Hilaire Belloc.

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further evil brooded sultry and oppressive above the city.

In the minds of men also a strange mixture of close
activity and of reluctance, things moving in silence, filled
the remaining hours of daylight. This contrast pro-
ceeded from the spirit that lends all its irony to Ther-
midor. Paris was confused. To judge by the immediate
readiness or fury of the Commune it might have been
the great loth of August, the rising for national exist-
ence; it might have been full peace to judge by the
quiet certitude of the Convention. Each was deceived.
The Parliament had no force to meet the populace had
the populace armed ; the municipal body had no populace
to arm. The legal authority of the one, the moral
leadership of the other, turned into a smoke of phrases ;
and, after most inconsequent adventures, the midnight
struggle in which the drama ended was but the success
of a few dozens over a handful of individuals.

Yet so tenacious was the tradition of the Revolution
in the hearts of the politicians, so little did they see how
the great victories had calmed political violence, that
each group went on, in the air and dissociated from
reality, thinking, the one that a city, the other that a
nation was behind it. At the Hotel de Ville the full
enthusiasm of '93 blazed out ; the great words were


rediscovered and the sharp decisions upon which the
Revolution had hitherto turned were taken. It was
five o'clock when Herman's note,^ official but very non-
committal in its language and in the person of its bearer,
came to the Commune. Fleuriot-Lescot received it and
the insurrection the municipality had planned took shape
immediately. The Council-General was summoned, Payan
did what in a greater moment and for a national purpose
Danton had done; he opened the doors to the general
crowd; the crowd entered but was silent. With that
kneading of direct action and passion which the Revolu-
tion had discovered, the Commune threw out decree after
decree, each in the right order, each so framed that had
there been a Paris to answer them, an organised army
with its spirit and its plan would have arisen in two
hours ; but they worked in a void.

The barriers were to be shut, the tocsin rung, the
drums were to beat the mobilisation, the cannons were
summoned, the sections were to meet to remain in per-
manence and to arm ; Hanriot was given his objective —
the Convention ; the Convention was " to be freed." But
these gates, bells, drums, marches and attacks, were not
machines whose levers the Commune held ; they depended
upon men for their agency or no bells would ring, no
drums beat. The very theory of the Commune had dis-
solved cohesion in the solvent of liberty, and the fatigue
of the great wars had drugged spontaneity to sleep. Such
few citizens as gathered in the sections, debated on false
issues ; hesitated, dared not. The tocsin rang spasmodic-
ally here and there ; ceased in St. German's, began too late
in St. Antoine, was made a quarrel of in St. Roch. Only
the thin bell of the Hotel de Ville itself swung continuously

* It was nothing but what he was bound to send ; an official message
of the arrest despatched to the municipality of Paris by the hand of a
messenger. The mayor got it at five o'clock, about a quarter of an hour
after tke vote, so it must have been sent from the Tuileries.


in its dainty cupola, as thougli to show tliat only the
federate band of the municipality felt that the moment
was supreme or could maintain a purpose. As for the
mother of the city, Notre Dame, it was silent.

To this torrent of active, empty decrees in the Hotel
de Ville there was answered another torrent, paper also,
in the great room of the Pavilion de Flore. The Con-
vention was not without a head, the Committee of Public
Safety lent itself to be the organ and authority of the law.
The decrees fell like leaves; to swing the gates open, to ring
no peal, to dissolve the sections, none to obey Hanriot,
to arrest every man that rebelled. They signed and
signed ; they called the lower committee In to help them ;
what authority their names would give was poured out
as though the great Committee had never hesitated, and
as though the moment were indeed (as some historians
have been misled into thinking it) the crisis of a long
struggle and the end of a set plan. ■ If they failed they
were willing to risk the fate of failure. Carnot gave his
name to half the documents, Barrer^ to nearly all, Prieur
to whatever was presented to him. In this decision to
throw away the scabbard the Committee were acting as
their enemy the Commune also desired to act ; but with
more thoroughness. For when young Payan had sum-
moned the Council- General of the municipality in the
Hotel de Ville there were hesitations : not all consented to
sign the list of insurrection, and there was some attempt
to destroy even such signatures as had been given.

What meaning could attach to these opposing bat-
talions of words, these soundless batteries of official
papers ? This ; the Commune was but half obeyed,
but the Committee and the Convention seemed to be
obeyed altogether. Every citizen that sat down to his
meal, every gate left open, every bell left silent appeared
a homage to the Parliament. Had they turned to
positive decrees; had they ordered action, Paris would


not have moved mucli more for them than for the
Hotel de Ville, but the negative commands of the Com-
mittee fell on a neutral Paris, and clothed their authors
with an appearance of power. For if to a lethargic man
one says, " Do this," another, " Do not do this," the second
appears to be the master.

Meanwhile Paris dined. The Convention, while its
Committee thus slaved, had adjourned till seven ; it
mingled with the life of the city, it dined with the rest.

And the five prisoners dined.

There are gaps in the story of Thermidor that are
like the inconsequent accidents of a dream. There
should have been a pomp and some great force holding
these men — Robespierre, Lebas, Couthon, St. Just
should have gone off the prisoners of a brigade — they
went down the few steps to the rooms of the lower com-
mittee with no one but the ushers of the house to guard
them. There, attended only by the sergeant's guard that
was constantly posted and that had received no accession
of strength, they very easily and soberly dined.

What came to rescue them and to affirm the insur-
rection ? A great mob or the organisation of a bat-
talion ? Nothing of the kind. Hanriot, heavy with
wine, started off with a couple of aides-de-camp and
perhaps half-a-dozen friends. In the Rue St. Honor^
Courtois called him names out of window. He passed
on. Farther down the street he met a gentleman
walking ; he heard the gentleman mentioned as opposed
to Robespierre; he had him sent off under a corporal
and four men to the post of the Palais Royal.^ He
appeared at the rooms of the lower committee and
argued with the guard ; they opposed his opinions. He
drew his sword as he stood in the doorway. A deputy
of the committee got up on the table and ordered the
guard to arrest him and his companions. They did so,

1 An eye-witness told Gallois this.


and as lie was a strong and violent man they bound him
with, cords.^ Meanwhile Robespierre, not a little dis-
turbed at a man's leaping on the table where he was dining,
rose from his plate and napkin and interrupted his meal
to advise Hanriot not to resist ; saying he desired nothing
more than a trial at the bar of the revolutionary tribunal.
The others sat on at meat till the scuffle was over.

There is something terrible in this splash of gro-
tesque : the handful that appeared on the great stage
of a decisive hour, without audience, in such a small
domestic way, and without any one circumstance of
tragedy. The incongruity of such unaccented scenes
determining so great an event was part of the spirit of
Thermidor : it fell in with the silence and stillness of the
air, with the steady grey sky, the even, growing heat, and
the delay of the storm.

Some while yet before seven, their meal over, little
detachments of the guard took each of the five separately
to separate prisons. Lebas to La Force,^ along the
narrow streets eastwards, past the very doors of the
Commune. St. Just to the old Scotch college on the
hill of the university. It had been made a rough
prison of for the time, and there, encased in lead,
the brain of the last Stuart watched in the wall beside
him. Robespierre was taken beyond to the Luxembourg :
the two others to St. Lazare and to La Bourbe.

All this went easily and well. The note of that dinner
table was continued. There was no rebellion or violence,
nor even argument. Robespierre was confident of trial ;
the rest were either silent with pride (as was St. Just),
or left their fate to the confidence of Robespierre (as

1 The oflScial report says: " The said sergeant being ordered to bind
his hands and feet, this was accomplished with great accuracy."

2 When Madame Lebas says in lier " Memoirs," " The conciergerie," she
must be thinking of the scene which I shall describe in a moment. Lebas
was certainly taken first to La Force as the registers show. The jailers
refusing to receive him he was led to the conciergerie.


did Lebas and Augustine). None marked their passage, no
appeal was made ; the astounding silence of Paris left an
empty and wide road for their various passages.

Meanwhile the Commune, that had seized reality and
was determined on a supreme effort, had all prepared, as
it thought, to save the Republic in which it still pas-
sionately lived, and for which this man still stood.

The Commune had done much since the first insurrec-
tionary call, though but two hours had been given them
in which to act. They had raised the Jacobins; at
seven, just as the prisoners reached their prisons, the
remnant of the great club met to make a wing of the
insurrection, I say " a remnant," yet it was still the
Jacobins. A man could stand up in it and say he had
voted against Robespierre and the momentary violence
that followed such a declaration was succeeded by his re-
call and by an attempted apology. It sent a deputation
to the Commune ; it declared a permanent session.

The sections, the primary assemblies whose permanent
officials and whose interested leaders were men drilled
and chosen by what had been Robespierre's organisation,
met also. The common citizens came in small numbers,
and such as came were uncertain, leaning if anything
towards the Convention. They passed neutral votes.
They did not march. The night oppressed them,
and the universal falling back into repose. Also the
Commune with a strange audacity, being in reality a
dead relic but thinking themselves all Paris, declared
outlaws all those whom they called conspirators against
the deputies. They forbade any man to follow the
national authority, saying that till the nation and liberty
were saved they alone ruled.

One part of the officials heard them — the jailers. At
St. Lazare an excuse was found for refusing to receive
Augustine ; he was led away to La Force, and there two
municipals in arms took him their willing prisoner for


the Commune, and brought Wm back to the Hotel de
Ville rescued, the first of the five. So Lebas, refused
at La Force and sent on to the Conciergerie on the Island,
was freed. Just as he went off, a hh'ed carriage driving
up brought him his wife and her sister, who implored
his return. He was tender to her and remembered the
little child : he told her to wait till the morning. She
went home, and he to the gathering crowd of the
insurrection at the Hotel de Ville; but they did not
meet again, for in the night this man, whose simple and
republican mind compels me to admiration as I write
his name, gave himself death.

While the Commune sent out its emissaries to the
university to rescue St. Just, and to La Bourbe to rescue
Couthon, Robespierre had thrown away the last of the
cards fate offered him.

They had taken him first to the Luxembourg in a
cab. He had gone up the hill of old quarter simply,
hardly under a guard.^ The wide Rue Tournon received
the closed carriage in which he drove, and he reached
the palace. The porter replied as the porter of every
prison had replied that evening, but he, not from a
premonition but from an insistent legality, demanded
admission. The Convention had arrested him ; he would
obey it. He desired to stand his trial. Of all this the
porter knew nothing, and, half tempted by an apparent
safety, he permitted his companions (for they were
hardly his enemies) to drive him down the hill again
— they scarcely knew whither.

Since all the jailers in the capital showed this same
temper, Charnier perhaps, or the gendarme with him,
bethought him of a guard-room. The armed force, the
sections, were at least doubtful or perhaps loyal to the
Parliament, and he was half sick of his mission. The
nearest guard-room was that of the Mairie on the Island,

^ There were with him only Charnier and one gendarme.


tlirougli the oldest and darkest streets of tlie university;
therefore he drove his charge down to the river, and
across the Pont-Neuf to the Goldsmith's Quay. They
left him there less under arrest than among neutrals.

It was still light, more or less, in the street without ;
the Place de Gr^ve beyond the law courts, across the
Seine, was filling with men ; the lamps that swung
over the narrow streets were being lowered for light-
ing. The clear noise that comes up from a French
town on long summer evenings was the chorus of
that little scene.

The militia guard of the Island would neither fight
for Robespierre nor detain him. They had paid little
heed to the Commune; they had understood little of
the Convention. They found Robespierre among them,
and were somewhat embarrassed. He sat, still powdered,
careful and restrained at the rough table which a dozen
dirty uniforms, the drippings of one oil-lamp, and the
growing darkness infected with squalor. Here was the
famous name they had heard of so often — perhaps the
Republic in person ; they were not over sure. They
would neither fight for him nor detain him.

Had he remained there steadfast to his first deter-
mination, sleeping that night on the planks of the guard-
room and demanding his trial next day at the bar of the
revolutionary tribunal, he might have left the Island safe
to return to freedom ; lessened indeed, part only of
government, but still alive — he and his theory alive.
The river was his bulwark ; the great law courts, in
whose vaults he sat half a prisoner, were his refuge. He
guessed it, but there ran in him that fatal flaw of vision-
aries, by which in easy times they lose their wealth and
in times of tumult their lives ; he could not judge upon
or mould the things under his hand, but continued to
live in the things beyond the world. A sharp accident
persuaded him against himself.


Hanriot, released at last, had sought Robespierre at
the Luxembourg, and had returned without him. The
Commune had again sent out to discover him. There
appeared in the doorless arch of his refuge some few
figures of the Hotel de Ville. They had come for him
and had found him there, almost the last of the Five.
He refused to follow them and to step outside the law.
The darkness grew. They returned. He suffered him-
self to be led on by their ardour and their active habit ;
he came out into the dying light and no hand stopped
him nor was any bayonet crossed. He passed through
the labyrinth of tall houses, before the porch, where, as a
boy, he had remembered the chapter of the cathedral and
his cousin the priest that had loved him ; over the old
bridofe of Notre Dame where the river was still broad
silver, and came out upon the Place de Grfeve with his
companions, who rejoiced as at a kind of triumph.

Indistinguishable in the heavy darkness a crowd
there disputed and eddied. There was a little faint
acclamation : he did not heed it. They hurried him
through the uncertain hundreds towards the high and
delicate fagade that showed blacker against the eastward
arch of the night, and under the lowering sky of a re-
turning storm. It seemed a creature ready for prey.
Its tall, great windows were all lit and menaced the west
like eyes ; its soul of insurrection moved in it as though
with a voice and an intelligence it could drive Paris
against the nation and hurl the Convention from the
sombre palace that stood up a mile away, a fortress
against the last bars of daylight. That living beast was
the Commune. It swallowed him up.

The great hall that he entered upon the first floor
was filled with men ^ and ablaze with candles. Save
Couthon all the rescued had arrived : like Hanriot,
bound early in the evening by half-a-dozen enemies and

1 Ninety-seven signed the roll, but there were many more present.


easily cut loose later by a handful of friends. They were
surrounded by the Commune vigorous and creating
vigour : without, an increasing crowd seemed to support
them, and the Commune still gathered. One would
have said in this first hour of the night that the Revolt
was on the march and already victorious. But with
Robespierre himself, their standard of whom they knew
so little, there had come in upon them the paralysis that
arises from thought. The organisation ceased, the orders
failed, his signature was wanting and remained wanting.

There is not in the whole five years a moment in
which the man appears more nakedly than in this night
which was his last. His unalterable principle, his failure
in the face of things, his fixed purpose in morals, his
final irresolution in action are the master-keys that read
him. For four hours he stopped the advance of time
with debate, disputing the strict right of insurrection,
doubting it, demanding persuasion. In the heat of de-
spair, of violent appeals, and almost of commands to their
own king, time raced by these men for whom time was
everything; the hours went furiously on, uselessly, like
an unharnessed river.

But in the Convention that same tide of time flow-
ing was harnessed and ground out action in a great mill
tUl every pulse of it produced a decision and completed
a force.

They outlawed the municipality, Hanriot, at last the
five members themselves. Legendre found wisdom in
the stress, went with a knot of guards and shut the
Jacobins where active Vivier was still in the chair ;
arrested him. The Convention named leaders for an
armed force. They sent throughout the dark streets
and to each of the ill-attended, yawning sections a decree
to rouse and decide them ; they caused to be read at
the crossways and shouted by criers their terrible " Hors
la Loi!" which has been like the bell of the plague


throughout French history and which Buonaparte alone

The men in the Hotel de Ville heard it. At the
extreme corner of the Grfeve where the old Rue de la
Vannerie then came in, the outposts of the Convention
had lit torches and were trumpeting it out on the stroke
of twelve to the mob in the square : conquering their
irresolution; deciding them. The tocsin had ceased.
There was a silence in the great room among the rebels
to hear the criers; some one ran out and seized them,
but it was too late, the crowd was shaken, no gun-crew
was formed. Then as though to mark the silence and to
proclaim doom the tenuous chimes of midnight tinkled
from the clocks of the Boucherie, of the Cathedral, and
of St. Jean; the 9th Thermidor had ended and the loth
rolled in the end.

The air had been very still in the unnatural heat of
the night, but the first breezes before rain stirred with
the turn of morning, and upon the silence which nothing
had yet disturbed, save the subdued debate of the
crowd, the occasional rallying cry of Hanriot from the
windows or the sudden shout of the " Hors la Loi"
thunder broke. Revealed in sharp flashes, driven by
the terror of the storm, the doubters poured off home
under the sheets of rain. Some hauled away their
pieces, some abandoned them, until in the second hour
of the morning, when the thunder had rolled off along
the river-plain and the rain withdrawn had refreshed
the city with a new air, there remained but a group
here and there gazing to no purpose at the windows,
and the half-deserted guns : twin shadows, men and
cannon reflected in the pools of the pavement.

Within, the wiser men had already despaired ; but the
more determined still wrestled with the man in whose
quarrel, as they thought, they had challenged death.
The wiser called for arms and had them piled upon the


table of the inner room ; the more determined summoned
Robespierre for the last time. He sat at the centre of
the great baize table, enthroned, as it were, having on his
left the mayor, on his right Pay an, and before him the
document all signed by his defenders and awaiting his
name ; the last arm of the defence at bay.

For the appeal to the sections had failed, the messen-
gers had returned to report only confusion, and the Com-
mune bethought them of one section at least to which
the mere name of Robespierre should be a shaft of leader-
ship. The grave relic of Mansard which we call the Place
Vendome and in which the bronze pillar of Napoleon
recalls at once in its majesty the embodiment of the
Revolution in arms and in the marks of its fall the
modern parody of insurrection, was a section under
the name of " the Pikes." Therein Robespierre had lived
and to this the last appeal was made. It was written
out by Lerebours who alone survived of all that company ;
Payan, Louvet, Legrand had put their names to it — they
laid it before Robespierre. He held the pen doubtfully
and would not sign. A final urging disturbed him but failed
to startle him into action. It proceeded from Couthon.

The cripple with large painful eyes came to him, like
a reminiscence of his past four months of power ; a man
upon whose fevered debility far more than upon the
creative angers of St. Just Robespierre had been able to
impress the sanctity of his system.

Couthon then, just released from prison, came in on
the arms of two gensdarmes. It was past one o'clock;
the columns of the Convention were on the road to
the assault, there was not an hour left in which to
decide. When Robespierre had thanked the men that
supported his friend, and while his mind was yet moved
by the reunion of the proscribed, .Couthon added his
plea to all that St. Just had said more passionately
and to the hard phrases of Le Bas.


For half-an-hour or more he bore tlie scene, the
crowd of men standing and crying against his principle ;
then slowly, with the half irresolution which had mi-
dermined him throughout that night he traced the
first letters of his name. He saw forming, in this aban-
donment of all himself, the first signature that ever he
had put to rebellion ; an insult to his single dogma and
a denial of the general will ; he dared not achieve the
sacrilege. With that beginning he ended ; he refused to
complete the signature, and putting down the pen, he
laid his head on his left hand and stared at the paper
before him. The clock on the facade struck two.

The scene was over. Whether he had signed or no,
nothing would have come of it save an abdication of the
close consistency of his life. Time, which he had refused
to consider, now overwhelmed him. Already the two slow
mobs that the Convention had gathered were converging
on the Place de Grfeve ; Barras from the Quays, Leonard
Bourdon from the markets had met and joined their
forces in front of the Hotel de Ville. No cannon opposed
them. If Hanriot ran out to rally a dozen gunners
it led to nothing but his own rough handling ; he broke
away covered with wounds, ran through the archway and
hid in the inner yard of the Town Hall. The last
remaining cannon of the defence were mingled with
those of the assailants and turned against the building.
Leonard Bourdon and his following crowded up the great
central staircase and the Commune had fallen.

From the windows of the main hall on the first floor
Le Bas had seen the troops of the Convention fill the
square. He walked into the small room adjoining, took
a loaded pistol, shot himself and fell dead. With the
first light his enemies took him out and buried this
soldierly, unlaughing man side by side with Rabelais in
the damp narrow yard of the St. Paul. The shot began

Online LibraryHilaire BellocRobespierre → online text (page 29 of 32)