Great People

Victor Hugo

From The Memoirs of Victor Hugo by Victor Hugo

Parts: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15




In February, 1849, in the midst of the prevailing sorrow and terror, fetes were given. People danced to help the poor. While the cannon with which the rioters were threatened on January 29, were, so to speak, still trained ready for firing, a charity ball attracted all Paris to the Jardin d'Hiver.

This is what the Jardin d'Hiver was like:

A poet had pictured it in a word: "They have put summer under a glass case!" It was an immense iron cage with two naves forming a cross, as large as four or five cathedrals and covered with glass. Entrance to it was through a gallery of wood decorated with carpets and tapestry.

On entering, the eyes were at first dazzled by a flood of light. In the light all sorts of magnificent flowers, and strange trees with the foliage and altitudes of the tropics, could be seen. Banana trees, palm trees, cedars, great leaves, enormous thorns, and queer branches twisted and mingled as in a virgin forest. The forest alone was virgin there, however. The prettiest women and the most beautiful girls of Paris whirled in this illumination ~a giorno~ like a swarm of bees in a ray of sunshine.

Above this gaily dressed throng was an immense resplendent chandelier of brass, or rather a great tree of gold and flame turned upside down which seemed to have its roots in the glass roof, and whose sparkling leaves hung over the crowd. A vast ring of candelabra, torch-holders and girandoles shone round the chandelier, like the constellations round the sun. A resounding orchestra perched high in a gallery made the glass panes rattle harmoniously.

But what made the Jardin d'Hiver unique was that beyond this vestibule of light and music and noise, through which one gazed as through a vague and dazzling veil, a sort of immense and tenebrous arch, a grotto of shadow and mystery, could be discerned. This grotto in which were big trees, a copse threaded with paths and clearings, and a fountain that showered its water-diamonds in sparkling spray, was simply the end of the garden. Red dots that resembled oranges of fire shone here and there amid the foliage. It was all like a dream. The lanterns in the copse, when one approached them, became great luminous tulips mingled with real camellias and roses.

One seated one's self on a garden seat with one's feet in the grass and moss, and one felt the warmth arising from a heat-grating beneath this grass and this moss; one happened upon an immense fireplace in which half the trunk of a tree was burning, in proximity to a clump of bushes shivering in the rain of a fountain. There were lamps amid the flowers and carpets in the alleys. Among the trees were satyrs, nude nymphs, hydras, all kinds of groups and statues which, like the place itself, had something impossible and living about them.

What were people doing at this ball? They danced a little, made love a little, and above all talked politics.

There were about fifty Representatives present that evening. The negro Representative Louisy Mathieu, in white gloves, was accompanied by the negrophile Representative Schoelcher in black gloves. People said: "O fraternity! they have exchanged hands!"

Politicians leaning against the mantels announced the approaching appearance of a sheet entitled the "Aristo," a reactionary paper. The Brea affair,* which was being tried at that very moment, was discussed. What particularly struck these grave men in this sinister affair was that among the witnesses was an ironmonger named "Lenclume" and a locksmith named "Laclef."

* General Bréa was assassinated on June 25, 1848, while parleying with the insurgents at the Barriêre de Fontainebleau.

Such are the trivial things men bring into the events of God.


March, 1849.

The men condemned to death in the Bréa affair are confined in the fort at Vanves. There are five of them: Nourry, a poor child of seventeen whose father and mother died insane, type of the gamin of Paris that revolutions make a hero and riots a murderer; Daix, blind of one eye, lame, and with only one arm, a ~bon pauvre~ of the Bicetre Hospital, who underwent the operation of trepanning three years ago, and who has a little daughter eight years old whom he adores; Lahr, nicknamed the Fireman, whose wife was confined the day after his condemnation, giving life at the moment she received death; Chopart, a bookseller's assistant, who has been mixed up in some rather discreditable pranks of youth; and finally Vappreaux junior, who pleaded an alibi and who, if the four others are to be believed, was not at the Barrière de Fontainebleau at all during the three days of June.

These hapless wights are confined in a big casemate of the fort. Their condemnation has crushed them and turned them towards God. In the casemate are five camp beds and five rush-bottomed chairs; to this lugubrious furniture of the dungeon an altar has been added. It was erected at the end of the casemate opposite the door and below the venthole through which daylight penetrates. On the altar is only a plaster statue of the Virgin enveloped in lace. There are no tapers, it being feared that the prisoners might set fire to the door with the straw of their mattresses. They pray and work. As Nourry has not been confirmed and wishes to be before he dies, Chopart is teaching him the catechism.

Beside the altar is a board laid upon two trestles. This board, which is full of bullet holes, was the target of the fort. It has been turned into a dining-table, a cruel, thoughtless act, for it is a continual reminder to the prisoners of their approaching death.

A few days ago an anonymous letter reached them. This letter advised them to stamp upon the flagstone in the centre of the casemate, which, it was affirmed, covered the orifice of a well communicating with old subterranean passages of the Abbey of Vanves that extended to Châtillon. All they had to do was to raise the flagstone and they could escape that very night.

They did as the letter directed. The stone, it was found, did emit a hollow sound as though it covered an opening. But either because the police had been informed of the letter, or for some other reason, a stricter watch than ever has been kept upon them from that moment and they have been unable to profit by the advice.

The gaolers and priests do not leave them for a minute either by day or by night. Guardians of the body cheek by jowl with guardians of the soul. Sorry human justice!

The execution of the condemned men in the Bréa affair was a blunder. It was the reappearance of the scaffold. The people had kicked over the guillotine. The bourgeoisie raised it again. A fatal mistake.

President Louis Bonaparte was inclined to be merciful. The revision and cassation could easily have been delayed. The Archbishop of Paris, M. Sibour, successor of a victim, had begged for their lives. But the stereotyped phrases prevailed. The country must be reassured. Order must be reconstructed, legality rebuilt, confidence re-erected! And society at that time was still reduced to employing lopped heads as building material. The Council of State, such as it then was, consulted under the terms of the Constitution, rendered an opinion in favour of the execution. M. Cresson, counsel for Daix and Lahr, waited upon the President. He was an emotional and eloquent young man. He pleaded for these men, for the wives who were not yet widows, for the children who were not yet orphans, and while speaking he wept.

Louis Bonaparte listened to him in silence, then took his hands, but merely remarked: "I am most unhappy!"

In the evening of the same day--it was on the Thursday--the Council of Ministers met. The discussion was long and animated. Only one minister opposed recourse to the scaffold. He was supported by Louis Napoleon. The discussion lasted until 10 o'clock. But the majority prevailed, and before the Cabinet separated Odilon Barrot, the Minister of Justice, signed the order for the execution of three of the condemned men, Daix, Lahr and Chopart. The sentences of Nourry and Vappreaux, junior, were commuted to penal servitude for life.

The execution was fixed for the next morning, Friday.

The Chancellor's office immediately transmitted the order to the Prefect of Police, who had to act in concert with the military authorities, the sentence having been imposed by a court-martial.

The prefect sent for the executioner. But the executioner could not be found. He had vacated his house in the Rue des Marais Saint Martin in February under the impression that, like the guillotine, he had been deposed, and no one knew what had become of him.

Considerable time was lost in tracing him to his new residence, and when they got there he was out. The executioner was at the Opera. He had gone to see "The Devil's Violin."

It was near midnight, and in the absence of the executioner the execution had to be postponed for one day.

During the interval Representative Larabit, whom Chopart had befriended at the barricade of the barriers, was notified and was able to see the President. The President signed Chopart's pardon.

The day after the execution the Prefect of Police summoned the executioner and reproved him for his absence.

"Well," said Samson, "I was passing along the street when I saw a big yellow poster announcing The Devil's Violin. 'Hello!' said I to myself, 'that must be a queer piece,' and I went to see it."

Thus a playbill saved a man's head.

There were some horrible details.

On Friday night, while those who formerly were called ~les maitres des basses oeuvres~* were erecting the scaffold at the Barrière de Fontainebleau, the ~rapporteur~ of the court-martial, accompanied by the clerk of the court, repaired to the Fort of Vanves.

* The executioner in France is officially styled ~l'executeur des hautes-oeuvres~.

Daix and Lahr, who were to die, were sleeping. They were in casemate No. 13 with Nourry and Chopart. There was a delay. It was found that there were no ropes with which to bind the condemned men. The latter were allowed to sleep on. At 5 o'clock in the morning the executioner's assistants arrived with everything that was necessary.

Then the casemate was entered. The four men awoke. To Nourry and Chopart the officials said: "Get out of here!" They understood, and, joyful and terror-stricken, fled into the adjoining casement. Daix and Lahr, however, did not understand. They sat up and gazed about them with wild, frightened eyes. The executioner and his assistants fell upon them and bound them. No one spoke a word. The condemned men began to realise what it all meant and uttered terrible cries. "If we had not bound them," said the executioner, "they would have devoured us!"

Then Lahr collapsed and began to pray while the decree for their execution was read to them.

Daix continued to struggle, sobbing, and roaring with horror. These men who had killed so freely were afraid to die.

Daix shouted: "Help! Help!" appealed to the soldiers, adjured them, cursed them, pleaded to them in the name of General Bréa.

"Shut up! "growled a sergeant. "You are a coward!"

The execution was performed with much ceremony. Let this fact be noted: the first time the guillotine dared to show itself after February an army was furnished to guard it. Twenty-five thousand men, infantry and cavalry, surrounded the scaffold. Two generals were in command. Seven guns commanded the streets which converged to the circus of the Barrière de Fontainebleau.

Daix was executed first. When his head had fallen and his body was unstrapped, the trunk, from which a stream of blood was pouring, fell upon the scaffold between the swing-board and the basket.

The executioners were nervous and excited. A man of the people remarked: "Everybody is losing his head on that guillotine, including the executioner!"

In the faubourgs, which the last elections to the National Assembly had so excited, the names of popular candidates could still be seen chalked upon the walls. Louis Bonaparte was one of the candidates. His name appeared on these open-air bulletins, as they may be termed, in company with the names of Raspail and Barbès. The day after the execution Louis Napoleon's name wherever it was to be seen had a red smear across it. A silent protest, a reproach and a menace. The finger of the people pending the finger of God.


April, 1849.

Antonin Moyne, prior to February, 1848, was a maker of little figures and statuettes for the trade.

Little figures and statuettes! That is what we had come to. Trade had supplanted the State. How empty is history, how poor is art; inasmuch as there are no more big figures there are no more statues.

Antonin Moyne made rather a poor living out of his work. He had, however, been able to give his son Paul a good education and had got him into the Ecole Polytechnique. Towards 1847 the art-work business being already bad, he had added to his little figures portraits in pastel. With a statuette here, and a portrait there, he managed to get along.

After February the art-work business came to a complete standstill. The manufacturer who wanted a model for a candlestick or a clock, and the bourgeois who wanted a portrait, failed him. What was to be done? Antonin Moyne struggled on as best he could, used his old clothes, lived upon beans and potatoes, sold his knick-knacks to bric-à-brac dealers, pawned first his watch, then his silverware.

He lived in a little apartment in the Rue de Boursault, at No. 8, I think, at the corner of the Rue Labruyère.

The little apartment gradually became bare.

After June, Antonin Moyne solicited an order of the Government. The matter dragged along for six months. Three or four Cabinets succeeded each other and Louis Bonaparte had time to be nominated President. At length M. Leon Faucher gave Antonin Moyne an order for a bust, upon which the statuary would be able to make 600 francs. But he was informed that, the State funds being low, the bust would not be paid for until it was finished.

Distress came and hope went.

Antonin Moyne said one day to his wife, who was still young, having been married to him when she was only fifteen years old: "I will kill myself."

The next day his wife found a loaded pistol under a piece of furniture. She took it and hid it. It appears that Antonin Moyne found it again.

His reason no doubt began to give way. He always carried a bludgeon and razor about with him. One day he said to his wife: "It is easy to kill one's self with blows of a hammer."

On one occasion he rose and opened the window with such violence that his wife rushed forward and threw her arms round him.

"What are you going to do?" she demanded.

"Just get a breath of air! And you, what do you want?"

"I am only embracing you," she answered.

On March 18, 1849, a Sunday, I think it was, his wife said to him:

"I am going to church. Will you come with me?"

He was religious, and his wife, with loving watchfulness, remained with him as much as possible.

He replied: "Presently!" and went into the next room, which was his son's bedroom.

A few minutes elapsed. Suddenly Mme. Antonin Moyne heard a noise similar to that made by the slamming of a front door. But she knew what it was. She started and cried: "It is that dreadful pistol!"

She rushed into the room her husband had entered, then recoiled in horror. She had seen a body stretched upon the floor.

She ran wildly about the house screaming for help. But no one came, either because everybody was out or because owing to the noise in the street she was not heard.

Then she returned, re-entered the room and knelt beside her husband. The shot had blown nearly all his head away. The blood streamed upon the floor, and the walls and furniture were spattered with brains.

Thus, marked by fatality, like Jean Goujon, his master, died Antonin Moyne, a name which henceforward will bring to mind two things--a horrible death and a charming talent.


June, 1849.

The working men who sat in the Luxembourg during the months of March and April under the presidency of M. Louis Blanc, showed a sort of respect for the Chamber of Peers they replaced. The armchairs of the peers were occupied, but not soiled. There was no insult, no affront, no abuse. Not a piece of velvet was torn, not a piece of leather was dirtied. There is a good deal of the child about the people, it is given to chalking its anger, its joy and its irony on walls; these labouring men were serious and inoffensive. In the drawers of the desks they found the pens and knives of the peers, yet made neither a cut nor a spot of ink.

A keeper of the palace remarked to me: "They have behaved themselves very well." They left their places as they had found them. One only left his mark, and he had written in the drawer of Louis Blanc on the ministerial bench:

Royalty is abolished. Hurrah for Louis Blanc!

This inscription is still there.

The fauteuils of the peers were covered with green velvet embellished with gold stripes. Their desks were of mahogany, covered with morocco leather, and with drawers of oak containing writing material in plenty, but having no key. At the top of his desk each peer's name was stamped in gilt letters on a piece of green leather let into the wood. On the princes' bench, which was on the right, behind the ministerial bench, there was no name, but a gilt plate bearing the words: "The Princes' Bench." This plate and the names of the peers had been torn off, not by the working men, but by order of the Provisional Government.

A few changes were made in the rooms which served as ante-chambers to the Assembly. Puget's admirable "Milo of Crotona," which ornamented the vestibule at the top of the grand staircase, was taken to the old museum and a marble of some kind was substituted for it. The full length statue of the Duke d'Orleans, which was in the second vestibule, was taken I know not where and replaced by a statue of Pompey with gilt face, arms and legs, the statue at the foot of which, according to tradition, assassinated Caesar fell. The picture of founders of constitutions, in the third vestibule, a picture in which Napoleon, Louis XVIII. and Louis Philippe figured, was removed by order of Ledru-Rollin and replaced by a magnificent Gobelin tapestry borrowed from the Garde-Meuble.

Hard by this third vestibule is the old hall of the Chamber of Peers, which was built in 1805 for the Senate. This hall, which is small, narrow and obscure; supported by meagre Corinthian columns with mahogany-coloured bases and white capitals; furnished with flat desks and chairs in the Empire style with green velvet seats, the whole in mahogany; and paved with white marble relieved by lozenges of red Saint Anne marble,--this hall, so full of memories, had been religiously preserved, and after the new hall was built in 1840, had been used for the private conferences of the Court of Peers.

It was in this old hall of the Senate that Marshal Ney was tried. A bar had been put up to the left of the Chancellor who presided over the Chamber. The Marshal was behind this bar, with M. Berryer, senior, on his right, and M. Dupin, the elder, on his left. He stood upon one of the lozenges in the floor, in which, by a sinister hazard, the capricious tracing of the marble figured a death's head. This lozenge has since been taken up and replaced by another.

After February, in view of the riots, soldiers had to be lodged in the palace. The old Senate-hall was turned into a guard-house. The desks of the senators of Napoleon and of the peers of the Restoration were stored in the lumber rooms, and the curule chairs served as beds for the troops.

Early in June, 1849, I visited the hall of the Chamber of Peers and found it just as I had left it seventeen months before, the last time that I sat there, on February 23, 1848.

Everything was in its place. Profound calmness reigned; the fauteuils were empty and in order. One might have thought that the Chamber had adjourned ten minutes previously.

Continue: The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, Part 12

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