The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 6

The Steeples at Midnight.

For, in truth, the Insurrection is just about ripe. Thursday is the ninth of the month August: if Forfeiture be not pronounced by the Legislature that day, we must pronounce it ourselves.

Legislature? A poor waterlogged Legislature can pronounce nothing. On Wednesday the eighth, after endless oratory once again, they cannot even pronounce Accusation again Lafayette; but absolve him, — hear it, Patriotism! — by a majority of two to one. Patriotism hears it; Patriotism, hounded on by Prussian Terror, by Preternatural Suspicion, roars tumultuous round the Salle de Manege, all day; insults many leading Deputies, of the absolvent Right-side; nay chases them, collars them with loud menace: Deputy Vaublanc, and others of the like, are glad to take refuge in Guardhouses, and escape by the back window. And so, next day, there is infinite complaint; Letter after Letter from insulted Deputy; mere complaint, debate and self-cancelling jargon: the sun of Thursday sets like the others, and no Forfeiture pronounced. Wherefore in fine, To your tents, O Israel!

The Mother–Society ceases speaking; groups cease haranguing: Patriots, with closed lips now, ‘take one another’s arm;’ walk off, in rows, two and two, at a brisk business-pace; and vanish afar in the obscure places of the East. (Deux Amis, viii. 129–88.) Santerre is ready; or we will make him ready. Forty-seven of the Forty-eight Sections are ready; nay Filles–Saint-Thomas itself turns up the Jacobin side of it, turns down the Feuillant side of it, and is ready too. Let the unlimited Patriot look to his weapon, be it pike, be it firelock; and the Brest brethren, above all, the blackbrowed Marseillese prepare themselves for the extreme hour! Syndic Roederer knows, and laments or not as the issue may turn, that ‘five thousand ball-cartridges, within these few days, have been distributed to Federes, at the Hotel-de-Ville.’ (Roederer a la Barre, Seance du 9 Aout in Hist. Parl. xvi. 393.)

And ye likewise, gallant gentlemen, defenders of Royalty, crowd ye on your side to the Tuileries. Not to a Levee: no, to a Couchee: where much will be put to bed. Your Tickets of Entry are needful; needfuller your blunderbusses! — They come and crowd, like gallant men who also know how to die: old Maille the Camp–Marshal has come, his eyes gleaming once again, though dimmed by the rheum of almost four-score years. Courage, Brothers! We have a thousand red Swiss; men stanch of heart, steadfast as the granite of their Alps. National Grenadiers are at least friends of Order; Commandant Mandat breathes loyal ardour, will “answer for it on his head.” Mandat will, and his Staff; for the Staff, though there stands a doom and Decree to that effect, is happily never yet dissolved.

Commandant Mandat has corresponded with Mayor Petion; carries a written Order from him these three days, to repel force by force. A squadron on the Pont Neuf with cannon shall turn back these Marseillese coming across the River: a squadron at the Townhall shall cut Saint–Antoine in two, ‘as it issues from the Arcade Saint–Jean;’ drive one half back to the obscure East, drive the other half forward through ‘the Wickets of the Louvre.’ Squadrons not a few, and mounted squadrons; squadrons in the Palais Royal, in the Place Vendome: all these shall charge, at the right moment; sweep this street, and then sweep that. Some new Twentieth of June we shall have; only still more ineffectual? Or probably the Insurrection will not dare to rise at all? Mandat’s Squadrons, Horse–Gendarmerie and blue Guards march, clattering, tramping; Mandat’s Cannoneers rumble. Under cloud of night; to the sound of his generale, which begins drumming when men should go to bed. It is the 9th night of August, 1792.

On the other hand, the Forty-eight Sections correspond by swift messengers; are choosing each their ‘three Delegates with full powers.’ Syndic Roederer, Mayor Petion are sent for to the Tuileries: courageous Legislators, when the drum beats danger, should repair to their Salle. Demoiselle Theroigne has on her grenadier-bonnet, short-skirted riding-habit; two pistols garnish her small waist, and sabre hangs in baldric by her side.

Such a game is playing in this Paris Pandemonium, or City of All the Devils! — And yet the Night, as Mayor Petion walks here in the Tuileries Garden, ‘is beautiful and calm;’ Orion and the Pleiades glitter down quite serene. Petion has come forth, the ‘heat’ inside was so oppressive. (Roederer, Chronique de Cinquante Jours: Recit de Petion. Townhall Records, &c. in Hist. Parl. xvi. 399–466.) Indeed, his Majesty’s reception of him was of the roughest; as it well might be. And now there is no outgate; Mandat’s blue Squadrons turn you back at every Grate; nay the Filles–Saint-Thomas Grenadiers give themselves liberties of tongue, How a virtuous Mayor ‘shall pay for it, if there be mischief,’ and the like; though others again are full of civility. Surely if any man in France is in straights this night, it is Mayor Petion: bound, under pain of death, one may say, to smile dexterously with the one side of his face, and weep with the other; — death if he do it not dexterously enough! Not till four in the morning does a National Assembly, hearing of his plight, summon him over ‘to give account of Paris;’ of which he knows nothing: whereby however he shall get home to bed, and only his gilt coach be left. Scarcely less delicate is Syndic Roederer’s task; who must wait whether he will lament or not, till he see the issue. Janus Bifrons, or Mr. Facing-both-ways, as vernacular Bunyan has it! They walk there, in the meanwhile, these two Januses, with others of the like double conformation; and ‘talk of indifferent matters.’

Roederer, from time to time, steps in; to listen, to speak; to send for the Department–Directory itself, he their Procureur Syndic not seeing how to act. The Apartments are all crowded; some seven hundred gentlemen in black elbowing, bustling; red Swiss standing like rocks; ghost, or partial-ghost of a Ministry, with Roederer and advisers, hovering round their Majesties; old Marshall Maille kneeling at the King’s feet, to say, He and these gallant gentlemen are come to die for him. List! through the placid midnight; clang of the distant stormbell! So, in very sooth; steeple after steeple takes up the wondrous tale. Black Courtiers listen at the windows, opened for air; discriminate the steeple-bells: (Roederer, ubi supra.) this is the tocsin of Saint–Roch; that again, is it not Saint–Jacques, named de la Boucherie? Yes, Messieurs! Or even Saint–Germain l’Auxerrois, hear ye it not? The same metal that rang storm, two hundred and twenty years ago; but by a Majesty’s order then; on Saint–Bartholomew’s Eve (24th August, 1572.) — So go the steeple-bells; which Courtiers can discriminate. Nay, meseems, there is the Townhall itself; we know it by its sound! Yes, Friends, that is the Townhall; discoursing so, to the Night. Miraculously; by miraculous metal-tongue and man’s arm: Marat himself, if you knew it, is pulling at the rope there! Marat is pulling; Robespierre lies deep, invisible for the next forty hours; and some men have heart, and some have as good as none, and not even frenzy will give them any.

What struggling confusion, as the issue slowly draws on; and the doubtful Hour, with pain and blind struggle, brings forth its Certainty, never to be abolished! — The Full-power Delegates, three from each Section, a Hundred and forty-four in all, got gathered at the Townhall, about midnight. Mandat’s Squadron, stationed there, did not hinder their entering: are they not the ‘Central Committee of the Sections’ who sit here usually; though in greater number tonight? They are there: presided by Confusion, Irresolution, and the Clack of Tongues. Swift scouts fly; Rumour buzzes, of black Courtiers, red Swiss, of Mandat and his Squadrons that shall charge. Better put off the Insurrection? Yes, put it off. Ha, hark! Saint–Antoine booming out eloquent tocsin, of its own accord! — Friends, no: ye cannot put off the Insurrection; but must put it on, and live with it, or die with it.

Swift now, therefore: let these actual Old Municipals, on sight of the Full-powers, and mandate of the Sovereign elective People, lay down their functions; and this New Hundred and forty-four take them up! Will ye nill ye, worthy Old Municipals, ye must go. Nay is it not a happiness for many a Municipal that he can wash his hands of such a business; and sit there paralyzed, unaccountable, till the Hour do bring forth; or even go home to his night’s rest? (Section Documents, Townhall Documents, Hist. Parl. ubi supra.) Two only of the Old, or at most three, we retain Mayor Petion, for the present walking in the Tuileries; Procureur Manuel; Procureur Substitute Danton, invisible Atlas of the whole. And so, with our Hundred and forty-four, among whom are a Tocsin–Huguenin, a Billaud, a Chaumette; and Editor–Talliens, and Fabre d’Eglantines, Sergents, Panises; and in brief, either emergent, or else emerged and full-blown, the entire Flower of unlimited Patriotism: have we not, as by magic, made a New Municipality; ready to act in the unlimited manner; and declare itself roundly, ‘in a State of Insurrection!’ — First of all, then, be Commandant Mandat sent for, with that Mayor’s-Order of his; also let the New Municipals visit those Squadrons that were to charge; and let the stormbell ring its loudest; — and, on the whole, Forward, ye Hundred and forty-four; retreat is now none for you!

Reader, fancy not, in thy languid way, that Insurrection is easy. Insurrection is difficult: each individual uncertain even of his next neighbour; totally uncertain of his distant neighbours, what strength is with him, what strength is against him; certain only that, in case of failure, his individual portion is the gallows! Eight hundred thousand heads, and in each of them a separate estimate of these uncertainties, a separate theorem of action conformable to that: out of so many uncertainties, does the certainty, and inevitable net-result never to be abolished, go on, at all moments, bodying itself forth; — leading thee also towards civic-crowns or an ignominious noose.

Could the Reader take an Asmodeus’s Flight, and waving open all roofs and privacies, look down from the Tower of Notre Dame, what a Paris were it! Of treble-voice whimperings or vehemence, of bass-voice growlings, dubitations; Courage screwing itself to desperate defiance; Cowardice trembling silent within barred doors; — and all round, Dulness calmly snoring; for much Dulness, flung on its mattresses, always sleeps. O, between the clangour of these high-storming tocsins and that snore of Dulness, what a gamut: of trepidation, excitation, desperation; and above it mere Doubt, Danger, Atropos and Nox!

Fighters of this section draw out; hear that the next Section does not; and thereupon draw in. Saint–Antoine, on this side the River, is uncertain of Saint–Marceau on that. Steady only is the snore of Dulness, are the Six Hundred Marseillese that know how to die! Mandat, twice summoned to the Townhall, has not come. Scouts fly incessant, in distracted haste; and the many-whispering voices of Rumour. Theroigne and unofficial Patriots flit, dim-visible, exploratory, far and wide; like Night-birds on the wing. Of Nationals some Three thousand have followed Mandat and his generale; the rest follow each his own theorem of the uncertainties: theorem, that one should march rather with Saint–Antoine; innumerable theorems, that in such a case the wholesomest were sleep. And so the drums beat, in made fits, and the stormbells peal. Saint–Antoine itself does but draw out and draw in; Commandant Santerre, over there, cannot believe that the Marseillese and Saint Marceau will march. Thou laggard sonorous Beer-vat, with the loud voice and timber head, is it time now to palter? Alsatian Westermann clutches him by the throat with drawn sabre: whereupon the Timber-headed believes. In this manner wanes the slow night; amid fret, uncertainty and tocsin; all men’s humour rising to the hysterical pitch; and nothing done.

However, Mandat, on the third summons does come; — come, unguarded; astonished to find the Municipality new. They question him straitly on that Mayor’s-Order to resist force by force; on that strategic scheme of cutting Saint–Antoine in two halves: he answers what he can: they think it were right to send this strategic National Commandant to the Abbaye Prison, and let a Court of Law decide on him. Alas, a Court of Law, not Book–Law but primeval Club–Law, crowds and jostles out of doors; all fretted to the hysterical pitch; cruel as Fear, blind as the Night: such Court of Law, and no other, clutches poor Mandat from his constables; beats him down, massacres him, on the steps of the Townhall. Look to it, ye new Municipals; ye People, in a state of Insurrection! Blood is shed, blood must be answered for; — alas, in such hysterical humour, more blood will flow: for it is as with the Tiger in that; he has only to begin.

Seventeen Individuals have been seized in the Champs Elysees, by exploratory Patriotism; they flitting dim-visible, by it flitting dim-visible. Ye have pistols, rapiers, ye Seventeen? One of those accursed ‘false Patrols;’ that go marauding, with Anti–National intent; seeking what they can spy, what they can spill! The Seventeen are carried to the nearest Guard-house; eleven of them escape by back passages. “How is this?” Demoiselle Theroigne appears at the front entrance, with sabre, pistols, and a train; denounces treasonous connivance; demands, seizes, the remaining six, that the justice of the People be not trifled with. Of which six two more escape in the whirl and debate of the Club–Law Court; the last unhappy Four are massacred, as Mandat was: Two Ex–Bodyguards; one dissipated Abbe; one Royalist Pamphleteer, Sulleau, known to us by name, Able Editor, and wit of all work. Poor Sulleau: his Acts of the Apostles, and brisk Placard–Journals (for he was an able man) come to Finis, in this manner; and questionable jesting issues suddenly in horrid earnest! Such doings usher in the dawn of the Tenth of August, 1792.

Or think what a night the poor National Assembly has had: sitting there, ‘in great paucity,’ attempting to debate; — quivering and shivering; pointing towards all the thirty-two azimuths at once, as the magnet-needle does when thunderstorm is in the air! If the Insurrection come? If it come, and fail? Alas, in that case, may not black Courtiers, with blunderbusses, red Swiss with bayonets rush over, flushed with victory, and ask us: Thou undefinable, waterlogged, self-distractive, self-destructive Legislative, what dost thou here unsunk? — Or figure the poor National Guards, bivouacking ‘in temporary tents’ there; or standing ranked, shifting from leg to leg, all through the weary night; New tricolor Municipals ordering one thing, old Mandat Captains ordering another! Procureur Manuel has ordered the cannons to be withdrawn from the Pont Neuf; none ventured to disobey him. It seemed certain, then, the old Staff so long doomed has finally been dissolved, in these hours; and Mandat is not our Commandant now, but Santerre? Yes, friends: Santerre henceforth, — surely Mandat no more! The Squadrons that were to charge see nothing certain, except that they are cold, hungry, worn down with watching; that it were sad to slay French brothers; sadder to be slain by them. Without the Tuileries Circuit, and within it, sour uncertain humour sways these men: only the red Swiss stand steadfast. Them their officers refresh now with a slight wetting of brandy; wherein the Nationals, too far gone for brandy, refuse to participate.

King Louis meanwhile had laid him down for a little sleep: his wig when he reappeared had lost the powder on one side. (Roederer, ubi supra.) Old Marshal Maille and the gentlemen in black rise always in spirits, as the Insurrection does not rise: there goes a witty saying now, “Le tocsin ne rend pas.” The tocsin, like a dry milk-cow, does not yield. For the rest, could one not proclaim Martial Law? Not easily; for now, it seems, Mayor Petion is gone. On the other hand, our Interim Commandant, poor Mandat being off, ‘to the Hotel-de-Ville,’ complains that so many Courtiers in black encumber the service, are an eyesorrow to the National Guards. To which her Majesty answers with emphasis, That they will obey all, will suffer all, that they are sure men these.

And so the yellow lamplight dies out in the gray of morning, in the King’s Palace, over such a scene. Scene of jostling, elbowing, of confusion, and indeed conclusion, for the thing is about to end. Roederer and spectral Ministers jostle in the press; consult, in side cabinets, with one or with both Majesties. Sister Elizabeth takes the Queen to the window: “Sister, see what a beautiful sunrise,” right over the Jacobins church and that quarter! How happy if the tocsin did not yield! But Mandat returns not; Petion is gone: much hangs wavering in the invisible Balance. About five o’clock, there rises from the Garden a kind of sound; as of a shout to which had become a howl, and instead of Vive le Roi were ending in Vive la Nation. “Mon Dieu!” ejaculates a spectral Minister, “what is he doing down there?” For it is his Majesty, gone down with old Marshal Maille to review the troops; and the nearest companies of them answer so. Her Majesty bursts into a stream of tears. Yet on stepping from the cabinet her eyes are dry and calm, her look is even cheerful. ‘The Austrian lip, and the aquiline nose, fuller than usual, gave to her countenance,’ says Peltier, (in Toulongeon, ii. 241.) ‘something of Majesty, which they that did not see her in these moments cannot well have an idea of.’ O thou Theresa’s Daughter!

King Louis enters, much blown with the fatigue; but for the rest with his old air of indifference. Of all hopes now surely the joyfullest were, that the tocsin did not yield.

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