Such are the last days of August, 1792; days gloomy, disastrous, and of evil omen. What will become of this poor France? Dumouriez rode from the Camp of Maulde, eastward to Sedan, on Tuesday last, the 28th of the month; reviewed that so-called Army left forlorn there by Lafayette: the forlorn soldiers gloomed on him; were heard growling on him, “This is one of them, ce b—e la, that made War be declared.” (Dumouriez, Memoires, ii. 383.) Unpromising Army! Recruits flow in, filtering through Depot after Depot; but recruits merely: in want of all; happy if they have so much as arms. And Longwi has fallen basely; and Brunswick, and the Prussian King, with his sixty thousand, will beleaguer Verdun; and Clairfait and Austrians press deeper in, over the Northern marches: ‘a hundred and fifty thousand’ as fear counts, ‘eighty thousand’ as the returns shew, do hem us in; Cimmerian Europe behind them. There is Castries-and-Broglie chivalry; Royalist foot ‘in red facing and nankeen trousers;’ breathing death and the gallows.
And lo, finally! at Verdun on Sunday the 2d of September 1792, Brunswick is here. With his King and sixty thousand, glittering over the heights, from beyond the winding Meuse River, he looks down on us, on our ‘high citadel’ and all our confectionery-ovens (for we are celebrated for confectionery) has sent courteous summons, in order to spare the effusion of blood!—Resist him to the death? Every day of retardation precious? How, O General Beaurepaire (asks the amazed Municipality) shall we resist him? We, the Verdun Municipals, see no resistance possible. Has he not sixty thousand, and artillery without end? Retardation, Patriotism is good; but so likewise is peaceable baking of pastry, and sleeping in whole skin.—Hapless Beaurepaire stretches out his hands, and pleads passionately, in the name of country, honour, of Heaven and of Earth: to no purpose. The Municipals have, by law, the power of ordering it;—with an Army officered by Royalism or Crypto–Royalism, such a Law seemed needful: and they order it, as pacific Pastrycooks, not as heroic Patriots would,—To surrender! Beaurepaire strides home, with long steps: his valet, entering the room, sees him ‘writing eagerly,’ and withdraws. His valet hears then, in a few minutes, the report of a pistol: Beaurepaire is lying dead; his eager writing had been a brief suicidal farewell. In this manner died Beaurepaire, wept of France; buried in the Pantheon, with honourable pension to his Widow, and for Epitaph these words, He chose Death rather than yield to Despots. The Prussians, descending from the heights, are peaceable masters of Verdun.
And so Brunswick advances, from stage to stage: who shall now stay him,—covering forty miles of country? Foragers fly far; the villages of the North–East are harried; your Hessian forager has only ‘three sous a day:’ the very Emigrants, it is said, will take silver-plate,—by way of revenge. Clermont, Sainte–Menehould, Varennes especially, ye Towns of the Night of Spurs; tremble ye! Procureur Sausse and the Magistracy of Varennes have fled; brave Boniface Le Blanc of the Bras d’Or is to the woods: Mrs. Le Blanc, a young woman fair to look upon, with her young infant, has to live in greenwood, like a beautiful Bessy Bell of Song, her bower thatched with rushes;—catching premature rheumatism. (Helen Maria Williams, Letters from France (London, 1791–93), iii. 96.) Clermont may ring the tocsin now, and illuminate itself! Clermont lies at the foot of its Cow (or Vache, so they name that Mountain), a prey to the Hessian spoiler: its fair women, fairer than most, are robbed: not of life, or what is dearer, yet of all that is cheaper and portable; for Necessity, on three half-pence a-day, has no law. At Saint–Menehould, the enemy has been expected more than once,—our Nationals all turning out in arms; but was not yet seen. Post-master Drouet, he is not in the woods, but minding his Election; and will sit in the Convention, notable King-taker, and bold Old–Dragoon as he is.
Thus on the North–East all roams and runs; and on a set day, the date of which is irrecoverable by History, Brunswick ‘has engaged to dine in Paris,’—the Powers willing. And at Paris, in the centre, it is as we saw; and in La Vendee, South–West, it is as we saw; and Sardinia is in the South–East, and Spain is in the South, and Clairfait with Austria and sieged Thionville is in the North;—and all France leaps distracted, like the winnowed Sahara waltzing in sand-colonnades! More desperate posture no country ever stood in. A country, one would say, which the Majesty of Prussia (if it so pleased him) might partition, and clip in pieces, like a Poland; flinging the remainder to poor Brother Louis,—with directions to keep it quiet, or else we will keep it for him!
Or perhaps the Upper Powers, minded that a new Chapter in Universal History shall begin here and not further on, may have ordered it all otherwise? In that case, Brunswick will not dine in Paris on the set day; nor, indeed, one knows not when!—Verily, amid this wreckage, where poor France seems grinding itself down to dust and bottomless ruin, who knows what miraculous salient-point of Deliverance and New-life may have already come into existence there; and be already working there, though as yet human eye discern it not! On the night of that same twenty-eighth of August, the unpromising Review-day in Sedan, Dumouriez assembles a Council of War at his lodgings there. He spreads out the map of this forlorn war-district: Prussians here, Austrians there; triumphant both, with broad highway, and little hinderance, all the way to Paris; we, scattered helpless, here and here: what to advise? The Generals, strangers to Dumouriez, look blank enough; know not well what to advise,—if it be not retreating, and retreating till our recruits accumulate; till perhaps the chapter of chances turn up some leaf for us; or Paris, at all events, be sacked at the latest day possible. The Many-counselled, who ‘has not closed an eye for three nights,’ listens with little speech to these long cheerless speeches; merely watching the speaker that he may know him; then wishes them all good-night;—but beckons a certain young Thouvenot, the fire of whose looks had pleased him, to wait a moment. Thouvenot waits: Voila, says Polymetis, pointing to the map! That is the Forest of Argonne, that long stripe of rocky Mountain and wild Wood; forty miles long; with but five, or say even three practicable Passes through it: this, for they have forgotten it, might one not still seize, though Clairfait sits so nigh? Once seized;—the Champagne called the Hungry (or worse, Champagne Pouilleuse) on their side of it; the fat Three Bishoprics, and willing France, on ours; and the Equinox-rains not far;—this Argonne ‘might be the Thermopylae of France!’ (Dumouriez, ii. 391.)
O brisk Dumouriez Polymetis with thy teeming head, may the gods grant it!—Polymetis, at any rate, folds his map together, and flings himself on bed; resolved to try, on the morrow morning. With astucity, with swiftness, with audacity! One had need to be a lion-fox, and have luck on one’s side.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07