The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 8

Place de la Revolution.

To this conclusion, then, hast thou come, O hapless, Louis! The Son of Sixty Kings is to die on the Scaffold by form of law. Under Sixty Kings this same form of Law, form of Society, has been fashioning itself together, these thousand years; and has become, one way and other, a most strange Machine. Surely, if needful, it is also frightful this Machine; dead, blind; not what it should be; which, with swift stroke, or by cold slow torture, has wasted the lives and souls of innumerable men. And behold now a King himself, or say rather Kinghood in his person, is to expire here in cruel tortures; — like a Phalaris shut in the belly of his own red-heated Brazen Bull! It is ever so; and thou shouldst know it, O haughty tyrannous man: injustice breeds injustice; curses and falsehoods do verily ‘return always home,’ wide as they may wander. Innocent Louis bears the sins of many generations: he too experiences that man’s tribunal is not in this Earth; that if he had no Higher one, it were not well with him.

A King dying by such violence appeals impressively to the imagination; as the like must do, and ought to do. And yet at bottom it is not the King dying, but the Man! Kingship is a coat; the grand loss is of the skin. The man from whom you take his Life, to him can the whole combined world do more? Lally went on his hurdle, his mouth filled with a gag. Miserablest mortals, doomed for picking pockets, have a whole five-act Tragedy in them, in that dumb pain, as they go to the gallows, unregarded; they consume the cup of trembling down to the lees. For Kings and for Beggars, for the justly doomed and the unjustly, it is a hard thing to die. Pity them all: thy utmost pity with all aids and appliances and throne-and-scaffold contrasts, how far short is it of the thing pitied!

A Confessor has come; Abbe Edgeworth, of Irish extraction, whom the King knew by good report, has come promptly on this solemn mission. Leave the Earth alone, then, thou hapless King; it with its malice will go its way, thou also canst go thine. A hard scene yet remains: the parting with our loved ones. Kind hearts, environed in the same grim peril with us; to be left here! Let the Reader look with the eyes of Valet Clery, through these glass-doors, where also the Municipality watches; and see the cruellest of scenes:

‘At half-past eight, the door of the ante-room opened: the Queen appeared first, leading her Son by the hand; then Madame Royale and Madame Elizabeth: they all flung themselves into the arms of the King. Silence reigned for some minutes; interrupted only by sobs. The Queen made a movement to lead his Majesty towards the inner room, where M. Edgeworth was waiting unknown to them: “No,” said the King, “let us go into the dining-room, it is there only that I can see you.” They entered there; I shut the door of it, which was of glass. The King sat down, the Queen on his left hand, Madame Elizabeth on his right, Madame Royale almost in front; the young Prince remained standing between his Father’s legs. They all leaned towards him, and often held him embraced. This scene of woe lasted an hour and three-quarters; during which we could hear nothing; we could see only that always when the King spoke, the sobbings of the Princesses redoubled, continued for some minutes; and that then the King began again to speak.’ (Clery’s Narrative (London, 1798), cited in Weber, iii. 312.) — And so our meetings and our partings do now end! The sorrows we gave each other; the poor joys we faithfully shared, and all our lovings and our sufferings, and confused toilings under the earthly Sun, are over. Thou good soul, I shall never, never through all ages of Time, see thee any more! — NEVER! O Reader, knowest thou that hard word?

For nearly two hours this agony lasts; then they tear themselves asunder. “Promise that you will see us on the morrow.” He promises:— Ah yes, yes; yet once; and go now, ye loved ones; cry to God for yourselves and me! — It was a hard scene, but it is over. He will not see them on the morrow. The Queen in passing through the ante-room glanced at the Cerberus Municipals; and with woman’s vehemence, said through her tears, “Vous etes tous des scelerats.”

King Louis slept sound, till five in the morning, when Clery, as he had been ordered, awoke him. Clery dressed his hair. While this went forward, Louis took a ring from his watch, and kept trying it on his finger; it was his wedding-ring, which he is now to return to the Queen as a mute farewell. At half-past six, he took the Sacrament; and continued in devotion, and conference with Abbe Edgeworth. He will not see his Family: it were too hard to bear.

At eight, the Municipals enter: the King gives them his Will and messages and effects; which they, at first, brutally refuse to take charge of: he gives them a roll of gold pieces, a hundred and twenty-five louis; these are to be returned to Malesherbes, who had lent them. At nine, Santerre says the hour is come. The King begs yet to retire for three minutes. At the end of three minutes, Santerre again says the hour is come. ‘Stamping on the ground with his right foot, Louis answers: “Partons, let us go.”’ — How the rolling of those drums comes in, through the Temple bastions and bulwarks, on the heart of a queenly wife; soon to be a widow! He is gone, then, and has not seen us? A Queen weeps bitterly; a King’s Sister and Children. Over all these Four does Death also hover: all shall perish miserably save one; she, as Duchesse d’Angouleme, will live, — not happily.

At the Temple Gate were some faint cries, perhaps from voices of pitiful women: “Grace! Grace!” Through the rest of the streets there is silence as of the grave. No man not armed is allowed to be there: the armed, did any even pity, dare not express it, each man overawed by all his neighbours. All windows are down, none seen looking through them. All shops are shut. No wheel-carriage rolls this morning, in these streets but one only. Eighty thousand armed men stand ranked, like armed statues of men; cannons bristle, cannoneers with match burning, but no word or movement: it is as a city enchanted into silence and stone; one carriage with its escort, slowly rumbling, is the only sound. Louis reads, in his Book of Devotion, the Prayers of the Dying: clatter of this death-march falls sharp on the ear, in the great silence; but the thought would fain struggle heavenward, and forget the Earth.

As the clocks strike ten, behold the Place de la Revolution, once Place de Louis Quinze: the Guillotine, mounted near the old Pedestal where once stood the Statue of that Louis! Far round, all bristles with cannons and armed men: spectators crowding in the rear; d’Orleans Egalite there in cabriolet. Swift messengers, hoquetons, speed to the Townhall, every three minutes: near by is the Convention sitting, — vengeful for Lepelletier. Heedless of all, Louis reads his Prayers of the Dying; not till five minutes yet has he finished; then the Carriage opens. What temper he is in? Ten different witnesses will give ten different accounts of it. He is in the collision of all tempers; arrived now at the black Mahlstrom and descent of Death: in sorrow, in indignation, in resignation struggling to be resigned. “Take care of M. Edgeworth,” he straitly charges the Lieutenant who is sitting with them: then they two descend.

The drums are beating: “Taisez-vous, Silence!” he cries ‘in a terrible voice, d’une voix terrible.’ He mounts the scaffold, not without delay; he is in puce coat, breeches of grey, white stockings. He strips off the coat; stands disclosed in a sleeve-waistcoat of white flannel. The Executioners approach to bind him: he spurns, resists; Abbe Edgeworth has to remind him how the Saviour, in whom men trust, submitted to be bound. His hands are tied, his head bare; the fatal moment is come. He advances to the edge of the Scaffold, ‘his face very red,’ and says: “Frenchmen, I die innocent: it is from the Scaffold and near appearing before God that I tell you so. I pardon my enemies; I desire that France — ” A General on horseback, Santerre or another, prances out with uplifted hand: “Tambours!” The drums drown the voice. “Executioners do your duty!” The Executioners, desperate lest themselves be murdered (for Santerre and his Armed Ranks will strike, if they do not), seize the hapless Louis: six of them desperate, him singly desperate, struggling there; and bind him to their plank. Abbe Edgeworth, stooping, bespeaks him: “Son of Saint Louis, ascend to Heaven.” The Axe clanks down; a King’s Life is shorn away. It is Monday the 21st of January 1793. He was aged Thirty-eight years four months and twenty-eight days. (Newspapers, Municipal Records, &c. &c. in Hist. Parl. xxiii. 298–349) Deux Amis (ix. 369–373), Mercier (Nouveau Paris, iii. 3–8.)

Executioner Samson shews the Head: fierce shout of Vive la Republique rises, and swells; caps raised on bayonets, hats waving: students of the College of Four Nations take it up, on the far Quais; fling it over Paris. Orleans drives off in his cabriolet; the Townhall Councillors rub their hands, saying, “It is done, It is done.” There is dipping of handkerchiefs, of pike-points in the blood. Headsman Samson, though he afterwards denied it, (His Letter in the Newspapers, Hist. Parl. ubi supra.) sells locks of the hair: fractions of the puce coat are long after worn in rings. (Forster’s Briefwechsel, i. 473.) — And so, in some half-hour it is done; and the multitude has all departed. Pastrycooks, coffee-sellers, milkmen sing out their trivial quotidian cries: the world wags on, as if this were a common day. In the coffeehouses that evening, says Prudhomme, Patriot shook hands with Patriot in a more cordial manner than usual. Not till some days after, according to Mercier, did public men see what a grave thing it was.

A grave thing it indisputably is; and will have consequences. On the morrow morning, Roland, so long steeped to the lips in disgust and chagrin, sends in his demission. His accounts lie all ready, correct in black-on-white to the uttermost farthing: these he wants but to have audited, that he might retire to remote obscurity to the country and his books. They will never be audited those accounts; he will never get retired thither.

It was on Tuesday that Roland demitted. On Thursday comes Lepelletier St. Fargeau’s Funeral, and passage to the Pantheon of Great Men. Notable as the wild pageant of a winter day. The Body is borne aloft, half-bare; the winding sheet disclosing the death-wound: sabre and bloody clothes parade themselves; a ‘lugubrious music’ wailing harsh naeniae. Oak-crowns shower down from windows; President Vergniaud walks there, with Convention, with Jacobin Society, and all Patriots of every colour, all mourning brotherlike.

Notable also for another thing, this Burial of Lepelletier: it was the last act these men ever did with concert! All Parties and figures of Opinion, that agitate this distracted France and its Convention, now stand, as it were, face to face, and dagger to dagger; the King’s Life, round which they all struck and battled, being hurled down. Dumouriez, conquering Holland, growls ominous discontent, at the head of Armies. Men say Dumouriez will have a King; that young d’Orleans Egalite shall be his King. Deputy Fauchet, in the Journal des Amis, curses his day, more bitterly than Job did; invokes the poniards of Regicides, of ‘Arras Vipers’ or Robespierres, of Pluto Dantons, of horrid Butchers Legendre and Simulacra d’Herbois, to send him swiftly to another world than theirs. (Hist. Parl. ubi supra.) This is Te–Deum Fauchet, of the Bastille Victory, of the Cercle Social. Sharp was the death-hail rattling round one’s Flag-of-truce, on that Bastille day: but it was soft to such wreckage of high Hope as this; one’s New Golden Era going down in leaden dross, and sulphurous black of the Everlasting Darkness!

At home this Killing of a King has divided all friends; and abroad it has united all enemies. Fraternity of Peoples, Revolutionary Propagandism; Atheism, Regicide; total destruction of social order in this world! All Kings, and lovers of Kings, and haters of Anarchy, rank in coalition; as in a war for life. England signifies to Citizen Chauvelin, the Ambassador or rather Ambassador’s-Cloak, that he must quit the country in eight days. Ambassador’s-Cloak and Ambassador, Chauvelin and Talleyrand, depart accordingly. (Annual Register of 1793, pp. 114–128.) Talleyrand, implicated in that Iron Press of the Tuileries, thinks it safest to make for America.

England has cast out the Embassy: England declares war, — being shocked principally, it would seem, at the condition of the River Scheldt. Spain declares war; being shocked principally at some other thing; which doubtless the Manifesto indicates. (23d March, Annual Register, p. 161.) Nay we find it was not England that declared war first, or Spain first; but that France herself declared war first on both of them; (1st February; 7th March, Moniteur of these dates.) — a point of immense Parliamentary and Journalistic interest in those days, but which has become of no interest whatever in these. They all declare war. The sword is drawn, the scabbard thrown away. It is even as Danton said, in one of his all-too gigantic figures: “The coalised Kings threaten us; we hurl at their feet, as gage of battle, the Head of a King.”

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