The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 6

Bouille at Nanci.

Haste with help, thou brave Bouille: if swift help come not, all is now verily ‘burning;’ and may burn, — to what lengths and breadths! Much, in these hours, depends on Bouille; as it shall now fare with him, the whole Future may be this way or be that. If, for example, he were to loiter dubitating, and not come: if he were to come, and fail: the whole Soldiery of France to blaze into mutiny, National Guards going some this way, some that; and Royalism to draw its rapier, and Sansculottism to snatch its pike; and the Spirit if Jacobinism, as yet young, girt with sun-rays, to grow instantaneously mature, girt with hell-fire, — as mortals, in one night of deadly crisis, have had their heads turned gray!

Brave Bouille is advancing fast, with the old inflexibility; gathering himself, unhappily ‘in small affluences,’ from East, from West and North; and now on Tuesday morning, the last day of the month, he stands all concentred, unhappily still in small force, at the village of Frouarde, within some few miles. Son of Adam with a more dubious task before him is not in the world this Tuesday morning. A weltering inflammable sea of doubt and peril, and Bouille sure of simply one thing, his own determination. Which one thing, indeed, may be worth many. He puts a most firm face on the matter: ‘Submission, or unsparing battle and destruction; twenty-four hours to make your choice:’ this was the tenor of his Proclamation; thirty copies of which he sent yesterday to Nanci:— all which, we find, were intercepted and not posted. (Compare Bouille, Memoires, i. 153–176; Deux Amis, v. 251–271; Hist. Parl. ubi supra.)

Nevertheless, at half-past eleven, this morning, seemingly by way of answer, there does wait on him at Frouarde, some Deputation from the mutinous Regiments, from the Nanci Municipals, to see what can be done. Bouille receives this Deputation, ‘in a large open court adjoining his lodging:’ pacified Salm, and the rest, attend also, being invited to do it, — all happily still in the right humour. The Mutineers pronounce themselves with a decisiveness, which to Bouille seems insolence; and happily to Salm also. Salm, forgetful of the Metz staircase and sabre, demands that the scoundrels ‘be hanged’ there and then. Bouille represses the hanging; but answers that mutinous Soldiers have one course, and not more than one: To liberate, with heartfelt contrition, Messieurs Denoue and de Malseigne; to get ready forthwith for marching off, whither he shall order; and ‘submit and repent,’ as the National Assembly has decreed, as he yesterday did in thirty printed Placards proclaim. These are his terms, unalterable as the decrees of Destiny. Which terms as they, the Mutineer deputies, seemingly do not accept, it were good for them to vanish from this spot, and even promptly; with him too, in few instants, the word will be, Forward! The Mutineer deputies vanish, not unpromptly; the Municipal ones, anxious beyond right for their own individualities, prefer abiding with Bouille.

Brave Bouille, though he puts a most firm face on the matter, knows his position full well: how at Nanci, what with rebellious soldiers, with uncertain National Guards, and so many distributed fusils, there rage and roar some ten thousand fighting men; while with himself is scarcely the third part of that number, in National Guards also uncertain, in mere pacified Regiments, — for the present full of rage, and clamour to march; but whose rage and clamour may next moment take such a fatal new figure. On the top of one uncertain billow, therewith to calm billows! Bouille must ‘abandon himself to Fortune;’ who is said sometimes to favour the brave. At half-past twelve, the Mutineer deputies having vanished, our drums beat; we march: for Nanci! Let Nanci bethink itself, then; for Bouille has thought and determined.

And yet how shall Nanci think: not a City but a Bedlam! Grim Chateau–Vieux is for defence to the death; forces the Municipality to order, by tap of drum, all citizens acquainted with artillery to turn out, and assist in managing the cannon. On the other hand, effervescent Regiment du Roi, is drawn up in its barracks; quite disconsolate, hearing the humour Salm is in; and ejaculates dolefully from its thousand throats: “La loi, la loi, Law, law!” Mestre-de-Camp blusters, with profane swearing, in mixed terror and furor; National Guards look this way and that, not knowing what to do. What a Bedlam–City: as many plans as heads; all ordering, none obeying: quiet none, — except the Dead, who sleep underground, having done their fighting!

And, behold, Bouille proves as good as his word: ‘at half-past two’ scouts report that he is within half a league of the gates; rattling along, with cannon, and array; breathing nothing but destruction. A new Deputation, Municipals, Mutineers, Officers, goes out to meet him; with passionate entreaty for yet one other hour. Bouille grants an hour. Then, at the end thereof, no Denoue or Malseigne appearing as promised, he rolls his drums, and again takes the road. Towards four o’clock, the terror-struck Townsmen may see him face to face. His cannons rattle there, in their carriages; his vanguard is within thirty paces of the Gate Stanislaus. Onward like a Planet, by appointed times, by law of Nature! What next? Lo, flag of truce and chamade; conjuration to halt: Malseigne and Denoue are on the street, coming hither; the soldiers all repentant, ready to submit and march! Adamantine Bouille’s look alters not; yet the word Halt is given: gladder moment he never saw. Joy of joys! Malseigne and Denoue do verily issue; escorted by National Guards; from streets all frantic, with sale to Austria and so forth: they salute Bouille, unscathed. Bouille steps aside to speak with them, and with other heads of the Town there; having already ordered by what Gates and Routes the mutineer Regiments shall file out.

Such colloquy with these two General Officers and other principal Townsmen, was natural enough; nevertheless one wishes Bouille had postponed it, and not stepped aside. Such tumultuous inflammable masses, tumbling along, making way for each other; this of keen nitrous oxide, that of sulphurous fire-damp, — were it not well to stand between them, keeping them well separate, till the space be cleared? Numerous stragglers of Chateau–Vieux and the rest have not marched with their main columns, which are filing out by the appointed Gates, taking station in the open meadows. National Guards are in a state of nearly distracted uncertainty; the populace, armed and unharmed, roll openly delirious, — betrayed, sold to the Austrians, sold to the Aristocrats. There are loaded cannon with lit matches among them, and Bouille’s vanguard is halted within thirty paces of the Gate. Command dwells not in that mad inflammable mass; which smoulders and tumbles there, in blind smoky rage; which will not open the Gate when summoned; says it will open the cannon’s throat sooner! — Cannonade not, O Friends, or be it through my body! cries heroic young Desilles, young Captain of Roi, clasping the murderous engine in his arms, and holding it. Chateau–Vieux Swiss, by main force, with oaths and menaces, wrench off the heroic youth; who undaunted, amid still louder oaths seats himself on the touch-hole. Amid still louder oaths; with ever louder clangour, — and, alas, with the loud crackle of first one, and then three other muskets; which explode into his body; which roll it in the dust, — and do also, in the loud madness of such moment, bring lit cannon-match to ready priming; and so, with one thunderous belch of grapeshot, blast some fifty of Bouille’s vanguard into air!

Fatal! That sputter of the first musket-shot has kindled such a cannon-shot, such a death-blaze; and all is now redhot madness, conflagration as of Tophet. With demoniac rage, the Bouille vanguard storms through that Gate Stanislaus; with fiery sweep, sweeps Mutiny clear away, to death, or into shelters and cellars; from which latter, again, Mutiny continues firing. The ranked Regiments hear it in their meadow; they rush back again through the nearest Gates; Bouille gallops in, distracted, inaudible; — and now has begun, in Nanci, as in that doomed Hall of the Nibelungen, ‘a murder grim and great.’

Miserable: such scene of dismal aimless madness as the anger of Heaven but rarely permits among men! From cellar or from garret, from open street in front, from successive corners of cross-streets on each hand, Chateau–Vieux and Patriotism keep up the murderous rolling-fire, on murderous not Unpatriotic fires. Your blue National Captain, riddled with balls, one hardly knows on whose side fighting, requests to be laid on the colours to die: the patriotic Woman (name not given, deed surviving) screams to Chateau–Vieux that it must not fire the other cannon; and even flings a pail of water on it, since screaming avails not. (Deux Amis, v. 268.) Thou shalt fight; thou shalt not fight; and with whom shalt thou fight! Could tumult awaken the old Dead, Burgundian Charles the Bold might stir from under that Rotunda of his: never since he, raging, sank in the ditches, and lost Life and Diamond, was such a noise heard here.

Three thousand, as some count, lie mangled, gory; the half of Chateau–Vieux has been shot, without need of Court Martial. Cavalry, of Mestre-de-Camp or their foes, can do little. Regiment du Roi was persuaded to its barracks; stands there palpitating. Bouille, armed with the terrors of the Law, and favoured of Fortune, finally triumphs. In two murderous hours he has penetrated to the grand Squares, dauntless, though with loss of forty officers and five hundred men: the shattered remnants of Chateau–Vieux are seeking covert. Regiment du Roi, not effervescent now, alas no, but having effervesced, will offer to ground its arms; will ‘march in a quarter of an hour.’ Nay these poor effervesced require ‘escort’ to march with, and get it; though they are thousands strong, and have thirty ball-cartridges a man! The Sun is not yet down, when Peace, which might have come bloodless, has come bloody: the mutinous Regiments are on march, doleful, on their three Routes; and from Nanci rises wail of women and men, the voice of weeping and desolation; the City weeping for its slain who awaken not. These streets are empty but for victorious patrols.

Thus has Fortune, favouring the brave, dragged Bouille, as himself says, out of such a frightful peril, ‘by the hair of the head.’ An intrepid adamantine man this Bouille:— had he stood in old Broglie’s place, in those Bastille days, it might have been all different! He has extinguished mutiny, and immeasurable civil war. Not for nothing, as we see; yet at a rate which he and Constitutional Patriotism considers cheap. Nay, as for Bouille, he, urged by subsequent contradiction which arose, declares coldly, it was rather against his own private mind, and more by public military rule of duty, that he did extinguish it, (Bouille, i. 175.) — immeasurable civil war being now the only chance. Urged, we say, by subsequent contradiction! Civil war, indeed, is Chaos; and in all vital Chaos, there is new Order shaping itself free: but what a faith this, that of all new Orders out of Chaos and Possibility of Man and his Universe, Louis Sixteenth and Two–Chamber Monarchy were precisely the one that would shape itself! It is like undertaking to throw deuce-ace, say only five hundred successive times, and any other throw to be fatal — for Bouille. Rather thank Fortune, and Heaven, always, thou intrepid Bouille; and let contradiction of its way! Civil war, conflagrating universally over France at this moment, might have led to one thing or to another thing: meanwhile, to quench conflagration, wheresoever one finds it, wheresoever one can; this, in all times, is the rule for man and General Officer.

But at Paris, so agitated and divided, fancy how it went, when the continually vibrating Orderlies vibrated thither at hand gallop, with such questionable news! High is the gratulation; and also deep the indignation. An august Assembly, by overwhelming majorities, passionately thanks Bouille; a King’s autograph, the voices of all Loyal, all Constitutional men run to the same tenor. A solemn National funeral-service, for the Law-defenders slain at Nanci; is said and sung in the Champ de Mars; Bailly, Lafayette and National Guards, all except the few that protested, assist. With pomp and circumstance, with episcopal Calicoes in tricolor girdles, Altar of Fatherland smoking with cassolettes, or incense-kettles; the vast Champ-de-Mars wholly hung round with black mortcloth, — which mortcloth and expenditure Marat thinks had better have been laid out in bread, in these dear days, and given to the hungry living Patriot. (Ami du Peuple in Hist. Parl., ubi supra.) On the other hand, living Patriotism, and Saint–Antoine, which we have seen noisily closing its shops and such like, assembles now ‘to the number of forty thousand;’ and, with loud cries, under the very windows of the thanking National Assembly, demands revenge for murdered Brothers, judgment on Bouille, and instant dismissal of War–Minister Latour du Pin.

At sound and sight of which things, if not War–Minister Latour, yet ‘Adored Minister’ Necker, sees good on the 3d of September 1790, to withdraw softly almost privily, — with an eye to the ‘recovery of his health.’ Home to native Switzerland; not as he last came; lucky to reach it alive! Fifteen months ago, we saw him coming, with escort of horse, with sound of clarion and trumpet: and now at Arcis-sur-Aube, while he departs unescorted soundless, the Populace and Municipals stop him as a fugitive, are not unlike massacring him as a traitor; the National Assembly, consulted on the matter, gives him free egress as a nullity. Such an unstable ‘drift-mould of Accident’ is the substance of this lower world, for them that dwell in houses of clay; so, especially in hot regions and times, do the proudest palaces we build of it take wings, and become Sahara sand-palaces, spinning many pillared in the whirlwind, and bury us under their sand! —

In spite of the forty thousand, the National Assembly persists in its thanks; and Royalist Latour du Pin continues Minister. The forty thousand assemble next day, as loud as ever; roll towards Latour’s Hotel; find cannon on the porch-steps with flambeau lit; and have to retire elsewhither, and digest their spleen, or re-absorb it into the blood.

Over in Lorraine, meanwhile, they of the distributed fusils, ringleaders of Mestre-de-Camp, of Roi, have got marked out for judgment; — yet shall never get judged. Briefer is the doom of Chateau–Vieux. Chateau–Vieux is, by Swiss law, given up for instant trial in Court–Martial of its own officers. Which Court–Martial, with all brevity (in not many hours), has hanged some Twenty-three, on conspicuous gibbets; marched some Three-score in chains to the Galleys; and so, to appearance, finished the matter off. Hanged men do cease for ever from this Earth; but out of chains and the Galleys there may be resuscitation in triumph. Resuscitation for the chained Hero; and even for the chained Scoundrel, or Semi-scoundrel! Scottish John Knox, such World–Hero, as we know, sat once nevertheless pulling grim-taciturn at the oar of French Galley, ‘in the Water of Lore;’ and even flung their Virgin–Mary over, instead of kissing her, — as ‘a pented bredd,’ or timber Virgin, who could naturally swim. (Knox’s History of the Reformation, b. i.) So, ye of Chateau–Vieux, tug patiently, not without hope!

But indeed at Nanci generally, Aristocracy rides triumphant, rough. Bouille is gone again, the second day; an Aristocrat Municipality, with free course, is as cruel as it had before been cowardly. The Daughter Society, as the mother of the whole mischief, lies ignominiously suppressed; the Prisons can hold no more; bereaved down-beaten Patriotism murmurs, not loud but deep. Here and in the neighbouring Towns, ‘flattened balls’ picked from the streets of Nanci are worn at buttonholes: balls flattened in carrying death to Patriotism; men wear them there, in perpetual memento of revenge. Mutineer Deserters roam the woods; have to demand charity at the musket’s end. All is dissolution, mutual rancour, gloom and despair:— till National–Assembly Commissioners arrive, with a steady gentle flame of Constitutionalism in their hearts; who gently lift up the down-trodden, gently pull down the too uplifted; reinstate the Daughter Society, recall the Mutineer Deserter; gradually levelling, strive in all wise ways to smooth and soothe. With such gradual mild levelling on the one side; as with solemn funeral-service, Cassolettes, Courts–Martial, National thanks, — all that Officiality can do is done. The buttonhole will drop its flat ball; the black ashes, so far as may be, get green again.

This is the ‘Affair of Nanci;’ by some called the ‘Massacre of Nanci;’ — properly speaking, the unsightly wrong-side of that thrice glorious Feast of Pikes, the right-side of which formed a spectacle for the very gods. Right-side and wrong lie always so near: the one was in July, in August the other! Theatres, the theatres over in London, are bright with their pasteboard simulacrum of that ‘Federation of the French People,’ brought out as Drama: this of Nanci, we may say, though not played in any pasteboard Theatre, did for many months enact itself, and even walk spectrally — in all French heads. For the news of it fly pealing through all France; awakening, in town and village, in clubroom, messroom, to the utmost borders, some mimic reflex or imaginative repetition of the business; always with the angry questionable assertion: It was right; It was wrong. Whereby come controversies, duels, embitterment, vain jargon; the hastening forward, the augmenting and intensifying of whatever new explosions lie in store for us.

Meanwhile, at this cost or at that, the mutiny, as we say, is stilled. The French Army has neither burst up in universal simultaneous delirium; nor been at once disbanded, put an end to, and made new again. It must die in the chronic manner, through years, by inches; with partial revolts, as of Brest Sailors or the like, which dare not spread; with men unhappy, insubordinate; officers unhappier, in Royalist moustachioes, taking horse, singly or in bodies, across the Rhine: (See Dampmartin, i. 249, &c. &c.) sick dissatisfaction, sick disgust on both sides; the Army moribund, fit for no duty:— till it do, in that unexpected manner, Phoenix-like, with long throes, get both dead and newborn; then start forth strong, nay stronger and even strongest.

Thus much was the brave Bouille hitherto fated to do. Wherewith let him again fade into dimness; and at Metz or the rural Cantonments, assiduously drilling, mysteriously diplomatising, in scheme within scheme, hover as formerly a faint shadow, the hope of Royalty.

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