The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 9

Sharp Shot.

In regard to all which, this most pressing question arises: What is to be done with it? “Depose it!” resolutely answer Robespierre and the thoroughgoing few. For truly, with a King who runs away, and needs to be watched in his very bedroom that he may stay and govern you, what other reasonable thing can be done? Had Philippe d’Orleans not been a caput mortuum! But of him, known as one defunct, no man now dreams. “Depose it not; say that it is inviolable, that it was spirited away, was enleve; at any cost of sophistry and solecism, reestablish it!” so answer with loud vehemence all manner of Constitutional Royalists; as all your Pure Royalists do naturally likewise, with low vehemence, and rage compressed by fear, still more passionately answer. Nay Barnave and the two Lameths, and what will follow them, do likewise answer so. Answer, with their whole might: terror-struck at the unknown Abysses on the verge of which, driven thither by themselves mainly, all now reels, ready to plunge.

By mighty effort and combination this latter course, of reestablish it, is the course fixed on; and it shall by the strong arm, if not by the clearest logic, be made good. With the sacrifice of all their hard-earned popularity, this notable Triumvirate, says Toulongeon, ‘set the Throne up again, which they had so toiled to overturn: as one might set up an overturned pyramid, on its vertex; to stand so long as it is held.’

Unhappy France; unhappy in King, Queen, and Constitution; one knows not in which unhappiest! Was the meaning of our so glorious French Revolution this, and no other, That when Shams and Delusions, long soul-killing, had become body-killing, and got the length of Bankruptcy and Inanition, a great People rose and, with one voice, said, in the Name of the Highest: Shams shall be no more? So many sorrows and bloody horrors, endured, and to be yet endured through dismal coming centuries, were they not the heavy price paid and payable for this same: Total Destruction of Shams from among men? And now, O Barnave Triumvirate! is it in such double-distilled Delusion, and Sham even of a Sham, that an Effort of this kind will rest acquiescent? Messieurs of the popular Triumvirate: Never! But, after all, what can poor popular Triumvirates and fallible august Senators do? They can, when the Truth is all too-horrible, stick their heads ostrich-like into what sheltering Fallacy is nearest: and wait there, a posteriori!

Readers who saw the Clermontais and Three–Bishopricks gallop, in the Night of Spurs; Diligences ruffling up all France into one terrific terrified Cock of India; and the Town of Nantes in its shirt, — may fancy what an affair to settle this was. Robespierre, on the extreme Left, with perhaps Petion and lean old Goupil, for the very Triumvirate has defalcated, are shrieking hoarse; drowned in Constitutional clamour. But the debate and arguing of a whole Nation; the bellowings through all Journals, for and against; the reverberant voice of Danton; the Hyperion-shafts of Camille; the porcupine-quills of implacable Marat:— conceive all this.

Constitutionalists in a body, as we often predicted, do now recede from the Mother Society, and become Feuillans; threatening her with inanition, the rank and respectability being mostly gone. Petition after Petition, forwarded by Post, or borne in Deputation, comes praying for Judgment and Decheance, which is our name for Deposition; praying, at lowest, for Reference to the Eighty-three Departments of France. Hot Marseillese Deputation comes declaring, among other things: “Our Phocean Ancestors flung a Bar of Iron into the Bay at their first landing; this Bar will float again on the Mediterranean brine before we consent to be slaves.” All this for four weeks or more, while the matter still hangs doubtful; Emigration streaming with double violence over the frontiers; (Bouille, ii. 101.) France seething in fierce agitation of this question and prize-question: What is to be done with the fugitive Hereditary Representative?

Finally, on Friday the 15th of July 1791, the National Assembly decides; in what negatory manner we know. Whereupon the Theatres all close, the Bourne-stones and Portable-chairs begin spouting, Municipal Placards flaming on the walls, and Proclamations published by sound of trumpet, ‘invite to repose;’ with small effect. And so, on Sunday the 17th, there shall be a thing seen, worthy of remembering. Scroll of a Petition, drawn up by Brissots, Dantons, by Cordeliers, Jacobins; for the thing was infinitely shaken and manipulated, and many had a hand in it: such Scroll lies now visible, on the wooden framework of the Fatherland’s Altar, for signature. Unworking Paris, male and female, is crowding thither, all day, to sign or to see. Our fair Roland herself the eye of History can discern there, ‘in the morning;’ (Madame Roland, ii. 74.) not without interest. In few weeks the fair Patriot will quit Paris; yet perhaps only to return.

But, what with sorrow of baulked Patriotism, what with closed theatres, and Proclamations still publishing themselves by sound of trumpet, the fervour of men’s minds, this day, is great. Nay, over and above, there has fallen out an incident, of the nature of Farce–Tragedy and Riddle; enough to stimulate all creatures. Early in the day, a Patriot (or some say, it was a Patriotess, and indeed Truth is undiscoverable), while standing on the firm deal-board of Fatherland’s Altar, feels suddenly, with indescribable torpedo-shock of amazement, his bootsole pricked through from below; he clutches up suddenly this electrified bootsole and foot; discerns next instant — the point of a gimlet or brad-awl playing up, through the firm deal-board, and now hastily drawing itself back! Mystery, perhaps Treason? The wooden frame-work is impetuously broken up; and behold, verily a mystery; never explicable fully to the end of the world! Two human individuals, of mean aspect, one of them with a wooden leg, lie ensconced there, gimlet in hand: they must have come in overnight; they have a supply of provisions, — no ‘barrel of gunpowder’ that one can see; they affect to be asleep; look blank enough, and give the lamest account of themselves. “Mere curiosity; they were boring up to get an eye-hole; to see, perhaps ‘with lubricity,’ whatsoever, from that new point of vision, could be seen:" — little that was edifying, one would think! But indeed what stupidest thing may not human Dulness, Pruriency, Lubricity, Chance and the Devil, choosing Two out of Half-a-million idle human heads, tempt them to? (Hist. Parl. xi. 104–7.)

Sure enough, the two human individuals with their gimlet are there. Ill-starred pair of individuals! For the result of it all is that Patriotism, fretting itself, in this state of nervous excitability, with hypotheses, suspicions and reports, keeps questioning these two distracted human individuals, and again questioning them; claps them into the nearest Guardhouse, clutches them out again; one hypothetic group snatching them from another: till finally, in such extreme state of nervous excitability, Patriotism hangs them as spies of Sieur Motier; and the life and secret is choked out of them forevermore. Forevermore, alas! Or is a day to be looked for when these two evidently mean individuals, who are human nevertheless, will become Historical Riddles; and, like him of the Iron Mask (also a human individual, and evidently nothing more), — have their Dissertations? To us this only is certain, that they had a gimlet, provisions and a wooden leg; and have died there on the Lanterne, as the unluckiest fools might die.

And so the signature goes on, in a still more excited manner. And Chaumette, for Antiquarians possess the very Paper to this hour, (Ibid. xi. 113, &c.) — has signed himself ‘in a flowing saucy hand slightly leaned;’ and Hebert, detestable Pere Duchene, as if ‘an inked spider had dropped on the paper;’ Usher Maillard also has signed, and many Crosses, which cannot write. And Paris, through its thousand avenues, is welling to the Champ-de-Mars and from it, in the utmost excitability of humour; central Fatherland’s Altar quite heaped with signing Patriots and Patriotesses; the Thirty-benches and whole internal Space crowded with onlookers, with comers and goers; one regurgitating whirlpool of men and women in their Sunday clothes. All which a Constitutional Sieur Motier sees; and Bailly, looking into it with his long visage made still longer. Auguring no good; perhaps Decheance and Deposition after all! Stop it, ye Constitutional Patriots; fire itself is quenchable, yet only quenchable at first!

Stop it, truly: but how stop it? Have not the first Free People of the Universe a right to petition? — Happily, if also unhappily, here is one proof of riot: these two human individuals, hanged at the Lanterne. Proof, O treacherous Sieur Motier? Were they not two human individuals sent thither by thee to be hanged; to be a pretext for thy bloody Drapeau Rouge? This question shall many a Patriot, one day, ask; and answer affirmatively, strong in Preternatural Suspicion.

Enough, towards half past seven in the evening, the mere natural eye can behold this thing: Sieur Motier, with Municipals in scarf, with blue National Patrollotism, rank after rank, to the clang of drums; wending resolutely to the Champ-de-Mars; Mayor Bailly, with elongated visage, bearing, as in sad duty bound, the Drapeau Rouge! Howl of angry derision rises in treble and bass from a hundred thousand throats, at the sight of Martial Law; which nevertheless waving its Red sanguinary Flag, advances there, from the Gros–Caillou Entrance; advances, drumming and waving, towards Altar of Fatherland. Amid still wilder howls, with objurgation, obtestation; with flights of pebbles and mud, saxa et faeces; with crackle of a pistol-shot; — finally with volley-fire of Patrollotism; levelled muskets; roll of volley on volley! Precisely after one year and three days, our sublime Federation Field is wetted, in this manner, with French blood.

Some ‘Twelve unfortunately shot,’ reports Bailly, counting by units; but Patriotism counts by tens and even by hundreds. Not to be forgotten, nor forgiven! Patriotism flies, shrieking, execrating. Camille ceases Journalising, this day; great Danton with Camille and Freron have taken wing, for their life; Marat burrows deep in the Earth, and is silent. Once more Patrollotism has triumphed: one other time; but it is the last.

This was the Royal Flight to Varennes. Thus was the Throne overturned thereby; but thus also was it victoriously set up again — on its vertex; and will stand while it can be held.

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