoine, advises rather that the place be fired, by a ‘mixture of phosphorous and oil-of-turpentine spouted up through forcing pumps:’ O Spinola–Santerre, hast thou the mixture ready? Every man his own engineer! And still the fire-deluge abates not; even women are firing, and Turks; at least one woman (with her sweetheart), and one Turk. (Deux Amis (i. 319); Dusaulx, &c.) Gardes Francaises have come: real cannon, real cannoneers. Usher Maillard is busy; half-pay Elie, half-pay Hulin rage in the midst of thousands.

How the great Bastille Clock ticks (inaudible) in its Inner Court there, at its ease, hour after hour; as if nothing special, for it or the world, were passing! It tolled One when the firing began; and is now pointing towards Five, and still the firing slakes not. — Far down, in their vaults, the seven Prisoners hear muffled din as of earthquakes; their Turnkeys answer vaguely.

Wo to thee, de Launay, with thy poor hundred Invalides! Broglie is distant, and his ears heavy: Besenval hears, but can send no help. One poor troop of Hussars has crept, reconnoitring, cautiously along the Quais, as far as the Pont Neuf. “We are come to join you,” said the Captain; for the crowd seems shoreless. A large-headed dwarfish individual, of smoke-bleared aspect, shambles forward, opening his blue lips, for there is sense in him; and croaks: “Alight then, and give up your arms!” the Hussar–Captain is too happy to be escorted to the Barriers, and dismissed on parole. Who the squat individual was? Men answer, it is M. Marat, author of the excellent pacific Avis au Peuple! Great truly, O thou remarkable Dogleech, is this thy day of emergence and new birth: and yet this same day come four years —! — But let the curtains of the future hang.

What shall de Launay do? One thing only de Launay could have done: what he said he would do. Fancy him sitting, from the first, with lighted taper, within arm’s length of the Powder–Magazine; motionless, like old Roman Senator, or bronze Lamp-holder; coldly apprising Thuriot, and all men, by a slight motion of his eye, what his resolution was:— Harmless he sat there, while unharmed; but the King’s Fortress, meanwhile, could, might, would, or should, in nowise, be surrendered, save to the King’s Messenger: one old man’s life worthless, so it be lost with honour; but think, ye brawling canaille, how will it be when a whole Bastille springs skyward! — In such statuesque, taper-holding attitude, one fancies de Launay might have left Thuriot, the red Clerks of the Bazoche, Cure of Saint–Stephen and all the tagrag-and-bobtail of the world, to work their will.

And yet, withal, he could not do it. Hast thou considered how each man’s heart is so tremulously responsive to the hearts of all men; hast thou noted how omnipotent is the very sound of many men? How their shriek of indignation palsies the strong soul; their howl of contumely withers with unfelt pangs? The Ritter Gluck confessed that the ground-tone of the noblest passage, in one of his noblest Operas, was the voice of the Populace he had heard at Vienna, crying to their Kaiser: Bread! Bread! Great is the combined voice of men; the utterance of their instincts, which are truer than their thoughts: it is the greatest a man encounters, among the sounds and shadows, which make up this World of Time. He who can resist that, has his footing some where beyond Time. De Launay could not do it. Distracted, he hovers between the two; hopes in the middle of despair; surrenders not his Fortress; declares that he will blow it up, seizes torches to blow it up, and does not blow it. Unhappy old de Launay, it is the death-agony of thy Bastille and thee! Jail, Jailoring and Jailor, all three, such as they may have been, must finish.

For four hours now has the World–Bedlam roared: call it the World–Chimaera, blowing fire! The poor Invalides have sunk under their battlements, or rise only with reversed muskets: they have made a white flag of napkins; go beating the chamade, or seeming to beat, for one can hear nothing. The very Swiss at the Portcullis look weary of firing; disheartened in the fire-deluge: a porthole at the drawbridge is opened, as by one that would speak. See Huissier Maillard, the shifty man! On his plank, swinging over the abyss of that stone-Ditch; plank resting on parapet, balanced by weight of Patriots, — he hovers perilous: such a Dove towards such an Ark! Deftly, thou shifty Usher: one man already fell; and lies smashed, far down there, against the masonry! Usher Maillard falls not: deftly, unerring he walks, with outspread palm. The Swiss holds a paper through his porthole; the shifty Usher snatches it, and returns. Terms of surrender: Pardon, immunity to all! Are they accepted? — “Foi d’officier, On the word of an officer,” answers half-pay Hulin, — or half-pay Elie, for men do not agree on it, “they are!” Sinks the drawbridge, — Usher Maillard bolting it when down; rushes-in the living deluge: the Bastille is fallen! Victoire! La Bastille est prise! (Histoire de la Revolution, par Deux Amis de la Liberte, i. 267–306; Besenval, iii. 410–434; Dusaulx, Prise de la Bastille, 291–301. Bailly, Memoires (Collection de Berville et Barriere), i. 322 et seqq.)

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