The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 7

The Night of Spurs.

This comes of mysterious Escorts, and a new Berline with eleven horses: ‘he that has a secret should not only hide it, but hide that he has it to hide.’ Your first Military Escort has exploded self-destructive; and all Military Escorts, and a suspicious Country will now be up, explosive; comparable not to victorious thunder. Comparable, say rather, to the first stirring of an Alpine Avalanche; which, once stir it, as here at Sainte–Menehould, will spread, — all round, and on and on, as far as Stenai; thundering with wild ruin, till Patriot Villagers, Peasantry, Military Escorts, new Berline and Royalty are down, — jumbling in the Abyss!

The thick shades of Night are falling. Postillions crack the whip: the Royal Berline is through Clermont, where Colonel Comte de Damas got a word whispered to it; is safe through, towards Varennes; rushing at the rate of double drink-money: an Unknown ‘Inconnu on horseback’ shrieks earnestly some hoarse whisper, not audible, into the rushing Carriage-window, and vanishes, left in the night. (Campan, ii. 159.) August Travellers palpitate; nevertheless overwearied Nature sinks every one of them into a kind of sleep. Alas, and Drouet and Clerk Guillaume spur; taking side-roads, for shortness, for safety; scattering abroad that moral-certainty of theirs; which flies, a bird of the air carrying it!

And your rigorous Quartermaster spurs; awakening hoarse trumpet-tone, as here at Clermont, calling out Dragoons gone to bed. Brave Colonel de Damas has them mounted, in part, these Clermont men; young Cornet Remy dashes off with a few. But the Patriot Magistracy is out here at Clermont too; National Guards shrieking for ball-cartridges; and the Village ‘illuminates itself;’ — deft Patriots springing out of bed; alertly, in shirt or shift, striking a light; sticking up each his farthing candle, or penurious oil-cruise, till all glitters and glimmers; so deft are they! A camisado, or shirt-tumult, every where: stormbell set a-ringing; village-drum beating furious generale, as here at Clermont, under illumination; distracted Patriots pleading and menacing! Brave young Colonel de Damas, in that uproar of distracted Patriotism, speaks some fire-sentences to what Troopers he has: “Comrades insulted at Sainte–Menehould; King and Country calling on the brave;” then gives the fire-word, Draw swords. Whereupon, alas, the Troopers only smite their sword-handles, driving them further home! “To me, whoever is for the King!” cries Damas in despair; and gallops, he with some poor loyal Two, of the subaltern sort, into the bosom of the Night. (Proces-verbal du Directoire de Clermont in Choiseul, p. 189–95.)

Night unexampled in the Clermontais; shortest of the year; remarkablest of the century: Night deserving to be named of Spurs! Cornet Remy, and those Few he dashed off with, has missed his road; is galloping for hours towards Verdun; then, for hours, across hedged country, through roused hamlets, towards Varennes. Unlucky Cornet Remy; unluckier Colonel Damas, with whom there ride desperate only some loyal Two! More ride not of that Clermont Escort: of other Escorts, in other Villages, not even Two may ride; but only all curvet and prance, — impeded by stormbell and your Village illuminating itself.

And Drouet rides and Clerk Guillaume; and the Country runs. — Goguelat and Duke Choiseul are plunging through morasses, over cliffs, over stock and stone, in the shaggy woods of the Clermontais; by tracks; or trackless, with guides; Hussars tumbling into pitfalls, and lying ‘swooned three quarters of an hour,’ the rest refusing to march without them. What an evening-ride from Pont-de-Sommerville; what a thirty hours, since Choiseul quitted Paris, with Queen’s-valet Leonard in the chaise by him! Black Care sits behind the rider. Thus go they plunging; rustle the owlet from his branchy nest; champ the sweet-scented forest-herb, queen-of-the-meadows spilling her spikenard; and frighten the ear of Night. But hark! towards twelve o’clock, as one guesses, for the very stars are gone out: sound of the tocsin from Varennes? Checking bridle, the Hussar Officer listens: “Some fire undoubtedly!” — yet rides on, with double breathlessness, to verify.

Yes, gallant friends that do your utmost, it is a certain sort of fire: difficult to quench. — The Korff Berline, fairly ahead of all this riding Avalanche, reached the little paltry Village of Varennes about eleven o’clock; hopeful, in spite of that horse-whispering Unknown. Do not all towns now lie behind us; Verdun avoided, on our right? Within wind of Bouille himself, in a manner; and the darkest of midsummer nights favouring us! And so we halt on the hill-top at the South end of the Village; expecting our relay; which young Bouille, Bouille’s own son, with his Escort of Hussars, was to have ready; for in this Village is no Post. Distracting to think of: neither horse nor Hussar is here! Ah, and stout horses, a proper relay belonging to Duke Choiseul, do stand at hay, but in the Upper Village over the Bridge; and we know not of them. Hussars likewise do wait, but drinking in the taverns. For indeed it is six hours beyond the time; young Bouille, silly stripling, thinking the matter over for this night, has retired to bed. And so our yellow Couriers, inexperienced, must rove, groping, bungling, through a Village mostly asleep: Postillions will not, for any money, go on with the tired horses; not at least without refreshment; not they, let the Valet in round hat argue as he likes.

Miserable! ‘For five-and-thirty minutes’ by the King’s watch, the Berline is at a dead stand; Round-hat arguing with Churnboots; tired horses slobbering their meal-and-water; yellow Couriers groping, bungling; — young Bouille asleep, all the while, in the Upper Village, and Choiseul’s fine team standing there at hay. No help for it; not with a King’s ransom: the horses deliberately slobber, Round-hat argues, Bouille sleeps. And mark now, in the thick night, do not two Horsemen, with jaded trot, come clank-clanking; and start with half-pause, if one noticed them, at sight of this dim mass of a Berline, and its dull slobbering and arguing; then prick off faster, into the Village? It is Drouet, he and Clerk Guillaume! Still ahead, they two, of the whole riding hurlyburly; unshot, though some brag of having chased them. Perilous is Drouet’s errand also; but he is an Old–Dragoon, with his wits shaken thoroughly awake.

The Village of Varennes lies dark and slumberous; a most unlevel Village, of inverse saddle-shape, as men write. It sleeps; the rushing of the River Aire singing lullaby to it. Nevertheless from the Golden Arms, Bras d’Or Tavern, across that sloping marketplace, there still comes shine of social light; comes voice of rude drovers, or the like, who have not yet taken the stirrup-cup; Boniface Le Blanc, in white apron, serving them: cheerful to behold. To this Bras d’Or, Drouet enters, alacrity looking through his eyes: he nudges Boniface, in all privacy, “Camarade, es tu bon Patriote, Art thou a good Patriot?” — “Si je suis!” answers Boniface. — “In that case,” eagerly whispers Drouet — what whisper is needful, heard of Boniface alone. (Deux Amis, vi. 139–78.)

And now see Boniface Le Blanc bustling, as he never did for the jolliest toper. See Drouet and Guillaume, dexterous Old–Dragoons, instantly down blocking the Bridge, with a ‘furniture waggon they find there,’ with whatever waggons, tumbrils, barrels, barrows their hands can lay hold of; — till no carriage can pass. Then swiftly, the Bridge once blocked, see them take station hard by, under Varennes Archway: joined by Le Blanc, Le Blanc’s Brother, and one or two alert Patriots he has roused. Some half-dozen in all, with National Muskets, they stand close, waiting under the Archway, till that same Korff Berline rumble up.

It rumbles up: Alte la! lanterns flash out from under coat-skirts, bridles chuck in strong fists, two National Muskets level themselves fore and aft through the two Coach-doors: “Mesdames, your Passports?” — Alas! Alas! Sieur Sausse, Procureur of the Township, Tallow-chandler also and Grocer is there, with official grocer-politeness; Drouet with fierce logic and ready wit:— The respected Travelling Party, be it Baroness de Korff’s, or persons of still higher consequence, will perhaps please to rest itself in M. Sausse’s till the dawn strike up!

O Louis; O hapless Marie–Antoinette, fated to pass thy life with such men! Phlegmatic Louis, art thou but lazy semi-animate phlegm then, to the centre of thee? King, Captain–General, Sovereign Frank! If thy heart ever formed, since it began beating under the name of heart, any resolution at all, be it now then, or never in this world: “Violent nocturnal individuals, and if it were persons of high consequence? And if it were the King himself? Has the King not the power, which all beggars have, of travelling unmolested on his own Highway? Yes: it is the King; and tremble ye to know it! The King has said, in this one small matter; and in France, or under God’s Throne, is no power that shall gainsay. Not the King shall ye stop here under this your miserable Archway; but his dead body only, and answer it to Heaven and Earth. To me, Bodyguards: Postillions, en avant!” — One fancies in that case the pale paralysis of these two Le Blanc musketeers; the drooping of Drouet’s under-jaw; and how Procureur Sausse had melted like tallow in furnace-heat: Louis faring on; in some few steps awakening Young Bouille, awakening relays and hussars: triumphant entry, with cavalcading high-brandishing Escort, and Escorts, into Montmedi; and the whole course of French History different!

Alas, it was not in the poor phlegmatic man. Had it been in him, French History had never come under this Varennes Archway to decide itself. — He steps out; all step out. Procureur Sausse gives his grocer-arms to the Queen and Sister Elizabeth; Majesty taking the two children by the hand. And thus they walk, coolly back, over the Marketplace, to Procureur Sausse’s; mount into his small upper story; where straightway his Majesty ‘demands refreshments.’ Demands refreshments, as is written; gets bread-and-cheese with a bottle of Burgundy; and remarks, that it is the best Burgundy he ever drank!

Meanwhile, the Varennes Notables, and all men, official, and non-official, are hastily drawing on their breeches; getting their fighting-gear. Mortals half-dressed tumble out barrels, lay felled trees; scouts dart off to all the four winds, — the tocsin begins clanging, ‘the Village illuminates itself.’ Very singular: how these little Villages do manage, so adroit are they, when startled in midnight alarm of war. Like little adroit municipal rattle-snakes, suddenly awakened: for their stormbell rattles and rings; their eyes glisten luminous (with tallow-light), as in rattle-snake ire; and the Village will sting! Old–Dragoon Drouet is our engineer and generalissimo; valiant as a Ruy Diaz:— Now or never, ye Patriots, for the Soldiery is coming; massacre by Austrians, by Aristocrats, wars more than civil, it all depends on you and the hour! — National Guards rank themselves, half-buttoned: mortals, we say, still only in breeches, in under-petticoat, tumble out barrels and lumber, lay felled trees for barricades: the Village will sting. Rabid Democracy, it would seem, is not confined to Paris, then? Ah no, whatsoever Courtiers might talk; too clearly no. This of dying for one’s King is grown into a dying for one’s self, against the King, if need be.

And so our riding and running Avalanche and Hurlyburly has reached the Abyss, Korff Berline foremost; and may pour itself thither, and jumble: endless! For the next six hours, need we ask if there was a clattering far and wide? Clattering and tocsining and hot tumult, over all the Clermontais, spreading through the Three Bishopricks: Dragoon and Hussar Troops galloping on roads and no-roads; National Guards arming and starting in the dead of night; tocsin after tocsin transmitting the alarm. In some forty minutes, Goguelat and Choiseul, with their wearied Hussars, reach Varennes. Ah, it is no fire then; or a fire difficult to quench! They leap the tree-barricades, in spite of National serjeant; they enter the village, Choiseul instructing his Troopers how the matter really is; who respond interjectionally, in their guttural dialect, “Der Konig; die Koniginn!” and seem stanch. These now, in their stanch humour, will, for one thing, beset Procureur Sausse’s house. Most beneficial: had not Drouet stormfully ordered otherwise; and even bellowed, in his extremity, “Cannoneers to your guns!” — two old honey-combed Field-pieces, empty of all but cobwebs; the rattle whereof, as the Cannoneers with assured countenance trundled them up, did nevertheless abate the Hussar ardour, and produce a respectfuller ranking further back. Jugs of wine, handed over the ranks, for the German throat too has sensibility, will complete the business. When Engineer Goguelat, some hour or so afterwards, steps forth, the response to him is — a hiccuping Vive la Nation!

What boots it? Goguelat, Choiseul, now also Count Damas, and all the Varennes Officiality are with the King; and the King can give no order, form no opinion; but sits there, as he has ever done, like clay on potter’s wheel; perhaps the absurdest of all pitiable and pardonable clay-figures that now circle under the Moon. He will go on, next morning, and take the National Guard with him; Sausse permitting! Hapless Queen: with her two children laid there on the mean bed, old Mother Sausse kneeling to Heaven, with tears and an audible prayer, to bless them; imperial Marie–Antoinette near kneeling to Son Sausse and Wife Sausse, amid candle-boxes and treacle-barrels, — in vain! There are Three-thousand National Guards got in; before long they will count Ten-thousand; tocsins spreading like fire on dry heath, or far faster.

Young Bouille, roused by this Varennes tocsin, has taken horse, and — fled towards his Father. Thitherward also rides, in an almost hysterically desperate manner, a certain Sieur Aubriot, Choiseul’s Orderly; swimming dark rivers, our Bridge being blocked; spurring as if the Hell-hunt were at his heels. (Rapport de M. Aubriot Choiseul, p. 150–7.) Through the village of Dun, he, galloping still on, scatters the alarm; at Dun, brave Captain Deslons and his Escort of a Hundred, saddle and ride. Deslons too gets into Varennes; leaving his Hundred outside, at the tree-barricade; offers to cut King Louis out, if he will order it: but unfortunately “the work will prove hot;” whereupon King Louis has “no orders to give.” (Extrait d’un Rapport de M. Deslons, Choiseul, p. 164–7.)

And so the tocsin clangs, and Dragoons gallop; and can do nothing, having gallopped: National Guards stream in like the gathering of ravens: your exploding Thunder-chain, falling Avalanche, or what else we liken it to, does play, with a vengeance, — up now as far as Stenai and Bouille himself. (Bouille, ii. 74–6.) Brave Bouille, son of the whirlwind, he saddles Royal Allemand; speaks fire-words, kindling heart and eyes; distributes twenty-five gold-louis a company:— Ride, Royal–Allemand, long-famed: no Tuileries Charge and Necker–Orleans Bust–Procession; a very King made captive, and world all to win! — Such is the Night deserving to be named of Spurs.

At six o’clock two things have happened. Lafayette’s Aide-de-camp, Romoeuf, riding a franc etrier, on that old Herb-merchant’s route, quickened during the last stages, has got to Varennes; where the Ten thousand now furiously demand, with fury of panic terror, that Royalty shall forthwith return Paris-ward, that there be not infinite bloodshed. Also, on the other side, ‘English Tom,’ Choiseul’s jokei, flying with that Choiseul relay, has met Bouille on the heights of Dun; the adamantine brow flushed with dark thunder; thunderous rattle of Royal Allemand at his heels. English Tom answers as he can the brief question, How it is at Varennes? — then asks in turn what he, English Tom, with M. de Choiseul’s horses, is to do, and whither to ride? — To the Bottomless Pool! answers a thunder-voice; then again speaking and spurring, orders Royal Allemand to the gallop; and vanishes, swearing (en jurant). (Declaration du Sieur Thomas in Choiseul, p. 188.) ’Tis the last of our brave Bouille. Within sight of Varennes, he having drawn bridle, calls a council of officers; finds that it is in vain. King Louis has departed, consenting: amid the clangour of universal stormbell; amid the tramp of Ten thousand armed men, already arrived; and say, of Sixty thousand flocking thither. Brave Deslons, even without ‘orders,’ darted at the River Aire with his Hundred! (Weber, ii. 386.) swam one branch of it, could not the other; and stood there, dripping and panting, with inflated nostril; the Ten thousand answering him with a shout of mockery, the new Berline lumbering Paris-ward its weary inevitable way. No help, then in Earth; nor in an age, not of miracles, in Heaven!

That night, ‘Marquis de Bouille and twenty-one more of us rode over the Frontiers; the Bernardine monks at Orval in Luxemburg gave us supper and lodging.’ (Aubriot, ut supra, p. 158.) With little of speech, Bouille rides; with thoughts that do not brook speech. Northward, towards uncertainty, and the Cimmerian Night: towards West–Indian Isles, for with thin Emigrant delirium the son of the whirlwind cannot act; towards England, towards premature Stoical death; not towards France any more. Honour to the Brave; who, be it in this quarrel or in that, is a substance and articulate-speaking piece of Human Valour, not a fanfaronading hollow Spectrum and squeaking and gibbering Shadow! One of the few Royalist Chief-actors this Bouille, of whom so much can be said.

The brave Bouille too, then, vanishes from the tissue of our Story. Story and tissue, faint ineffectual Emblem of that grand Miraculous Tissue, and Living Tapestry named French Revolution, which did weave itself then in very fact, ‘on the loud-sounding ‘LOOM OF TIME!’ The old Brave drop out from it, with their strivings; and new acrid Drouets, of new strivings and colour, come in:— as is the manner of that weaving.

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