There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. — Mark Twain

Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead




The Lantern

The conquered banners of the Bastille floated above the head of Louis Seize as he was driven from Versailles to Paris, where the citizens greeted him in a most bewildering fashion. His very escort must have puzzled a not too ready brain—it consisted of the militia of Versailles, a medley of ill-dressed soldiers with all the air of armed brigands or revolting peasants. Gone was that glittering train which had helped Louis Quatorze to maintain his royal state. Gone were the gallant courtiers who would once have made a determined effort to crush the canaille by a massacre, if need be. Over the borders nobles were galloping in disguise and in sore poverty, since the palace could not furnish great store of golden coins. The King's brother, the Count of Artois, had fled in panic since he knew in what estimation the people of Paris held him, and had wit enough to realize that they were masters of the situation. Escorted by guards and cannon, he crossed into the realms of Sardinia, and the Queen bore his loss with fortitude. They said that she was overcome with grief to part with the Countess of Polignac, but at the same time urged her flight.

Louis made no attempt to resist the wishes of his subjects who desired his presence. He rose early that 17th of July and went with the real rulers of his kingdom. Secretly he said farewell to Marie Antoinette, afraid that he might be held prisoner. Members of the National Assembly surrounded his carriage to the number of three hundred, but they did not give him confidence, since they had chosen Bailly, Mayor of Paris, and Lafayette, the commander of the national forces, and seemed anxious to dethrone their King. Lafayette was king in Paris. The National Militia met Louis' carriage at Sevres, and he entered the capital under their protection. Lafayette, riding his white horse and bowing before the adulation of the citizens, was surely a more royal presence than the timid, irresolute man who suffered himself to be conquered by the conquerors of the Bastille.

Like some strange dream Paris appeared that day, with Mayor Bailly at the gates to present the historic keys of Henri Quatre. The speech made by this dignitary was full of blunders. The greatest blunder of all was the remark that King Henry had reconquered his people, but it was the people now who reconquered their King. Yet Louis heard it without anger. He was dazed perhaps by the swarming multitude, armed with pitch-forks, pick-axes, and any weapons they could muster. They closed round the carriage ominously, even the monks bearing swords in honor of the victory. There were cannon displayed prominently, though wreaths of flowers were twined round them as if to hide their grimness from royal eyes that were soon to behold real horror. Shouts of "Long live the Nation!" rent the air. The sounds were confusing as the sights, and the King obediently pinned the tricolour cockade on his royal breast and mounted the Town Hall steps beneath the arch of steel formed by the drawn swords of citizens. If he feared death, he must have quivered when the clash of weapons struck so close to him. If he had pride, he must have crushed it when he passed under the yoke and made no protest. He was placed on the throne that he might hearken to the harangues of his subjects. He could not speak for tears himself, and was willing to approve the appointments of Lafayette and Bailly, since they were in full discharge already of their offices. They showed him to the crowd from the windows of the Town Hall then, and he was cheered because he had shown himself so docile.

"Long live the King!" He retired from Paris after that day of humiliation with some pretence of the old enthusiastic loyalty in the crowd, who clambered to the steps and roofs of the carriage, but he knew that they had got their way, and felt the shame of his surrender when Marie Antoinette shrank from him and turned proudly away from the wearer of the tricolour cockade.

In the palace there was desolation. The nobles had left their monarch and sought safety for themselves. The people had become threatening to some purpose. It was useless to try to beat them off with swords. Foulon was the man they demanded for their satisfaction. He had been made minister of finance, and they meant to have Necker back again. Foulon had declared when the people were clamorous for bread that they might eat grass. The insult was remembered. When power was in their hands, the mob decided that Foulon should not escape like the Count of Artois and his associates.

The wretched old man was told that there were dark rumours afloat concerning his life, and tried to save it. He was seventy-four and conscience pricked him, for he had been a cruel master. He had a sham funeral, and hid himself in a country house at Vitry. Once he had sneered at the people, and now he shrank from their vengeance piteously.

The servants at Vitry betrayed him, having their own tale of petty grievances. The peasants seized their prey in triumph and dragged him to Paris, tied to a cart, with a bundle of hay on his back, a crown of thistles on his head, and a chain of nettles round his neck. He was too old to resist. He begged for mercy, but was handed over to a guard and taken to the Town Hall, now the centre of activity in Paris.

The citizens crowded the building and would hear of no delay. Foulon must be tried at once. They feared he might outwit them, and they would not be baulked. The lust of torment had seized the tormented. Bailly's pompous speeches received no attention. In vain he assured the angry mob that the old man would be tried in due course by the Assembly. They insisted that he had been tried and should be hanged immediately, since everyone knew him to be guilty. Lafayette was summoned, while there were threats uttered that the very Town Hall should be burnt down if the prisoner were spirited away from the eyes of the gloating public.

Lafayette arrived to find the Hall in tumult, with Foulon seated on a chair before his judges, trembling, though he was surrounded by defenders and piteously attempting to ward off his own doom. Lafayette had believed that he could calm the most violent mob of Paris by his presence. He suggested that Foulon should be imprisoned in the Abbaye, and believed that he had spoken wisely. That was a cunning argument which spoke of accomplices and suggested that tortures might wring confession from this hardened old man. As Lafayette paused, the crowd began to clap. "To the Abbaye." They would have been won to the idea, had not the prisoner clapped too and sealed his own fate. "They are in conspiracy," they shouted, and listened to no more entreaties of the general. Foulon was seized, despite his guards, and dragged by a whirling sea of citizens from the Town Hall to the street.

In the Rue de la Vannerie there was a grocer's shop with a great iron lantern. It would be easy to suspend the victim from this. There could be no more talk of trials and no more doubt as to his guilt. Three times the wretched man was hung to the iron bar; for twice the rope gave way and a fresh one had to be brought, while he went down on his knees and cried for compassion. When all was over they cut off his head and carried it through the streets of Paris with hay stuffed in the mouth. He should taste in death what he had offered to the living people. The women fought for fragments of his clothes. He had given them little enough—he should, at least, bequeath these relics.

Vengeance still stalked in Paris and sought a second object. Berthier, the son-in-law of Foulon, was also an enemy of the people. He had supplied provisions, they said, for the soldiers who were to have butchered the nation. There were furious murmurs that he had cut the crops when still green to raise the price of grain. No wonder the bread bought in Paris was black and bitter to the taste of even the hungriest. They thrust portions of loaves at Berthier when he entered the city. A fantastic procession accompanied his carriage. "Slave of the rich and tyrant of the poor," they pronounced him. He grew pale when he saw the hideous threatening of men and women beneath the glare of torch-lights. It was the evening of the day when his father-in-law was murdered.

The second prisoner was taken to the Town Hall at nine o'clock to answer to the electors. Berthier was more dignified than Foulon. He answered the charges against him, and did not ask for mercy. The people dragged him toward the lantern, and he made a brave fight for freedom. He would not go down on his knees, he would kill to save his own life if he could reach a weapon. But resistance was useless for brave man or craven. Berthier fell wounded, and suffered indignities in death that he would not have endured in life. Through the brilliantly lighted gardens of the Palais Royal they paraded a ghastly spectacle—the head of Berthier on a pike. A direful voice silenced the laughter and jesting of the throng of merrymakers. "Let the Justice of the People pass by." The Mayor had been powerless to prevent this outrage, and there were savage expressions of sympathy among the law-abiding class of citizens.

Bailly and Lafayette resigned their offices in consequence of the wild democracy that put men to death without pretence of trial. They were persuaded to keep their positions, and were satisfied by the protest. They had learnt that they could not enforce their commands, but were too convinced of their own strength to feel any wish to retire into the background now.

Camille Desmoulins, the mob orator, even dared to jest on the action of the people. His pamphlet "Rogues recoil from the Lantern" had a great success. There were men and women with a terrible delight in cruelty, and these had begun to realize that they might exercise it to the full in Paris.