Cimourdain was a pure-minded but gloomy man. He had "the absolute" within him. He had been a priest, which is a solemn thing. Man may have, like the sky, a dark and impenetrable serenity; that something should have caused night to fall in his soul is all that is required. Priesthood had been the cause of night within Cimourdain. Once a priest, always a priest.
Whatever causes night in our souls may leave stars. Cimourdain was full of virtues and truth, but they shine out of a dark background.
His history was quickly told. He had been a village priest and a tutor in a great family; then a little inheritance fell to him, and he became free.
He was, above all, an obstinate man. He made use of meditation as one does of pincers, he believed that he had no right to leave an idea till he had thought it out to the end; he thought desperately. He knew all the languages of Europe and others somewhat; this man studied ceaselessly, which helped him to keep his chastity, but there is nothing more dangerous than such repression.
As a priest he had, though pride, chance, or loftiness of soul, kept his vows; but he had not been able to keep his belief. Science had destroyed his faith; dogma had vanished in him. Then examining himself, he had felt as though he were mutilated, and being unable to change himself as a priest, he tried to make himself over as a man, but in an austere fashion; he had been deprived of a family, he adopted his country; he had been refused a wife, he espoused humanity. Such vast repletion is at bottom emptiness.
His parents, peasants, in making a priest, of him, had wished to remove him from the people; he had come back to the people.
And he had returned with passionate fondness. He regarded their suffering with a fierce tenderness. First a priest, then philosopher, and lastly, athlete. Louis XV. was still alive when Cimourdain began to feel dimly that he was a republican. Of what republic? The republic of Plato, perhaps, and perhaps also of the republic of Draco.
It was forbidden him to love, he began to hate. He hated lies, monarchy, theocracy, his priestly robes; he hated the present, and he called aloud to the future; he foresaw it, he anticipated it, he imagined it frightful and magnificent; he knew, that for the liberation of this lamentable human misery, something like an avenger, who would be at the same time a liberator, was needed. He worshipped the catastrophe from afar.
In 1789, this catastrophe came, and found him ready. Cimourdain threw himself into this vast plan of human renovation, logically, that means for a mind of his stamp inexorably; logic is pitiless. He had lived during the great years of the Revolution, and had been thrilled by all its commotions: in '89 the fall of the Bastille, the end of torture for the people; in '90, the nineteenth of June, the end of feudalism; in '91 Varennes, the end of royalty; in '92 the coming of the Republic. He had seen the sunrise of the Revolution; he was not a man to be afraid of this giantess; far from that, this growth on every side had given him new life; and although almost an old man,—he was fifty years old, and a priest ages sooner than other men,—he began to grow too. From year to year, he had watched events as they increased in size, and he had grown like them. At first, he had feared that the Revolution would miscarry, he watched it, it was in the right, he insisted that it would succeed; and in proportion to its frightfulness his confidence increased. He wished that this Minerva, crowned with the stars of the future, might be also a Pallas, with Medusa's head for a buckler. He wished that her divine eye might be able in time of need to cast an infernal glare at the demons and pay them back terror for terror.
Thus he had come to '93.
"Ninety-three" was the war of Europe against France, and of France against Paris. And what was the Revolution? It was the victory of France over Europe, and of Paris over France. Hence the immensity of that terrible moment?, '93, greater than all the rest of the century.
Nothing could be more tragic than Europe attacking France and France attacking Paris. A drama with epic proportions.
"Ninety-three" was a year of intensity. The storm was raging then in all its fury and all its grandeur. Cimourdain felt at ease in it. This life of bewilderment, savage and splendid, suited his spread of wings. This man, like the sea-eagle, possessed a deep, internal composure, together with a taste for external danger. Certain winged creatures, ferocious and calm, are made to struggle against mighty winds. Souls of the tempest, like these, exist.
He was capable of exceptional pity, which he reserved alone for the wretched. To the kind of suffering which causes horror, he was ready to devote his life. Nothing was loathsome to him. In this consisted his characteristic kindness. He was hideously and divinely helpful. He sought for ulcers that he might kiss them. Fine actions, ugly in appearance, are the most difficult to perform; these he preferred. One day, at the Hôtel-Dieu, a man was dying, choked by a tumor in his throat, a horrible, fetid abscess, possibly contagious, and which had to be emptied at once. Cimourdain was there. He applied his mouth to the tumor, sucked it, spitting out as his mouth filled, emptied the abscess, and saved the man's life. As he was still wearing the priest's robes at this time, some one said,—
"If you should do that for the king, you would be made a bishop."
"I would not do it for the king!" replied Cimourdain.
This action and this reply made him popular in the dismal quarters of Paris.
So much so that he could do what he pleased with those who suffered, those who wept, and those who threatened. At the time of the indignation against the monopolists,—an indignation so prolific in error,—it was Cimourdain who, without a word, prevented the plundering of a vessel laden with soap at the Saint-Nicholas quay, and scattered the infuriated mob who were stopping the carriages at the barrier of Saint-Lazare.
It was he who, ten days after the tenth of August, led the people to overthrow the statues of the kings. In their fall, they killed; in Place Vendôme, a woman, Reine Violet, was crushed by Louis XIV., around whose neck she had put a rope that she was pulling. This statue of Louis XIV. had been standing a hundred years; it was erected the twelfth of August, 1692; it was pulled down the twelfth of August, 1792. In the Place de la Concorde, a man named Guinguerlot, was beaten to death on the pedestal of Louis XV. for having called the demolishers rascals. The statue was broken to pieces. Later, they made it into sous. One arm alone escaped; it was Louis XV.'s right arm that he extended with the gesture of a Roman emperor. It was at Cimourdain's request that the people sent a deputation to carry this arm to Latude, the man who had been buried thirty-seven years in the Bastille. When Latude, with the iron collar about his neck, and chains about his loins, lay rotting alive in the bottom of this prison, by order of the king whose statue dominated Paris, who could have told him that this prison would fall? that this statue would fall? that he would escape from the tomb, and that the monarchy would enter in? that he, the prisoner, would be master of this bronze hand which had signed his warrant? and that nothing would be left of this king of mud but this brazen arm?
Cimourdain was one of those men who have a voice within them, and who listen to it. Such men seem absent-minded; they are not; they are all attention.
Cimourdain knew everything and nothing. He knew everything about science, and nothing at all about life. Hence his inflexibility. His eyes were bandaged like Homer's Themis. He had the blind certainty of the arrow, which sees only the mark and flies to it. In a revolution, nothing is more terrible than a straight line. Cimourdain went straight ahead, as sure as fate.
Cimourdain believed that, in social geneses, the extreme point is the solid earth; an error peculiar to minds which replace reason with logic. He went beyond the Convention; he went beyond the Commune; he belonged to the Evêché.
This convention, called the Evêché because it holds its meetings in a hall of the old Episcopal palace, was rather a complication of men than an assembly. There, as at the Commune, were seen silent and significant spectators who, as Garat said, had as many pistols about them as pockets. The Evêché was a strange mixture,—a mixture both cosmopolitan and Parisian, which is not a contradiction, for Paris is the place where the heart of nations beats. There was the great plebeian incandescence. Compared to the Evêché, the Convention was cold, and the Commune lukewarm. The Evêché was one of those revolutionary formations, like volcanic formations. The Evêché was made up of everything: ignorance, stupidity, integrity, heroism, anger, and the police. Brunswick had agents in it. There were men in it worthy of Sparta, and men worthy of the galleys. Most of them were mad but honest. La Gironde, through the mouth of Isnard, temporary president of the Convention, had uttered this monstrous prediction,—
"Be on your guard, Parisians. There will not be left one stone on another of your city, and people will one day search for the place where Paris stood."
This speech created the Evêché. There were men, and, as we have just said, men of all nations, who had felt the need of gathering close about Paris. Cimourdain joined this group.
This group reacted against reaction. It was born of that public need of violence, which is the terrible and mysterious side of revolutions. Strong in this force, the Evêché began its work immediately. In the commotion of Paris, the Commune made use of the cannon, the Evêché sounded the tocsin.
Cimourdain believed, in his implacable ingenuousness, that everything is right in the service of truth; this fitted him for ruling the extreme parties. Rascals felt that he was honest, and were satisfied. Crimes are flattered to be presided over by a virtue. It both restrains them and pleases them. Palloy, the architect, who planned the destruction of the Bastille and sold the stones to his own profit, and who, when appointed to whitewash Louis XVI.'s dungeon, in his zeal covered the wall with bars, chains and iron collars; Gonchon, the suspected orator of the faubourg Saint-Antoine, whose receipts were afterwards found; Fournier, the American, who, on the seventeenth of July, fired a pistol at Lafayette, which it was said Lafayette had paid for; Henriot, who came out of Bicêtre, and had been valet, mountebank, thief and spy before he was a general, and levelled his guns at the convention; La Reynie, formerly grand vicar of Chartres, who had replaced his breviary with Père Duchesne; all these men respected Cimourdain, and at times, all that was necessary to keep the worst of them from flinching, was to let them feel this terrible, convincing frankness before them in judgment.
In this way, Saint-Just terrified Schneider.
At the same time, the majority of the Evêché, composed largely of poor, violent men, who were good, believed in Cimourdain and followed him. He had as vicar, or aide-de-camp, as one pleases, another republican priest, Danjou, whom the people loved because he was so tall, and they had christened him the Abbé Six-Pieds, or Six-Feet. Cimourdain had led that intrepid chief, called Général la Pique, wherever he pleased, and also that bold Truchon, called the Grand-Nichoias, who tried to save Madame de Lamballe's life, by giving her his arm, and making her jump over the corpses; which would have been successful had it not been for the barber Carlot's cruel jestings.
The Commune watched the Convention, the Evêché watched the Commune; Cimourdain, a just mind, and loathing intrigue, had broken many a mysterious thread in the hands of Pache, whom Beurnonville called the "man in black." Cimourdain, at the Evêché, was on an equality with everybody. 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, bastard son of a prince. He created an understanding between these discordant elements. Hence his situation was obscure but strong. Hébert feared him.
Cimourdain had, at this time, and among these tragic groups, the power of the fates. He was a spotless man who thought himself infallible. Nobody had ever seen him shed a tear. Unapproachable, icy virtue. He was the frightfully just man.
There was no half way for a priest in revolution. A priest could only give himself up to this prodigious and atrocious chance, from the lowest or the highest motives; he must be infamous or sublime. Cimourdain was sublime, but sublime in isolation, in inaccessibility, in inhospitable gloom; sublime when surrounded by precipices. The lofty mountains have such forbidding virginity.
Cimourdain had the appearance of an ordinary man, dressed in common clothes, poor in aspect. When young, he had been tonsured; when old, he was bald. The little hair he had was gray. His forehead was broad, and on this forehead there was a sign for a close observer. Cimourdain had an abrupt, impassioned, and solemn way of speaking; his voice, stern, his tone peremptory; his mouth sad and bitter; his eye clear and penetrating, and over all his face there was a strange look of scorn.
Such was Cimourdain.
No one to-day knows his name. History has more than one such terrible Unknown.