The Second Of September
by Charlotte M. Yonge
The reign of the terrible Tzar was dreadful, but there was even a more dreadful time, that which might be called the reign of the madness of the people. The oppression and injustice that had for generations past been worked out in France ended in the most fearful reaction that history records, and the horrors that took place in the Revolution pass all thought or description. Every institution that had been misused was overthrown at one fell swoop, and the whole accumulated vengeance of generations fell on the heads of the persons who occupied the positions of the former oppressors. Many of these were as pure and guiltless as their slaughterers were the reverse, but the heads of the Revolution imagined that to obtain their ideal vision of perfect justice and liberty, all the remnants of the former state of things must be swept away, and the ferocious beings who carried out their decrees had become absolutely frantic with delight in bloodshed. The nation seemed delivered up to a delirium of murder. But as
‘Even as earth’s wild war cries heighten,
The cross upon the brow will brighten’,
These times of surpassing horror were also times of surpassing devotion and heroism. Without attempting to describe the various stages of the Revolution, and the different committees that under different titles carried on the work of destruction, we will mention some of the deeds that shine out as we look into that abyss of horror, the Paris of 1792 and the following years.
Think of the Swiss Guards, who on the 10th of August, 1792, the miserable day when the King, Queen, and children were made the captives of the people, stood resolutely at their posts, till they were massacred almost to a man. Well is their fidelity honored by the noble sculpture near Lucerne, cut out in the living rock of their own Alps, and representing a lion dying to defend the fleur-de-lis.
A more dreadful day still was in preparation. The mob seemed to have imagined that the King and nobility had some strange dreadful power, and that unless they were all annihilated they would rise up and trample all down before them, and those who had the direction of affairs profited by this delusion to multiply executioners, and clear away all that they supposed to stand in the way of the renewal of the nation. And the attempts of the emigrant nobility and of the German princes to march to the rescue of the royal family added to the fury of their cowardly ferocity. The prisons of Paris were crowded to overflowing with aristocrats, as it was the fashion to call the nobles and gentry, and with the clergy who had refused their adhesion to the new state of things. The whole number is reckoned at not less than 8,000.
Among those at the Abbaye de St. Germain were M. Jacques Cazotte, an old gentleman of seventy-three, who had been for many years in a government office, and had written various poems. He was living in the country, in Champagne, when on the 18th of August he was arrested. His daughter Elizabeth, a lovely girl of twenty, would not leave him, and together they were taken first to Epernay and then to Paris, where they were thrown into the Abbaye, and found it crowded with prisoners. M. Cazotte’s bald forehead and grey looks gave him a patriarchal appearance, and his talk, deeply and truly pious, was full of Scripture language, as he strove to persuade his fellow captives to own the true blessings of suffering.
Here Elizabeth met the like-minded Marie de Sombreuil, who had clung to her father, Charles Viscount de Sombreuil, the Governor of the Invalides, or pensioners of the French army; and here, too, had Madame de Fausse Lendry come with her old uncle the Abbé de Rastignac, who had been for three months extremely ill, and was only just recovering when dragged to the prison, and there placed in a room so crowded that it was not possible to turn round, and the air in the end of August was fearfully close and heated. Not once while there was the poor old man able to sleep. His niece spent the nights in a room belonging to the jailer, with the Princess de Tarente, and Mademoiselle de Sombreuil.
On the 2nd of September these slaughter-houses were as full as they could hold, and about a hundred ruffians, armed with axes and guns, were sent round to all the jails to do the bloody work. It was a Sunday, and some of the victims had tried to observe it religiously, though little divining that, it was to be their last. They first took alarm on perceiving that their jailer had removed his family, and then that he sent up their dinner earlier than usual, and removed all the knives and forks. By and by howls and shouts were heard, and the tocsin was heard, ringing, alarm guns firing, and reports came in to the prisoners of the Abbaye that the populace were breaking into the prisons.
The clergy were all penned up together in the cloisters of the Abbaye, whither they had been brought in carriages that morning. Among them was the Abbé Sicard, an admirable priest who had spent his whole lifetime in instructing the deaf and dumb in his own house, where–
‘The cunning finger finely twined
The subtle thread that knitteth mind to mind;
There that strange bridge of signs was built where roll
The sunless waves that sever soul from soul,
And by the arch, no bigger than a hand,
Truth travell’d over to the silent land’.
He had been arrested, while teaching his pupils, on the 26th of August, 1792, and shut up among other clergy in the prison of the Mayoralty; but the lads whom he had educated came in a body to ask leave to claim him at the bar of the National Assembly. Massieu, his best scholar, had drawn up a most touching address, saying, that in him the deaf and dumb were deprived of their teacher, nurse, and father. ‘It is he who has taught us what we know, without him we should be as the beasts of the field.’ This petition, and the gestures of the poor silent beings, went to the heart of the National Assembly. One young man, named Duhamel, neither deaf nor dumb, from pure admiration of the good work, went and offered to be imprisoned in the Abbé’s place. There was great applause, and a decree was passed that the cause of the arrest should be enquired into, but this took no effect, and on that dreadful afternoon, M. Sicard was put into one of a procession of carriages, which drove slowly through the streets full of priests, who were reviled, pelted, and wounded by the populace till they reached the Abbaye.
In the turnkey’s rooms sat a horrible committee, who acted as a sort of tribunal, but very few of the priests reached it. They were for the most part cut down as they stepped out into the throng in the court— consisting of red-capped ruffians, with their shirt sleeves turned up, and still more fiendish women, who hounded them on to the butchery, and brought them wine and food. Sicard and another priest contrived, while their companions fell, to rush into the committee room, exclaiming, ‘Messieurs, preserve an unfortunate!’
‘Go along!’ they said, ‘do you wish us to get ourselves massacred?’
But one, recognizing him, was surprised, knowing that his life was to be spared, and took him into the room, promising to save him as long as possible. Here the two priests would have been safe but for a wretched woman, who shrieked out to the murderers that they had been admitted, and loud knocks and demands for them came from without. Sicard thought all lost, and taking out his watch, begged one of the committee to give it to the first deaf mute who should come and ask for him, sure that it would be the faithful Massieu. At first the man replied that the danger was not imminent enough; but on hearing a more furious noise at the door, as if the mob were going to break in, he took the watch; and Sicard, falling on his knees, commended his soul to God, and embraced his brother priest.
In rushed the assassins, they paused for a moment, unable to distinguish the priests from the committee, but the two pikemen found them out, and his companion was instantly murdered. The weapons were lifted against Sicard, when a man pushed through the crowd, and throwing himself before the pike, displayed his breast and cried, ‘Behold the bosom through which you must pass to reach that of this good citizen. You do not know him. He is the Abbé Sicard, one of the most benevolent of men, the most useful to his country, the father of the deaf and dumb!’
The murderer dropped his pike; but Sicard, perceiving that it was the populace who were the real dispensers of life or death, sprang to the window, and shouted, ‘Friends, behold an innocent man. Am I to die without being heard?’
‘You were among the rest,’ the mob shouted, ‘therefore you are as bad as the others.’
But when he told his name, the cry changed. ‘He is the father of the deaf and dumb! he is too useful to perish; his life is spent in doing good; he must be saved.’ And the murderers behind took him up in their arms, and carried him out into the court, where he was obliged to submit to be embraced by the whole gang of ruffians, who wanted to carry him home in triumph; but he did not choose to go without being legally released, and returning into the committee room, he learnt for the first time the name of his preserver, one Monnot, a watchmaker, who, though knowing him only by character, and learning that he was among the clergy who were being driven to the slaughter, had rushed in to save him.
Sicard remained in the committee room while further horrors were perpetrated all round, and at night was taken to the little room called Le Violon, with two other prisoners. A horrible night ensued; the murders on the outside varied with drinking and dancing; and at three o’clock the murderers tried to break into Le Violon. There was a loft far overhead, and the other two prisoners tried to persuade Sicard to climb on their shoulders to reach it, saying that his life was more useful than theirs. However, some fresh prey was brought in, which drew off the attention of the murderers, and two days afterwards Sicard was released to resume his life of charity.
At the beginning of the night, all the ladies who had accompanied their relatives were separated from them, and put into the women’s room; but when morning came they entreated earnestly to return to them, but Mademoiselle de Fausse Lendry was assured that her uncle was safe, and they were told soon after that all who remained were pardoned. About twenty-two ladies were together, and were called to leave the prison, but the two who went first were at once butchered, and the sentry called out to the others, ‘It is a snare, go back, do not show yourselves.’ They retreated; but Marie de Sombreuil had made her way to her father, and when he was called down into the court, she came with him. She hung round him, beseeching the murderers to have pity on his grey hairs, and declaring that they must strike him only through her. One of the ruffians, touched by her resolution, called out that they should be allowed to pass if the girl would drink to the health of the nation. The whole court was swimming with blood, and the glass he held out to her was full of something red. Marie would not shudder. She drank, and with the applause of the assassins ringing in her ears, she passed with her father over the threshold of the fatal gates, into such freedom and safety as Paris could then afford. Never again could she see a glass of red wine without a shudder, and it was generally believed that it was actually a glass of blood that she had swallowed, though she always averred that this was an exaggeration, and that it had been only her impression before tasting it that so horrible a draught was offered to her.
The tidings that Mademoiselle de Sombreuil had saved her father came to encourage the rest of the ladies, and when calls were heard for ‘Cazotte’, Elizabeth flew out and joined her father, and in like manner stood between him and the butchers, till her devotion made the crowd cry ‘Pardon!’ and one of the men employed about the prison opened a passage for her, by which she, too, led her father away.
Madame de Fausse Lendry was not so happy. Her uncle was killed early in the day, before she was aware that he had been sent for, but she survived to relate the history of that most horrible night and day. The same work was going on at all the other prisons, and chief among the victims of La Force was the beautiful Marie Louise of Savoy, the Princess de Lamballe, and one of the most intimate friends of the Queen. A young widow without children, she had been the ornament of the court, and clever learned ladies thought her frivolous, but the depth of her nature was shown in the time of trial. Her old father-in-law had taken her abroad with him when the danger first became apparent, but as soon as she saw that the Queen herself was aimed at, she went immediately back to France to comfort her and share her fate.
Since the terrible 10th of August, the friends had been separated, and Madame de Lamballe had been in the prison of La Force. There, on the evening of the 2nd of September, she was brought down to the tribunal, and told to swear liberty, equality, and hatred to the King and Queen.
‘I will readily swear the two former. I cannot swear the latter. It is not in my heart.’
‘Swear! If not, you are dead.’
She raised her eyes, lifted her hands, and made a step to the door. Murderers closed her in, and pike thrusts in a few moments were the last ‘stage that carried from earth to heaven’ the gentle woman, who had loved her queenly friend to the death. Little mattered it to her that her corpse was soon torn limb from limb, and that her fair ringlets were floating round the pike on which her head was borne past her friend’s prison window. Little matters it now even to Marie Antoinette. The worst that the murderers could do for such as these, could only work for them a more exceeding weight of glory.
M. Cazotte was imprisoned again on the 12th of September, and all his daughter’s efforts failed to save him. She was taken from him, and he died on the guillotine, exclaiming, ‘I die as I have lived, faithful to my God and to my King.’ And the same winter, M. de Sombreuil was also imprisoned again. When he entered the prison with his daughter, all the inmates rose to do her honor. In the ensuing June, after a mock trial, her father and brother were put to death, and she remained for many years alone with only the memory of her past days.
Charlotte Mary Yonge