The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xvii.

Conduct of the Left

The conduct of the Republican Left in this grave crisis of the 2d of December was memorable.

The flag of the Law was on the ground, in the mire of universal treason, under the feet of Louis Bonaparte; the Left raised this flag, washed away the mire with its blood, unfurled it, waved it before the eyes of the people, and from the 2d to the 5th of December held Bonaparte at bay.

A few men, a mere handful, 120 Representatives of the people escaped by chance from arrest, plunged in darkness and in silence, without even possessing that cry of the free press which sounds the tocsin to human intellects, and which encourages the combatants, without generals under their orders, without soldiers, without ammunition, went down into the streets, resolutely barred the way against the coup d’état, and gave battle to this monstrous crime, which had taken all its precautions, which was mail-clad in every part, armed to the teeth, crowding round it forests of bayonets, and making a pack of mortars and cannons give tongue in its favor.

They had that presence of mind, which is the most practical kind of courage; they had, while lacking everything else, the formidable improvisation of duty, which never loses heart. They had no printing-offices, they obtained them; they had no guns, they found them; they had no balls, they cast them; they had no powder, they manufactured it; they had nothing but paving-stones, and from thence they evolved combatants.

It is true that these paving-stones were the paving-stones of Paris, stones which change themselves into men.

Such is the power of Right, that, during four days these hundred and twenty men, who had nothing in their favor but the goodness of their cause, counterbalanced an army of 100,000 soldiers. At one moment the scale turned on their side. Thanks to them, thanks to their resistance, seconded by the indignation of honest hearts, there came an hour when the victory of the law seemed possible, and even certain. On Thursday, the 4th, the coup d’état tottered, and was obliged to support itself by assassination. We seen that without the butchery of the boulevards, if he had not saved his perjury by a massacre, if he had not sheltered his crime by another crime, Louis Bonaparte was lost.

During the long hours of this struggle, a struggle without a truce, a struggle against the army during the day and against the police during the night — an unequal struggle, where all the strength and all the rage was on one side, and, as we have just said, nothing but Right on the other, not one of these hundred and twenty Representatives, not a single one failed at the call of duty, not one shunned the danger, not one drew back, not one wearied — all these heads placed themselves resolutely under the axe, and for four days waited for it to fall.

To-day captivity, transportation, expatriation, exile, the axe has fallen on nearly all these heads.

I am one of those who have had no other merit in this struggle than to rally into one unique thought the courage of all; but let me here heartily render justice to those men amongst whom I pride myself with having for three years served the holy cause of human progress, to this Left, insulted, calumniated, unappreciated, and dauntless, which was always in the breach, and which did not repose for a single day, which recoiled none the more before the military conspiracy than before the parliamentary conspiracy, and which, entrusted by the people with the task of defending them, defended them even when abandoned by themselves; defended them in the tribune with speech, and in the street with the sword.

When the Committee of Resistance in the sitting at which the decree of deposition and of outlawry was drawn up and voted, making use of the discretionary power which the Left had confided to it, decided that all the signatures of the Republican Representatives remaining at liberty should be placed at the foot of the decree, it was a bold stroke; the Committee did not conceal from itself that it was a list of proscription offered to the victorious coup d’état ready drawn up, and perhaps in its inner conscience it feared that some would disavow it, and protest against it. As a matter of fact, the next day we received two letters, two complaints. They were from two Representatives who had been omitted from the list, and who claimed the honor of being reinstated there. I reinstate these two Representatives here, in their right of being proscripts. Here are their names — Anglade and Pradié.

From Tuesday, the 2d, to Friday, the 5th of December, the Representatives of the Left and the Committee, dogged, worried, hunted down, always on the point of being discovered and taken, that is to say — massacred; repaired for the purpose of deliberating, to twenty-seven different houses, shifted twenty-seven times their place of meeting, from their first gathering in the Rue Blanche to their last conference at Raymond’s. They refused the shelters which were offered them on the left bank of the river, wishing always to remain in the centre of the combat. During these changes they more than once traversed the right bank of Paris from one end to the other, most of the time on foot, and making long circuits in order not to be followed. Everything threatened them with danger; their number, their well-known faces, even their precautions. In the populous streets there was danger, the police were permanently posted there; in the lonely streets there was danger, because the goings and comings were more noticed there.

They did not sleep, they did not eat, they took what they could find, a glass of water from time to time, a morsel of bread here and there. Madame Landrin gave us a basin of soup, Madame Grévy the remainder of a cold pie. We dined one evening on a little chocolate which a chemist had distributed in a barricade. At Jeunesse’s, in the Rue de Grammont, during the night of the 3rd, Michel de Bourges took a chair, and said, “This is my bed.” Were they tired? They did not feel it. The old men, like Ronjat, the sick, like Boysset, all went forward. The public peril, like a fever, sustained them.

Our venerable colleague, Lamennais, did not come, but he remained three days without going to bed, buttoned up in his old frock coat, his thick boots on his feet, ready to march. He wrote to the author these three lines, which it is impossible not to quote:—“You are heroes without me. This pains me greatly. I await your orders. Try, then, to find me something to do, be it but to die.”

In these meetings each man preserved his usual demeanor. At times one might have thought it an ordinary sitting in one of the bureaux of the Assembly. There was the calm of every day, mingled with the firmness of decisive crises. Edgar Quinet retained all his lofty judgment, Noël Parfait all his mental vivacity, Yvan all his vigorous and intelligent penetration, Labrousse all his animation. In a corner Pierre Lefranc, pamphleteer and ballad-writer, but a pamphleteer like Courier, and a ballad-writer like Béranger smiled at the grave and stern words of Dupont de Bussac. All that brilliant group of young orators of the Left, Baneel with his powerful ardor, Versigny and Victor Chauffour with their youthful daring. Sain with his coolheadedness which reveals strength, Farconnet with his gentle voice and his energetic inspiration, lavishing his efforts in resisting the coup d’état, sometimes taking part in the deliberations, at others amongst the people, proving that to be an orator one must possess all the qualifications of a combatant. De Flotte, indefatigable, was ever ready to traverse all Paris. Xavier Durrieu was courageous, Dulac dauntless, Charamaule fool-hardy. Citizens and Paladins. Courage! who would have dared to exhibit none amongst all these men, of whom not one trembled? Untrimmed beards, torn coats, disordered hair, pale faces, pride glistening in every eye. In the houses where they were received they installed themselves as best they could. If there were no sofas or chairs, some, exhausted in strength, but not in heart, seated themselves on the floor. All became copyists of the decrees and proclamations; one dictated, ten wrote. They wrote on tables, on the corners of furniture, on their knees. Frequently paper was lacking, pens were wanting. These wretched trifles created obstacles at the most critical times. At certain moments in the history of peoples an inkstand where the ink is dried up may prove a public calamity. Moreover, cordiality prevailed among all, all shades of difference were effaced. In the secret sittings of the Committee Madier de Montjau, that firm and generous heart, De Flotte, brave and thoughtful, a fighting philosopher of the Devolution, Carnot, accurate, cold, tranquil, immovable, Jules Favre, eloquent, courageous, admirable through his simplicity and his strength, inexhaustible in resources as in sarcasms, doubled, by combining them, the diverse powers of their minds.

Michel de Bourges, seated in a corner of the fireplace, or leaning on a table enveloped in his great coat, his black silk cap on his head, had an answer for every suggestion, gave back to occurrences blow for blow, was on his guard for danger, difficulty, opportunity, necessity, for his is one of those wealthy natures which have always something ready either in their intellect or in their imagination. Words of advice crossed without jostling each other. These men entertained no illusion. They knew that they had entered into a life-and-death struggle. They had no quarter to expect. They had to do with the Man who had said, “Crush everything.” They knew the bloody words of the self-styled Minister, Merny. These words the placards of Saint–Arnaud interpreted by decrees, the Praetorians let loose in the street interpreted them by murder. The members of the Insurrectionary Committee and the Representatives assisting at the meetings were not ignorant that wherever they might be taken they would be killed on the spot by bayonet-thrusts. It was the fortune of this war. Yet the prevailing expression on every face was serenity; that profound serenity which comes from a happy conscience. At times this serenity rose to gaiety. They laughed willingly and at everything. At the torn trousers of one, at the hat which another had brought back from the barricade instead of his own, at the comforter of a third. “Hide your big body,” they said to him. They were children, and everything amused them. On the morning of the 4th Mathien de la Drôme came in. He had organized for his part a committee which communicated with the Central Committee, he came to tell us of it. He had shaved off his fringe of beard so as not to be recognized in the streets. “You look like an Archbishop,” said Michel de Bourges to him, and there was a general laugh. And all this, with this thought which every moment brought back; the noise which is heard at the door, the key which turns in the lock is perhaps Death coming in.

The Representatives and the Committee were at the mercy of chance. More than once they could have been captured, and they were not; either owing to the scruples of certain police agents (where the deuce will scruples next take up their abode?) or that these agents doubted the final result, and feared to lay their hand heedlessly upon possible victors. If Vassal, the Commissary of Police, who met us on the morning of the 4th, on the pavement of the Rue des Moulins, had wished, we might have been taken that day. He did not betray us. But these were exceptions. The pursuit of the police was none the less ardent and implacable. At Marie’s, it may be remembered that the sergents de ville and the gendarmes arrived ten minutes after we had left the house, and that they even ransacked under the beds with their bayonets.

Amongst the Representatives there were several Constituents, and at their head Bastide. Bastide, in 1848, had been Minister for Foreign Affairs. During the second night, meeting in the Rue Popincourt, they reproached him with several of his actions. “Let me first get myself killed,” he answered, “and then you can reproach me with what you like.” And he added, “How can you distrust me, who am a Republican up to the hilt?” Bastide would not consent to call our resistance the “insurrection,” he called it the “counter-insurrection.” he said, “Victor Hugo is right. The insurgent is at the Elysée.” It was my opinion, as we have seen, that we ought to bring the battle at once to an issue, to defer nothing, to reserve nothing; I said, “We must strike the coup d’état while it is hot.” Bastide supported me. In the combat he was impassive, cold, gay beneath his coldness. At the Saint Antoine barricade, at the moment when the guns of the coup d’état were leveled at the Representatives of the people, he said smilingly to Madier de Montjau, “Ask Schoelcher what he thinks of the abolition of the penalty of death.” (Schoelcher, like myself, at this supreme moment, would have answered, “that it ought to be abolished”) In another barricade Bastide, compelled to absent himself for a moment, placed his pipe on a paving-stone. They found Bastide’s pipe, and they thought him dead. He came back, and it was hailing musket-balls; he said, “My pipe?” he relighted it and resumed the fight. Two balls pierced his coat.

When the barricades were constructed, the Republican Representatives spread themselves abroad; and distributed themselves amongst them. Nearly all the Representatives of the Left repaired to the barricades, assisting either to build them or to defend them. Besides the great exploit at Saint Antoine barricade, where Schoelcher was so admirable, Esquiros went to the barricade of the Rue de Charonne, De Flotte to those of the Pantheon and of the Chapelle Saint Denis, Madier de Montjau to those of Belleville and the Rue Aumaire, Doutre and Pelletier to that of the Mairie of the Fifth Arrondissement, Brives to that of Rue Beaubourg, Arnauld de l’Ariège to that of Rue de Petit–Repîsoir, Viguier to that of the Rue Pagevin, Versigny to that of the Rue Joigneaux; Dupont de Bussac to that of the Carré Saint Martin; Carlos Forel and Boysset to that of the Rue Rambuteau. Doutre received a sword-cut on his head, which cleft his hat; Bourzat had four balls in his overcoat; Baudin was killed; Gaston Dussoubs was ill and could not come; his brother, Denis Dussoubs, replaced him. Where? In the tomb.

Baudin fell on the first barricade, Denis Dussoubs on the last.

I was less favored than Bourzat; I only had three balls in my overcoat, and it is impossible for me to say whence they came. Probably from the boulevard.

After the battle was lost there was no general helter-skelter, no rout, no flight. All remained hidden in Paris ready to reappear, Michel in the Rue d’Alger, myself in the Rue de Navarin. The Committee held yet another sitting on Saturday, the 6th, at eleven o’clock at night. Jules Favre, Michel de Bourges, and myself, we came during the night to the house of a generous and brave woman, Madame Didier. Bastide came there and said to me, “If you are not killed here, you are going to enter upon exile. For myself, I am going to remain in Paris. Take me for your lieutenant.” I have related this incident.

They hoped for the 9th (Tuesday) a resumption of arms, which did not take place. Malarmet had announced it to Dupont de Bussac, but the blow of the 4th had prostrated Paris. The populace no longer stirred. The Representatives did not resolve to think of their safety, and to quit France through a thousand additional dangers until several days afterwards, when the last spark of resistance was extinguished in the heart of the people, and the last glimmer of hope in heaven.

Several Republican Representatives were workmen; they have again become workmen in exile. Nadaud has resumed his trowel, and is a mason in London. Faure (du Rhône), a cutler, and Bansept, a shoemaker, felt that their trade had become their duty, and practise it in England. Faure makes knives, Bansept makes boots. Greppo is a weaver, it was he who when a proscript made the coronation robe of Queen Victoria. Gloomy smile of Destiny. Noël Parfait is a proof-reader at Brussels; Agricol Perdiguier, called Avignonnais-la-Vertu, has girded on his leathern apron, and is a cabinet-maker at Antwerp. Yesterday these men sat in the Sovereign Assembly. Such things as these are seen in Plutarch.

The eloquent and courageous proscript, Emile Deschanel, has created at Brussels, with a rare talent of speech, a new form of public instruction, the Conferences. To him is due the honor of this foundation, so fruitful and so useful.

Let us say in conclusion that the National Legislative Assembly lived badly but died well.

At this moment of the fall, irreparable for the cowards, the Right was worthy, the Left was great.

Never before has History seen a Parliament fall in this manner.

February had blown upon the Deputies of the legal country, and the Deputies had vanished. M. Sauzet had sunk down behind the tribune, and had gone away without even taking his hat.

Bonaparte, the other, the first, the true Bonaparte, had made the “Five Hundred” step out of the windows of the Orangery of Saint Cloud, somewhat embarrassed with their large mantles.

Cromwell, the oldest of the Bonapartes, when he achieved his Eighteenth Brumaire, encountered scarcely any other resistance than a few imprecations from Milton and from Ludlaw, and was able to say in his boorishly gigantic language, “I have put the King in my knapsack and the Parliament in my pocket.”

We must go back to the Roman Senate in order to find true Curule chairs.

The Legislative Assembly, let us repeat, to its honor, did not lose countenance when facing the abyss. History will keep an account of it. After having betrayed so many things, it might have been feared that this Assembly would end by betraying itself. It did nothing of the kind. The Legislature, one is obliged to remember, had committed faults upon faults; the Royalist majority had, in the most odious manner, persecuted the Republican minority, which was bravely doing its duty in denouncing it to the people; this Assembly had had a very long cohabitation and a most fatal complicity with the Man of Crime, who had ended by strangling it as a robber strangles his concubine in his bed; but whatever may be said of this fateful Assembly, it did not exhibit that wretched vanishing away which Louis Bonaparte hoped for; it was not a coward.

This is due to its having originated from universal suffrage. Let us mention this, for it is an instructive lesson. The virtue of this universal suffrage, which had begotten the Assembly and which the Assembly had wished to slay, it felt in itself to its last hour.

The sap of a whole people does not spread in vain throughout an Assembly, even throughout the most decrepit. On the decisive day this sap asserts itself.

The Legislative Assembly, laden as it may be with formidable responsibilities, will, perhaps, be less overwhelmed than it deserves by the reprobation of posterity.

Thanks to universal suffrage, which it had deceived, and which constituted its faith and its strength at the last moment, thanks to the Left, which it had oppressed, scoffed at, calumniated, and decimated, and which cast on it the glorious reflection of its heroism, this pitiful Assembly died a grand death.

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