The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 3

The Tumbrils.

Next week, it is still but the 10th of April, there comes a new Nineteen; Chaumette, Gobel, Hebert’s Widow, the Widow of Camille: these also roll their fated journey; black Death devours them. Mean Hebert’s Widow was weeping, Camille’s Widow tried to speak comfort to her. O ye kind Heavens, azure, beautiful, eternal behind your tempests and Time-clouds, is there not pity for all! Gobel, it seems, was repentant; he begged absolution of a Priest; did as a Gobel best could. For Anaxagoras Chaumette, the sleek head now stript of its bonnet rouge, what hope is there? Unless Death were ‘an eternal sleep?’ Wretched Anaxagoras, God shall judge thee, not I.

Hebert, therefore, is gone, and the Hebertists; they that robbed Churches, and adored blue Reason in red nightcap. Great Danton, and the Dantonists; they also are gone. Down to the catacombs; they are become silent men! Let no Paris Municipality, no Sect or Party of this hue or that, resist the will of Robespierre and Salut. Mayor Pache, not prompt enough in denouncing these Pitts Plots, may congratulate about them now. Never so heartily; it skills not! His course likewise is to the Luxembourg. We appoint one Fleuriot–Lescot Interim–Mayor in his stead: an ‘architect from Belgium,’ they say, this Fleuriot; he is a man one can depend on. Our new Agent–National is Payan, lately Juryman; whose cynosure also is Robespierre.

Thus then, we perceive, this confusedly electric Erebus-cloud of Revolutionary Government has altered its shape somewhat. Two masses, or wings, belonging to it; an over-electric mass of Cordelier Rabids, and an under-electric of Dantonist Moderates and Clemency-men, — these two masses, shooting bolts at one another, so to speak, have annihilated one another. For the Erebus-cloud, as we often remark, is of suicidal nature; and, in jagged irregularity, darts its lightning withal into itself. But now these two discrepant masses being mutually annihilated, it is as if the Erebus-cloud had got to internal composure; and did only pour its hellfire lightning on the World that lay under it. In plain words, Terror of the Guillotine was never terrible till now. Systole, diastole, swift and ever swifter goes the Axe of Samson. Indictments cease by degrees to have so much as plausibility: Fouquier chooses from the Twelve houses of Arrest what he calls Batches, ‘Fournees,’ a score or more at a time; his Jurymen are charged to make feu de file, fire-filing till the ground be clear. Citizen Laflotte’s report of Plot in the Luxembourg is verily bearing fruit! If no speakable charge exist against a man, or Batch of men, Fouquier has always this: a Plot in the Prison. Swift and ever swifter goes Samson; up, finally, to three score and more at a Batch! It is the highday of Death: none but the Dead return not.

O dusky d’Espremenil, what a day is this, the 22d of April, thy last day! The Palais Hall here is the same stone Hall, where thou, five years ago, stoodest perorating, amid endless pathos of rebellious Parlement, in the grey of the morning; bound to march with d’Agoust to the Isles of Hieres. The stones are the same stones: but the rest, Men, Rebellion, Pathos, Peroration, see! it has all fled, like a gibbering troop of ghosts, like the phantasms of a dying brain! With d’Espremenil, in the same line of Tumbrils, goes the mournfullest medley. Chapelier goes, ci-devant popular President of the Constituent; whom the Menads and Maillard met in his carriage, on the Versailles Road. Thouret likewise, ci-devant President, father of Constitutional Law-acts; he whom we heard saying, long since, with a loud voice, “The Constituent Assembly has fulfilled its mission!” And the noble old Malesherbes, who defended Louis and could not speak, like a grey old rock dissolving into sudden water: he journeys here now, with his kindred, daughters, sons and grandsons, his Lamoignons, Chateaubriands; silent, towards Death. — One young Chateaubriand alone is wandering amid the Natchez, by the roar of Niagara Falls, the moan of endless forests: Welcome thou great Nature, savage, but not false, not unkind, unmotherly; no Formula thou, or rapid jangle of Hypothesis, Parliamentary Eloquence, Constitution-building and the Guillotine; speak thou to me, O Mother, and sing my sick heart thy mystic everlasting lullaby-song, and let all the rest be far! —

Another row of Tumbrils we must notice: that which holds Elizabeth, the Sister of Louis. Her Trial was like the rest; for Plots, for Plots. She was among the kindliest, most innocent of women. There sat with her, amid four-and-twenty others, a once timorous Marchioness de Crussol; courageous now; expressing towards her the liveliest loyalty. At the foot of the Scaffold, Elizabeth with tears in her eyes, thanked this Marchioness; said she was grieved she could not reward her. “Ah, Madame, would your Royal Highness deign to embrace me, my wishes were complete!” — “Right willingly, Marquise de Crussol, and with my whole heart.” (Montgaillard, iv. 200.) Thus they: at the foot of the Scaffold. The Royal Family is now reduced to two: a girl and a little boy. The boy, once named Dauphin, was taken from his Mother while she yet lived; and given to one Simon, by trade a Cordwainer, on service then about the Temple–Prison, to bring him up in principles of Sansculottism. Simon taught him to drink, to swear, to sing the carmagnole. Simon is now gone to the Municipality: and the poor boy, hidden in a tower of the Temple, from which in his fright and bewilderment and early decrepitude he wishes not to stir out, lies perishing, ‘his shirt not changed for six months;’ amid squalor and darkness, lamentably, (Duchesse d’Angouleme, Captivite a la Tour du Temple, pp. 37–71.) — so as none but poor Factory Children and the like are wont to perish, unlamented!

The Spring sends its green leaves and bright weather, bright May brighter than ever: Death pauses not. Lavoisier famed Chemist, shall die and not live: Chemist Lavoisier was Farmer–General Lavoisier too, and now ‘all the Farmers–General are arrested;’ all, and shall give an account of their monies and incomings; and die for ‘putting water in the tobacco’ they sold. (Tribunal Revolutionnaire, du 8 Mai 1794, Moniteur, No. 231.) Lavoisier begged a fortnight more of life, to finish some experiments: but “the Republic does not need such;” the axe must do its work. Cynic Chamfort, reading these Inscriptions of Brotherhood or Death, says “it is a Brotherhood of Cain:” arrested, then liberated; then about to be arrested again, this Chamfort cuts and slashes himself with frantic uncertain hand; gains, not without difficulty, the refuge of death. Condorcet has lurked deep, these many months; Argus-eyes watching and searching for him. His concealment is become dangerous to others and himself; he has to fly again, to skulk, round Paris, in thickets and stone-quarries. And so at the Village of Clamars, one bleared May morning, there enters a Figure, ragged, rough-bearded, hunger-stricken; asks breakfast in the tavern there. Suspect, by the look of him! “Servant out of place, sayest thou?” Committee–President of Forty–Sous finds a Latin Horace on him: “Art thou not one of those Ci-devants that were wont to keep servants? Suspect!” He is haled forthwith, breakfast unfinished, towards Bourg-la-Reine, on foot: he faints with exhaustion; is set on a peasant’s horse; is flung into his damp prison-cell: on the morrow, recollecting him, you enter; Condorcet lies dead on the floor. They die fast, and disappear: the Notabilities of France disappear, one after one, like lights in a Theatre, which you are snuffing out.

Under which circumstances, is it not singular, and almost touching, to see Paris City drawn out, in the meek May nights, in civic ceremony, which they call ‘Souper Fraternel, Brotherly Supper? Spontaneous, or partially spontaneous, in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth nights of this May month, it is seen. Along the Rue Saint–Honore, and main Streets and Spaces, each Citoyen brings forth what of supper the stingy Maximum has yielded him, to the open air; joins it to his neighbour’s supper; and with common table, cheerful light burning frequent, and what due modicum of cut-glasses and other garnish and relish is convenient, they eat frugally together, under the kind stars. (Tableaux de la Revolution, para Soupers Fraternels; Mercier, ii. 150.) See it O Night! With cheerfully pledged wine-cup, hobnobbing to the Reign of Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood, with their wives in best ribands, with their little ones romping round, the Citoyens, in frugal Love-feast, sit there. Night in her wide empire sees nothing similar. O my brothers, why is the reign of Brotherhood not come! It is come, it shall come, say the Citoyens frugally hobnobbing. — Ah me! these everlasting stars, do they not look down ‘like glistening eyes, bright with immortal pity, over the lot of man!’ —

One lamentable thing, however, is, that individuals will attempt assassination — of Representatives of the People. Representative Collot, Member even of Salut, returning home, ‘about one in the morning,’ probably touched with liquor, as he is apt to be, meets on the stairs, the cry “Scelerat!” and also the snap of a pistol: which latter flashes in the pan; disclosing to him, momentarily, a pair of truculent saucer-eyes, swart grim-clenched countenance; recognisable as that of our little fellow-lodger, Citoyen Amiral, formerly ‘a clerk in the Lotteries!; Collot shouts Murder, with lungs fit to awaken all the Rue Favart; Amiral snaps a second time; a second time flashes in the pan; then darts up into his apartment; and, after there firing, still with inadequate effect, one musket at himself and another at his captor, is clutched and locked in Prison. (Riouffe, p. 73; Deux Amis, xii. 298–302.) An indignant little man this Amiral, of Southern temper and complexion, of ‘considerable muscular force.’ He denies not that he meant to “purge France of a tyrant;” nay avows that he had an eye to the Incorruptible himself, but took Collot as more convenient!

Rumour enough hereupon; heaven-high congratulation of Collot, fraternal embracing, at the Jacobins, and elsewhere. And yet, it would seem the assassin-mood proves catching. Two days more, it is still but the 23d of May, and towards nine in the evening, Cecile Renault, Paper-dealer’s daughter, a young woman of soft blooming look, presents herself at the Cabinet-maker’s in the Rue Saint–Honore; desires to see Robespierre. Robespierre cannot be seen: she grumbles irreverently. They lay hold of her. She has left a basket in a shop hard by: in the basket are female change of raiment and two knives! Poor Cecile, examined by Committee, declares she “wanted to see what a tyrant was like:” the change of raiment was “for my own use in the place I am surely going to.” — “What place?” — “Prison; and then the Guillotine,” answered she. — Such things come of Charlotte Corday; in a people prone to imitation, and monomania! Swart choleric men try Charlotte’s feat, and their pistols miss fire; soft blooming young women try it, and, only half-resolute, leave their knives in a shop.

O Pitt, and ye Faction of the Stranger, shall the Republic never have rest; but be torn continually by baited springs, by wires of explosive spring-guns? Swart Amiral, fair young Cecile, and all that knew them, and many that did not know them, lie locked, waiting the scrutiny of Tinville.

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