“Soldier! Prost! Wake up!”
A gulp of air. Eyes wide open barely distinguished shadows. He had escaped! He had again eluded those Prussian lancers and the blood and fear and the screaming men and horses that had pursued him almost every night since that terrible day in Alsace.
But to where? It was dark and cold here, colder and darker than in the prisoner-of-war camp.
And that voice, it was French!
Maurice Prost, formerly sapper in the 1st Corps of the Army of the Rhine, and before that menuisier in Paris, and before that … no, too long ago. He sat up to let the whirling images and memories connect in some coherent pattern as they sought to make contact with the new surroundings. The movements of other men reaching for their boots, the smell of mildew, of mud and sweat, the dampness in the air told him he was in an army bivouac. The flickering kerosene lamp and rapid shadow play, that it was not yet dawn. The lack of rooster or other animal noises, just the rustle of the men and their grunted swear words, that they were not in some northern farmland, and that they were being ordered for some action. No, he now remembered, he was no longer a prisoner of war, that had been almost two weeks ago. Nor could he have returned to the 1st Corps, nor to any part of Marshall Mac Mahon’s Army of the Rhine, because — of this he was certain — that army no longer even existed.
In the prison camp in Metz he had suffered many discomforts, but after the chaos of the first weeks in the open air and hardly any rations, the men had at least slept on cots inside a shed with walls and a roof, not this bedroll on the ground in a mildewed tent. As he pulled on his boots, he recalled how, unexpectedly, he and the others had been mustered and herded onto a train and delivered like cattle all the way — hours in a crowded wagon — to the Île de France and then to Paris itself. Then it must be that he was again under French command, not Prussian. And was there still an army of France? And now he remembered, they were camped in the Jardin du Luxembourg, no less! A place that he, as a worker, had never dared enter. But they were in the mud.
Boots on, tunic tugged down, some mud knocked from his red trousers, his blue kepi clapped onto his head over his tangled, unwashed, overlong hair, he tried to remember the number of this new, makeshift regiment — 67th? — and the name of the officer in command of his company, Leroy, Lefevre? No. Ah, yes, Laurent. Newly promoted to captain, the rumor went. So this was probably his first command.
He shuffled out of the tent to join the men shivering in the rain for their turn at the latrine. A light moved past the line — a lantern with a candle. He looked up to see if he could find any stars, but it was too cloudy and the rain made him turn his face down again. He felt cold and his cloak was thin and none of the men had had enough to eat for days. But at least it had stopped snowing.
“Must be midnight! Why have they got us up so early?”
“No,” said the man behind him. “I’d say it’s nearly three already. See those stars?”
“You must be from the country, you sound so sure.”
“Voisins, that’s near Claye. Wine country. And we had some cattle, too. You have to be up before sunrise to take care of them all.”
Pissing, elbow to elbow with half a dozen other men, Maurice wondered if he was the only man in the company who had ever even been in Paris before. On the platform where they had disembarked, he’d seen a man who said he was from Paris escorted outside by a guard, whereas others were told to report to “Army of Paris”. So when they got to him, he gave his old address in Lyon — so that they would let him stay in Paris and, if the army gave him some free time, to reunite with Sophie.
“Hurry up, you sluggards. Rifles and canteens and extra cartridges. Get all your gear together and line up in formation. On the double!”
Rifles and extra cartridges? The war is over, we’re in Paris, there are no Prussians here, so who are we supposed to shoot? He shivered at the only possible answer.
As his column marched out of the park, Maurice recognized the neighborhood even under the scant light of the gas lamps.
“We’re passing near the Sorbonne,” he told the man next to him.
“Quiet, you!” called out the sergeant in an exaggerated hush. “We don’t want to wake up the neighbors.”
In the flickering light of a streetlamp, he could just make out the gray rump of the horse ahead of them, where their Captain Joseph Laurent was practicing sitting as tall as possible in the saddle, no doubt — Maurice was convinced — to demonstrate a confidence he couldn’t really feel. The hastily reorganized army was desperate for officers, and Laurent’s mustache and his distant relationship to the colonel had been enough to earn him this sudden promotion, so went the scuttlebutt.
Not only was their commander inexperienced, but this whole regiment had never before operated together. They were remnants of various defeated and decimated divisions, nearly half of them former prisoners of war, with no military memory of anything but defeat. Except maybe the sergeants, who looked like veterans who may have tasted a victory in France’s wars in Africa, or the Crimea, or Italy, or even Mexico — though that one had ended badly too. Maurice imagined that the army hoped this operation would turn them into a fighting unit, and that the operation would be simple enough for such a haphazard company. He had an idea what their mission must be, though no one had told them: retrieving the lightly-guarded cannons from only half-awake sentries, those undisciplined workers in National Guard uniforms. Newspapers smuggled into the camp had spoken of repeated, and so far failed, attempts to seize the Paris cannons in the day-time, but by marching before dawn and in greater force they should catch the National Guard unawares.
The column crossed one bridge without incident, then another, and was now near the Hôtel de Ville. Tramp, tramp, tramp, boots on cobblestones. But now, what was that other sound? Bells?
“Hey, you!” he heard a sergeant shout. “Get those goats out of the road. Army coming through!”
He glimpsed under a gaslight what looked like a small woman in many layers of clothes, and then the whole column stopped as the captain’s horse backed up and swayed. And then a loud Thwack! of a rifle butt, and a moan. And another voice, an older man, crying out,
“Leave her alone, you cul-rouge battu!”
“Sergeant! Stop that man!” ordered the captain, struggling to bring his horse under control.
“He’s just a filthy ragpicker, my captain.”
“That’s right, “ came the hoarse reply. “I am a ragpicker, and with pride. But in my youth I too was a red pants like you, but not a defeated one like your pack. In Crimea, in an army that knew how to win! And we didn’t pick on old ladies. We fought the Russians!”
“Catch him, sergeant! And stop him from shouting!”
But the chiffonnier had dropped his bag and run away, and from up the street they heard him yelling, “Soldiers! Wake up! Sound the tocsin! Soldiers have come! They’re coming for our cannons!”
Just then the column passed the Hôtel de Ville, where they were joined by two other columns of two or three hundred men in dark blue tunics and bright red pants, each with a rifle on his shoulder. A church bell, alerted by the shouts of the chiffonnier or just the noise of the march, was ringing furiously. All these columns of silent, marching men, three or four now, Maurice wasn’t sure, each with its captain on horseback, had merged into an improvised regiment all under the overall command of an officer whose red kepi identified him as a colonel.
It had been a long march and it was already light when they reached a spot where the road rose steeply between houses, farms and taverns.
“What is this place?” said the man next to him, the same farm boy he’d talked to an hour of more before.
Maurice looked up at the windmills up near the top, a long climb up the mountain and beyond the jumble of little buildings.
“It must be Montmartre,” he told the peasant.
“Hah! Where they’ve parked the cannons!” gasped the boy from Voisins. A sergeant shouted at them to begin the ascent.
Standing in the rain outside the town hall of the Twelfth, Hippolyte Mireau heard a distant church bell waking the neighborhood and began to feel uneasy. The whole point of this pre-dawn mission was surprise! He held his watch up to catch the streetlight, nearly five. The troops should already be here. He had spent the night, very uncomfortably, in his commissary, and had been standing here in the cold drizzle since a quarter past four with his fifteen sergents de ville, waiting for the troops they were supposed to lead to the rue Basfroi, where National Guardsmen had hauled a dozen cannons. That army company should have been here by now, he thought again. Morning was breaking, and already he heard the creaking axle and clomping hoofsteps of a milk cart pulled by a tired old horse. And there again was that peasant girl, he had seen her before, the dairy girl, she used to come before the siege. She and her horse came alone this time, without her mother or brother.
“Hey, missy, how about some milk for my men?” he called out.
Hot coffee would be more welcome, but at least a little nourishment should improve his policemen’s spirits. Now, where were those damned soldiers? The lighter it got, the less likely they were to catch the National Guards by surprise. And he had heard that church bell ringing.
The girl looked up at him, hesitant, unbelieving that he was serious, but he reached into his purse and showed her some coins and she ladled out milk into a big tin cup and carried it to the line of policemen, who stamped their feet and snickered but managed to say things like “Thank you, sweetheart.”
Rose’s mother burst into the hut breathless and breadless before Rose had finished dressing — Blanche had as usual gone out to fetch a loaf at first light.
“Soldiers out there!” she announced, waking her husband and Rose’s younger brothers. “Scores, hundreds of them. Whole companies. With rifles.”
“Soldiers? Armed?” said Jules. “In Belleville?”
“A whole column, I saw forty or fifty, and more coming up behind them. Heading up to the Buttes, it looked like.”
“The cannons! They’re after the cannons!” said Jules, suddenly sitting up.
“Of course they are! We’ve got to stop them,” Blanche said firmly. “Rose, you’re not going to work today. You’re coming with me. We have to stop those soldiers.”
“That’s man’s work,” protested Jules.
“This is the people’s work,” she answered. “All of us. And you know it, Julot. It won’t be the first time we fight together.”
“No, you’re right about that. Ah, we still remember ’48, don’t we? Come on, boys, you too.”
“Why, Buttes de Chaumont is our area.”
“No,” said his wife. “Montmartre is where the most cannons are. Let’s go.”
“Woman! The Buttes’ cannons are important too. But if Montmartre’s where you’re heading, well, all right. Let me get my rifle —“
“And your trousers, big boy. Not those, you silly, the blue ones with the stripe from your Guard uniform. Over there, on that nail behind you.”
“Oh, right. Where’s my tunic? And I have to gather the fellows in our company.”
“Fine. You do that. But Rose and I are not going to wait. You catch up to us when you can. At Montmartre, mon capitaine.”
Jules, still pantsless, stood at attention and saluted, laughing only slightly, but Blanche was already out the door, with Rose close behind.
Over in the Sixth Arrondissement, the bells at Saint-Médard and then shouts in the street had awakened the men in the house on Dragon Alley. Étienne, J-P and Claude hurriedly climbed into their National Guard uniforms and grabbed the rifles they had stacked in a corner. As the three of them headed down the stairs they ran into Angélique returning with bread. They each grabbed some bread and J-P kissed her and all three continued on out to the street, running to their agreed-upon assembly point on rue Taranne. Étienne wasn’t even thinking of what he was doing, if J-P and Claude were rushing, he wasn’t going to be left behind. Not for this adventure!
Thirty or forty of the hundred and hundred twenty-five of their company were already there, including their elected captain, a tinsmith they knew as Philippe. Dozens of men from other companies kept arriving, milling until they located their group and their captain.
“Well, where to, Philippe?”
But Philippe just stretched his neck and looked around.
“Where do we go, Philippe? Don’t just stand there!”
“We have to wait for orders. Our commandant, of the whole battalion.”
“Place de Vosges,” someone shouted. And Claude picked up the cry, adding, “That’s right, it’s only a half-hour from here and where the cannons are.”
“Right. The cannons!”
The men stamped their feet impatiently. They were excited, but not angry — rather the opposite, all in good spirits, glad to be doing something together. To take action after so many frustrating weeks, of the French defeat, having to endure the Prussians’ parade, the ridiculous and intolerable demands of their new, defeated government. Someone started humming a love song, but was quickly interrupted by other men demanding something more martial.
“Wait. Where are the other companies? and our battalion commandant?”
“The Saints-Pères company has already started out, I heard their drummer.”
“Look, here comes a runner now. Hey, it’s Aloïs. You coming from the commandant?”
“Wait. Catch my breath. Yes. Our commandant, Marcel, says to start out now. All eight companies. We can meet up at Place des Vosges.”
“That’s what I said!”
“Oh, right. Well, men — Did somebody bring the banner?”
“Forget the banner. We’ve got to get there before the soldiers do.”
And so Philippe, the company captain, repeated the order firmly, as though it had been his own idea.
“In formation, men of the National Guard. We go to defend the cannons in the Place de Vosges! Pépin, sound the drum! Pépin, have you got your drum? Sound, oh, I don’t know. Le rappel!”
“Hey, Philippe, you’re supposed to say, En avant!”
René-Pierre Bougainville splashed water onto his face from the marble-topped wash stand in a corner of his bedroom and looked around, from the heavy six-drawer dresser with brass fittings to the wide bed with its padded leather headboard. Atop the dresser a pair of bronze putti clutched a clock by Raingo Frères. Across the bed sprawled a naked young actress, her left leg draped over her right and a thumb in her mouth. Bougainville pulled the sheet over her — it was chilly and damp this morning. The actress, Victorine, stirred and said “Uuf!” and went back to sleep. The clock said nearly five.
Wrapping a robe around his nightshirt, Bougainville stepped to his writing desk and picked up the sheets he had written last night. “A GLORIOUS VICTORY of REASON over Mad Rebellion” was his proposed headline. So confident was he of his sources that he had already written a description of events which were yet to occur.
Here he had an edge on the other pen-wielders, because of his excellent contacts in the army and the police. He knew how many would be going up to the heights of Montmartre, in the northern 18th arrondissement, that there would be another column also in the heights, but at Buttes de Chaumont in the 19th, and another on lower ground closer to the center, to get the cannons at Place des Vosges and the nearby Bastille, in the 4th. Those two army captains he had plied with wine and a fine meal only last night, Robert and Laurent, had been especially informative. Robert said he saw this operation as a chance to restore order before it occurred to the Thiers government to do something drastic and foolish, such as to restore the Orleanist monarchy, but Laurent was brash and unconcerned, saying he didn’t care whether they had a republic or a king, the important thing was to crush the rebels. A paragraph about each of them would serve to fill out his article. He would add details after hearing from them at the celebratory gathering with those two and possibly other victorious captains and majors, scheduled for nine this evening at the Saint-Séverin. And he might get more details after talking with another good source, his older acquaintance, Mireau, commissaire of the Quinze-Vingts, who would tell him what happened at the little artillery park on rue Basfroi in the Eleventh.
This would be the article to make the by-line of René-Pierre Bougainville shine brightest among the journalists scrambling to please the new government of M. Thiers. Fame and repute that, he hoped, would bury forever the odious nickname “Bagou”.
He considered for a moment rushing to the Place Bastille to see the excitement for himself. For the delight of seeing the surprise and astonishment on the faces of those foolish National Guardsmen, caught in their sleep next to their cherished cannons! But then, with spirits so animated, there might be some shooting. Very distasteful, possibly even dangerous to a civilian like him. And besides, it was raining. Not hard, but still unpleasant on a chilly March morning.
Really, he decided, there was no need to hurry. He didn’t really need to see anything for himself. He could, as he had done many times before, repeat or invent whatever eye-witness accounts he needed to please his readership.
In his tiny room in Belleville, Alphonse-Marie Bertrand was startled awake by voices and running feet and then a church bell, much too early for a Saturday. He had changed lodgings several times since the beginning of the siege, always looking for something cheaper, until finding this space with a worker’s family on the hills of Belleville. The man of the family, Louis, worked in the nearby bronze foundry and like most of the workers he knew in the neighborhood, was in the National Guard, whether out of enthusiasm for the defense of Paris or for the 30 sous a day. The wife, Henriette, had had a job in a corset factory before the siege closed it down, and now was struggling to make a little money by sewing at home, so they were glad for the extra income, slight as it was, from the young journalist’s rent.
They had also had a soldier billeted here when Alphonse arrived, a chap younger even than Alphonse and from some western village. It was cheaper for the army than having to build new barracks. But that army boy, and the others here in Belleville, had been suddenly withdrawn just days ago, unhappily, it seemed, because they had made friends with the families and the close-knit neighborhood must have reminded them of the villages they had left behind. Or so Alphonse had surmised in his latest article, poetic and lyrical, which he hoped to see published soon in Rochefort’s paper. Like those soldiers he too was an outsider in this working-class neighborhood, from another world because of his clothes, his accent, his manners, but the family he was lodging with had accepted and vouched for him — “A scribbler, yes, but telling our story, for our papers”.
This sudden early morning tumult, and the sudden departure of the twenty or so soldiers earlier in the week, must signal another attempt to seize the cannons. The neighborhood had been expecting something like this for days, since the earlier frustrated attempts by small companies of soldiers. Just this week Alphonse had visited most of the places where the cannons had been hauled, and had written a description for Jules Vallès and for Vuillaume’s new sheet, Père Duchêne. The cannons and mitrailleuses were only lightly guarded, just one or sometimes just ten or fifteen men in National Guard uniform standing or sitting nearby. And, as he had noted, they had been parked without their powder charges, so they couldn’t be fired. Alphonse and anybody who was interested had been able to walk around them and see the names and symbols embossed, most with the mark of Broquin et Lainé, the big bronze foundry where Alphonse’s host Louis and many others in the neighborhood worked. He saw dozens of cannons nearby on the Buttes and the largest collection, scores of them, lined up on the heights of Montmartre, looking menacing even though their bagged charges were stored safely away, Alphonse hadn’t been able to find out just where.
Hastily dressed and with notebook and pencil in hand, he ducked out the low door and into the drizzle, where he saw Louis in Guard tunic and kepi arguing with Henriette. She, already dressed, scowled at him and pushed him back just as Alphonse interrupted.
“Hey! Good morning to you! Up already? Where are you heading?”
“Montmartre,” answered Henriette.
“No, you’re not!” shouted Louis. “I’m going there. No place for women!”
Montmartre! That’s where he had to go, too. This would be a story!
By the time they reached the Place des Vosges, there was already a huge crowd. Women and men, some of the men in National Guard jackets and caps. And then, when the crowd briefly opened, Étienne saw a company in the red trousers of the army, marching or rather shuffling out of the square behind an officer on horseback. Without the cannons.
“Catch them!” a woman shouted. “They’re headed to the Place de la Bastille. We stopped them here.”
Separated from Étienne’s company by men and women in civilian clothes was another group in National Guard uniforms. Their captain worked his way to Étienne’s company.
“So there you are. Good. Now we’re all here, our whole battalion and the others from the Sixth,” he said loudly. “Our whole legion, almost. And lots of men from this arrondissement, the Fourth.”
The men from the Fourth, he said, would be staying here to secure the site, but the Sixth’s commandant Marcel had decided that all four companies should continue to the Bastille, following the troops who had already given up trying to take the cannons from Place des Vosges.
“Given up? Already?”
“Their captains and even their major didn’t want the men to fire into the crowd, and the women, they kept shoving themselves between the soldiers and the cannons. Some of of those ladies even embraced them, the soldiers I mean, and the soldiers just stood there, smiling and looking embarrassed. There aren’t many cannons here, anyway. Those fellows in the Fourth dragged most of them over to Place de la Bastille. Just in the past two days.”
Relieved, Étienne and the others in his company shouldered their rifles and continued on toward the Bastille, surrounded by cheers from the crowd. Someone started singing La Marseillaise, and soon he and the other Guardsmen joined in, almost skipping as they walked. He had never known such excitement since he first came to Paris!
Maurice now found himself up at the top of Montmartre, his company now mixed with others and surrounded by a swirl of civilians. The only thing clear was the order cried out by the captain and repeated by the sergeants, “Secure the cannons.” It had been easy for the first hour or so, there were only about forty National Guards and they had been disarmed without much trouble, except for that sentry one of the units had killed. But now, how were they to do anything with all these people in the way? Maurice, now teamed with another soldier he didn’t know, had dragged this cannon away from the others and swung it around to attach it to its caisson and hitch it to the pair of horses nervously stamping amid all the noise and shoving. If they could only get the horses close enough and in the right position. But then, the mob of people from the neighborhood had showed up, pressing around them, and some youngster maybe twelve or fourteen had snuck in beneath the flailing arms and cut the harness. Maurice tried to obey the sergeant shouting at him, and was trying to move the cannon manually. But —
“Hey, lady! Look out, please!”
There were two of them, a woman he guessed to be around forty, not tall but very determined, and a girl.
“Excuse me, madam, but we’ve got orders to…”
Maurice could have pulled his arm free with an effort, but that would be abrupt, rude against a lady, especially a French lady, one of the people he was supposed to be defending. The girl with her, not much over sixteen he guessed, had latched on to the other soldier. Maurice looked around, hoping for orders, or at least clues as to what to do. Similar scenes were all around him, soldiers engulfed in a swarm of women’s arms and bodies, bonnets bobbing up and down alongside the regimental kepis.
The girl called out a name.
The other soldier, the one working with Maurice on this cannon, jerked his head up.
“Émile, what are you doing? Look, maman, it’s Émile, who was staying with Henriette and Louis next door.”
“Uh, I don’t know —” mumbled Émile. “You, you are?”
“I’m Rose, Rose Durand. Daughter of Jules. You hardly saw me, because I had to go to work so early. But you’ll remember my mother Blanche.”
“Oh, Madame Durand. Yes, of course. Pardon me, I didn’t recognize you.”
Maurice just stared, amazed and confused by this new situation, one hand on the cannon but no longer trying to pull away from the woman whose name he had just learned.
“And what is your name, young man?” she asked.
Maurice looked to Émile who was looking at Rose.
“Eh?” Blanche said again. “And where are you from?”
“Maurice, madam. Maurice Prost. From the sappers’ company of the First Corps of the Army of the Rhine.”
The other soldier, Émile, looked at him with exaggerated mock surprise.
“Well, to tell the truth, the Army of the Rhine isn’t any more. Now I’m in, uh, it’s the new 67th regiment I think. Émile, is this the 67th?”
“No, that’s not what I meant, soldier. What place are you from? Not Paris, hmm?”
“Lyon, madam,” was all he had a chance to say before he felt another shove. There were more people trying to separate him from the cannon.
“You can’t take our cannons! We paid for them!” This was a man’s voice, accompanied by a strong shove. Now the girl spoke,
“He’s right, we paid for them. And my father was one of the men who made them! To defend us from the Prussians!”
Amidst all the din, these words reverberated most strongly in Maurice’s head.
“To defend us from the Prussians.”
That was right, Paris had defended itself, and defended itself still. The Prussians were still outside the walls. Whereas Maurice’s army, the famous Army of the Rhine, had simply dissolved, surrendered, been torn apart, died. But Paris, Paris had defended itself. And now the remnants of his wretched army of the Rhine and all the other defeated French armies wanted to take away the cannons that had kept this part of France free.
At that thought, he let his arms drop, and the woman’s grasp on one of them relaxed, becoming almost a caress. He turned to see the man who had shoved him, and saw that he was in National Guard uniform. The man grinned and reached forward and hugged him.
“Brothers!” he cried. “Soldiers and Guardsmen, brothers for France!”
Bastille was even more tumultuous than Vosges. There seemed to be lots of soldiers there, and officers, some dismounted next to their horses and talking animatedly with the civilians around them. In one company, all the soldiers had stuck ramrods into their rifle barrels, to show that they weren’t going to shoot. Étienne heard somebody give a whoop of joy and then heard a shout about “breakfast.” One of the army captains waved, and turned and said something to his sergeants, and Étienne, curious about this unexpected behavior, watched him as he dismounted and then stepped easily, calmly, to one of the cafés on the edge of the square.
Some soldiers came over to them with friendly gestures, and one of them said, “Guess it’s like the major said, the captains can go get some breakfast and so should we. We’ve been up since three, and they haven’t given us anything to eat! We’re starving. Aren’t you guys, you Guardsmen, you coming along? A cup of hot coffee would be really good!”
“Sure. But, what is this all about?” Claude asked him. “We’re all Frenchmen. The war is over. Why did you all have to come for our cannons?”
“Beats me,” said the soldier. “Nobody tells us anything. Except to give us orders. March! they said. We got up at three in the morning! And we haven’t had anything to eat or drink. I told you that already, didn’t I? Hard to think of anything else. The last thing we want to do is fight other Frenchmen. Think we can get some coffee and maybe a baignet over in that place, over there?”
Claude laughed, and Étienne, feeling released from tension, laughed much louder. Then stopped and looked at the others, all older, and felt himself blushing. Claude looked at him, a silent laugh on his lips, then turned to the soldier.
“Something to eat? Of course you can! If you’ve got a few sous. And if you don’t, we’ll help you. Right, Étienne? Hey, Philippe, what do you say? We’re going with these fellows to get something to eat. What regiment are you with, anyway?”
Then louder, “Hey, Philippe, you hear me? That’s all right with you, right? Well, we elected him and we could unelect him, so he has to say yes.”
“You’re joking! No? You elect your officers?”
“You bet. Our company captain and the commandant of our whole battalion. And all our battalions together in our arrondissement, we choose our general!”
“You lucky dogs,” said the soldier. “We don’t get to elect anybody, certainly not our officers. They just gave us a new one the day before yesterday, Robert, Captain Robert is his name. Well, at least he seems to be a decent guy, he told us not to shoot. And now I don’t know where he went — over to one of the cafés, I’ll bet.”
“Hey, Philippe!” shouted Claude again. “I said we’re going to get some breakfast with these fellows, our friends in the army. The army of France.”
“Yes, sure,” said Philippe. “I heard you. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
The expedition to rue Basfroi and Place Puebla was even more of a disaster than Mireau had expected. By the time his sergents de ville and the soldiers got there, the whole neighborhood was aroused and had already constructed at least one barricade, so that Mireau had to lead the troops through some tortuous side-streets and an alleyway he knew to get around it and continue — they were not about to begin an open attack on a barricade, their mission was simply to recover cannons, not start a civil war.
But it was too late, and impossible to get the cannons. Civilians, some of whom Mireau recognized and many others he suspected were not even from the neighborhood, were not only awake but all gathered in a boisterous crowd protecting the cannons. There was even a street clown he had seen before, rattling on his drum and singing La Marseillaise to the amused accompaniment of several in the crowd.
Mireau was appalled but not entirely surprised. He had known it would not be as easy as the army high command had assumed, and the bungling and late start of this operation had doomed it. The army captain, an inexperienced and uncomfortable-looking man named Sapin, very foolishly ordered his men to fire on the crowd, and the troops — mostly young, dispirited boys with no idea of what they were supposed to do, here in Paris — lifted their rifles as though to fire, but when one of them turned his upside down, rifle butt in the air, the others imitated him. There were cheers from the crowd, including especially the dozen or so men in National Guard garments. The captain shouted again and drew his pistol, but two men pulled him off his horse and some of his own men had trained their rifles on him. One of the National Guards intervened, and the captain was allowed to pick himself up, straighten his tunic and his decorated cap. And, then reconsidering, he slowly remounted and issued a new order.
“Men! Do not fire. We shall protect the lives of these people.”
“Citoyens!” shouted someone from the crowd.
“Citoyens et citoyennes!”
There was that rebel language, from the Revolution of ’89. “Citoyen,” a person with rights. To Mireau and no doubt to the captain, the word summoned lurid images of the guillotine and sans-culottes demanding the heads of rulers and wealthy merchants. The cry was repeated, until at last the captain himself picked up the word — which, Mireau imagined, must be distasteful to him.
“Indeed, yes, my dear citoyens. We ask you —“
“And citoyennes!” shouted a woman.
“Citoyens and citoyennes, in the name of the French army I declare that we have completed our mission of reconnoitering and now all we ask of you good people, citoyens et citoyennes, is that you allow us to withdraw. In good order. Men! Soldiers! In your ranks!”
Mireau and his police officers observed. The National Guardsmen and all the civilians stepped back and most of the soldiers obediently reassembled in their ranks, but there were a few who stood apart, and even some who had got into animated and apparently friendly conversation with men and women in the crowd.
It took less time than Hippolyte had feared for Captain Sapin to determine that he had had enough and begin leading his troops, those who continued to follow, back the way they had come, no doubt with the intention of returning to military headquarters. Mireau just let them go, to find their own way through the labyrinthine streets. He had another mission. In his jacket he had folios with a list of the names and supposed addresses of men he was supposed to arrest, presumed leaders of the subversion in the National Guard.
He stood still for a moment, contemplating the excited crowd, now including seven or eight men in army uniform. Deserters, to be arrested and shot according to military law. But that was not his job. Especially since those soldiers were armed and surrounded by excited supporters. And since he had only fifteen more lightly armed police officers, of doubtful reliability, under his command.
In one of little bars off to the side of Place Puebla he saw a fire going in a brazier. Mireau stepped over to it, withdrew the sheets of paper from his jacket and dropped them into the fire.
Alphonse was young and healthy, but still by the time he’d reached the top of Montmartre following Louis and the other men in that National Guard company, he was out of breath. He looked around at his companions, wondering if he was the only one — the other men were mostly older, but they moved quickly and eagerly, their excitement overcoming any fatigue in the long, steep climb. Up here on the plateau where most of the cannons were, there were other men in the tunics and kepis of the Guard, but most of those he saw were not in uniform. There were at least as many women and men up at the top, and lots of children.
He heard shouting and cursing, and turned to see a boy with a knife running from an army sergeant. What happened? Oh, now he saw. The kid had cut the traces of a horse that had been attached to a mitrailleuse. The sergeant hurried back to where he had been, seeing that there was no chance of catching the boy who had now merged into the crowd.
Then he heard more shouting, even louder than before, and looked up to see an officer on horseback waving his pistol at the mob surrounding his horse.
“It’s that general! Get him!”
“That’s the second one. Two generals in one day! Did you see old Clément-Thomas? He showed up in disguise, dressed as a civilian!”
Surrounding the general were soldiers holding their rifle butts up, ostentatiously refusing orders to fire on the crowd. Alphonse then lost sight of the general on horseback, whose name he learned was Lecomte.
What he had expected to be a battle had turned into a kind of festival. National Guardsmen and soldiers were embracing, and some of them in little groups were abandoning the flat area with the cannons, heading a little down the road to the taverns. Even some of the women he saw heading into the taverns.
The cannons and mitrailleuses now were clearly going to be safe. That is, they were going to stay in the hands of the people, the people of Paris.
Something seemed to be happening a little further up the hill, around one of the humble village houses. Alphonse looked to Louis and the others he had come with, and one of them with a big grin raised a fist in gesture of approval or perhaps of victory. Alphonse worked his way through the crowd until he saw Jules Durand, the captain of another Guard company from Belleville.
“What’s going on?” he asked him.
“They’ve locked up those two generals in the garden behind that house.”
“What are they going to do with them?”
“Well, they should wait for one of our officers to take charge. For a military tribunal, as our code says. Due process. I’m just a company leader, I can’t take on that responsibility. We need somebody from the Guard’s central committee. Look at that crowd, they’re furious.”
“They’re mostly soldiers, it looks like.”
“Right. Lecomte’s own men have got him locked up.”
The crowd was shouting and there were shuffling feet and the sound of a caisson being overturned when suddenly Alphonse heard two rifle shots, then three or four more.
“Uh-oh,” said Jules. “Let’s see what’s happened.”
It was nearly noon when Bougainville finally ventured outdoors, and the scene was not at all what he had expected. Here in his western arrondissement, the most bourgeois section of the city, he had expected to see people celebrating the final humiliation of the rebellious units of the National Guard, which were almost all in the east. But the noises he heard sounded more menacing.
All the stores had closed, which seemed very odd. And there were orators on street corners, haranguing small crowds with cries of “Treason!” directed, not at the rebel Guardsmen and their allies but at the new government of Adolphe Thiers, for surrendering to the Prussians and for sending troops into the city to seize the cannons. He stopped to listen to one of them, but he couldn’t believe what he heard. No, they could not have dared to assassinate two generals of the army!
He came across a barricade that must have been erected just that morning. There were men with rifles behind it, some of them in parts of National Guard uniform and some just in their worker’s blouses and caps. And others in French army uniforms! This is what frightened him most, soldiers together with rebel guardsmen. It was a soldier with insignia of the 113th regiment who wouldn’t let him pass until he joined them in shouting, “Vive la République!”
Personally, Bougainville didn’t care one way or another whether France should be a republic or a monarchy, as long as that rascal Bonaparte didn’t come back. In that, he had agreed with that Captain Laurent he had talked to last night, the one with the waxed mustache and the jaunty air, who told him about the coming operation on Montmartre. Now, how had that gone, he wondered?
“What do you hear about the cannons on Montmartre?” he asked a gentleman, as decently accoutered — that is, obviously not a working man — as he.
“Oh, disaster! Haven’t you heard? That’s where they killed all the generals and ran the army out!”
“No, no, said another man who had overheard them. Only two generals. And the army has withdrawn in good order, to fight another day.”
“Killed two generals? The savages! What do you mean, ‘withdrawn’? The army was supposed to restore the cannons to the rightful government!”
This second man just laughed and waved toward a crowd that was singing and cheering.
“They’re cheering!” said Bougainville.
“Yes. They’re cheering on the army. Their departure, I mean. You can’t see them from here, but I was just down on that corner. The people are cheering and booing, cheering that the soldiers are marching out of the city, catcalls for their generals.”
“Is that true? The army withdrawing?”
“And from what I hear, after leaving all the cannons and mitrailleuses just where they were. Paris, it seems, is about to become independent.”
“No! The army cannot leave the city to those hooligans! It would be treason even to suggest that!”
“Look. Here comes a column now. Heading for the Versailles gate, it looks like. Do you see any cannons?”
No, there were no cannons being hauled by the scores of men in bedraggled uniforms, some without their kepis. The men on foot all looked exhausted, stooped and dragging their feet. Their major sat up fiercely on his horse, a dark scowl on his thickly mustached face, paying absolutely no attention to the troops behind him, as though embarrassed by their presence. Bougainville thought he recognized him, and since he didn’t give the appearance of really being in formation, he stepped toward him and called out:
“Major! Fournier? Is it Major Fournier?”
From high upon his horse, the major turned his scowl unwelcomingly toward his importuner.
“I’m the journalist Bougainville, major. René-Pierre Bougainville. I write for Le Figaro and Le Journal de Paris. I need to ask you. Have you come from Montmartre?”
The major’s left eyebrow registered the occurrence of a thought.
“Bagou?” the major snorted. And laughed.
“There is no Montmartre, scribbler. Write that. Montmartre has been consumed by Hell.”
And he turned sharply away, spurring his tired horse to give a brief spring forward. But then reined in, so as not to get too far ahead of his bedraggled troops. They looked like rather less than a full regiment to Bougainville, and there were gaps in their ranks as they continued their dispirited shuffling down the avenue.
There would be no celebratory dinner in the Saint-Séverin tonight. He wondered where he could find those two captains he had talked to, Robert and Laurent. Or any other army officers. How could such a large military mission have failed? Had all the columns failed? Entirely?
He wandered, on foot, through the neighborhoods, walking from west to east. It was impossible to find a cab, and even the omnibuses were not to be seen. He trudged toward the Hôtel de Ville then on toward Place de la Bastille. Any further and he would find himself in truly hostile working-class territory. As it was, he had had to pass through several barricades and repeat, as he had at that first one, that he was loyal to the republic. The Place de la Bastille was one boisterous party, with drums and singing and lots of drunken workers, it seemed to him. Not his crowd. He decided to turn back toward what he assumed would be the safer Palais Royal. If he dined in the Frères Provinciaux, the most securely bourgeois restaurant he could think of, he could get away from the celebrants of what now appeared to have been a disaster for the forces of order.
Dinner was especially solemn. He sat alone, although he saw three or four other men he recognized but who barely acknowledged him as he passed to follow the waiter to one of the many empty tables. The noise from the street, shouts, loud singing, drums beaten furiously penetrated this usually very quiet dining room. His waiter was as efficient as ever, but unusually silent, his face betraying no emotion except a quick jerk of the head at an unusually loud banging sound nearby.
Bougainville wasn’t even aware of what he was eating, barely touched anything but the wine, lingering for what must have been hours. He left a generous tip after the noise outdoors seemed to have died down and stepped out into the street.
He must have stopped somewhere else on his way home for a drink. He didn’t really remember, but somehow he had got a little drunker than he had been. He waved away the women in the shadows offering their services and stumbled home. As he drew nearer to his apartment, he thought again of the article he must write for the next day’s paper. “Montmartre a Hell.” He laughed at the irony of how the day seemed to have turned out.
Victorine was not in the apartment. Not in bed, not in the sitting room, not there at all. He didn’t know whether he should be surprised. He lit a cigar to make himself more alert and sat down to write a new draft of tomorrow’s article.
He had nearly finished when he heard a noise at his door, and two voices, a man’s and a woman’s. Then the door closed and he saw it was Victorine. Whoever had accompanied her to this point had been left outside. Bagou looked up at his clock. It was nearly 4 a.m.
“And where have you been, young lady?”
“Oh, René-Pierre! You know. Such an exciting day. Such partying! I was with some of the nicest, politest National Guardsmen you ever saw. So shy! But so brave. Did you know what has just happened, maybe half an hour ago? The whole government has departed! Carriage after carriage, with everyone important, heading for Versailles!”
“The government fleeing? And you were partying with the National Guard?”
“Oh, René-Pierre! They were so nice. And they really wanted to dance.”