Ninety-three/3.7.6

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Ninety-three by Victor Hugo
Nevertheless, the sun rises.

CHAPTER VI.

NEVERTHELESS, THE SUN RISES.

Daylight did not delay appearing on the horizon. Just as day dawned, a strange, motionless, amazing object, which the birds of heaven were not familiar with, came into sight on the plateau of la Torgue, above the forest of Fougères.

It had been placed there in the night; it was set up, rather than built. From a distance, its straightened lines stood out against the horizon, having the appearance of a Hebrew letter or one of those Egyptian hieroglyphics which formed a part of the alphabet of the ancient enigma.

At first sight, the idea that this object awakened was the idea of uselessness. It stood there among the blossoming heather. One asked what purpose it could serve. Then one felt a shudder come over.

It was a sort of trestle-work, with four posts for legs. At the end of the trestle rose two high joists, upright and straight, joined together at the top by a crossbeam, from which was suspended a triangle which looked black against the blue morning sky. At the other end of the Framework there was a ladder. Between the two joists below, under the triangle, could be seen a sort of panel composed of two movable sections which, when fitted together, showed a round hole about the size of a man's neck. The upper section of the panel slipped into a groove in such a way that it could be raised or lowered. For the time being, the two semicircles which, when united, formed the collar, were apart. At the foot of the two posts was seen a plank, which moved on hinges and looked like a balance. Beside this plank, there was a long basket, and between the two posts, in front, and at the end of the trestle, a square basket.

It was painted red.

Everything was of wood, except the triangle, which was of iron. One felt that this had been built by men, it was so ugly, mean, petty; and that it was worthy of being set up there by genii, it was so formidable.

This misshapen structure was the guillotine.

In front, a few feet away, in the ravine, there was another monster, la Tourgue. A monster of stone offering a counterpart to the monster of wood, and, we may add, when man has touched wood and stone, the wood and stone are no longer merely wood and stone, but become a part of man.

An edifice is a dogma, a machine is an idea.

La Tourgue was that fatal result of the past which is called the Bastille in Paris, the Tower of London in England, the Spielberg in Germany, the Escurial in Spain, the Kremlin in Moscow, the castle of Saint-Angelo in Rome.

Fifteen hundred years were condensed in la Tourgue, the Middle Ages, vassalage, serfdom, feudalism; in the guillotine, one year, '93; and these twelve months counterbalanced these fifteen centuries.

La Tourgue was the monarchy; the guillotine was the Revolution.

Tragic comparison.

On one side, debt; on the other, maturity. On one side, the inextricable Gothic complication, the serf, the seigneur, the slave, the master, the commonalty, the nobility, the complex code with its ramification of customs, judge and priest in coalition, innumerable bonds, the treasury, the salt taxes, the mortmain, the capitations, the exceptions, the prerogatives, the prejudices, the fanaticisms, the royal privilege of bankruptcy, the sceptre, the throne, the regal will, divine right; on the other side, this simple thing,—a chopping-knife.

On one side, a knot; on the other, an axe.

La Tourgue had long stood alone in this wilderness. It stood there filled with enormous tragedy; with his machicolations, out of which had been poured boiling oil, burning pitch, and melted lead; with its oubliettes, paved with bones; with its quartering room; its funereal form had dominated this forest; it had had fifteen centuries of cruel repose in this shady spot; it had been the sole power, the sole object of awe, and the sole terror in this land; it had reigned; it had been the unique example of barbarism: suddenly, there arose before it and against it something,—more than something,—some one as horrible as itself—the Guillotine.

Stone sometimes seem to have strange eyes. A statue observes, a tower watches, the façade of a building contemplates.

La Tourgue seemed to examine the guillotine.

It seemed to query it?

"What is that?"

That object seemed to have come up out of the earth.

And, in reality, it had come up out of the earth.

In the fatal earth had germinated the ill-favored tree. Out of this earth, watered with so much sweat, with so many tears, with so much blood;—out of this earth, where so many trenches had been dug, so many tombs, so many caves, so many ambushes;—out of this earth, where had rotted all kinds of dead, deprived of life by all kinds of tyranny;—out of this earth, placed over so many abysses, and where had been buried so many dreadful crimes, seeds of horror;—out of this deep earth had arisen, on a notable day, this strange avenger, this cruel swordbearer, and '93 had said to the old world: "Here I am!"

And the guillotine had the right to say to the keep: "I am thy daughter."

And at the same time the keep—for these fatal objects live with a mysterious vitality—felt that it was killed by her.

La Tourgue, in the face of this terrible apparition, felt strangely frightened. It seemed as if it were afraid. The huge mass of granite was majestical and infamous; this plank, with its triangle, was worse. The declining omnipotence felt all the horror of the new omnipotence.

Criminal history surveyed justiciary history. The violence of the past was compared with the violence of the present: the ancient fortress, the ancient prison, the ancient seigneurie, where victims had shrieked as they were torn limb from limb; the building of war and of murder, now useless, disabled, profaned, dismantled, laid bare, a heap of stone, worth no more than a heap of ashes, hideous, magnificent, and dead, full of the dizziness of centuries of horror,—watched the terrible living hour of the present pass by.

Yesterday frowned on to-day, the old cruelty verified and submitted to the new power, that which was a mere nothingness opened its ghastly eyes before this terror, and the phantom regarded the spectre.

Nature is pitiless; she will not consent to withdraw her flowers, her music, her perfumes and her sunbeams from before the face of human abomination; she overwhelms man with the contrast between divine beauty and the ugliness of society; she spares him neither the wing of a butterfly, nor the song of a bird; in the midst of murder, in the midst of vengeance, in the midst of barbarity he must submit to the sight of holy things; he cannot get away from the vast reproach of the universal sweetness and the implacable serenity of the blue sky. The deformity of human laws must be exposed in their nakedness, in the midst of the dazzling beauty of the eternal. Man breaks and crushes, man destroys, man kills; the summer is summer still, the lily is the lily still, the stars of heaven are the stars of heaven still.

Never had the fresh sky of early dawn been more charming than on this morning. A mild breeze stirred the heather, the mists hovered gently over the trees, the forest of Fougères, permeated with the breath of the brooks, was steaming in the dawn like a great censer filled with incense; the blue firmament, the whiteness of the clouds, the clear transparency of the waters, the verdure, that harmonious scale of color from aquamarine to emerald, the groups of brotherly trees, the carpet of grass, the far-stretching plains,—all possessed that purity which is the eternal counsel of nature to man.

In the midst of all this was exposed the frightful shame of human beings; in the midst of all this appeared the fortress and the scaffold, war and punishment, the two figures of the bloodthirsty eld and the bloody present; the night-owl of the past, and the bat of the twilight of the future.

In the presence of creation, blooming, balmy, loving and lovely, the splendid heavens deluged La Tourgue and the guillotine with the light of morning, and seemed to say to man: "See my work, and behold what you are doing."

Such are the terrible uses that the sun makes of his rays.

This spectacle had spectators.

The four thousand men belonging to the little reconnoitring army were ranged in order of battle on the plain. They surrounded the guillotine on three sides, in such a way as to form around it, in a geometrical figure, the shape of a letter E; the battery placed in the centre of the upright line made the notch of the E. The red machine was enclosed in these three battle fronts, a sort of wall of soldiers, reaching on two sides to the very edge of the escarpment of the plateau, the fourth side, the open side, was the ravine itself, and faced la Tourgue.

This made a long square, in the midst of which was the scaffold. As the day approached, the shadow of the guillotine decreased on the grass.

The artillery-men were at their guns, the matches lighted.

A gentle blue smoke was rising from the ravine; it came from the dying fire of the burning bridge.

This smoke covered without concealing la Tourgue, the high platform of which dominated the whole horizon. Between this platform and the guillotine there was only the ravine. They could talk across it.

The table of the tribunal and the chair draped with tricolored flags had been brought to this platform. The day was drawing behind la Tourgue, and making the mass of the fortress stand out black, and above it in the chair of the tribunal, and under the drapery of flags, the form of a man sitting motionless, with folded arms.

This man was Cimourdain. As on the day before, he wore his civil delegate's dress, the hat with tricolored cockade on his head, his sabre by his side, and his pistols in his belt.

He was silent. All were silent. The soldiers stood with their guns grounded, their eyes downcast. Their elbows touched, but they did not speak. They were thinking confusedly about this war,—so many battles, the fusillades of the hedges so bravely faced, the swarms of furious peasants driven before their breath, the citadels taken, the battles won, the victories, and it seemed to them now that all this glory turned to shame. A gloomy expectation oppressed the hearts of all.

On the platform of the guillotine they saw the executioner, walking back and forth. The increasing brightness of the morning majestically filled the sky.

Suddenly there was heard that muffled sound made by drums covered with crape. The funereal rumbling came nearer; the ranks opened, and a procession entered the square, and went towards the scaffold.

At first the black drums; then a company of grenadiers, with arms lowered; then a platoon of gendarmes, with drawn swords; then the condemned,— Gauvain.

Gauvain walked free. Neither his feet nor his hands were bound. He was in undress uniform; he carried his sword.

Behind him came another platoon of gendarmes.

Gauvain still wore that expression of thoughtful joy on his face which had lighted it up when he said to Cimourdain, "I am thinking of the future." Nothing could be more ineffably sublime than this lasting smile.

On reaching the melancholy spot, he first looked towards the top of the tower. He disdained the guillotine.

He knew that Cimourdain would consider it his duty to be present at the execution. His eyes sought him on the platform. He found him there.

Cimourdain was pale and cold. Those near him could not hear him breathe.

When he saw Gauvain, he did not stir.

Meanwhile, Gauvain was approaching the scaffold.

As he walked along, he looked at Cimourdain, and Cimourdain looked at him. It seemed as if Cimourdain strengthened himself with that look.

Gauvain reached the foot of the scaffold. He mounted it. The officer commanding the grenadiers followed him. He unfastnened his sword and gave it to the officer, he took off his cravat and gave it to the executioner.

He was like a vision. Never had he looked so beautiful. His brown hair floated in the wind; it was not the custom to cut off the hair at that time. His white neck was like a woman's, his heroic, sovereign eye was like an archangel's. He was on the scaffold, deep in thought. This place, too, is a summit. Gauvain stood there, superbly calm. The sun wrapped him about as with a halo of glory.

It was necessary, nevertheless, to bind the criminal. The executioner came with a rope in his hand.

At this moment, when the soldiers saw their young captain so evidently destined to the knife, they could contain themselves no longer; the hearts of these warriors burst. That enormous thing, the sob of an army, was heard. A shout arose,—

"Mercy! mercy!"

Some fell on their knees; others threw down their guns and raised their arms towards the platform where Cimourdain was.

A grenadier mounted the steps to the guillotine, crying, "Will you receive a substitute? Take me." All repeated frantically, "Mercy! mercy!" and if this had been heard by lions, they would have been moved or frightened, for soldiers' tears are terrible.

The executioner stopped, not knowing what to do.

Then a short, low voice, which could be heard by all, it was so gruesome, cried from the top of the tower,—

"Enforce the law!"

They recognized that inexorable tone. Cimourdain had spoken. A shudder passed over the army.

The executioner hesitated no longer. He approached, holding his cord.

"Wait," said Gauvain.

He turned towards Cimourdain, with his right hand, which was still free, waved a farewell to him, and then let it be bound.

After it was bound, he said to the executioner,—

"Pardon. One moment more."

And he cried,—

"Long live the Republic!"

They laid him on the plank. That lovely proud head was placed in the infamous collar. The executioner laid back his hair gently, he pressed the spring, the triangle became detached and slipped down slowly at first, then quickly; a hideous sound was heard—

At the same instant another sound was heard. A pistol shot responded to the blow of the axe. Cimourdain had just seized one of the pistols which he had in his belt, and, as Gauvain's head rolled into the basket, Cimourdain sent a bullet through his heart. The blood poured from his mouth; he fell down dead.

And these two souls, tragic sisters, departed together, the darkness of one mingling with the light of the other.

THE END