The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 7

The Three Votings.

Is Louis Capet guilty of conspiring against Liberty? Shall our Sentence be itself final, or need ratifying by Appeal to the People? If guilty, what Punishment? This is the form agreed to, after uproar and ‘several hours of tumultuous indecision:’ these are the Three successive Questions, whereon the Convention shall now pronounce. Paris floods round their Hall; multitudinous, many sounding. Europe and all Nations listen for their answer. Deputy after Deputy shall answer to his name: Guilty or Not guilty?

As to the Guilt, there is, as above hinted, no doubt in the mind of Patriot man. Overwhelming majority pronounces Guilt; the unanimous Convention votes for Guilt, only some feeble twenty-eight voting not Innocence, but refusing to vote at all. Neither does the Second Question prove doubtful, whatever the Girondins might calculate. Would not Appeal to the People be another name for civil war? Majority of two to one answers that there shall be no Appeal: this also is settled. Loud Patriotism, now at ten o’clock, may hush itself for the night; and retire to its bed not without hope. Tuesday has gone well. On the morrow comes, What Punishment? On the morrow is the tug of war.

Consider therefore if, on this Wednesday morning, there is an affluence of Patriotism; if Paris stands a-tiptoe, and all Deputies are at their post! Seven Hundred and Forty-nine honourable Deputies; only some twenty absent on mission, Duchatel and some seven others absent by sickness. Meanwhile expectant Patriotism and Paris standing a-tiptoe, have need of patience. For this Wednesday again passes in debate and effervescence; Girondins proposing that a ‘majority of three-fourths’ shall be required; Patriots fiercely resisting them. Danton, who has just got back from mission in the Netherlands, does obtain ‘order of the day’ on this Girondin proposal; nay he obtains further that we decide sans desemparer, in Permanent-session, till we have done.

And so, finally, at eight in the evening this Third stupendous Voting, by roll-call or appel nominal, does begin. What Punishment? Girondins undecided, Patriots decided, men afraid of Royalty, men afraid of Anarchy, must answer here and now. Infinite Patriotism, dusky in the lamp-light, floods all corridors, crowds all galleries, sternly waiting to hear. Shrill-sounding Ushers summon you by Name and Department; you must rise to the Tribune and say.

Eye-witnesses have represented this scene of the Third Voting, and of the votings that grew out of it; a scene protracted, like to be endless, lasting, with few brief intervals, from Wednesday till Sunday morning, — as one of the strangest seen in the Revolution. Long night wears itself into day, morning’s paleness is spread over all faces; and again the wintry shadows sink, and the dim lamps are lit: but through day and night and the vicissitude of hours, Member after Member is mounting continually those Tribune-steps; pausing aloft there, in the clearer upper light, to speak his Fate-word; then diving down into the dusk and throng again. Like Phantoms in the hour of midnight; most spectral, pandemonial! Never did President Vergniaud, or any terrestrial President, superintend the like. A King’s Life, and so much else that depends thereon, hangs trembling in the balance. Man after man mounts; the buzz hushes itself till he have spoken: Death; Banishment: Imprisonment till the Peace. Many say, Death; with what cautious well-studied phrases and paragraphs they could devise, of explanation, of enforcement, of faint recommendation to mercy. Many too say, Banishment; something short of Death. The balance trembles, none can yet guess whitherward. Whereat anxious Patriotism bellows; irrepressible by Ushers.

The poor Girondins, many of them, under such fierce bellowing of Patriotism, say Death; justifying, motivant, that most miserable word of theirs by some brief casuistry and jesuitry. Vergniaud himself says, Death; justifying by jesuitry. Rich Lepelletier Saint–Fargeau had been of the Noblesse, and then of the Patriot Left Side, in the Constituent; and had argued and reported, there and elsewhere, not a little, against Capital Punishment: nevertheless he now says, Death; a word which may cost him dear. Manuel did surely rank with the Decided in August last; but he has been sinking and backsliding ever since September, and the scenes of September. In this Convention, above all, no word he could speak would find favour; he says now, Banishment; and in mute wrath quits the place for ever, — much hustled in the corridors. Philippe Egalite votes in his soul and conscience, Death, at the sound of which, and of whom, even Patriotism shakes its head; and there runs a groan and shudder through this Hall of Doom. Robespierre’s vote cannot be doubtful; his speech is long. Men see the figure of shrill Sieyes ascend; hardly pausing, passing merely, this figure says, “La Mort sans phrase, Death without phrases;” and fares onward and downward. Most spectral, pandemonial!

And yet if the Reader fancy it of a funereal, sorrowful or even grave character, he is far mistaken. ‘The Ushers in the Mountain quarter,’ says Mercier, ‘had become as Box-openers at the Opera;’ opening and shutting of Galleries for privileged persons, for ‘d’Orleans Egalite’s mistresses,’ or other high-dizened women of condition, rustling with laces and tricolor. Gallant Deputies pass and repass thitherward, treating them with ices, refreshments and small-talk; the high-dizened heads beck responsive; some have their card and pin, pricking down the Ayes and Noes, as at a game of Rouge-et-Noir. Further aloft reigns Mere Duchesse with her unrouged Amazons; she cannot be prevented making long Hahas, when the vote is not La Mort. In these Galleries there is refection, drinking of wine and brandy ‘as in open tavern, en pleine tabagie.’ Betting goes on in all coffeehouses of the neighbourhood. But within doors, fatigue, impatience, uttermost weariness sits now on all visages; lighted up only from time to time, by turns of the game. Members have fallen asleep; Ushers come and awaken them to vote: other Members calculate whether they shall not have time to run and dine. Figures rise, like phantoms, pale in the dusky lamp-light; utter from this Tribune, only one word: Death. ‘Tout est optique,’ says Mercier, ‘the world is all an optical shadow.’ (Mercier, Nouveau Paris, vi. 156–59; Montgaillard, iii. 348–87; Moore, &c.) Deep in the Thursday night, when the Voting is done, and Secretaries are summing it up, sick Duchatel, more spectral than another, comes borne on a chair, wrapt in blankets, ‘in nightgown and nightcap,’ to vote for Mercy: one vote it is thought may turn the scale.

Ah no! In profoundest silence, President Vergniaud, with a voice full of sorrow, has to say: “I declare, in the name of the Convention, that the Punishment it pronounces on Louis Capet is that of Death.” Death by a small majority of Fifty-three. Nay, if we deduct from the one side, and add to the other, a certain Twenty-six, who said Death but coupled some faintest ineffectual surmise of mercy with it, the majority will be but One.

Death is the sentence: but its execution? It is not executed yet! Scarcely is the vote declared when Louis’s Three Advocates enter; with Protest in his name, with demand for Delay, for Appeal to the People. For this do Deseze and Tronchet plead, with brief eloquence: brave old Malesherbes pleads for it with eloquent want of eloquence, in broken sentences, in embarrassment and sobs; that brave time-honoured face, with its grey strength, its broad sagacity and honesty, is mastered with emotion, melts into dumb tears. (Moniteur in Hist. Parl. xxiii. 210. See Boissy d’Anglas, Vie de Malesherbes, ii. 139.) — They reject the Appeal to the People; that having been already settled. But as to the Delay, what they call Sursis, it shall be considered; shall be voted for to-morrow: at present we adjourn. Whereupon Patriotism ‘hisses’ from the Mountain: but a ‘tyrannical majority’ has so decided, and adjourns.

There is still this fourth Vote then, growls indignant Patriotism:— this vote, and who knows what other votes, and adjournments of voting; and the whole matter still hovering hypothetical! And at every new vote those Jesuit Girondins, even they who voted for Death, would so fain find a loophole! Patriotism must watch and rage. Tyrannical adjournments there have been; one, and now another at midnight on plea of fatigue, — all Friday wasted in hesitation and higgling; in re-counting of the votes, which are found correct as they stood! Patriotism bays fiercer than ever; Patriotism, by long-watching, has become red-eyed, almost rabid.

“Delay: yes or no?” men do vote it finally, all Saturday, all day and night. Men’s nerves are worn out, men’s hearts are desperate; now it shall end. Vergniaud, spite of the baying, ventures to say Yes, Delay; though he had voted Death. Philippe Egalite says, in his soul and conscience, No. The next Member mounting: “Since Philippe says No, I for my part say Yes, Moi je dis Oui.” The balance still trembles. Till finally, at three o’clock on Sunday morning, we have: No Delay, by a majority of Seventy; Death within four-and-twenty hours!

Garat Minister of Justice has to go to the Temple, with this stern message: he ejaculates repeatedly, “Quelle commission affreuse, What a frightful function!” (Biographie des Ministres, p. 157.) Louis begs for a Confessor; for yet three days of life, to prepare himself to die. The Confessor is granted; the three days and all respite are refused.

There is no deliverance, then? Thick stone walls answer, None — Has King Louis no friends? Men of action, of courage grown desperate, in this his extreme need? King Louis’s friends are feeble and far. Not even a voice in the coffeehouses rises for him. At Meot the Restaurateur’s no Captain Dampmartin now dines; or sees death-doing whiskerandoes on furlough exhibit daggers of improved structure! Meot’s gallant Royalists on furlough are far across the Marches; they are wandering distracted over the world: or their bones lie whitening Argonne Wood. Only some weak Priests ‘leave Pamphlets on all the bournestones,’ this night, calling for a rescue; calling for the pious women to rise; or are taken distributing Pamphlets, and sent to prison. (See Prudhomme’s Newspaper, Revolutions de Paris in Hist. Parl. xxiii. 318.)

Nay there is one death-doer, of the ancient Meot sort, who, with effort, has done even less and worse: slain a Deputy, and set all the Patriotism of Paris on edge! It was five on Saturday evening when Lepelletier St. Fargeau, having given his vote, No Delay, ran over to Fevrier’s in the Palais Royal to snatch a morsel of dinner. He had dined, and was paying. A thickset man ‘with black hair and blue beard,’ in a loose kind of frock, stept up to him; it was, as Fevrier and the bystanders bethought them, one Paris of the old King’s-Guard. “Are you Lepelletier?” asks he. — “Yes.” — “You voted in the King’s Business?” — “I voted Death.” — “Scelerat, take that!” cries Paris, flashing out a sabre from under his frock, and plunging it deep in Lepelletier’s side. Fevrier clutches him; but he breaks off; is gone.

The voter Lepelletier lies dead; he has expired in great pain, at one in the morning; — two hours before that Vote of no Delay was fully summed up! Guardsman Paris is flying over France; cannot be taken; will be found some months after, self-shot in a remote inn. (Hist. Parl. xxiii. 275, 318; Felix Lepelletier, Vie de Michel Lepelletier son Frere, p. 61. &c. Felix, with due love of the miraculous, will have it that the Suicide in the inn was not Paris, but some double-ganger of his.) — Robespierre sees reason to think that Prince d’Artois himself is privately in Town; that the Convention will be butchered in the lump. Patriotism sounds mere wail and vengeance: Santerre doubles and trebles all his patrols. Pity is lost in rage and fear; the Convention has refused the three days of life and all respite.

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