The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xv.

The Question Presents Itself

It was one o’clock in the afternoon.

Bonaparte had again become gloomy.

The gleams of sunshine on such countenances as these last very short time.

He had gone back to his private room, had seated himself before the fire, with his feet on the hobs, motionless, and no one any longer approached him except Roquet.

What was he thinking of?

The twistings of the viper cannot be foreseen.

What this man achieved on this infamous day I have told at length in another book. See “Napoleon the Little.”

From time to time Roquet entered and informed him of what was going on. Bonaparte listened in silence, deep in thought, marble in which a torrent of lava boiled.

He received at the Elysée the same news that we received in the Rue Richelieu; bad for him, good for us. In one of the regiments which had just voted, there were 170 “Noes:” This regiment has since been dissolved, and scattered abroad in the African army.

They had counted on the 14th of the line which had fired on the people in February. The Colonel of the 14th of the line had refused to recommence; he had just broken his sword.

Our appeal had ended by being heard. Decidedly, as we have seen, Paris was rising. The fall of Bonaparte seemed to be foreshadowed. Two Representatives, Fabvier and Crestin, met in the Rue Royale, and Crestin, pointing to the Palace of the Assembly, said to Fabvier, “We shall be there to-morrow.”

One noteworthy incident. Mazes became eccentric, the prison unbent itself; the interior experienced an undefinable reverberation from the outside. The warders, who the preceding evening had been insolent to the Representatives when going for their exercise in the courtyard, now saluted them to the ground. That very morning of Thursday, the 4th, the governor of the prison had paid a visit to the prisoners, and had said to them, “It is not my fault.” He brought them books and writing-paper, a thing which up to that time he had refused. The Representative Valentin was in solitary confinement; on the morning of the 4th his warder suddenly became amiable, and offered to obtain for him news from outside, through his wife, who, he said, had been a servant in General Leflô‘s household. These were significant signs. When the jailer smiles it means that the jail is half opening.

We may add, what is not a contradiction, that at the same time the garrison at Mazas was being increased. 1200 more men were marched in, in detachments of 100 men each, spacing out their arrivals in “little doses” as an eye-witness remarked to us. Later on 400 men. 100 litres of brandy were distributed to them. One litre for every sixteen men. The prisoners could hear the movement of artillery round the prison.

The agitation spread to the most peaceable quarters. But the centre of Paris was above all threatening. The centre of Paris is a labyrinth of streets which appears to be made for the labyrinth of riots. The Ligue, the Fronde, the Revolution — we must unceasingly recall these useful facts — the 14th of July, the 10th of August, 1792, 1830, 1848, have come out from thence. These brave old streets were awakened. At eleven o’clock in the morning from Notre Dame to the Porte Saint Martin there were seventy-seven barricades. Three of them, one in the Rue Maubuée, another in the Rue Bertin–Poirée, another in the Rue Guérin-Boisseau, attained the height of the second stories; the barricade of the Porte Saint Denis was almost as bristling and as formidable as the barrier of the Faubourg Saint Antoine in June, 1848. The handful of the Representatives of the People had swooped down like a shower of sparks on these famous and inflammable crossroads. The beginning of the fire. The fire had caught. The old central market quarter, that city which is contained in the city, shouted, “Down with Bonaparte!” They hooted the police, they hissed the troops. Some regiments seemed stupefied. They cried, “Throw up your butt ends in the air!” From the windows above, women encouraged the construction of the barricades. There was powder there, there were muskets. Now, we were no longer alone. We saw rising up in the gloom behind us the enormous head of the people. Hope at the present time was on our side. The oscillation of uncertainty had at length become steady, and we were, I repeat, almost perfectly confident.

There had been a moment when, owing to the good news pouring in upon us, this confidence had become so great that we who had staked our lives on this great contest, seized with an irresistible joy in the presence of a success becoming hourly more certain, had risen from our seats, and had embraced each other. Michel de Bourges was particularly angered against Bonaparte, for he had believed his word, and had even gone so far as to say, “He is my man.” Of the four of us, he was the most indignant. A gloomy flash of victory shone in him. He struck the table with his fist, and exclaimed, “Oh! the miserable wretch! To-morrow —” and he struck the table a second time, “to-morrow his head shall fall in the Place de Grève before the Hôtel de Ville.”

I looked at him.

“No,” said I, “this man’s head shall not fall.”

“What do you mean?”

“I do not wish it.”

“Why?”

“Because,” said I, “if after such a crime we allow Louis Bonaparte to live we shall abolish the penalty of death.”

This generous Michel de Bourges remained thoughtful for a moment, then he pressed my hand.

Crime is an opportunity, and always gives us a choice, and it is better to extract from it progress than punishment. Michel de Bourges realized this.

Moreover this incident shows to what a pitch our hopes had been raised.

Appearances were on our side, actual facts not so. Saint–Arnaud had his orders. We shall see them.

Strange incidents took place.

Towards noon a general, deep in thought, was on horseback in the Place de la Madeleine, at the head of his wavering troops. He hesitated.

A carriage stopped, a woman stepped out and conversed in a low tone with the general. The crowd could see her. The Representative Raymond, who lived at No 4, Place de la Madeleine, saw her from his window. This woman was Madame K. The general stooping down on his horse, listened, and finally made the dejected gesture of a vanquished man. Madame K. got back into her carriage. This man, they said, loved that woman. She could, according to the side of her beauty which fascinated her victim, inspire either heroism or crime. This strange beauty was compounded of the whiteness of an angel, combined with the look of a spectre.

It was the look which conquered.

This man no longer hesitated. He entered gloomily into the enterprise.

From twelve to two o’clock there was in this enormous city given over to the unknown an indescribable and fierce expectation. All was calm and awe-striking. The regiments and the limbered batteries quitted the faubourg and stationed themselves noiselessly around the boulevards. Not a cry in the ranks of the soldiery. An eye-witness said, “The soldiers march with quite a jaunty air.” On the Quai de la Ferronnerie, heaped up with regiments ever since the morning of the 2d of December, there now only remained a post of Municipal Guards. Everything ebbed back to the centre, the people as well as the army; the silence of the army had ultimately spread to the people. They watched each other.

Each soldier had three days’ provisions and six packets of cartridges.

It has since transpired that at this moment 10,000 francs were daily spent in brandy for each brigade.

Towards one o’clock, Magnan went to the Hôtel de Ville, had the reserve limbered under his own eyes, and did not leave until all the batteries were ready to march.

Certain suspicious preparations grew more numerous. Towards noon the State workmen and the hospital corps had established a species of huge ambulance at No. 2, Faubourg Montmartre. A great heap of litters was piled up there. “What is all this for?” asked the crowd.

Dr. Deville, who had attended Espinasse when he had been wounded, noticed him on the boulevard, and asked him, “Up to what point are you going?”

Espinasse’s answer is historical.

He replied, “To the end.”

At two o’clock five brigades, those of Cotte, Bourgon, Canrobert, Dulac, and Reybell, five batteries of artillery, 16,400 men,23 infantry and cavalry, lancers, cuirassiers, grenadiers, gunners, were echelloned without any ostensible reason between the Rue de la Paix and the Faubourg Poissonnière. Pieces of cannon were pointed at the entrance of every street; there were eleven in position on the Boulevard Poissonnière alone. The foot soldiers had their guns to their shoulders, the officers their swords drawn. What did all this mean? It was a curious sight, well worth the trouble of seeing, and on both sides of the pavements, on all the thresholds of the shops, from all the stories of the houses, an astonished, ironical, and confiding crowd looked on.

Little by little, nevertheless, this confidence diminished, and irony gave place to astonishment; astonishment changed to stupor. Those who have passed through that extraordinary minute will not forget it. It was evident that there was something underlying all this. But what? Profound obscurity. Can one imagine Paris in a cellar? People felt as though they were beneath a low ceiling. They seemed to be walled up in the unexpected and the unknown. They seemed to perceive some mysterious will in the background. But after all they were strong; they were the Republic, they were Paris; what was there to fear! Nothing. And they cried, “Down with Bonaparte!” The troops continued to keep silence, but the swords remained outside their scabbards, and the lighted matches of the cannon smoldered at the corners of the streets. The cloud grew blacker every minute, heavier and more silent. This thickening of the darkness was tragical. One felt the coming crash of a catastrophe, and the presence of a villain; snake-like treason writhed during this night, and none can foresee where the downward slide of a terrible design will stop when events are on a steep incline.

What was coming out of this thick darkness?

23 16,410 men, the figures taken from the Ministry of War.

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