The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xvii.

The Appointment Made with the Workmen’s Societies

What had become of our Committee during these tragic events, and what was it doing? It is necessary to relate what took place.

Let us go back a few hours.

At the moment when this strange butchery began, the seat of the Committee was still in the Rue Richelieu. I had gone back to it after the exploration which I had thought it proper to make at several of the quarters in insurrection, and I gave an account of what I had seen to my colleagues. Madier de Montjau, who also arrived from the barricades, added to my report details of what he had seen. For some time we heard terrible explosions, which appeared to be close by, and which mingled themselves with our conversation. Suddenly Versigny came in. He told us that horrible events were taking place on the Boulevards; that the meaning of the conflict could not yet be ascertained, but that they were cannonading, and firing volleys of musket-balls, and that the corpses bestrewed the pavement; that, according to all appearances, it was a massacre — a sort of Saint Bartholomew improvised by the coup d’état; that they were ransacking the houses at a few steps from us, and that they were killing every one. The murderers were going from door to door, and were drawing near. He urged us to leave Grévy’s house without delay. It was manifest that the Insurrectionary Committee would be a “find” for the bayonets. We decided to leave, whereupon M. Dupont White, a man distinguished for his noble character and his talent, offered us a refuge at his house, 11, Rue Monthabor. We went out by the back-door of Grévy’s house, which led into 1, Rue Fontaine Molière, but leisurely, and two by two, Madier de Montjau with Versigny, Michel de Bourges with Carnot, myself arm-in-arm with Jules Favre. Jules Favre, dauntless and smiling as ever, wrapped a comforter over his mouth, and said, “I do not much mind being shot, but I do mind catching cold.”

Jules Favre and I reached the rear of Saint Roch, by the Rue des Moulins. The Rue Veuve Saint Roch was thronged with a mass of affrighted passers-by, who came from the Boulevards flying rather than walking. The men were talking in a loud voice, the women screaming. We could hear the cannon and the ear-piercing rattle of the musketry. All the shops were being shut. M. de Falloux, arm-in-arm with M. Albert de Rességuier, was striding down the Rue de Saint Roch and hurrying to the Rue Saint Honoré. The Rue Saint Honoré presented a scene of clamorous agitation. People were coming and going, stopping, questioning one another, running. The shopkeepers, at the threshold of their half-opened doors, asked the passers-by what was taking place, and were only answered by this cry, “Oh, my God!” People came out of their houses bareheaded and mingled with the crowd. A fine rain was falling. Not a carriage in the street. At the corner of the Rue Saint Roch and Rue Saint Honoré we heard voices behind us saying, “Victor Hugo is killed.”

“Not yet,” said Jules Favre, continuing to smile, and pressing my arm.

They had said the same thing on the preceding day to Esquiros and to Madier de Montjau. And this rumor, so agreeable to the Reactionaries, had even reached my two sons, prisoners in the Concièrgerie.

The stream of people driven back from the Boulevards and from the Rue Richelieu flowed towards the Rue de la Paix. We recognized there some of the Representatives of the Right who had been arrested on the 2d, and who were already released. M. Buffet, an ex-minister of M. Bonaparte, accompanied by numerous other members of the Assembly, was going towards the Palais Royal. As he passed close by us he pronounced the name of Louis Bonaparte in a tone of execration.

M. Buffet is a man of some importance; he is one of the three political advisers of the Right; the two others are M. Fould and M. Molé.

In the Rue Monthabor, two steps from the Rue Saint Honoré, there was silence and peace. Not one passer-by, not a door open, not a head out of window.

In the apartment into which we were conducted, on the third story, the calm was not less perfect. The windows looked upon an inner courtyard. Five or six red arm-chairs were drawn up before the fire; on the table could be seen a few books which seemed to me works on political economy and executive law. The Representatives, who almost immediately joined us and who arrived in disorder, threw down at random their umbrellas and their coats streaming with water in the corner of this peaceful room. No one knew exactly what was happening; every one brought forward his conjectures.

The Committee was hardly seated in an adjoining little room when our ex-colleague, Leblond, was announced. He brought with him King the delegate of the working-men’s societies. The delegate told us that the committee of the societies were sitting in permanent session, and had sent him to us. According to the instructions of the Insurrectionary Committee, they had done what they could to lengthen the struggle by evading too decisive encounters. The greater part of the associations had not yet given battle; nevertheless the plot was thickening. The combat had been severe during the morning. The Association of the Rights of Man was in the streets; the ex-constituent Beslay had assembled, in the Passage du Caire, six or seven hundred workmen from the Marais, and had posted them in the streets surrounding the Bank. New barricades would probably be constructed during the evening, the forward movement of the resistance was being precipitated, the hand-to-hand struggle which the Committee had wished to delay seemed imminent, all was rushing forward with a sort of irresistible impulse. Should we follow it, or should we stop? Should we run the risk of bringing matters to an end with one blow, which should be the last, and which would manifestly leave one adversary on the ground — either the Empire or the Republic? The workmen’s societies asked for our instructions; they still held in reserve their three or four thousand combatants; and they could, according to the order which the Committee should give them, either continue to restrain them or send them under fire without delay. They believed themselves curtain of their adherents; they would do whatever we should decide upon, while not hiding from us that the workmen wished for an immediate conflict, and that it would be somewhat hazardous to leave them time to become calm.

The majority of the members of the Committee were still in favor of a certain slackening of action which should tend to prolong the struggle; and it was difficult to say that they were in the wrong. It was certain that if they could protract the situation in which the coup d’état had thrown Paris until the next week, Louis Bonaparte was lost. Paris does not allow herself to be trampled upon by an army for a whole week. Nevertheless, I was for my own part impressed with the following:— The workmen’s societies offered us three or four thousand combatants, a powerful assistance; — the workman does not understand strategy, he lives on enthusiasm, abatements of ardor discourage him; his zeal is not extinguished, but it cools:— three thousand to-day would be five hundred to-morrow. And then some serious incident had just taken place on the Boulevards. We were still ignorant of what it actually was: we could not foresee what consequences it might bring about; but seemed to me impossible that the still unknown, but yet violent event, which had just taken place would not modify the situation, and consequently change our plan of battle. I began to speak to this effect. I stated that we ought to accept the offer of the associations, and to throw them at once into the struggle; I added that revolutionary warfare often necessitates sudden changes of tactics, that a general in the open country and before the enemy operates as he wishes; it is all clear around him; he knows the effective strength of his soldiers, the number of his regiments; so many men, so many horses, so many cannons, he knows his strength, and the strength of his enemy, he chooses his hour and his ground, he has a map under his eyes, he sees what he is doing. He is sure of his reserves, he possesses them, he keeps them back, he utilizes them when he wishes, he always has them by him. “But for ourselves,” cried I, “we are in an undefined and inconceivable position. We are stepping at a venture upon unknown risks. Who is against us? We hardly know. Who is with us? We are ignorant. How many soldiers? How many guns? How many cartridges? Nothing! but the darkness. Perhaps the entire people, perhaps no one. Keep a reserve! But who would answer for this reserve? It is an army to-day, it will be a handful of dust to-morrow. We only can plainly distinguish our duty, as regards all the rest it is black darkness. We are guessing at everything. We are ignorant of everything. We are fighting a blind battle! Let us strike all the blows that can be struck, let us advance straight before us at random, let us rush upon the danger! And let us have faith, for as we are Justice and the Law, God must be with us in this obscurity. Let us accept this glorious and gloomy enterprise of Right disarmed yet still fighting.”

The ex-constituent Leblond and the delegate King being consulted by the Committee, seconded my advice. The Committee decided that the societies should be requested in our name to come down into the streets immediately, and to call out their forces. “But we are keeping nothing for to-morrow,” objected a member of the Committee, “what ally shall we have to-morrow?” “Victory,” said Jules Favre. Carnot and Michel de Bourges remarked that it would be advisable for those members of the association who belonged to the National Guard to wear their uniforms. This was accordingly settled.

The delegate King rose — “Citizen Representatives,” said he, “these orders will be immediately transmitted, our friends are ready, in a few hours they will assemble. To-night barricades and the combat!”

I asked him, “Would it be useful to you if a Representative, a member of the Committee, were with you to-night with his sash girded?”

“Doubtless,” he answered.

“Well, then,” resumed I, “here I am! Take me.”

“We will all go,” exclaimed Jules Favre.

The delegate observed that it would suffice for one of us to be there at the moment when the societies should make their appearance, and that he could then notify the other members of the Committee to come and join him. It was settled that as soon as the places of meeting and the rallying-points should be agreed upon, he would send some one to let me know, and to take me wherever the societies might be. “Before an hour’s time you shall hear from me,” said he on leaving us.

As the delegates were going away Mathieu de la Drôme arrived. On coming in he halted on the threshold of the door, he was pale, he cried out to us, “You are no longer in Paris, you are no longer under the Republic; you are in Naples and under King Bomba.”

He had come from the boulevards.

Later on I again saw Mathieu de la Drôme. I said to him, “Worse than Bomba — Satan.”

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