The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 11

As in the Age of Gold.

Meanwhile to Paris, ever going and returning, day after day, and all day long, towards that Field of Mars, it becomes painfully apparent that the spadework there cannot be got done in time. There is such an area of it; three hundred thousand square feet: for from the Ecole militaire (which will need to be done up in wood with balconies and galleries) westward to the Gate by the river (where also shall be wood, in triumphal arches), we count same thousand yards of length; and for breadth, from this umbrageous Avenue of eight rows, on the South side, to that corresponding one on the North, some thousand feet, more or less. All this to be scooped out, and wheeled up in slope along the sides; high enough; for it must be rammed down there, and shaped stair-wise into as many as ‘thirty ranges of convenient seats,’ firm-trimmed with turf, covered with enduring timber; — and then our huge pyramidal Fatherland’s-Altar, Autel de la Patrie, in the centre, also to be raised and stair-stepped! Force-work with a vengeance; it is a World’s Amphitheatre! There are but fifteen days good; and at this languid rate, it might take half as many weeks. What is singular too, the spademen seem to work lazily; they will not work double-tides, even for offer of more wages, though their tide is but seven hours; they declare angrily that the human tabernacle requires occasional rest!

Is it Aristocrats secretly bribing? Aristocrats were capable of that. Only six months since, did not evidence get afloat that subterranean Paris, for we stand over quarries and catacombs, dangerously, as it were midway between Heaven and the Abyss, and are hollow underground, — was charged with gunpowder, which should make us ‘leap?’ Till a Cordelier’s Deputation actually went to examine, and found it — carried off again! (23rd December, 1789 (Newspapers in Hist. Parl. iv. 44).) An accursed, incurable brood; all asking for ‘passports,’ in these sacred days. Trouble, of rioting, chateau-burning, is in the Limousin and elsewhere; for they are busy! Between the best of Peoples and the best of Restorer–Kings, they would sow grudges; with what a fiend’s-grin would they see this Federation, looked for by the Universe, fail!

Fail for want of spadework, however, it shall not. He that has four limbs, and a French heart, can do spadework; and will! On the first July Monday, scarcely has the signal-cannon boomed; scarcely have the languescent mercenary Fifteen Thousand laid down their tools, and the eyes of onlookers turned sorrowfully of the still high Sun; when this and the other Patriot, fire in his eye, snatches barrow and mattock, and himself begins indignantly wheeling. Whom scores and then hundreds follow; and soon a volunteer Fifteen Thousand are shovelling and trundling; with the heart of giants; and all in right order, with that extemporaneous adroitness of theirs: whereby such a lift has been given, worth three mercenary ones; — which may end when the late twilight thickens, in triumph shouts, heard or heard of beyond Montmartre!

A sympathetic population will wait, next day, with eagerness, till the tools are free. Or why wait? Spades elsewhere exist! And so now bursts forth that effulgence of Parisian enthusiasm, good-heartedness and brotherly love; such, if Chroniclers are trustworthy, as was not witnessed since the Age of Gold. Paris, male and female, precipitates itself towards its South-west extremity, spade on shoulder. Streams of men, without order; or in order, as ranked fellow-craftsmen, as natural or accidental reunions, march towards the Field of Mars. Three-deep these march; to the sound of stringed music; preceded by young girls with green boughs, and tricolor streamers: they have shouldered, soldier-wise, their shovels and picks; and with one throat are singing ca-ira. Yes, pardieu ca-ira, cry the passengers on the streets. All corporate Guilds, and public and private Bodies of Citizens, from the highest to the lowest, march; the very Hawkers, one finds, have ceased bawling for one day. The neighbouring Villages turn out: their able men come marching, to village fiddle or tambourine and triangle, under their Mayor, or Mayor and Curate, who also walk bespaded, and in tricolor sash. As many as one hundred and fifty thousand workers: nay at certain seasons, as some count, two hundred and fifty thousand; for, in the afternoon especially, what mortal but, finishing his hasty day’s work, would run! A stirring city: from the time you reach the Place Louis Quinze, southward over the River, by all Avenues, it is one living throng. So many workers; and no mercenary mock-workers, but real ones that lie freely to it: each Patriot stretches himself against the stubborn glebe; hews and wheels with the whole weight that is in him.

Amiable infants, aimables enfans! They do the ‘police des l’atelier’ too, the guidance and governance, themselves; with that ready will of theirs, with that extemporaneous adroitness. It is a true brethren’s work; all distinctions confounded, abolished; as it was in the beginning, when Adam himself delved. Longfrocked tonsured Monks, with short-skirted Water-carriers, with swallow-tailed well-frizzled Incroyables of a Patriot turn; dark Charcoalmen, meal-white Peruke-makers; or Peruke-wearers, for Advocate and Judge are there, and all Heads of Districts: sober Nuns sisterlike with flaunting Nymphs of the Opera, and females in common circumstances named unfortunate: the patriot Rag-picker, and perfumed dweller in palaces; for Patriotism like New-birth, and also like Death, levels all. The Printers have come marching, Prudhomme’s all in Paper-caps with Revolutions de Paris printed on them; as Camille notes; wishing that in these great days there should be a Pacte des Ecrivains too, or Federation of Able Editors. (See Newspapers, &c. (in Hist. Parl. vi. 381–406).) Beautiful to see! The snowy linen and delicate pantaloon alternates with the soiled check-shirt and bushel-breeches; for both have cast their coats, and under both are four limbs and a set of Patriot muscles. There do they pick and shovel; or bend forward, yoked in long strings to box-barrow or overloaded tumbril; joyous, with one mind. Abbe Sieyes is seen pulling, wiry, vehement, if too light for draught; by the side of Beauharnais, who shall get Kings though he be none. Abbe Maury did not pull; but the Charcoalmen brought a mummer guised like him, so he had to pull in effigy. Let no august Senator disdain the work: Mayor Bailly, Generalissimo Lafayette are there; — and, alas, shall be there again another day! The King himself comes to see: sky-rending Vive-le-Roi; ‘and suddenly with shouldered spades they form a guard of honour round him.’ Whosoever can come comes, to work, or to look, and bless the work.

Whole families have come. One whole family we see clearly, of three generations: the father picking, the mother shovelling, the young ones wheeling assiduous; old grandfather, hoary with ninety-three years, holds in his arms the youngest of all: (Mercier. ii. 76, &c.) frisky, not helpful this one; who nevertheless may tell it to his grandchildren; and how the Future and the Past alike looked on, and with failing or with half-formed voice, faltered their ca-ira. A vintner has wheeled in, on Patriot truck, beverage of wine: “Drink not, my brothers, if ye are not dry; that your cask may last the longer;” neither did any drink, but men ‘evidently exhausted.’ A dapper Abbe looks on, sneering. “To the barrow!” cry several; whom he, lest a worse thing befal him, obeys: nevertheless one wiser Patriot barrowman, arriving now, interposes his “arretez;” setting down his own barrow, he snatches the Abbe’s; trundles it fast, like an infected thing; forth of the Champ-de-Mars circuit, and discharges it there. Thus too a certain person (of some quality, or private capital, to appearance), entering hastily, flings down his coat, waistcoat and two watches, and is rushing to the thick of the work: “But your watches?” cries the general voice. — “Does one distrust his brothers?” answers he; nor were the watches stolen. How beautiful is noble-sentiment: like gossamer gauze, beautiful and cheap; which will stand no tear and wear! Beautiful cheap gossamer gauze, thou film-shadow of a raw-material of Virtue, which art not woven, nor likely to be, into Duty; thou art better than nothing, and also worse!

Young Boarding-school Boys, College Students, shout Vive la Nation, and regret that they have yet ‘only their sweat to give.’ What say we of Boys? Beautifullest Hebes; the loveliest of Paris, in their light air-robes, with riband-girdle of tricolor, are there; shovelling and wheeling with the rest; their Hebe eyes brighter with enthusiasm, and long hair in beautiful dishevelment: hard-pressed are their small fingers; but they make the patriot barrow go, and even force it to the summit of the slope (with a little tracing, which what man’s arm were not too happy to lend?) — then bound down with it again, and go for more; with their long locks and tricolors blown back: graceful as the rosy Hours. O, as that evening Sun fell over the Champ-de-Mars, and tinted with fire the thick umbrageous boscage that shelters it on this hand and on that, and struck direct on those Domes and two-and-forty Windows of the Ecole Militaire, and made them all of burnished gold, — saw he on his wide zodiac road other such sight? A living garden spotted and dotted with such flowerage; all colours of the prism; the beautifullest blent friendly with the usefullest; all growing and working brotherlike there, under one warm feeling, were it but for days; once and no second time! But Night is sinking; these Nights too, into Eternity. The hastiest Traveller Versailles-ward has drawn bridle on the heights of Chaillot: and looked for moments over the River; reporting at Versailles what he saw, not without tears. (Mercier, ii. 81.)

Meanwhile, from all points of the compass, Federates are arriving: fervid children of the South, ‘who glory in their Mirabeau;’ considerate North-blooded Mountaineers of Jura; sharp Bretons, with their Gaelic suddenness; Normans not to be overreached in bargain: all now animated with one noblest fire of Patriotism. Whom the Paris brethren march forth to receive; with military solemnities, with fraternal embracing, and a hospitality worthy of the heroic ages. They assist at the Assembly’s Debates, these Federates: the Galleries are reserved for them. They assist in the toils of the Champ-de-Mars; each new troop will put its hand to the spade; lift a hod of earth on the Altar of the Fatherland. But the flourishes of rhetoric, for it is a gesticulating People; the moral-sublime of those Addresses to an august Assembly, to a Patriot Restorer! Our Breton Captain of Federates kneels even, in a fit of enthusiasm, and gives up his sword; he wet-eyed to a King wet-eyed. Poor Louis! These, as he said afterwards, were among the bright days of his life.

Reviews also there must be; royal Federate-reviews, with King, Queen and tricolor Court looking on: at lowest, if, as is too common, it rains, our Federate Volunteers will file through the inner gateways, Royalty standing dry. Nay there, should some stop occur, the beautifullest fingers in France may take you softly by the lapelle, and, in mild flute-voice, ask: “Monsieur, of what Province are you?” Happy he who can reply, chivalrously lowering his sword’s point, “Madame, from the Province your ancestors reigned over.” He that happy ‘Provincial Advocate,’ now Provincial Federate, shall be rewarded by a sun-smile, and such melodious glad words addressed to a King: “Sire, these are your faithful Lorrainers.” Cheerier verily, in these holidays, is this ‘skyblue faced with red’ of a National Guardsman, than the dull black and gray of a Provincial Advocate, which in workdays one was used to. For the same thrice-blessed Lorrainer shall, this evening, stand sentry at a Queen’s door; and feel that he could die a thousand deaths for her: then again, at the outer gate, and even a third time, she shall see him; nay he will make her do it; presenting arms with emphasis, ‘making his musket jingle again’: and in her salute there shall again be a sun-smile, and that little blonde-locked too hasty Dauphin shall be admonished, “Salute then, Monsieur, don’t be unpolite;” and therewith she, like a bright Sky-wanderer or Planet with her little Moon, issues forth peculiar. (Narrative by a Lorraine Federate (given in Hist. Parl. vi. 389–91).)

But at night, when Patriot spadework is over, figure the sacred rights of hospitality! Lepelletier Saint–Fargeau, a mere private senator, but with great possessions, has daily his ‘hundred dinner-guests;’ the table of Generalissimo Lafayette may double that number. In lowly parlour, as in lofty saloon, the wine-cup passes round; crowned by the smiles of Beauty; be it of lightly-tripping Grisette, or of high-sailing Dame, for both equally have beauty, and smiles precious to the brave.

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