A Light in the Gloom: chapter 7


Romance

“Reality seen through a prism”

A LIGHT IN THE GLOOM; OR, THE POLITICS OF THE PAST.

AN OLD MAN’S TALE

Chapter VII

A mighty crowd such as the wide land pours
Once in a thousand years now gathered round
The fallen tyrant, like the rush of showers
Of hail in spring, pattering along the ground
Their many footsteps fell, else came no sound
From the wide multitude: that lonely man
Then knew the burthern of his change, and found,
Concealing in the dust his visage wan,
Refuge from the keen looks that through his bosom ran.

And he was troubled at a charm withdrawn
Thus suddenly: that sceptre ruled no more–
That even from gold the dreadful strength was gone
Which once made all things subject to its power.
Such wonder seized him, as if hour by hour
The past had come again; and the swift fall
Of one so great and terrible of yore
To desolateness, in the hearts of all
Like wonder stirred, who saw such awful change befal.

Shelley

[The writer has transposed these two verses.]

A new era had now dawned, the States-General and the National Assembly were links connecting the new with the ancient regime; they were attempts to combine Republican institutions and Monarchical privileges—to graft young and vigorous branches on a decaying and rotten tree. Vain and futile endeavour! The young world must build its own edifice; it cannot exist in the cold and falling mansions of its predecessors. The Convention was a vast embodiment of the spirit of demolition; it sprung from the wild chaos of the past, destined to obliterate every vestige of the present; it was mighty to destroy and revenge, but its very elements rendered it incapable of erecting the new and the pure. On the following day, the Deputies, to the number of 371, met in the Hall of the Tuilleries; they chose Petion, then in the height of his popularity, for President, and Condorcet, Brissot, Vergniaud, Rabaud, La Source, and Camus for Secretaries. As many Deputies had not arrived, they adjourned until the following day, when they again assembled, and sent a deputation of twelve to inform the National Assembly that the Convention was constituted, and about to exercise the power placed in their hands by the people of France. The National Assembly, to which I then went, immediately decreed that their President, M. de Neufchateau, at the head of the Assembly, should wait on the Convention, and conduct them to the Hall of the Fueillants; the President then declared the National Assembly dissolved, and they proceeded in a body to the Tuilleries, where M. de Neufchateau delivered a congratulatory oration. The Convention then walked to their future place of meeting, conducted by the members of the late Assembly, through an avenue formed by the Parisian multitude. The whole of the National Guards were under arms, and the air seemed enveloped in martial music; and myriads of people from all the adjacent districts were assembled to witness this solemn inauguration. Federates from the whole of this mighty nation, glittering in arms and uniform, and burning with enthusiasm to defend their newly-achieved liberties, mingled with the heroic women and children of Paris in this glorious spectacle. A feeling too deep for utterance pervaded all hearts. For the first time in the history of their country had its destiny been placed under the guidance of the whole of her people; royalty was suspended, and about to be abolished; enemies were gathering on all her frontiers; traitors were plotting in her own bosom. Truly it was a glorious but solemn experiment they were about to commence, and for once the light-hearted citizens seemed impressed with its awful importance. Then for the first time did I see Robespierre, who walked abreast with Chabot; they, as were the Parisian Deputies in general, were warmly greeted by their admirers; most of the Deputies seemed to be well known to the populace—about 300 members of the Assembly having been elected on the Convention. On taking possession of the Hall, Manuel, one of the Parisian Deputies, proposed that the President of the Convention should be lodged in the Palace of the Tuileries, should be preceded by guards when he appeared in public, and receive other marks of respect. He argued that it would give them respect in the eyes of the nation and in that of strangers, and related the story of Cyneas, the ambassador of Phyrrus, who, on being introduced to the Roman Senate, said they appeared like an assembly of kings. This comparison with kings decided the fate of his motion. It was warmly opposed by many, but by none so strongly as by Chabot, formerly a Capuchin monk, and Marat, formerly a surgeon, but now a journalist. These two seemed the most popular men in the Convention with the “sans culottes” as the worst-paid portion of the working class were then called; and certainly, in dress, they appeared to sympathise with them, and contrasted strangely with Robespierre, by whom they were seated, and who, though plainly, was carefully dressed: not a hair of his well-dressed and powdered head was out of order; not a wrinkle was to be seen on his plain blue coat, whilst his white waistcoat, with its under relief of pink, seemed the very picture of neatness. This, combined with frills at the breast and wrists of his shirt, a pair of drab breeches, white stockings, and large silver buckles in his shoes, with a nosegay in the button-hole of his coat, gave him quite a tasteful appearance. Robespierre is short in stature, thin, and spare in proportion, and has the appearance of enjoying ill health; his forehead, though low, is broad; his features sharp, but enlivened by piercing, deep-set blue eyes; his lips are firm and close, expressive of strong determination. Unlike the majority of his countrymen, he wears neither beard nor whiskers; his whole countenance is pleasing, but gives you the idea of a mind truly in earnest, and immersed in deep and melancholy thoughts. Marat is a native of Baudry, near Neufchatel, in Switzerland. He is a little man, with a sallow, gloomy countenance, enlivened by a fiery eye, but disfigured by a somewhat distorted mouth. He appears like a man who has injured his constitution by close confinement and intense study. In his manner he is cool an determined, and makes the most of his short stature. As a surgeon, he is reckoned remarkably clever, and possesses considerable philosophical and chemical knowledge; his extreme opinions on all subjects, and the fearless manner in which he promulgates them, has brought down upon him the deadly hatred of the moderate section of the Convention. The motion of Manuel was lost, but some of the arguments against it were fallacious; they put me in mind of Swift’s “Tale of a Tub,” where Jack tore his coat to pieces in his zeal to remove the lace. The next motion was made by Danton, a man above middle height, and of colossal proportions. His features are coarse, but they well express his fierce and overpowering style of eloquence; he is no pleasant, smooth-water, every-day character; but, like Mirabeau, is one of those energetic creations of the Revolution, which, torrent like, bear down everything before them. When the storm was loudest and danger the most threatening, then did the genius of Danton seem to wrestle in joy with the chaotic fury which appalled all others, and ceased not until every difficulty was surmounted. While danger threatened the Republic, Danton was its presiding spirit. The storm was his element; in the calm, he was bewildered. When victory was insured, his influence gradually waned away, and he fell at last from mere inanition. His proposals, that the constitution they were about to form should not be law until it had received the sanction of the people in the Primary Assemblies, and also that property and persons were under the safeguard of the nation, were immediately decreed. It was next carried, that all laws not abrogated, and all powers not suspended, should continue in force, and that public contributions should be levied as heretofore. Towards the close of the sitting, Collot d’Herbois, who was formerly an actor, appeared in the Tribune, and, in a few brief words, proposed the abolition of royalty. It was seconded by the Bishop Gregorie, in these remarkable words:—”The word king is still a kind of talisman, whose magic power may create many disorders: the abolition of royalty is, therefore, necessary. Kings are in the moral world that which monsters are in the natural: Courts are always the centre of corruption and workhouse of crimes.” This proposal was received with the united applause of the Convention, and the people in the galleries. Bazire alone wished that the subject should be coolly discussed, and not decreed in a moment of enthusiasm. His proposal was received with murmurs, which drew from him explanations of his hatred to royalty; and the decree was unanimously adopted. The Convention then broke up, and thus, in a few moments of its first day’s sitting, did it destroy the kingly power which it had taken long ages to build to its then greatness; and the abilities of the best statesmen of France to elevate above the once powerful feudal of the Carlovingian empire. The events of that momentous day are still fresh in my memory. I have also a copy of the report I sent to the Corresponding Society, which has caused me to be thus minute upon these proceedings. The abolition of royalty came like a thunder-clap upon the Tories of England: it took even the Whigs by surprise. It was confidently stated by the London press, that the Prussians would be in Paris before the Convention met; and in allusion to the abolition of the distinction between citizens active and passive in the elections for that body, the traitor Burke said that when the elections for Paris took place, it would be “Prussians active, Parisians passive.” Poor dealer in sublime nonsense and beautiful delusions, truly the age of chivalry was gone by when thou didst forfeit a life’s fame for a paltry person [pension?] of £1500 a-year. It was also asserted that it was in Paris only that Republicanism prevailed, and that the provinces were strictly loyalist. This decision of the Convention dissipated that error; the king’s authority had been suspended, and the people were called upon to elect Deputies to give France a Constitution; there was nothing to corrupt or bias the people in favour of men whose principles they disapproved; any bias that there might be was in favour of royalty,—the massacre of the prisoners excited sympathy in behalf of their cause; the French princes, supported by numerous armies, were advancing into the heart of the kingdom. This was the time for those who were favourable to royalty, either to join the princes, or vote for the royalists to sit in the Convention. They did not do either of these, and the inference was plain to all Europe, that the idol worship had ceased—that the days of Charlemagne’s successors were numbered—that royalty and good government could not assimilate together, and that the latter had crushed the former. True, the change had been sudden, but it was nevertheless complete. The English Constitution had been a subject of admiration with Mirabeau and his Genevese allies, as well as with a numerous body in the States-General and Constitutive Assembly; but the writings of Paine had demolished the worship of this Trinity in Unity—this pendulum-balanced fiction. Paris, through the Jacobin Club, had inoculated France with the true knowledge of Democracy, and the virus was fast spreading to other countries. What a contrast to dull and sluggish England! Paine denounced and burnt in effigy in England, is honoured and welcomed in France.

Dr. Priestley, forced to fly from the Tory mobs of Birmingham and Manchester, is nominated a deputy for Paris, and only lost the election by Robespierre and Danton throwing their influence into the scale in favour of his opponent, the “sans culotte” idol—the terrible Marat—terrible to aristocrats—terrible to traitors—but alas! terrible also to the honest and well-meaning, but timid and conscientious Republicans. Peace be to his manes! Worshipped a few brief years—immortalised by his martyrdom—his memory has since been loaded with calumny, deeper and more bitter than ever fell to the lot of man before—a proof that he was more dreaded by the tyrants; but the hour will come when justice shall be accorded to him; but ere that hour arrives the throne of the oppressor, the altar of the priest, and the worship of Mammon, must be remembered only as things that were.

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[Transcribed from a microfilmed copy of The People’s Paper at The Working Class Movement Library in Salford: https://www.wcml.org.uk/]

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