The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 3

Sword in Hand.

On such wonderful basis, however, has Law, Royalty, Authority, and whatever yet exists of visible Order, to maintain itself, while it can. Here, as in that Commixture of the Four Elements did the Anarch Old, has an august Assembly spread its pavilion; curtained by the dark infinite of discords; founded on the wavering bottomless of the Abyss; and keeps continual hubbub. Time is around it, and Eternity, and the Inane; and it does what it can, what is given it to do.

Glancing reluctantly in, once more, we discern little that is edifying: a Constitutional Theory of Defective Verbs struggling forward, with perseverance, amid endless interruptions: Mirabeau, from his tribune, with the weight of his name and genius, awing down much Jacobin violence; which in return vents itself the louder over in its Jacobins Hall, and even reads him sharp lectures there. (Camille’s Journal (in Hist. Parl. ix. 366–85).) This man’s path is mysterious, questionable; difficult, and he walks without companion in it. Pure Patriotism does not now count him among her chosen; pure Royalism abhors him: yet his weight with the world is overwhelming. Let him travel on, companionless, unwavering, whither he is bound, — while it is yet day with him, and the night has not come.

But the chosen band of pure Patriot brothers is small; counting only some Thirty, seated now on the extreme tip of the Left, separate from the world. A virtuous Petion; an incorruptible Robespierre, most consistent, incorruptible of thin acrid men; Triumvirs Barnave, Duport, Lameth, great in speech, thought, action, each according to his kind; a lean old Goupil de Prefeln: on these and what will follow them has pure Patriotism to depend.

There too, conspicuous among the Thirty, if seldom audible, Philippe d’Orleans may be seen sitting: in dim fuliginous bewilderment; having, one might say, arrived at Chaos! Gleams there are, at once of a Lieutenancy and Regency; debates in the Assembly itself, of succession to the Throne ‘in case the present Branch should fail;’ and Philippe, they say, walked anxiously, in silence, through the corridors, till such high argument were done: but it came all to nothing; Mirabeau, glaring into the man, and through him, had to ejaculate in strong untranslatable language: Ce j — f — ne vaut pas la peine qu’on se donne pour lui. It came all to nothing; and in the meanwhile Philippe’s money, they say, is gone! Could he refuse a little cash to the gifted Patriot, in want only of that; he himself in want of all but that? Not a pamphlet can be printed without cash; or indeed written, without food purchasable by cash. Without cash your hopefullest Projector cannot stir from the spot: individual patriotic or other Projects require cash: how much more do wide-spread Intrigues, which live and exist by cash; lying widespread, with dragon-appetite for cash; fit to swallow Princedoms! And so Prince Philippe, amid his Sillerys, Lacloses, and confused Sons of Night, has rolled along: the centre of the strangest cloudy coil; out of which has visibly come, as we often say, an Epic Preternatural Machinery of SUSPICION; and within which there has dwelt and worked, — what specialties of treason, stratagem, aimed or aimless endeavour towards mischief, no party living (if it be not the Presiding Genius of it, Prince of the Power of the Air) has now any chance to know. Camille’s conjecture is the likeliest: that poor Philippe did mount up, a little way, in treasonable speculation, as he mounted formerly in one of the earliest Balloons; but, frightened at the new position he was getting into, had soon turned the cock again, and come down. More fool than he rose! To create Preternatural Suspicion, this was his function in the Revolutionary Epos. But now if he have lost his cornucopia of ready-money, what else had he to lose? In thick darkness, inward and outward, he must welter and flounder on, in that piteous death-element, the hapless man. Once, or even twice, we shall still behold him emerged; struggling out of the thick death-element: in vain. For one moment, it is the last moment, he starts aloft, or is flung aloft, even into clearness and a kind of memorability, — to sink then for evermore!

The Cote Droit persists no less; nay with more animation than ever, though hope has now well nigh fled. Tough Abbe Maury, when the obscure country Royalist grasps his hand with transport of thanks, answers, rolling his indomitable brazen head: “Helas, Monsieur, all that I do here is as good as simply nothing.” Gallant Faussigny, visible this one time in History, advances frantic, into the middle of the Hall, exclaiming: “There is but one way of dealing with it, and that is to fall sword in hand on those gentry there, sabre a la main sur ces gaillards la,” (Moniteur, Seance du 21 Aout, 1790.) franticly indicating our chosen Thirty on the extreme tip of the Left! Whereupon is clangour and clamour, debate, repentance, — evaporation. Things ripen towards downright incompatibility, and what is called ‘scission:’ that fierce theoretic onslaught of Faussigny’s was in August, 1790; next August will not have come, till a famed Two Hundred and Ninety-two, the chosen of Royalism, make solemn final ‘scission’ from an Assembly given up to faction; and depart, shaking the dust off their feet.

Connected with this matter of sword in hand, there is yet another thing to be noted. Of duels we have sometimes spoken: how, in all parts of France, innumerable duels were fought; and argumentative men and messmates, flinging down the wine-cup and weapons of reason and repartee, met in the measured field; to part bleeding; or perhaps not to part, but to fall mutually skewered through with iron, their wrath and life alike ending, — and die as fools die. Long has this lasted, and still lasts. But now it would seem as if in an august Assembly itself, traitorous Royalism, in its despair, had taken to a new course: that of cutting off Patriotism by systematic duel! Bully-swordsmen, ‘Spadassins’ of that party, go swaggering; or indeed they can be had for a trifle of money. ‘Twelve Spadassins’ were seen, by the yellow eye of Journalism, ‘arriving recently out of Switzerland;’ also ‘a considerable number of Assassins, nombre considerable d’assassins, exercising in fencing-schools and at pistol-targets.’ Any Patriot Deputy of mark can be called out; let him escape one time, or ten times, a time there necessarily is when he must fall, and France mourn. How many cartels has Mirabeau had; especially while he was the People’s champion! Cartels by the hundred: which he, since the Constitution must be made first, and his time is precious, answers now always with a kind of stereotype formula: “Monsieur, you are put upon my List; but I warn you that it is long, and I grant no preferences.”

Then, in Autumn, had we not the Duel of Cazales and Barnave; the two chief masters of tongue-shot meeting now to exchange pistol-shot? For Cazales, chief of the Royalists, whom we call ‘Blacks or Noirs,’ said, in a moment of passion, “the Patriots were sheer Brigands,” nay in so speaking, he darted or seemed to dart, a fire-glance specially at Barnave; who thereupon could not but reply by fire-glances, — by adjournment to the Bois-de-Boulogne. Barnave’s second shot took effect: on Cazales’s hat. The ‘front nook’ of a triangular Felt, such as mortals then wore, deadened the ball; and saved that fine brow from more than temporary injury. But how easily might the lot have fallen the other way, and Barnave’s hat not been so good! Patriotism raises its loud denunciation of Duelling in general; petitions an august Assembly to stop such Feudal barbarism by law. Barbarism and solecism: for will it convince or convict any man to blow half an ounce of lead through the head of him? Surely not. — Barnave was received at the Jacobins with embraces, yet with rebukes.

Mindful of which, and also that his repetition in America was that of headlong foolhardiness rather, and want of brain not of heart, Charles Lameth does, on the eleventh day of November, with little emotion, decline attending some hot young Gentleman from Artois, come expressly to challenge him: nay indeed he first coldly engages to attend; then coldly permits two Friends to attend instead of him, and shame the young Gentleman out of it, which they successfully do. A cold procedure; satisfactory to the two Friends, to Lameth and the hot young Gentleman; whereby, one might have fancied, the whole matter was cooled down.

Not so, however: Lameth, proceeding to his senatorial duties, in the decline of the day, is met in those Assembly corridors by nothing but Royalist brocards; sniffs, huffs, and open insults. Human patience has its limits: “Monsieur,” said Lameth, breaking silence to one Lautrec, a man with hunchback, or natural deformity, but sharp of tongue, and a Black of the deepest tint, “Monsieur, if you were a man to be fought with!” — “I am one,” cries the young Duke de Castries. Fast as fire-flash Lameth replies, “Tout a l’heure, On the instant, then!” And so, as the shades of dusk thicken in that Bois-de-Boulogne, we behold two men with lion-look, with alert attitude, side foremost, right foot advanced; flourishing and thrusting, stoccado and passado, in tierce and quart; intent to skewer one another. See, with most skewering purpose, headlong Lameth, with his whole weight, makes a furious lunge; but deft Castries whisks aside: Lameth skewers only the air, — and slits deep and far, on Castries’ sword’s-point, his own extended left arm! Whereupon with bleeding, pallor, surgeon’s-lint, and formalities, the Duel is considered satisfactorily done.

But will there be no end, then? Beloved Lameth lies deep-slit, not out of danger. Black traitorous Aristocrats kill the People’s defenders, cut up not with arguments, but with rapier-slits. And the Twelve Spadassins out of Switzerland, and the considerable number of Assassins exercising at the pistol-target? So meditates and ejaculates hurt Patriotism, with ever-deepening ever-widening fervour, for the space of six and thirty hours.

The thirty-six hours past, on Saturday the 13th, one beholds a new spectacle: The Rue de Varennes, and neighbouring Boulevard des Invalides, covered with a mixed flowing multitude: the Castries Hotel gone distracted, devil-ridden, belching from every window, ‘beds with clothes and curtains,’ plate of silver and gold with filigree, mirrors, pictures, images, commodes, chiffoniers, and endless crockery and jingle: amid steady popular cheers, absolutely without theft; for there goes a cry, “He shall be hanged that steals a nail!” It is a Plebiscitum, or informal iconoclastic Decree of the Common People, in the course of being executed! — The Municipality sit tremulous; deliberating whether they will hang out the Drapeau Rouge and Martial Law: National Assembly, part in loud wail, part in hardly suppressed applause: Abbe Maury unable to decide whether the iconoclastic Plebs amount to forty thousand or to two hundred thousand.

Deputations, swift messengers, for it is at a distance over the River, come and go. Lafayette and National Guardes, though without Drapeau Rouge, get under way; apparently in no hot haste. Nay, arrived on the scene, Lafayette salutes with doffed hat, before ordering to fix bayonets. What avails it? The Plebeian “Court of Cassation,” as Camille might punningly name it, has done its work; steps forth, with unbuttoned vest, with pockets turned inside out: sack, and just ravage, not plunder! With inexhaustible patience, the Hero of two Worlds remonstrates; persuasively, with a kind of sweet constraint, though also with fixed bayonets, dissipates, hushes down: on the morrow it is once more all as usual.

Considering which things, however, Duke Castries may justly ‘write to the President,’ justly transport himself across the Marches; to raise a corps, or do what else is in him. Royalism totally abandons that Bobadilian method of contest, and the Twelve Spadassins return to Switzerland, — or even to Dreamland through the Horn-gate, whichsoever their home is. Nay Editor Prudhomme is authorised to publish a curious thing: ‘We are authorised to publish,’ says he, dull-blustering Publisher, that M. Boyer, champion of good Patriots, is at the head of Fifty Spadassinicides or Bully-killers. His address is: Passage du Bois-de-Boulonge, Faubourg St. Denis.’ (Revolutions de Paris (in Hist. Parl. viii. 440).) One of the strangest Institutes, this of Champion Boyer and the Bully-killers! Whose services, however, are not wanted; Royalism having abandoned the rapier-method as plainly impracticable.

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