The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xvii.

The Rebound of the 24th June, 1848, on the 2d December, 1851

On Sunday, 26th June, 1848, that four days’ combat, that gigantic combat so formidable and so heroic on both sides, still continued, but the insurrection had been overcome nearly everywhere, and was restricted to the Faubourg St. Antoine. Four men who had been amongst the most dauntless defenders of the barricades of the Rue Pont-aux-Choux, of the Rue St. Claude, and of the Rue St. Louis in the Marais, escaped after the barricades had been taken, and found safe refuge in a house, No. 12, Rue St. Anastase. They were concealed in an attic. The National Guards and the Mobile Guards were hunting for them, in order to shoot them. I was told of this. I was one of the sixty Representatives sent by the Constituent Assembly into the middle of the conflict, charged with the task of everywhere preceding the attacking column, of carrying, even at the peril of their lives, words of peace to the barricades, to prevent the shedding of blood, and to stop the civil war. I went into the Rue St. Anastase, and I saved the lives of those four men.

Amongst those men there was a poor workman of the Rue de Charonne, whose wife was being confined at that very moment, and who was weeping. One could understand, when hearing his sobs and seeing his rags, how he had cleared with a single bound these three steps — poverty, despair, rebellion. Their chief was a young man, pale and fair, with high cheek bones, intelligent brow, and an earnest and resolute countenance. As soon as I set him free, and told him my name, he also wept. He said to me, “When I think that an hour ago I knew that you were facing us, and that I wished that the barrel of my gun had eyes to see and kill you!” He added, “In the times in which we live we do not know what may happen. If ever you need me, for whatever purpose, come.” His name was Auguste, and he was a wine-seller in the Rue de la Roquette.

Since that time I had only seen him once, on the 26th August, 1819, on the day when I held the corner of Balzac’s pall. The funeral possession was going to Père la Chaise. Auguste’s shop was on the way. All the streets through which the procession passed were crowded. Auguste was at his door with his young wife and two or three workmen. As I passed he greeted me.

It was this remembrance which came back to my mind as I descended the lonely streets behind my house; in the presence of the 2d of December I thought of him. I thought that he might give me information about the Faubourg St. Antoine, and help us in rousing the people. This young man had at once given me the impression of a soldier and a leader. I remembered the words which he had spoken to me, and I considered it might be useful to see him. I began by going to find in the Rue St. Anastase the courageous woman who had hidden Auguste and his three companions, to whom she had several times since rendered assistance. I begged her to accompany me. She consented.

On the way I dined upon a cake of chocolate which Charamaule had given me.

The aspects of the boulevards, in coming down the Italiens towards the Marais, had impressed rue. The shops were open everywhere as usual. There was little military display. In the wealthy quarters there was much agitation and concentration of troops; but on advancing towards the working-class neighborhoods solitude reigned paramount. Before the Café Turc a regiment was drawn up. A band of young men in blouses passed before the regiment singing the “Marseillaise.” I answered them by crying out “To Arms!” The regiment did not stir. The light shone upon the playbills on an adjacent wall; the theatres were open. I looked at the trees as I passed. They were playing Hernani at the Theatre des Italiens, with a new tenor named Guasco.

The Place de la Bastille was frequented, as usual, by goers and comers, the most peaceable folk in the world. A few workmen grouped round the July Column, and, chatting in a low voice, were scarcely noticeable. Through the windows of a wine shop could be seen two men who were disputing for and against the coup d’état. He who favored it wore a blouse, he who attacked it wore a cloth coat. A few steps further on a juggler had placed between four candles his X-shaped table, and was displaying his conjuring tricks in the midst of a crowd, who were evidently thinking only of the juggler. On looking towards the gloomy loneliness of the Quai Mazas several harnessed artillery batteries were dimly visible in the darkness. Some lighted torches here and there showed up the black outline of the cannons.

I had some trouble in finding Auguste’s door in the Rue de la Roquette. Nearly all the shops were shut, thus making the street very dark. At length, through a glass shop-front I noticed a light which gleamed on a pewter counter. Beyond the counter, through a partition also of glass and ornamented with white curtains, another light, and the shadows of two or three men at table could be vaguely distinguished. This was the place.

I entered. The door on opening rang a bell. At the sound, the door of the glazed partition which separated the shop from the parlor opened, and Auguste appeared.

He knew me at once, and came up to me.

“Ah, Sir,” said he, “it is you!”

“Do you know what is going on?” I asked him.

“Yes, sir.”

This “Yes, sir,” uttered with calmness, and even with a certain embarrassment, told me all. Where I expected an indignant outcry I found this peaceable answer. It seemed to me that I was speaking to the Faubourg St. Antoine itself. I understood that all was at an end in this district, and that we had nothing to expect from it. The people, this wonderful people, had resigned themselves. Nevertheless, I made an effort.

“Louis Bonaparte betrays the Republic,” said I, without noticing that I raised my voice.

He touched my arm, and pointing with his finger to the shadows which were pictured on the glazed partition of the parlor, “Take care, sir; do not talk so loudly.”

“What!” I exclaimed, “you have come to this — you dare not speak, you dare not utter the name of ‘Bonaparte’ aloud; you barely mumble a few words in a whisper here, in this street, in the Faubourg St. Antoine, where, from all the doors, from all the windows, from all the pavements, from all the very stones, ought to be heard the cry, ‘To arms.’”

Auguste demonstrated to me what I already saw too clearly, and what Girard had shadowed forth in the morning — the moral situation of the Faubourg — that the people were “dazed”— that it seemed to all of them that universal suffrage was restored; that the downfall of the law of the 31st of May was a good thing.

Here I interrupted him.

“But this law of the 31st of May, it was Louis Bonaparte who instigated it, it was Rouher who made it, it was Baroche who proposed it, and the Bonapartists who voted it. You are dazzled by a thief who has taken your purse, and who restores it to you!”

“Not I,” said Auguste, “but the others.”

And he continued, “To tell the whole truth, people did not care much for the Constitution, they liked the Republic, but the Republic was maintained too much by force for their taste. In all this they could only see one thing clearly, the cannons ready to slaughter them — they remembered June, 1848 — there were some poor people who had suffered greatly — Cavaignac had done much evil — women clung to the men’s blouses to prevent them from going to the barricades — nevertheless, with all this, when seeing men like ourselves at their head, they would perhaps fight, but this hindered them, they did not know for what.” He concluded by saying, “The upper part of the Faubourg is doing nothing, the lower end will do better. Round about here they will fight. The Rue de la Roquette is good, the Rue de Charonne is good; but on the side of Père la Chaise they ask, ‘What good will that do us?’ They only recognize the forty sous of their day’s work. They will not bestir themselves; do not reckon upon the masons.” He added, with a smile, “Here we do not say ‘cold as a stone,’ but ‘cold as a mason’"— and he resumed, “As for me, if I am alive, it is to you that I owe my life. Dispose of me. I will lay down my life, and will do what you wish.”

While he was speaking I saw the white curtain of the glazed partition behind him move a little. His young wife, uneasy, was peeping through at us.

“Ah! my God,” said I to him, “what we want is not the life of one man but the efforts of all.”

He was silent. I continued —

“Listen to me, Auguste, you who are good and intelligent. So, then, the Faubourgs of Paris — which are heroes even when they err — the Faubourgs of Paris, for a misunderstanding, for a question of salary wrongly construed, for a bad definition of socialism, rose in June, 1848, against the Assembly elected by themselves, against universal suffrage, against their own vote; and yet they will not rise in December, 1851, for Right, for the Law, for the People, for Liberty, for the Republic. You say that there is perplexity, and that you do not understand; but, on the contrary, it was in June that all was obscure, and it is to-day that everything is clear!”

While I was saying these last words the door of the parlor was softly opened, and some one came in. It was a young man, fair as Auguste, in an overcoat, and wearing a workman’s cap. I started. Auguste turned round and said to me, “You can trust him.”

The young man took off his cap, came close up to me, carefully turning his back on the glazed partition, and said to me in a low voice, “I know you well. I was on the Boulevard du Temple to-day. We asked you what we were to do; you said, ‘We must take up arms.’ Well, here they are!”

He thrust his hands into the pockets of his overcoat and drew out two pistols.

Almost at the same moment the bell of the street door sounded. He hurriedly put his pistols back into his pockets. A man in a blouse came in, a workman of some fifty years. This man, without looking at any one, without saying anything, threw down a piece of money on the counter. Auguste took a small glass and filled it with brandy, the man drank it off, put down the glass upon the counter and went away.

When the door was shut: “You see,” said Auguste to me, “they drink, they eat, they sleep, they think of nothing. Such are they all!”

The other interrupted him impetuously: “One man is not the People!”

And turning towards me —

“Citizen Victor Hugo, they will march forward. If all do not march, some will march. To tell the truth, it is perhaps not here that a beginning should be made, it is on the other side of the water.”

And suddenly checking himself — “After all, you probably do not know my name.”

He took a little pocket-book from his pocket, tore out a piece of paper, wrote on it his name, and gave it to me. I regret having forgotten that name. He was a working engineer. In order not to compromise him, I burnt this paper with many others on the Saturday morning, when I was on the point of being arrested.

“It is true, sir,” said Auguste, “you must not judge badly of the Faubourg. As my friend has said, it will perhaps not be the first to begin; but if there is a rising it will rise.”

I exclaimed, “And who would you have erect if the Faubourg St. Antoine be prostrate! Who will be alive if the people be dead!”

The engineer went to the street door, made certain that it was well shut, then came back, and said —

“There are many men ready and willing. It is the leaders who are wanting. Listen, Citizen Victor Hugo, I can say this to you, and,” he added, lowering his voice, “I hope for a movement to-night.”

“Where?”

“On the Faubourg St. Marceau.”

“At what time?”

“At one o’clock.”

“How do you know it?”

“Because I shall be there.”

He continued: “Now, Citizen Victor Hugo, if a movement takes place to-night in the Faubourg St. Marceau, will you head it? Do you consent?”

“Yes.”

“Have you your scarf of office?”

I half drew it out of my pocket. His eyes glistened with joy.

“Excellent,” said he. “The Citizen has his pistols, the Representative his scarf. All are armed.”

I questioned him. “Are you sure of your movement for to-night?”

He answered me, “We have prepared it, and we reckon to be there.”

“In that case,” said I, “as soon as the first barricade is constructed I will be behind it. Come and fetch me.”

“Where?”

“Wherever I may be.”

He assured me that if the movement should take place during the night he would know it at half-past ten that evening at the latest, and that I should be informed of it before eleven o’clock. We settled that in whatever place I might be at that hour I would send word to Auguste, who undertook to let him know.

The young woman continued to peep out at us. The conversation was growing prolonged, and might seem singular to the people in the parlor. “I am going,” said I to Auguste.

I had opened the door, he took my hand, pressed it as a woman might have done, and said to me in a deeply-moved tone, “You are going: will you come back?”

“I do not know.”

“It is true,” said he. “No one knows what is going to happen. Well, you are perhaps going to be hunted and sought for as I have been. It will perhaps be your turn to be shot, and mine to save you. You know the mouse may sometimes prove useful to the lion. Monsieur Victor Hugo, if you need a refuge, this house is yours. Come here. You will find a bed where you can sleep, and a man who will lay down his life for you.”

I thanked him by a hearty shake of the hand, and I left. Eight o’clock struck. I hastened towards the Rue de Charonne.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38