Chapter II. Cimourdain
Cimourdain had a pure but gloomy soul. There was something of the absolute within him. He had been a priest, which is a serious matter. A man may, like the heavens, enjoy a gloomy serenity, – it needs only an influence powerful enough to create night within his soul; and the priesthood had done this thing for Cimourdain. To be once a priest is to be a priest forever.
Though there be night within us, we may still possess the stars. Cimourdain was a man of many virtues and truths, but they shone amid the darkness.
His story may be told in a few words. He had been a village curate, and tutor in an influential family; but falling heir to a small legacy, he had thereby gained his freedom.
He was obstinate to the last degree. He employed meditation as the artisan uses his pincers. He believed it wrong to abandon an idea until he had fully developed it. His method of thought was intense. He was familiar with all the European languages, and had some acquaintance with other tongues. His devotion to study was a great help towards the preservation of his chastity. But there is nothing more dangerous than such a system of repression.
Either from pride, circumstances, or loftiness of soul, he had been true to his priestly vows; but his faith he had not been able to keep. Science had crushed it; all his dogmas had gone from him. Then, looking into his own soul, he saw therein a mutilated being, and having no power to rid himself of his priesthood, he tried, after an austere fashion, to remould the man. For want of a family he adopted his country; a wife had been refused him, – he had wedded humanity. There is a certain sense of emptiness in this all-embracing zeal.
His parents, who were peasants, had thought to lift him above the common people by consecrating him to the priesthood; he had returned among them of his own accord, and with a feeling of passionate devotion watched the suffering with intense sympathy. From a priest he had become a philosopher, and from a philosopher an athlete. Even during the life of Louis XV., Cimourdain had vaguely fancied himself a republican. But of what republic? Perhaps of the Republic of Plato, and it might be of Draco also. Forbidden to love, he devoted himself to hating. He detested lies, monarchy, theocracy, and his priestly garb; he hated the present, and eagerly invoked the future; he had a presentiment of what it would be, he foresaw it, he pictured it, both terrible and grand. In order to put an end to this deplorable human misery, he felt the need of a leader who would appear not only as an avenger but also as a liberator. He worshipped the catastrophe from afar.
In 1789 this catastrophe came and found him ready. Cimourdain flung himself into that gigantic scheme for human regeneration on logical principles, which, for a mind constituted like his, is equivalent to saying with inexorable determination. Logic is not a softening influence. He had survived the great revolutionary years, and had been shaken by the blasts thereof, – in ’89, the fall of the Bastille, the end of the martyrdom of people; in.’90, on the 19th of June, the end of the feudal system; in ’91, Varennes, and the end of royalty; in ’92, the birth of the Republic. He had seen the rise of Revolution. He was not the man to fear that giant; on the contrary, the universal growth had given him new life, and though already advanced in years, – for he was fifty, and a priest ages faster than other men, – he too began to develop. From year to year he had watched and kept pace with the progress of events. At first he had feared lest Revolution might fail; he watched it. Since it had both logic and justice on its side, he expected its success, and his confidence increased in proportion to the fear it inspired; he would have this Minerva crowned with the stars of the future, – a Pallas likewise bearing the Gorgon’s head for her buckler. In case of need he would have wished an infernal glare to flash from her divine eyes upon the demons, paying them back in their own coin.
Thus he reached ’93.
’93 is the war of Europe against France, and of France against Paris. What then is Revolution? It is the victory of France over Europe, and of Paris over France. Hence the immensity of that terrible moment ’93, grander than all the rest of the century.
Nothing could be more tragic. Europe attacking France, and France attacking Paris, – a drama with the proportions of an epic.
’93 is a year of intense action. The tempest is there in all its wrath and grandeur. Cimourdain felt himself in his element. This scene of distraction, wild and magnificent, suited the compass of his outspread wings. Like a sea-eagle, he united a profound inward calm with a relish for external danger. Certain winged natures, souls of the tempest, ferocious yet tranquil, seem eminently fitted for combatting the storms of life.
His sense of pity was never kindled, save in behalf of the wretched. He devoted himself to those forms of suffering that are most repulsive. For him nothing was abhorrent. That was his kind of goodness. He was divine in his zeal to relieve the most loathsome sufferers. He searched for ulcers that he might kiss them. Those noble actions which are hideous to look upon are the most difficult to perform; for such he had a preference. One day at the Hôtel-Dieu a man was at the point of death, suffocating with a tumor in the throat, – a putrid, malignant, and perhaps contagious abscess, which must be opened at once. Cimourdain was there; he put his lips to the abscess, sucked it, spitting it out as his mouth filled, emptied the tumor and saved the man. As he still was wearing his priestly garb at the time, some one said to him: “Had you done that for the king you would be made a bishop.” “I would not do it for the king,” replied Cimourdain. The act and the answer made him popular in the gloomy quarters of Paris to a degree that won for him unbounded influence over the classes that suffer, weep, and struggle for vengeance. When the public indignation, that fruitful source of blunders, rose high against the monopolists, it was Cimourdain who by a word prevented the sacking of a boat laden with soap at the Saint-Nicolas quay, and who dispersed the furious crowds that were stopping the carriages at the barrier Saint-Lazare.
He it was who ten days after the 10th of August marshalled the people who went forth to overthrow the statues of kings, which as they fell cost some of them their lives. On the Place Vendôme, a woman, Reine Violet, pulling at the rope she had fastened around the neck of Louis XIV., was crushed to death beneath its weight. This statue had been standing for a hundred years: it was erected on the 12th of August, 1692; it was overthrown on the 12th of August, 1793. On the Place de la Concorde one Guinguerlot, having called the demolishers “canaille,” was butchered on the pedestal of the statue of Louis XV. The statue itself was hacked to pieces; later, it was melted into sous. One arm alone escaped, – the right arm, which Louis XV. held outstretched with the gesture of a Roman emperor. By request of Cimourdain the people sent a deputation to offer this arm to Latude, a man who had been buried alive in the Bastille for forty years. When Latude with an iron collar round his neck and a chain round his loins was rotting alive in that prison at the bidding of the king whose statue overlooked Paris, who could have prophesied to him that both prison and statue would fall, and that he would come forth from his tomb, – he, the prisoner, would be the master of that hand of bronze which had signed his warrant, and that nothing would be left of this monarch of clay save his brazen arm?
Cimourdain was one of those men who possess an inward monitor, and who when they appear absent-minded are simply listening to its voice.
Cimourdain was both learned and ignorant. He was versed in science, and knew nothing whatever of life; hence his severity. His eyes were bandaged like those of Homer’s Themis: he possessed the blind certainty of an arrow, – that, seeing naught besides, flies straight to the goal. In revolution there is nothing so formidable as the straight line. Cimourdain went straight ahead, with fatal results. He believed that in these social geneses the farthest point is solid ground, – an error common to minds in which logic occupies the place of reason. He went beyond the Convention, beyond the Commune: he belonged to the Évêché.
The society called the Évêché because it held its meetings in a hall of the old episcopal palace was rather a medley of men than a society. There were present, as in the Commune, those silent but important spectators who, as Garat expressed it, “had about them as many pistols as they had pockets.” The Évêché was a queer mixture, both cosmopolitan and Parisian, – no contradiction in terms, since Paris is the place where throbs the heart of all nations. There at the Évêché was the great plebeian incandescence. As compared with the Évêché, the Convention was cold and the Commune lukewarm. It was one of those revolutionary formations which partake of the nature of a volcano. The Évêché combined everything, – ignorance, stupidity, honesty, heroism, wrath, and policy. Brunswick had agents therein. It held men worthy of Sparta, and others fit only for the galleys. The greater number of them were mad and honest. The Gironde, speaking in the person of Isnard, temporary president of the Convention, had uttered this appalling prophecy: “Parisians, beware! for in your city not one stone shall be left resting upon another, and the day will come when men will search for the place where Paris once stood.” This speech had given Birth to the Évêché. Certain men – and as we have just said, men of all nations – had felt the need of drawing closer to Paris. Cimourdain joined this group.
The party reacted against the reactionists. It sprang from that public necessity for violence which constitutes the formidable and mysterious side of revolutions. Strong in this strength, the Évêché at once defined its position. In the disturbances of Paris it was the Commune that fired the cannon, and the Évêché that sounded the alarm.
In his inexorable sincerity Cimourdain believed that all means are fair when devoted to the service of truth, – a conviction which eminently fitted him for the control of extremists of all parties. Scoundrels perceived him to be honest, and were satisfied. Crime is flattered to feel that virtue has taken it in charge. It is rather embarrassing, but pleasing nevertheless. Palloy the architect, who had taken advantage of the destruction of the Bastille to sell the stones for his own benefit, and who, being appointed to paint the cell of Louis XVI., had in his zeal covered the wall with bars, chains, and iron collars; Gonchon, the suspected orator of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, whose receipts were found later; the American Fournier, who on the 17th of July fired a pistol-shot at Lafayette, – an act for which, they said, Lafayette himself had paid; Henriot, who had come from Bicêtre, and who had been a lackey, a juggler, a thief, and a spy before he turned general and levelled his guns on the Convention; La Reynie, formerly grand-vicar of Chartres, who had substituted “Père Duchesne” for his breviary, – all these men were respected by Cimourdain, and all that was needed to keep the worst of them from stumbling occasionally was to feel that really formidable and determined candor like a judgment before them. It was thus that Saint-Just terrified Schneider. At the same time the majority in the Évêché, consisting for the most part of poor and violent men, sincere in their purposes, believed in Cimourdain and followed him. His vicar or aide-de-camp, whichever you choose to call him, was Danjou, – that other republican priest, whose lofty stature endeared him to the people, who called him the Abbé Six-Pieds. Cimourdain could have led whithersoever he chose that fearless chief called Général la Pique and the bold Truchon (surnamed Grand-Nicolas), who tried to save Madame de Lamballe, offering her his arm to assist her in leaping over the corpses, – an attempt which would have proved successful had it not been for the barbarous joke of Chariot the barber.
The Commune kept watch over the Convention, and the Évêché over the Commune. Cimourdain, an upright man, despising intrigues, had broken more than one mysterious thread in the hands of Pache, whom Beurnonville called “the black man.” At the Évêché, Cimourdain was on good terms with all. He was consulted by Dobsent and Momoro. He spoke Spanish to Gusman, Italian to Pio, English to Arthur, Flemish to Pereyra, German to the Austrian Proly, the bastard of a prince. He reconciled all these discordant elements: hence his strong though obscure position. Hébert feared him.
In those times and over those tragic assemblies Cimourdain possessed the power of the inexorable. He was a faultless man, who believed himself to be infallible. He had never been seen to weep. His was an inaccessible and frigid virtue; a just, but awful, man.
There are no half measures possible for a revolutionary priest. A priest who embarks in an adventure so portentous in its aims, is influenced either by the highest or the lowest motives; he must be either infamous or sublime. Cimourdain was sublime, but isolated in rugged inaccessibility, inhospitably repellent, – sublime in his surrounding of precipices. Lofty mountains possess this forbidding purity.
Cimourdain looked like an ordinary man, clothed in whatever happened to be convenient, rather poor in aspect. In his youth he had received the tonsure, and later in life had become bald. His few remaining locks were gray. Looking upon his forehead, expansive as it was, an observing eye could read his character. Cimourdain had an abrupt way of speaking, at once passionate and solemn; his utterance was rapid, his tone peremptory, the expression of his mouth sad and bitter; his eyes were clear and deep, and his whole face bore the impress of an unspeakable indignation. Such was Cimourdain.
To-day his name is unknown.
History possesses these terrible incognitos.