The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter vii.

The Archbishop

On this gloomy and tragical day an idea struck one of the people.

He was a workman belonging to the honest but almost imperceptible minority of Catholic Democrats. The double exaltation of his mind, revolutionary on one side, mystical on the other, caused him to be somewhat distrusted by the people, even by his comrades and his friends. Sufficiently devout to be called a Jesuit by the Socialists, sufficiently Republican to be called a Red by the Reactionists, he formed an exception in the workshops of the Faubourg. Now, what is needed in these supreme crises to seize and govern the masses are men of exceptional genius, not men of exceptional opinion. There is no revolutionary originality. In order to be something, in the time of regeneration and in the days of social combat, one must bathe fully in those powerful homogeneous mediums which are called parties. Great currents of men follow great currents of ideas, and the true revolutionary leader is he who knows how best to drive the former in accordance with the latter.

Now the Gospel is in accordance with the Revolution, but Catholicism is not. This is due to the fact that in the main the Papacy is not in accordance with the Gospel. One can easily understand a Christian Republican, one cannot understand a Catholic Democrat. It is a combination of two opposites. It is a mind in which the negative bars the way to the affirmative. It is a neuter.

Now in time revolution, whoever is neuter of is impotent. Nevertheless, during the first hours of resistance against the coup d’état the democratic Catholic workman, whose noble effort we are here relating, threw himself so resolutely into the cause of Justice and of Truth, that in a few moments he transformed distrust into confidence, and was hailed by the people. He showed such gallantry at the rising of the barricade of the Rue Aumaire that with an unanimous voice they appointed him their leader. At the moment of the attack he defended it as he had built it, with ardor. That was a sad but glorious battle-field; most of his companions were killed, and he escaped only by a miracle.

However, he succeeded in returning home, saying to himself bitterly, “All is lost.”

It seemed evident to him that the great masses of the people would not rise. Thenceforward it appeared impossible to conquer the coup d’état by a revolution; it could be only combated by legality. What had been the risk at the beginning became the hope at the end, for he believed the end to be fatal, and at hand. In his opinion it was necessary, as the people were defaulters, to try now to arouse the middle classes. Let one legion of National Guards go out in arms, and the Elysée was lost. For this a decisive blow must be struck — the heart of the middle classes must be reached — the “bourgeois” must be inspired by a grand spectacle which should not be a terrifying spectacle.

It was then that this thought came to this workman, “Write to the Archbishop of Paris.”

The workman took a pen, and from his humble garret he wrote to the Archbishop of Paris an enthusiastic and earnest letter in which he, a man of the people and a believer, said this to his Bishop; we give the substance of his letter:—

“This is a solemn hour, Civil War sets by the ears the Army and People, blood is being shed. When blood flows the Bishop goes forth. M. Sibour should follow in the path of M. Affre. The example is great, the opportunity is still greater.

“Let the Archbishop of Paris, followed by all his clergy, the Pontifical cross before him, his mitre on his head, go forth in procession through the streets. Let him summon to him the National Assembly and the High Court, the Legislators in their sashes, the Judges in their scarlet robes; let him summon to him the citizens, let him summon to him the soldiers, let him go straight to the Elysée. Let him raise his hand in the name of Justice against the man who is violating the laws, and in the name of Jesus against the man who is shedding blood. Simply with his raised hand he will crush the coup d’état.

“And he will place his statue by the side of M. Affre, and it will be said that twice two Archbishops of Paris have trampled Civil War beneath their feet.”

“The Church is holy, but the Country is sacred. There are times when the Church should succor the Country.”

The letter being finished, he signed it with his workman’s signature.

But now a difficulty arose; how should it be conveyed to its destination?

Take it himself!

But would he, a mere workman in a blouse, be allowed to penetrate to the Archbishop!

And then, in order to reach the Archiepiscopal Palace, he would have to cross those very quarters in insurrection, and where, perhaps, the resistance was still active. He would have to pass through streets obstructed by troops, he would be arrested and searched; his hands smelt of powder, he would be shot; and the letter would not reach its destination.

What was to be done?

At the moment when he had almost despaired of a solution, the name of Arnauld de l’Ariége came to his mind.

Arnauld de l’Ariége was a Representative after his own heart. Arnauld de l’Ariége was a noble character. He was a Catholic Democrat like the workman. At the Assembly he raised aloft, but he bore nearly alone, that banner so little followed which aspires to ally the Democracy with the Church. Arnauld de l’Ariége, young, handsome, eloquent, enthusiastic, gentle, and firm, combined the attributes of the Tribune with the faith of the knight. His open nature, without wishing to detach itself from Rome, worshipped Liberty. He had two principles, but he had not two faces. On the whole the democratic spirit preponderated in him. He said to me one day, “I give my hand to Victor Hugo. I do not give it to Montalembert.”

The workman knew him. He had often written to him, and had sometimes seen him.

Arnauld de l’Ariége lived in a district which had remained almost free.

The workman went there without delay.

Like the rest of us, as has been seen, Arnauld de l’Ariége had taken part in the conflict. Like most of the Representatives of the Left, he had not returned home since the morning of the 2d. Nevertheless, on the second day, he thought of his young wife whom he had left without knowing if he should see her again, of his baby of six months old which she was suckling, and which he had not kissed for so many hours, of that beloved hearth, of which at certain moments one feels an absolute need to obtain a fleeting glimpse, he could no longer resist; arrest, Mazas, the cell, the hulks, the firing party, all vanished, the idea of danger was obliterated, he went home.

It was precisely at that moment that the workman arrived there.

Arnauld de l’Ariége received him, read his letter, and approved of it.

Arnauld de l’Ariége knew the Archbishop of Paris personally.

M. Sibour, a Republican priest appointed Archbishop of Paris by General Cavaignac, was the true chief of the Church dreamed of by the liberal Catholicism of Arnauld de l’Ariége. On behalf of the Archbishop, Arnauld de l’Ariége represented in the Assembly that Catholicism which M. de Montalembert perverted. The democratic Representative and the Republic Archbishop had at times frequent conferences, in which acted as intermediatory the Abbé Maret, an intelligent priest, a friend of the people and of progress, Vicar–General of Paris, who has since been Bishop in partibus of Surat. Some days previously Arnauld had seen the Archbishop, and had received his complaints of the encroachment of the Clerical party upon the episcopal authority, and he even proposed shortly to interpellate the Ministry on this subject and to take the question into the Tribune.

Arnauld added to the workman’s letter a letter of introduction, signed by himself, and enclosed the two letters in the same envelope.

But here the same question arose.

How was the letter to be delivered?

Arnauld, for still weightier reasons than those of the workman, could not take it himself.

And time pressed!

His wife saw his difficulty and quietly said —

“I will take charge of it.”

Madame Arnauld de l’Ariége, handsome and quite young, married scarcely two years, was the daughter of the Republican ex-Constituent Guichard, worthy daughter of such a father, and worthy wife of such a husband.

They were fighting in Paris; it was necessary to face the dangers of the streets, to pass among musket-balls, to risk her life.

Arnauld de l’Ariége hesitated.

“What do you want to do?” he asked.

“I will take this letter.”

“You yourself?”

“I myself.”

“But there is danger.”

She raised her eyes, and answered —

“Did I make that objection to you when you left me the day before yesterday?”

He kissed her with tears in his eyes, and answered, “Go.”

But the police of the coup d’état were suspicious, many women were searched while going through the streets; this letter might be found on Madame Arnauld. Where could this letter be hidden?

“I will take my baby with me,” said Madame Arnauld.

She undid the linen of her little girl, hid the letter there, and refastened the swaddling band.

When this was finished the father kissed his child on the forehead, and the mother exclaimed laughingly —

“Oh, the little Red! She is only six months’ old, and she is already a conspirator!”

Madame Arnauld reached the Archbishop’s Palace with some difficulty. Her carriage was obliged to take a long round. Nevertheless she arrived there. She asked for the Archbishop. A woman with a child in her arms could not be a very terrible visitor, and she was allowed to enter.

But she lost herself in courtyards and staircases. She was seeking her way somewhat discouraged, when she met the Abbé Maret. She knew him. She addressed him. She told him the object of her expedition. The Abbé Maret read the workman’s letter, and was seized with enthusiasm: “This may save all,” said he.

He added, “Follow me, madam, I will introduce you.”

The Archbishop of Paris was in the room which adjoins his study. The Abbé Maret ushered Madame Arnauldé into the study, informed the Archbishop, and a moment later the Archbishop entered. Besides the Abbé Maret, the Abbé Deguerry, the Curé of the Madeleine, was with him.

Madame Arnauld handed to M. Sibour the two letters of her husband and the workman. The Archbishop read them, and remained thoughtful.

“What answer am I to take back to my husband?” asked Madame Arnauld.

“Madame,” replied the Archbishop, “it is too late. This should have been done before the struggle began. Now, it would be only to risk the shedding of more blood than perhaps has yet been spilled.”

The Abbé Deguerry was silent. The Abbé Maret tried respectfully to turn the mind of his Bishop towards the grand effort unsoiled by the workman. He spoke eloquently. He laid great stress open this argument, that the appearance of the Archbishop would bring about a manifestation of the National Guard, and that a manifestation of the National Guard would compel the Elysée to draw back.

“No,” said the Archbishop, “you hope for the impossible. The Elysée will not draw back now. You believe that I should stop the bloodshed — not at all; I should cause it to flow, and that in torrents. The National Guard has no longer any influence. If the legions appeared, the Elysée could crush the legions by the regiments. And then, what is an Archbishop in the presence of the Man of the coup d’état? Where is the oath? Where is the sworn faith? Where is the Respect for Right? A man does not turn back when he has made three steps in such a crime. No! No! Do not hope. This man will do all. He has struck the Law in the hand of the Representatives. He will strike God in mine.”

And he dismissed Madame Arnauld with the look of a man overwhelmed with sorrow.

Let us do the duty of the Historian. Six weeks afterwards, in the Church of Notre Dame, some one was singing the Te Deum in honor of the treason of December — thus making God a partner in a crime.

This man was the Archbishop Sibour.

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