The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter ix.

The Lightning Begins to Flash Amongst the People

The evening wore a threatening aspect.

Groups were formed on the Boulevards. As night advanced they grew larger and became mobs, which speedily mingled together, and only formed one crowd. An enormous crowd, reinforced and agitated by tributary currents from the side-streets, jostling one against another, surging, stormy, and whence ascended an ominous hum. This hubbub resolved itself into one word, into one name which issued simultaneously from every mouth, and which expressed the whole of the situation: “Soulouque!”12 Throughout that long line from the Madeleine to the Bastille, the roadway nearly everywhere, except (was this on purpose?) at the Porte St. Denis and the Porte St. Martin, was occupied by the soldiers — infantry and cavalry, ranged in battle-order, the artillery batteries being harnessed; on the pavements on each side of this motionless and gloomy mass, bristling with cannon, swords, and bayonets, flowed a torrent of angry people. On all sides public indignation prevailed. Such was the aspect of the Boulevards. At the Bastille there was a dead calm.

At the Porte St. Martin the crowd, hemmed together and uneasy, spoke in low tones. Groups of workmen talked in whispers. The Society of the 10th December made some efforts there. Men in white blouses, a sort of uniform which the police assumed during those days, said, “Let us leave them alone; let the ‘Twenty-five francs’ settle it amongst themselves! They deserted us in June, 1848; to-day let them get out of the difficulty alone! It does not concern us!” Other blouses, blue blouses, answered them, “We know what we have to do. This is only the beginning, wait and see.”

Others told how the barricades of the Rue Aumaire were being rebuilt, how a large number of persons had already been killed there, how they fired without any summons, how the soldiers were drunk, how at various points in the district there were ambulances already crowded with killed and wounded. All this was said seriously, without loud speaking, without gesture, in a confidential tone. From time to time the crowd were silent and listened, and distant firing was heard.

The groups said, “Now they are beginning to tear down the curtain.”

We were holding Permanent Session at Marie’s house in the Rue Croix des Petits Champs. Promises of co-operation poured in upon us from every side. Several of our colleagues, who had not been able to find us on the previous day, had joined us, amongst others Emmanuel Arago, gallant son of an illustrious father; Farconnet and Roussel (de l’Yonne), and some Parisian celebrities, amongst whom was the young and already well-known defender of the Avénement du Peuple, M. Desmarets.

Two eloquent men, Jules Favre and Alexander Rey, seated at a large table near the window of the small room, were drawing up a Proclamation to the National Guard. In the large room Sain, seated in an arm-chair, his feet on the dog-irons, drying his wet boots before a huge fire, said, with that calm and courageous smile which he wore in the Tribune, “Things are looking badly for us, but well for the Republic. Martial law is proclaimed; it will be carried out with ferocity, above all against us. We are laid in wait for, followed, tracked, there is little probability that we shall escape. To-day, to-morrow, perhaps in ten minutes, there will be a ‘miniature massacre’ of Representatives. We shall be taken here or elsewhere, shot down on the spot or killed with bayonet thrusts. They will parade our corpses, and we must hope that that will at length raise the people and overthrow Bonaparte. We are dead, but Bonaparte is lost.”

At eight o’clock, as Emile de Girardin had promised, we received from the printing office of the Presse five hundred copies of the decree of deposition and of outlawry endorsing the judgment of the High Court, and with all our signatures attached. It was a placard twice as large as one’s hand, and printed on paper used for proofs. Noël Parfait brought us the five hundred copies, still damp, between his waistcoat and his shirt. Thirty Representatives divided the bills amongst them, and we sent them on the Boulevards to distribute the Decree to the People.

The effect of this Decree falling in the midst of the crowd was marvellous. Some cafés had remained open, people eagerly snatched the bills, they pressed round the lighted shop windows, they crowded under the street lamps. Some mounted on kerbstones or on tables, and read aloud the Decree. —“That is it! Bravo!” cried the people. “The signatures!” “The signatures!” they shouted. The signatures were read out, and at each popular name the crowd applauded. Charamaule, merry and indignant, wandered through the groups, distributing copies of the Decree; his great stature, his loud and bold words, the packet of handbills which he raised, and waved above his head, caused all hands to be stretched out towards him. “Shout ‘Down with Soulouque!’” said he, “and you shall have some.” All this in the presence of the soldiers. Even a sergeant of the line, noticing Charamaule, stretched out his hand for one of the bills which Charamaule was distributing. “Sergeant,” said Charamaule to him, “cry, ‘Down with Soulouque!’” The sergeant hesitated for a moment, and answered “No.” “Well, then,” replied Charamaule, “Shout, ‘Long live Soulouque.’” This time the sergeant did not hesitate, he raised his sword, and, amid bursts of laughter and of applause, he resolutely shouted, “Long live Soulouque!”

The reading of the Decree added a gloomy warmth to the popular anger. They set to work on all sides to tear down the placards of the coup d’état. At the door of the Café des Variétés a young man cried out to the officers, “You are drunk!” Some workmen on the Boulevard Bonne–Nouvelle shook their fists at the soldiers and said, “Fire, then, you cowards, on unarmed men! If we had guns you would throw the butts of your muskets in the air.” Charges of cavalry began to be made in front of the Café Cardinal.

As there were no troops on the Boulevard St. Martin and the Boulevard du Temple, the crowd was more compact pact there than elsewhere. All the shops were shut there; the street lamps alone gave any light. Against the gloss of the unlighted windows heads might be dimly seen peering out. Darkness produced silence; this multitude, as we have already said, was hushed. There was only heard a confused whispering. Suddenly a light, a noise, an uproar burst forth from the entrance of the Rue St. Martin. Every eye was turned in that direction; a profound upheaving agitated the crowd; they rushed forward, they pressed against the railings of the high pavements which border the cutting between the theatres of the Porte St. Martin and the Ambigu. A moving mass was seen, and an approaching light. Voices were singing. This formidable chorus was recognized,

“Aux armes, Citoyens; formez vos bataillons!”

Lighted torches were coming, it was the “Marseillaise,” that other torch of Revolution and of warfare which was blazing.

The crowd made way for the mob which carried the torches, and which were singing. The mob reached the St. Martin cutting, and entered it. It was then seen what this mournful procession meant. The mob was composed of two distinct groups. The first carried on its shoulders a plank, on which could be seen stretched an old man with a white beard, stark, the mouth open, the eyes fixed, and with a hole in his forehead. The swinging movement of the bearers shook the corpse, and the dead head rose and fell in a threatening and pathetic manner. One of the men who carried him, pale, and wounded in the breast, placed his hand to his wound, leant against the feet of the old man, and at times himself appeared ready to fall. The other group bore a second litter, on which a young man was stretched, his countenance pale and his eyes closed, his shirt stained, open over his breast, displaying his wounds. While bearing the two litters the groups sang. They sang the “Marseillaise,” and at each chorus they stopped and raised their torches, crying, “To arms!” Some young men waved drawn swords. The torches shed a lurid light on the pallid foreheads of the corpses and on the livid faces of the crowd. A shudder ran through the people. It appeared as though they again saw the terrible vision of February, 1848.

This gloomy procession came from the Rue Aumaire. About eight o’clock some thirty workmen gathered together from the neighborhood of the markets, the same who on the next day raised the barricade of the Guérin-Boisseau, reached the Rue Aumaire by the Rue de Petit Lion, the Rue Neuve–Bourg-l’Abbé, and the Carré St. Martin. They came to fight, but here the combat was at an end. The infantry had withdrawn after having pulled down the barricades. Two corpses, an old man of seventy and a young man of five-and-twenty, lay at the corner of the street on the ground, with uncovered faces, their bodies in a pool of blood, their heads on the pavement where they had fallen. Both were dressed in overcoats, and seemed to belong to the middle class. The old man had his hat by his side; he was a venerable figure with a white beard, white hair, and a calm expression. A ball had pierced his skull.

The young man’s breast was pierced with buck-shot. One was the father, the other the son. The son, seeing his father fall, had said, “I also will die.” Both were lying side by side.

Opposite the gateway of the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers there was a house in course of building. They fetched two planks from it, they laid the corpses on the planks, the crowd raised them upon their shoulders, they brought torches, and they began their march. In the Rue St. Denis a man in a white blouse barred the way. “Where are you going?” said he to them. “You will bring about disasters! You are helping the ‘Twenty-five francs!’” “Down with the police! Down with the white blouse!” shouted the crowd. The man slunk away.

The mob swelled on its road; the crowd opened out and repeated the “Marseillaise” in chorus, but with the exception of a few swords no one was armed. On the boulevard the emotion was intense. Women clasped their hands in pity. Workmen were heard to exclaim, “And to think that we have no arms!”

The procession, after having for some time followed the Boulevards, re-entered the streets, followed by a deeply-affected and angry multitude. In this manner it reached the Rue de Gravilliers. Then a squad of twenty sergents de ville suddenly emerging from a narrow street rushed with drawn swords upon the men who were carrying the litters, and overturned the corpses into the mud. A regiment of Chasseurs came up at the double, and put an end to the conflict with bayonet thrusts. A hundred and two citizen prisoners were conducted to the Prefecture. The two corpses received several sword-cuts in the confusion, and were killed a second time. The brigadier Revial, who commanded the squad of the sergents de ville, received the Cross of Honor for this deed of arms.

At Marie’s we were on the point of being surrounded. We decided to leave the Rue Croix des Petits Champs.

At the Elysée they commenced to tremble. The ex-Commandant Fleury, one of the aides-de-camp of the Presidency, was summoned into the little room where M. Bonaparte had remained throughout the day. M. Bonaparte conferred a few moments alone with M. Fleury, then the aide-de-camp came out of the room, mounted his horse, and galloped off in the direction of Mazas.

After this the men of the coup d’état met together in M. Bonaparte’s room, and held council. Matters were visibly going badly; it was probable that the battle would end by assuming formidable proportions. Up to that time they had desired this, now they did not feel sure that they did not fear it. They pushed forward towards it, but they mistrusted it. There were alarming symptoms in the steadfastness of the resistance, and others not less serious in the cowardice of adherents. Not one of the new Ministers appointed during the morning had taken possession of his Ministry — a significant timidity on the part of people ordinarily so prompt to throw themselves upon such things. M. Roulier, in particular, had disappeared, no one knew where — a sign of tempest. Putting Louis Bonaparte on one side, the coup d’état continued to rest solely upon three names, Morny, St. Arnaud, and Maupas. St. Arnaud answered for Magnan. Morny laughed and said in a whisper, “But does Magnan answer for St. Arnaud?” These men adopted energetic measures, they sent for new regiments; an order to the garrisons to march upon Paris was despatched in the one direction as far as Cherbourg, and on the other as far as Maubeuge. These criminals, in the main deeply uneasy, sought to deceive each other. They assumed a cheerful countenance; all spoke of victory; each in the background arranged for flight; in secret, and saying nothing, in order not to give the alarm to his compromised colleagues, so as, in case of failure, to leave the people some men to devour. For this little school of Machiavellian apes the hopes of a successful escape lie in the abandonment of their friends. During their flight they throw their accomplices behind them.

12 A popular nickname for Louis Bonaparte. Faustin Soulouque was the negro Emperor of Hayti, who, when President of the Republic, had carried out a somewhat similar coup d’état in 1848, being subsequently elected Emperor. He treated the Republicans with great cruelty, putting most of them to death.

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