The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 5

The Prisons.

It is time now, however, to cast a glance into the Prisons. When Desmoulins moved for his Committee of Mercy, these Twelve Houses of Arrest held five thousand persons. Continually arriving since then, there have now accumulated twelve thousand. They are Ci-devants, Royalists; in far greater part, they are Republicans, of various Girondin, Fayettish, Un–Jacobin colour. Perhaps no human Habitation or Prison ever equalled in squalor, in noisome horror, these Twelve Houses of Arrest. There exist records of personal experience in them Memoires sur les Prisons; one of the strangest Chapters in the Biography of Man.

Very singular to look into it: how a kind of order rises up in all conditions of human existence; and wherever two or three are gathered together, there are formed modes of existing together, habitudes, observances, nay gracefulnesses, joys! Citoyen Coitant will explain fully how our lean dinner, of herbs and carrion, was consumed not without politeness and place-aux-dames: how Seigneur and Shoeblack, Duchess and Doll–Tearsheet, flung pellmell into a heap, ranked themselves according to method: at what hour ‘the Citoyennes took to their needlework;’ and we, yielding the chairs to them, endeavoured to talk gallantly in a standing posture, or even to sing and harp more or less. Jealousies, enmities are not wanting; nor flirtations, of an effective character.

Alas, by degrees, even needlework must cease: Plot in the Prison rises, by Citoyen Laflotte and Preternatural Suspicion. Suspicious Municipality snatches from us all implements; all money and possession, of means or metal, is ruthlessly searched for, in pocket, in pillow and paillasse, and snatched away; red-capped Commissaries entering every cell! Indignation, temporary desperation, at robbery of its very thimble, fills the gentle heart. Old Nuns shriek shrill discord; demand to be killed forthwith. No help from shrieking! Better was that of the two shifty male Citizens, who, eager to preserve an implement or two, were it but a pipe-picker, or needle to darn hose with, determined to defend themselves: by tobacco. Swift then, as your fell Red Caps are heard in the Corridor rummaging and slamming, the two Citoyens light their pipes and begin smoking. Thick darkness envelops them. The Red Nightcaps, opening the cell, breathe but one mouthful; burst forth into chorus of barking and coughing. “Quoi, Messieurs,” cry the two Citoyens, “You don’t smoke? Is the pipe disagreeable! Est-ce que vous ne fumez pas?” But the Red Nightcaps have fled, with slight search: “Vous n’aimez pas la pipe?” cry the Citoyens, as their door slams-to again. (Maison d’Arret de Port–Libre, par Coittant, &c. Memoires sur les Prisons, ii.) My poor brother Citoyens, O surely, in a reign of Brotherhood, you are not the two I would guillotine!

Rigour grows, stiffens into horrid tyranny; Plot in the Prison getting ever riper. This Plot in the Prison, as we said, is now the stereotype formula of Tinville: against whomsoever he knows no crime, this is a ready-made crime. His Judgment-bar has become unspeakable; a recognised mockery; known only as the wicket one passes through, towards Death. His Indictments are drawn out in blank; you insert the Names after. He has his moutons, detestable traitor jackalls, who report and bear witness; that they themselves may be allowed to live, — for a time. His Fournees, says the reproachful Collot, ‘shall in no case exceed three-score;’ that is his maximum. Nightly come his Tumbrils to the Luxembourg, with the fatal Roll-call; list of the Fournee of to-morrow. Men rush towards the Grate; listen, if their name be in it? One deep-drawn breath, when the name is not in: we live still one day! And yet some score or scores of names were in. Quick these; they clasp their loved ones to their heart, one last time; with brief adieu, wet-eyed or dry-eyed, they mount, and are away. This night to the Conciergerie; through the Palais misnamed of Justice, to the Guillotine to-morrow.

Recklessness, defiant levity, the Stoicism if not of strength yet of weakness, has possessed all hearts. Weak women and Ci-devants, their locks not yet made into blond perukes, their skins not yet tanned into breeches, are accustomed to ‘act the Guillotine’ by way of pastime. In fantastic mummery, with towel-turbans, blanket-ermine, a mock Sanhedrim of Judges sits, a mock Tinville pleads; a culprit is doomed, is guillotined by the oversetting of two chairs. Sometimes we carry it farther: Tinville himself, in his turn, is doomed, and not to the Guillotine alone. With blackened face, hirsute, horned, a shaggy Satan snatches him not unshrieking; shews him, with outstretched arm and voice, the fire that is not quenched, the worm that dies not; the monotony of Hell-pain, and the What hour? answered by, It is Eternity! (Montgaillard, iv. 218; Riouffe, p. 273.)

And still the Prisons fill fuller, and still the Guillotine goes faster. On all high roads march flights of Prisoners, wending towards Paris. Not Ci-devants now; they, the noisy of them, are mown down; it is Republicans now. Chained two and two they march; in exasperated moments, singing their Marseillaise. A hundred and thirty-two men of Nantes for instance, march towards Paris, in these same days: Republicans, or say even Jacobins to the marrow of the bone; but Jacobins who had not approved Noyading. (Voyage de Cent Trente-deux Nantais, Prisons, ii. 288–335.) Vive la Republique rises from them in all streets of towns: they rest by night, in unutterable noisome dens, crowded to choking; one or two dead on the morrow. They are wayworn, weary of heart; can only shout: Live the Republic; we, as under horrid enchantment, dying in this way for it!

Some Four Hundred Priests, of whom also there is record, ride at anchor, ‘in the roads of the Isle of Aix,’ long months; looking out on misery, vacuity, waste Sands of Oleron and the ever-moaning brine. Ragged, sordid, hungry; wasted to shadows: eating their unclean ration on deck, circularly, in parties of a dozen, with finger and thumb; beating their scandalous clothes between two stones; choked in horrible miasmata, closed under hatches, seventy of them in a berth, through night; so that the ‘aged Priest is found lying dead in the morning, in the attitude of prayer!’ (Relation de ce qu’ont souffert pour la Religion les Pretres deportes en 1794, dans la rade de l’ile d’Aix, Prisons, ii. 387–485.) — How long, O Lord!

Not forever; no. All Anarchy, all Evil, Injustice, is, by the nature of it, dragon’s-teeth; suicidal, and cannot endure.

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