I desire in this additional chapter to show what place Danton filled in the Revolution by describing the madness and the reaction that followed his loss; and the extent to which his influence, in spite of these, was permanent.
When Danton disappeared, one man remained the master of the terrible machine which he had created. It remains to show what were the fortunes of his work when death had come to complete the results of his abdication.
The genius of the dead man had foreseen a necessity, had met it with an institution, and that institution had proved his wisdom by its immense success. France was one within, and was beginning on her frontiers the war whose success was not to end until it had rebuilt all Europe. This unprecedented power dominated a country long used to centralisation, and was strengthened by the accidents of the time, by the even play of the government over a surface where all local obstacles had broken down, by the tacit acquiescence of every patriotic man (for it was the thing that saved the nation), by the very abuse of punitive measures. This power was destined to change from a machine to a toy.
They say the children of that time had little models of the guillotine to play with. The statement is picturesque and presumably false, but it will serve well for a simile. A man unused to action, dreaming of a perfect state which was but a reflection of his own intensely concentrated mind, acquired the control of the guillotine. Unfortunately the model was of fall size.
The punishment of death had hitherto been inflicted, for the most part, with a clear and definite, though often with an immoral, object. In the hands of Robespierre it was used to defend a theory and a whim. The men of the time loved their country ardently, and believed with the firmness of a large and generous faith in those principles upon which all our civilisation is at present based. France and the Republic were, in their minds, one thing, and a thing which they spared no means to make survive the most terrible struggle into which any nation has ever dared to enter. They killed that they might be obeyed in a time which verged on anarchy, and they desired to be obeyed because, but for obedience to government, France and all her liberties would have perished. Such a motive for punishment is just, and its execution is honest.
By the side of this and beyond it were the excesses, those excesses in protest against which Danton himself had died. Execrable as were these, infamous as will ever remain their most conspicuous actors, Hubert and Carrier, they were prompted by a motive which is of the commonest and the most easily understood in human affairs. They were actions of revenge. Danton had said once and sincerely, “I can find no use for hate.” It was the key to his successful effort, by far the most creative in a time when all was energy, that no part of his strength was lost in personal attack, hardly any in personal defence. This could no more be said of his contemporaries than it can be said of the bulk of men in any nation, even in times of order and of peace. And everywhere, in Nantes, in Lyons, in the Vendée, in the accusation of Marie Antoinette, from the very beginning of the Terror, this hate had surged and broken. The Girondins were put to death on a charge full of the spirit of revenge; and as the autumn grew into winter, in the very crisis of that oppression by which the nation had been saved, the accusations became trivial, the process of justice more and more of a personal act, depending in the provinces on the temper of an emissary, in Paris upon the summary judgment of the Committee and the Tribunal.
But all this had so far been comprehensible. With the advent of Robespierre to full power we have to deal with a phase of history which will hardly be understood in happier times. Danton, who saw straight, who understood, and who, when the victories began, found leisure to pity, is a type whose extremes are the romance, whose moderation is the groundwork of history. We have to deal in him with an enthusiast who is also a statesman, in whom the mind has sufficient power to know itself even in its violence, and to return deliberately within its usual boundaries after never so fantastic an excursion. With Hubert again we know the type. Those are not rare in whom passions purely personal dominate all abstract conceptions, and whose natures desire the horrible in literature during times of peace, and satisfy their desire by action during their moments of power.
But with Robespierre an absolutely different feature is presented: the man who could laugh and the man who could hate, the right and the left wing have disappeared, and there is left standing alone a personality which had gradually become the idol of the city. He could neither laugh nor hate; the love of country itself, which illuminates so much in the Revolution, and which explains so many follies in the smaller men, even that was practically absent in the mind of Robespierre. His character would have fitted well with the absence of the human senses, and should some further document discover to historians that he lacked the sense of taste, that he was colour-blind, or that he could not distinguish the notes of music, these details would do much to complete the imperfect and troubling picture. For in the sphere that is above, but co-ordinate with, physical life, all those avenues by which our fellow-beings touch us more nearly than ideas were closed to him.
It is possible that he may take, centuries hence, the appearance of majesty. He had the reserve, the dignity, the intense idealism, the perfect belief in himself, the certitude that others were in sympathy—all the characteristics, in fine, which distinguish the Absolutists and the great Reformers. In his iron code of theory we seem to hear the ghost of a Calvin, in his reiterated morals and his perpetual application of them there is the occasional sharp reminiscence of a Hildebrand. The famous death cry, “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile,” is not so far distant from “ . . . de mourir pour le peuple et d’en être abhorré.”
We are accustomed to clothe such figures with a solemn drapery, and to lend them, at great distances of time, a certain terrible grandeur. Robespierre is too near us, he is too well known, and his reforms failed too utterly, for this to be now the case with him. Yet it may well happen that some one else treading in the same path, and succeeding, will see fit to build a legend round his name.
What then was the ideal which he pursued—this “one idea,” which stood so perpetually before him as to exclude the sight of all human things, of sufferings, of memories, of patriotism itself? It was the civic ideal of Rousseau, in so far as he conformed to it, and nothing more.
The ideas of the great reformers must of their nature be simple—unworkably simple. But Robespierre’s idea was less than simple it was thin. Now and again in the history of upheavals a type has been defined with special formulae, which in its original shape could never have survived the conditions of active existence, but which was real enough to receive accretions, and robust enough to bear moulding until at length it became the living nucleus of a new society, changed, transformed in a thousand details, yet in its main lines the ideal of the founder. With all the great reforms of the world some such type has been present; the Puritan, the knight of chivalry, were at first but a faint figure realised in a few phrases.
Rousseau himself had created such a type, and it has survived; for what permanent fortunes a century is insufficient to show. The Republican citizen of Jean-Jacques stood in the generation which succeeded him the centre of a new society; in a thousand shapes he really lived. Thomas Jefferson, William Cobbett, were living men to whom this ideal stood for model; not in its details, but in its main lines. Such noble men are to be met to-day on every side.
But Robespierre saw reflected in his mind a figure at once more detailed and less human, and one too sharply defined to be capable of any moulding or of any transference into the real world. For him this ideal citizen was nevertheless the one good thing, the one sound basis of a State. This ideal citizen existed (did men only know it) in each individual; all men could be made to approach the type; only a very few were opposed to its success, and it was a sacred duty to break their criminal effort. The figure stood ever before him, it dominated his every thought, it was the sacred thing before which his essentially mystical mind was perpetually at worship. But he could see nothing beyond or on either side of it; concrete impressions faded on the unhealthy retina of his mind. For there was a mirror held up before his eyes, and the figure on which he dwelt was himself.
Thus intensely concentrated upon a certain individual type, it was in his nature to forget the reactions of a community. He saw in society a few evils prominent, authority without warrant, arbitrary rule (that hateful thing), servility in the oppressed (the main impediment to any reform). He was blind to the interplay, the organic quality in a State, which our own time so ridiculously exaggerates, but which the eighteenth century as a whole neglected. Rousseau had put admirably the metaphor of contract as explaining the bond of society. Robespierre, interpreting him, conceived of contract as the simple and all-sufficient machinery of a State. The error gave his attempt a mechanical and an inhuman appearance over and above its rigidity of dogma. Rousseau, like all the great writers, gave continual glimpses of the insufficiency of language; he let his audience see in a hundred phrases, in a recurrence of qualifications, that his words were no more than the words of others, hints at realities, at the best metaphors brought as near as possible to be the true reflection of ideas. Robespierre read him, and has remained among the words entangled and satisfied. Rousseau was perpetually insisting upon a point of view, calling out, “Come and see.” He had discovered a position from which (as he thought) the bewildering complexity of human affairs appeared in a just and simple perspective, But Rousseau never asserts that such a view will have the same colouring to all men; on the contrary, at his best he denies it. He trusts to the main aspect of his theory for a main result in the State, to an agreement among men of good-will for the harmonising of conflicting details. Robespierre, as the high-priest of that gospel, had come and had seen, but the perfect citizen and the perfect state of his vision must be realised in every tittle as he had observed them. Once again a great message was destined to be sterilised and almost lost through the functionary of its creed.
Such was the man who had slowly supplanted Danton. A mind whose type of aberration is common to all nations had supplanted the typical Frenchman who had organised the defence of France, and in the place of one whom his enemies perpetually reproach with an excess of vigour and manhood, a theorist of hardly any but intellectual emotions was master.
What gave him his great ascendancy, his practically absolute power? It was due, in the first place, to the popularity whose growth was the feature of the later Revolution. That popularity was real in the number of his followers and in the sincerity of their profession. It must be remembered that hitherto he had stood on the side of leniency in public action, while in words he had expressed always accurately, sometimes nobly, the ideals upon which the nation was bent. He had, from a constitutional incapacity for real work, been only in the background of those crises which had left behind them an increasing crowd of malcontents. Not he, but Danton, had made the 10th of August. No one had connected his name with the massacres of September. The necessity of government was not his interpretation of the defeats in Belgium; the creation of that government was another’s; its latent benefits reflect no merit upon him now, its immediate rigours exposed him to no special vengeance at the time. Not he, but Marat, is the obvious demagogue whom the visionary Girondin girl marks out as the enemy. To Carnot would turn the hatred of those whom the great conscription oppressed. The Christian foundation of France had others than Robespierre to curse for the Masque of Reason and for the suppression of public worship. He had stood behind Desmoulins when the reaction of Nivose and Frimaire was at work; he had approved and was thought the author of that trial and execution in which Hébert had suffered the sentence already pronounced upon him by the best of France. In fact, he had stood in nothing as the extremist or as the tyrant till the day when he permitted the arrest of Danton. He had been rather the voice of a strong public opinion than the arm which, when it acts at the orders of unreason, becomes hated by its own furious master. Thus upon the negative side there was nothing to prevent his sudden attainment of power.
In the second place, his name had been the most present and the most familiar from the earliest days of the Revolution. He had sat in the Assembly of the Commons five years before, a notable though hardly a noted figure, with some stories surrounding him, with quite a reputation in his provincial centre; he had been, since first the Jacobin Club became the mouthpiece of the pure Republicans, the conspicuous leader of the Society. The force of continuity and tradition counts for little in the history of this whirlwind, but such as it is it explains to a great degree the ascendancy of Robespierre. He alone was never absent, he alone remained to chant a ceaseless chorus to the action of the drama. His name was familiar to excess; but it was hardly an epoch at which men grew weary of hearing a politician called “the just.” Besides this familiarity with his name, certain virtues—and those the most cherished of the time—were in fact or by reputation his. None could accuse him of venality; his sincerity was obvious—indeed, it was the necessary fruit of his narrow mind. The ambition from which we cannot divorce his name was apparent to but few of his contemporaries, and was not fully seized even by his enemies till he had started on that short career of absolute power which has stamped itself for ever upon the fortunes of his country. Thus habit, the strongest of forces, was his ally.
In the third place, circumstances quite as much as his own action had left him (as far as one can follow the mysteries of the Committee) sole director of an exceptional executive. On account of the illusions and necessities of the people such a position was not immediately recognised as tyrannical. The machine was theirs, working for them and made by them; all the better if an idol of theirs held the levers; he would make the most trusty of servants. Robespierre was not master in theory. Even committees were not the masters in theory. Theory was everything to France in the year II, and in theory the Convention was master. Nay, even the Convention was only master because—in theory again—the sovereign, the nation, was behind it. The majority of the Convention, and it alone, is the technical authority. Robespierre’s name was not to be discovered at the foot of those lists of the condemned which his monstrous policy constructed, and at the end of his four months he fell because the theoretical master, the Convention, acted as it chose, and no sufficient force dared to deny its right.
He starts then upon the closing act of the play, the one figure whom all regard, and into whose hands the police, the committees, the juries, and (by their own disorder) the majority of the Convention itself have fallen.
The new reign began on the 6th of April, exactly a year to a day since the Committee of Public Safety had been established. It was Germinal, the month of seeds that grow under ground, the most significant and the most terrible of the new names. M. Zola has chosen it for the title of his greatest work; it was the other day on the dying lips of a poor wretch in Spain whose madness also turned upon social injustice.
The following of Robespierre did not hesitate to show at once its tendencies and even its dogmas—for it held a religion. That same day, the 6th of April—17th Germinal of the year II. Couthon came from the Committee with a proposition for the Parliament to discuss the establishment of a national worship of God. A new note had been heard in the clamour; soon in the clear silence of suspense it is to be the only sound, saving the dull accompaniment of the two guillotines. This or that occasional freak of theory or dramatised ribaldry the Terror had already known; unlimited power defended by inexorable severity had developed many strange decrees, dissociated from the general life and dying as they rose—absurdities whose chief purpose would seem to be the interest they have afforded to foreigners. But in these there had been no system. The Mass was being said on all sides when the churches were supposed to be closed. Even as the Feast of Reason was being held at Notre Dame, vespers were chanted at St. Germains. One thing alone had been the purpose and had given the motive force to nine months of agony endured the salvation of Revolutionary France. But when Couthon spoke it was not France, nor common rights and liberties which were proposed as the object of the defence—it was Robespierrian Rousseau. In two months we shall have the worship of the Supreme Being, in three the reaction; in less than four the high-priest of this impossible system is to fall; yet his dream and his power will be almost enough in their fall to drag down the Republic.
Five days more saw “the rest of the factions” sacrificed to this new personal terror. Gobel, who had always been afraid, and whose conscience had been turned like a weathercock away from the nearest pike; the wives of Desmoulins and of Hébert (for women, as the Terror increased, were suspected, sometimes rightly, of being the best at plotting); Chaumette, who had helped Hébert to put up his theatricals in Notre Dame—they were all tried, and in this trial it is again not the Revolution, but Robespierre pure and simple whom we hear arguing and condemning through the mouths of the court.
One of the accused “has wished to efface the idea of the divinity.” Another has “interfered with the worship of his fellow-citizens” (this was said to Chaumette, who must have thought it even at that moment something of a platitude). To a third the reproach is made of “changing the mode of worship without authority.” We are on the highroad to those last six weeks in which trial of any kind and definite accusation itself was absent. The details of one man’s opinion are become the numberless dogmas of a creed, and of a creed that kills unmercifully. And yet even as he asserted his creed its mechanical impotence appeared in violent contrast with the humanity that the Puritan was persecuting. For Lucille lighted her face radiantly when she was condemned, and said, “I shall see him in a few hours.”
Three days more—the 17th of April—and the machinery was further centralised. St. Just demanded that the political prisoners should be taken from every part of France to be judged in Paris. The popular commissions—mere gatherings to denounce without proofs and without forms were actively used all over the Republic. In Paris the commission was to be the feeler for the central machine. And such was the incapacity of the Dreamer, “who had not wits enough to cook an egg,” that this new feature in the machinery was not even organised: it was a government of mere rigid absolutism resting on bases that were rapidly becoming mere anarchy. But even as the system, such as it was, developed, as the central power grew more rigid, and the thing to be governed more decayed, Danton, who had been killed that it might exist, pursued it. It was due to his work that the wrestling on the frontier was showing a definite issue. The advance had begun.
With his death the diplomacy of France had ceased. The phrase of Robespierre’s, which he had so successfully combated, had reappeared in vigour: the “nation would not treat with her enemies.” But the organisation of her armies, the levies, the rigid discipline, the arms were telling. That aspect of the national energy had grown more healthy as the central brain grew more diseased and vain. Robespierre was threatening Carnot vaguely in the Committee, but Carnot was at work and was saving France. St. Just himself, when he is upon the frontier, appears in a capacity worthy of admiration, for he has there to deal with a thing in action. His energy is as fierce as ever, but its object is victory over a national enemy, and not the triumph of a jejune idea. He had better have remained with the soldiers.
In Paris the Commune had been seized. The enemy whom all had feared, whom even Danton had to the last conciliated, was fearlessly grasped. The mayor was broken simply, and replaced by a servant of the rulers; the Sections protested with the last of their vitality, but the Club denounced them, and they disappeared—even an attempt at martyrdom is to give the idol yet more gilt Then the news of Turcoing came to Paris. It was little more than a happy rumour, a battle whose importance seems greater to us now than it did to contemporaries. But Pichegru, the peasant, had prepared a good road for Jourdan, and Fleurus was the direct result of Turcoing. Barrfere long after called these victories “the Furies,” which swept upon and destroyed the fanatic in power.
With every point of good news the Terror was less necessary, yet Robespierre’s action grew as the national danger disappeared. Even Lord Howe’s great victory of the 1st of June did little to check the sentiment of relief. The Vengeur went down and left a force of many ships to the French navy for ever. The food reached port, and the eyes of Frenchmen were not directed to the sea, whose command they knew themselves to have gained and lost before then with but little resulting change; they turned, as they have always and will ever turn, to the frontier of the north-east, the wrestling-ring upon whose fair level was to be decided the fate of all their sacrifice and of all their ideals, and Paris every day grew more hopeful of the result, Robespierre more blind to everything except his vision. On the 8th of June—the 20th Prairial—he capped the edifice of his national religion with the Feast of the Supreme Being , on the 10th he forged the last piece of the machinery which was to make that religion the moral order of the new era by force.
In the connection of these dates we see the whole man and the time. Three weeks pass from the first definite victory against the allies to the law of the 22nd Prairial. That short time widened the breach between the armies and the government till it became an impassable gulf. The fruit of that schism was to appear much later, but already its elements were clear. Of the two parts of Canton’s work one had become national, healthy, representative; the other, which had been designed for similar action, had finally become a thing of personalities and of theories. The armies were in full success, the Terror was menaced, and was doomed.
In this feast of the Almighty, Robespierre was insanely himself. He wore his bright-blue coat, perhaps to typify the bright sky which we have all worshipped for so many thousand years. In his little white hand, that never had been nor could be put to a man’s work, he held the typical offerings of fruit and corn. His head was bent forward a little, and he looked at the ground. The men who stood up boldly in the attitudes of Mirabeau and of the Tribunes were dead or in the armies.
Remove the scene by hundreds of years, and tell it of a primitive people in some mountain valley, it assumes a simplicity and a grandeur as legend. Their old traditions (let us say) have been lost or stolen from them. They are casting about for a lawgiver and for a starting-point. A pure idealist is found, draconian in his method, but ascetic and sincere in his life, laying down as necessary for the state a clear and simple morality, basing all ethics on the recognition and the worship of God. If we make that picture we have some idea of what passed through the mind of the little clique which still surrounded Robespierre, some conception of the picture which still half-fascinated the crowd. For Robespierre himself it was intensely true; he lived æons and myriads of leagues away in time and space from humanity, intent upon his dream.
But in sight of the mummery stood Notre Dame. Not a man there but had been baptized in the Christian faith; a history more complex and more eventful than that of perhaps any other nation was the inheritance and the future of that crowd. And even as the game was being played, the real France on the Sambre and in the plains of Valenciennes was carrying out the oldest of struggles in defence of the first of rights. The scene has been laughed at and despised sufficiently by aliens within and without the French nation; let it suffice for this book to insist upon its unreality, and to assert that its principal actor was genuine because he lived in the unreal.
The law of the 22nd of Prairial followed this feast. It was the establishment of a pure despotism, arbitrary, absolute, personal. Already the trials were centralised in Paris since the demand of St. Just had been made. The Commune had been captured, the popular commissions used, even the Presidency of the Convention had become the appanage of one man and his associates. This new law proposed the final step. After it was passed the trials were to be conducted without proofs, and without witness or pleading, for they were to be nothing more than a formal process. The Committee once satisfied of guilt, the tribunal was merely to condemn. To be upon the lists was virtually to be dead. It was the end of civil government, the declaration of a state of siege. And that at the moment when the armies sent every day better and better news. The Convention debated with Robespierre in the chair; it hesitated and it nearly condemned the proposal. There was a conflict in the minds of some between the admiration—almost the adoration—of a man; in the minds of others, between fear and the necessity apparent to all of relaxing the machinery which only the national danger had called into being.
Robespierre came down from the chair and spoke. The even, certain voice which carried away his admirers, which terrified his opponents, succeeded, and the law was passed. Those who find it easy to judge the time, who think it may all be explained by the baseness or the pusillanimity of the Parliament, should note the appeal which he made to the Moderates even then—an appeal which had always been successful, which, when his death drew near, he made at last (and for the first time) in vain.
For the Moderates, the Plain, the “Marsh,” saw in him a kind of saviour, the just man, the slayer of the Mountain, the master who would be terrible only for a little time, and would soon restore peace when he had established a dogma of moral order. Were Moderates ever slow to give full power for the sake of order?
The next day some one saw that the new law touched the Parliament itself. Self-defence, the most sacred, perhaps the only, right of a prince, occurred to them, and they protested They passed a resolution that no member could be taken before the Revolutionar JTribunal without their consent. The following day Robespierre again appears, again appeals to the “Marsh.” The men of order saw at once that no danger applied to them, that the disorderly fellows up on the benches of the Left alone were in danger. The resolution was repealed. On that day, the 24th of Prairial of the year II.—12th of June 1794 the whole of France was at his feet, save the armies.
The France which had made the Revolution, and which Canton had loved, defended, and saved, was in the Ardennes and before Ypres. There were two main bodies. One, on the left, in the plains by the frontier towns, was opposed to a united force of English and Austrians; the other, on the right, in the woods and deep ravines of the Ardennes, was opposed to a strong series of Austrian posts. These armies were not separated, but the enemy held the angle between them. Away on the extreme right Jourdan held the Moselle valley. Pichegru had come back to the army of the left, which in his absence had won Turcoing, and at whose head Soudham, Moreau, and Macdonald had fought and succeeded. On the right St. Just was throwing into the attack upon the Sambre all the energy which had saved, before this, the army of Alsace. Five times the attempt had been made to pierce the Austrian lines, and five times it had failed. Coburg lay on both sides of the river; Charleroy, on the right bank, was his strong place. The Deputies on mission, St. Just and Lebas, the same whom we shall see standing by Robespierre at the end, were present at the last decisive check before Charleroy itself. With the Sambre thus held, the southern army was immobilised; the successes of the army of the north seemed almost valueless, for Coburg held the angle between the two. Nevertheless, Turcoing bore great fruit, for it convinced the Austrians that reinforcements were needed to meet the French advance in the north. The allies were like a man fighting with a sword in each hand against two opponents. Wounded in the right hand, he must cross rapidly with the sword in his left, and so expose his left side. Thus Coburg left the Sambre a little more exposed in order to provide temporary reinforcements against the army that had just won Turcoing. St. Just and Carnot were enemies; the young Robespierrian was planned to replace the organiser whom Danton had recognised; nevertheless, they agreed at this supreme moment upon the necessary action. St. Just from the army, Carnot from the Ministry of War at Paris, called up Jourdan from the Moselle with over forty thousand men.
They are wrong who imagine that Napoleon invented the attack by concentration on the weakest point; so far as the large lines of a campaign go he inherited it from the early Republican generals. Leaving strong places unoccupied, careless of holding (for example) this position on the Moselle, the hurried march northward was determined on, and a supreme effort against the Austrian lines.
By this junction was formed that “Army of the Sambre-et-Meuse” which to this day gives a theme for one of the noblest marching-songs of the French soldiery. Under Jourdan were men whose names alone have something of the quality of bugle-calls. Ney, and Kleber, and Marceau were leading them. There ran through this new army a kind of prescience, the foreknowledge of victory, an unaccustomed feeling of expansion and of hope. Soult speaks of it as his awakening; and there is a fine phrase in the memoir of a contemporary which gives us some echo of its enthusiasm: “ We always seemed to be marching into the dawn;” they felt in every rank that the balance was turning, and that France was to be saved.
A sixth attempt was for a sixth time foiled. The seventh succeeded. The Austrian line was broken and Charleroy surrounded; in a week it fell. The capitulation was hardly achieved when the .army of Coburg appeared to the north-east upon the heights that command the left bank of the river, a plateau called that of Fleurus.
It was upon the 25th of June that the armies met and fought with blazing hay about them and ripe harvest that had caught fire. Kleber recovered the left wing, as Cromwell at Naseby, after it had given way. Marceau obstinately held the right in front of Fleurus, as Davoust did at Austerlitz ten years later. And towards evening the watchers in the balloon above the French ranks saw in regular and stiff retreat the last army of the old world. By the end of Messidor the English were in Holland, the Austrians upon the Rhine, the whole of Belgium was in the hands of the Republic.
The sun which set upon the death of Danton had risen again.
So in Robespierre’s own country his fall was prepared by circumstances. At Arras, his birthplace, one could almost hear the guns of Fleurus; he and his thin soul belonged to those plains of the north where the Norman and the Burgundian, and the Provençal and the Gascon, born in more generous places, were driving the enemy before them.
St. Just came back from the front. He at least had seen on what Revolutionary France was really bent, and in what she was vigorous. With the superb courage that belonged to his energy and his youth he had led the charges. Living with the soldiers, he had seen more closely, and with more accuracy than is common in visionaries, the needs of an army. Why did he come back to continue the insane drama whose seven weeks of action count more with the enemies of France than all her centuries?
Because the armies and their victories, though affording proof of what the nation was and of what it required, could afford that proof only to a just and even mind. The soldiers themselves did not express a political opinion; their whole mind was bent upon the breaking of the line, the attempt in which they had succeeded. Of Paris, Revolutionary in the last few months, they knew little. They judged it as our contemporaries do—on hearsay; and it seemed to them that there stood in the capital a powerful Committee full of patriots, who had by an intense, an almost furious energy, saved them—the soldiers. Men who risk their lives every day and see death constantly are not likely to be horror-stricken at an excess of rigour in government. In their eyes a number of men had fallen, places had changed, the central power was surrounded by a tumult, but they had been clothed and fed almost by a miracle their battles had been made possible. The year since the great conscription had drawn them from their homes had been for them a struggle of continual promise, ending in a great achievement. Already the soldier was half-professional; the eager volunteer of 1892, full of his politics, had given place to a type which the wanton policy of the old regime was forging to its own destruction. For it was forging the veterans who cared more and more for the Revolutionary thing, and less and less for the discussions and the theories, till at last they produced the Empire.
St. Just therefore could not warn Robespierre. St. Just himself had learnt no lesson. His ideal was still in his eyes the salvation of France, and even of the world; the victory of Fleurus only made it the more possible to carry his ideal out in action. He had seen the emigrants who were taken in that battle spared for the first time by the French soldiery, but he did not recognise the tremendous import of this, nor appreciate what our own time has thoroughly learnt, that it is the success or the failure of the national defence which rules the temper of a nation.
When the news of Fleurus became known in Paris the law of Prairial had been in action for nearly three weeks. By the time the victory and its meaning had fully sunk into the mind of the capital half the short period of Robespierre had expired. How much was due to fear upon his part, how much to mere blindness, we cannot tell, but the very moment when the necessity for the Terror patently disappeared was the moment chosen by him for the aggravation of his system.
He attacked the Mountain.
It will be remembered that the Convention had feared for itself when it gave the full power into his hands. On the 11th of June Bourdon from the Oise had carried a motion which would have defended the deputies, but which Robespierre had caused to be cancelled upon the following day.
With an attack, however, appearing as a reality instead of remaining as a threat, even the “Marsh” grew afraid. He put into his speech an excellent maxim, that “not success of armies abroad or on the frontier are the greatness of a nation, but the virtue of its private citizens within” (21st Messidor)—a truth appearing perhaps at the very worst moment, for it translated itself at once in the minds of his audience into “the victories mean nothing to me; the guillotine is for the defence not of the nation but of my dogmas.” And his faith went on sacrificing its innumerable victims.
Another and a final element was added to the forces against him. The Committee began to refuse his leadership. It must be remembered that Robespierre was not absolute master in the sense in which (for example) an English general would be master of an Indian province after the suppression of a mutiny. Circumstances, immense popularity, above all the kind of men who composed the great Committee, are the explanation of his power. His power was a fact, but a fact based on no theoretical right, and therefore possessed of no elements of endurance. Even the Committee was in the eyes of all the governed, and of some of its own members, only the servant of the national welfare. Two men upon it were Robespierrians—Couthon and St. Just; one was a turncoat by nature—Barrère; two more were men of the Hébertian type, most unreliable for an idealist to deal with—Billaud and Collot Finally there remains Carnot, the worker, and four others—the two Prieurs, Lindet and St. André.
Robespierre could be virtually a master, but a master only on the tolerance of superior though latent force. He could inspire terror by the common knowledge that the machinery was in his hands, that its terrible punishment was practically his to inflict at pleasure. But something put it into his hand, and something could take it away. It cannot be too often repeated, if we wish to understand the Revolution, that from the fall of Lafayette to the 13th of October 1795 there was no disciplined armed force at the service of the Government, there was nobody better armed or better drilled than the man in the street—not even gunners, the first necessity of modern masters, for the very artillery was amateur; above all, there was no armed body whose members obeyed without question, who were, as a good army must be, a rigid instrument of government framed upon a device which multiplies a hundredfold the strength of each man in the public service. The “strong men” of history, whom our reactionaries delight to honour, have always had such an instrument at their disposition, but when there is no one to fire at a command, your strong man is like any other, save that he is a little weaker for shouting.
What then was the ultimate master which permitted Robespierre to rule? It was composed of several forces, and in its division is to be found the secret of its inertia.
Firstly, the Convention, mutilated as it was, was granted by all to be the nearest representative of the nation. What the majority voted was done. It exercised a very great moral influence, and if it had shown that influence so slightly, it was because its organisation was contemptible—a mass of individuals, with no traditions of action or of grouping, a crowd in which the fear of each that another might be his enemy caused the sum of its individual cries to be anything but the integrate expression of its corporate will. Well, this crowd had had one formidable enemy. The right of the Convention had been combated by the force of the well-organised Commune, The Commune used to be a mirror of at least half of Paris; it had lost this character. It was nothing now but a group of Robespierrians, and the Convention was the stronger for the change.
Secondly, there was the material force—the populace of Paris. They had not risen hitherto save for one or two motives—the establishment of the national defence, the prevention of a political reaction; and they had been more turbulent and more dangerous where the first than where the second was their cause for action.
Thirdly, the regular initiative was in the hands of a majority of the Committee of Public Safety.
The moment therefore that the majority of the Committee refused to follow Robespierre’s lead, he would have had to ascend the tribune of the Convention, and in one of those speeches which carried to some such genuine conviction, but to many others such still more genuine fear, he would have had to obtain a majority for the reconstruction of the great Committee.
Now a deliberative Assembly which is not strictly organised upon party lines, which has no aristocratic quality and no great (because traditional) corporate pride, is very strongly influenced by what we call “Public Opinion.” It hears reports from the whole nation, is composed of every kind of man, regards itself moreover as in duty bound to listen to the voices outside, meets in its lobbies and during its recesses every species of expression.
Such a jury is therefore the very worst before which a popular idol could present itself when some strong adverse action had just shown his reputation to be falling. Outvoted in Committee, condemned in Parliament, the man who had but just now been supreme would have to turn to whatever he could find of physical force to support him.
But that physical force in the case of Robespierre was only the populace of Paris, and a populace moreover whose one organising centre—the Commune—had been weakened by himself. Once suppose him forced to depend upon a rising of the people, and the weakness of his position is apparent; even were he still the politician of the majority, it would be a long step from approving of his policy to risking one’s life in a civil tumult, conscious that one was attacking every form of constituted authority, and presumably the opinion of the whole nation, for no principle, from no necessity, but to save a man. As we shall see, the rising to defend him comprised but a small knot of men, and totally failed.
The man who had not the wits to cook an egg prepared his own ruin. Carnot, whose one idea was to work and save the frontier, he openly menaced. Robespierre meditated the inconceivable folly of replacing Carnot’s science by the blind activity of St. Just. In alienating Carnot and losing that possible ally, Robespierre lost five of his colleagues on the Committee. The end of Messidor saw him in a kind of voluntary isolation, letting the fatal machine work on, while he stood off from the levers.
He seems to have just felt two doubts disturbing the serenity of his fanatical complacency. First, whether after all he was going down to posterity as he saw himself to be—the maker of a new France, “the terror of oppressors and the refuge of the oppressed.” (One day his eyes filled when the noise of the tumbrils reached him, and he said, “I shall be remembered only as a slayer of men.” So wrapped up in himself, he had not yet heard an echo of what all men were saying.) Secondly, he wondered whether his perfect state was so near as he had thought. The killing went on, and he got no nearer. The “anti-patriots,” the “anti-revolutionaries,” the “anti-Robespierres” (though he did not think of them so) passed perpetually eastward and westward daily from the prisons to the two guillotines
By the irony of whatever rules and laughs at men, events caused the first mutterings to rise among the Extremists. The Terror was too mild, and above all the men with hearts of beasts—the remainder of the Hébertists—hated a policy which included, however fantastically, the ideal and the worship of God. They hated his half-alliance with whatever was Christian in the Convention, and his perpetual appeals to the Moderates.
The Lower Committee had a partially independent life, It was known to be the policy of Robespierre to submit this body, as he had submitted all the other organs of government, to the great Committee of Public Safety. Hence it was in this Lower Committee of General Security menaced as a function and as individuals, thoroughly in touch, by its position, with the police that the conspiracy arose. The majority of its members joined it, and from the Higher Committee Billaud and Collot adhered. On the 7th of Thermidor (25th of July 1794) the storm burst. Barrère read his report to the Convention, and it was an open menace to Robespierre.
The origins of that report merit a certain discussion. We have seen that from the first the reports, directed by the Committee, were usually written by Barrère, and were read to the Convention by him. On the other hand, we can discover usually in the style, and always in the opinions of the reports, the action of whoever led in the councils of the Committee. Thus, in the document of this nature of which so much mention is made in chapter vi, the spirit, and evidently many of the actual phrases, are the work of Danton.
Who drew up Barrère’s report, whether (possibly) it was his own work, when he saw opinion shifting away from Robespierre, or whether, as is more probable, it was inspired by Billaud and Collot, and permitted by the five neutrals, we cannot tell. The main fact is this, that the Committee had at least permitted to be made in its name a public declaration hostile to the man who, through the Committee, had ruled France.
The report repudiated in detail the policy of the past seven weeks; it insisted on the importance of the victories, on the iniquity of further lists of victims. For the first time in four months the Convention acted freely; it ordered the report to be printed and to be sent to all the Communes of France.
On the next day Robespierre came for the last time into his accustomed place. He gave his last speech to the Parliament. He was to appear once more, but never again as the orator and the leader. Reading, as was his wont, not declaiming, in the slow even voice that had compelled such attention, such enthusiasm, and such fear, he made the last of his declarations. This speech, if no other, should be read to understand the man. Here a theory stated with power and with precision; there a description of those without whose condemnation the theory could not be realised. A noble ideal based upon the scaffold; a dogma and a detailed persecution side by side. He read it slowly from end to end, proving to himself, and, as he thought, to his audience, the perfection of his ideal, and the necessity of the terrible road towards it. But his audience heard nothing of the ideal; they heard only the description of themselves.
Men of all kinds, the mere demagogues, were in that summary, the personal enemies, the financiers. It seems that on the manuscript from which he read even Cambon’s name was written. But in this extreme crisis, when he was denouncing the first men in order to save his own position, he was no longer Robespierre. It made no difference to his fate, yet we judge him with more accuracy when we know that he omitted the name of Cambon, and that he did not pronounce that of Carnot, whom he had threatened in private. It was an attempt at compromise.
The Convention heard him and his threat. Of his theories they had heard enough for years. Yet such was the power of his slow clear utterance, of the reverence which his following commanded, and of the idea which he expressed so well, and in which all at heart believed, that they voted the printing and the dissemination of the speech. Cambon and Billaud-Varennes rose to demand the repeal of the vote. The great unwieldy assembly, or rather its great unwieldy neutral faction, hesitated, conferred, and yielded to the demand. Then Robespierre was doomed.
As he was reading, as the distribution of the speech and then its repeal were being voted, there hung above his head and that of the Parliament the flags taken in the new victories from the English and Austrians at Turcoing, at Landrecies, at Quesnoy, at Condé, at Valenciennes, at Fleurus, and it was they that turned the scale.
When the evening came the Club met, the little society of the Jacobins, which was still the most independent and the most vital force in Paris. It had dared to elect a president for its debates whose whole policy was antagonistic to Robespierre; yet now it heard him and remembered its old idol. He re-read, in the same tone, but in a more familiar surrounding and with ampler diction, the speech of the morning, and his hearers grew wild with enthusiasm. They hissed and they turned out Billaud and Collot, who had dared to be present; they cried out to Robespierre that they would follow him always towards the perfect Republic; and David, an excellent artist and a bad man, cried to him from the back, “I will drink the hemlock with you!” but he was afraid even to acknowledge his master when Robespierre came to die.
The Jacobins that night were ready to rise for Robespierre. As so many minorities have been in that city of convictions and of intense enthusiasms, they were ready to impose themselves and their creed upon the capital and upon France; but they did not know to what a handful they had been reduced in the last seven weeks. All night the conspiracy against Robespierre worked hard. Boissy D’Anglas, the leader of the “Marsh,” was brought over. To him and his followers Robespierre was pointed out as the tyrant; to what was left of the Mountain he was denounced as the moderate and the compromiser. But, above all, he was, to the great bulk of the Convention, the enemy who had destroyed all civil order in pursuit of his mad theories, and who had even held the victories of no account.
The Parliament met the next morning, on the 9th of Thermidor (27th of July). It was a year to a day since Robespierre had joined the great Committee; but it was for the condemnation of Robespierre that they met. The great hall waited for a coming tumult. First into the tribune went St. Just, with his beautiful face and strong bearing, determined in oratory as in the battles to strike at once and lead a charge. He was eloquent, for he was trying to save his friend; he boldly attempted argument, a compromise, anything; called it “saving the Republic.” “Let us end his domination if you will, but let the government still be that of the Revolution, and let us draw up such rules as shall save us from arbitrary power without destroying the motive force of the national demand.” The sentiment was precisely that of the Convention, but the speaker was known to be merely the young bodyguard of their enemy.
Tallien called out from the right, “Pull back the curtain,” and, though the fellow was an actor, he had struck the right note, St. Just could never defend Robespierre; it would have been a cloak for continuing the Terror. The Convention applauded, and from applause turned to crying down St. Just in a public roar of fear and hatred.
Then twice Robespierre tried to speak; the hubbub silenced him. During a lull in the storm they voted the arrest of Henriot. It meant the transference of such pitiful armed force as he commanded from the hand of a friend to that of an enemy. Robespierre made a last effort to rescind that order. He was not heard.
Tallien was given the tribune by the Speaker (Collot was Speaker that day, and Collot had been turned out by the Jacobins the night before). Tallien spoke theatrically, as he always did, but to the point. Robespierre, he said, had plotted to destroy the assembly for his purposes; he quoted the speech of the day before. While Barrère, the turncoat, stood looking this way and that, not knowing how things would turn. Once more Robespierre attempted a reply; he only raised a storm that drowned his voice.
When he saw that full speech was denied him, he turned from the place where he stood towards the “Marsh,” the Moderates, and said, “I appeal to you who are just and who are not conspiring with these assassins;” but the “Marsh” was lost to him they also cried him down.
A little silence followed. They saw Robespierre attempting for a fifth time to speak, but the agony of the night and the fearful struggle of the morning had overcome him at last: his voice could not be heard though he tried to articulate. Gamier of the Aube called to him across the floor of the hall, “The blood of Danton chokes you.” It was the truest thing said in that wild meeting.
Before the silence was broken, Louchet, an unknown man, rose and proposed the arrest, saying openly what all thought: “No one will deny that Robespierre has played the master; let us vote his arrest.” Then Robespierre found his voice. He went up four steps above his usual seat, to a place where, high up and from the left, from the summit of what had been the Mountain in the old days, he could see the whole of that multitudinous assembly, with whose aid he had hoped to regenerate France and to save mankind. Beneath him as a host, like the dim pictures of Martin’s Milton, rank on rank, he saw so many heads that it must have seemed to him a nation. He remembered all his dreams of a perfect state, of men living in equality, with no one oppressed and no one oppressing, of a government based upon the clear will of all, and upon the civic virtues which he had preached, till there should rise the perfect Republic, an exemplar for all the nations. He saw that he was doomed, and with him all his dreams. Perhaps, also, he saw the armed despotism which he had twice prophesied coming in his place. To the last he did not understand his folly, and he replied to the demand of Louchet, “Vote for my death.”
Le Bas, who had been with St. Just in the Ardennes, who had helped to make the great army of Sambre-et-Meuse, and Robespierre the younger, another honest man, came and did what David failed to do—they said they would die with him, and took his hands in theirs. The Committee passed to the vote, and the three were taken away with St. Just and with Couthon. The scene that follows is the end of the Revolution in Paris.
Twice at least in the course of the preceding five years Paris had risen against the law and had removed an obstacle or a man for the sake of the Revolution. The random Municipality of 1789 (which for all its disorder was the parent of the puissant modern system of Communes) is an example in point; the 2nd of June is another. Ultimately the people of Paris were the only force on which government rested, and it was to them that the final appeal was made.
The Commune possessed the initiative in this matter it was the sole centre of Paris in theory; and now that the clubs were all in decay (save the Jacobins), now that the great orators were exiled or dead, and that the Sections themselves did not meet, the Commune was also the only centre in fact. But the Commune, it will be remembered, had become a Robespierrian thing. It determined to rise against the Convention.
The Convention had ordered the arrest of Henriot, who was commander of the armed force (such as it was) of the town. It sent his successor, Hesmart to do the work. But the head of a number of pikes and guns would not submit to a man who represented only the law, and instead of Hesmart arresting Henriot, it was Henriot who arrested Hesmart.
Meanwhile the other officers of the Commune displayed the same energy, the same rapidity of execution and design which under better leaders and for a better cause had hitherto succeeded. Lescot-Payot (the Robespierrian mayor who had been put into the place of Pache on the 21 of Floréal), and Payan the national agent, were at the head of the movement. They sent orders to the prisons to refuse the arrested deputies, they gave Henriot the formal order to employ his full force and act. They raised the Jacobins. They formed a committee of nine who were to take over the government; they ordered the arrest of their principal enemies in the Convention, and most important of all, they convened the Sections.
They had only a night to work in—the 9th Thermidor to the 10th—and their work had the energy of a fever; but the greatest factor of all was lacking the fever did not spread. The inertia of the people, even their disapproval, was evident as they proceeded; the majority of such Sections as did meet stood aloof from or condemned the cause of Robespierre.
While it was still just light, between eight and nine in the evening, Robespierre, whom the keepers of the Luxemburg prison had refused, was brought to the Mairie, and there one after the other all the arrested deputies came, profiting by the official routine, for the Mairie was the “right place” officially for prisoners when a difficulty arose as to imprisonment within Paris. But official routine had a strange bedfellow that night, for while the officials took the prisoners there, the small band of rebels, who knew of no place more friendly, brought there also those whom they had delivered by force. Robespierre was again with the strongest of his friends—his brother, St. Just, Couthon; he was surrounded by an organised and legal body, the Commune, which had risen in his defence; they passed to the Hotel de Ville, and outside, on the Place de Grève, there gathered between ten o’clock and eleven a fairly large group of the National Guard. But there was no order among them, nor any accurate knowledge among their officers as to what was to be done. From the windows of the room where Robespierre and his companions sat, there could be dimly seen a moving crowd of mingled citizens and guards, discussing rather than preparing for action.
Robespierre refused to put himself at the head of the movement; at least it is only thus that we can explain the delay and the confusion. He was to the last the strange mixture of lawyer and pedant and idealist. He would not act without the legal right, for his pedantry forbade it, nor move with an armed minority, because, judged by his theories, it would have been a crime. Perhaps at the very last he decided to move: there exists a document authorising a march on the Convention, and at its base the first three letters of his name—the signature unfinished, interrupted.
Meanwhile the Convention had found a new energy and a power of corporate action to which it had been long a stranger—each man there was defending his life. Legendre, with a small force, went and closed the Jacobins. Barras was given the command of such armed men as could be gathered; the two committees sent emissaries who appealed with success to the Sections. The Convention was the law which had always meant so much to the people; it was the authority of the constitution. Its majority, obeyed when it was in lethargy, could not but be successful when it awoke. All Paris defended it.
At midnight one of the sudden thunder-showers which are common in the Seine valley at that season cleared what was left of the crowd before the Hotel de Ville. They had discussed both sides, and they had not decided—hardly an army for rebellion; they had doubted what business they had there, and with the rain they went home. Yet it was not till two hours after, in the early morning, that the little band of the Convention came into the square. They found it almost empty, with here and there a small group standing on the wet cobble-stones, sleepy but curious.
Bourdon and a few policemen went into the Hotel de Ville and found no defenders. They went up to the room where the conspirators sat.
Robespierre was on the ground with his jaw broken by a pistol-shot.
At half-past seven in the evening of that day (the 10th Thermidor) twenty-two of the Robespierrians were taken in three carts to the guillotine. Robespierre himself, half-unconscious from his wound, stood propped against the side of the cart, his head bandaged, his arms bound, his chin upon his breast Ropes also bound his body to the sides of the tumbril. He passed the house where Duplay had sheltered him, and where he had hidden himself, so as not to hear the noise of the executioners’ carts. Now beneath him the heavy wheels were making the same sound on the ruts of the Rue St. Honoré At a cross-street the cart stopped to let pass the funeral of Madame Aigué, who had killed herself the day before from fear of Robespierre.
As they neared the Place of the Revolution, where Louis and Danton had suffered, probably at the turning of the Rue St. Honoré, where the guillotine came in sight and where Danton had sung his song, a woman came forward from the crowd doubtless some one whom his tyranny had directly bereaved and struck Robespierre a blow. For sixteen hours he had not spoken nor made a sign, but when he felt through this blow the popular hatred, he made a gesture of contempt and of despair, he shrugged his shoulders, but kept his innumerable thoughts within the bandages. “De mourir pour le peuple et d’en être abhorré.”
* * * * * * * *
Then—so the greatest of French historians tell us—France marched down a broad road to the tomb where she has left two millions of men.
But the armies of the great twenty years cannot be stated in the terms of one man’s ambition, nor summed up in any of the simple formulae which a just hatred of Caesarism has framed to explain them. At the root of every battle of the Empire was the organisation and the enthusiasm of 1793. The tactics of Austerlitz and of Jena were learned in Flanders; the enthusiasm of the Guard itself came in clear descent from the exaltation of the Sambre-et-Meuse.
In this book we have attempted to judge the first man of a great crisis in relation to his time; it is still more essential that, when we consider the after-effects of his action, a whole nation under arms should stand in the right historical framework, its gigantic effort part and parcel of a supreme necessity.
We can understand, we can speak rationally, and therefore truly, of Danton, when we show him above all loving and defending France and the Revolutionary Thing: that same appreciation will make us follow clearly the continuous development of his action. It is hardly too much to say that, until Tilsit, the French had to advance or be crushed—nation, creed, and men.
The men and the armies must be for us the men and the armies that gave a new vigour to Europe; the details of their action should not be the matter of our judgment, but their relation to the whole community—its needs, its defence, its faith.
As the time grows greater between that period and our own, a just proportion imposes itself. The flame which, close at hand, burnt in a formless furnace is beginning to assume a certain shape. From a standpoint so distant that no living memory bridges the gulf, we can measure the light, the heat, and even the fuel of that flame.
As to its final meaning in our society, every day makes that clearer; and, to change the metaphor, this much becomes more and more apparent, that through whatever crises the Western civilisation is to pass, and whatever form its edifice will finally take, when the noise of the building is over, the corner-stone, with its immense strength and its precision of line, was planned by the philosophy and was hewn by the force of the Revolution. Civilisations die, and ours was dying before that wind swept across Europe.
It would have been a poor excuse for leaving unremoved the rubble, the dust, and the putrescence of the old world to have pleaded that the decay was the action of centuries, and that old things alone were worthy of reverence. Old things alone are worthy of reverence, but old things which have grown old upon just and sure foundations, to which time has added ornament and the satisfaction of harmonious colour, without destroying the main lines, and without sapping the strength by which they live.
The new foundations alone stand at the present day. They are crude, they satisfy nothing in us permanently, they are very far from affording that sentiment of content which is the first requisite of a happy civilisation. But time will do in this case, as it has always done in every other, the work of harmony and of completion. The final society will not be without its innumerable complexity of detail, its humour, and its inner life. Certainly it will not long remain a stranger to the unseen; but it will be built upon 1793.
Meanwhile the light grows on the origins. The personal bitterness which the struggle produced has passed. It is a pious memory in this or that family in France to give itself still the name of a Revolutionary faction; but the hatred that has produced confusion in honest critics, and that has furnished such ample material for false history, that hatred is disappearing in France. The vendettas have ceased, and the grosser of the calumnies are no longer heard. The history of the Revolution began to be possible when Louis Blanc sat down to curse the upheaval that had killed his father, and ended by producing the work which more than any other exalted the extreme Revolutionary ideal.
The story of that time is now like a photographic negative, which a man fixes, washing away the white cloud from the clean detail of the film. Point after point, then more rapidly whole spaces, stand out precise and true. And the certitude which he feels that the underlying picture is an accurate reminiscence of Nature comes to us also when we make out and fix some passage in the Revolution, cleared of its mass of hearsay, of vituperation, of ignorance, and of mere sound.
We are beginning to see a great picture, consonant in its details, and consecutive in its action. The necessity of reform the light of the ideal striking men’s minds after a long sleep, the hills first and afterwards the plains; privilege and all the interests of the few alarmed and militant; the menace of attack and the preparation of defence; the opposition of extremes on either side of the frontier, growing at an increasing speed, till at last, each opposite principle mutually exciting the other, as armatories their magnets, from a little current of opinion rose a force that none could resist. The governments of the whole world were for the destruction of the French people, and the French people were for the rooting out of everything, good and evil, which was attached, however faintly, to the old regime.
The rhetoricians passed in the smoke of the fire, unsubstantial, full of words that could lead and inspire, but empty of acts that could govern the storm. From their passing, which is as vague as a vision, we hear faintly the “Marseillaise” of the Girondins.
The men of action and of the crisis passed. They burnt in the heat they themselves had kindled, but in that furnace the nation was run, and forged, and made. Then came the armies: France grown cold from the casting-pit, but bent upon action, and able to do.
Wherever France went by, the Revolutionary Thing remained the legacy of her conviction and of her power, It remains with a kind of iron laughter for those who judge the idea as a passing madness. The philosophers have decided upon a new philosophy; the lawyers have clearly proved that there has been no change; the rhetoric has been thoroughly laughed down, enthusiasm has grown ridiculous, and the men of action are cursed. But in the wake of the French march citizens are found who own the soil and are judged by an equal code of laws; nationalities have been welded, patriotism has risen at the call of the new patriotic creed; Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, Italy have known themselves as something more than the delimitations of sovereigns. Nor was there any abomination of the old decay, its tortures, its ignominies, its privileges, its licensed insults, or its slaveries, but she utterly stamped them out. In Germany, in Austria, in Italy, they disappeared. Only in one dark corner they remained—the great Northern field, where France herself grew powerless from cold, and from whence an unknown rule and the advance of relentless things menaces Europe now.
But with the mention of that frozen place there comes a thought older than all our theories—the mourning for the dead Danton helped to make us, and was killed: his effort has succeeded, but the tragedy remains. The army at whose source he stood, the captain who inherited his action, were worn out in forging a new world. And I will end this book by that last duty of mourning, as we who hold to immortality yet break our hearts for the dead.
There is a legend among the peasants in Russia of a certain sombre, mounted figure, unreal, only an outline and a cloud, that passed away to Asia, to the east and to the north. They saw him move along their snows through the long mysterious twilights of the northern autumn in silence, with the head bent and the reins in the left hand loose, following some enduring purpose, reaching towards an ancient solitude and repose. They say it was Napoleon. After him there trailed for days the shadows of the soldiery, vague mists bearing faintly the forms of companies of men. It was as though the cannon-smoke of Waterloo, borne on the light west wind of that June day, had received the spirits of twenty years of combat, and had drifted farther and farther during the fall of the year over the endless plains.
But there was no voice and no order. The terrible tramp of the Guard and the sound that Heine loved, the dance of the French drums, was extinguished; there was no echo of their songs, for the army was of ghosts and was defeated. They passed in the silence which we can never pierce, and somewhere remote from men they sleep in bivouac round the most splendid of human swords.