Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead

The Fall of the Gironde

The execution of the King of France united the enemies of that rebel nation and caused division among the men who had decreed it. Roland sent in his resignation and awaited the result in strict retirement. He had long been disgusted with the turn that the Mountain gave to a ministry formed on the finest ideals of Republican liberty, if it did not approve of strict equality. He had raised up a humble Swiss named Pache from some obscurity, finding him an indefatigable worker who would receive neither salary nor honor.

Pache had been brought from the mountain home where he lived in a simplicity that was charming to all followers of Rousseau. He spent his days there in studying botany, his evenings in teaching the harp to his daughter Sylvie. "Provided that he had periwinkles in his garden, black bread and milk food on his table, and romances to play, this wise man wished for nothing more." There was much admiration among the Girondin party for the protégé of Mme Roland when it was whispered that he was satisfied with a hunch of bread for his daily meal in office hours and remained at his desk to eat it. Such modesty was especially to be admired after Pache was entrusted with the most responsible tasks of the government of 1792. It was this man who directed France during the terrible crisis of the war, but it was only after Valmy that his name became known to the awe-stricken public. Mme Roland herself begged him to assume authority quite openly. She must have felt a terrible chagrin from the moment of Pache's first council-meeting. Then the ambition of the industrious servant was revealed in all its strength and singleness. He silenced the elderly, unpopular Roland, allying himself with the most wildly enthusiastic friends of Revolution; these he put in offices of importance, and himself became Mayor of Paris. Marie-Jeanne wept tears of indignation to see her own wide influence vanish. Many a time she brooded over the ingratitude of this Swiss zealot in the humble rooms of the flat in the Rue de la Harpe which sheltered the former Minister of the Interior. Pache wore still that air of benevolence which caused him to be always "Papa Pache" to his followers. He never ceased to play the harp in domestic seclusion, even after the most bloodthirsty days of vengeance. There was something terrible about the inconsistency of the rural student. He foreshadowed the men of the Terror whose hearts were tender for wives and children, and whose sentences doomed to death hundreds upon hundreds.

Early in 1793, Pache demanded that twenty-two of the Girondin party should be deposed from their authority. They were the members of the Constitution always opposed to vigorous practical measures. France was under the cloud of the dark storms soon to burst over her. Armies threatened in the camps of Europe, kings banded themselves together against the new administration of the free Republic. If blood were necessary for ultimate peace, blood must be shed without compunction. The sentimental scruples of the Gironde could be silenced once the Mountain were in power. Plots were on foot to let the Queen escape, the hostage who must be held, lest losses in warfare should bring about the fall of Paris. It was not the fault of the Royalists that Marie Antoinette did not escape. She would not leave her children, notwithstanding all arguments in favour of her flight from the dreary imprisonment of the Temple.

The captives were treated with greater severity after the defeat of Dumouriez at Neerwinden in March 1793. The general, generous and bold in action, was a traitor to his country. He went over to the Austrian camp with that cage of favourite canaries he must always have taken to the battlefield. He had ancestry of a dramatic talent, and delighted in the sensational transference of his noble services. His men had refused to follow him in a march on Paris, where the citizens suspected he would set up a king of his own again. His defection brought down the power of the Gironde, lately exulting in his victories. The Revolutionary Tribunal for the judgment of enemies of the Republic was set up that same month, and, in April, Danton proposed the Committee of Public Safety.

France was under martial law. This was no time for gentle measures, said Robespierre, and the speakers in that club of the Jacobins, now numbering the rulers of the future. The gathering, once attended by white-robed monks of the Jacobin Order, had changed in character since the speech-making days of 1789. It met in the noble hall with its fine pictures and splendid library, close to the church of the Jacobins. Women crowded its galleries and applauded the austere lawyer from Arras whose constant repetition of certain doctrines attracted many listeners. He had none of the flashing eloquence of Mirabeau, yet he rose rapidly to supremacy, and in the house of Duplay, the carpenter, received the homage due to a great leader. St Just, the beautiful, tempestuous hero of his native village, was also the devoted follower of Robespierre.

In May 1793, the Girondins came to open conflict with the Commune of Paris, which they had long opposed in secret. They hated the ascendancy which the people of the capital had gained, and feared the popular element which had lately ruled the Mountain. Men of the middle class themselves, they would have had a Republic for the rich, as their enemies declared, "Liberty without Equality" the friends of the people muttered, and showed their distrust of the first Revolutionary party by carrying Marat, the popular hero, shoulder high when he was acquitted of the charge of anarchy which the Girondins brought against him.

On June 2nd, Paris rose, assembling an armed force about the Tuileries where the Convention sat, and demanding that the leaders from the Gironde should hand in their resignations or be expelled to the number of twenty-two. News had come of a rising of hungry patriots at Lyons, which the Royalists had subdued by the help of a Girondin force. Hanriot, made General Commander of the National Guard, had artillery to back this demand. "Gunners, to your guns!" was the famous order which sealed the fate of the suspected deputies. The Convention voted their exclusion, and they were outlawed as rebels in July, because they had attempted to stir up their departments against the capital and had even allied themselves with Royalists rather than be under the yoke of the Commune.

Marie-Jeanne Roland had been sent to the Abbaye on May 31st, rejoicing that she might give herself up to her love for Buzot, now that she was separated from her husband by the prison bars. Freedom was hers, she felt, though she suffered the discomforts of a prisoner's life. She could write long, passionate letters to the man she loved, and compose the memoirs of her strange career while she had youth and courage to face death.

Meanwhile her husband escaped from his enemies and lived in Normandy, eating out his heart with jealousy and disappointment, since his career was at an end. The outlawed deputies were scattered throughout France, stirring up revolt against the Mountain, known soon as the Jacobins. They were eager for civil war, allying themselves with Royalist towns; but they met defeat, for the Jacobins were stronger and of more practical mind, Louvet, Guadet, and the rest of the outlawed Girondins became wanderers, hunted and weary. Everywhere they met danger in the desperate attempt to seek their beloved southern country.

None were willing to receive them. Through Brittany they made their way, without shoes and without the food that would have enabled them to travel quickly. They had to divide at Quimper, so that some might embark on a brig taking them to the Gironde. At Bordeaux they were dismayed by the terror of the citizens. The Convention had done its work too well for those dubbed traitors to find any place of concealment. Guadet was sheltered by his own father after piteous appeals, yet would not offer a refuge to his companions. They would have perished miserably had it not been for Mme Bouquey with heart of gold and a convenient well in her country garden.

It was autumn when she offered a home to Guadet and all his fellow-patriots. They were tired out and in rags by this time. The supper served to them was almost a dream of former days, since they had been outlawed for weeks, meeting rebuffs and closed doors everywhere instead of welcome.

Seven men required more nourishment than Marinette Bouquey could procure easily. She was only entitled to a pound of bread per day, because she was supposed to live alone. She had to risk her life in coaxing the butcher for extra meat when her eggs and vegetables failed her. She was never hungry herself, she averred, when the seven fugitives sat down to table. She was always gay and good-humored in this period of constant watchfulness and anxiety. At the least alarm, she managed to smuggle the outlaws from the house into a kind of grotto which had a cellar underneath, used only in the gravest peril, for it was chilly and dark, and more stifling than a tomb. They worked by the light of a lantern, four of them writing their memoirs. News came from Paris through their kindly hostess only. They learnt in November that Mme Roland was now in the dreaded prison of the Conciergerie, and that over twenty of their friends had been executed by order of the Tribunal. They clung to life obstinately, though they endured tortures in this living burial. Buzot's heart was torn by separation from the woman he loved and the fear for her safety at the mercy of the Jacobins. Potion remembered the days of swaggering insolence when he had driven with the King and Queen from Varennes. They were powerless alike, thankful for the meanest place of sojourn. Round the house were men thirsting for their blood and ready to betray their hostess.

It was a month after their first reception when she told them weeping that she could no longer harbor suspects. Her husband threatened her from Paris, and the neighbourhood was menacing. They took to the road again in the beating autumn rain, and met their cruel fates later than Mme Roland and the husband who refused to survive her.

Marie-Jeanne had been in prison since the 1st of June, save for a brief space of liberation. She spoke often of the twenty-two who preceded her to the scaffold while she wrote down her events of her thirty-seven years. How peaceful had been that early life with the mother she loved dearly! How happy the days spent with the learned Roland in the rustic abode of the Beaujolais! The brilliant evenings, surrounded by gallant and earnest men, longing to bring prosperity to France, were a far-off vision in the gloomy sojourn where flowers bloomed for but a few hours after Bose managed to convey them thither. There had been many faithful to Marie-Jeanne. She was proud to reflect upon the part she had played. Queen she had been in reality as certainly as that Marie Antoinette, who now was seeking consolation in the Catholic faith and the society of her children. Eudora had been torn from her mother's arms, and that mother had lost faith long ago. She was occupied with different cares from those of the prisoners of the Temple. Her pen flowed easily over the pages recording her own history. She had been destined for great fame—she was conscious that the end was coming. In the spring of 1792 she had taken apartments on a six-years' lease. She had been blind then to the fact that her life was coming to conclusion. The certainty of death did not daunt her, even as she went before cruel Fouquier-Tinville at the judgment bar. The Public Accuser questioned her brutally, and she answered him with scorn. It was possible to sway men still while she stood in her white robes, with her black hair hanging to her girdle.

But the last hour was coming fast, and there were preparations to make. She left long written counsels to Eudora, the daughter whose flightiness had been a bitter grief to her. She said truly that her husband would not live to read them. She was calm and queenly as she passed through the streets on a tumbril, trying to cheer the fellow-prisoner who was taken with her. She asked for pen and paper at the very scaffold that she might "write the strange thoughts that were rising in her." She was refused, and surveyed the statue of Liberty with a certain mockery, crying, "O Liberty, what things are done in thy name!" Yet she made no other appeal, and laid her head down before a man who feared the sharp knife of the guillotine, that her heroism might help him to die easily.

It was November the 8th, and Roland set out then to roam the countryside. He was discovered on the 16th with a cane-sword through his heart and a writing at his feet, to declare that no longer would he "remain on an earth polluted with crimes."

Buzot also fell by his own hand, in a field of rye where he had hidden with Petion, his associate. Little was left of their former pride of bearing. They had seen Barbaroux carried off, with a pistol-wound tormenting him, to be guillotined in Paris. He had looked handsome on the mattress where they bound him to float him down the river. His black hair framed his ghastly face, and he was still the bold Girondin though he lay a-dying. Men of Marseilles carried with them admiration to the death. Petion and Buzot envied him a little, perhaps, in the dreary, hopeless struggle against their country-people. Hidden under the pine-trees, they mutely questioned each other if they should take their own lives or be dragged to the scaffold by their enemies. When the peasants found them there was some belief that a kind of duel had taken place. The rye was beaten down, and they had fallen towards each other in the tawdry, discolored clothes with the empty pockets.

Bordeaux bore them long in mind. Mme Bouquey, too, was punished for her womanly compassion. She was accused of "pity towards the unfortunate," a charge criminal in the eyes of Jacobins! Ruthless was the Tribunal to the Girondins, ancient allies and lovers of fraternity.

The Terror was begun in France, aided most skillfully by the instrument good Dr Guillotin had once urged so strongly as the most humane means of ending life for criminals. Louis XVI had died under the knife he had interested himself to perfect. The instrument soon made notorious the name of the man who introduced it, though he used his power desperately to save doomed wretches from the machine he had praised with the enthusiasm of an inventor.