The Storming of the Bastille
I was asleep when she knocked. Like any good citizen of Paris, I would normally have been astir well before seven, but those were troubled times. On the Sunday previous, the King’s personal guard – Swiss and Germans, mostly, professional soldiers but for all that essentially a collection of rather nervous lads a long way from home – had cleared some streets near the Tuileries with considerable violence. Already, that had kept me busy long into the evening. However often a man explains that he is a physician, not a surgeon, that his business is with diseases rather than wounds, his patients will still come to him when they are hurt. If their hurts are due to the fact that cavalry have taken to using the edges of their sabres instead of the flat, it is hard to turn them away. Since in my own country the distinction between physician and surgeon is less marked – doubtless due to our still unfashionable ideas on social equality – I have always possessed a certain skill with wounds. I began to practise it in earnest that Sunday.
The night that followed was full of noises. First, it was the wailing, of the wounded themselves led home or to my door; of the relatives of the wounded, and of the women whose menfolk had disappeared in the confusion. Then it was chattering, a murmur of uncertain voices that spread and grew in volume and certainty; then, shouting and open proclamation that Paris was at war; that the soldiers of the King were expected at any moment in the city; then, screams of women again, in fear and recrimination; all this, louder and louder, succeeded then by men’s voices raised in anger or desperation, then voices with more authority or simply more brute force, declaring that Paris must defend herself, that revenge must be taken for the actions of the Swiss.
Revenge, in my experience, always seems to take priority over defence; and, in Paris in those days, hunger overrode them both. After a time, the core of the uproar moved away to the North, up the streets of St. Martin and St. Denis to the new wall.
Up there on the edge of the city, there was plenty of opportunity for the venting of spleen. This latest in the series of walls which have surrounded growing Paris like the skins of an onion had nothing to do with defence; it was a customs barrier where rich tax-farmers extracted money from poor peasants for the privilege of bringing their wares into town. For the starving poor inside – people for whom a day’s pay was the price of a couple of loaves of bread – the wall made an obvious focus for their animosity. ‘Le mur murant Paris’, wrote some wag or other, ‘rend Paris murmurant’. I suppose a fair translation might be, ‘If you give Paris a fence, Paris will take offence.’ There were fifty-odd customs posts around the wall, grandiose buildings in the latest style, and most of them were ransacked that night. In the North, though, the rioters turned aside for a moment to loot the monastery of Saint-Lazare, which had a granary.
By two o’clock in the morning I had bound up the last of the wounds and comforted the last of the womenfolk. Skulls are solidly made, and shoulders well padded; a sabre used by a man on horseback to slash into the thick of a crowd makes cuts more spectacular than dangerous. There had been a good deal of needlework, and I was on my way to bed when I caught the first ominous sounds of the mob coming back southwards. Shouting, of course; Parisians do nothing without shouting; but also crashes and thuds, splintering and the crunch and tinkle of breaking glass.
We had had, heaven knows, many a riot in the past few years; when the harvests were poor, mobs demanding bread were as common as starving children. I was used to the sound of baker’s shops being raided, but this was different. Bakers, for a start, have no glass in their windows; one hears the wooden shutters part, and then a cheer. Tonight, there was more serious work afoot. There were padlocks to be sawn, beams to be battered, iron straps to be forced. It was the shops of the gunsmiths that were being broken open, of the armourers and sword-cutlers. One of the first was among the richest, in Rue Garnéta up near Saint-Leu; soon they were two streets from me in the Rue Bar-du-Bec, where M. Brun, one of my regular patients, spent a frantic night hammering nails back into broken shutters, and all to no avail; broken into thirty times in the night, despite the poor man’s best endeavours, his shop was stripped of everything – swords, of course, but hundreds of blades, ‘without even handles, and hunting knives and delicate lady’s pistols, Doctor, things useless for defence against the King, all taken; and a man who seemed to be in charge of the mob smiling and saying it was all “for the defence of the capital”. Who will defend my capital, Doctor, tell me that, eh, who will defend my capital?’
My lodgings in those days were in the Rue de la Coutellerie; and you may believe me that the street of Cutlers was no place to spend that night. Those citizens who were not involved in the looting, but who found sleep as impossible as I did, all seemed to be assembling in the Place de Grève, demanding that the authorities in the Hôtel de Ville bestir themselves to control the situation. From the window at one side of my apartment I could see into the square, with a view of the South end of the Hôtel de Ville and the gallows in front of it. By morning this was a sea of humanity, moving in sudden waves like the sea, roaring and howling like an ocean storm.
Well, the authorities took matters in hand. They had to; the regular army had withdrawn to the Southern gates of the city to await reinforcement from Versailles. The Town Council called local assemblies to recruit a citizen militia, and sleep continued to be a thing impossible. All day, the church bells rang: the little, tinny ones in Saint-Jean to the East, the refined and tuneful ones in Saint-Merri to the North, the expensive but none too musical ones in Saint-Gervais behind the town hall, the innumerable bells of Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie, and to the South the doom-laden boom of the bells of Notre-Dame. With soldiers being involved, there was cannon-fire as well, the flat harsh bark of powder without ball and the crack and whizz of the occasional careless musket. One would hardly think that it was necessary, under the circumstances, also to beat drums; but wherever there were drums, they were beaten.
By evening, however, some sort of order was beginning to emerge. Each of the sixty districts of the city had drummed up a couple of hundred men under elected officers. Though they could hardly be supplied with a uniform at so short a notice, seamstresses had been put to work making thousands of cockades in red and blue, the colours of the city’s arms; and patrols of these stout fellows – some of them very stout indeed, and in sore need of the exercise – were out on the streets calming the fears of the residents.
To a certain extent calming, that is. Those who looked closely observed that the patrols were, to say the least, not well armed. The royal official in charge of the Hôtel de Ville armoury had produced only three muskets to add to the couple of hundred taken from the gunsmiths overnight, and even poor M. Brun’s hundred and fifty swords did not go far among so many. Nevertheless, by midnight on the 13th most of the mere rioters had been disarmed, many of the looters arrested – and some of them, alas, hanged as a warning to others. The streets were quiet enough for the lamps to be lit, and even the local Doctor was able to take himself off to bed, where he soon fell into the sort of deep sleep that, once attained, ignores mere turmoil in the outside world.
It was already pretty noisy by the time I awoke, and a substantial fraction of the day’s events had already taken place by the time the patrol came knocking – and then hammering, and then battering – at my door. By the time I had thrown on a robe and descended the stairs, it was nearly off its hinges. I had to yell at the top of my voice before the assault tailed off and I could draw the bolts. When I opened the door, I expected men; angry men, perhaps, or frightened men; but what met me was neither angry nor frightened, nor male.
How can I explain the sheer impact of those eyes? They were large. The white was of the whiteness of that cream the French call fresh, but which is just that little bit sour, and whiter than English or American cream; the iris brown, yes; the brown of copper beech leaves, but flecked with tiny flashes of green and silver and even blue – I have met people who will swear that her eyes were dark blue; the pupil large, black, deep, limpid. From a coral-pink triangle beside the nose, the line of the upper lid rose quite steeply in an ogee curve to a top only just arched, the outside edge of it almost horizontal to the point where it met the up-sweeping mirror twin of that first curve, rising from a lower lid whose edge caught the light and gave prominence to the whole structure. The lashes were dark, dense but not long, so that the edge of the upper lid showed black in contrast to the white of the lower. Above the eye, the brow marked out a perfect arc of a circle, tapering gently to the outer edge. I have never, in my life, seen anything which corresponds more exactly to the abstract concept of absolute beauty. It is trite to say that a woman has eyes you could die for; but for these I very nearly did.
They were expressive, too, those eyes. I always held that the eyes were the reason for her constant and absolute honesty. However hard she might try to lie or deceive – and she tried, believe me – one look at the eyes told the whole story. The subtle alteration of a single exquisite line spoke with a tongue of fire. I suppose, at that first meeting, that my own eyes were startled. Hers were amused. With scarcely a flicker they took in my disarranged robe, my uncombed hair, the sleep still in my eyes, the yawn still on my lips.
Most of my life has been dull. Very little of it comes to my mind when I look back, but the days I spent with Anne-Josèphe are lit for me as if by lightning flashes, and clear now in every detail. I remember how she looked, the sound of her voice, the way her lips moved; I remember the weather, the sounds in the street, the faces of the soldiers beside her. I remember precisely every word of that odd conversation in which, now I look back at it, her first few lines were prepared, rehearsed in her mind as she marched her little band to my lodgings, and mine were quite the contrary, simply whatever came to mind out of the mists of sleep and confusion.
‘You are the American Doctor?’
‘I am’, I said.
‘You have lived through a revolution.’
‘I was very young’, I said.
‘Come and help those who will start another.’
‘If you want me to bandage wounds’, I said, ‘then I’ll come; but I will have no part in your Revolution if it involves killing.’
‘It may involve killing. I hope not, but it may. That’s why we need a Doctor.’
‘There are plenty of surgeons around, you know. Every barber in this town can bind up wounds as well as I.’
‘Oh, surgeons.’ She was contemptuous. ‘There were six of them went to the Invalides this morning. Two ran away, three of them had no bandages, and the sixth had never seen a proper wound before. All they’re good for is bleeding people. We need a real Doctor, not a collection of horse-leeches with ideas above their station.’
‘What’s been going on at the Invalides?’
‘You sleep too much. The whole of the Milice Bourgeois...’
‘The new People’s Militia, these men here, the red-and-blues, all of them and a vast crowd of civilians, eighty thousand strong they say, have been to the Invalides this morning. We have thirty thousand muskets now, enough to keep the King’s men out of Paris for ever.’
‘Then why wake me up? You’ve got your weapons, I don’t want one, what’s this all about?’
She laughed. ‘Muskets aren’t much use without powder, my friend. The powder is up the street, in the Bastille. We’re off to get it.’
‘I thought the Bastille was a prison.’
‘Well, you thought wrong. It’s a fortress, and a barracks, and an arsenal as well as a prison. If you like, we’ll free the prisoners while we’re there. Does that appeal more to your American sensibilities? Is that a better reason for killing?
I sighed. This, I could see, was something I was going to have to explain every day from now on. ‘It’s not about being American’, I said, ‘and I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a good reason for killing. Have you ever heard of the Society of Friends?
‘Oh, believe me, everybody’s friends. We’re also called the Quakers.’
‘No. Never heard of you.’
‘I can’t say I’m surprised. Anyway, we don’t believe in killing. Besides which, I’m a Doctor. My job is making people better, not worse. Do you understand that?’
‘Perfectly. Are you coming or aren’t you?’
‘Oh, I’m coming.’ I had known that from the first second. I knew I could never resist those eyes. ‘Let me get dressed – say, two minutes – and I’ll need my bag, and some rags for bandages.’
‘You can tear up my petticoats if you like. Look, I have three. White linen.’
The skirt was lifted only for a second, but the effect on me was out of all proportion to the cause. I blinked as if dazzled for a moment, then looked back to her face. The eyes were frowning, each upper lid a horizontal line.
‘Don’t you dare stare at my feet. I can’t help having big feet. Leave my feet alone.’
‘Lady’, I said, ‘I never even noticed your feet. My thoughts, believe me, were far above them. But now you mention your feet, they’re bare.’
‘And why not? Have you never seen a woman of the people with bare feet before?’
‘Not on a battlefield I haven’t. And I have seen a battlefield, which I doubt you have. I was only a boy, but there were battles in our Revolution. And battlefields, let me tell you, are littered with fragments of shells, and burning wadding, and abandoned bayonets and bits of broken swords. You’d better have my spare pair of shoes. Come inside for a moment. Leave your merry men out there.’
She left the door open, I noticed, as we ran upstairs. I had no spare socks, so I threw her the basket where I kept my bandages. I noticed, as I dressed, how she selected four squares of woollen rags and knotted them neatly about her feet in the manner of the poor, before slipping them, a close fit, into my second-best shoes with the pewter buckles. She looked down at them and wagged them from side to side, pleased with her acquisition.
‘Most becoming’, I said, risking another rebuke. Instead, she grinned up at me, for the first time with an expression of real complicity. I often wonder if she knew that, in that moment, she had enslaved me.
In the street, the noise was beginning to build. From behind us as we emerged, came a confused babble and the occasional shout from the Place de Grève. A glance down the side alley in that direction showed troops being formed; evidently not the King’s invading army, but a couple of squads of Gardes Françaises, local militia whose allegiance would be to Paris rather than Versailles. To our left all was confusion and bustle; occasional groups of red-faced, panting men ran by with armloads of muskets or cartridge-bags, no doubt part of the loot from the Invalides. Eastwards, to our right, the greatest clamour of all; many hundreds of voices, cheering, yelling, howling in every accent of Paris; local people lining the road, encouraging those who passed; men for the most part, with set, determined faces; labourers, carpenters, shoemakers, all the petty tradesmen of Paris, respectable folk wearing the rosettes of the Milice Bourgeois, red and blue like those of my new companions. We handed our sacks of bandages to two of the lads, along with a basket of provisions hastily rounded up by the servants, and joined the procession to the East.
I still did not know the name of my caller; as her whole band were strangers to me, I asked for a roll-call. She herself gave the name Théroigne; of the rest, I remember only a few. Mostly, they come back to me just as Christian names; two Jacques, I remember, a Jean-Baptiste and a François. The latter was a slim, active fellow, wirily fit and ready for any adventure, until recently a regular soldier. There was a slender, doe-eyed young man addressed only by his nickname, which was (intriguingly enough) Vive l’Amour. I remember also Charles Dusson, a solid tradesman of about thirty years, armed with an axe, which he was very proud to have made himself, but which was to prove, alas, of little use against a cannon-ball. There was one other woman, Marie; a little argument developed as to her surname. She and Théroigne said it was Charpentier, while some of the men insisted on her husband’s name, which was Hauserne. Strange how such details stick in the mind. She had the large, soft, red hands of a laundress, now gripping a vicious-looking pike.
As we walked, the whole band chattered excitedly, teasing and mocking in the way I have since found common among well-disciplined troops on their way to battle. Dusson, I remember, made the mistake of admiring my big shoes on his leader’s feet; she leaned over and smacked him around the ear like a naughty schoolboy, and he grinned admiringly at her over his axe.
I wondered how a woman came to be the leader of this little unit. ‘We elected her’, said François.
‘Yes, but why?’
‘Bloody hell,’ cried Vive l’Amour, ‘Just look at her! I’d follow those tits anywhere!’
There was a general shout of agreement to this suggestion.
‘But’, I pointed out logically, ‘If you’re following her, you can’t see them.’
‘Personally, I prefer what I can see’, averred Jean-Baptiste; and he put out a hand to pinch what he could see, then thought better of it just too late to save his ears from boxing. In fact, it was plain why they followed her; she was a born leader. She treated them essentially as her children, and if they loved her more like a mistress than a mother, that made no difference to the result, which was complete understanding and complete obedience. I don’t know whether they fought for the cause or for her; but the motives of soldiers are rarely either evident or unmixed. Technically, women had no right to join the Milice Bourgeois, but it had only been founded two days and the rules were still unsettled.
‘I thought’, I said to Charles Dusson, ‘that this new Milice was recruited to put down rioting in the streets. What are you all doing raiding the military storehouses?’
‘Well, for a start, we need arms. Not to put down rioting, obviously; but to defend ourselves and our families.’
‘You are being attacked?’
‘Man, the King has sent for troops from the frontiers. Not French troops, either; Austrians, Germans, mercenaries of every kind. They’ll be here any day now. An iron fist is waiting to close on Paris.’
There were murmurs of agreement from the rest of the band. I found it all difficult to understand. The last I had heard, the King had been behaving like a modern, liberal monarch. Hadn’t he called a Parliament for the first time in over a hundred years?
‘The États-Généraux! Yes, a fine scheme that was! All he wanted was a vote for new taxes – as if there weren’t enough already! Tithes, salt tax, customs duties; look at that wall M. de Calonne put round Paris; half the King’s income comes from those customs posts. And he still wants more! Well, there isn’t any more. What was your countrymen’s slogan? No taxation without representation. Sounds right to me.’
‘Surely the Parliament was called to give you representation?’
Théroigne laughed. ‘Oh, yes. Three Estates, each with one vote; the Clergy (who don’t pay taxes), the Nobility (who are exempt from taxes) and the Third Estate, who pay everything. Two votes to one for whatever the King proposes. It’s not what I call representation.’
‘I thought something was being done about that.’
‘Surely. The Third Estate declared itself a National Assembly, and swore never to break up until France had a proper constitution. What’s more, it looked as if the King was going along with the idea. He dissolved the États-Générauxwithout trying to break up the new Assembly. He even dismissed M. de Calonne and appointed one of our own, the banker Necker, as Finance Minister. But it was all a trick.’
‘How can you know that?’
‘Haven’t you heard? Necker was dismissed and sent into exile two days ago. The National Assembly is surrounded by foreign troops. If we don’t arm ourselves, the King will disperse the Assembly and march on Paris.’
‘Paris against Versailles!’ cried Vive l’Amour. ‘The people against the privileged! Give us weapons and the King won’t dare raise a finger, you’ll see! We’re off to take his powder! À la Bastille! À la Bastille!’
At the end of the street we went on into the Rue de la Tisseranderie, where the girls employed in the weaving shops leaned out of their upstairs windows and cheered us on; and so into Place Baudet, in front of the church of Saint-Gervais. From the steps of the market cross we could see the narrow Rue Saint-Antoine ahead of us, crammed from side to side with the pressing throng; red cockades, muskets, pikes waving, some with red and blue rags tied to them. They would return with less pleasant standards, carried by men beyond restraint; but for the moment there was an orderliness about the crowd that could not but impress. This was not the riff-raff of the slums, who would, as always, join in afterwards when the danger was over and the blood already flowing. These were responsible citizens, marching towards the unimpressive, squat fortress now in sight at the end of the street; defensive bastion, store of gunpowder, place of unjust imprisonment, the one word in every mouth, ‘À la Bastille! À la Bastille! À la Bastille!’
Once we were into the Rue Saint-Antoine, there was no turning back. The stream bore us along, not fast but turbulent, until we burst abruptly into the calmer lake where the road widens to four times its previous breadth. I remember the clarity of the scene as we paced eastwards; the noble houses to our left on the edge of the Marais; the little street that leads up to the Place des Vosges; on the right the tall church of Saint-Paul, all its bells ringing a furious tocsin, and the stately façade of the Hôtel du Maine, barred, shuttered and locked, its gilded gateway closed with heavy chains; M. le Duc was not at home today.
In the narrows, every little street had seemed a tributary, bringing reinforcements to the throng pressing eastwards; out here in the open, only the serious went on. I would put our numbers at a thousand or so, and we by now near the head of them.
‘Who’s your leader?’ asked an officious little man with a cockade and a red-and-blue sash. The two Jacques, one each side, pointed to Théroigne.
‘Anne-Josèphe Théroigne, Rue des Vieux-Augustins, Parish of Saint-André.’
‘Bloody woman. Most irregular. I’m Maillard, Stanislas, Parish of Saint-Antoine. Join the Bastille Volunteers.’
‘We have our own milice, thank you; but if we can be of assistance...?’
‘As you wish, as long as you don’t get in the way. Occupy the gatehouse and await orders.’
The gatehouse was shuttered, but Dusson’s axe proved its value there. Once we had taken possession, our troop sat down on the pavement next to the open gate and exchanged gossip with the neighbouring unit, a detachment of locals commanded by M. Santerre, a well-dressed individual with a bright red nose as befitted his trade as a brewer. Many of the volunteers under him were also his employees. Marie took a fancy to the youngest of them.
‘Oh, you little cherub’, she cooed, ‘I could eat you alive. How old are you?’
Resentfully, ‘I’m seventeen. Eighteen next month. I expect I could eat you, too. Well, bits of you, anyway.’
Marie howled with laughter and hugged him to her capacious bosom, where he entirely disappeared.
‘You show me what you’re made of today‘, she cried, ‘and for tonight, we’ll see’ – all this with such a profusion of roguish winks and pouting that the poor boy had no idea whether to be excited or terrified.
‘My name’s Marie’, she said, and with a sidelong glance at out troop, ‘Marie Charpentier. What are you called, my little cabbage?’
‘What, only a surname? No other little names for your mistress to coo in your ear?’
‘No. Just Gomy.’
Santerre’s men were laughing behind their hands. ‘Shall we tell her?’ called one of them. And before he could speak, the chorus burst out,
‘Ooooh!’ cried Marie, ‘such a pretty name! What’s that noise?’
A murmur, a rumour was blowing like a wind from the back of the crowd to the front. One of Santerre’s men went to see what was being said behind us, and returned excited.
‘The King’s troops are on their way! Twenty thousand of them, they say back there.’
‘All the more need for the powder in the Bastille, then.’ Santerre spoke calmly, though there was an edge of urgency even on his placid voice. ‘Ten tons of powder they took in the other day, my informants tell me.’
‘Not too much’, said Théroigne, ‘for the thirty thousand muskets from the Invalides.’
‘We have to get it first, though. Hello, what’s this?’
It was Maillard again, this time with two more men in sashes.
‘Make way for the delegation from the Hôtel de Ville!’ cried Maillard, and the two men, their faces serious with the effort to conceal their nervousness, walked past us through the open gate into the first courtyard. The tocsin from Saint Paul’s ceased and the clock, incongruously musical, chimed ten. At the other side of the courtyard the drawbridge came down slowly and gently, then rose again more swiftly behind the delegates. Half a minute later we heard the inner drawbridge go through the same sequence.
‘Now’, said Maillard, ‘We wait. With any luck Delaunay will see reason.’
I knew Delaunay, the Governor, having attended one or two of his men in the past. Oddly enough, he had been born in the Bastille, where his father was Governor before him. I could imagine how he was feeling today, in command of the only Royal troops left in the capital. A sensible man, perhaps, would surrender at once; but I knew Delaunay was conscientious about his duty, and might not see things from a merely sensible perspective. I mentioned this, and Maillard shrugged.
‘Then we’ll smoke him out. What can he do against hundreds of us, he and his eighty invalids?’
‘Eighty-three’, said Santerre, ‘and he was reinforced two days ago by thirty-two Swiss guards.’
‘Well, then, that means he has thirty-two real soldiers. Everybody round here knows the garrison; just a set of old codgers, retired layabouts; not exactly fighting-cocks.’
‘And‘, went on Santerre, ‘fifteen eight-ponder guns on the towers, a dozen rampart guns – only two-pounders, but two pounds of iron can hurt; and half a dozen field pieces round the courtyards. He can do more damage to us than we can to him.’
‘Then we can starve him out. There’s no well in the Bastille, you know, and only a limited store of food. He’ll have to surrender within a couple of days.’
‘By which time twenty thousand regulars will be here from Versailles.’
They argued on for some time. I looked around to see if I recognised any other people, but there were few I knew. Most of the attackers, like Maillard, were local to the Rue Saint-Antoine, only a few coming from my own district; Théroigne had brought hers over from the Left Bank. I know that Fournier l’Américain claimed later to have been there at the head of four hundred men from Saint-Eustache, but I never saw him. I recognised Claude Cholat, an innkeeper from Rue Noyer who came to me regularly with pains in his joints; he had taken out a little pad and was making drawings of the scene. I noticed that the experienced soldiers among the besiegers were using this pause to catch up on sleep. Théroigne was curled up in the shop doorway, her head on a sack of bandages. In the open courtyard, nothing moved except little whorls of dust blown by the breeze over the hot cobbles. Certainly, the time dragged that morning.
At about half-past eleven there was some activity on top of the towers. The Bastille, contrary to the impression given by some of the prints I have seen, was not the tallest of buildings. Its towers – three at the west, three at the east – were of the same height as the walls between them, just over seventy feet. There were soldiers busying themselves with the guns now, and a little wave of apprehension ran through our ranks. And still no sign of the delegates.
‘I’ve had enough of this’ fretted Maillard, ‘Here, you, Gomy, run to the Parish office and get somebody down here.’
As Gomy ran off along the street, Maillard turned to Santerre.
‘There isn’t time to get more dignitaries from the Hôtel de Ville‘, he said.
‘You could always go in yourself.’
‘I’m needed more out here. What would the Bastille Volunteers do without me?’
‘I suspect they would manage. However, Gomy appears to have found a dignitary for you.’
Certainly it was an impressive figure that came bustling through the crowd. He was tall and wore a broad black hat with the red and blue cockade. No coat, but a red waistcoat and blue trousers. Suddenly I felt snobbish in my knee-breeches. I suppose that was my first sight of a man deliberately choosing the dress of a sans-culotte. His clean-shaven face was square and determined, his eyes taking in the details of the scene; by all appearances a capable man. ‘Thurot de la Rozière’, he presented himself. ‘What’s going on?’
Maillard outlined the situation and pointed to the activity on the towers.
‘Hmm. Let me have a couple of your men.’
Maillard hesitated. I guessed he was not certain of being obeyed if he ordered men into possible danger.
‘Take two of mine’, said a clear voice behind me. Théroigne de Méricourt had woken at the first hint of trouble. ‘Jacques and Jacques, go with the man. Leave those muskets. You have pistols? Off you go, then.’
The two Jacques went to the two sides of Thurot de la Rozière, and the three of them marched like the soldiers they were across the courtyard. The drawbridge came down again, but this time paused before rising. After a moment, five figures came out and marched back towards us: Jacques, Jacques, and three bored old men in faded uniforms.
‘Hostages’, explained Jacques the First laconically.
‘Welcome, gentlemen. Perhaps you would care to go inside the gatehouse, here.’ Théroigne turned and smiled sweetly at Maillard. ‘If that’s all right with the Supreme Commander?’
About twenty minutes later, we heard the inner drawbridge open, followed by the outer. De la Rozière came across the courtyard accompanied by the two original delegates.
‘Delaunay gave them an early lunch’, said de la Rozière, raising his eyes to heaven. ‘As for the activity on the towers, they were just pulling the guns back from the embrasures; they took me up there to see. Delaunay has promised he won’t fire unless you attack him first. Now we have to report back to the Hôtel de Ville. I suggest you have a bite to eat yourselves.’
As if to reinforce the suggestion, the bells of St. Paul’s chimed midday, followed by the other bells across the city, in a series of sonorous echoes enlivening the quietest time of that whole long day. As if conjured up by the sound, vendors with baskets appeared on the outskirts of the crowd and began to sell bread and fruit. Most of our own little troop had brought provisions of their own, though Jean-Baptiste had nothing but a very old crust. I threw him a fresh roll from my own sack, and while we shared out the cheese and ham that were also in there, his companions teased him for his improvidence.
‘All very well for you rich folk’, he grumbled. ‘I don’t suppose you lot even know that the price of bread went up again this morning. Fifteen sous for a four-pound loaf! I don’t earn that much.’
François laughed scornfully. ‘You earn twenty-five sous a day, Jean-Baptiste’, he said, ‘or so you told me last week.’
‘Yes, but not every day. Not Sundays, mate, not Saint’s days, not feasts and festivals and royal birthdays, God knows how many days without work there are.’
‘Well over a hundred a year’, said Théroigne.
‘A hundred and eleven’, chimed in Santerre.
‘Well, there you are, then. I earn five days a week, and I have to buy bread for seven. At fifteen sous a go, it don’t leave much for the rent.’
‘Or for vegetables’, I put in. ‘I get new cases of scurvy every day, people like Jean-Baptiste who haven’t eaten a cabbage or an apple in weeks and wonder why their teeth are dropping out.’
‘It’s self-regulating’, said François. You can’t chew bread with loose teeth, so you have to live on cabbage soup. It doesn’t fill your belly, but they say it’s better for you.’
‘Up to a point, it is’, I said, ‘but you need both bread and soup to live decently. Nobody can live decently on twenty-five sous a day.’
‘Hey, Santerre!’ shouted one of the Jacques, ‘What do you pay your workers at the brewery?’
‘Thirty sous a day – and three pints of small beer.’
‘Will you pay them more, now bread’s going up again?’
‘Will you pay more for your beer?’
There was a little silence while the crowd digested this lesson in elementary Economics. Then our troop began comparing wages. Jacques the First, a labourer, earned thirty sous; most of the others, who had trades, took home about forty. Charles Dusson, probably the most skilled of them, admitted to the largest income at fifty sous a day.
‘But’, he shouted over the chorus of ‘plutocrat!’ and ‘Profiteer!’, ‘Remember I’ve got six kids and a little fat wife to feed. Three loaves of bread, a little fruit, five sous for rent, how much is left? We’re all poor these days, let’s face it.’
Jean-Baptiste spoke up: ‘It’s not your little fat wife that’s the problem, Dusson, it’s the little fat King.’
‘How d’you make that out? I don’t see how the King can make crops fail.’
‘If they have failed. There was a peasant in the market yesterday said he’d had no problem with his harvest last year. He said, the trouble was tax-farmers charging too much to bring the stuff into Paris. And who employs the tax-farmers, eh? Answer me that.’
I was intrigued. ‘But why would the King want to starve his subjects?’
‘Not all his subjects, Doctor; just the ones in Paris. We’re the ones he’s scared of. Why d’you think he’s sending twenty thousand men to kill us all? Why d’you think he lives in Versailles instead of his own capital? Why d’you think he’s just built another wall to shut us in? ’
‘Right!’ said Maillard, who had come bustling up when he heard the raised voices. ‘And is it French troops he’s sending against us? What do you think? Of course not! It’s Swiss, and Prussians, and Austrians! And who tells him where to get them?’
‘The Austrian woman!’ came the answering shout. People always love to blame a foreigner, and the Queen was a standard target.
‘The Austrian woman! Fat lot she cares about the lives of Frenchmen! All we’re good for is to pay our taxes! Bread at fifteen sous a loaf, and she spends a hundred thousand livres a year on lace and ribbons!’
By this time, the crowd was beginning to sit up and take notice. Maillard jumped onto a mounting-block next to the gateway and went on with his harangue.
‘Who spends our taxes on her own pleasures? Who banquets every night while the people starve? Who gets her brother to send foreign soldiers?’
At every question the crowd roared ‘The Austrian woman!’ and pressed closer to the gateway. As the noise increased, I heard a low whistle from the gatehouse, soft but penetrating. It was Théroigne, calling her band together. We followed her inside.
‘Listen’, she said, ‘they’re getting excited out there. Pretty soon they’ll want to attack. When that happens, we go first. Get yourselves over to the far gate. Charles and François, look here.’ She took the two men to the back window of the gatehouse, overlooking the courtyard. ‘See that roof there, just over the side wall? It belongs to one of the shops in the side street. Try if you can get onto the wall from there, and do something about the drawbridge. Better go now, while there’s still a chance.’
The two men, without a word, slipped away into the crowd. Behind us, in the shadows, there was a cough. It was the hostages, forgotten by everybody; they should have been returned when the delegation came out.
‘As for you three’, said Théroigne, ‘You’re probably the luckiest men here. Get those uniform coats off, try not to look like soldiers – at your age, that should be easy enough – and lie low till it’s all over. Now, the rest of you, let’s go. It sounds as if they’re ready to charge, out there.’
Out in the street, a thousand men were chanting ‘Give us the Bastille!’ at Maillard’s direction. We crouched in the gateway, waiting for the moment. ‘I hope they get that drawbridge down’, muttered Théroigne. ‘I don’t fancy our chances if they start shooting while we’re all in the outer court. The closer we get to those towers, the harder it will be to use the cannon on us. I don’t think the big ones will bear on the inner courtyard at all.’
With a final yell of ‘Rendez-nous la Bastille!’ the mob in the street surged forward. ‘Now! Go!’ screamed Théroigne. As one man, her troop – followed by a stumbling Doctor – sprinted across the empty courtyard towards the far gate. Behind us, the hammer of clogs on cobbles thundered in our ears. We came to a halt on the lip of the little ditch in front of the gateway, still firmly blocked by the raised drawbridge. Above the wall, the beams which carried the counterweights of the bridge rose into the sky. For five long minutes we waited, our little troop the one still, disciplined point amid the rage and fury of the afternoon. Then there were pattering steps above us; François, the wiry ex-soldier, came nimbly along the top of the wall, followed by the heavier form of Charles Dusson, still carrying his magnificent axe.
‘Cut the rope from the beam to the bridge!’ cried Théroigne.
‘Not a hope. It’s a chain’, answered François, ‘But – there’s nobody here! The silly buggers haven’t left a guard on the gate! Here, Charlie, grab my wrists and lower me down a bit.’
The wall was about fifteen feet high. We saw only one leg of Dusson, hooked onto our side of the wall, as he lowered his comrade to the full stretch of his arms and let go.
‘Now the axe! came François’ voice from the other side. ‘Stand clear!’
We leapt back and to the side. As our man hacked at the retaining rope on one side, the bridge jerked forward and stopped again. At this, the mob surged forward, Santerre’s men at its head.
‘Keep back, you fools!’ I shouted, but I might as well have shouted at the tide. The other rope parted and the bridge began to swing down. Jean-Marie-Sylvain Gomy, Marie’s little boyfriend, saw it coming and tried to step back, but the press was too great. The heavy bridge crashed down, pinning him under its weight, and his own troop and the thousands behind ran and stamped and trampled over his jerking form. We never found a body we could recognise as his.
Carried away in the press, I saw the advantage of being in the lead. Théroigne and her men avoided the jostling and elbowing, the flattened toes and barked shins that were the common fate of those behind. By the time I had given up hope for Gomy and set off after them, there were a couple of hundred angry men ahead of me. I knew I must not fall, and somehow kept my feet in the throng. The inner courtyard was smaller, the main entrance of the fortress approached through an archway not straight ahead but to the left. By some instinct I moved that way and found myself close to the wall, where the press was less great.
‘Doctor! Doctor! This way!’
It was Jacques and Jacques, squeezing along the side of the wall towards me. With their help, I was able to push forward once more and rejoin the others at the archway. ‘Nearly lost you there, Doctor’ said Théroigne calmly, ‘Do try to keep up.’
This gate was a more serious proposition than the last. The archway at which we were stationed led onto a bridge over the moat. The roadway across the bridge would be exposed to the plunging fire of the garrison from ramparts and embrasures, and for the moment we did not venture onto it. In any case, it stopped short about ten feet from the towering walls. The ditch in front of it, perhaps twelve feet deep, could be crossed only on one of the two drawbridges, one broad, one narrow, which faced us across the chasm, their supporting beams retracted into grooves in the wall.
In addition to the shouting behind us, there were voices yelling from above. Men were leaning over up there, blue uniforms and red, muskets and swords and flags – the white flag with the gold fleur-de-lys. The mouths of cannon could be seen against the sky, and the muzzles of the wicked little rampart guns, each one seemingly pointed straight at me. It was impossible to hear what the garrison were shouting in the general clamour. I am sure in my own mind that they said ‘Go back or we fire!’, but the crowd seemed to think they were being invited in, and pressed forward till the courtyard was full.
Who fired the first shot, God, he knows. Upwards or downwards, soldier or rebel, brave man or panicked, purpose or accident, it makes no matter now. Once one gun had been fired, all the rest joined in. Our troop, backs pressed to the wall by the archway, was sheltered from the hail above; in front of us, people began to fall. Men screamed. Anger, pain, outrage. Back in the press, a shouting man covered his head with his arms. A two-pound ball took the arm at the elbow. He went on shouting. Behind him the crowd was thinning, flowing, melting, shrinking; a hundred men standing, fifty kneeling to fire, thirty writhing and crawling, ten lying still. Brave ones stood and fired, cannon hurled them away. Cowards turned and ran, took their bullets in the back. The first gate, where they fought and pressed and squeezed to get out, was in reach of the heavy guns. Flesh piled in dribbling heaps. For five minutes they fought each other in the gateway while the heavy balls ploughed through. Then there was calm, save for popping musketry and the heavier crack of the rampart guns. In the courtyard, our group remained at one side of the archway, that of Maillard at the other.
There was a little building next to the archway, well shuttered but with an overhanging porch, where I improvised a dressing-station. The men of the troop – and the women too, she would never order what she would not dare – dashed out time after time to fetch the maimed. At first, they chose the worst injured. ‘Not him!’, I had to cry, ‘There’s no saving him!’ of a man with both legs off and the popliteal arteries pumping. ‘Don’t risk your lives for a dead one!’ After that they understood, and brought me the ones with hope. Smashed shoulders aplenty from the plunging fire; winter would strike those bones. Hands shattered and torn, waved as impotent fists; knees of bold marksmen, driven into the ground. After a time, as the courtyard cleared and the defenders could begin to aim, our own began to fall. Jacques the first, his left hamstring severed by a near miss. He hobbles still. Soldier François, a finger hanging by a thread. He took that off himself with a pocket-knife, saving me the trouble, and tore his own strip from his leader’s petticoat. Instead of a slap, she gave him a little kiss, and then dashed out to fetch another in.
Charles Dusson worked like two men, fast and competent. He had the knack of lifting a limp body clear of the ground, and trotting with it to our shelter. On two occasions, his man was dead by the time he had crossed the courtyard, having absorbed bullets meant for Charles. This made him angry, and anger upsets the judgement. When the firing had died down, Charles was in the middle of the yard, bending to pick up a man with a bleeding thigh, when the body jumped, twitched and lay still. Charles straightened and gestured obscenely at the towers. ‘You bastards!’ he shouted, ‘I could have saved that one!’
The answer was a volley all of his own. Such was the quality of the garrison’s marksmanship that only one shot hit him; he fell like a tree and lay quivering. After a moment, his body began to twitch with uncontrollable spasms. He was in a clear space, not thirty feet from us, and we could see clearly what was happening. A pool of blood and urine began to spread around him. His mouth bled where he was biting his lip in the effort not to cry out, while from his throat came a low ‘Mmmm’ of agony.
‘Doctor. With me. Now!’ She leapt forward and I, uncharacteristically obedient, leapt with her. We were with our man in a dozen strides, taking an arm each, pulling him back across the cobbles. I suppose it took ten seconds to bring him back; or a week, or a lifetime. Lead and iron thumped and rang on the stones around us as we dragged and stumbled into the blessed shelter of the gatehouse.
A two-pounder ball had caught him to the right of his navel, carrying away the whole of that side of his belly; liver, stomach, a kidney; the small intestine trailed away behind us, shredded, useless. The fits still shook him, but now his mouth opened and he tried to speak; thought he was speaking; but only growls of pain, only animal noises escaped. All the rest of the laudanum I had with me, we poured into that mouth; and after ten minutes, he calmed and lay comparatively still. Bandaged to stop the bleeding, he lived through the rest of the day; but on the Saturday the little fat wife and the six children followed the cart to Saint-Séverin and commended his soul to God.
By three o’clock the situation was back to stalemate; marksmen on either side firing from cover, our troop and our wounded sheltering under the wall, Marie and I still busy with bandages and brandy now the laudanum was gone. In the whole day, 73 men were seriously wounded; we had forty of them with us by mid-afternoon. Every now and then, a larger group would show itself at the courtyard entrance, and a cannon or a rampart gun would tear the quiet with its always unexpected roar. Immediately after one of these explosions, a tight group of uniformed men ran through the gate and crouched beside a buttress. Bullets spat and bounced and flattened against the buttress, but they had picked their cover well.
The next occurrence took everybody by surprise, ourselves as well as the garrison. Through the outer gate came a cart, followed by another and another, full of what appeared to be horse-dung and straw. They seemed to be moving by themselves, but then we saw running legs under the far side of them, men pushing from behind. About halfway across the yard, the carts burst into flames, and by the time they crashed against the wall by the archway, smoke was pouring from them. The little breeze was stronger now, away from us and towards the Bastille, and the smoke rose and writhed around the walls, helping shield the scene below from the garrison above. The men who had pushed them sank down, panting, in the shelter of the wall beyond. They waved and shouted to us; it was Santerre’s troop, the brewer himself puffing and wheezing and mopping his brow as he leaned against the wall.
Then a larger group of soldiers trotted rapidly through the gateway in close formation; halted facing the fortress. The front rank of this group fired a volley at the towers, then retired through the other two ranks, reloading as they went. The second rank fired and retired, then the third – by which time the first rank was ready again. While they fired, the defenders made little reply, keeping their heads below the embrasures, and the group by the buttress was reinforced by another dozen men from the gate. The troops in the courtyard then ran forward to the next buttress, pursued by a hail from above. This was quelled by a third squad in the gateway, and while they fired the other two advanced another buttress.
In this way, one group firing while another moved, the new reinforcements fought their way across the courtyard to our sheltering wall. Their leader headed the final rush into cover, then threw himself to the ground beside us, panting, and removed the tight stock from his collar and threw it away. A dozen bullets spattered round the linen as it blew gently across the yard on the rising breeze. He chuckled.
‘Hulin’, he introduced himself. ‘Once a sergeant of infantry, currently Master of the Queen’s Laundry. Of course, her Majesty is unaware that I helped liberate Geneva, or I wouldn’t have a command in the Gardes Françaises, would I?’
I recognised the uniforms now; these were the troops we had seen lined up at the Hôtel de Ville that morning. The second squad hurtled across the last yards and threw themselves into cover. ‘Ah, the good Lieutenant Élie’, said Hulin, ‘Greetings and congratulations. And you people are...?’
Théroigne presented herself, François and me. Lieutenant Élie greeted me in English. ‘I was at Yorktown’, he explained. ‘Excellent practice.’
‘Now we’re here’, said Hulin, ‘What to do next? Better take advantage of this smoke to offer a threat, I think.’ He took a little brass whistle from his pocket and blew three times. There was a moment’s pause, then through the gateway came two lines of men heaving on ropes, and behind them a gun; after that, another gun followed. Behind the guns ran men with timber; beams and planks for bridging the ditch. The garrison’s reply was sporadic; they were hampered by smoke and intimidated by a positive hail of bullets from the troops at the outer gate and on the roofs of shops and houses all around. The gunners halted at our end of the courtyard, where the smoke was thicker. The guns were bigger than any we had seen yet.
‘Twelve-pounders’, said Hulin enthusiastically.
Maillard had come over. ‘Well’, he said, ‘This one here’s a good, workmanlike bronze gun. But what the hell’s thatthing?’
‘Ah, Well now, we found that yesterday in the royal furniture store. Apparently it was a present to Louis XIV from the King of Siam. I know it looks far too pretty to be any use, but under all the silver inlay and the
gold elephants and so on, there’s a perfectly good lump of gunmetal. A
bit old-fashioned, no flintlock, needs a slow match to set it off, but it throws twelve pounds of iron, and that’s what matters. Here, then, lads. Train the thing round, that’s it. Ready to go straight at the gate. Good. Now, let’s get those carts out of the way. Élie!’
The carts were well alight, smoke pouring upwards. The garrison could have seen nothing of what we were doing. Élie looked round for help; two of his own men sprang forward, along with our Jean-Baptiste and Vive l’Amour. Some of Maillard’s men had pikes, and these served to push at the carts. Even from where I was, several yards away, the heat was overpowering and the smoke choking. Two carts came back out of the way easily enough, but the central one was stuck in the little archway. Élie and Vive l’Amour, changing tack at last, pushed it forward and on, through the arch; then Élie got his pike under a wheel and began to lift. As he strained, others ran to add their leverage. Vive l’Amour, strong for all his slenderness, hoisted a wheel with his bare hands, and after teetering for a moment, the cart fell over the side of the bridge and into the ditch. As the smoke cleared, bullets began to patter into the ground around the guns and the handlers crouching behind them. With a cheer, though, they ran their weapons forward until they pointed through the archway directly at the main gate of the Bastille.
‘Oy!’ yelled Hulin, ‘You up there!’
‘What?’ came faintly from above.
‘We have two twelve-pounders trained on your front door!’
‘So have we, mate. So have we!’
Of course, they would have. Those in the inside would be loaded with mitraille, though; musket balls and old iron in equal proportions. Even if the guns were to shatter the wooden drawbridge and the gate behind, even if the ditch could be bridged, those guns would sweep away any attempt to enter. It was stalemate again.
The firing from the towers had slackened now, however; and after a few minutes someone up there waved a white rag tied to a stick and the guns fell silent. The besiegers, too, ceased fire, and there was once again a pause and a silence while the last of the church bells chimed the hour. It was five o’clock. Eight hours since she came knocking on my door. Eight hours, and a hundred lives.
We gazed upwards, and then a voice, startlingly close, called urgently, ‘Here. Here, the gate, for pity’s sake, over here.’
Through a crack in the smaller drawbridge, a hand was holding out a piece of paper.
‘Take it’, called the voice, ‘It’s our terms. Take it, for God’s sake.’
Half a dozen people ventured out onto the bridge in front of the gate. Hulin, Élie, Santerre, Maillard, Théroigne and François, I knew them all by now. It was still ten feet across the ditch to the waving hand.
‘One of those beams, here’ called Hulin, and two of his men ran out with a five-yard timber, six inches by three. But the outer face of the drawbridge was designed precisely to afford no purchase. There was no step, no foothold for the outer end of the beam.
‘Pull it back a little! That’ll do. Now, stand on this end. More of you!’
In a moment, the beam was arranged like a diving board; about six feet of it on the stone bridge, with five or six hefty besiegers standing on it; the rest out across the ditch.
‘I’ll go!’ cried Maillard from the back of the group, ‘I’m in charge here!’
Nobody disputed that for the moment; nobody wanted to take his place. When he saw the beam, he understood why; but it was too late to go back on his word. Gingerly, he inched out onto the plank. After a yard it began to bend, then to vibrate, then to spring, then to bounce. He was not an athletic man, and he panicked; tried to turn, tried to run back, ran into the men holding the end down, dislodged the front one, loosened the beam even further, and fell, squeaking, into the ditch. ‘Doctor!’ went up the cry.
For a moment, for just a moment, I found myself wondering whether officious little Maillard was worth the trouble. But even Maillard, I reminded myself, was a man and a brother. I picked up my bag and hurried forward. The man was lying unconscious below the plank. With the help of Jean-Baptiste and the remaining Jacques, I scrambled down to him. He was already coming round, having taken a blow to the back of the head, but otherwise unharmed.
Twelve feet above my head, the plank was run out again. This time it was Hulin who walked delicately and catlike along it , balancing the vibrations with flexed knees, and took the paper from the stretching hand. As nimbly, he sprang back again, to find the stone bridge crowded with his men and ours, and the courtyard filling with the mob from outside.
He opened the paper and read quickly.
‘Listen, everyone!’, he called out, ‘They want to surrender. But we have to let them evacuate honourably.’
Voices were raised in argument; most agreed with the terms, some were for blood.
‘No quarter!’ yelled a man I hadn’t heard before. ‘Delaunay opened the drawbridge to bring us in range! It was all a trap! No quarter for traitors!’
‘Or else’, went on Hulin, ‘He’ll use the gunpowder to blow up the Bastille, and all of us with it.’
I was climbing back out of the ditch behind Maillard. That should settle it, I thought; they’ll accept the surrender and let the garrison go. No point risking the loss of everything – especially the powder, which is what they came for.
But nobody seemed to believe the threat; and the powder itself seemed to have been forgotten. In the outburst of shouting that greeted Hulin’s announcement, many were for revenge; several shouted ‘Free the prisoners’ – which was the first I had heard of any prisoners – but most were simply for blasting their way in with the cannon. ‘No!’ they yelled, ‘Honourable evacuation? Never! Never! Never!’
Maillard was out of the ditch, and I had nearly reached the rim, when the garrison, responding to the volley of shouts, let fly a last volley of shots, straight down into the crowd on the bridge. The leg I had thrown over the parapet jerked and rebounded. Though I felt no pain at the time, I fell backwards, and as I fell, I remember seeing, as if in a nightmare, the drawbridge falling, falling above me. ‘Well’, I thought, ‘they got their surrender anyway’; and the darkness claimed me.