The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 3

Bouille at Metz.

To Bouille, in his North–Eastern circle, none of these things are altogether hid. Many times flight over the marches gleams out on him as a last guidance in such bewilderment: nevertheless he continues here: struggling always to hope the best, not from new organisation but from happy Counter–Revolution and return to the old. For the rest it is clear to him that this same National Federation, and universal swearing and fraternising of People and Soldiers, has done ‘incalculable mischief.’ So much that fermented secretly has hereby got vent and become open: National Guards and Soldiers of the line, solemnly embracing one another on all parade-fields, drinking, swearing patriotic oaths, fall into disorderly street-processions, constitutional unmilitary exclamations and hurrahings. On which account the Regiment Picardie, for one, has to be drawn out in the square of the barracks, here at Metz, and sharply harangued by the General himself; but expresses penitence. (Bouille, Memoires, i. 113.)

Far and near, as accounts testify, insubordination has begun grumbling louder and louder. Officers have been seen shut up in their mess-rooms; assaulted with clamorous demands, not without menaces. The insubordinate ringleader is dismissed with ‘yellow furlough,’ yellow infamous thing they call cartouche jaune: but ten new ringleaders rise in his stead, and the yellow cartouche ceases to be thought disgraceful. ‘Within a fortnight,’ or at furthest a month, of that sublime Feast of Pikes, the whole French Army, demanding Arrears, forming Reading Clubs, frequenting Popular Societies, is in a state which Bouille can call by no name but that of mutiny. Bouille knows it as few do; and speaks by dire experience. Take one instance instead of many.

It is still an early day of August, the precise date now undiscoverable, when Bouille, about to set out for the waters of Aix la Chapelle, is once more suddenly summoned to the barracks of Metz. The soldiers stand ranked in fighting order, muskets loaded, the officers all there on compulsion; and require, with many-voiced emphasis, to have their arrears paid. Picardie was penitent; but we see it has relapsed: the wide space bristles and lours with mere mutinous armed men. Brave Bouille advances to the nearest Regiment, opens his commanding lips to harangue; obtains nothing but querulous-indignant discordance, and the sound of so many thousand livres legally due. The moment is trying; there are some ten thousand soldiers now in Metz, and one spirit seems to have spread among them.

Bouille is firm as the adamant; but what shall he do? A German Regiment, named of Salm, is thought to be of better temper: nevertheless Salm too may have heard of the precept, Thou shalt not steal; Salm too may know that money is money. Bouille walks trustfully towards the Regiment de Salm, speaks trustful words; but here again is answered by the cry of forty-four thousand livres odd sous. A cry waxing more and more vociferous, as Salm’s humour mounts; which cry, as it will produce no cash or promise of cash, ends in the wide simultaneous whirr of shouldered muskets, and a determined quick-time march on the part of Salm — towards its Colonel’s house, in the next street, there to seize the colours and military chest. Thus does Salm, for its part; strong in the faith that meum is not tuum, that fair speeches are not forty-four thousand livres odd sous.

Unrestrainable! Salm tramps to military time, quick consuming the way. Bouille and the officers, drawing sword, have to dash into double quick pas-de-charge, or unmilitary running; to get the start; to station themselves on the outer staircase, and stand there with what of death-defiance and sharp steel they have; Salm truculently coiling itself up, rank after rank, opposite them, in such humour as we can fancy, which happily has not yet mounted to the murder-pitch. There will Bouille stand, certain at least of one man’s purpose; in grim calmness, awaiting the issue. What the intrepidest of men and generals can do is done. Bouille, though there is a barricading picket at each end of the street, and death under his eyes, contrives to send for a Dragoon Regiment with orders to charge: the dragoon officers mount; the dragoon men will not: hope is none there for him. The street, as we say, barricaded; the Earth all shut out, only the indifferent heavenly Vault overhead: perhaps here or there a timorous householder peering out of window, with prayer for Bouille; copious Rascality, on the pavement, with prayer for Salm: there do the two parties stand; — like chariots locked in a narrow thoroughfare; like locked wrestlers at a dead-grip! For two hours they stand; Bouille’s sword glittering in his hand, adamantine resolution clouding his brows: for two hours by the clocks of Metz. Moody-silent stands Salm, with occasional clangour; but does not fire. Rascality from time to time urges some grenadier to level his musket at the General; who looks on it as a bronze General would; and always some corporal or other strikes it up.

In such remarkable attitude, standing on that staircase for two hours, does brave Bouille, long a shadow, dawn on us visibly out of the dimness, and become a person. For the rest, since Salm has not shot him at the first instant, and since in himself there is no variableness, the danger will diminish. The Mayor, ‘a man infinitely respectable,’ with his Municipals and tricolor sashes, finally gains entrance; remonstrates, perorates, promises; gets Salm persuaded home to its barracks. Next day, our respectable Mayor lending the money, the officers pay down the half of the demand in ready cash. With which liquidation Salm pacifies itself, and for the present all is hushed up, as much as may be. (Bouille, i. 140–5.)

Such scenes as this of Metz, or preparations and demonstrations towards such, are universal over France: Dampmartin, with his knotted forage-cords and piled chamois jackets, is at Strasburg in the South–East; in these same days or rather nights, Royal Champagne is ‘shouting Vive la Nation, au diable les Aristocrates, with some thirty lit candles,’ at Hesdin, on the far North–West. “The garrison of Bitche,” Deputy Rewbell is sorry to state, “went out of the town, with drums beating; deposed its officers; and then returned into the town, sabre in hand.” (Moniteur (in Hist. Parl. vii. 29).) Ought not a National Assembly to occupy itself with these objects? Military France is everywhere full of sour inflammatory humour, which exhales itself fuliginously, this way or that: a whole continent of smoking flax; which, blown on here or there by any angry wind, might so easily start into a blaze, into a continent of fire!

Constitutional Patriotism is in deep natural alarm at these things. The august Assembly sits diligently deliberating; dare nowise resolve, with Mirabeau, on an instantaneous disbandment and extinction; finds that a course of palliatives is easier. But at least and lowest, this grievance of the Arrears shall be rectified. A plan, much noised of in those days, under the name ‘Decree of the Sixth of August,’ has been devised for that. Inspectors shall visit all armies; and, with certain elected corporals and ‘soldiers able to write,’ verify what arrears and peculations do lie due, and make them good. Well, if in this way the smoky heat be cooled down; if it be not, as we say, ventilated over-much, or, by sparks and collision somewhere, sent up!

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