The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

The Day of Poniards.

Or, again, what means this visible reparation of the Castle of Vincennes? Other Jails being all crowded with prisoners, new space is wanted here: that is the Municipal account. For in such changing of Judicatures, Parlements being abolished, and New Courts but just set up, prisoners have accumulated. Not to say that in these times of discord and club-law, offences and committals are, at any rate, more numerous. Which Municipal account, does it not sufficiently explain the phenomenon? Surely, to repair the Castle of Vincennes was of all enterprises that an enlightened Municipality could undertake, the most innocent.

Not so however does neighbouring Saint–Antoine look on it: Saint–Antoine to whom these peaked turrets and grim donjons, all-too near her own dark dwelling, are of themselves an offence. Was not Vincennes a kind of minor Bastille? Great Diderot and Philosophes have lain in durance here; great Mirabeau, in disastrous eclipse, for forty-two months. And now when the old Bastille has become a dancing-ground (had any one the mirth to dance), and its stones are getting built into the Pont Louis–Seize, does this minor, comparative insignificance of a Bastille flank itself with fresh-hewn mullions, spread out tyrannous wings; menacing Patriotism? New space for prisoners: and what prisoners? A d’Orleans, with the chief Patriots on the tip of the Left? It is said, there runs ‘a subterranean passage’ all the way from the Tuileries hither. Who knows? Paris, mined with quarries and catacombs, does hang wondrous over the abyss; Paris was once to be blown up, — though the powder, when we went to look, had got withdrawn. A Tuileries, sold to Austria and Coblentz, should have no subterranean passage. Out of which might not Coblentz or Austria issue, some morning; and, with cannon of long range, ‘foudroyer,’ bethunder a patriotic Saint–Antoine into smoulder and ruin!

So meditates the benighted soul of Saint–Antoine, as it sees the aproned workmen, in early spring, busy on these towers. An official-speaking Municipality, a Sieur Motier with his legions of mouchards, deserve no trust at all. Were Patriot Santerre, indeed, Commander! But the sonorous Brewer commands only our own Battalion: of such secrets he can explain nothing, knows nothing, perhaps suspects much. And so the work goes on; and afflicted benighted Saint–Antoine hears rattle of hammers, sees stones suspended in air. (Montgaillard, ii. 285.)

Saint–Antoine prostrated the first great Bastille: will it falter over this comparative insignificance of a Bastille? Friends, what if we took pikes, firelocks, sledgehammers; and helped ourselves! — Speedier is no remedy; nor so certain. On the 28th day of February, Saint–Antoine turns out, as it has now often done; and, apparently with little superfluous tumult, moves eastward to that eye-sorrow of Vincennes. With grave voice of authority, no need of bullying and shouting, Saint–Antoine signifies to parties concerned there that its purpose is, To have this suspicious Stronghold razed level with the general soil of the country. Remonstrance may be proffered, with zeal: but it avails not. The outer gate goes up, drawbridges tumble; iron window-stanchions, smitten out with sledgehammers, become iron-crowbars: it rains furniture, stone-masses, slates: with chaotic clatter and rattle, Demolition clatters down. And now hasty expresses rush through the agitated streets, to warn Lafayette, and the Municipal and Departmental Authorities; Rumour warns a National Assembly, a Royal Tuileries, and all men who care to hear it: That Saint–Antoine is up; that Vincennes, and probably the last remaining Institution of the Country, is coming down. (Deux Amis, vi. 11–15; Newspapers (in Hist. Parl. ix. 111–17).)

Quick, then! Let Lafayette roll his drums and fly eastward; for to all Constitutional Patriots this is again bad news. And you, ye Friends of Royalty, snatch your poniards of improved structure, made to order; your sword-canes, secret arms, and tickets of entry; quick, by backstairs passages, rally round the Son of Sixty Kings. An effervescence probably got up by d’Orleans and Company, for the overthrow of Throne and Altar: it is said her Majesty shall be put in prison, put out of the way; what then will his Majesty be? Clay for the Sansculottic Potter! Or were it impossible to fly this day; a brave Noblesse suddenly all rallying? Peril threatens, hope invites: Dukes de Villequier, de Duras, Gentlemen of the Chamber give tickets and admittance; a brave Noblesse is suddenly all rallying. Now were the time to ‘fall sword in hand on those gentry there,’ could it be done with effect.

The Hero of two Worlds is on his white charger; blue Nationals, horse and foot, hurrying eastward: Santerre, with the Saint–Antoine Battalion, is already there, — apparently indisposed to act. Heavy-laden Hero of two Worlds, what tasks are these! The jeerings, provocative gambollings of that Patriot Suburb, which is all out on the streets now, are hard to endure; unwashed Patriots jeering in sulky sport; one unwashed Patriot ‘seizing the General by the boot’ to unhorse him. Santerre, ordered to fire, makes answer obliquely, “These are the men that took the Bastille;” and not a trigger stirs! Neither dare the Vincennes Magistracy give warrant of arrestment, or the smallest countenance: wherefore the General ‘will take it on himself’ to arrest. By promptitude, by cheerful adroitness, patience and brisk valour without limits, the riot may be again bloodlessly appeased.

Meanwhile, the rest of Paris, with more or less unconcern, may mind the rest of its business: for what is this but an effervescence, of which there are now so many? The National Assembly, in one of its stormiest moods, is debating a Law against Emigration; Mirabeau declaring aloud, “I swear beforehand that I will not obey it.” Mirabeau is often at the Tribune this day; with endless impediments from without; with the old unabated energy from within. What can murmurs and clamours, from Left or from Right, do to this man; like Teneriffe or Atlas unremoved? With clear thought; with strong bass-voice, though at first low, uncertain, he claims audience, sways the storm of men: anon the sound of him waxes, softens; he rises into far-sounding melody of strength, triumphant, which subdues all hearts; his rude-seamed face, desolate fire-scathed, becomes fire-lit, and radiates: once again men feel, in these beggarly ages, what is the potency and omnipotency of man’s word on the souls of men. “I will triumph or be torn in fragments,” he was once heard to say. “Silence,” he cries now, in strong word of command, in imperial consciousness of strength, “Silence, the thirty voices, Silence aux trente voix!” — and Robespierre and the Thirty Voices die into mutterings; and the Law is once more as Mirabeau would have it.

How different, at the same instant, is General Lafayette’s street eloquence; wrangling with sonorous Brewers, with an ungrammatical Saint–Antoine! Most different, again, from both is the Cafe-de-Valois eloquence, and suppressed fanfaronade, of this multitude of men with Tickets of Entry; who are now inundating the Corridors of the Tuileries. Such things can go on simultaneously in one City. How much more in one Country; in one Planet with its discrepancies, every Day a mere crackling infinitude of discrepancies — which nevertheless do yield some coherent net-product, though an infinitesimally small one!

Be this as it may. Lafayette has saved Vincennes; and is marching homewards with some dozen of arrested demolitionists. Royalty is not yet saved; — nor indeed specially endangered. But to the King’s Constitutional Guard, to these old Gardes Francaises, or Centre Grenadiers, as it chanced to be, this affluence of men with Tickets of Entry is becoming more and more unintelligible. Is his Majesty verily for Metz, then; to be carried off by these men, on the spur of the instant? That revolt of Saint–Antoine got up by traitor Royalists for a stalking-horse? Keep a sharp outlook, ye Centre Grenadiers on duty here: good never came from the ‘men in black.’ Nay they have cloaks, redingotes; some of them leather-breeches, boots, — as if for instant riding! Or what is this that sticks visible from the lapelle of Chevalier de Court? (Weber, ii. 286.) Too like the handle of some cutting or stabbing instrument! He glides and goes; and still the dudgeon sticks from his left lapelle. “Hold, Monsieur!” — a Centre Grenadier clutches him; clutches the protrusive dudgeon, whisks it out in the face of the world: by Heaven, a very dagger; hunting-knife, or whatsoever you call it; fit to drink the life of Patriotism!

So fared it with Chevalier de Court, early in the day; not without noise; not without commentaries. And now this continually increasing multitude at nightfall? Have they daggers too? Alas, with them too, after angry parleyings, there has begun a groping and a rummaging; all men in black, spite of their Tickets of Entry, are clutched by the collar, and groped. Scandalous to think of; for always, as the dirk, sword-cane, pistol, or were it but tailor’s bodkin, is found on him, and with loud scorn drawn forth from him, he, the hapless man in black, is flung all too rapidly down stairs. Flung; and ignominiously descends, head foremost; accelerated by ignominious shovings from sentry after sentry; nay, as is written, by smitings, twitchings, — spurnings, a posteriori, not to be named. In this accelerated way, emerges, uncertain which end uppermost, man after man in black, through all issues, into the Tuileries Garden. Emerges, alas, into the arms of an indignant multitude, now gathered and gathering there, in the hour of dusk, to see what is toward, and whether the Hereditary Representative is carried off or not. Hapless men in black; at last convicted of poniards made to order; convicted ‘Chevaliers of the Poniard!’ Within is as the burning ship; without is as the deep sea. Within is no help; his Majesty, looking forth, one moment, from his interior sanctuaries, coldly bids all visitors ‘give up their weapons;’ and shuts the door again. The weapons given up form a heap: the convicted Chevaliers of the poniard keep descending pellmell, with impetuous velocity; and at the bottom of all staircases, the mixed multitude receives them, hustles, buffets, chases and disperses them. (Hist. Parl. ix. 139–48.)

Such sight meets Lafayette, in the dusk of the evening, as he returns, successful with difficulty at Vincennes: Sansculotte Scylla hardly weathered, here is Aristocrat Charybdis gurgling under his lee! The patient Hero of two Worlds almost loses temper. He accelerates, does not retard, the flying Chevaliers; delivers, indeed, this or the other hunted Loyalist of quality, but rates him in bitter words, such as the hour suggested; such as no saloon could pardon. Hero ill-bested; hanging, so to speak, in mid-air; hateful to Rich divinities above; hateful to Indigent mortals below! Duke de Villequier, Gentleman of the Chamber, gets such contumelious rating, in presence of all people there, that he may see good first to exculpate himself in the Newspapers; then, that not prospering, to retire over the Frontiers, and begin plotting at Brussels. (Montgaillard, ii. 286.) His Apartment will stand vacant; usefuller, as we may find, than when it stood occupied.

So fly the Chevaliers of the Poniard; hunted of Patriotic men, shamefully in the thickening dusk. A dim miserable business; born of darkness; dying away there in the thickening dusk and dimness! In the midst of which, however, let the reader discern clearly one figure running for its life: Crispin–Cataline d’Espremenil, — for the last time, or the last but one. It is not yet three years since these same Centre Grenadiers, Gardes Francaises then, marched him towards the Calypso Isles, in the gray of the May morning; and he and they have got thus far. Buffeted, beaten down, delivered by popular Petion, he might well answer bitterly: “And I too, Monsieur, have been carried on the People’s shoulders.” (See Mercier, ii. 40, 202.) A fact which popular Petion, if he like, can meditate.

But happily, one way and another, the speedy night covers up this ignominious Day of Poniards; and the Chevaliers escape, though maltreated, with torn coat-skirts and heavy hearts, to their respective dwelling-houses. Riot twofold is quelled; and little blood shed, if it be not insignificant blood from the nose: Vincennes stands undemolished, reparable; and the Hereditary Representative has not been stolen, nor the Queen smuggled into Prison. A Day long remembered: commented on with loud hahas and deep grumblings; with bitter scornfulness of triumph, bitter rancour of defeat. Royalism, as usual, imputes it to d’Orleans and the Anarchists intent on insulting Majesty: Patriotism, as usual, to Royalists, and even Constitutionalists, intent on stealing Majesty to Metz: we, also as usual, to Preternatural Suspicion, and Phoebus Apollo having made himself like the Night.

Thus however has the reader seen, in an unexpected arena, on this last day of February 1791, the Three long-contending elements of French Society, dashed forth into singular comico-tragical collision; acting and reacting openly to the eye. Constitutionalism, at once quelling Sansculottic riot at Vincennes, and Royalist treachery from the Tuileries, is great, this day, and prevails. As for poor Royalism, tossed to and fro in that manner, its daggers all left in a heap, what can one think of it? Every dog, the Adage says, has its day: has it; has had it; or will have it. For the present, the day is Lafayette’s and the Constitution’s. Nevertheless Hunger and Jacobinism, fast growing fanatical, still work; their-day, were they once fanatical, will come. Hitherto, in all tempests, Lafayette, like some divine Sea-ruler, raises his serene head: the upper Aeolus’s blasts fly back to their caves, like foolish unbidden winds: the under sea-billows they had vexed into froth allay themselves. But if, as we often write, the submarine Titanic Fire-powers came into play, the Ocean bed from beneath being burst? If they hurled Poseidon Lafayette and his Constitution out of Space; and, in the Titanic melee, sea were mixed with sky?

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