The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter ix.

Our Last Meeting

On the 3d of December everything was coming in in our favor. On the 5th everything was receding from us. It was like a mighty sea which was going out. The tide had come in gloriously, it went out disastrously. Gloomy ebb and flow of the people.

And who was the power who said to this ocean, “Thou shalt go no farther?” Alas! a pigmy.

These hiding-places of the abyss are fathomless.

The abyss is afraid. Of what?

Of something deeper than itself. Of the Crime.

The people drew back. They drew back on the 5th; on the 6th they disappeared.

On the horizon there could be seen nothing but the beginning of a species of vast night.

This night has been the Empire.

We found ourselves on the 5th what we were on the 2d. Alone.

But we persevered. Our mental condition was this — desperate, yes; discouraged, no.

Items of bad news came to us as good news had come to us on the evening of the 3d, one after another. Aubry du Nord was at the Concièrgerie. Our dear and eloquent Crémieux was at Mazas. Louis Blanc, who, although banished, was coming to the assistance of France, and was bringing to us the great power of his name and of his mind, had been compelled, like Ledru Rollin, to halt before the catastrophe of the 4th. He had not been able to get beyond Tournay.

As for General Neumayer, he had not “marched upon Paris,” but he had come there. For what purpose? To give in his submission.

We no longer possessed a refuge. No. 15, Rue Richelieu, was watched, No. 11, Rue Monthabor, had been denounced. We wandered about Paris, meeting each other here and there, and exchanging a few words in a whisper, not knowing where we should sleep, or whether we should get a meal; and amongst those heads which did not know what pillow they should have at night there was at least one upon which a price was set.

They accosted each other, and this is the sort of conversation they held:—

“What has became of So-and-So?”

“He is arrested.”

“And So-and-So?”

“Dead.”

“And So-and-So?”

“Disappeared.”

We held, however, one other meeting. This was on the 6th, at the house of the Representative Raymond, in the Place de la Madeleine. Nearly all of us met there. I was enabled to shake the hands of Edgar Quinet, of Chauffour, of Clément Dulac, of Bancel, of Versigny, of Emile Péan, and I again met our energetic and honest host of the Rue Blanche, Coppens, and our courageous colleague, Pons Stande, whom we had lost sight of in the smoke of the battle. From the windows of the room where we were deliberating we could see the Place de la Madeleine and the Boulevards militarily occupied, and covered with a fierce and deep mass of soldiers drawn up in battle order, and which still seemed to face a possible combat. Charamaule came in.

He drew two pistols from his great cloak, placed them on the table, and said, “All is at an end. Nothing feasible and sensible remains, except a deed of rashness. I propose it. Are you of my opinion, Victor Hugo?”

“Yes,” I answered.

I did not know what he was going to say, but I knew that he would only say that which was noble.

This was his proposition.

“We number,” resumed he, “about fifty Representatives of the People, still standing and assembled together. We are all that remains of the National Assembly, of Universal Suffrage, of the Law, of Right. To-morrow, where shall we be? We do not know. Scattered or dead. The hour of to-day is ours; this hour gone and past, we have nothing left but the shadow. The opportunity is unique. Let us profit by it.”

He stopped, looked at us fixedly with his steadfast gaze, and resumed —

“Let us take the advantage of this chance of being alive and the good fortune of being together. The group which is here is the whole of the Republic. Well, then; let us offer in our persons all the Republic to the army, and let us make the army fall back before the Republic, and Might fall back before Right. In that supreme moment one of the two must tremble, Might or Right, and if Right does not tremble Might will tremble. If we do not tremble the soldiers will tremble. Let us march upon the Crime. If the Law advances, the Crime will draw back. In either case we shall have done our duty. Living, we shall be preservers, dead, we shall be heroes. This is what I propose.”

A profound silence ensued.

“Let us put on our sashes, and let us all go down in a procession, two by two, into the Place de la Madeleine. You can see that Colonel before that large flight of steps, with his regiment in battle array; we will go to him, and there, before his soldiers, I will summon him to come over to the side of duty, and to restore his regiment to the Republic. If he refuses . . . ”

Charamaule took his two pistols in his hands.

“ . . . I will blow out his brains.”

“Charamaule,” said I, “I will be by your side.”

“I knew that well,” Charamaule said to me.

He added —

“This explosion will awaken the people.”

“But,” several cried out, “suppose it does not awaken them?”

“We shall die.”

“I am on your side,” said I to him.

We each pressed the other’s hand. But objections burst forth.

No one trembled, but all criticised the proposal. Would it not be madness? And useless madness? Would it not be to play the last card of the Republic without any possible chance of success? What good fortune for Bonaparte! To crush with one blow all that remained of those who were resisting and of those who were combating! To finish with them once for all! We were beaten, granted, but was it necessary to add annihilation to defeat? No possible chance of success. The brains of an army cannot be blown out. To do what Charamaule advised would be to open the tomb, nothing more. It would be a magnificent suicide, but it would be a suicide. Under certain circumstances it is selfish to be merely a hero. A man accomplishes it at once, he becomes illustrious, he enters into history, all that is very easy. He leaves to others behind him the laborious work of a long protest, the immovable resistance of the exile, the bitter, hard life of the conquered who continues to combat the victory. Some degree of patience forms a part of politics. To know how to await revenge is sometimes more difficult than to hurry on its catastrophe. There are two kinds of courage — bravery and perseverance; the first belongs to the soldier, the second belongs to the citizen. A hap-hazard end, however dauntless, does not suffice. To extricate oneself from the difficulty by death, it is only too easily done: what is required, what is the reverse of easy, is to extricate one’s country from the difficulty. No, said those high-minded men, who opposed Charamaule and myself, this to-day which you propose to us is the suppression of to-morrow; take care, there is a certain amount of desertion in suicide. . . .

The word “desertion” grievously wounded Charamaule. “Very well,” said he, “I abandon the idea.”

This scene was exceedingly grand, and Quinet later on, when in exile, spoke to me of it with deep emotion.

We separated. We did not meet again.

I wandered about the streets. Where should I sleep? That was the question. I thought that No. 19, Rue Richelieu would probably be as much watched as No. 15. But the night was cold, and I decided at all hazards to re-enter this refuge, although perhaps a hazardous one. I was right to trust myself to it. I supped on a morsel of bread, and I passed a very good night. The next morning at daybreak on waking I thought of the duties which awaited me. I thought that I was abut to go out, and that I should probably not come back to the room; I took a little bread which remained, and I crumbled it on the window-sill for the birds.

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