The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

Sword of Sharpness.

In fact it is something quite other than paper theorems, it is iron and audacity that France now needs.

Is not La Vendee still blazing; — alas too literally; rogue Rossignol burning the very corn-mills? General Santerre could do nothing there; General Rossignol, in blind fury, often in liquor, can do less than nothing. Rebellion spreads, grows ever madder. Happily those lean Quixote-figures, whom we saw retreating out of Mentz, ‘bound not to serve against the Coalition for a year,’ have got to Paris. National Convention packs them into post-vehicles and conveyances; sends them swiftly, by post, into La Vendee! There valiantly struggling, in obscure battle and skirmish, under rogue Rossignol, let them, unlaurelled, save the Republic, and ‘be cut down gradually to the last man.’ (Deux Amis, xi. 147; xiii. 160–92, &c.)

Does not the Coalition, like a fire-tide, pour in; Prussia through the opened North–East; Austria, England through the North–West? General Houchard prospers no better there than General Custine did: let him look to it! Through the Eastern and the Western Pyrenees Spain has deployed itself; spreads, rustling with Bourbon banners, over the face of the South. Ashes and embers of confused Girondin civil war covered that region already. Marseilles is damped down, not quenched; to be quenched in blood. Toulon, terrorstruck, too far gone for turning, has flung itself, ye righteous Powers, — into the hands of the English! On Toulon Arsenal there flies a Flag, — nay not even the Fleur-de-lys of a Louis Pretender; there flies that accursed St. George’s Cross of the English and Admiral Hood! What remnants of sea-craft, arsenals, roperies, war-navy France had, has given itself to these enemies of human nature, ‘ennemis du genre humain.’ Beleaguer it, bombard it, ye Commissioners Barras, Freron, Robespierre Junior; thou General Cartaux, General Dugommier; above all, thou remarkable Artillery–Major, Napoleon Buonaparte! Hood is fortifying himself, victualling himself; means, apparently, to make a new Gibraltar of it.

But lo, in the Autumn night, late night, among the last of August, what sudden red sunblaze is this that has risen over Lyons City; with a noise to deafen the world? It is the Powder-tower of Lyons, nay the Arsenal with four Powder-towers, which has caught fire in the Bombardment; and sprung into the air, carrying ‘a hundred and seventeen houses’ after it. With a light, one fancies, as of the noon sun; with a roar second only to the Last Trumpet! All living sleepers far and wide it has awakened. What a sight was that, which the eye of History saw, in the sudden nocturnal sunblaze! The roofs of hapless Lyons, and all its domes and steeples made momentarily clear; Rhone and Saone streams flashing suddenly visible; and height and hollow, hamlet and smooth stubblefield, and all the region round; — heights, alas, all scarped and counterscarped, into trenches, curtains, redouts; blue Artillery-men, little Powder-devilkins, plying their hell-trade there, through the not ambrosial night! Let the darkness cover it again; for it pains the eye. Of a truth, Chalier’s death is costing this City dear. Convention Commissioners, Lyons Congresses have come and gone; and action there was and reaction; bad ever growing worse; till it has come to this: Commissioner Dubois–Crance, ‘with seventy thousand men, and all the Artillery of several Provinces,’ bombarding Lyons day and night.

Worse things still are in store. Famine is in Lyons, and ruin, and fire. Desperate are the sallies of the besieged; brave Precy, their National Colonel and Commandant, doing what is in man: desperate but ineffectual. Provisions cut off; nothing entering our city but shot and shells! The Arsenal has roared aloft; the very Hospital will be battered down, and the sick buried alive. A Black Flag hung on this latter noble Edifice, appealing to the pity of the beseigers; for though maddened, were they not still our brethren? In their blind wrath, they took it for a flag of defiance, and aimed thitherward the more. Bad is growing ever worse here: and how will the worse stop, till it have grown worst of all? Commissioner Dubois will listen to no pleading, to no speech, save this only, ‘We surrender at discretion.’ Lyons contains in it subdued Jacobins; dominant Girondins; secret Royalists. And now, mere deaf madness and cannon-shot enveloping them, will not the desperate Municipality fly, at last, into the arms of Royalism itself? Majesty of Sardinia was to bring help, but it failed. Emigrant Autichamp, in name of the Two Pretender Royal Highnesses, is coming through Switzerland with help; coming, not yet come: Precy hoists the Fleur-de-lys!

At sight of which, all true Girondins sorrowfully fling down their arms:— Let our Tricolor brethren storm us, then, and slay us in their wrath: with you we conquer not. The famishing women and children are sent forth: deaf Dubois sends them back; — rains in mere fire and madness. Our ‘redouts of cotton-bags’ are taken, retaken; Precy under his Fleur-de-lys is valiant as Despair. What will become of Lyons? It is a siege of seventy days. (Deux Amis, xi. 80–143.)

Or see, in these same weeks, far in the Western waters: breasting through the Bay of Biscay, a greasy dingy little Merchantship, with Scotch skipper; under hatches whereof sit, disconsolate, — the last forlorn nucleus of Girondism, the Deputies from Quimper! Several have dissipated themselves, whithersoever they could. Poor Riouffe fell into the talons of Revolutionary Committee, and Paris Prison. The rest sit here under hatches; reverend Petion with his grey hair, angry Buzot, suspicious Louvet, brave young Barbaroux, and others. They have escaped from Quimper, in this sad craft; are now tacking and struggling; in danger from the waves, in danger from the English, in still worse danger from the French; — banished by Heaven and Earth to the greasy belly of this Scotch skipper’s Merchant-vessel, unfruitful Atlantic raving round. They are for Bourdeaux, if peradventure hope yet linger there. Enter not Bourdeaux, O Friends! Bloody Convention Representatives, Tallien and such like, with their Edicts, with their Guillotine, have arrived there; Respectability is driven under ground; Jacobinism lords it on high. From that Reole landingplace, or Beak of Ambes, as it were, Pale Death, waving his Revolutionary Sword of sharpness, waves you elsewhither!

On one side or the other of that Bec d’Ambes, the Scotch Skipper with difficulty moors, a dexterous greasy man; with difficulty lands his Girondins; — who, after reconnoitring, must rapidly burrow in the Earth; and so, in subterranean ways, in friends’ back-closets, in cellars, barn-lofts, in Caves of Saint–Emilion and Libourne, stave off cruel Death. (Louvet, p. 180–199.) Unhappiest of all Senators!

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