The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xix.

One Foot in the Tomb

Cournet was waiting for us. He received us on the ground floor, in a parlor where there was a fire, a table, and some chairs; but the room was so small that a quarter of us filled it to overflowing, and the others remained in the courtyard. “It is impossible to deliberate here,” said Bancel. “I have a larger room on the first floor,” answered Cournet, “but it is a building in course of construction, which is not yet furnished, and where there is no fire.”—“What does it matter?” they answered him. “Let us go up to the first floor.”

We went up to the first floor by a steep and narrow wooden staircase, and we took possession of two rooms with very low ceilings, but of which one was sufficiently large. The walls were whitewashed, and a few straw-covered stools formed the whole of its furniture.

They called out to me, “Preside.”

I sat down on one of the stools in the corner of the first room, with the fire place on my right and on my left the door opening upon the staircase. Baudin said to me, “I have a pencil and paper. I will act as secretary to you.” He sat down on a stool next to me.

The Representatives and those present, amongst whom were several men in blouses, remained standing, forming in front of Baudin and myself a sort of square, backed by the two walls of the room opposite to us. This crowd extended as far as the staircase. A lighted candle was placed on the chimney-piece.

A common spirit animated this meeting. The faces were pale, but in every eye could be seen the same firm resolution. In all these shadows glistened the same flame. Several simultaneously asked permission to speak. I requested them to give their names to Baudin, who wrote them down, and then passed me the list.

The first speaker was a workman. He began by apologizing for mingling with the Representatives, he a stranger to the Assembly. The Representatives interrupted him. “No, no,” they said, “the People and Representatives are all one! Speak —!” He declared that if he spoke it was in order to clear from all suspicion the honor of his brethren, the workmen of Paris; that he had heard some Representatives express doubt about them. He asserted that this was unjust, that the workmen realized the whole crime of M. Bonaparte and the whole duty of the People, that they would not be deaf to the appeal of the Republican Representatives, and that this would be clearly shown. He said all this, simply, with a sort of proud shyness and of honest bluntness. He kept his word. I found him the next day fighting on the Rambuteau barricade.

Mathieu (de la Drôme) came in as the workman concluded. “I bring news,” he exclaimed. A profound silence ensued.

As I have already said, we vaguely knew since the morning that the Right were to have assembled, and that a certain number of our friends had probably taken part in the meeting, and that was all. Mathieu (de la Drôme) brought us the events of the day, the details of the arrests at their own houses carried out without any obstacle, of the meeting which had taken place at M. Daru’s house and its rough treatment in the Rue de Bourgogne, of the Representatives expelled from the Hall of the Assembly, of the meanness of President Dupin, of the melting away of the High Court, of the total inaction of the Council of State, of the sad sitting held at the Mairie of the Tenth Arrondissement, of the Oudinot, fiasco, of the decree of the deposition of the President, and of the two hundred and twenty forcibly arrested and taken to the Quai d’Orsay. He concluded in a manly style: “The duty of the Left was increasing hourly. The morrow would probably prove decisive.” He implored the meeting to take this into consideration.

A workman added a fact. He had happened in the morning to be in the Rue de Grenelle during the passage of the arrested members of the Assembly; he was there at the moment when one of the commanders of the Chasseurs de Vincennes had uttered these words, “Now it is the turn of those gentlemen — the Red Representatives. Let them look out for themselves!”

One of the editors of the Révolution, Hennett de Kesler, who afterwards became an intrepid exile, completed the information of Mathieu (de la Drôme). He recounted the action taken by two members of the Assembly with regard to the so-called Minister of the Interior, Morny, and the answer of the said Morny: “If I find any of the Representatives behind the barricades, I will have them shot to the last man,” and that other saying of the same witty vagabond respecting the members taken to the Quai d’Orsay, “These are the last Representatives who will be made prisoners.” He told us that a placard was at that very moment being printed which declared that “Any one who should be found at a secret meeting would be immediately shot.” The placard, in truth, appeared the next morning.

Baudin rose up. “The coup d’état redoubles its rage,” exclaimed he. “Citizens, let us redouble our energy!”

Suddenly a man in a blouse entered. He was out of breath. He had run hard. He told us that he had just seen, and he repeated, had seen with “his own eyes,” in the Rue Popincourt, a regiment marching in silence, and wending its way towards the blind alley of No. 82, that we were surrounded, and that we were about to be attacked. He begged us to disperse immediately.

“Citizen Representatives,” called out Cournet, “I have placed scouts in the blind alley who will fall back and warn us if the regiment penetrates thither. The door is narrow and will be barricaded in the twinkling of an eye. We are here, with you, fifty armed and resolute men, and at the first shot we shall be two hundred. We are provided with ammunition. You can deliberate calmly.”

And as he concluded he raised his right arm, and from his sleeve fell a large poniard, which he had concealed, and with the other hand he rattled in his pocket the butts of a pair of pistols.

“Very well,” said I, “let us continue.”

Three of the youngest and most eloquent orators of the Left, Bancel, Arnauld (de l’Ariége) and Victor Chauffour delivered their opinions in succession. All three were imbued with this notion, that our appeal to arms not having yet been placarded, the different incidents of the Boulevarde du Temple and of the Café Bonvalet having brought about no results, none of our decrees, owing to the repressive measures of Bonaparte, having yet succeeded in appearing, while the events at the Mairie of the Tenth Arrondissement began to be spread abroad through Paris, it seemed as though the Right had commenced active resistance before the Left. A generous rivalry for the public safety spurred them on. It was delightful to them to know that a regiment ready to attack was close by, within a few steps, and that perhaps in a few moments their blood would flow.

Moreover, advice abounded, and with advice, uncertainty. Some illusions were still entertained. A workman, leaning close to me against the fireplace, said in a low voice to one of his comrades that the People must not be reckoned upon, and that if we fought “We should perpetrate a madness.”

The incidents and events of the day had in some degree modified my opinion as to the course to be followed in this grave crisis. The silence of the crowd at the moment when Arnauld (de l’Ariége) and I had apostrophized the troops, had destroyed the impression which a few hours before the enthusiasm of the people on the Boulevard du Temple had left with me. The hesitation of Auguste had impressed me, the Society of Cabinet Makers appeared to shun us, the torpor of the Faubourg St. Antoine was manifest, the inertness of the Faubourg St. Marceau was not less so. I ought to have received notice from the engineer before eleven o’clock, and eleven o’clock was past. Our hopes died away one after another. Nevertheless, all the more reason, in my opinion, to astonish and awaken Paris by an extraordinary spectacle, by a daring act of life and collective power on the part of the Representatives of the Left, by the daring of an immense devotion.

It will be seen later on what a combination of accidental circumstances prevented this idea from being realized as I then purposed. The Representatives have done their whole duty. Providence perhaps has not done all on its side. Be it as it may, supposing that we were not at once carried off by some nocturnal and immediate combat, and that at the hour at which I was speaking we had still a “to-morrow,” I felt the necessity of fixing every eye upon the course which should be adopted on the day which was about to follow. — I spoke.

I began by completely unveiling the situation. I painted the picture in four words: the Constitution thrown into the gutter; the Assembly driven to prison with the butt-end of a musket, the Council of State dispersed; the High Court expelled by a galley-sergeant, a manifest beginning of victory for Louis Bonaparte, Paris ensnared in the army as though in a net; bewilderment everywhere, all authority overthrown; all compacts annulled; two things only remained standing, the coup d’état and ourselves.

“Ourselves! and who are we?”

“We are,” said I, “we are Truth and Justice! We are the supreme and sovereign power, the People incarnate — Right!”

I continued —

“Louis Bonaparte at every minute which elapses advances a step further in his crime. For him nothing is inviolable, nothing is sacred; this morning he violated the Palace of the Representatives of the Nation, a few hours later he laid violent hands on their persons; to-morrow, perhaps in a few moments, he will shed their blood. Well then! he marches upon us, let us march upon him. The danger grows greater, let us grow greater with the danger.”

A movement of assent passed through the Assembly. I continued —

“I repeat and insist. Let us show no mercy to this wretched Bonaparte for any of the enormities which his outrage contains. As he has drawn the wine — I should say the blood — he must drink it up. We are not individuals, we are the Nation. Each of us walks forth clothed with the Sovereignty of the people. He cannot strike our persons without rending that. Let us compel his volleys to pierce our sashes as well as our breasts. This man is on a road where logic grasps him and leads him to parricide. What he is killing in this moment is the country! Well, then! when the ball of Executive Power pierces the sash of Legislative Power, it is visible parricide! It is this that must be understood!”

“We are quite ready!” they cried out. “What measures would you advise us to adopt?”

“No half measures,” answered I; “a deed of grandeur! To-morrow — if we leave here this night — let us all meet in the Faubourg St. Antoine.”

They interposed, “Why the Faubourg St. Antoine?”

“Yes,” resumed I, “the Faubourg St. Antoine! I cannot believe that the heart of the People has ceased to beat there. Let us all meet to-morrow in the Faubourg St. Antoine. Opposite the Lenoir Market there is a hall which was used by a club in 1848.”

They cried out to me, “The Salle Roysin.”

“That is it,” said I, “The Salle Roysin. We who remain free number a hundred and twenty Republican Representatives. Let us install ourselves in this hall. Let us install ourselves in the fulness and majesty of the Legislative Power. Henceforward we are the Assembly, the whole of the Assembly! Let us sit there, deliberate there, in our official sashes, in the midst of the People. Let us summon the Faubourg St. Antoine to its duty, let us shelter there the National Representation, let us shelter there the popular sovereignty. Let us intrust the People to the keeping of the People. Let us adjure them to protect themselves. If necessary, let us order them!”

A voice interrupted me: “You cannot give orders to the People!”

“Yes!” I cried, “When it is a question of public safety, of the universal safety, when it is a question of the future of every European nationality, when it is a question of defending the Republic, Liberty, Civilization, the Revolution, we have the right — we, the Representatives of the entire nation — to give, in the name of the French people, orders to the people of Paris! Let us, therefore, meet to-morrow at this Salle Roysin; but at what time? Not too early in the morning. In broad day. It is necessary that the shops should be open, that people should be coming and going, that the population should be moving about, that there should be plenty of people in the streets, that they should see us, that they should recognize us, that the grandeur of our example should strike every eye and stir every heart. Let us all be there between nine and ten o’clock in the morning. If we cannot obtain the Salle Roysin we will take the first church at hand, a stable, a shed, some enclosure where we can deliberate; at need, as Michel de Bourges has said, we will hold our sittings in a square bounded by four barricades. But provisionally I suggest the Salle Roysin. Do not forget that in such a crisis there must be no vacuum before the nation. That alarms it. There must be a government somewhere, and it must be known. The rebellion at the Elysée, the Government at the Faubourg St. Antoine; the Left the Government, the Faubourg St. Antoine the citadel; such are the ideas which from to-morrow we must impress upon the mind of Paris. To the Salle Roysin, then! Thence in the midst of the dauntless throng of workmen of that great district of Paris, enclosed in the Faubourg as in a fortress, being both Legislators and Generals, multiplying and inventing means of defence and of attack, launching Proclamations and unearthing the pavements, employing the women in writing out placards while the men are fighting, we will issue a warrant against Louis Bonaparte, we will issue warrants against his accomplices, we will declare the military chiefs traitors, we will outlaw in a body all the crime and all the criminals, we will summon the citizens to arms, we will recall the army to duty, we will rise up before Louis Bonaparte, terrible as the living Republic, we will fight on the one hand with the power of the Law, and on the other with the power of the People, we will overwhelm this miserable rebel, and will rise up above his head both as a great Lawful Power and a great Revolutionary Power!”

While speaking I became intoxicated with my own ideas. My enthusiasm communicated itself to the meeting. They cheered me. I saw that I was becoming somewhat too hopeful, that I allowed myself to be carried away, and that I carried them away, that I presented to them success as possible, as even easy, at a moment when it was important that no one should entertain an illusion. The truth was gloomy, and it was my duty to tell it. I let silence be re-established, and I signed with my hand that I had a last word to say. I then resumed, lowering my voice —

“Listen, calculate carefully what you are doing. On one side a hundred thousand men, seventeen harnessed batteries, six thousand cannon-mouths in the forts, magazines, arsenals, ammunition sufficient to carry out a Russian campaign; on the other a hundred and twenty Representatives, a thousand or twelve hundred patriots, six hundred muskets, two cartridges per man, not a drum to beat to arms, not a bell to sound the tocsin, not a printing office to print a Proclamation; barely here and there a lithographic press, and a cellar where a hand-bill can be hurriedly and furtively printed with the brush; the penalty of death against any one who unearths a paving stone, penalty of death against any one who would enlist in our ranks, penalty of death against any one who is found in a secret meeting, penalty of death against any one who shall post up an appeal to arms; if you are taken during the combat, death; if you are taken after the combat, transportation or exile; on the one side an army and a Crime; on the other a handful of men and Right. Such is this struggle. Do you accept it?”

A unanimous shout answered me, “Yes! yes!”

This shout did not come from the mouths, it came from the souls. Baudin, still seated next to me, pressed my hand in silence.

It was settled therefore at once that they should meet again on the next day, Wednesday, between nine and ten in the morning, at the Salle Roysin, that they should arrive singly or by little separate groups, and that they should let those who were absent know of this rendezvous. This done, there remained nothing more but to separate. It was about midnight.

One of Cournet’s scouts entered. “Citizen Representatives,” he said, “the regiment is no longer there. The street is free.”

The regiment, which had probably come from the Popincourt barracks close at hand, had occupied the street opposite the blind alley for more than half an hour, and then had returned to the barracks. Had they judged the attack inopportune or dangerous at night in that narrow blind alley, and in the centre of this formidable Popincourt district, where the insurrection had so long held its own in June, 1848? It appeared certain that the soldiers had searched several houses in the neighborhood. According to details which we learned subsequently, we were followed after leaving No. 2, Quai Jemmapes, by an agent of police, who saw us enter the house where a M. Cornet was lodging, and who at once proceeded to the Prefecture to denounce our place of refuge to his chiefs. The regiment sent to arrest us surrounded the house, ransacked it from attic to cellar, found nothing, and went away.

This quasi-synonym of Cornet and Cournet lead misled the bloodhounds of the coup d’état. Chance, we see, had interposed usefully in our affairs.

I was talking at the door with Baudin, and we were making some last arrangements, when a young man with a chestnut beard, dressed like a man of fashion, and possessing all the manners of one, and whom I had noticed while speaking, came up to me.

“Monsieur Victor Hugo,” said he, “where are you going to sleep?”

Up to that moment I had not thought of this.

It was far from prudent to go home.

“In truth,” I answered, “I have not the least idea.”

“Will you come to my house?”

“I shall be very happy.”

He told me his mane. It was M. de la R——. He knew my brother Abel’s wife and family, the Montferriers, relations of the Chambacères, and he lived in the Rue Caumartin. He had been a Prefect under the Provisional Government. There was a carriage in waiting. We got in, and as Baudin told me that he would pass the night at Cournet’s, I gave him the address of M. do la R— — so that he could send for me if any notice of the movement came from the Faubourg St. Marceau or elsewhere. But I hoped for nothing more that night, and I was right.

About a quarter of an hour after the separation of the Representatives, and after we had left the Rue Popincourt, Jules Favre, Madier de Montajau, de Flotte, and Carnot, to whom we had sent word to the Rue des Moulins, arrived at Cournet’s, accompanied by Schoelcher, by Charamaule, by Aubry (du Nord), and by Bastide. Some Representatives were still remaining at Cournet’s. Several, like Baudin, were going to pass the night there. They told our colleagues what had been settled respecting my proposition, and of the rendezvous at the Salle Roysin; only it appears that there was some doubt regarding the hour agreed upon, and that Baudin in particular did not exactly remember it, and that our colleagues believed that the rendezvous, which had been fixed for nine o’clock in the morning, was fixed for eight.

This alteration in the hour, due to the treachery of memory for which no one can be blamed, prevented the realization of the plan which I had conceived of an Assembly holding its sittings in the Faubourg, and giving battle to Louis Bonaparte, but gave us as a compensation the heroic exploits of the Ste. Marguerite barricade.

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