The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 6

To finish the Terror.

It is very remarkable, indeed, that since the Etre–Supreme Feast, and the sublime continued harangues on it, which Billaud feared would become a bore to him, Robespierre has gone little to Committee; but held himself apart, as if in a kind of pet. Nay they have made a Report on that old Catherine Theot, and her Regenerative Man spoken of by the Prophets; not in the best spirit. This Theot mystery they affect to regard as a Plot; but have evidently introduced a vein of satire, of irreverent banter, not against the Spinster alone, but obliquely against her Regenerative Man! Barrere’s light pen was perhaps at the bottom of it: read through the solemn snuffling organs of old Vadier of the Surete Generale, the Theot Report had its effect; wrinkling the general Republican visage into an iron grin. Ought these things to be?

We note further that among the Prisoners in the Twelve Houses of Arrest, there is one whom we have seen before. Senhora Fontenai, born Cabarus, the fair Proserpine whom Representative Tallien Pluto-like did gather at Bourdeaux, not without effect on himself! Tallien is home, by recall, long since, from Bourdeaux; and in the most alarming position. Vain that he sounded, louder even than ever, the note of Jacobinism, to hide past shortcomings: the Jacobins purged him out; two times has Robespierre growled at him words of omen from the Convention Tribune. And now his fair Cabarus, hit by denunciation, lies Arrested, Suspect, in spite of all he could do! — Shut in horrid pinfold of death, the Senhora smuggles out to her red-gloomy Tallien the most pressing entreaties and conjurings: Save me; save thyself. Seest thou not that thy own head is doomed; thou with a too fiery audacity; a Dantonist withal; against whom lie grudges? Are ye not all doomed, as in the Polyphemus Cavern; the fawningest slave of you will be but eaten last! — Tallien feels with a shudder that it is true. Tallien has had words of omen, Bourdon has had words, Freron is hated and Barras: each man ‘feels his head if it yet stick on his shoulders.’

Meanwhile Robespierre, we still observe, goes little to Convention, not at all to Committee; speaks nothing except to his Jacobin House of Lords, amid his bodyguard of Tappe-durs. These ‘forty-days,’ for we are now far in July, he has not shewed face in Committee; could only work there by his three shallow scoundrels, and the terror there was of him. The Incorruptible himself sits apart; or is seen stalking in solitary places in the fields, with an intensely meditative air; some say, ‘with eyes red-spotted,’ (Deux Amis, xii. 347–73.) fruit of extreme bile: the lamentablest seagreen Chimera that walks the Earth that July! O hapless Chimera; for thou too hadst a life, and a heart of flesh, — what is this the stern gods, seeming to smile all the way, have led and let thee to! Art not thou he who, few years ago, was a young Advocate of promise; and gave up the Arras Judgeship rather than sentence one man to die? —

What his thoughts might be? His plans for finishing the Terror? One knows not. Dim vestiges there flit of Agrarian Law; a victorious Sansculottism become Landed Proprietor; old Soldiers sitting in National Mansions, in Hospital Palaces of Chambord and Chantilly; peace bought by victory; breaches healed by Feast of Etre Supreme; — and so, through seas of blood, to Equality, Frugality, worksome Blessedness, Fraternity, and Republic of the virtues! Blessed shore, of such a sea of Aristocrat blood: but how to land on it? Through one last wave: blood of corrupt Sansculottists; traitorous or semi-traitorous Conventionals, rebellious Talliens, Billauds, to whom with my Etre Supreme I have become a bore; with my Apocalyptic Old Woman a laughing-stock! — So stalks he, this poor Robespierre, like a seagreen ghost through the blooming July. Vestiges of schemes flit dim. But what his schemes or his thoughts were will never be known to man.

New Catacombs, some say, are digging for a huge simultaneous butchery. Convention to be butchered, down to the right pitch, by General Henriot and Company: Jacobin House of Lords made dominant; and Robespierre Dictator. (Deux Amis, xii. 350–8.) There is actually, or else there is not actually, a List made out; which the Hairdresser has got eye on, as he frizzled the Incorruptible locks. Each man asks himself, Is it I?

Nay, as Tradition and rumour of Anecdote still convey it, there was a remarkable bachelor’s dinner one hot day at Barrere’s. For doubt not, O Reader, this Barrere and others of them gave dinners; had ‘country-house at Clichy,’ with elegant enough sumptuosities, and pleasures high-rouged! (See Vilate.) But at this dinner we speak of, the day being so hot, it is said, the guests all stript their coats, and left them in the drawing-room: whereupon Carnot glided out; groped in Robespierre’s pocket; found a list of Forty, his own name among them; and tarried not at the wine-cup that day! — Ye must bestir yourselves, O Friends; ye dull Frogs of the Marsh, mute ever since Girondism sank under, even ye now must croak or die! Councils are held, with word and beck; nocturnal, mysterious as death. Does not a feline Maximilien stalk there; voiceless as yet; his green eyes red-spotted; back bent, and hair up? Rash Tallien, with his rash temper and audacity of tongue; he shall bell the cat. Fix a day; and be it soon, lest never!

Lo, before the fixed day, on the day which they call Eighth of Thermidor, 26th July 1794, Robespierre himself reappears in Convention; mounts to the Tribune! The biliary face seems clouded with new gloom; judge whether your Talliens, Bourdons listened with interest. It is a voice bodeful of death or of life. Long-winded, unmelodious as the screech-owl’s, sounds that prophetic voice: Degenerate condition of Republican spirit; corrupt moderatism; Surete, Salut Committees themselves infected; back-sliding on this hand and on that; I, Maximilien, alone left incorruptible, ready to die at a moment’s warning. For all which what remedy is there? The Guillotine; new vigour to the all-healing Guillotine: death to traitors of every hue! So sings the prophetic voice; into its Convention sounding-board. The old song this: but to-day, O Heavens! has the sounding-board ceased to act? There is not resonance in this Convention; there is, so to speak, a gasp of silence; nay a certain grating of one knows not what! — Lecointre, our old Draper of Versailles, in these questionable circumstances, sees nothing he can do so safe as rise, ‘insidiously’ or not insidiously, and move, according to established wont, that the Robespierre Speech be ‘printed and sent to the Departments.’ Hark: gratings, even of dissonance! Honourable Members hint dissonance; Committee–Members, inculpated in the Speech, utter dissonance; demand ‘delay in printing.’ Ever higher rises the note of dissonance; inquiry is even made by Editor Freron: “What has become of the Liberty of Opinions in this Convention?” The Order to print and transmit, which had got passed, is rescinded. Robespierre, greener than ever before, has to retire, foiled; discerning that it is mutiny, that evil is nigh.

Mutiny is a thing of the fatallest nature in all enterprises whatsoever; a thing so incalculable, swift-frightful; not to be dealt with in fright. But mutiny in a Robespierre Convention, above all, — it is like fire seen sputtering in the ship’s powder-room! One death-defiant plunge at it, this moment, and you may still tread it out: hesitate till next moment, — ship and ship’s captain, crew and cargo are shivered far; the ship’s voyage has suddenly ended between sea and sky. If Robespierre can, to-night, produce his Henriot and Company, and get his work done by them, he and Sansculottism may still subsist some time; if not, probably not. Oliver Cromwell, when that Agitator Serjeant stept forth from the ranks, with plea of grievances, and began gesticulating and demonstrating, as the mouthpiece of Thousands expectant there, — discerned, with those truculent eyes of his, how the matter lay; plucked a pistol from his holsters; blew Agitator and Agitation instantly out. Noll was a man fit for such things.

Robespierre, for his part, glides over at evening to his Jacobin House of Lords; unfolds there, instead of some adequate resolution, his woes, his uncommon virtues, incorruptibilities; then, secondly, his rejected screech-owl Oration; — reads this latter over again; and declares that he is ready to die at a moment’s warning. Thou shalt not die! shouts Jacobinism from its thousand throats. “Robespierre, I will drink the hemlock with thee,” cries Painter David, “Je boirai la cigue avec toi;" — a thing not essential to do, but which, in the fire of the moment, can be said.

Our Jacobin sounding-board, therefore, does act! Applauses heaven-high cover the rejected Oration; fire-eyed fury lights all Jacobin features: Insurrection a sacred duty; the Convention to be purged; Sovereign People under Henriot and Municipality; we will make a new June–Second of it: to your tents, O Israel! In this key pipes Jacobinism; in sheer tumult of revolt. Let Tallien and all Opposition men make off. Collot d’Herbois, though of the supreme Salut, and so lately near shot, is elbowed, bullied; is glad to escape alive. Entering Committee-room of Salut, all dishevelled, he finds sleek sombre Saint–Just there, among the rest; who in his sleek way asks, “What is passing at the Jacobins?” — “What is passing?” repeats Collot, in the unhistrionic Cambyses’ vein: “What is passing? Nothing but revolt and horrors are passing. Ye want our lives; ye shall not have them.” Saint–Just stutters at such Cambyses’-oratory; takes his hat to withdraw. That report he had been speaking of, Report on Republican Things in General we may say, which is to be read in Convention on the morrow, he cannot shew it them this moment: a friend has it; he, Saint–Just, will get it, and send it, were he once home. Once home, he sends not it, but an answer that he will not send it; that they will hear it from the Tribune to-morrow.

Let every man, therefore, according to a well-known good-advice, ‘pray to Heaven, and keep his powder dry!’ Paris, on the morrow, will see a thing. Swift scouts fly dim or invisible, all night, from Surete and Salut; from conclave to conclave; from Mother Society to Townhall. Sleep, can it fall on the eyes of Talliens, Frerons, Collots? Puissant Henriot, Mayor Fleuriot, Judge Coffinhal, Procureur Payan, Robespierre and all the Jacobins are getting ready.

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