The Memoirs of Louise Michel (in English)
The Memoirs of Louise Michel, translated into English, free to read online.
The Memoirs of Louise Michel, translated into English, free to read online.
Note: these memoirs are translated from the original French by Jade Maître and are free to share and copy under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.
They are not the same translation as the 1981 translation by Bullitt Lowry and Elizabeth Ellington Gunter, published by the University of Alabama Press.
Chapter 6 – “The Origins of Revolution”
Chapter 7 – “Marriage and Oaths”
Chapter 8 – “Early Teaching Career”
Chapter 11 – “On Cruelty to Animals”
Chapter 12 – “Studying in Paris”
Chapter 13 – “Unrest in the Second Empire”
Chapter 14 – “The Paris Commune 1871”
Chapter 15 – “Bloody Week and After”
Chapter 16 – Deportation to New Caledonia
Chapter 18 – “Struggling Beasts”
Chapter 19 – “Revolutionary Thoughts”
Often I have been asked to write my memoirs, but I always felt loathe to talk about myself, similar to that which someone would feel if they undressed in public.
Today, despite this childish and bizarre feeling, I resign myself to collecting a few memories. I will try to ensure that they are not too steeped in sadness.
Marie Ferré, my beloved friend, already collected some of these fragments which bear her name; my dear good mother also did.
My existence is made up of two very distinct parts. They form a complete contrast. The first is comprised of all dream and study; the second, of events, as if the aspirations of the period of calm came to life in the period of struggle.
In this account, I will try to include as little as possible the names of long lost people, so as not to cause them the unpleasant surprise of being accused of colluding with revolutionaries. Who knows if certain people would not make it a crime for having known me, and if they would not be treated as anarchists, without knowing exactly what it is?
My life is full of poignant memories. I will often recount them at random. If my pen wanders, please understand that I have earned that right.
I admit that there will be feeling in the words; we women, we do not pretend to tear the heart from our breasts. We find the human being – I was going to say, the human beast – rather incomplete like that. We prefer to suffer and live by feeling as well as by intelligence.
If a little bitterness slips into these pages, no venom will fall. I hate the cursed mould into which centuries-old errors and prejudices throw us, but I do not believe too much in responsibility. It is not the fault of the human race that it is eternally kneaded into such a miserable form, and like the beast, we consume ourselves in the struggle for existence.
When all forces are turned against the obstacles that hinder humanity, it will pass through the turmoil. In our incessant battle, the lone human being is not, and cannot, be free.
We are on the raft of the Medusa, as though we want to abandon the sinister wreck at anchor in the middle of breakers. We act like shipwrecked people.
When, then, oh black raft, will we cut the mooring while singing the new legend?
I was thinking about it on Virginie (the ship which exiled Louise Michel to New Caledonia), as the sailors weighed anchor, chanting the Bardits d’armor.
Bac va leste ce sobian hac ar mor cézobras!
The rhythm, the sound, multiplied the forces; the cable wound up; the men were sweating; deaf crackles escaped from the ship and from their breasts.
Like the old Bardit of the seas, we are small in our ship, and the sea is large. But we know the legend of the pirates. Turn your bow to the wind, said the kings of the seas, All the coasts are ours.
But I am distracted. I remember now that I write my memoirs, so it must come to talking about myself. I will do it boldly and frankly for everything that concerns me personally, leaving aside those who raised me (in the old ruin of Vroncourt, where I was born) in the obscurity that they loved. The War Councils of 1871, who during their investigations searched meticulously to the bottom of my cradle, respected my relatives, and I will not disturb their ashes in their rest.
The moss has erased their names on the cemetery slabs. The old castle has been tipped over. Yet often, I still see the nest of my childhood, and those who raised me, leaning over me. We will often see them also in this book. Alas! of the memory of the dead, of the thought that flees, of the hour which passes, nothing remains. Nothing but duty, including the duty to lead my life roughly so that it is exhausted all the more quickly.
But why feel sorry for oneself, in the midst of general pain? Why stop to look only at a drop of water? Look at the ocean!
I wanted that my three court judgments would accompany my memoirs.
For us, any judgment is a collision which flies the flag of our cause. This flag will cover my book, as it has covered my life, as it will lay across my coffin.
I extract the following from the court Gazette, which cannot be suspected of being too favourable to us. (Apart from the second Gazette which, being for the correctional police only, has not been reported.) I will add for the masses, the wide masses, my loves, observations that I did not think I should make to the judges. They can be found, in addition to the judgments, at the end of the volume.
My childhood nest had four square towers, the same height as the main building, with bell-shaped roofs. The south side, absolutely windowless, and the loopholes in the towers, gave it the air of a mausoleum or a fortress, depending on the point of view.
It was called the Fortress when we lived there. I have often also heard it called the Tomb.
To the east of this vast ruin, where the wind blew through as it does in a ship, there were vines and the village of Vroncourt, from which it was separated by a grass road as wide as a meadow. At the end of this path, which we called the routote, a stream ran down the only street in the village. It swelled in winter; stones were placed there for the people to cross it.
Further to the east, there was a curtain of poplars where the wind murmured softly, and behind that was the blue mountains of Bourmont. When I later saw Sydney, Australia, surrounded by bluish peaks, I recognised (with a magnification) the mountain ridges that dominate the Cona.
To the west was the coasts and the woods of Suzerin, where the wolves, at the time of the great snows, entered through crumbling parts of the wall to howl in the courtyard. The dogs answered them, furious, and this concert lasted until the morning. It was all going to ruin and I loved those nights.
I loved them especially when the north wind blew strongly, and we read very late, the whole family gathered in the large room of our house, setting the stage for winter and the high cold rooms. The white shroud of the snow, the choirs of the wind, wolves and dogs, would have been enough to make me a little poetic, even if our family had not already all been so from the cradle. It was a heritage that has its legend.
It was freezing cold in these enormous rooms. We gathered near to the fire, my grandfather in his armchair, between his bed and a pile of rifles. He was always dressed in a large white flannel cloak, and wore slippers lined with sheepskin. I was often seated on one of these clogs, almost nestling in the ashes with the dogs and cats.
We had a large female dog from Spain, with long yellow hair, and two others of the shepherd dog breed, all three responding to the name of Presta. We also had a black and white dog we called Medor, and a very young pup, who had been named La Biche in memory of an old mare who had just died.
We had mourned La Biche. My grandfather and I had wrapped her head in a white tablecloth so that the earth would not touch it, and we set her at the bottom of the big hole where she was buried near the acacia of the bastion.
The female cats were all called Galta; they were the tigers and the redheads. The male cats were all called Lion or Raccoon; there were legions of them and they would crowd around the fire. Sometimes, with the tip of the fire tongs, my grandfather would show them a lighted charcoal; then the whole band fled, to return only a moment later to assault the hearth again.
Around the table were also my mother, my aunt and my grandmothers, one reading aloud, the others knitting or sewing.
I have here the basket in which my mother put her working things.
Often, friends came to watch with us; when Bertrand was there, or the old teacher from Ozières, M. Laumond, the little Laumond, as we called him, the vigil was prolonged. They wanted to send me to bed so that they could finish chapters that they did not want to completely read in front of me.
On these occasions, sometimes I refused stubbornly (and almost always won my case). Other times, in a hurry to hear what they wanted to hide from me, I complied with haste, and stayed behind the door instead of going to my bed.
In summer, the ruin would fill with birds, entering through the windows. The swallows came to take back their nests, the sparrows knocked on the windows, and when we sang, the larks yelled bravely with us (falling silent when we went into minor key.)
Birds were not the only companions in addition to the dogs and cats; there were also partridges, a turtle, a roe deer, wild boars, a wolf, owls, bats, broods of orphan hares raised with a spoon – a whole menagerie! – without forgetting the foal Zéphir and his grandmother Brouska, whose age we no longer count. She would come into the house to take bread or sugar from the hands that pleased her, and show to people who did not suit her her large yellow teeth, as if she laughed at them with her nose.
Our old mare La Biche also had a rather funny habit: if I held a bouquet, she took it, and ran her tongue over my face.
What about the cows? There was the big white one who we called Bioné, and the two young ones, who we called Bella and Nera. I would talk with them in the stable, and they would answer me in their own way, looking at me with their dreamy eyes. All these animals lived in harmony. The cats lying in circles carelessly followed with their eyes the birds, the partridges, the quails trotting on the ground.
Behind the green tapestry covering the walls, which were riddled with holes, circulated mice. They made little cries, rapid but were not afraid; I never saw a cat bother to disturb them in their wanderings. Besides, the mice behaved perfectly, never gnawing at notebooks or books, and never having grasped the violins, guitars or cellos that were lying around everywhere.
What peace we had in this house in my life at the time! Although I was always finding the time to conduct mischief!
With each event that happened in our family, my grandmother wrote a verse about it, collecting it in two collections of large red cardboard, which I wrapped in black crepe at her death. My grandfather had added a few pages to it, and myself, when still a child, too. I dared to start a Universal History in it, because that of Bossuet, who appeared in a book that my cousin Jules had won at college, bored me.
I scanned the main facts as best I could. Seeing for a long time the superiority of the courses adopted in the colleges over those which still make up the education of provincial girls, I would, many years later, be given the opportunity to verify the difference between two courses given on the same subject, one for the ladies, the other for the ‘stronger sex’! I could convince myself that I was not mistaken. When educating us, they tell us a lot of nonsense, supported by so-called reasoning, while they force our teachers to swallow balls of science that they choke on. Alas! it is a strange instruction, and those who will be in our place in a few hundred years will do nicely to pity our education.
There must have been some famous nonsense in my work; I had consulted enough infallible books for that, but I was given a few volumes of Voltaire and I planted my unfinished work there, along with a great poem about the Cona which M. Laumont (the bigger Laumont) had believed to disenchant me with, by telling me so many burlesque legends about the mountain of Bourmont so as to make all the stones of Haute-Marne laugh.
My poem told the story of a hermitage where, for a long time, there lived a rascally holy man during the day, and a robber of travellers during the night, from whom the good people of the country paid dearly in prayers to deliver them. There was said to be a little tree that ran through the woods and the plain. As soon as the moon would rise, the holy man withdrew into solitude, for he was the little tree.
What prevented me from finishing the famous poem of Cona was a mammoth tooth, of which even M. Laumont (the bigger Laumont), spoke with enthusiasm. I put aside my poetry to establish, at the top of the north tower, a small cabin full of everything that could pass for geological finds. I included very modern skeletons of dogs, cats, skulls of horses found in the fields, crucibles, a furnace, a tripod, and the devil, if he existed, would know all that I tried there. Alchemy, astrology, evocations, all the legends passed there, from Nicolas Flamel to Faust.
I had my lute there, a horrible instrument that I had made myself with a pine board and old guitar strings, although it is true that I mended it with new ones. It is this barbaric instrument which I spoke pompously about to Victor Hugo. In the verses that I addressed to him, he never knew what a rude thing it was, this lute of the poet – this lyre! – of which I sent him the sweetest chords!
I also had in my turret a magnificent owl with phosphorescent eyes that I called Olympus, and delicious bats drinking milk like little cats, and for which I had dismantled the bigger Laumond’s winnow, their security demanding that they be caged during the day.
My mother, half scolding, half laughing, heard me for a few days singing on my lute the Grilla Rapita, which she has since kept with old papers that I called Songs of the Dawn. Here is this song LA GRILLA RAPITA:
Ah what a horrible girl
She broke the winnow
The big winnow for the grain.
And we winnow tomorrow!
If fa, fa re, d if; if re fa, if do re,
She makes a cage out of it,
A nocturnal omen
For her bats
This is not allowed.
If fa, fa re, d if, if d fa, if do re-
But everywhere I look for her!
No doubt she perches
In her attic hole
Let’s go correct it.
If fa, fa re, re if, if re fa, if do re.
Ah that’s quite another thing.
Here are the scented herbs,
A furnace, crucibles.
It all smells bad
If fa, fa re, re if, if re fa, if do re.
Let’s call her grandmother
Let’s call her grandfather
We must end it.
But how to punish her?
If fa, fa re, re if, if re fa, if do re,
I don’t know what line the chorus rhymes with. A few more years, after my grandparents died, I had to leave my calm retreat. I wrote my farewells on the walls of the turret, but they did not last long. Not a stone remains.
FAREWELL TO MY TOURELLE
Farewell, the manor my dreamy rest!
Goodbye my high tower open to all winds!
There remains on your old walls the moss of their crest
And I, a frail branch broken by the storm.
I will follow the rapid currents far from you.
You will see the swallows again without me,
Who in the summer days sing from the rooftops.
But, if I’m going to wander as a fugitive, like them,
Tell me, will there be nothing missing under the turrets,
When their sad echoes no longer speak my voice?
Of all the pages written by my grandfather, I only have one left; the wind of adversity blows on things as well as on beings. Here is this leaflet:
TO ANTIQUE DEALERS
Do you want antiques?
Here we are, two in the turrets.
What do swallow nests cover?
My wife and I, old and broken.
The birds are well at the windows;
We are well by the fireside.
We love summer, under the beeches;
Winter, in this peaceful place.
Everything here is old and Gothic;
Together everything will be erased.
The old men, the ancient ruin
And the child will go far away.
Here is another leaflet; this one from my grandmother after the death of her husband. It’s all I have left of them.
Mourning has descended on my sad home. Pale death at home sits and I cry.
All is silence and night in the house of the dead.
No more songs, no more joy, where chords vibrated.
We whisper quietly, and as if with mystery.
It’s because we don’t come back when we sleep underground.
Forever, his absence puts an end to the songs.
These sad accents are of a very weak breath compared to the charming verses which I no longer have.
Everything vanished, even my grandfather’s guitar, which crumbled while I was in New Caledonia. My mother cried for a long time.
How different were my two grandmothers. One, with her thin Gallic face, her headdress of white muslin, pleated with fine folds, under which her hair was arranged in a big bun on her neck. The other, with black eyes like embers, short hair, enveloped in eternal youth, who reminded me of the fairies of old tales.
My grandfather, depending on the circumstances, appeared to me in different aspects while early on, recounting the great days, the epic struggles of the First Republic, he had passionate accents to describe the war of giants where, brave against brave, the whites and the blues showed themselves how heroes die. Sometimes ironic like Voltaire, the master of his time, or cheerful and witty like Molière, he explained to me the various books that we read together. Sometimes again, as we went through the unknown, we spoke of the things he saw rising on the horizon. We looked at the human stages of the past; in the future too, and often I wept, seized by some vivid image of progress, of art or of science, and he, with big tears in his eyes, laid his hand on my head, more disheveled than that of old Presta.
My mother was a blonde then, with soft smiling blue eyes, and long curly hair, so fresh and so pretty that friends would say to her laughing, “It is not possible that this naughty child is yours!” For there I was: tall, thin, bristly, wild and bold at the same time, sunburned and often decorated with torn clothing attached with pins. I did myself justice and it amused me to be found ugly. My poor mother was sometimes offended.
How much I read at that time, with Nanette and Joséphine, two young women of remarkable intelligence, who had never left the region. We talked about everything. We stole away to read, seated in the tall grass, and read of picturesque shops, family museums, Hugo, Lamartine, old Corneille, etc. I don’t know if Nanette and Joséphine didn’t love me better than their children. I liked them a lot too.
I was perhaps six or seven years old when Lamennais’s book, The Words of a Believer, was soaked with our tears. From that day on, I belonged to the crowd. From that day on, I climbed step by step through all the transformations of thought, from Lamennais to anarchy. Is this the end? No, no doubt! After and always, is there not the immense increase of all progress in light and freedom the development of new senses, of which we hardly have the rudiments, and all those things which our limited mind cannot even glimpse? Old parents, old and young friends, my mother… nothing remains today other than the dreams of my childhood.
As for my friendship with my cousin Jules, I have never met children who were at the same time so serious and so crazy, so naughty and so afraid of causing pain, so lazy and so energetic, as my cousin Jules and me.
Every year, during the holidays, he came with his mother, my aunt Agathe, whom I loved infinitely, and who spoiled me very much. I am amazed now at the questions of all kinds that we were asking, Jules and I, sometimes perched each of us in a tree where we followed the cats. Sometimes we stopped in the middle of a rehearsal of some Hugo drama, which we had arranged to play with two characters, to discuss some other matter with passion. “They respect nothing!” it was said! Why did we like to chat from tree to tree? I really don’t know; it was nice in the branches, and then we threw all the apples we could catch at each other. That made the fruits fall from the tree, which helped old Marie Verdet.
Marie Verdet was an old woman of nearly a hundred years, who described so well the apparitions of the white washerwomen at the Ladies’ Fountain, or the ghost-in-flames, red as fire, under the willows of the Mill. Marie Verdet always saw these things, and we never did! But that did not prevent us from taking pleasure in her stories, so much so that from the fairies to Faust, I came to fall in love with the fantastic, and in the haunted ruins of the pagan castle, I declared, in the midst of magic circles, my love to Satan. When he did not come, it made me think that he didn’t exist.
One day, chatting from tree to tree with Jules, I told him about the adventure and he confessed to me, for his part, having sent a no-less-tender declaration to a famous woman of letters, Mme George Sand, who had not answered any more than the devil had.
We resolved to tune our lutes on other subjects. I had just offered one, made like mine, to my cousin after a rehearsal, I believe, of Burgraves or Hernani, arranged by us for two actors. In a stormy discussion about gender equality, Jules claimed that if I was learning from his books, brought on vacation (roughly so as to be level with him), I was an anomaly. Our lutes, serving as projectiles, broke in our hands in the middle of the fight. Looking at the bottom of this memory, I find a song from that time:
THE SONG OF PEARS
We are told to go,
To sit in the fruit tree.
Watch the pears!
Can you believe it?
For some children
Whose teeth are to be feared,
The pears are fresh;
The walls have openings!
We call out
And we all sing,
Shaking the pears.
You can believe it!
To the sound of these songs,
In circles, we dance,
And here is the story
About looking after the pears.
Two more stanzas from this time, before throwing a handful of yellowed leaves into the fire.
Evening wind, what are you doing with the humble daisy?
Sea, what are you doing with the flow?
Heaven, fiery cloud?
Oh! my dream is very big and I am very small.
Destiny, what will you do with my giant dream?
Light, what do you do with the silent shadow?
And you who call her near you from so far away,
0 flame! what do you do with the moth
Mysterious dream, what will you do with me?
It has always seemed to me that we sense destiny, just as dogs sense the smell of wolves. Sometimes our destiny comes true with a strange precision.
If we told a lot of things in minute detail, they would be much more surprising. We sometimes think we are seeing the Tales of Edward Poë.
So many memories! But isn’t it idle to write this nonsense? Yesterday I could hardly get used to talking about myself; today, looking into these vanished days, it seems to never end, and I see everything again.
Here at the round stones at the end of the enclosure, near the mound and the thicket of coudiers, thousands of young toads would undergo their metamorphosis there in peace, if they did not serve to be thrown into the legs of ugly people. Poor toads.
In the courtyard behind the well, we put weary bundles of twigs; it created a scaffold, with steps, a platform, two large wooden uprights… everything, in short. We staged the revolution of Ninety-three in drama, and we climbed the steps of our scaffold one after the other, where we stood shouting “Vive la République!”
The public was represented by my cousin Mathilde, and sometimes by the feathered people who wheeled or pecked and giggled.
We searched the annals for human cruelties. The scaffold later became Jean Huss’s stake, the Bagaude’s tower on fire, etc.
As we climbed our scaffold one day while singing, my grandfather pointed out to us that it was better to climb there in silence and to affirm at the top the principle for which we died, which is what we did afterwards. But our games were not always so serious. There was, for example, an exciting game where the pigs served us as wild boars. We lit brooms to serve as torches and we ran with the dogs; with the terrible sound of shepherd’s horns that we called hunting horns; an old guard had taught us to ring something that he called hallali. It seems that very open rules were observed in these disheveled pursuits, which ended in driving back, willy-nilly, the pigs towards home. Sometimes they would fall into the water hole in the vegetable garden where, with their fat supporting them, they made desperate oof!s until we saved them. It wasn’t always easy. Men with ropes took care of it, shouting at us. I was thought by everyone to play like an escaped horse: it was perhaps true.
You have to let me write things as they come to me!
I pass from sight and go endlessly into the shadows, I am no-where.
You have seen, in Macbeth, those who come out of the unknown and return to it as the sons of Banquo. I see those who disappeared yesterday or a long time ago, as they were, with everything that surrounded them in their lives, and the wound of the absence bleeds as much as in the first days.
I’m not homesick, but I’m sick for the dead.
The more I advance in this story, the more numerous they are crowded around me, the images of those whom I will never see again, and at the last, my mother. There are moments when I refuse to believe it. It seems to me that I will wake up from a horrible nightmare and see her again.
But no, her death is not a dream.
The pen stops, in this poignant pain I would like to tell; I don’t like to write.
May my sight return once again to Vroncourt.
Near the coudrier, in a bastion in the garden wall, was a bench, where my mother and grandmother came during the summer, after the heat of the day. My mother, to please her, had filled this corner of the garden with all kinds of roses. While they chatted, I leaned against the wall.
The garden was cool in the evening dew. The perfumes, mingling with it, rose like a spray; the honeysuckle, the mignonette, the roses, all exhaled sweet perfumes to which was added the penetrating odour of each one.
The bats flew gently in the twilight and, this shadow cradling my thought, I sang the ballads that I liked, without thinking that death was about to pass. And the ballads, and the thought, and the voice went with the breath of the wind, there were beautiful ones…
Children, here are the oxen passing by.
Hide your red aprons.
And the Louis d’or? and the Timpanist’s Fiancée? and so many others?
With these days of dawn, sad or dreamy refrains went away. I no longer even sing the war songs. In silence I go away; in silence, like death.
My career as a teacher began at a young age in my village, and then continued in Paris both as a deputy with Mme Vollier, 16, rue du Château-d’Eau, and in Montmartre. I have seen many days of misery. All those who did not want to take the oath to the Empire met difficulties.
But I was more favoured than many others, being able to give music and drawing lessons after school. What, moreover, is physical suffering in the face of the loss of those who are dear to us?
O my friend! My dear mother! My brave companions!
Stirring these memories, I turn the dagger. It often feels good. If any being had invented life, what a horrible chain we should have attached to it. I would like to know what those who thank Providence believe; it is a very convenient word and very empty of meaning, and the work of this omnipotence would be frightfully criminal.
I believe that, as we have discovered so many other things, we will one day discover the principles of number and affinities which group together spheres and beings. It will have to come that tamed nature serves free humanity; that science goes forward instead of lingering behind, stopped by all infallibilities. Come on, hunters of the unknown! The legendary stage will open the road! Down with all the fortresses! Let all the doors be wide open and force all the mysteries out into the open; that everything crumbles in the slaughterhouses, the lazarets where human stupidity keeps us!
I always forget that I write my Memoirs. Where was I?
There are a few handfuls of fragments of my childhood that I take at random.
Here is a description of Vroncourt kept by my mother. How many things has survived this yellowed piece of paper!
It is on the side of the mountain, between the forest and the plain where you can hear your wolves howling, but you can’t see the lambs slaughtered there. In Vroncourt we are separated from the world. The wind shakes the old steeple of the church and the old towers of the castle; it bends the fields of ripe wheat like a sea; the storm makes a tremendous noise and that is all we can hear.
This is great and this is beautiful.
No less than the legendary book Haute Marne, this work was illustrated with coal drawings by the same author.
We could see the Ladies’ Fountain there, amidst the shade of the willows on the water, and against this shade stood the white washerwomen (according to Marie Verdet’s description).
Deye, she said, it wouldn’t be worth it if you wrote a book on Vroncot and few real things were in it!
So I had put the three ghosts under the willows. There was one that spit out the past, said Marie Verdet, the other that moaned for the present and the last which cried for tomorrow.
The pale washerwomen who moan under the branches, one weeping for days gone by, the other weeping for today, the third for tomorrow, don’t they remind us of the Norns?
Another illustration of the same work represented the great Diableries of Chaumont. They are far from barbarian. They seek to reproduce the sensation produced by the moonlight, forests, snow, and night, personifying this sensation in spectral forms.
Here is a second fragment (the last) of the legendary Haute-Marne. I place it here because it contains the exact description of these septenary festivals that we called the Diableries of Chaumont.
The devils of Chaumont hold history, the novel, the legend. Devilry is a dream that existed and of which we still saw traces at the end of the last century.
Among the bizarre institutions that disappeared with the Middle Ages, the Diableries of Chaumont are among those which are the longest to survive their time.
The flag still flies when the ship is submerged. Every seven years, say the chroniclers of Champagne, twelve men are dressed as devils, as we suppose the devils get used to, using thrift stores in hell, where all the disguises are, even that of Jehovah. The devils of Chaumont find theirs with old Anne Larousse; with the Brac sign; and in a spirit of immense joy, with a pair of horns and a black hood, they accompany the Palm Sunday procession to honor the sky by representing Hell there. After having thus figured the love of God, our lords the devils spread across the countryside, where they consider they have the right to plunder to their hearts’ content for the love of the devil.
Why had they chosen this number of twelve? They say it was in honor of the Twelve Apostles, although this way of honoring them should not be infinitely agreeable to them. The scholars claimed that they meant the twelve signs of the Zodiac, while still others said that they were the image of the sons of Jacob, but none of these assumptions were generally adopted. There arose at each Diablerie between the scientists, clerics and astrologers of the good town of Chaumont, a number of quarrels which, emptying themselves of quill, spent so much on parchment that a multitude of souls paid for these combats with their lives.
Still, the Messieurs of the Diableries sang Quis est iste rex gloriæ with as much enthusiasm as those who wore costumes could have done, but with less finesse, the devil having an essentially musical ear.
Chanmont’s devilry lasted from Palm Sunday to the Nativity of Saint John, and ended with the main actions in the life of this saint represented in ten theaters exposed to the devotion of the faithful. The party ended with a torture (there could be no celebration without that in those times, and even in ours!) The torture was usually only an effigy which represented the soul of Herod.
But the last year that these holy orgies were held had an event which hastened their end. This event (not recounted in the written chronicles) did not give Marie Verdet a shadow of a doubt in her retelling. Her grandfather heard it, who had gotten it from a great-grandmother. Apparently this last time, Herod’s soul had gesticulated so beautifully that the assistants were throwing themselves into the valley of the schoolchildren, and then all of a sudden the shadows fell, and the effigy began to moan. They cried A Miracle!, particularly when they found charred bones in the ashes of the pyre the following day.
But, if they found bones in the ashes, they could also no longer find the handsome singer Nicias Guy, who, out of love’s revenge, had been so badly killed.
Even though my ability to rhyme might have been ancestral, who also would not have become a poet in this country of Champagne and Lorraine, where the winds blow in bardits of revolt or love! Through the great winter snows, in the sunken lanes full of hawthorns in spring, and in the deep black woods with enormous oaks and aspens, their trunks like columns, we still follow the paved paths of the dominating Romans, unpaved in large places by the undefeated Gauls.
Yes, there, everyone is a bit of a poet.
I think again of Nanette and Josephine, these country girls, who were like nature. One of their songs, the nâgé na du bas (the black bird of the woods) came back to me in the cyclones. Here it is, and here is mine, made over there at the bottom of the sea; we will find there the same cord, the black cord, which vibrates at the bottom of nature. Theirs is more mysterious and sweeter; you can smell the roses of the rose hedge; but, with the same breath, the bird of the wild field strikes its melancholy notes and thunders the flood hitting the reefs.
AGÉ NA DEU CHAMP FAUVE
Dans l’champ fanné c’etot
Un bel âgé chantot.
Teut na il étot
Il fo y brâchot.
Ka ki dijot l’âge,
L’âge deu champ fauvé?
C’étot pa les échos
Sous les âpres du bos,
Li bise pleurut
Deven lu brâchot
Ce que dijot l’âgé
L’âgé den champ fauvé?
Word for word translation
THE BLACK BIRD OF THE FAUVE FIELD
In the wild field it was.
A beautiful bird was singing.
All black he was.
So loudly he sobbed.
What did the bird say,
The bird of the wild field?
It was through the echoes.
Under the trees of the woods.
The wind was crying,
With him sobbed
What the bird said;
The bird of the wild field.
Is it worth it, after that, to put my stanzas? Let the reader pass them please. They are there only because of the link which exists between them and the couplets of the black bird of the wild field.
ON THE WATERFRONT
Strange voices of nature,
Breezes in the woods,
Breath of the will in the masts
Blind force mighty voices!
What do you say, chasms of ages,
Breaths of breezes in the woods?
The cyclone howls, the sea roars,
The sky has burst; all the wave
Pour into the dark tomb.
The sea cuts through the shore,
Blow, blow, O stormy winds.
Night fills the earth and the water.
The earth quivers, the soil smokes
In the middle of the immense night.
The sea, with its claws of foam,
Climbs up to the rocks with a loud noise.
One day, for his supreme works,
The man will take your very strength
Nature, in the great night.
All your power, oh nature,
And, your fury and your love,
Your living force and your murmur,
We will take them from you some day.
As a tool for his work,
We will carry from beach to beach
Your fury and your love.
I am afraid of spending too long this first part of my life, where events were so calm. So tormented by dreams are the days of yesteryear; childish things will be there. It is the first years of all human existence (and even in the whole course of existence). I will finish it promptly (but I may come back to it, brought on by something in the course of the story…)
In writing, as in speaking, I often get carried away! Then, the pen or the word sets off, pursuing its own goal through life, as across the world.
I spoke of ancestry. There, at the bottom of my life, are legendary tales, dead with those who told them to me. But still today, like sphinxes, I see these phantoms: Corsican witches; mermaids with green eyes; feudal bandits; Jacques and Teutons with red hair; Gallic peasants, tall with blue eyes. Everyone, from the Corsican bandits to the judges in the Parliament of Brittany, each who are in love with the unknown. All transmitting to their descendants (legitimate or bastard) the heritage of the bards.
Perhaps it is true that every drop of blood transmitted by so many different races ferments and boils in the secular spring; but through so many legends told without one having been written, what is there for sure?
A few notes on my native country.
The plow brings to light the stone coffins of our fathers the Gauls, the knife to slaughter the victim and the Roman incense. The plowman, accustomed to these finds, turns them aside (sometimes to make a trough from the coffin, or to perfume the enormous stump which burns under his great fireplace with the augural incense) and he continues to sing his oxen, while behind him the birds pick up worms in open furrows.
How I like to think of this little corner of the earth! I would have liked, if my mother had been able to survive my absence, to spend a few peaceful days near her, as I should have: with me working near her armchair, and the old Caledonian cats purring in the hearth.
So many others live for so long. These days are not for us.
Let’s talk about Haute-Marne. It had its kingdom of Yvetot, in the county of Montsongeon (the kingdom of Haut-Gué). Between three rivers which make it resemble an island, at the foot of the mountains dominated by its fortress, Montsongeon had its armies which, in the wars of Lorraine, gained victories.
In Montsongeon, as is always in a place of war, the doors were closed. That of Dom Marius overlooked the countryside, while the others looked on the Saone, the Tille and the Vingeance. But the little kingdom was so often sold and resold that eventually wren-bowls were larger than the vines of their hillsides. It was further eroded because their beautiful ladies, too, often needed a little money for gifts or other things. And then there were also the donations to the abbeys, in atonement of the crimes that the lords were accustomed to committing.
As an example, a Senhor with bad intentions would spend his stolen sum as follows: one half would be donated to the clergy, another half would be donated to atone for the sin of stealing the sum, and then, to be absolutely sure, he would also give grazing rights to one hundred sols of land to the monks of Auberive. Another time, another person and his wife – both in dire need of money – sold everything they owned in Boissey and other places. The kingdom crumbled towards the end of the 13th century.
The name of Montsongeon has been the subject of scholarly discussion. Some believe it derives from the priests of Mars (the Saliens).
“Deyé,” said Marie Verdet. “Gué bée temps que c’étot tenlé qu’on ellot cueilli lé méledes mâme que Mme Bourelle de Langres en cueillit pou se remedes gné par cent ans.” (When the weather is good you can collect sage to make a remedy for Mme Bourelle de Langres that’s been used for a hundred years.”) Perhaps Marie Verdet was right.
In Beurville, on the Ceffondret stream, it’s a love story that we set up. Around 1580, at the time of the wars of religion, Nicolas de Beurville, leader of the armed bands that ran the country, loved the beautiful Anne de Hault, the daughter of Sire Girard de Hault, and as is the custom between people who are defended, she loved him in return. But if it seemed that their marriage was impossible, Anne de Hault found a way. When the country was in terror of the bands of Beurville, she requested that her father be asked to sacrifice her for the peace of the territory.
A panicked deputy came to beg the father, and if necessary demand, that Nicolas be offered his beautiful Anne in marriage with a large dowry, on the condition that he would go to another country to plunder the poor people for the maintenance of his business. That’s what was done. Beurville went to plunder elsewhere, and the day having come when he had something to repent in peace, the two spouses rebuilt Sainte-Colombe and lived happily. The legend does not say if it was the same with their vassals.
Now see the long street on the steep rock of Cona, and tombs under the ruins of a chapel at the bottom of the mountain, so numerous that they form a nest, the ‘nest of death’. It is Bourmont surrounded by some bluish hills. Some are crowned with forests. At the top of one of them, there is a hermitage which has three legends: the first legend says it is the birthplace of the devil; the second legend says the good Lord, and the third, that it was the site of a great love between a shepherd and the beautiful Marguerite, daughter of Rénier de Bourmont.
After the siege of La Mothe, after which a clock and other curious things were brought to Bourmont, the ruins of La Mothe were used there. Bourmont was then so poor from the obligation to feed people starved by war that the people, quasi-beggars, obtained permission to sell their bells.
Now Bourmont is truly becoming a city. Of Langres and Chaumont, I won’t say much that we know. From the Chaumont viaduct, which crosses the Val des Écoliers, everyone has seen the old town of Mont Chauve. From the railroad, in the same way, one sees Langres on its rock with its black ramparts.
An old quarrel, especially a quarrel of proverbs and songs, existed between Langres and Chaumont.
In Chaumont they said of Langres:
Up high on these rocks,
Half mad, half enraged
In Langres, we said of Chaumont, between couplets by the hundreds, this one:
At Langres it’s cold here, we say,
But it’s hot in Chaumont.
Because when the wind wants to blow,
We catch it straight away,
Because when the wind wants to blow,
The door, we close it.
Formerly, around Chaumont, a young man sat silently for years under the mantle of the fireplace on a Sunday, without daring to express his desire to ask the girl of the house to marry him.
“Bonjour, everyone!” he said on entering. They offered him a chair. After long hours he would get up and say, “Bonsoir everyone,” and leave until the following Sunday.
When, red to the ears, he dared to make his marriage request of the girl, she would not respond in words, but show him through how she tended the fire. If she accepted, she brought the logs together so that the fire flamed higher. If she refused, she allowed the fire to die down to embers. In the latter, the answer would be discreetly understood, while in the case of the former, the parents would begin arranging the wedding. Even today, young people will sit silently in the home of the beloved for a long time before daring to propose to their beloved.
Formerly, near the fortress of the country (châté pïot), people would conjure the spirits of the ruins with a silver coin, a sharp knife, a white shirt and a lighted candle.
Why the silver coin? I asked.
And Marie Verdet, lowering her voice, replied: “For the devil!”
And the lit candle?
“It’s for the good Lord.”
And the white shirt?
“For the dead.”
What about the knife with the sharp blade?
“For the person carrying out the ceremony if he fails in his loyalty.”
In his loyalty to whom?
“To the unknown, to the ghost-in-flames.”
And the forest du Der (des Chênes), shall we say nothing of that? (The invader’s foot had never trodden it, there are no remnants of the Romans here.)
The entire forest of du Der (or Dèrff) was sacred. The thick shade of oaks still reigns there. Formerly, in historical times, an outlaw took refuge there, in a den. He was hunted like a beast, and lived there too, like a beast of human flesh.
The Merovingian swine-keepers built lake farms there; debris remains in the Mare-aux-Loups. In the pond of Blanchetane there remains the remnants of a Cretaceous sea which, on its arid shores that stretch as far as the Pont-aux-Bœufs farm, does not even have a heather, but rather sand, lifted by the wind in small waves.
How nice it is, in our woods, to hear amidst the profound silence the heavy hammer of the forges; the sharp blows of the axe which makes the branches shiver; the songs of birds and the roaring of insects under the leaves.
In the autumn, with my mother and my aunts, we went far into the forest. Suddenly we heard twigs breaking. It was some poor old woman collecting her bundle of twigs.
Hey little one! le gâde as té palé? Vès t’en, pa lé quiche de lé tranche, si le gâde passot tu chanteros! faut que je fée mes écouves (balais)
How few collected these birch twigs, in the great woods!
Other times, it was the sounds of a wild boar returning to the thickets, or poor deer fleeing like lightning. One would have said that they felt the coming of the autumn hunts where they slaughter, to the sound of the horn, so many poor doe, weeping over the green leaves. The beast destroys to live, while the hunter destroys to destroy. The ancestral beast awakens.
Now the days of my childhood are sketched out, and here, stretched out on the table, is the corpse of my life, being dissected at leisure.
When death befell the house, making the hearth deserted; when those who had raised me were lying under the pines of the cemetery; I had to begin my preparation for my teacher examinations.
I wanted my mother to be happy. Poor woman.
My inheritance left me with a tutor (Mr. Voisin, former justice of the peace of Saint-Blin, just as if he had been administering a fortune), my mother as guardian, and Mr. Girault, a notary in Bourmont, who was designated as my secondary tutor. It was not too much, they said, to prevent me from immediately spending the eight or ten thousand francs (in land) which I inherited.
They are far away now. I see in my mind only one parcel of these lands; it was a small wood planted by my mother herself, on the side of the house where the vineyards were. She looked after them during her long stay in Haute-Marne, staying near to her own mother while I worked as an assistant teacher in Paris; that is to say, until around 1865 or 1866. The happiness of living together was ours for only a short time.
“Things have tears,” said Virgil. I can feel it when I think of the little wood and the vine soaked in my mother’s sweat.
From there, we could see Suzerin’s wood with the red roof of the farm. The blue mountains of Bourmont; Vroncourt, the mills, the castle. A sea of wheat, waving in the wind. At least, that’s how I imagined to myself that the sea would look, and later, when I saw the sea, I would discover that it was true.
My grandmother Marguerite wanted to see the vineyard before she died: my uncle carried her there in his arms. The Prussians, passing as all the conquerors pass, later cut down the wood and destroyed the vineyard. A small hut was in the middle; I believe they burned it, making a fire to warm themselves with the trees. My mother had to sell the land during my stay in Caledonia, to pay off the debts made by me during the Siege, which were claimed from her.
Back to the past.
My education, apart from the three months spent at Lagny during the 1851 holidays, was given by my grandparents in Vroncourt, and by Mmes Beths and Royer in their regular courses at Chaumont (Haute-Marne).
It was during the vacation of 1851 that we went, my mother and I, to spend a few months with my parents in the vicinity of Lagny. There, my uncle, who did not like to see me write, and always imagined that I would leave try teacher studies to study poetry, placed me, to be quieter on the subject, at the boarding school of Mme Duval de Lagny , where his daughter had been brought up; I was a boarder there for about three months.
In this house, as in Chaumont, we lived for books. The real world stopped on the threshold, and we were passionate about the bits of science which the teachers gave us in crumbs, and which were only ever just enough to make you thirsty for the rest.
The lack of time! This was before 71. It held all the tortures of the life of a teacher. Before graduation we were grappling with an enormous program, and afterwards, we realised that we knew nothing!
Of course it wasn’t news: the living springs where one would have liked to quench their thirst are not for those who have to struggle for existence. I would have liked, while continuing my studies, to remain in Paris as a vice principal; many did. But then I did not want to be separated from my mother and so, with her, I returned to Haute-Marne, near my grandmother Marguerite.
This is why, in January 1853, I began my career as a teacher at Audeloncourt (Haute-Marne), where some of my family on my mother’s side lived.
My great-uncles, Simon, Michel, and Francis – who was called Uncle Frankfort – were still living; their thick red hair did not even have silver threads. They were tall and handsome old men, with strong shoulders, powerful heads, simple of heart and quick in intelligence, who, like my mother’s brothers, had learned, I do not know how, a host of things, and who were eloquent speakers and learners. A great-grandfather had once bought a whole library by the weight. It held old tomes illustrated with images of Homer calling down the clouds on his ancient characters. The legend between these pages seemed so alive that my great-uncles took some of them as their own. There were also volumes of rudimentary science, and ancient novels that had been subjected to the censorship of kings. The a’s were still replaced by the o’s.
I heard about it with so much enthusiasm that I too regretted the books that were subsequently stripped of pages, or lost. The novels had worn out in the evening gatherings where the reader would wet her thumb to turn the pages, and cried a rain of tears on the pages as she read about the misfortunes of the heroes within.
Our village gatherings occurred in the house. On winter evenings, women and young girls would meet to spin, knit, and above all, to tell or listen to the old stories of the ghost-in-flames who dances in a robe of flames in horsetails across the meadows.
These vigils still last today; some storytellers charm the audience so well that the evening lasts until midnight. Then, trembling a little under the emotional impression of the story, some would walk the others back to their more-distant homes, hearing their friends reassurances. The snow spreads white, it is cold, and frost like the flowers in May covers the branches.
Perhaps this library helped to launch my mother’s side of the family, where nobody was rich enough to be educated, into the custom of self-study.
My mother’s brothers drew from it. Uncle Georges had astonishing historical knowledge. Uncle Michel had a passion for mechanics which I abused as a child, having brought him down to making a small cart for me, and a thousand other objects. I put this knowledge to good use during the war of 1870, in formulating some of our defences.
I loved my uncles very much, whom I brazenly called Georges and Fanfan until the day when my grandmother told me that it was very bad to treat your elders with so little respect. My third uncle, who was coming back from military service, had picked up or kept old books that had a taste for travel, and had a fair appreciation of many things, especially discipline. It provided him with reflections which he was far from believing myself capable of understanding. At the bottom of everything, discipline sprouts anarchy.
This uncle died in Africa many years ago.
Since I have gone back to my childhood days, let me look at that time again (if the book is too long you can skip the pages).
Here is the old mill on the road to Bourmont, at the bottom of a wild hill. The grass is thick and cool in the meadow bordering the pond. The reeds make noise, crumpled by ducks or blown by the wind. In the mill, the first room is dark, even in broad daylight; it was there that Uncle Georges read every evening.
How many things he learned from reading like this! All, alive and dead: here they are in the place of yesteryear.
Here they are, all the dear buried old relatives of Vroncourt, like bards; the sisters of my grandmother Marguerite, with their white headdresses, the kerchief fastened to the neck by a pin, and the square bodice, in the peasant costume that they kept coquettishly since the time of their youth (where they were called beauties) until their death. Their names were simple like them: Marguerite, Catherine, Apolline.
Of my mother’s two sisters, one, my aunt Victoire, was with us at Audeloncourt; the other, my aunt Catherine, was around Lagny; both of them, like my mother, had that absolute neatness; that luxury of cleanliness which, from their hairbands to their tiptoes, never had the shadow of a stain, nor a speck of dust.
How they live deeply in my heart!
In the early youth of my aunt Victoire, missionaries preaching at Audeloncourt had left behind a religious fanaticism which drew many young girls to the convent. My aunt was one of them, but after having been a novice sister at the Langres hospice, her health was broken by prolonged fasting. It forced her to return home, and it was at this time that she began to live near us, in Vroncourt, where she stayed until the death of my grandparents.
She was very tall, her face a little thin, and features fine and regular. I never heard of a more ardent missionary than my aunt; she had taken from Christianity everything that captures the imagination: dark hymns, the evening visits to churches drowned in shadow, and the lives of virgins which make one think of the Druidesses, the Vestals, the Valkyries. All her nieces were drawn into this mysticism, and I, even more easily than the others. It is a strange feeling that I still feel! I listened to both my exalted Catholic aunt and Voltairean grandparents. I searched, moved by strange dreams, as a compass needle, panicked by cyclones, seeks north. My north was the Revolution.
Fanaticism descended from dreams into reality; my life, at no charge, went away in the Marseillaises of the end of the Empire. When we had time to tell each other the truths, my friend Théophile Ferré told me that I was consecrated to the Revolution. It was true. Weren’t we all fanatics? All the avant-gardes are like this.
Let us come back to my school in Audeloncourt, opened in January 1853. They called it a ‘free school’, because to belong to the regular education system at that time meant that I would have have taken an oath to the Empire.
I was not lacking in courage. I even harboured the illusion of giving my mother a happy future. However, the least amount I could take for tutoring was one franc (a relatively large sum for workers). Not having reached the required age to have boarders, I was obliged to place my students from other villages with the parents of the Audeloncourt students.
In spite of the denunciations of some imbeciles on this subject, and on my political opinions, my class worked all the better, because I had the zeal of youth. I did my job with passion. The friends of order, who deigned to take care of me, called me “red”, that is to say, republican, and were bitter that I was thinking of going to Paris, something they should not have been angry about, if my views of the world bothered them. But the accusation was perfectly true. I had barely glimpsed Paris, and it already attracted me; I thought it was only in Paris that a person could fight the Empire. Paris called me so strongly that I could feel its magnetism.
These denunciations which disturbed the peace of my poor mother gave me a trip to Chaumont. I saw my boarding house there again, along with my teachers and the friends with whom, in the past, I did mischief to nasty people. I remember having, made a great stir with my friend Clara when one day, we decided to make a mysterious mark in red chalk on everybody’s doors. We were laughing, because some of our anxious critics saw an equilateral triangle in it (a little elongated), while others saw an unknown instrument of torture. Those who were not at all interested in the affair saw a big donkey’s ear. These last people were right.
I see the old rue de Choignes in Chaumont, or as it was then, the Boulingrin, where the executioner lives; the viaduct covering the whole of the Ecoliers valley. The Sucot bookstore, containing everything that could tempt me, and where, whether teacher or student, I was always in debt. M. Sucot’s big, curly head gazed through the windows in the midst of luxury stationery, new books, and music from Paris.
It reminded me of my childhood dazzlement in front of the Guerre bookstore in Bourmont. I have not yet lost this impression in front of certain shelves of books.
After each denunciation I was supposed to stay two days at Chaumont, but these days ended when I arrived. I went to the rector of the academy, M. Fayet, and there, sitting beside him as I had once sat with my grandparents by the ashes of the hearth, I explained about the denunciations sent against me, saying that everything was true, that I wanted to go to Paris, that I was a Republican and that, as for the boarders placed with the parents of my students in Audeloncourt, it was like this because those families had had the idea to support one another, and they had come up with the idea themselves. I laughed as I did in my childhood days, but in speaking of study, my passion which called me to Paris for the republic, and my loves, I let my heart open.
The rector looked at me in silence for a long time before answering me, and his wife, who always took my side, smiled as free-range doves flew through the sunny room. It smelled of spring; of home; in all seasons and in the morning at all hours. In my Audeloncourt class we sang the Marseillaise before the morning study and after the evening study.
The children’s stanza
We will enter the quarry
When our elders are no longer there
One of the youngest was said to be on her knees, singing it alone (it was a little brunette called Rose and whom we called Taupette because of the glossy black of her hair).
By taking over the choir we often wept a rain of tears, both the children and I. I rediscovered this feeling in Noumea the last year of my stay in Caledonia. It was July 14, at that time I was in charge of drawing and singing in the girls’ schools in the city. Mr. Simon, the acting mayor, wanted the children to sing the Marseillaise, between the two evening cannons, in the open kiosk on the Place des Cocotiers.
Night had suddenly fallen; there is neither twilight nor dawn in these regions. The palm trees rustled gently, stirred by the wind; the girandoles lit up the kiosk a little, leaving in the shade the place where you could feel the crowd; a black and white crowd. In front of the kiosk, there was military music.
Mrs. Penand, the first lay teacher who came to the colony, was standing near me, as well as an artilleryman who was to sing with us, and the children in a circle surrounded us.
After the first cannon shot there was such silence that the heart stopped beating. I felt our voices hovering in this silence. It felt like being carried away by great wing strokes; the high-pitched chorus of children, the copper thunder which cut through the stanzas, all of this gripped you. This rhythm which carried our fathers, the Marseillaise, we liked it very much.
On our return from Caledonia, we found the sacred hymn used in all kinds of ways. Scarcely healed from the mire in which it had been dragged during the last days of the Empire, the Marseillaise played as it was now, was dead for us. There are still other songs that we love; in the vigils of arms, at the time of the siege and of the Commune, we often sang. With friends in London, on their return from Caledonia, I found our songs.
Little man, can’t you hear
This refrain of a French song?
This refrain, it’s the Marseillaise…
The square of the dead seemed wide to us then. How much wider it is today.
The sound of clogs in my prison reminds me of other clogs sounding sad or cheerful in Audeloncourt on Sundays; little black clogs clattering hurriedly towards the door of the church when they sang the song Dominate, salvum fuc Napoleonem. I had told the children that it was a sacrilege to attend a prayer for the Emperor. And now the little black clogs run, run in a hurry, making a gentle snap like hail, the same little snap that the bullets made, on January 22, 1871, when they rained down from the windows of the Hôtel de Ville on the unarmed crowd.
Later I heard other clogs ringing sadly, big and heavy, on the tired feet of the prisoners of Auberive. They rang with a sad cadence on the frozen ground, while the silent file passed slowly in front of the pines laden with snow. From Audeloncourt, I sent verses to Victor Hugo; we had seen him, my mother and I, in Paris, in the fall of 1851, and he replied from exile as he had formerly replied from Paris, to my nest in Vroncourt, and at my boarding house in Chaumont. I also sent some operas to the Chaumont newspapers.
I have fragments of some of them, less fragile than the cherished hands which preserved them for me. From these serials I quote a sentence, which drew on me the accusation of insulting his Majesty the Emperor, a well-deserved accusation, moreover, and which could have also been motivated by many other sentences.
This soap opera, a story of martyrs, began like this:
Domitian reigned; he had banished the philosophers and scientists from Rome, increased the pay of the Praetorians, re-established the Capitoline Games, and the merciful emperor was worshipped while waiting to be stabbed. For some, the climax is before; for the others it is after: that is all.
We are in Rome, in the year 95 of Jesus Christ.
I was summoned to the prefect, who told me,
“You insulted His Majesty the Emperor by comparing him to Domitian. If you were not so young, we would be entitled to send you to Cayenne.”
I replied that those who recognized M. Bonaparte in the portrait of Domitian insulted him just as much, but that in fact it was he whom I had in view. I added that, as for Cayenne, it would have been pleasant for me to establish an educational center there, and not being able to cover the travel expenses myself, that it would, on the contrary, be a great pleasure for me to go.
The matter rested there!
Some time later, a fellow who wanted to ask – I do not know what favour – at the prefecture, came to find me, telling me,
Risque c’est mé que je le demande ka ke cé vo fait! beyez toujo.
He had seen that the prefect had requested me there. In vain I objected to him that I had been summoned before the prefect only to judge me, and threaten me with deportation to Cayenne, and that my recommendation would not make him come; on the contrary. But the man did not budge.
I ended up writing to the prefect on his behalf, more or less in these terms:
Monsieur le préfet,
The person to whom you have been kind enough to promise a trip to Cayenne is tormented by Father X to give you a letter of recommendation.
I have not been able to make him understand that this is the way to get him kicked out; he is as stubborn as an ass.
May he not learn, at his expense, that I was right to refuse.
Please, Monsieur le Préfet, do not forget the trip in question for me.
Seeing the good man return after his expedition from Chaumont, I admit that I was already laughing at the troubles he was going to relate to me when, to my great surprise, he said to me,
“Hey! I’m going great! You were lucky for me; I have the thing I asked!”
It was he, rather, who was lucky!
From my class in Audeloncourt, you could hear the sound of water over and over again; during the summer the stream descended, murmuring; during the winter it coursed in torrential furies.
Who is listening to this stream now, in the dark house where I was surrounded by attentive pupils, as one is in the villages, where no distraction comes from outside? I could still call them all by name, from little Rose, to the big one, who is a teacher today. Eudoxie died in my arms, a year into an epidemic.
And Zelie, the sister of Clefmont’s messenger! I loved her doubly, because she bore the name of a friend of Vroncourt, long mourned, and because of her vivid imagination. The messenger and his sister were orphans. He was the eldest of the family and, at a very young age, took the place of their dead parents. He had wanted his sister to attend my school; in my travels from Audeloncourt to Chaumont we talked about a host of things that interest people who like to read a lot.
Never did I have a more serious conversation than that day when I returned, still having in my pocket the red chalk that I had used to mark the doors of nasty people, with my friend Clara. I used it to make the same drawing on the back of a traveler who was trying to praise Bonaparte, and who I made tremble by saying,
“It will be necessary that the Republic comes. We are numerous and daring!”
At each point, new figures climbed or descended, some dressed in blue linen blouses, with staff suspended from their wrist by a small leather strap, and a cherry snuffbox in their pocket. Others were covered with clothes so rarely worn that the folds were traced there as by a press.
The road is long from Chaumont to Audeloncourt; it turns in a spiral around Mont Chauve, descends by the most gentle slope, and finally sets off, unwinding its folds through villages still covered with thatch, to the woods of the Sueur, where, under the low branches of twisted apple trees, are the collapsed roofs of a small inn where, in the past, travelers were slaughtered. They say that the old people of the country who entered there a little over a century ago rarely came out.
Am I wrong to stay so long in these eras? I thought I would do it quickly and let go of my memories. A few more pages, perhaps, will be devoted to Haute-Marne.
Some friends tell me Tell me a lot about your time in Haute-Marne. Others say Spend only a little time on those peaceful days, and give more detail to what came after.
Between the two opinions, I am obliged to listen to neither one nor the other, and relate things as they come to me.
I have already removed many childish pages for others. I do not remove them for me, because they allow me to see once more those beloveds who loved me.
Destiny, its wings folded like a chrysalis, awaits the hour to deliver these mornings of life to the wind which tears them; such were my years in Haute-Marne.
Some destinies follow each other first and then take opposite routes. I first met my friend Julie at my boarding school in Chaumont. We taught together in Haute-Marne, and again worked together as teachers in Paris, at Mme Vollier’s. But then came historical events, and she remained a stranger to them, and so our lives moved in different directions.
But before that, long before, at a time while we were on vacation, we swore in the great woods, under the Oak of Oaths, an eternal friendship, and neither of us has failed that promise.
Even in Paris, Julie was mainly occupied with study, and the hatred I felt for the Empire left her unmoved; music and poetry were more her passions. We have a long time
At Mme. Millières, we had for a long time a piano that served as an organ. We sung together around it on spring evenings; I was a bit of an organist there, until my departure for Paris in 1855 or 1856. Julie, at that time, had the voice of a forest nightingale. Two bodies who drew only themselves as their resources could hardly exist one near the other in this country without meeting; that’s what we did, Julie and me. But I was always thinking of Paris, I was the first to go there; she came to meet me at Mme Voilier’s, 14, rue du Château-d’Eau. My mother, from that moment until the death of her mother, lived in Vroncourt, in this house on the rise near the cemetery, of which I must have spoken.
From there, we could hear the wind in the pines which shaded our dear graves; we could see the peaks, heavy with snow, during the winter. When I think of Haute-Marne, nowhere do I see so much as the frost season; I have never felt, except in the polar seas, a more bitter cold.
I suffered a lot leaving my mother and grandmother alone, but the hope of giving them a happy future had not yet abandoned me; I must have kept the illusion of it for a long time.
From that time, until the death of Mme Vollier four years before the Siege, Julie and I never left each other in my school in Montmartre.
Her portrait is with the dear memories that the police search found, because my mother kept them carefully for me; half-effaced portraits, books eaten away by worms, withered flowers, red carnations and white lilacs, branches of yew and fir; there would now be, in addition, the white roses with drops of blood that I sent her from Clermont.
It was among the debris hidden in the old furniture, and the memories too, that my mother was waiting for me, poor woman; but from the six years of my penal sentence, she could only wait two.
Today, the school room at Montmartre room is inhabited by strangers, but, as in the house near the cemetery of Vroncourt, I like to see it again for a moment now, in my mind. The last time I saw Vroncourt, it was during the holidays of 1865. I had with me Mme Eudes (who was then known as Victorine Louvet). She was very young, then sixteen or seventeen, and working for her teaching exams. The joy of my mother and my grandmother in seeing me again was as great as mine was to see them.
it seemed to us that the holidays should always last forever. But they were soon over! When I left these two poor women I dared not turn my head, for my heart was breaking apart, but it was the moment when the struggle against the Empire was intensified and each person had to keep their place, however small.
It seemed to us that the Republic should cure all the ills of humanity; it is true that we see it as social and egalitarian.
I never saw my grandmother Marguerite again. Victorine still spoke to me about that autumn during the illness from which she died young, on her return from exile after the Commune.
We went into the woods together. I had shown her the Oak of Oaths, and the old castle still standing; she went with my mother into the vineyard, which was then full of young trees of all kinds that my mother had planted there.
One evening when we were following the forest from Thol to Clefmont, going to Uncle Marchal, the old forester who married his daughter, the steady trot and luminous eyes of a she-wolf followed us all the way.
This made us a stage setting for the Legend of the Oak:
She is standing under the big oak tree,
Under the great thirty-year-old oak tree.
Twigs of red verbena
Entwine her flowing hair.
In the forest with black shadows,
Endless silence reigns.
The bards are singing; the druids
Will stretch out their linen tablecloth.
For a long time the echo of their supreme songs
Vibrates after the song is silent,
And the lutes ring out for themselves,
The fallen spectral branch.
Wide cuts on oak
Shed the blood of the white bull;
But the victim, in his grief,
Lets out a sad moan.
Before a sinister omen,
The priestess speaks to fate.
On the horizon, rumbling with storm,
It takes a human sacrifice,
A voluntary sacrifice.
He who comes is still young.
He wants his blood on earth
Released from his heart with a golden scythe.
Standing under the scary night,
How beautiful he was for death!
Who then made you, O bloody death,
Death of the martyrs, the most beautiful fate?
The quivering druid
Strikes him, then herself, with the golden scythe,
And falls dying beside him,
Having struck herself in the heart again.
As a talisman on the breasts.
In ancient Gaul,
With the sweep of the ravines
Their ashes remained on their bones.
It was the time when every slave
Rose up against the Caesars,
The time when Gaul was brave
And gathered his scattered sons.
O our fathers, proud and wild,
So heavy is your sleep!
Fathers, are there no more omens?
Have we no more ruddy blood!
You who are arming yourself, why live?
Love is stronger than death.
Shouldn’t we be free?
Happy are those who are marked by fate!
Marriage multiplies the shackles a hundredfold.
To that Tiberius with bloody eyes
Marriage gives new slaves.
Let’s not be fighters in his games.
Friends, it’s pleasant under the oaks.
The oaks keep oaths
Of love or of hate,
On your leaves of mistletoe, with drops of blood.
Such was my thought, such it is still, in respect of the calamities and tyrannies which crush the people like the grain under the millstone. We have had enough of the tortures of poor mothers without multiplying family ties by marriage; yes, then you have to be just combatants.
It is true that it was possible for me to think thus, since those who have proposed to me in marriage, while dear to me as brothers, would have been impossible as husbands. It’s hard to express why. As a woman, I set my dream very high and besides, I always felt the need to remain free for the time of the supreme struggle. And I have always regarded any union without love as prostitution. For five more years, I believed this supreme struggle was to come. Sedan had to be added to the other crimes to make the cup overflow. We always wait for the cup to overflow like an ocean, for the same reason that we are never moved by misfortunes as long as we could prevent them.
I still hold the memory of two ridiculous beings, old men who, following each other like geese or specters, had one after the other asked my grandparents for my hand in marriage when I was aged between twelve to thirteen. This fact alone would have kept me away from marriage if I had not already been against it.
The first gentleman, a true comedy character, wanted to share his fortune (which he made to ring at each word like a bell) with a woman brought up according to his principles (that is to say, in the style of Molière’s Agnes); it was a little late to take in this method after everything I had read. The animal! It was as if he had slept for a hundred or two hundred years and come to recite this to us when he woke up.
I was allowed to answer myself. That day, I had just read with my grandfather his old edition of Molière. The suitor made me feel so amused to be setting me up as Agnes that I found a way to slip a large part of the scene where she said,
The little cat is dead!
I even told him that, word for word. He didn’t understand!
So, in desperation, I looked him squarely in the face, and with Agnes’ naivety, I brazenly told him, “Monsieur, is the other one made of glass too?” (He had a glass eye). My parents seemed a little embarrassed to me; he, with his eye that was not made of glass, gave me a poisonous look; he no longer wanted to make me his fiancée.
At that time I was growing a lot, my dress was very short, I had an apron full of tears and my toad net was in my pocket; I regretted not having a few pass adroitly into his, but there was no need for that; he did not return.
Molière also inspired me for the second of these funny individuals. They didn’t know each other, I think, and yet the two made a pair. This second one had the same idea of having a very young fiancé who he could mould like soft wax for a few years before offering her as a sacrifice.
Have you noticed how many beings go two by two, three by three, like stars that revolve around each other? There was something fun about these two double stars, but laughter destroyed the impression.
This second one, I gave him this speech, more or less:
“You see what is there on the wall? (It was a pair of stag horns.) Well! I don’t love you, I will never love you, and if I married you I wouldn’t like it any more than Mrs. Georges Dundin. You would wear horns on your head a hundred thousand feet higher than those ones there!”
He never came back, convinced that I was telling him the truth, but I was once again recommended to be more reserved when I quoted the old authors.
Some time later my grandfather, returning in Bourmont’s messenger carriage, met a third maniac who said to him, pointing to Vroncourt:
“You see that old rat nest?”
“Yes,” said my grandfather. “Well?”
“There lives there an old man there,” said the man. “A man who is raising his grandchildren for the prison and the scaffold.”
“Yes sir. Lately my friend X offered to marry the odd little girl, in a few years, if her education was managed as he saw fit.”
“Well, he let her answer what she wanted; she said things so horrible that my friend doesn’t want to repeat them. If I had a daughter like that I would put her in a reformatory. An odd little girl who won’t have a dime! Well where are you going?”
“I am getting out at Vroncourt; I am the old man who you’ve been speaking about!”
And to think that there are poor children who are forced to marry one of those old crocodiles! If this had been done to me, I feel that he or I would have had to go through the window. I don’t know if I told Victorine that, when I recited the Oak poem. All my life came to my heart that time, but I mostly spoke to her about my students from the country, Rose and Claire, who had become teachers; the great Estelle, like the fresh shepherdesses of Florian; the poor little Ariadne, thin, lame, withered, who absorbed a study book in a few days… and all these things had happened the day before or long ago; those that made you laugh, and those that made you cry…
Of the people who made people laugh, here are a few. I have spoken of the two Laumonts, the :”small” M. Laumont, a teacher in Ozières, and the “big” M. Laumont, a doctor in Bourmont. Both often came to the house. The “little” one always dressed in a short gray overcoat, like that a pilgrim, and carried a cane of an enormous height. He seemed not to weigh on earth; he was as great in intelligence as he was strange in manners.
The “big” one, wrapped in a loose black cloak (with which, we said, my cousin and I, he looked like a beetle), came on a heavy horse to spend time with us on Tuesdays every week. The two Laumonts were parents, the little one spent the winters with us; he had formerly given lessons to my aunt Agathe and to my mother; I think he had taught everyone to read across the whole country. The older man sometimes had his flute in his pocket, he played it perfectly.
These were the good days; my grandmother or I were at the piano, my grandfather took his bass and we played music, until we had had our fill.
This enthusiasm did not prevent me from finding time to give the famous mare an apron full of oats, which greatly changed her gait.
So the doctor left each time, swiftly in the dark evening, with his ample cloak floating around him, looked like the black rider of legends.
“Little monster,” he said to me one day, after having been two weeks without coming. “You almost made me kill myself. I spent all this fortnight in bed.”
I was so struck by it that I withdrew to weep over my impudence, beneath the cellar, where I would often go down when I had some great sorrow, so as to be in the shadows, which calmed my remorse. Then, seized with pity, my grandmother confessed to me that the big M. Laumont had only wanted to teach me a lesson, but that he had meant no harm; I was punished enough like that. The two Laumonts are remarkable figures of which I will speak at greater length.
Today I thought I had stopped talking about Vroncourt and now the pages are endlessly darkening, and I still have something to say. We will come back to this again, but first I sketch my whole life.
How much, at the end of the Empire, the terrible stanzas of Victor Hugo returned to my heart! They entered it cold as steel, and each syllable rang in my ear like a clock.
Harmodius, it’s time!
I would have slain the Emperor with ease. I would have done it because if this man were not here, millions of men would have been spared. Someone had promised me access to him. But the access I had been promised was given to me only when Bonaparte was no longer there; when he had already left for his war.
Yes, at that time, I feel that we would have avoided Sedan if Bonaparte had died, but we all have the tendency to wait for the annihilation of a multitude before acting.
Perhaps this fact will make people understand more quickly, and that knowledge of his annihilation of legions will later prevent the human race from abandoning itself any longer to these loggers of men who prune people like a forest for their good pleasure.
When Julie and I were at Madame Vollier’s, we always dressed the same. We were both tall and dark-haired; we were often taken for sisters, and we were called “The Young Vollier Ladies.” In 71, when detailed information was taken about me, I had to explain this peculiarity.
Two of my cousins were then assistant headmistresses: one at Puteaux, and the other at La Chapelle. We had roughly the same income; that is to say, what a career in teaching paid at that time. We were not sadder for it; it was recognized that this was the way things were under the reign of His Majesty Napoleon III, as well as that of his predecessors. There was no situation where we had less money, but where we could just as easily do without it. We were all a little bohemian.
Mme Vollier, despite her age, knew how to laugh, as much as all women do who make a living from their work. In the face of our situation, some of our writer friends put up with much more! We all laughed together often, making light of our situation around good cups of steaming coffee.
But I was careful not to tell my mother that my income hardly matched the expenses, however small they were, in the day schools where the rent was soaring.
Having recognised that we could not afford to continue like this, but not wanting to publicise the fact, we decided to join forces: Mme Voilier, Julie and I. It was good; we signed a contract, and this also showed my mother that I was associating with good people, which put an end to people speculating things to her, such as Your daughter will never earn anything, or She spends everything; you shouldn’t send anything more to her, etc, or a cook earns ten times as much. Which of course we well knew: there was nothing to be gained from teaching! But there was still much less in any other jobs for women that were available at the time. Is the condition of women any better today? It is true that the positions of many men are hardly better!
Poor Mme Vollier, kind to us like a mother, found means to dress Julie and I nicely. I remember white crepe hats with bouquets of daisies, (the black grenadine dress, lace mantelets…) but pawn shops helped us a lot; we were dressed for a lot less than people believed. My dear mother, for her part, found a way to send me a little money which, unfortunately, I usually spent on books or music. I reproach myself for it now. But because I had signed a contract with Julie and Mme Vollier, my mother was calm, and the whispers of these imbeciles about how wrong she had been to not force me to marry had ceased with the same piece of paper. There was nothing more to say: I was associated with a Paris day school!
None of us were lazy, but the schoolhouses were on top of each other in the neighbourhood, and the rents were very expensive. As a way to make ends meet, we gave evening lessons after the classes. Mme Vollier herself also gave them, although she was already very old. She told her sons (in small part) many of the same lies that I was telling my mother. Mme Vollier hoped that, upon the demolition of No. 14 rue du Château-d’Eau, she would have an indemnity with which we could have a day school in the suburbs.
Julie, having received a small sum from her family, eventually went to settle in a populous district; she gave up her part of the association to us and bought her day school in the Faubourg Antoine. I didn’t want to follow her. Mme Vollier was old and Julie was young, but we spent our days off together: I gave music lessons there on Thursday evenings.
These details are too short, but this framework of my life would make the book less incomplete if death closed it.
“If your daughter earns so much,” they said to my mother, “how is it that she never gives you any presents?”
Worried, she came to Paris. I could not go to see her on vacation: we only have eight days off when we work in day schools, otherwise we risk losing our students. Parents, having their children at home all year round apart from school time, do not want, or cannot have them completely for more than eight to ten days. And then, how would one manage the terrible rent if there was a month without an income?
As for me, though, I was not unhappy, other than the unhappiness brought through the struggle for existence. I was young, and I admit that at recess I had great fun with the older ones. We would write dramas, which we would play for the little ones (with the sets written on the board, to enhance their understanding of the play.) Young I remained, through everything, and until the death of my mother perhaps, I always had a young heart. But since that day, not a drop of blood remains.
Now I’m uninterested in life; it’s all over, and I will meet the supreme fight (that one that we all must meet) as cold as death.
I see the students of Château-d’Eau again in groups: the group of tall girls, two or three of them: Léonie C., Aline M. and Léopoldine. Then there is the group of blonde girls: two with broad foreheads, and blue eyes of steel: Héloïse and Gabrielle. Then there was a group of girls with black eyes: Alphonsine G. and the two sisters. And a group of pale girls: Joséphine L., little Noelle, and Marie C. And the little ones, so brown that they were black: Élisa B. who, when very small, had the accentuated features of the races of the South, and Julie L., whose voice was enormous while waiting for her to grow beautiful, and Élisa R. who in my imagination plays her prize piece, not yet having the four years that Mozart had . And there are so many others, and all of them: what happened to them? There, like in Haute-Marne, as in Montmartre, as in Caledonia?
We understand why I only include their initials. Who knows if my memoirs will not one day be leafed through to be used for the arrest of those who have met me? If they might be accused of anarchy for having known me once?
We said that my worried mother had come to Paris to find out what was happening for herself. Between her and Mme Vollier, who resembled my grandmother, a lively friendship was established. What bad things they said about me, the poor women! But what a good fortnight we spent together, apart from the very evening of my mother’s arrival, when, all three of us having dinner together, I found myself so happy that it seemed inevitable that this happiness should be disturbed. I was right. A tall oaf with cross-eyes, carrying a promissory note that I had completely forgotten, suddenly presented himself at the door.
It was just when I was bragging to my poor mother (not for the pleasure of cheating on her, but to reassure her) the resolution I had taken to no longer buy so many books. While the silence of Mme Vollier did not bode well for me, the entry of this messenger gave me the most beautiful denial possible.
Then Madame Vollier, to ease my Mother, took out of her own rent money (which her sons had just given her) enough to pay for the debt. My mother returned this sum after her return to Vroncourt; she gently pointed out to me how much the buying of books had already caused her deprivation. It was a long time before I bought books again, but it was rough: there were so many publications that tempted me!
Fortunately elementary courses were there. The courses on rue Hautefeuille most often took place at ten in the evening, so one could often escape there and find the bookstores closed on returning. There, during the long nights of the Empire, we had glimpses of better times. Who would have thought then that some of these political men at the time, who spoke so well of freedom, and who blamed so many crimes on the Emperor, would be among those who wanted to drown freedom in the blood of May 71?
Power makes people dizzy; it will always give do so, until the hour when power belongs to the whole humanity.
In the lives of all individuals are the same transformations that are agitated through the centuries: in childhood, youth, and the virility of mankind. In the hours of youth, does not every human mind make cheap dreams of childhood, where it thinks to care only for itself? Then this isolated individual disappears, or no longer deigns to think stupidly of only his little person.
It did not matter then that there was no time to study sufficiently broadly and that, while we dreamt of the arts, we were only a machine for lessons. This entire time we felt that we suffered, that we were happy; and all the love, all the hatred, all the harmony, all the power that we had, we threw it all away to the scents that carried us away: we were nothing, and we were part of all of what is the Revolution.
At Mme Vollier’s I would send a few verses to newspapers, the Union des Poètes, la Jeunesse, and others, but I had already stripped down so many things that I hardly paid any attention to it all, and I often ignored what was released.
During Victor Hugo’s exile I sent to him the poems which seemed to me almost good. But the time then was already far behind us when I had formerly addressed verses from Vroncourt to him, which the indulgent master called “gentle as my age”.
I am the white dove,
The black hoop
Who, for the ark, through the grave
Looks for a branch.
What I was sending him now smelled like powder.
Do you hear the thunder of brass
Behind the balance?
The coward will betray you tomorrow!
On the mountains and on the cliff,
Come on, let’s sow freedom.
Blasted by the swept-away storm.
Come on, let’s live the Marseillaise.
Pass, pass the seas, pass the black valleys.
Let’s move on, let’s move on, so that the wheat walls fall into the furrows.
These same verses, the Marseillaise Noire, I threw one Bastille Day into the box on the counter of L’Echelle, with others addressed to Mme Bonaparte. These last, started in collaboration by Vermorel and I, had been reviewed and added to by other friends who shared with me the same disdain of rhyme, but with expressions, they said, more appropriate to the circumstance, if the word “appropriate” expresses the thing.
I believe that apart from the first verse and the last, none of the collaborators would have dared to read this piece aloud.
AIR of Malbrough
Hello, Madame Bonaparte.
How are we doing?
My faith, Monsieur,
I’m not bad, are you?
Salesmen and fiddlers,
You are cheap bargains,
Rags of the ragpickers
How many times one must have believed that the day had arrived to throw in the rags; the rags of the Empire; and still it remained. There is nothing so solid as ruins, and nothing lasts longer than rags.
Going to Julie’s on a day off, I passed a crowd walking on the boulevard. I thought that the hour had arrived. But it was Mr. J. Miot who was being taken to prison. Some of those who followed the carnival masks had left them to see this old republican taken by the servants of the Empire.
This joyful crowd on a day of mourning is not ‘the people’: it is the same crowd that we see at public executions, and whom we never find when we need someone to lift up the paving stones.
It is the heap of the unconscious masses who, without knowing it, supports tyrannies, ready to take by the throat and to drag under the water whoever wants to save them. It is the great herd which cranes its neck to the knife and bends to the whip.
Under the Empire, as at all times when nations are slaughterhouses, literature was strange; frivolous things filled the books; there were forgotten corpses behind each page, as if while writing, one had looked at Napoleon III. Everything smelled stale; house flies were swarming over the books.
The charming works of the writer Adele Esquiros slept during this time, waiting for a better moment. Sometimes she would read a few pages of her unpublished writing to us: it contained fresh loves, graceful images, which gave the impression of those spring mornings when the dew covers the flowers, where the sun shines in the branches. There were indeed a few bitter passages. But some fine jokes veiled the sadness.
What happened to all these manuscripts? I never saw them published.
It is true that between deportation and prison I had little time to visit friends. Adèle Esquiros, now, has been paralysed for several years, and as in the past, she still suffers with a smile on her lips, regardless of her fate.
One Sunday, alone at Mme Vollier’s, I was trying out arias which, I well knew, would never see the light of day, any more than my words would (perhaps reminiscent of my love for the devil). It was a fantastic opera. It was called The Dreams of the Sabbath. But I knew it would never be published.
I had bravely made up my mind on this, because I knew that it is impossible to find publishers when one is not known, and yet a person cannot be known until one has found a publisher. As a writer, you don’t amuse yourself by dragging your manuscripts into waiting rooms; you continue with your condition, whatever it may be. If we do not have any recommendations, we would rather be a rag-picker than go and seek them. We even experience a certain pleasure in throwing stanzas, patterns, and drawings to the wind. Let it all fall and fall apart under your feet, Revolution, until the day when all will unfold freely.
So I was trying out my devils, and it was the part where there is an infernal chase:
The cup is reddened,
The wine of the orgy.
And women and flowers
The doorbell rang. She was an old Jewish lady, straight as the ghost of a commander and still of great beauty: one would have said that her face carved in marble; she was the grandmother of one of my pupils.
“Is it really you,” she said, “who allows yourself the savagery that I have just heard?”
“But… yes, it’s me.”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t dare start these horrors again in front of me. To punish you, I want to hear the rest.”
And so I started again. Certain savage motives outraged her, but she had to keep on listening, and on the other hand, she was less harsh on certain things. She loved the love songs. The skeleton ballad pleased her.
You who sing so late on the green walls of the turrets,
Young girl, open to me.
Come; I have white hands and faithful loves
And I will have flashes in my pupil-less eyes
To look again at the queen of the tournament.
At the end of the ballad, of course, the young daughter loves the skeleton and follows it into the unknown; they go into a lonely valley where no sound is heard except a solo lute. My old lady deigned to approve of the troubadour’s lament:
The bird was singing
Under the leaves.
And in the wind the soul flies away
The plan of the play was very simple: after the destruction of life on our planet, it becomes Hell. At first it is more comfortable. In the first act, we see that the world ended through a geological revolution; the theater represents something like a lunar landscape; Satan is seated on top of one of the buildings in Paris, the base of which, like the whole city, is buried under the lava. The love of Satan and Don Juan for the same druidess causes all the ups and downs and starts an infernal war.
All the characters that I liked in history, poetry and legends, had a place there, depending on the character. It ended with the crumbling of the globe, and the spirits assimilating to the forces of nature, whose chorus could be heard in a night crossed by lightning.
The general sound of the orchestra diminished little by little; sometimes one instrument, sometimes another, until all the instruments fell silent; there remained only a chorus of harps which themselves ceased one after the other; a single remained and then was extinguished in a pianissimo softer than the fall of water on leaves… thus the last notes were strung out, until there was silence.
There were all instruments in this piece: harmonica, harps, lyres, flutes, bugles, guitars. A chorus of devils spoke without words, but with violins (about twenty violins). For this monster orchestra, it would have required an enclosure of mountains with the spectators on the floor in the valley, or a whole bay of the new world.
After the grotesque imitation of harp notes on the piano, my Jewess looked at me with astonishment:
“Unhappily these monstrosities are from you!”
I didn’t answer.
“The most unfortunate thing is that there are some good parts there.”
“If there was nothing good in it, I wouldn’t be stupid enough to work on it,” I told her.
“But you know very well that to indulge in these kinds of things, you have to be rich or famous.”
“I don’t indulge myself. I intend to keep working as a teacher. To prove it, I will leave it as it is, this thing which cannot be performed in a theater. It is indeed a dream, whether about sabbaths or life, and so I throw it away as I have thrown away other dreams.”
She took my hand; hers was very cold.
“And your heart, where will you throw it?”
“At the Revolution.”
She sat down at the piano and, her icy hands sliding over the cold keys, she began – I do not know what – invocation to the God of Israel. One felt in her music the desert, and the calm of death, and this calm reached right into my heart.
Some time later this friend led me to the synagogue on a Saturday. The strangeness of the rites and the rhythm, a sort of grandiose Kyrie, it all took hold of me; she believed, seeing tears in my eyes, that I was touched by Jehovah’s grace.
“No,” I said to her. “It was just the impression that took hold of me, and maybe everything is so.”
I do not quite know why I detailed the Dreams of the Sabbaths at such length; I even believe that I partially transcribed it legibly to give it to our friend Charles de S. a few years before the Commune, but that also, out of laziness, I substituted for the final catastrophe an appeasement which saved me ten pages; it’s so boring to write a neat copy out again.
As of the orchestra, fading to the last note of the last harp, which the mind shatters as it goes out, none of this seemed to me worth the effort of the work.
The Revolution was dawning, what was the use of dramas? The real drama was in the streets. What good are the orchestras? We had the brass and the cannons.
We had often met with the same idea, Charles de S. and me. The last time it was about a piano whose hammers had been replaced by small bows to give the keys of the piano a little of the passion of the violin. I wrote an article about this subject which was published in Progrès Musical with the signature Louis Michel.
Several times I had the opportunity to notice that by sending a newspaper any pages signed Louise Michel, it was a hundred to one bet that it would not be published; on the contrary, if I signed it Louis Michel or Enjolras, I had much better luck.
To be, as one race, is to rise and blossom in leaves and flowers.
Like unripe fruits, we may only be good to add sustenance to the soil, but those who come after will bring us the seeds of virtue and freedom.
The sap that is rising in our time of transition is powerful.
Today, human passage, through infinite vicissitudes, can only arise from revolutionary races, amidst those others who deny the imminence of the Revolution.
The slow work of evolution is finished; the chrysalis must burst through the old skin; it is the Revolution.
In all the time that humanity has been laying down with its wings enveloped, we have nonetheless sprouted new senses: the new man will no longer resemble us.
Let us die then, miserable that we are, and let our monstrous errors crumble upon us until the last; and let the human race spread out and truly live where the human flock is slaughtered.
Hail to free and strong humanity who will not understand how we have vegetated for so long, like our ancestors in the caves. Let’s no longer devour each other’s flesh (we are no longer strong enough), but instead, let’s devour our lives. Don’t the multitudes collapse today in hecatombs and countless miseries, for the good pleasure of a few, with the only difference being that with the time that has passed since our ancestors, the injustice is now bigger?
Are the peoples are not pruned like harvests? While mowing down the stubble, one shakes the grain on the ground. During human transition, every drop of blood boils in our veins; it is in this turmoil that the renewal will come. If the Revolution that rumbles under the earth left something of the old world, it would always have to be started again! So she will go away forever, this old skin of the human chrysalis. The butterfly must spread its wings, come out bleeding from its prison, or die.
Hail to the warm-blooded and robust race, in whom all will be justice, harmony, strength and light!
In these days to come, we will take the whole straight line instead of looking for millions of detours in everything, and the little flickering lights that we take for stars, which are hardly glowworms, will disappear in the clarity of daylight.
What a mess we are in, my friends. We will be swept up in this dust. Let’s at least try to make it as least stupid as possible.
While in Caledonia, I saw great trees in the Caledonian forests suddenly collapse, with a soft crackle of rotten trunk, and the little insects were exposed who had lived their quasi-eternity within the trees.
When the whirlwind of dust was gone, there was nothing left but a heap of ash on which, like cemetery wreaths, green branches lay on the last shoots of the old tree, carried away by the rest.
The myriads of insects that had multiplied there for centuries were buried in the collapse. Some, laboriously stirring in the ashes, looked, astonished, uneasily, at the daylight which would kill them, for their species, born in the shade, was not made to sustain the light.
Thus, we inhabit the old social tree, which we insist on believing to be very much alive, while the slightest breath will destroy it and disperse the ashes. No one escapes the transformations which, after a few years, have changed them until the last. Then comes the Revolution, which shakes all this in its storms.
This is where we are. The human race. And within it, those two parts of humanity: man and woman, who should walk hand in hand, and whose antagonism will last as long as the the stronger seek to command, or believes himself to command, while the other is reduced to ruses under this mystical domination, which is the only weapon of slaves. Everywhere the battle is engaged.
If equality between the two sexes were recognised, it would be a marvellous victory against human stupidity.
In the meantime, woman is still, as old Molière said, the soup of man. The stronger sex goes down to flattering the other by qualifying her as the ‘fair sex’. It’s been a damn long time since we did justice to that energy, and so far as rebels go, there are quite a few of us now, simply taking our place in the struggle without asking for it. Otherwise you would parley until the end of the world!
For my part, comrades, I did not want to be the soup of any man, and I went through life with the humble multitudes, without giving slaves to the Caesars.
She too, the humble multitudes, is subject to flattery: they call her the ‘sovereign people’.
Let’s say a few truths, too, about the so-called ‘stronger’ sex. Their power is made possible only through our cowardice, so it is much less compelling than it seems.
If the devil existed, he would know that whenever man reigns, he causes a great uproar. Women, on the other hand, govern quietly. But anything that is done in the shadows is worth nothing.
However, once this mysterious power is transformed into equality, we will see the petty vanities and the great deceptions disappear. Then there will be no more the brutality of the master, nor the disloyalty of the slave.
This cult of supposed strength goes back to cave times; it is common among the first peoples of the world.
I saw in New Caledonia, the tayos overloading their popinée, their women, their nemo, as one loads a mule. They passed proudly, carrying only the spear of the warrior, wherever they might meet someone. But if the path became deserted, if the mountain gorges tightened, then the tayo, moved with pity, would unload from his popinea the fishing net, the keulé or one of the pikininos, the children, as she sweated blood and water.
Relieved, she breathed, having only one little one left, hanging from her back, and one or two others (not attached to her skirts, she does not have any), her little one’s arm slung like a garter to the maternal knee and trotting, trotting evenly, with small, agile partridge legs.
If a shadow appeared on the horizon, even if only that of an ox or a horse of the pudoks, quickly the sling stones, the keulé, the pikininé were returned on the back of the nemo, and the tayo pretended to consolidate the load.
lli chere! If we had seen it? Par lélé, not a warrior who counts his nemo for something? They don’t want to be nothing anymore!
Isn’t it the same everywhere? Doesn’t the stupid vanity of power pose one of the arguments in favour of the inferiority of women, being that motherhood or other circumstances would make it difficult for them to fight? Does that mean that we’re always going to be stupid enough to cut each other’s throats?
And besides, when it is worth fighting for, women are not the last to participate. The old yeast of revolt which is at the bottom of everyone’s heart ferments quickly when the fight opens wider roads, where it smells less of mass graves and the filth of human stupidities. They are disgusted, women! These villainies make their hearts rise in challenge.
A little mocking too, women jeer at the incredible sight of these swaggering boys and old men, small-minded, strange, made cretins by a lot of stupid things, and whose race is finished, weighing the brains of women in their dirty paws, as if they felt the rising tide of those hungry for knowledge, who only ask of this old world that they share what little they know. They are jealous, because they do not want to share the sweetest thing of this old world: knowledge and learning.
It’s been a long time since American and Russian women shook off all those stupid questions about sex, and began to take the same courses as men. Their men are not jealous of it, knowing them to be capable of the same zeal, and not failing to understand that we are more concerned with the condition between the sexes than with the colour of our skin.
But among the developed nations of the world, hichére! Would it not be more lélé than the Caledonian tribes for women to have the same education as men? That is, if they would even want to rule. Rest assured: we are not foolish enough for that! That would be to make authority last! Keep it like this, so that it finishes all the faster!
Alas! this will take a long time to come. Doesn’t human stupidity cover us all with the shrouds of old prejudices?
Don’t worry, there is still a long time to come. But you will not stop the tidal wave or prevent ideas from fluttering like banners in front of the crowds. I never understood why there was a sex which sought to stifle the intelligence of the other, as if there were too already too much intelligence in the human race.
Girls are purposefully brought up in stupidity, so that they are unarmed against those who would harm them, and therefore are better deceived. That’s what they want. It is like throwing you into the water after forbidding you to learn to swim, or even binding your limbs beforehand.
Under the pretext of preserving the innocence of a young girl, she is allowed to dream, in profound ignorance, of things which would make no impression on her if she understood them through a simple knowledge of botany or natural history.
She would be a thousand times more innocent then, for she could pass calmly through a thousand things which would otherwise disturb her. Anything which is a question of science or of nature does not disturb the senses. Does a corpse move those who are used to the amphitheater? Whether nature appears alive or dead, it does not make you blush. The mystery is destroyed, the corpse is offered with a scalpel. Nature and science are clean, the veils that are thrown over them are not. The fig leaves fallen from the figs of old Silenus only underline anything that would go unnoticed.
The English make breeds of animals for slaughter; civilised people prepare young girls to be deceived, then make it her crime, and almost an honour to the seducer. What a scandal when there are bad heads in the flock! Where would we be, if the lambs did not want to be slaughtered?
It is probable that we would all be slaughtered anyway, whether or not we crane our necks. Whatever it is, it is better not to crane it in the first place. Sometimes the lambs change into lionesses, tigresses, octopuses.
It was not necessary to separate the caste of women from humanity. Are there not markets where the beautiful daughters of the people are sold in the streets, on the sidewalk stalls, while the daughters of the rich are likewise sold for their dowry? One, we take when we want; the other, we give to whoever we want. It’s all prostitution, and among us, Caledonian morality is widely practiced.
Hi chère! Not lélé the tayos who count the nemos for something!
To be a proletarian is to be a slave; to be a slave among all is to be the wife of a proletarian.
What about the wages of women? Let’s talk about that. It’s quite simply an illusion, since they are so small as to be illusory. Why are so many women out of work? There are two reasons. One: they cannot find a job. The other: they prefer to starve, in a hole if they can, at the corner of a terminal or a road if they have no more shelter, than to do that job that pays them less than enough to live on, but which brings a lot to the entrepreneur.
Then there are are those women who hold on to life. Driven by hunger, cold and misery, they are lured by the pimps and whores who make a living from prostitution. There are maggots in everything that rots, and these unfortunate women allow themselves to be regimented into the dismal army which drags from Saint-Lazare to the Morgue.
Look, when one of these poor wretches steals from the pocket of a man who dabbles in the mire more than he would have given her, so much the better! Why was he going there? If there weren’t so many buyers, we wouldn’t be trafficking in this commodity. And when an honest woman, slandered or persecuted, kills the scoundrel who is chasing her, bravo! She rids others of a danger; she avenges them. There aren’t enough people on her side.
If women, those accursed women, who, even following the socialist Proudhon, can only ever be housewives or courtesans, and will be nothing else in the old world, which is often fatal to them, whose fault is it? And for men who, for their pleasure, have encouraged the coquetry of women, and all other such vices, to be agreeable to men? They have selected and encouraged these vices over time. There’s no way for it to be otherwise, in the old world.
We women have weapons now; they are the weapons of slaves, mute and terrible; it was not necessary to put them in our two hands: it is already done.
Everywhere, men suffers in this accursed society, but their pain is not comparable to that of women. In the street, she is a commodity. In the convents where she hides as in a tomb, ignorance embraces her, and the regulations take her in their gear, crushing her heart and her brain.
In society, she bends beneath her household burdens in disgust as they crush her; man wants her to stay that way, to be sure that she will not encroach on his functions or titles. Rest assured, gentlemen, we do not need the title to take up your functions when it pleases us.
Your titles… Bah! We don’t like your rags; do what you want with them. They’re too rubbish and cramped for us.
What we want is science and freedom.
Your titles? The time is not far off when you will come and offer them to us, to try by sharing them to retype them a little.
Keep your garbage, we don’t want it.
Our rights, we already have them. Are we not near you to fight the great struggle, the supreme struggle? Will you dare to do your part for women’s rights, when men and women have conquered the rights of humanity?
This chapter is not a digression. Woman, I have the right to talk about women.
Since we were talking about women, let’s also talk about love; I am always reproached for never talking about it. To talk about love, let us return to the dreaming hours in our childhood villages.
There are many love songs that escape in the morning of life from the leaves of old books. In the pages of books, we can love as much as we want. That is to say, we can look very high for the kind of character we would like, if we met him in life. A brave among the brave is chosen from among the sons of Gaul; among the barbarians too. We can look into the distant past at the sons of the North, the men of the Ghilde who poured three cups on the mounds of earth: one for the dead, the other for the ancestors, the third for the brave who fought for freedom. Or the Bagaudes, who died in flames, and the bards, and the troubadours, and the great chiefs of robber bands who took from the rich bandits in their manors, to give the wretched beggars in their thatched cottages.
We cannot be unfaithful to these loves, there are too many to choose amongst them. From the devil to Mandrin, from Faust to Saint-Just, how many shadowy stories made me dream when I was a child! And the Jacques, and the Communiers of the Middle Ages.
The great figures of rebels haunted my thoughts; with them passed the great revolts. How many things float in the dreams of children! Red as blood, black as the night of mourning, I always saw the banners of the rebels at the bottom of my thoughts, and the weddings of those who loved each other were always the red weddings of martyrs, where the supreme pact is signed with blood.
I was not the only one who liked these stories of rebels; it happened to many of us young girls of the village, and to me, and caused us to talk about the same things that the old songs and legends of the country spoke.
Eut qu’elle aimot
Fier il étot.
Le casque en sé tête
Qui pour lu chantot.
Blanche elle étot
Sé main cueillot
Leu guy deu chûne
Et lei verveine
Teulé dans l’bos.
Celui qu’elle aimait,
Fier il était.
Le casque en sa tête
Qui pour lui chantait.
Blanche elle était.
Sa main cueillait
Le gui du chêne
Et la verveine
Ici dans le bois.
He whom she loved
Proud he was,
Helmet on head.
Hear the lark
That sings for him.
White she was;
From the dark oak,
Deep in the woods.
How many impressions are found in life!
During the Terrible Year of 1871, seeing all of our own fall when still full of strength and life, I suddenly found, like a return to my former life, the impression of an oak, of having an axe pressed to the wound of the heart; that same image which had gripped me as a child.
I saw the tree marked for death again, having in the trunk that large notch where the blade of the axe was moist with sap. It was indeed a tall, bushy oak, the oak of legends, which formed the base of my thoughts. Under its shade, the tall, bushy grass, scattered with white daisies and buttercups, the wood… everything was there.
Thus, like dead leaves blown by the wind, the impressions of the past return, suddenly revived.
Since my return from New Caledonia, I have thought about the circumstances of the last part of my friend Passedouet’s life, who died there a little before the rest of us returned to France. Passedouet had been ill for a long time, and had lost his memory; he seemed, in spite of all his wife’s care, to have arrived at his last moments and never left his bed.
What then, was my astonishment, when I met him in West Bay one day, when I had seen him in this very state just the day before?
His ideas had cleared up; he came to rest at the women’s barracks under the forest, chatting almost as before, but pale and trembling on his legs. Not daring to ask him by what chance he had undertaken this trip alone, and thinking of the anxiety his wife must have had, I proposed to Passedouet to return with him to Numbo where he lived, which he accepted.
Leaning a little hard on my arm, he was walking well. When we had arrived on the heights which are between Nji Bay and Bay of the West, and from where one sees so well the buildings of the penal colony on the edge of the island Nou, reddish on the horizon , Passedouet straightened his tall figure, and extending his large emaciated arm towards the prison, he said to me, cutting out each syllable
“Proudhon was right. Everything that we have tried so far has the same disastrous causes, the same inequality of destinies, the same antagonism of interests. Proudhon said it: he who produces everything has only misery and death; the best trade treaties of a nation protect only its exploiters. We will put an end to all this, but how it does harm! How it does harm!”
Sometimes reciting Proudhon word for word, sometimes speaking in short sentences that were separated by rather long intervals, he remained – his arm extended towards the Ile Nou.
It was indeed the Passedouet of the old days; but a Phantom Passedouet, who was going to join the slaughter of 71. He repeated several times Proudhon! Proudhon! then suddenly fell silent and has hardly spoken since.
In Numbo, they were looking for him as I had thought. Passedouet only survived a few days more, and we never knew why he had come to West Bay.
So now I see him again, standing on the heights, his arm extended towards Nôu Island, casting the last glimmer of his reason, the last breath of his chest, towards the day of deliverance. Yes, friends alive and dead, we will come! By dint of cut sheaves, the day will arise when all will have bread!
At the heart of my revolt against the strong, I find, farther back than I can remember, my horror of the tortures inflicted on animals.
I would have liked the animals to avenge themselves; for the dog to bite the one who knocked it down with blows; for the horse bleeding under the whip to overthrow its executioner; but always the mute beast undergoes its fate with the same resignation as tamed workers. What a pity, to be a beast.
From the frog that the peasants cut in half, leaving the upper half to drag itself along in the sun, its eyes horribly popping, its arms trembling, seeking to burrow itself under the earth; to the goose being fattened, whose legs are nailed to the ground; to the horse that is exhausted by being gored by the horns of bulls, lamentably, the beast undergoes tortures inflicted by man.
And the fiercer man is towards the beast, the more he crawls in front of the men who dominate him. From the cruelties that we see in the countryside committed on animals, from the horrible aspect of their condition, I feel such pity for them, and understand the crimes of power.
I could not fail to reflect that this is how those who hold the fates of people act towards them. Forgive me, my dear friends from the provinces, if I dwell on the suffering endured in your country by animals. In the hard work that bends you over the marbled earth, you yourselves suffer so much that disdain arrives for all sufferings. Will it ever end?
The peasants have the sad custom of giving small animals to their children as toys. We see on the thresholds of the doors, in the spring, in the middle of hay or wheat cut in summer, poor little birds opening their beaks to youngsters of two or three years old who innocently stuff the earth into them; they hang the birdie by a leg to make it fly, and watch its little featherless wings flutter.
Other times they give them young dogs or cats that the child drags like wagons, on stones or in streams. When the poor beast finally bites the child, the father crushes the animal under his hoof.
All this is done without thinking about it. Labour crushes the parents; fate holds them as the child in turn holds the beast. Beings, from one end of the globe to the other (globes perhaps!), groan in gear. Everywhere the strong strangle the weak.
As a child, I did many animal rescues. There were so many at home already, so it did not matter if I added to the menagerie. The lark’s or linnet’s nests first came to me when I would trade things for them, and then the children understood that I was raising these little animals, which amused them. After that, they were given to me willingly. Children are much less cruel than we think; we don’t bother to make them understand, that’s all.
Didn’t I myself used to throw toads (which became what they could) at bad people? This growing awareness of the plight of animals made me change my way of dealing with such people. Instead, I sent them poems recounting everything that I reproached them with, in more or less savage verses. Incidentally, these nasty people were very harmless, compared to those I have seen since.
My role as Don Quixote earned my grandfather many letters in which the authors promised to come and correct me sharply, since he did not correct me himself, but no one ever came.
He reminded me of some of those vengeful poems. The last, La Grugéide, ended with the author’s curse of a country lord (in parody of the curse of Camille). “Poem, unique object of my resentment.” It was accompanied by a drawing in which the squire was represented ripping through the pages, and another in which the ghosts of twelve tadpoles appeared to Abbé Croque-Arête.
It started like the Aeneid. Grugeïdos – liber primus – argumentum. It was about a key to a park, taken from an old man who died of grief because a young friend (Father Croque-Arête) had stupidly amused himself with tadpoles.
Like the hatred of power, my observation that merit is seldom recognised dates from my younger years. (I have seen a thousand examples of this in the course of my life, so it was only the first time that it caused me astonishment.) I have always seen it depicted to the contrary in books written for young people, and even for others.
My first observation of this was sparked when I saw my old schoolmaster, a simple man, of whom perhaps my parents and I were the only ones to notice his astonishing talent for mathematics. It was my teacher from Vroncourt. Very young then, I had only noticed that whenever he explained a calculation, one understood immediately.
As I had for a long time written words that were made of my own alphabet, imitated from those in books, it was recognised that it was time to teach me to write like everyone else. It was that year that the big M. Laumont, Bourmont’s doctor, asked me gravely (as he always spoke) why I did not write prose works. I undertook a story called The Naughtiness of Hélène. It started like this:
“Helen was very naughty and very opinionated.”
It was the collection of my own mischievous escapades, which, to each, I had added an exemplary punishment for morality.
Hélène, who had stolen from an old doctor a small encyclopedia (a volume bound in leather, in which there were the names of all that one can learn), was condemned to spend a month without any other book than a large grammar that “she wouldn’t have stolen, of course, to get it.”
“Ah, little monster,” said M. Laumont. “I thought that it was you who had taken my book. Keep it, bad little student!”
We discovered many other things in Hélène’s story. Isn’t everyone, from childhood, capable of all the good and bad within them?
What touched me the most was that after this, I no longer needed to hide the book if I wanted to dream about the mysterious naming systems that I imagined to contain human knowledge, as if what is always going forward could be contained in what it was written to be. The story of Hélène was my last work in my own alphabet. As no one at home wrote well, and as I was also now given less time to occupy as I liked, I went to the village school every day.
The teacher was called Michel, although he was no relation. How many Michels I have met! Although I tried hard at school, I soon found a way to also do naughty things.
When Monsieur le Maitre, as we called him, from the top of his large wooden pulpit, recommended that we take down his dictations exactly, I was careful to add all that was not meant to be, to what I wrote. The result was something like this:
“The Romans were the masters of the world (Louise, do not hold your pen like a stick semicolon), but Gaul resisted for a long time (Virginia, stand up straight) their domination. (Children from the top of Queurot, you came in very late one point. Ferdinand, blow your nose. Children of the mill, warm your feet). Caesar wrote the story…” etc.
I even added things that the master did not say, wasting not a minute, zealously scribbling.
I would have been as insensitive to the master’s anger as I was for any ordinary reproaches, if he had not told me coldly,
“If the inspector saw that, he would sack me!”
A great sadness fell on me; I felt cold. I found nothing to say, even when he forbade me to bring him rose leaves for his tobacco afterwards. Dry in winter, cool in summer, it was I who always brought them to him; he liked to put some in the cherrywood snuffbox, closed with a little cover, which was pulled by a leather strap.
The next day, my dictation was flawless; but for more than eight days, under the severe eye of the master, without hope, I turned the white paper full of dry roses that I had prepared for him, inside my apron pocket. Finally, seeing that my heart was heavy, he asked me for them, and once I had returned to favour.
If I did other mischief, it was no longer those kinds that the inspector could reproach my teacher for. Earning so little that he did all kinds of odd jobs during the long summers when the children did not go to class in our villages, the old teacher was always cheerful; I never heard him say a bitter word.
The Vroncourt school is a dark house, having only two rooms. The largest, overlooking the street, is the classroom. The other, where it is never clear, overlooks a hill covered with grass; the window is like a cellar window at ground level: it is the teacher’s accommodation. In this window, as in the classroom window, there were tiny panes of glass and red cotton curtains.
In front of the classroom window, the schoolmaster’s wife (who was also the teacher) worked all winter long. Her profile, a little severe under her large white cap, seemed very beautiful to me. On catechism days, my aunt Victoire came to sit beside her, to see if I had learned well.
The tables were arranged on three sides. The one by the front door was the only one that was empty. There were two or three benches for the little ones who didn’t write (and a few big ones, with what we called very beautiful hands, who wrote on their knees). They were mistresses of their craft, and they were very proud of it.
As for me, in spite of the five kinds of writing which I was taught at the school of Vroncourt, and the beautiful English I learned in the regular courses of Chaumont, I became myself again when I was at home, rolling and disheveling my written words, changing the pace of my pen according to thought; it’s what makes my handwriting quite difficult to imitate. Yet people have tried. My poor mother received, two years ago, a letter that was quite counterfeit (the signature was a masterpiece), to make her believe that I was very ill in the prison Saint-Lazare, and asking for her. That was a crime.
They further went to the trouble of sending a second letter (very well imitated, it seems) asking for a legal pardon so that I could go to my mother. The forger was unaware that, at that exact moment, I had already been there for a few days.
Let us return to the past.
I had noticed that my teacher’s way of teaching, by the way that he posed a problem, elicited the response. He put it under your nose.
His mathematical operations were performed on a blackboard, where, with the end of his long stick, he indicated the place of the numbers. The way he drew on the blackboard allowed you to see the whole operation, and I felt that the questions he asked had a rhythm to them.
I had told this to my grandfather, so much so that one evening I heard him talking with this teacher about so many interesting things, so far removed from my poor little problems that I would have listened to them like that the whole day, or an eternity. That same day I discovered that my teacher had quite simply a genius for numbers and that he was, moreover, a great astronomer and a bard. I also recognized that algebra is easier than arithmetic.
“Why,” said my grandfather, “didn’t you write about mathematics?”
The old schoolmaster laughed sadly. They added some appreciations that I did not understand until much later, but his laughter struck me, and I laughed in the same way when I later saw in books the idea that merit is always recognised and virtue rewarded.
Many times I have rediscovered the simplicity of the old schoolmaster in people of merit. I thought of him one day as the Commander of the Virginie was recounting his trip to the North Pole. The old wolf, electrified by the storm of the day, the high seas of the Cape, and the scents which run around the ships, relived this voyage and made it alive once more.
“Why didn’t you write this down?” I asked.
“I am not a literary man, and scientists take care of all these things.”
How many are there like the captain of the Virginie?
While studies are forced on people using an encyclopaedic method, and presented in a way so as to restrict the horizon instead of widening it, people will often add to it all the obstacles of poverty which hampered the old schoolmaster, as well as the obstacles of prejudice, which generate fear of those parts of knowledge we have not yet explored. This happened to the commander of the Virginie.
Doesn’t everything depend on everything? Isn’t it hindering human development and the development of new understandings when we proceed with general views?
It is only when the vast ensemble is erected that each one searches his little corner of harmony in the landscape, but that will only happen when the rest also happens.
One impression that I yet rediscovered is the sadness that takes hold of you when you have to destroy an animal that cannot be forgiven without some accident happening to others. We hold in our hands the being who wants to live.
Have you seen a viper cut off at the neck? The pieces twist, trying to come together. One suffers anguish seeing this, but it is sometimes necessary. The viper would have bitten someone. Once, above the vineyard hill, we surrounded a poor she-wolf who was howling, her cubs in her paws. I confess to having asked for her pardon, which of course was not granted. But whatever the pity that twists the heart, the harmful being must disappear. The grace that I asked as a child for the she-wolf, I would not ask for some men who act worse than wolves against the human race.
As for those who, like the Czars, singularly represent the slavery and death of a nation, I would have neither more hesitation nor more emotion than I would in removing a dangerous trap from the path.
You can strike this man with tranquility.
This will always be my feeling should the opportunity arise. My feeling will always be the same, like today, like yesterday, or like tomorrow.
I have often been accused of caring more for beasts than for people. Why be moved by beasts, when reasonable beings are also so unhappy?
It’s because everything goes together, from the bird whose brood is crushed, to the human nests decimated by war. The beast starves in its hole, while the man dies far from his home. And the heart of the beast is like the human heart; its brain is like a human brain, capable of feeling and understanding. We can walk all over it, but the heat and the spark will always be there.
Even in laboratories, beasts are sensitive to caresses or brutality. It is often brutalised in experiments: a professor will explore one side of it, and then turn it over to explore the other. Sometimes, in spite of the ties which immobilise it, the professor will disturb the animal’s delicate tissue of flesh, which makes it move, and then a threat or a blow teaches the poor animal that the man is the king of the animals. Sometimes also during an eloquent demonstration, the professor embeds the scalpel in the beast to hold it while he gesticulates. If he’s holding it, he cannot gesticulate, can he? And because the animal is to be sacrificed, he acts as though it no longer matters.
Have not all these demonstrations been known for a long time, as well as the sixty-something operations that are carried out at Alfort on the same horse? Operations which are never useful, but which make the beast, trembling on its feet, suffer bleeding with torn hooves? Wouldn’t it be better to do away with all that is unnecessary in the staging of science?
All this will be as fruitless as the blood of little children slaughtered by Gille de Rez and other madmen in the childhood of chemistry. A science, instead of gold, has emerged from the crucibles of the great work, but it has emerged from it by the process of the nature of the elements, which chemistry decomposes and will one day recompose.
Perhaps man in the future, instead of the rotten flesh to which we are accustomed, will have chemical mixtures containing more iron and nutrients than in the blood and meat we eat today. Well, yes, I am dreaming, for after the time when everyone will have bread, at a time when science will be the cordon bleu of humanity, its cooking will perhaps not at first touch the palate of the human beast so much, but it will not be infected nor rotten, and it will give again to these new generations, exhausted from long famines or the long excesses of their ancestors, a stronger and purer blood. Everything will be for everyone then, even diamonds, because chemistry will know how to crystallise coal, as it knows that diamonds are remade from the ashes of coal.
It is probable that at that time many other riches and more beautiful triumphs than the popularised diamond will belong to science, which will make use of all the forces of nature.
I have said only one word about my teacher training. A few more lines on this subject.
The dead first of all: in the rue Hautefeuille course that we liked so much, a tall old man with his hair all white explained something very useful and little-known to us: how to write in shorthand. Thanks to this instruction, so many things were shortened. We have so little time for studies and we waste so much of it. Never have I seen the goodness painted on a face better than on that of the venerable Grosselin.
Who else died, during my ten years of deportation and two years in prison? Since then I haven’t read the papers, so I don’t know about those who left after I was gone.
Those who, under the Empire, were young teachers or preparing to become one, were eager for knowledge which was scarce to us. We came to the rue Hautefeuille still thirsty for science and freedom. What good friendships were forged there! A few were broken by death, and others were lost in this turmoil of events, which threw us sideways like grain shaken by a winnower!
I could only write initials for those who are still living. Who knows what would happen to them if it became public knowledge that we often elbowed each other in the little room in rue Hautefeuille?
“Do you know Louise Michel? Go join her in prison; there are only anarchists who know her.”
Hasn’t this wretch Louise Michel said a hundred times that everyone should have a part in the banquet of life? Where would the pleasure of wealth be, if it were not to compare its gorged position with that of the starving? Where would be the pleasant feeling of security if one did not compare his good and solid position to the situation of those who languish in misery?
And Louise Michel is a woman! That is the height of outrage. If only we could fool her with the idea that women will obtain their rights simply by asking men for them. But she has the infamy to say that the stronger sex is just as much a slave as the weaker sex, as it cannot give what it does not have itself, and all inequalities will collapse at the same time, when men and women join together for the decisive struggle.
This monster Louise Michel claims that men and women hold no responsibility, and that it is human stupidity which causes all evil; that politics is a form of stupidity which does not know how to enlarge its small vanities and make them the immense pride of the human race. If that woman Louise Michel was the only one, she would look like a pathological case. But there are thousands, millions like her, who do not give a damn about authority, and who go away uttering the cry of the Russians: Land and Freedom!
Yep, gentlemen, there are millions of them who don’t give a damn about any authority, because they’ve seen the little jobs done by the old multi-edged tool called power. Haven’t we seen, for too long a time, the throat-cutting that has emerged from that little thing called power? It really looks as precious as the jade axe, passed from island to island by the Oceanians of Bourou Island.
This time, though, it will not be a new population which arises from it, but the depopulation of the people, and the weakening of the leaders. Come on, it’s time to empty the rotten water, so that men are aware and free.
I knew the headmasters of teaching classes, who had no idea at the time of the things that authority would make them do. Science and freedom! How good and invigorating these things were, breathed under the Empire, in this little remote corner of Paris! How good we felt there, in the evening, in small groups, and also on the days of large sessions when, being more numerous, we left the whole room to strangers!
We took our places, a little heap of enthusiasts, in the square near the office where we had a box of skeletons, along with a host of other things that we liked the neighbourhood. From there, deep in the shadows, we could hear and see much better.
The little room was overflowing with life, with youth; we lived in the times past, well passed, at the time when everyone had an existence other than that of beasts of burden whose work and blood was exploited.
At this time, around five or six years before the siege, the rue Hautefeuille formed, in the middle of imperial Paris, a clean retreat, free of the odour of mass graves. Sometimes history lessons roared alongside the Marseillaise and it smelled of powder.
How did we find the time to attend these classes several times a week? There were physics, chemistry, even law; we were trying all sorts of methods there. How could we, apart from our classes, teach ourselves? I never understood how time, in this moment of our life, could be so elastic. It is true that we did not waste time, and that the days were prolonged; midnight seemed early.
Several of us had resumed studies for the baccalaureate; my old passion, algebra, gripped me again and I could verify (this time with certainty) that, as long as one is not an idiot, one can do without a teacher for mathematics, and learn it oneself. You must only leave no formula unlearnt, and no problem without an answer.
A rage for knowledge held us and it made us happy us to find ourselves, two or three times a week, sitting on the benches, side by side with the most advanced of the pupils whom we sometimes took; happy and proud, they hardly thought of the time. The more we got excited about all these things, the more we had, at times, the gaiety of a child. We were doing well.
How many caricatures and follies, how much childish fun we exchanged! I think we looked like students more often than teachers.
I remember one evening when we tried the Danel method where, as in England and Germany, the names of the notes are taken from the letters of the alphabet (with the difference that they are written without a staff). Afterwards we went out late. From the rue Hautefeuille there were no more omnibuses, and I was walking back home when a fool began to follow me. High mounted on his long heron legs, I amused myself at first by watching his shadow, like the shadow of a bird, glide under the lampposts.
He was saying the kinds of nonsense that people say when they do not know if they will be answered. This made me impatient; it spoiled for me the impression of this fantastic bird trotting on its long legs. So I looked him squarely in the face and, with a booming voice, I started to go down the Danel D range: B, L, S, F, M, R, D!
The effect was overwhelming. Whether it was the slightly masculine accent, or the strange syllables formed by the last four letters, I never knew: the bird had disappeared.
Another time, having a large coat which enveloped me completely, and wearing a sort of large plush hat which cast a lot of shadow on my face, along with new boots (from the pawn shop) whose heels, I don’t know why, happened to ring very loudly, I returned on foot, quite late; there had been a lot of talk about nocturnal attacks in the newspapers, and a good member of the bourgeois who could hear my boots ringing and no doubt could not make out the black form which was coming from his side, began to trot with such fright that I had the idea of following him for a little while to see how frightened my boots would make him.
He kept walking, he kept walking, watching to see if no one would come to his aid. The night was dark, the streets deserted, the bourgeois was scared to death and I was having a lot of fun.
He lengthened his stride as much as he could, and I passed in the shadows, ringing my heels; that was what kept his fear alive. I no longer knew in what district it was when I let the bourgeois go, shouting at him Must we be stupid!
I had to come back and that night I returned very late, or rather early in the morning, no longer laughing; because I had seen, at night, people who live on prey or who themselves fall prey to a night of what is called civilized society.
On the way home from this episode, I wrote some sad-sounding stanzas. They were written while Madame Voilier (despite my daily precaution of putting the clock backwards) scolded and worried, the poor woman, as my mother would have done, thinking I would be tired the next day.
Here are the stanzas:
All the shadows have poured out their dark urns,
All the dark night, its silent ghosts.
The water sleeps sinister and murky and, in its deep bed,
The abyss still opens in the gloomy silence.
Suddenly we hear, towards the immense mystery,
Something fall from a bridge,
While, beneath the light of the pale lampposts,
Wandering in the night, in its the sublime miseries,
Were phantoms more dreadful than the dead cold;
Ghosts lurking under the doors, in the shadows;
Ghosts slipping nameless and without the shadow
Of other erased ghosts.
Well, yeah, I saw the girls and robbers,
And I spoke to them.
Do you believe they were born
To be what they are, and drag their rags
In blood or muck, predestined evil?
No, you made them, you for whom everything is prey,
What they are today.
Yes I had seen robbers and girls and I had spoken to them. How many have lived since, and how many things they told me.
Do you believe that anyone comes into the world with an open knife to stab someone, or a card in hand to sell themselves? We are not born, either, with a club to be a cop, or a minister’s portfolio to be seized with vertigo of power, and drag nations in its fall.
No robber who could not have been an honest man! No honest man who is not capable of committing crimes in the madness into which the prejudices of the accursed old world throw them.
Jules Favre, who was soaked in the blood drained from the throat of Paris because power had poisoned him (as it poisons with blood in the brain all those who are dressed in this tunic of Nessus), this same Jules Favre, we once loved as a father, and he was fatherly to us; he was kind. How many times, on the pretext that he was our president, did I lead people to him who needed to consult a lawyer and could not pay for it?
I remember that one day when I told him when there was an old woman who had suffered a little from a persecution mania and who had to be reassured, perhaps even to be cured! He had wasted a good deal of time reasoning with her, and then he came to me quite angry.
The obtuse angle formed by his forehead and his chin closing in at a right angle was a bad sign.
“It’s too much!” he said to me in a low voice, while the old woman made a bunch of curtsies while muttering I’ve been persecuted twenty years ago, etc., etc.
I can still see the place where it happened, near a large ballot box donated by his constituents. I do not know why the immense desire to laugh seized me, and at that time he had such a good heart that when I burst out laughing, the right angle of his profile reformed into an obtuse angle where, as usual, the eye shone at the top, forming the chin on one of the lines, and the forehead on the other; he himself could not help laughing himself then, and the old woman, still curtsying, said Thank you very much! Til next time! See you soon!
I thought about that in Satory, looking at the little pond where the prisoners drank from the palms of their hands when they were too thirsty, and when the heavy rain which fell on them had swept away the pink foam of the pond (the water was red because the victors had washed their hands there, which were often redder than those of butchers.)
I seemed to see this bloody pool coming out of the urn of old, as one represents the source of rivers.
Who will write down the crimes of power and the monstrous way in which it transforms men, so that its crimes can be forever destroyed, by extending true power to the whole human race?
If you make power bigger, you can save people instead of defeating them. To extend the feeling of patriotism to the whole world: welfare and science, for all mankind.
Have we not had enough of all this death that takes away the people we love?
I come back to rue Hautefeuille.
Another president with whom we were bold, it was Eugène Pelletan. His face, with the smouldering eyes, sunk under thick grey eyebrows, had something strange in them which reminded us of Nicolas Flamel, Cagliostro, and those scientists whose seize the legend; it was especially when he was at the office that we liked to curl up in the skeleton cabinet, looking away, listening, caught up in the poetry of science, by the words of freedom, by the love of the Republic and the hatred of the Caesars. How many books you can read today were started under these impressions!
I remember an enormous manuscript, La Sagesse d’un Fou (Wisdom of a Madman), which I took to Eugène Pelletan when he was our president, so that he could read it and tell me his opinion. I understood how long it took him to read this enormous grimoire and write down a few passages. No, he wrote, it is not the wisdom of a fool, it will one day be the wisdom of the people. When I collected my manuscript back, I felt like I was walking on air! I reread a good part of it carefully, then time ran out. It was necessary then to give more and more lessons after class, and the La Sagesse d’un Fou went along with the other books. Maybe I would have looked for an editor for this one if I had the time. Maria L. too, had read and written many things. Jeanne B. and perhaps her sister must have had manuscripts in the works. Julie L. and Mlle Poulin (whom I can name since she is dead) have thrown many words into the wind. There was a veritable nursery for blue stockings in the rue Hautefeuille, the last two years before 71.
But prose, verse and motifs were blowing in the wind; we felt the breath of the drama very close in the streets: the real drama, that of humanity; the bards sang the new epic, and there was no more room for anything else.
The vocational schools that made us love Mr. Jules Simon had all our enthusiasm at the time. A few handfuls of young girls were just saved from apprenticeship by studying there, and they were provided with certificates or diplomas, according to their aptitudes; artists emerged and we said Here comes the Republic; this handshake will be all!
Alas! At Madame Paulin’s vocational school, during the siege, women of all social positions gathered, and all of them would have preferred to die rather than surrender. We threw together all the help we could get, as best we could, supporting those who could be ransomed by saying Paris must resist, always resist. We created the Society for War Victims.
I see them all as they used to be. I do not know which ones are still alive, but not one of them has failed – these were not those freakish women who, on our final day of defeat (after the Commune), gouged the eyes of the dead federates (those fighting for the Commune) with the end of their parasol.
The first visitor that I could have after I was made a prisoner in Chantiers was one of these brave women, Mme Meurice. At my last court appearance, when my judgment was read, I saw behind the spectators, selected from among those who had entered less easily, the black eyes of another, or rather of two others: the large Jeanne B. and the small Mme F.
Later (when I have obtained permission from them), I will talk about the women and women’s societies, from the Vigilance Committee to our latest evolution into the Women’s League. I greet them in passing, all these brave women of the avant-garde, spread out from group to group, as from summit to summit.
Beware of the old world, on the day when women say: That’s enough! They are not joking; strength takes refuge in them; they are not worn out. Beware of these women!
From those who, like Paule Minck, roam Europe waving the flag of liberty, to the most peaceful of Gaul’s daughters, asleep in the great resignation of the fields, yes, beware of women, when they will stand up, disgusted by everything that is happening! That day it will be over, and the new world will begin.
We had, during the last years of the Empire, a free vocational school on rue Thévenot; each of us giving a few hours of our time these, three times a week, and the Society for Elementary Education taking care of the rent. One of our teachers, whom we called Doctor Francolinus, displayed a diabolical activity there. Sometimes the police of the Empire gave us the pleasure of attending our lessons, which made us laugh, so we improved our lesson from time to time by making comments that made a big swipe at the ugly hyena moustache of the man called Napoleon III.
The courses in literature and ancient geography were given two days by me, two days by Charles de S… in absolutely in the same way: we showed the real side that one would believe romantic: childhood, youth, the decrepitude of towns and peoples, similar to the life of every being and to that of all human kind, as well as the ghost towns rising up before us.
My friend Maria A., the director, had been with Julie L. in the faubourg Antoine. How many times we found one another there, at that late hour when there was no longer time to look at the shelves of booksellers or to read, between the pages, the books on display outside. We would come and go from the suburb to the rue du Château-d’Eau. How many jokes we played on one another in the evenings when we were sad! Our bursts of laughter cut the shadows.
She did not want to go with me to a photographer’s one evening when, having found me a horrible portrait of someone or other, and having loaded it with more fanciful details, I said to the photographer with a somewhat exaggerated Bourmont accent, “Sir, I saw on your door Full-length photographs. Could you create a full-length portrait of my husband here?”
You can imagine the man’s expression as I gave him such absurd explanations, and his indignant face as I ran away laughing.
Neither did Maris want to be there on that day during the holidays, when I was to be sent by an employment office to be a cordon bleu chef to some good bourgeois family, who would have kicked me out after the first dinner I had intended to make them.
It was on the Bastille side, on a third floor. I had no papers (having forgotten them I said), but the usher let me in when I dazzled him with the names of all the imperial underworld whom I claimed to have served. In the end I threw the whole story in his face, laughing like crazy.
What a spell the influence of names is! This lesson, given to this poor devil, was well worth the pleasure of putting a little pepper in sweet dishes, to be kicked out by people accustomed to real cordon bleu. The usher, once deceived, began to curse me, and I left laughing as usual, brazenly telling him Next time, don’t let yourself be so easily confused with those names!
I am chasing a sketch of something while it lingers; there are so many things piled up since the year of the Siege that, to say them all, we would never end. Among the teachers we met in rue Hautefeuille, one of the earliest to gather together the ruins of science was Mlle Poulin, a teacher in Montmartre. Long undermined by a breast disease, she acted as though she did not even feel it, piling up as much knowledge as possible before she went to the grave.
At the very end of the Empire we united our two institutions, at 24 rue Houdon, after the death of Mme Voilier and the departure of my cousin Mathilde, who had spent a few months with me. The last time I saw Mlle Poulin’s grave was in May 71. During the night of the 22nd to the 23rd, I believe. We were in the Montmartre cemetery, which they were trying to defend against too few combatants.
We had crenellated the walls as best we could, and if it had not been for the short bursts of machine-gun battery coming from the hill, and the shells coming at regular intervals from the side where we saw the tall houses, the position wouldn’t have been bad.
The sounds of the shell, tearing the air, marked time like a clock. It was magnificent in the clear night, where the tombstones seemed alive. The men I was fighting with belonged to the same company with which I had been from the first day of the struggle.
Several times we had scouted, now one and the other; I liked the walk in this shell-ridden solitude. I had wanted to return there several times, in spite of my comrades’ opposition. But luckily, the fire always came too early or too late for me, and I was not hit.
But we were already wounded, and I had a hard time getting back, that is to say, I went on reconnaissance in spite of my comrades. A sudden shell falling through the trees covered me with flowering branches, which I divided between two graves: that of Mlle Poulin, and that of Henri Murger, whose genius seemed to throw flowers at us when he was alive.
Sacred thousand thunders! one of my comrades told me. You won’t move from there. And they made me sit down on a bench near the tomb of Cavaignac.
But nothing is as stubborn as women. I was not the only one to verify strange calculations of probabilities, and sharing my luck, my comrades could not have had better opportunity. The shell always fell before or after we had passed.
Another memory from the rue Hautefeuille: she was a very small, very thin person, giving music lessons, but she could also have given so many other things. She walked as in a rhythm, everything was harmony in her. And there are others in my memory, and still others more, who fortunately are still alive.
Many things had their home in rue Hautefeuille. Besides free elementary education courses, we had vocational schools, courses teaching mothers to read, and a course for young people, a large number of them, including children – too-young children – who worked all day or who had never been to school.
The first women’s rights groups with Mmes Jules Simon, André Léo and Maria Deraismes often met at the vocational school in rue Thévenot. Everything began, or rather began again, after the Empire’s long lethargy. At the bottom of all this, the idea of Russian revolutionaries also carried me along.
But even where the most advanced among men applaud the ideas of equality of the sexes, I could notice, as I had always seen it before and as I always live it afterwards, that in spite of them, and by the force of custom and old prejudices, men would seem to help us, but would always be content with just the appearance of helping.
So let’s take our place without begging it. Political rights are already dead. Equal education, and adequately paid work for women, so as not to make prostitution the only lucrative state: that is what was real in our program.
Today time has done its part; it is necessary to rectify the great debacle. Yes, the Russians are right, evolution is over, it takes revolution, or the butterfly would die in its nymph’s tunic.
By 1865, my dear mother had sold what was left of her fields, keeping only the vines, in order to buy my Montmartre day school, which she paid by measure, the poor woman! as she received, on her side, the price of the sale.
We lived there, Madame Voilier and I, on the income her sons made, and we arrived just as the number of pupils began to increasing greatly. We would have been almost at ease, for teachers. We did so many projects! My grandmother was still alive and I received good news from her and my mother. I do not know what joy rose to my heart at times.
This is how it ends. One evening Julie L. and Adèle Esquiros came to dine with us. Mme Voilier had received her pension, we were in the money and we had talked about sending a small gift to Haute-Marne.
Julie brought I don’t know what from the country. Adèle Esquiros had loaded herself with sweets. It was a day off, the four of us were very warm in the little room upstairs. We were chatting happily, especially Mme Vollier, whom I had never seen so cheerful.
I had told how I had stuck a Republican poster the day before on the back of a town sergeant. I had one left over; I reasoned that it had to be placed somewhere.
On the open piano, the big black cat walked back and forth, listening to the motif which awakened under his paws, his head a little raised, like a big raccoon, having eaten a whole bowl of coffee cream which I did not mention.
Madame Vollier was relating how, in the interest of the house, she had put our funds in a chest of drawers under lock and key, and held the keys in her pocket; she made them jingle with that smile of her eyes that I had seen my grandmother have, and that I saw so many times from my mother whenever I stole something in my little escapades. We all applauded her, but laughed even more when, out of remorse of conscience, I returned the wallet that I had stolen from the chest of drawers that very morning. Almost nothing was missing.
I don’t know what kind of heartbreak enfolded me; we were happy, and it was as if I knew that it could not last. However, I ended up feeling excited and happy. Quite a bit later, I took our friends back to the omnibus in the rue Marcadet.
The night was dark and sad, and in that shadow a dog was howling; on my return he began to follow me. The coincidence that put this sinister beast in my path was more aligned with the truth. Madame Vollier, to whom I was careful not to let my impression of sadness show, was still cheerful when I got home. But it was not for long. She had her second stroke that night.
I have her portrait near my bed, in front of a bouquet of red carnations. As though I was their sister, her sons left me my share of memories.
After the death of Madame Vollier, a great sadness came over me, but there was no time to suffer. The Empire, as it neared its end, was becoming more threatening, and we were becoming more determined.
The first teacher who had settled in Montmartre, Mlle Caroline L’Homme, and who had, she said, taught the whole neighbourhood to read (she was right), was now crippled and old. She still had a few pupils; one day she gave what was left of them to me. She was broken.
Have you read the legends of the North? She looked like one of the nuns of that fable, she passed so quietly. Pale, with her long white hair tied by a long antique needle, something fateful enveloped her.
It is only at the end of our lives that we have lived a heroic legend.
Nothing could be more charming than this gentle and proud woman. Now dead, too!
My poor mother; she had very few peaceful days with me. When she came to Montmartre, she was shattered by the death of my grandmother. But the Revolution was coming; I left her alone for long evenings. After that, it was days, then months, then years. Poor mother! By a few words that escaped her by the end, I understood how many sacrifices my poor mother had made to pay for the day school in Montmartre. I loved her so much that I will only be happy when I go to find her in the land where everyone sleeps. Can our mothers be happy?
In the fermentation of the end of the Empire, the idea of revolution germinated and grew. Shaken in a shower of sparks, it set fire like a torch. We had had enough of all these dirty things. Our meetings were held more and more in broad daylight. It was as though the revolt rose from below ground, to arrive in the bright sun. We hadn’t seen the war coming yet. The war raised herself to prop up Bonaparte’s reign with piles of corpses.
The war could not succeed, despite the training of this group of imperial bandits; it was necessary to let free of the wings of the Marseillaise to intoxicate the people. The army itself, always too docile, could not march and sing the Beau Dunois.
Some verses I wrote at the time sketch out this situation: I will include some here.
In those days, those nights, we assembled in the shadow,
Indignant, shaking the sinister and black yoke
Of the December-man, and we shuddered, dark,
Like the beast at the slaughterhouse.
The Empire was ending. He killed at ease,
In his cave where the threshold had the smell of blood.
He reigned, but in the air was blowing the Marseillaise.
Red was the rising sun.
It often happened that a bardic scent,
Enveloping us all, made our hearts vibrate.
To the one who sang the heroic collection,
Sometimes we threw flowers.
Of these red carnations that, to recognize us,
Had each of us reborn as red flowers.
Others will be taken during the times to come,
And those will be the victors.
The second part of Red Carnations was written in Versailles, through the great public sacrifice of 1871, and sent to Ferré, condemned to death, Here it is:
Maison Arrest de Versailles, September 4, 1871.
A TH. FERRÉ.
If one day to the cold cemetery I were to go,
brothers, cast on your sister,
like a final hope,
some red carnations in bloom.
In the final days of the empire,
as the people awoke,
red carnation, it was your smile
that told us all was reborn.
And now, go blossom in the shade
of dark and drear prisons,
go blossom near the somber captive,
and tell him we love him.
Tell him that in these changing times
everything belongs to the future;
that the victor with his pallid brow
can die as easily as the vanquished.
There are only flowers in my life: the red roses in the bottom of the enclosure loaded with bees; the white lilac that Marie wanted on her coffin; and the flesh-colured roses stained with drops of blood that I sent from Clermont to my mother!
Let us return to the past through more verses.
THE MANIFESTATION OF PEACE
In the night we go away, walking in long lines
Along the boulevards, saying Peace, Peace
And we feel ourselves followed by the servile pack.
Your day, O Liberty, will it never come?
And the pavement struck by the heavy throws of the lance
Resounds heavily; the robber wants to stay.
To delay a little his fall, which is advancing,
He fights it, even as France darkens.
Do you feel these cursed men pass from your palace?
It’s your end.
Do you see them in a scary dream?
They go to Paris, like ghosts.
Do you hear? in Paris, whose blood he will drink,
His walk is punctuated with this strange rhythm.
The stunned crowd, like a great flock, passes,
And there is that robber Caesar, surrounded by a hundred henchmen,
And to strike France he sharpens his knife.
Since we want combat, since we want war,
People bow their foreheads, sadder than death.
We must fight against the tyrants together.
Bonaparte and Guillaume will have the same fate.
One evening, as I pretended that I was not involved in any political activity (so that my mother would not be worried), two of our friends came to pick me up for a meeting. They had stayed outside so that she did not suspect what was happening.
“It’s impossible,” said the poor woman, “For you to go and give lessons at this hour!”
“It’s Julie who sends for me,” I said.
But she went to the window and saw my friends there.
“I just knew it,” she said, “That it was for your meetings.” She was laughing, despite herself. We also left laughing.
Those. meetings most often took place outside Paris. How many things we spoke about, on our way back along the paths in the fields! Other times we were silent, awed by the dazzle of the ideas that arose within us, sweeping away the shame of twenty years.
Oh my friends, I think we were all poets, a little! We have suffered a lot, but we have seen beautiful things!
How better to relive those days, than by the pages that remain from that time:
The charge resounds under the earth.
Forward! Forward! Let’s walk!
Ninety-three has the banner.
Oh my friends, let’s go! Let’s go!
What! as long as the rotting eagle
Would have enough to feed a worm,
We would dare to bow down
In front of this impure carrion?
To arms, citizens! Train your battalions.
Let’s walk; let unclean blood water our furrows.
Before the empire crumbles,
Before the worm-eaten skeleton
Crumbles under the great swell,
We know what the people wanted.
Let’s break this iniquitous slavery,
In front of Tiberius, would we all have
Crawled on our knees for twenty years?
Friends, long live the Republic
To arms, citizens! etc.
August 15, 1870.
We said And so! Long live the Republic!
All Paris will respond, all Paris raises itself,
Remembering at last, proud, heroic Paris,
In its generous blood that the Empire washed away.
So this is what we believe! The city is silent.
I still see this day in the distant haze.
Each shutter closes and the street is deserted.
To our brave friends, we shouted: To Prussia!
Yes, in Paris, we shuddered at the crimes of the Empire. It was in Paris that we had the answer: Vive la République! And there was a great silence.
All the shutters were closed, leaving the Boulevard de la Villette deserted, and around the wagon where Eudes and Brideau were prisoners, they shouted To Prussias!
It is because Paris has always been deceived by this strange precept of waiting, that we knew that we had to now achieve all, because the shame and crimes were piled up to heaven.
When our friends were condemned to death for having wanted to proclaim the Republic and bring down Bonaparte, we were given responsibility – André Léo, Adèle Esquiros and I – for carrying a protest covered with thousands of signatures to General Trochu. The greater number of these signatures were given in indignation; some people changed their minds afterwards, when they later became timid. But weren’t our signatures going to save the lives of our friends? I admit that I did not want to erase the signatures of these two or three shy people.
Well, so much the better, I said to them, we will go down together.
It was not easy to reach General Trochu. It took all my female stubbornness to reach him. After almost storming into a sort of anteroom, we said we would not leave without seeing the Governor of Paris. The words: “We come on behalf of the people” did not have a good resonance there. At their invitation that we leave, we went to sit on a bench against the wall, declaring that we would not leave without an answer.
Tired of seeing us waiting, a secretary went to look for a character who said he represented Trochu. This person came and, weighing the voluminous notebook we gave him that was covered with signatures (which seemed to worry him), he told us that, given the number of the signatures, they would be taken into consideration. This promise would have had little weight if the Empire had not collapsed, rotten as it was, Sedan’s bludgeon pinning its corpse to the ground.
There was only one red scarf in the Hôtel de Ville at that time: that of (Henri) Rochefort. But we said to ourselves: The people are there.
Unfortunately after September 4, things were still being run as they had been run under the Empire, and the people let it go for a long time.
So many memories. We had no news of each battle: neither true nor false. Only the titles of the people in government changed, but things remained otherwise the same!
We refused to allow the soldiers to attempt desperate sorties; we were still waiting for the liberating army, which we knew very well could not come. People said that a city had never succeeded in unblocking itself on its own. I did not feel that was true. The fact that it has never happened does not mean it is impossible; to the contrary, it has a chance of happening at least once.
On October 31 1870, at the Hôtel de Ville, the Commune was named, but it was stolen away like a goblet tower. You need these things to happen, to know which enemies you are dealing with.
Flourens paid with his life at the outposts of the Commune, where the Versaillais murdered him in a trap. This crazy generosity. If we are relentless in the next fight, whose fault is it?
On January 19 1871, we finally agreed to let the National Guard attempt to retake Montretout and Buzenval. First the places were taken, but the men entering the sodden earth up to their ankles could not mount the armour on the hills, they had to fall back.
There they remained by the hundreds, without regretting their lives. National guards, men of the people, artists, young people; the earth drank the blood of this first Parisian sacrifice, and it was to drink many more.
But Paris did not want to surrender. On January 22, we were in front of the Town Hall, where Chaudey was in command. The protest was to say that the people did not dream of surrendering. Many wanted the demonstration to be peaceful, but it ended with the crushing of those foolish pacifists, while those who were armed moved away. When only the unarmed multitude remained, a little noise of hail fell from the windows. In places where there were gaps, you could see the pale faces of the Bretons.
Yes, it was you, savages of Armor, savages with blond hair, who did this. But at least you are fanatics and not copouts. You killed us! But you thought you had to do it for your honour. One day we will have you bring your passion to freedom’s cause. You will bring the same fierce conviction to it, and with us you will assault the old world.
Razoua commanded the Montmartre battallions. No rifle-shot was fired from our side, the side of the people, in the face of the Bretons’ fire. But then those who had lined up around the Square de la Tour-Saint-Jacques became indignant. The bullets still raining down, they began to build a barricade.
An old man whose hood was riddled with bullets and who hardly thought of it, an old man from June 48, Malézieux, remembered those days and took control of the situation, like a flag: the brave man, in his June flag.
In the middle of the square, lost in my thoughts, I looked at the cursed windows, thinking You will be ours, brave men. The bullets continued making their little sounds of hail, and the place had become deserted. The projectiles coming from the Hôtel de Ville were fired randomly, killed the pedestrians.
Next to me, a woman of my size, also dressed in black and who looked like me, fell, hit by a bullet. A young man was seen naked beside her; he too was killed. We never knew who they were; the young man had the bold profile of the races of the South.
Many did not want us to stop there. But we decided that revolution wouldn’t be this time. On January 22, Sapia was killed, along with others; P. from the Blanqui group had his arm broken. There were passers-by killed like ours had been, and at the graves people swore vengeance and freedom.
I had thrown my red scarf over a pit in challenge, and a comrade tied it to the branches of a willow tree.
Six days after these events of January 22, when the people were machine-gunned and the government gave the assurance that no attempt would be made to surrender, the government surrendered to the Prussians. Paris’ burst of anger did not subside this time.
The Montmartre Vigilance Committee has its own history; we are few survivors of it; it made the reaction tremble under the Siege. Every evening we flew to 41 Chaussée Clignancourt in Paris, sometimes demolishing a club of cowards, sometimes blowing air on the fire of revolution, because the time of deception had passed. We knew what promises and the lives of citizens weighed in the face of a floundering power.
In Montmartre, there were two Vigilance Committees: that of the men, and that of the women. I was always with the men, because they were Russian revolutionaries. I still have an old map of Paris which was on the wall of the second room; I took it and brought it back across the ocean as a souvenir. We had blotted out with ink the Empire’s coat of arms, as it would have soiled our lair.
Never have I seen intelligence so straight, so simple and so elevated as I did in the Men’s Vigilance Committee. Never have I seen more distinguished individuals. I do not know how this group did the things it did; there were no weaknesses. There was something strong and good resting within each member.
Among the citizens, there was the same courage, and there, too, remarkable intelligences; but at 41 Chaussée Clignancourt, I continued to belong to the two committees whose tendencies epitomised them. The Women’s Committee will also have its history to play out; perhaps one day they will be merged with the Men’s, because at that time one will hardly worry about to which sex one belongs in order to do their duty. That stupid question will be over.
In the evenings, I found a way to be at the two clubs, since the women’s club, at rue de la Chapelle at the Justice of the Peace, opened first. I could thus attend just over half the session of the meeting in the Pérot room, or sometimes even the whole session; both bore the name of the Revolutionary Club, distinct from the Grandes Carrières.
I still hear the call and I could say all the names of those there. Today is the call of the ghosts.
The Vigilance Committees of Montmartre left no one without asylum; no one without bread. They sometimes shared only a herring for dinner, split between four or five, but for those in need, they did not spare the resources of the town hall, nor the revolutionary means of requisitions. The XVIIIth arrondissement was the terror of monopolists and others like them. When we said Montmartre was going to descend, the reactionaries stuffed themselves into their holes, unleashing like chased animals the hiding places where food was rotting, while Paris was starving. We laughed heartily when one of us found some snitch who thought he was a good citizen.
We mowed down the Vigilance Committee like all good revolutionary groups do. The few who remain, Hippolyte F…., Bar…., Av….., Viv….., Louis M…., know how proud we were and how we carried the flag of the Revolution. It did not matter to them whether they were turned to dust in the struggle, or else in the bright sun. It doesn’t matter which way the millstone passes, as long as the bread is made
One sometimes wonders how so much could be contained in life during these mere fifteen years. I will write the frame, so that you can close the book wherever you want.
This here is not what one would call a sensational work; it is a quick glance on the life and thoughts of a woman of the Revolution. It hardly causes a sensation within us when we are crushed, that is where all obstacles cease for us. We only seek to be useful projectiles in the revolutionary struggle. There is no-one suffering anymore on account of what happened to us; nothing stops us, my heart is still there! It is better for the cause.
What does it matter, now, in the heart torn bleeding from the chest, if the sharp points of feathers dig in there like the beaks of a crow? No one is here any more to suffer calumnies. My mother is dead.
If she had lived a few years more, a few more months, I would have spent all that time near her. Today, what do prisons and lies and all the rest of it matter? What would death do? It would be a deliverance; am I not already dead? If I leave here it will be to enter the furnace where one feels the breath of the unknown, which whips you in the face.
Why do we speak of courage? Am I not eager to go find my partner Marie and my mother! My poor mother, who lived so alone when I was imprisoned at Saint-Lazare last year. She would have felt me near her; the agony of my return to prison stole a month of her existence.
And after I was in Saint-Lazare? I only asked for these last moments with her, promising the authorities in return that I would go back to New Caledonia and start a school for the Canaques. I didn’t want to be pardoned; it wasn’t my fault, but I did it because my mother was dying. The governors were, as it always happens, less bad than their laws are; they let me stay with her for a few days.
Man is always obliged to break the law with which he wraps himself like a net and which he spreads over others. No man would be a monster or a victim without the power that one gives to another, to the detriment of everyone. If this book is my testament, let it cast every page with curses on the old order of things.
I would have died a long time ago if I did not think that were close to making the final blow; the one where the red and black flags will float together.
One more thing that the authorities have done well is to have ignored those who, following only their kind hearts, have asked that I be released, my mother still warm!
My poor mother, dead because I was not there. Freedom, as if I had been paid for her corpse. We did not do it and we did well. Can anything move me, now that she is no longer in pain? I am not expecting pain or joy, I am good for the fight.
Let us go back quickly, since everything will be taken again… on January 22, March 18, the fight, the defeat, the men and women’s committees, the deportation, the return; prisons before and after the return.
On March 18, on the Butte of Montmartre, bathed in that first light of day which illuminated everything as though through the veil of water, an anthill of men and women rose up; the hill had just been surprised; going up there you thought you were going to die.
Here’s why the Butte was the focus of the reaction. The guns paid for by the National Guards were left in a vacant lot in the middle of the area abandoned to the Prussians. Paris did not want to surrender its cannons that it had paid for itself, so they were taken back to the Wagram park.
It was a general impetus given by a battalion from the 6th arrondissement. The idea was in the air, each battalion went to collect its guns; they passed the boulevards with the arms of men, women and children, the revolutionary flag in mind. Sailors were already proposing to retake the forts from the Prussians as you would boarding ships; this idea breathed in the air intoxicated us.
No accident happened, although the pieces were loaded. Montmartre, like Belleville and Batignolles, had its guns; those which had been placed in the Vosges were transported to the Faubourg Antoine.
The clubs had been closed since January 22, and the newspapers suspended. If the people were not already on alert, it is probable that March 18, instead of being the triumph of the people, would have been that of some king.
The Badingue son was not yet dead; Montmartre disarmed, it was the intervention of the sovereign, Bonaparte or Orleans, who made the army and the Prussians accomplices, and allowed the Prussians to establish themselves in the forts the army should have protected.
This time Montmartre did not want to be an accomplice to the army which, three months later, they used to crush Paris.
The army raised its rifle butts in the air instead of snatching the French cannons from the National Guards, and above all from the women who covered them with their bodies; the soldiers understood, this time, that the people were defending the Republic by defending the arms which the royalists and imperialists, in agreement with the Prussians, would have turned towards Paris.
Yes, if March 18 had to belong to the foreigners, ally to the kings, or to the people, it belonged to the people. When the victory was decided thus for us, I looked around me and I saw my poor mother who had followed me there, thinking that I was going to die.
Clément Thomas and Lecomte, at the moment when Clément Thomas was commanding to shoot the people, were arrested. Both had been, by their very acts, condemned by the people for a long time; it dated all the way back to June 48 for Clément Thomas. He had returned to public life during the Siege, and was known for insulting the National Guard. Like Thomas, Lecomte had a backlog of rent to pay: his soldiers remembered those things he had done.
Revenge emerged from the past, without order, it allows the hour to strike. And yet it will still ring, too, for many others, without a passing Revolution allowing them to do it or prevent it.
We count those who die in popular reprisals, but there is another side who we do not count; who we have no way of counting. It is the people who are only grass under the sickles; grass mown in the summer sun.
Several of our people also perished. Turpin, who fell near me when they attacked No. 6 rue des Rosiers during the night, died a few days later in Lariboisière. He asked me to recommend his wife to Clémenceau; the will of the deceased was faithfully carried out.
I never read the testimony of Clémenceau in the Inquiry of March 18; we didn’t read newspapers in prison. The indecisions for which he is reproached come from his illusion of awaiting some further progress from dead parliamentarism; this illusion is the bacteria he brought back from the Assembly, while fleeing the Assembly in Bordeaux. His place is in the streets, and circumstances will drag him back there one day when his indignation grows; it is what remains of his revolutionary temperament. One day when he perceives a great crime, this cold indignation of revolt will return him from these illusions, in the same way that he left the Assembly of Bordeaux.
Let’s go, last members of Parliament. If you are to remain honest, wouldn’t it be better to follow the great Jacobin who shows you the way, Delescluze? Working through parliaments has lasted long enough, and through the rot, nothing blooms. No matter how much you sow there, no matter how much blood is poured over it, it’s over, well over.
What is the use of changing its name, when at the Elysee and the Hôtel de Ville, we cannot help the wounded without dancing over the corpses, while the people, dying of hunger, watch fireworks rise in the air? It’s just like the old August 15. The power! It’s like like using a glass chisel to sculpt marble. Come on! To dominate is to be a tyrant, while to be dominated is to be cowardly. Let the people stand up! The old lion has been whipped long enough for him to break the muzzle.
And the next day? we say. Well, the next day belongs to the new humanity; it will arrange itself in the new world. Can we comprehend that day? May it pass over us as smoothly as over a bridge. We are only good if this happens. Let us not discuss it, blind as we are to the new dawn which is rising.
In revolution, the epoch which emulates others is lost, we must go forward. The Commune, surrounded on all sides, had only death on the horizon; it could only be brave.
It was. Revolution opened the door wide for the future, and there the future will go.
The ship from Paris is in the harbor, well, in the harbor of the new shore. It dances on its anchors. The best of your crew has been thrown to the sharks; but it will take it on.
And how beautiful this ship is, with its red and black flags floating on our mourning and our hope. Here is the revenge of all humanity on the eternal days of May. On blood blossoms vengeance, as water makes the grass blossom, say the brave.
In this new world, personal revenge will disappear like drops of water in the raging waves. We do not count the vicissitudes of the grains of sand; they ride with the others, they are all there.
During the whole time of the Commune, I spent only one night with my poor mother. Never going to bed – I could really say never – I slept just about anywhere, and only when there was nothing better to do; many others have done the same. Each one of us gave themselves entirely to those who wanted deliverance.
If the reaction had had as many enemies among the women as it had among the men, Versailles would have experienced more pain; it is a justice to our friends, that they are more susceptible to the follow of pity. They suppose a woman to be weak of heart, but a woman knows more than a man how to say It must be done. She can feel torn to her very bowels, but she remains uncowed. Without hatred, without anger, without pity for herself or for others, she knows how to do what is necessary, whether her heart bleeds or not.
So were the women of the Commune…
Alongside my woman’s clothes, I wore a lignard’s costume, and other times a national guard uniform. I had maps in my pockets to prove where I came from; and I left without anything having happened to me other than a bullet wound on my wrist, my hat riddled with bulletholes, and an ankle sprain which, having had it for a long time, finally forced me not to walk for three or four days and to requisition a carriage during that time.
It was a pretty good-looking carriage; we had also harnessed a horse who was fairly nice looking. Unfortunately, though, he was used to following instructions with blows; if you treated him honestly, he didn’t want to walk, the ugly beast.
The thing went perfectly, as long as it was a question of following a funeral in step to the Montmartre cemetery, but afterwards, when it was necessary to go elsewhere, the accursed animal, not satisfied with its little habit of sleeping upright, stopped short to allow a bunch of idiots to come around me and whisper everywhere “Ah, these people have horse-drawn carriages; they are making money dance, and that must cost a lot of money to maintain that car!”
“Wait,” said a friend, “do not come down. I am going to make him trot.”
He gave a piece of bread and encouragement to this monster, who began to chew, raising his lips as if he laughed in our face, and didn’t move more than a foot.
So, no offense to those like me who are slaves to the poor beasts, I applied the law of necessity, in the form of a whip to our horse, which left, shaking its ears, for the Peyronnet barricade in Neuilly. On my way to Montmartre, I had not dared to stay with my poor mother, because she would have seen that I had a sprain.
A few days earlier I had found myself face to face with her, in the trenches near the Clamart station. She came to see what whether the lies I wrote to reassure her were true; luckily she always ended up believing me.
In the next part of this story there will be some accounts of our struggles. In the provinces, the people still believed the official fairytales. State reason demands that we make discord between the various groups of rabble, to whom we leave enough time to work, but too little time and resources to revolt, but which, between each regulated pruning, grows back as numerous and strong as the Gallic oaks.
Some of the most devoted went from Paris to the provinces; women, among others Paule Mink. We multiplied our supporters as much as possible. If the province had understood what was happening, it would have been with us. We tried balloons filled with dispatches to France. A few fell where they were supposed to. And not everyone was deceived by the Versailles blunders. Lyons, Marseilles and Narbonne had their own Communes, drowned like ours in revolutionary blood; it is because this always happens that our banners are red: why, then, do they frighten those who cause them to be so stained? The peasants’ pains is even darker than ours; they constantly bend over the earthly stepmother, drawing only their master’s surplus, and they have less consolation of thought than we do.
To you, peasant, this is my song of anger; may it germinate in your furrows; it is a memory of our time of struggle.
SONG OF HEMP
Spring laughs in the green branches,
In the depths of the woods the nests chirp;
Everything lives, singing with open wings,
All birds hatch their young.
The people have no money or stitches,
Not a shelter, not a valiant penny;
Hunger and cold eat away at their entrails.
Sow your hemp, peasant!
Sow your hemp, peasant!
It would be good if Jacques Misère
Could love, to bring both love and misery!
But love and light is far from us.
They don’t exist for the unfortunate!
Let us not leave a widow to torment,
Let us not leave sons to tyrants,
We don’t want to be accomplices.
Sow hemp, peasants!
Sow hemp, peasants!
Forge, castles, fortresses.
Give your all to everything, like the flocks;
Sweat and blood, work and distress.
The factory rises to the rank of castles.
Jacques, do you see, at night under the porches,
As in a dream of flaming flight,
Reds, wander, torchlight.
Sow your hemp, farmer!
Sow your hemp, farmer!
You can see it clearly, friends, that I’m capable of anything, love or hate. Don’t make me better than I am, and you are.
Human insects that we are, we gnaw the same debris, we roll in the same dust, but it is in the Revolution that our wings will beat. Then the chrysalis will be transformed, everything will be over for us and the better times ahead will have joys that we cannot understand today.
The sense of the arts, and of freedom, are only rudimentary in our race; they have t develop and produce fruit. It is that harvest that will grow in wonderful sheaves. Over there in the warm shade of a spring night, it’s the red reflection of the flames; it’s Paris lighting up during those days of May.
This fire is a dawn; I can still see that fire, writing this.
Beyond our accursed time will come the day when man, conscious and free, will no longer torture neither man nor beast. This hope is well worth going through the horror of life.
I always forget that I write my Memoirs. If only we could forget existence until the end, too!
Before talking about my third arrest (in the days of May), I must tell you about the first ones. It was at the time of the Siege, with Mrs. André L. We had called for volunteers to charge through everything, to go to the assistance of dying Strasbourg, and to make a last effort to save her from the Prussians, or to die with her.
Large numbers of volunteers had come. We crossed Paris in a long line, shouting To Strasbourg! To Strasbourg! We added our signatures to the open book at the knees of the statue of Strasbourg, and from there we went to the Town Hall, where we were stopped.
Mrs. A. L., me and a poor little old woman who, crossing the square to fetch oil, had found herself in the middle of the demonstration. She did not leave her little petrol can; and when she was taken in on our account, especially at the sight of her pitcher, which was an eloquent witness, her hands were trembling so much that the oil fell on her dress. A big guy came in. I tried to explain to him what we were doing.
“What does it matter to you if Strasbourg perishes? You aren’t there…” said this colourful sleepwalker, who had come to see us out of curiosity.
A member of the provisional government set us free. It was at this very hour that Strasbourg succumbed.
My second arrest was still during the time that we were under Siege. Women, more courageous than far-sighted, had wanted to offer the government some sort of defence to which they asked to be employed. Their eagerness was so great that they came to the Montmartre Women’s Club, on behalf of a citizen and a group they forgot to tell.
Had they presented themselves without the name of any group, we would not have hesitated to accept their meeting the next day. But as they presented themselves as this group, we told them that we would accompany them as women, on the reservation that we shared their dangers, but not as citizens. We no longer recognized the government, which was unable to let Paris even defend itself.
We went to the meeting at the Town Hall, waiting to see what would happen. It was there that I was arrested for allegedly having organised a demonstration. I replied that I could not organize a demonstration to speak to a government that I no longer recognized, and that when I came to the Town Hall on my own account, it would be with the people in arms. My explanations did not seem satisfactory; I was imprisoned.
But the next day the four citizens, Theophile Ferré, Avronsart, Burlot and Christ, came to claim me on behalf of the 18th arrondissement. Believing that the scarecrow of the Montmartre reaction was going to descend upon them, I was released.
Mme Meurice also came to claim me on behalf of the Society of Women for the Victims of War; she arrived after our departure from the prefecture; women, I repeat, did not commit cowardice. That is because we do not like to get our paws dirty. Maybe we have a bit of the feline race in us.
Three hundred thousand votes elected the Commune. About fifteen thousand people during Bloody Week were said to have fallen before the army. About thirty-five thousand were counted; but there are many more that we could not count. There are some days when the earth unearths its corpses.
The women, during those days of May, erected and defended the barricade at Place Blanche. They held on until death. One of them, Blanche Lefebre, came to see me as if visiting the Delta barricade. We still thought we were winning then.
An insurgency wins well. But the Revolution was bled in the neck by the old fox Foutriquet, the army general of Versailles. Dombrowski walked past us, sad, on his way to be killed.
“It’s over,” he said to me.
I told him “No, no.” And he held out both hands to me.
I always escaped everything, I don’t know how. After all, those who wanted to have me took my mother captive to shoot her, since I could not be found. I went to free her by taking her place. She didn’t want me to, the poor dear woman; it took me a lot of lies to convince her, but she always ended up believing me.
So I convinced her to return home. It was near the Montmartre railway, at Bastion 37; there was the depot of the prisoners. The fragments of burnt paper, coming from the Paris fire, rose up like black butterflies. Above us floated, in red crepe, the dawn of the fire.
We still heard the cannon; we heard it until the 28th. And until the 28th we said The Revolution will take its revenge.
We were still naive, as we did not see the betrayal to come.
At this Bastion, in front of the large square of dust where we were held, were the bunkers under a mound of green grass. There, on the arrival of M. de Gallifet, two unfortunate people were shot in front of us who were struggling, not wanting to die. Perhaps they came out to insult us, for they were caught in the street and were not very tormented, believing that they would be set free.
M. de Gallifet’s speech, when he made the order to shoot the crowd if someone seemed to change places, frightened them, and they started to flee, seized with mad terror.
Although we all cried We do not know them; they are not ours! they were shot, not even being able to stand up for fear, the poor things. They were saying only that they were traders from Montmartre, and being so terrified, they weren’t able to find their address in their obscured memory to tell the crowd, or to recommend their children to those who would remain living, even if we hardly expected to get out.
These men looked alike and had to be brothers. It was believed that one of them said Helas! Me, I always believed that he had said Anne, and that it was his daughter How many were taken thus, who were enemies of the Commune, like the two unfortunate people of the Bastion 37? Strange things were happening.
Later, when we were marched from Satory to Versailles, an angry woman rushed in front of us, shouting that we had killed her sister, that she knew it, that there were witnesses. Suddenly two cries were uttered; her sister was among us, taken prisoner by Versailles.
Satory! We were told Come on! Go Up! when arriving in the heavy rain where the climb was slipping. Come on! Go up! as we had on the assault upon the Buttes. And all of us had mounted at a pace, and we were marching in front of the machine guns that were being rolled, telling an old woman who was with us, because her husband had been shot and who was going to cry, that it was just a formality that they did every time prisoners arrived.
She fell silent.
We were sure there would only be one cry: Vive la Commune!
The machine guns were withdrawn. While passing through Versailles, some of those who were too exhausted to walk were shot like hares. A National Guardsman had his jaw broken. I owe this justice to the riders who led us, those who also pushed back the exhausted prisoners, and the strange ladies who came to hunt prisoners.
In Satory, groups of prisoners were called in during the night. They rose from the mud where they were lying in the rain, and followed the lantern which walked in front; a shovel and a pickaxe were put on their backs to make their holes, which would be their graves when they were shot.
The sounds of the discharge broke out in the silence of the night.
After telling me that I would be shot in the dark the day after my arrival, I was told then that it would be in the evening, and then the next day, and I do not know why it was not done, for I was as insolent as one is in defeat with ferocious victors.
About thirty of us women were sent to the Chantiers prison at Versailles. There, we were all seated on the floor around a large square room on the first floor during the day, and at night we stretched out as best we could. At the end of a fortnight, a bale of straw was given to share between two prisoners.
Above, through a hole, we went up to the interrogation room. Another hole led to the ground floor, where the child prisoners were.Two lamps illuminated this morgue at night. The effect was completed by the sight of our rags suspended by strings above us, as over a body.
For a long time I was forbidden to see my mother, who often came from Montmartre without being able to speak to me. One day they had pushed her away while the poor woman had handed me a bottle of coffee. I threw this bottle at the head of the gendarme who had pushed her away. To the reproaches of an officer, I told him that my only regret was that I had addressed my rage at an instrument of power, instead of having hit those at the top, who were in command.
My mother was finally allowed to see me, but it was a long time after.
In the Chantiers prison, as everywhere, there were comic episodes.
A deaf mute spent a few weeks there for the reason of having allegedly shouted “Vive la Commune!” An old woman paralysed in both legs was held for having made barricades. Another circled the room for three days, her basket on one arm, her umbrella under the other. In this basket were songs she had composed for the Versailles government in praise of the victors. Her verses included ones such as this one:
Good gentlemen of Versailles, enter Paris.
But soon the laughter died on our lips. The mad cries of the prisoners who suffered; the worry we saw for parents and friends, whose fate we did not know; the poor mothers alone at home, worrying about their children in prison.
But we were proud in the face of the defeat, particularly in the face of the strange men and women who came to leer at the vanquished of Paris as you would go to see the zoo animals in the Jardin des Plantes. I did not see tears in their eyes, but only the smirks on their idiotic faces.
On the ground floor were the children whose fathers were no longer alive or were imprisoned; they were like Ranvier, of whom we were proud.
On the ground, silvery rows of insects snaked along the ground, going towards some kinds of anthills. They were enormous lice with their backs bristling and a little arched, having a vague resemblance to wild boars; there were so many that you thought you could heard a the noise of their hairs bristling as they moved.
As we were guarded by soldiers, the women could not easily change their clothes (those who had them). I was finally able to get hold of some. My poor mother brought them through the openwork door in the courtyard. She seemed very sad to me; it was just the beginning.
My nights were spent looking curiously at the staging of this morgue. I have always been taken by these kinds of paintings, so much so that I sometimes forget people in the terrible eloquence of things. Sometimes the morgue would take on the effects of a cut harvest at dusk or dawn. You could see empty ears of corn, or the meager bales of straw gilding like wheat under the sun. Other times there were great reflections, it looked like a harvest of stars; it was the day which, rising, dimmed the lamps.
On Marcerou’s arrival, the forty worst of us were sent from the Chantiers prison to the Correctional Service of Versailles; I was one of them.
As we were waiting in the courtyard, in the pouring rain, an officer expressed his regret to us. I liked it better like that though.
At the Correctional Service of Versailles, the regime of the forty worst found itself singularly softened. What happened at the Chantiers after our departure was told by Ms. Cadolle and Ms. Hardouin.
As a preparation for the judgment of the members of the Commune, they had tried a number of unfortunate women (as pétroleuses) who, having only been ambulance workers, were nevertheless condemned to death. Two of them, Retif and Marchais, had never seen each other; it was proved that they had accomplished a great many things together.
Eulalie Papavoine was, by chance of her name, condemned to forced labor; she was not not even related to the legendary Papavoine, but they were too happy to emphasise that name. Suetens, also a paramedic, accompanied them to Cayenne.
They were careful not to judge the most daring women, and they dared not execute either Élisabeth Retif or Marchais.
On September 3, the eve of the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic, the judgment of the members of the Commune ended. By virtue of a decree of the Governor General of Paris, superior commander of the 1st military division, placed on the army’s agenda, the 3rd Council of War was thus composed.
MERLIN, colonel, president.
GAULET, battalion commander, judge.
DE GUIBERT, captain, judge.
CAISSAIGNE, lieutenant, judge.
LÉGER, second lieutenant, judge.
LABBAT, adjutant non-commissioned officer.
GAVEAU, battalion commander in the 68th of the line.
SENART, captain, substitute.
The accused were classified in the following order
FERRÉ, ASSIS, URBAIN, BILHORAY, JOURDE, TRINQUET, CHAMPY, REGÉRE, LISBONNE, LULLIER, RASTOUL, GROUSSET, VERDURE, FERRAT, DESCHAMP, CLÉMENT, COURBET, PARENT.
Ferré did not want a defender; the president, under the terms of the law, automatically appointed Me Marchand.
Ferré thus explained the role of the Commune, describing how the coup d’état was prepared by the enemies of the Republic, even refusing Paris the election of its municipal council. He then said:
“The honest and sincere journals were suppressed; the best patriots were condemned to death. The royalists prepared for the partition of France. Finally, on the night of March 18, they believed themselves ready and attempted the disarmament of the National Guard and the mass arrest of the Republicans; their attempt failed before the entire opposition of Paris, and the very abandonment of their own soldiers. They fled and took refuge in Versailles.
In Paris, left to its own devices, energetic and courageous citizens tried to rein in order and security, risking their lives to do so. At the end of a few days, the population was called to the ballot and the Paris Commune was thus constituted.
The duty of the government of Versailles was to recognize the validity of this vote and to negotiate with the Commune to mediate between the parties; to quite the contrary, and as if the foreign war had not caused enough misery and ruins, the government added to its miseries civil war. Breathing only the hatred of the people and revenge, it attacked Paris and made it undergo a new siege.
Paris resisted two months and it was then arrested. For ten days the government authorized the massacre of citizens there without trial. These disastrous days take us back to those of Saint-Barthélémy. We have found a way to go beyond June and December. Until when will the people continue to be fired at?
I am a member of the Paris Commune. I am in the hands of its conquerors. They want my head: let them take it. Free I have lived, and I intend to die in the same way.
I only add one word. Fortune is capricious. I entrust the care of my memory and my vengeance to the future.
TH. FERRÉ. ”
Thus were pronounced the judgments:
Theophile FERRÉ, LULLIER. Death sentence.
URBAN. TRINQUET. Forced labor for life.
ASSI, BILHORAY, CHAMPY, REGERE, FERRAT, GREENERY, GROUSSET. Deportation to a fortified enclosure.
JOURDE. RASTOUL. Simple deportation
COURBET. Six months in prison and 500 francs fine.
DESCHAMPS. PARENT. CLEMENT. Acquitted of fine.
Ferré was assassinated on November 28, 1871, at seven o’clock in the morning, on the plain of Satory, with Rossel and Bourgeois. His father and brother were still prisoners. His mother had died mad, because, summoned to choose between handing over her son they were looking for, or her dying daughter, a few words escaped from the poor mother’s lips put the sleuths on their tracks.
Marie Ferré appealed to her courage and, the only one of her family who was free, went from prison to prison as long as her brothers and father were there. Her mother died in Sainte Anne.
They were fifteen executioners who were called the Commission of Pardons:
MARTEL, deputy for Pas-Calais.
PRIOU, from Haute-Garonne.
BASTARD, from Lot-et-Garonne.
Félix VoisiN, from Seine-et-Marne.
BALBA, from Gers.
Count of MAILLÉ, of Maine-et-Loire.
TANNEGUY-DUCHATEL, from Charente-Inférieure.
PELTEREAU DE VILLENEUVE, from Haute-Marne.
LACAZE, from the Basses-Pyrénées.
TALBANE, from the Ardèche.
BIGOT, from Mayenne.
PARIS, from Pas-de-Calais.
HORN, from the North.
MERVEILLEUX-DUVIGNAU, from Vienne.
Marquis de QUINZONNAS, of Isère.
Ferré and I were able to exchange a few letters from our prisons, which is why, upon being denounced, the prefecture of police sent me to Arras, where I remained on the day of the execution. I expected that.
At the Versailles station, I met Marie, who was going to claim her brother’s body. She was very pale, but had neither tears nor weakness. She looked like a dead woman. She was all in black; her big curls of brown hair were carved on her pale face as though on marble. She wasn’t any colder when I arranged her in her coffin.
The earth was all white with snow, it was six months since the heat of the killings had ended. On November 28 the cold assassinations began.
And so we have the dead and the hot slaughter and the cold quarry.
Flourens was killed in an ambush behind closed doors, to punish him for letting certain people slip away on October 31, through the windows, doors and water closets, when he did not hunt for the vanquished.
And Duval, and Varlin, and Cerisier, and old Delescluze, the great Jacobin, and all the others, a list of whom would fill volumes of books, as well as all the strangers who now sleep in Paris.
Sometimes, in a cellar or street corner, we find skeletons and we do not know where they come from; this is called a mysterious affair. Wasn’t everything a mass grave in aide of the victory of the royalists of Versailles?
And the plain of Satory, if we searched it, wouldn’t we find corpses there? It was in vain that they were covered with quicklime everywhere. The plow will turn over, and the raised paving stones will show it.
Today they are ossuaries; fifteen years ago they were slaughterhouses. And the catacombs where they hunted the Federals by torchlight, with dogs, like beasts. Do you believe that there are no modern skeletons among the centuries-old bones? And the denunciations in such large numbers that they end with disgust, and the foolish fear, and all the loathing… all the horror!
I have letters from that time; here is one I addressed to General Appert:
Versailles prison, December 2, 1871.
I’m starting to believe in the triple murder on Tuesday morning.
If they don’t want to judge me, they know enough about me. I’m ready and the Satory plain is not far away. You all know that if I got out of here alive I would avenge the martyrs!
Long live the Municipality
They did not want to send me to the post at Satory, and yet I am still there, seeing death mowing the people down around me. No one knows among those who have not experienced this immense void what courage it takes to live.
Let’s have no weakness. Yes, long live the Dead Commune! Long live the Living Revolution!
In June 1872, we counted 32,905 decisions handed down by the Versailles courts; there were already 72 death sentences and this was still going on, not to mention 33 people condemned to death by custom; in total, there were 105 people that year sentenced to capital punishment.
They were still shooting people at Satory when we embarked at Auberive, just as they were still sending new deportees there when the amnesty came ten years later.
46 children under 16 were placed in reformatories, to punish them, no doubt, because their fathers had been shot. They also had their heads crushed against the walls, but that was during the heat of the struggle.
In the salons of the Elysee, Foutriquet went to meet the Duke of Nemours. In the course of the evening, the count and countess of Paris also arrived, along with the duke of Alençon, and the princes and princesses of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
The presence of the princes of Orleans was the event of this reception. It was the third dinner offered by M. Thiers, the Orleanist President of the Republic; after that it was MacMahon, Marshal of the Empire, and the more it changed, the more it was the same. We did not think of the voyage with bitterness. Wasn’t it better not to see any more, in fact? I must have found the Canaques good after what I had seen; there I found the Caledonian sun better than the French sun. I knew well that my mother, still strong, was staying with her sister; I therefore passed the time without seeing beneath her calm; not seeing, as I have seen since, her silent and terrible grief.
As in the days when I was a boarder at Chaumont, she brought me motherly treats before I left; my aunt was staying with her nearby at Clermont. Poor mother, how her old hands sent me little gifts in Clermont last year, all over again!
A year after my conviction, my uncle was still expiating on the pontoons for the crime of knowing his niece. They only released him after my departure. My two cousins were also imprisoned.
We hardly bring happiness to our families and yet we love them all the more because they suffer with us. The more we are together, all the more happy we are to remember the rare moments spent at home, as we know how much these moments will be fleeting, and missed. I see Auberive again, with the narrow white pathways winding under the pines; the large dormitories where, as in the old days at Vroncourt, the wind blew like a storm, and I saw the silent lines of prisoners beneath white headdresses, like those of peasant women, each kerchief pleated around the neck with a pin.
For variety, some of our people had been sentenced to forced labor; one, Chiffon, putting her number on her arm, and for having cried Vive la Commune! Several died, whom we already recognised as too weak to make the departure. Poirier, so courageous during the siege and the Commune; Marie Boire, and many others like her, who did not return. One who died in Caledonia, Madame Louis, was already old, and spent her last hour calling for her children whom she was never to see again.
Elisabeth de Ghi, now Mme Langlais, died on the ship during the return voyage. She would have liked to see Paris again; they were still a long way off when, between two cannon shots, their body slipped through the portholes to the bottom of the water.
Marie Schmidt, the brave woman, died last year at the rue de Sèvres hospice; in 1871 she had been an ambulance driver and soldier. Work is rare on the return from exile, and misery kills quickly.
Sleep in peace, the valiant, under the cyclones, under the waves or in the common grave; you are the happy ones.
Of the living, I say nothing. Yet they fight the harsh fight of life against these days without work; that is to say, without bread. The deportation will have, like the journey, its own story in this book.
Of those who went to Cayenne, two died: Élisabeth Retif, the poor and simple girl who knew well how to raise the wounded under the fire of bullets, but who never understood that anyone could find harm there.
Hail to the dark dead who suffered for those who will come after us, without the distant horizon shaking in their shadow, in sheaves of stars, the dazzling dawn. When I speak of the survivors of the struggle, of exile and deportation, I will mention the courage of Madame Lemel, during the fight and in New Caledonia; it will not hurt her, because she works with a whole nest of convicts from the Commune, recovered from the Versailles justice.
In the details that follow, I will only talk about those to whom we do not say:
“Ah! So you come from the Commune prison! Well, come on, there is no more work for you here.”
This kind of thing has been seen; it is often seen.
I recall the voyage on the Virginie, the ship at full sail and the great waves. I see the places there in detail. On the Ducos peninsula, living by the sea, near the western forest, we could hear the waves eternally beating the stories around us, the summits of the crevassed mountains from which, during heavy rains, torrents poured noisily; and at sunset, the sun disappearing in the waves.
In the valley, niaoulis with white trunks twisted around one another, having a phosphorescence on their silvery leaves. On the other side of the mountain was Numbo, with its earthen houses surrounded by lianas with arabesques.
From afar, to see their capricious groups among the trees, I am charmed, and it seems to me that we are still there. Each had built his nest or dug his lair according to his character. Father Croiset had made himself a unique example: a fireplace; one could almost, on the days following March 18, make coffee there without setting the roof ablaze. G. had turned over half of the mountain to cultivate crops. One would have said one was at Robinson’s; there was in his hole, under the rock, a whole menagerie in the middle of which his cat sat enthroned. Champy’s house on the opposite coast was so small that if you had to sit several people in the house, it was like you were in a basket. In this basket, the wind made its handle dance when it blew, to decorate the oxen of the Île Nou and the northern forest.
At the top, like a lookout, is Burlot; one hears the rather sonorous voice of his hen who cries like a donkey, warning when someone enters. Each of us has our own pet; cats dominate: we take them with us when we go to dinner with a friend.
Suddenly, like in the days of the Gauls, a formidable accent crosses the air: it’s Provins, chatting from one bay to another with someone; the answer often does not reach him, for he is the only one to have such a strong breath.
Here is the forge of Father Malézieux, the hut where Balzenq makes his essence of niaouli; one would think oneself in an alchemist.
For all this, the procedures were as rudimentary as they were in the time of the Stone Age. You had to make your own tools by replacing as best you could the things that were missing or that did not work. I see Bunant, his hatchet on his belt, going to the woods, equipped like a robber, as was his wife. On the side of the military camp was the prison. Many of our friends made long stays there under Governor Aleyron, it was always full; as there were no separate cells for women. We excused ourselves once and for all by having ourselves sent from Numbo to West Bay, which put an end to my course for young people; this course had been started by Verdure. Our rebellion and the conditions that we were forced to endure to make us consent to live in West Bay belong to the second part of my work. We gave in because there would have been more trouble still for M. Ribourg in allowing us to stubbornly stay; there was, I repeat, no separate prison to house half a dozen women.
I have spoken of the course for young people that Verdure started. Verdure was the first one I asked for when I arrived at the Ducos peninsula. He had just died.
The correspondence was not yet regular; the letters he had waited for so long arrived together, in bundles, after his death. The teacher is sleeping there; what has become of the pupils now?
Muriot killed himself. The others went through life finding that their title of deportee did not open the workshop doors to them.
Several had remarkable intelligence. Aleyron’s government was a time of raging madness; a deportee was shot for returning home a few moments after the appointed time; there were insane provocations at appeals; the deportees, as a punishment, were deprived of bread.
The funny thing was, during the night there was always the sound of sentries around Numbo, whose calls in the middle of the silence had the effect of an opera.
I admit to having taken great pleasure in this show. It looked like a performance of the Tower of Nesle with a huge enlargement of the stage. By chance, the start commenced with beautiful deep voices. Then the voices grew hoarse and we were jaded by the effect.
Every crowd seems small to us after being in the human colonies; all travel seems short to us after crossing the whole world; and the days pile up without hardly thinking, as each year we turn the hourglass.
Near the prison, on the slope of the mountain, under a verandah covered with lianas, was the post office. On courier days, one climbed this hill at the exact time with anxiety. If the letter had been delayed, we had to wait for the next courier.
You could only get an answer to a letter after six to eight months; the time to come and go was, in the end, regularly only six months.
Oh my dear letters, with what joy I received them! The one who wrote to me the most is dead now that I’m back. M. de Fleurville, the inspector of the schools of Montmartre, had taken charge of my affairs, that is to say, a certain number of my debts. It was he who published my children’s stories, the Contes d’enfants that I wrote in Auberive and in New Caledonia, he wrote to me about new discoveries, because we had no journals.
It seems to me that I am reliving those days gone by. I go down the small hill, my letters in hand: those of Marie, all full of flowers; those of M. de Fleurville, where he scolds me just as much as in the days of Montmartre; and those of my mother, where she assures me that she is still strong. She was still telling me that at the beginning of last December, just like she did then, preventing me from knowing about her real condition.
To return from the post office to West Bay we followed the seashore; a pungent and powerful smell filled the air. It smelt good, the great waves. Along the way, in L.’s hut you could hear his guitar, made in Numbo by Father Croiset. The weather was good on the shore, and we thought of the hardest-hit ones, those who were imprisoned on the Île Nou. Alas, this was where the best people were. We were eager for their news, very difficult to obtain through a thousand obstacles.
Here are the white robes of the Arabs, passing through the valley. Sometimes funny things happened.
So one day, a simple discussion I had with a comrade almost took on the proportions of an event. We were chatting about the Kanak revolt, a burning question on the Ducos peninsula, and we spoke so loudly, and we deployed such volumes of voices, that a supervisor came running from the post, believing it was a riot; a revolt. He withdrew all taken aback and ashamed, noting that there were only two of us.
After five years on the peninsula, I was able to go as a teacher to Noumea, where it was easier for me to study the country; where I could see Canaques from various tribes; I had a whole colony at my Sunday classes at home.
Shortly after my departure from the peninsula, some of my friends from Ile Nou arrived there. It was a great joy for the deportation. We loved them better than everyone else because they were in more pain, and that kept them as proud as on the days of May.
Over there, by the sea, sitting on the rocks, events came back to us rising like the waves. Days fell on days in silence, and the past, like a gray snow of grasshoppers, swirled around us.
Many have remained, fallen over there, in a deep sleep. So many ghosts! There are sweet ones; there are terrible ones.
There, under the cyclones, with those who, in dying, remembered and watched revenge rise, there are gracious ghosts. From a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl, Eugénie Piffaut, to the children in Théophile Place, who hold in their little hands in their coffins, the stanzas written for their births. Blanche Arnold, like a gentle liana flower, sleeps under the waves, dead on the way back.
With you I end these pages, frail and charming shadows of young girls and little children!
At the same time that I learned of the amnesty against the Communards, I also learned of the illness of my poor mother, who had just had a stroke. Nostalgia was killing her; I knew that if I did not return, she would die then.
Now I myself have laid her down in her coffin, like Marie, and beside her.
One I lay in my red shawl, the other in a soft blanket that she loved (red too). So they are for the eternal winter of the grave, and I am asked if I am taking care of the freedom and the spring which blossoms on the branches again.
Am I a coward to have locked my heart underground? No, since I will remain standing until the last moment.
The winter which followed our return, Théophile Ferré was transported from the place where he had been for ten years into his family’s grave. A friend still had a flag from ’71; he brought it to wrap the bones in. A bouquet of red carnations is buried there with him.
Have you noticed, in looking at life, that it seems dark; memories gravitate there, attracted by one another, like the planets in the depths of space.
I returned from deportation still faithful to those principles for which I was willing to die. I will write more about the conferences that I had the honour of being asked to attend a little later.
For now I provide a testimony that cannot be suspected of being menacing. It is that of M. Andrieux who had the stupid idea, to ruin us, of founding a newspaper which he himself ruined with all the rest. It’s a strange thing for an intelligent man to use this kind of combat!
The treacherous part of the matter failed, moreover, because, like my comrades, I had several letters inserted in the newspaper in which I declared to only respond to insults addressed to the government and not to those sent foolishly to other groups who followed their own path to revolution. I have always fought against evil principles; as for men, they matter as little to me as myself.
I add nothing here, this part being only the framework of those which will follow.
Here is the account given by M. Andrieux of the first conference which I have just mentioned.
MLLE LOUISE MICHEL AND THE SOCIAL REVOLUTION
“November 21. Today, at one o’clock, the first conference in honor of Louise Michel took place at the Élysée-Montmartre.
At half past one, Louise Michel went up to the platform to the shouts of Long live the Social Revolution! She added The Dead Revolution is the Risen Revolution! The audience responded with cries of Long live Louise Michel! Long live the Revolution!
They brought the heroine several bouquets. Gambon affirmed that the Commune was more alive than ever, and that France would always be at the head of the revolutions.
He extolled the virtues of Joan of Arc, victim of the ingratitude of a king, and said that Louise Michel was a victim of the ingratitude of the Republic.
Louise Michel took the floor again.
Let’s hope, she said, that we will no longer see Paris turned into a river of blood. The day when all those who slandered the Commune will no longer be here, we will be avenged, and the day when the Galliffets and others have fallen from power, we will have the well-deserved fruits of the people.
We no longer want revenge by blood; the shame of these men will be enough for us. The religions dissipate in the blast of the wind and we are now the sole masters of our destinies. We accept the ovations given to us, not for ourselves, but for the Municipality and its defenders. We will accept those who will want to march with us, although they were against us in the past, for the triumph of the Revolution.
Long live the Social Revolution! Long live the nihilists! These cries were repeated, along with those of Vive Trinquet. Long live Pyat! Long live the Municipality!
Yesterday, a private conference was held in Salle Graffard for the benefit of amnesties. Citizen Gérard thanked Louise Michel for the assistance she was willing to lend in organising this meeting; he saluted in her the principle of hatred which alone makes great revolutionaries and great things.
He presented her with two bouquets. Louise Michel replied that she accepted them in the name of the Social Revolution and in the name of the women who fought for their emancipation.
Yes, it is the people that I greet here, continued the citizen Michel, and in them, the Social Revolution. (Applause and shouts of “Vive la Commune!”)
The time when we were machine-gunned at Satory is present before our eyes; we can still see the men who were judging us, as well as the murderer of Transnonain, the Bazaines and the Cisseys. The men who we believed were lost forever come back now with their heads held higher than ever. The reaction is no more than a corpse raised by the government, and it will be crushed like a reptile when it wants to get in our way.
Today, the Government is prominent, but it is a ghost-ship. It is the people who remain convicts, still dragging their chains, who will deliver the men who sacrificed themselves for us. We will conquer our own freedoms.
Louise Michel added that she discredited the Government, this “ghost-ship” “for the benefit of amnesties.”
I have always been faithful to my purpose. It costs me my mother’s life, my poor beloved mother. When will I, too, sleep in the shade of the red and black flags?
In the meantime, let the roses be stripped from the graves on these pages of mourning.
Bloom, fragrant roses;
Flowers of hope and summer,
The scented breezes
Take you free.
Rose of the wild rosehips
That the rising sun gilds,
You will fall in the stormy wind
Leaf by leaf in the torrent.
White roses, proud and beautiful,
Bloom for charming minds
That death covers with its wings.
May roses, soft and frail,
Adorn children’s graves.
O roses, the wind has wings;
But as long as the ground is warm
New roses will be born,
All fresh for the tomb.
And you, rose of the cemetery,
Blossom gently in the shade.
And, white or red, in the ivy
Lift up your beaming face.
In Clermont, in front of my window,
A large white rosebush bloomed.
When the flower opened we saw appear
On its petals, a trickle of blood.
My mother loved these beautiful roses.
It was celebrated when I could
Send some fresh open blooms.
She will never have one again.
END OF THE FIRST PART.
As the seed contains the tree, all life, at its beginning, contains what it will be; what it will become, in spite of everything.
I will try to trace back to the source of my ideas, and perhaps of some events in my existence.
A piece of verse found in my old papers shows some of it; always lay the corpse down before searching it. There she is:
As on the threshold of a desert, the horizon is immense.
Child, where are you going by this new path?
Over there in the unknown; what is your hope?
Where do I go? I don’t know. Towards the good, towards the beautiful.
I don’t want to cry or turn my head;
If it weren’t for my mother, ah I’d go much further still,
Through the uncertain life where the storm blows,
I would go, as one follows the distant sounds of a horn.
A fanfare rings in the depths of dark mystery,
And many others go there whom I want to rediscover.
Listen! We hear heavy footsteps on the earth.
It is a human step; I would join in with those steps.
I loved the shade of the enclosure full of wild weeds;
I loved the winter nights when the wolf came howling
Through the breaches of the wall; in summer, heavy sheaves;
And in the holm oaks, the gusts of the wind.
Young girl, will you sit calm and peaceful
And like the birds, will you build your safe, sweet nest?
Listen! It is time to flee the painful path
Where your fate will be miserable and cursed.
What does it matter? Leave me. See the grains of sand
And the heaps of ripe wheat, and in the deep skies
The worlds are heaped up; is it not all the same?
Where all this goes, this is where we are going.
This is where we are today. I do not know if my study will be long; my intention is to search it relentlessly.
Perhaps one could call it psychobiology. I do not know if I am still in a state of barbarism that finds this all incomprehensible. People find it interesting to torture an unfortunate animal, to study the mechanisms of its body, which we know more or less, and which we will never know better because we study how pain affects its organic functions. Wouldn’t it be better to study the functions of its heart?
It is these phenomena of the heart and the brain, I feel, which go to the heart of the life of a human beast. I start with this question.
Unfortunately it seems to me impossible that anything survives of us after death, any more than there remains something from the flame when the candle is out. And if the part which thinks can disappear, piece by piece, when the lobes of the brain are removed one after the other, there is no doubt that death, by burning the brain, extinguishes thought.
However, if there was eternity, like the immensity before and after us, and the part that thinks goes into the unknown currents of electricity, and is absorbed there as the elements of the body return to the material elements, that would not be a miracle. Visible or invisible, it would only be nature again.
I have often wondered why we imagine that this electricity, unconscious or not as it goes into this invisible melting pot, would be entitled to God any more than all the other organisms that swarm the earth.
Unfortunately, the thought secreted by the brain cannot subsist when what produced it no longer exists. But we can see that the dominant ideas of a whole life have their material causes in this or that impression, or in the phenomena of heredity or others. It often happens to me, going back to the origin of certain things, that I find myself to have a strong feeling that I still experience through the years.
Here is one that had multiple consequences for me: the sight of a decapitated goose that still walked with its bloody neck upright, stiff, with the red wound where the head was missing. A white goose with drops of blood on its feathers, walking like drunk, while on the ground lay its head, eyes closed, thrown into a corner.
I was probably very small at the time, for Manette held me by the hand to cross the hall as if on a journey. It would have been impossible for me then to reason this impression, but I find it at the heart of my pity for animals, then at the heart of my horror for the death penalty.
A few years later, a parricide was executed in a neighboring village. At the hour when he was to die, the sensation of horror I felt for the murder of the man mingled with the remembrance of the murder of the goose.
Yet another effect of this feeling I had as a child was that, up to the age of around eight or ten, the appearance of meat made my stomach turn. It took a great deal of will and the reasoning of my grandmother to overcome my disgust. My grandmother felt that I would have too many great emotions in life to let myself go with this single one.
The stories of torture heard at the storytelling evenings at Vroncourt, on those evenings when Manette and I obtained the rare permission to go there, perhaps helped to keep the impression of the goose alive.
I loved to hear these stories to the sound of the spinning wheels, knitting needles purring with a small dry noise, and the snow, the great white snow, falling softly outside, stretched out like a shroud across the earth, sometimes lashing the face.
We had to come home at ten o’clock, but we always came back later. It was the beautiful moment Marie Verdet put her sweater on her knees, her eyes widened under her headdress which was pushed over her face in a peak, and she told the stories of dreams, the ghost-in-flames, the white washerwomen, the witches’ combs, all in her broken voice of almost a hundred years old. That there was the setting which suited these stories; her sister Fanchette had seen it all, and she shook her head approvingly.
We always left with regret, Nanette and I, skirting the walls of the cemetery where we never saw anything but the snow, and heard the winter breeze.
From my evenings at the village church emerged a feeling of revolt that I have also experienced very often since.
The peasants grow wheat, but they don’t always have bread. An old woman used to tell how, with her four children during a ‘bad year’ (I think what they called a ‘bad year’ was a year when the monopolists had starved the country), neither she, nor her husband, nor the little ones had eaten every day; there was nothing left to sell; they only had the clothes they had on their backs. Two of their children had died from hunger. Those who did have wheat no longer wanted to give them credit; not even a measure of oats, to bake a little bread.
“But we must resign ourselves,” she said. “Not everyone can eat bread every day.”
The husband wanted to knock out the usurer who, when their children were dying, had denied them credit by saying he would only do so if they paid back double the sum in a year. But the other two children were still alive; they were working at the very house that the husband wanted to ruin, and the wife prevented her husband from confronting him.
“Poor people must suffer what they cannot prevent,” she had told him.
When she told me all this with her calm air, my eyes were hot with anger.
I told her, “You had to let your husband do it. He was right.”
I imagined the poor little ones dying of hunger, and felt with force the whole picture of misery, which she made so heartbreaking that you felt it inside of you. I saw the husband, with his torn blouse and his feet bare in clogs, go begging for credit from the wicked usurer and coming back by the roads with nothing, bereft. Then I saw him threatening vengeance, when the little ones were lying cold on the handful of straw that was all they had left to them, and his wife, stopping him when he wanted to avenge the lives of his own children and those of others. And then I thought of the two brothers, growing up with this memory, having to go and work with this man, the cowards.
It seemed to me that if the usurer had entered at that moment, I would have jumped at his throat to bite him, and I said all that. I was outraged by this belief she had that not everyone could have bread every day; this stupidity of the herd terrified me.
“You mustn’t talk like that, little one,” said the woman. “It makes the good Lord cry.”
Have you seen the sheep stick their throats out for a knife? This woman had the brain of a sheep.
It was this story that I was thinking of when, at catechism, I energetically supported the opposite of the famous proverb
“Well-ordered charity begins with oneself!”
The old priest (who believed, that one) called me over. I feared a punishment; it was to give me a book.
Well, that did the rest of the job, that book: to give me the horror of conquerors with the horror I already felt for other human vampires. They were sort of paraphrases of the psalms of exile. “The harp hangs from the willows on the shore,” or “Captive Jerusalem has seen its streets weep.”
And I cursed those people who crush peoples as well as those who starve them, without realising to how much of a height I would later see these kinds of crimes rise.
A detail, by the way; even an admission. This book was bound in the style of the small encyclopedia that the “big” M. Laumond once had, and I admit that from the moment the priest put it near me, I was preoccupied by what might well be there, under this blanket of brown skin. It was not meant to be a child’s book; perhaps it was just my preoccupation with books that escapes once more.
Since I spoke of the small volume that I once stole from M. Laumont; since I said that each of us, I believe, is capable of all the good and all the evil which is in its make-up, I will admit again that as a child, I used to steal at home without remorse. I would steal money, when there was any, or fruits, vegetables, etc.
I gave it all to others on behalf of my parents, which made for good scenes when some people took it into their heads to thank them. I laughed at it, incorrigible as I was. One year my grandfather offered me twenty sous a week if I would stop stealing, but I found that if I agreed to this arrangement, I would lose too much to agree to it.
I had hidden keys to open the cabinet that held all the pears and other things in it, where I left small notes in place of what I had taken. There was this one, for example:
You have the lock but I have the key.
Eventually, the land brought in so little that neither my uncle, who was working on them, nor us, managed to make ends meet; I felt that many years like these followed one another. And I thought how often, people could not always help others, and that something other than charity was needed for everyone to have bread.
As for the rich, my word, I had little respect for them. Then communism occurred to me.
The hard work of the land appeared to me as it is, with man bending like an ox over the furrows, keeping the slaughterhouse for the beast when it is worn out, and the beggar’s bag for man when he can no longer work: ‘the fabric rifles’, as they say in Haute-Marne.
We do not amass income by working the land, we amass it for those who already have too much. The flowers of the fields, the beautiful fresh grass, you think that the little ones who keep the cattle play amidst that? They only ask for the grass to stretch out and sleep a little at noon; I saw them.
The shade of the woods, the fair harvests that the wind makes rise like waves, isn’t the peasant too tired to find it all beautiful? The work is heavy, the day is long, but he resigns himself, always resigns himself. Is not the will broken? Man is overworked like an animal.
So he has no energy for any feeling of injustice; he is half dead and works for the exploiter without thinking.
Many men, like the old woman from the church, said to me, “You must not say that, little one, for it offends God.”
Yes, they answered that when I told them that everyone has the right to everything there is on earth; those things in their nest, just as the chicks of the same spring, should glean the harvests together. My pity for all that suffers goes far; for the mute beast, perhaps even more than for man; my revolt against social inequalities goes even further; it grows, always grows, through the struggle, through the sacrifice; it came back with me from across the ocean, and it dominates my pain and my life.
I come back to man’s harshness towards animals. In summer, all the streams of the Haute-Marne, all the damp meadows in the shade of the willows, were filled with frogs; we heard them on fine evenings, sometimes just one, sometimes the whole choir. Who knows if they did not once inspire the monotonous choirs of the ancient theatre. Torn from dung corners, we saw them tortured by children in bright sun. Their enormous soft eyes shined as though in reproach.
Children tortured, too, the broods of birds; if they escaped, they were caught in traps that lined the paths in the woods. There they died, caught by the foot and fluttering, desperate to the end.
And the old dogs and old cats, who I’ve seen them throw to the crayfish. If the woman who threw her beast there had fallen into the hole, I wouldn’t have reached out to her.
Since then I have seen the workers in the fields treated like animals, and those in the towns dying of hunger. I saw bullets raining down on the unarmed crowds. I have seen the riders smash the crowds with the chests of their horses; the beast, better than man, lifts its feet for fear of crushing the people, and rushes with regret under the blows. Oh! Georgics and Eclogues deceive us about the happiness of the fields! Descriptions of nature are true; the happiness of the field-workers is a lie.
The earth! These words are at the heart of my life, as they were in the big Roman history book with pictures, where the little M. Laumont taught the whole family on both sides to read.
My grandmother taught me to read with it, too; showing me the letters with her large knitting needle. The book was placed on the same desk where she made me sing solo from the grand old solfeggios of Italy which she herself had learned.
Raised in the countryside, I understood the agrarian revolts of old Rome; over this book I shed many tears. The death of the Gracchi oppressed me, as later the gallows of Russia would, too. It was impossible, with all this, to not throw my life into the Revolution.
I will end this chapter with the accusation, often brought against me, by certain friends and eyewitnesses. It seems that at the Perronnet barricade in Neuilly, I was accused of being negligent when I ran out from battle to help a cat in danger.
Well! yes, but for that I didn’t abandon my duty. The unfortunate beast, huddled in a corner torn with shells, cried like a human being. Well, yes, I went to get the cat, but it did not last a minute. I put it almost safely there, only a short step away. We even collected it afterwards.
Another animal story that is more recent. Mice appeared in my cell in Clermont; I had a pile of tapestry wool sent by my poor mother and my friends. I used it to plug up the holes where the mice were.
But one night, during the night, a poor little cry was heard behind this hole; a cry so plaintive that it would have taken a heart of stone not to open it. That’s what I did immediately, and the beast came out in front of me.
Was the mouse impudent, or a beast of genius who knew how to judge her world? I don’t know, but from that moment on she came brazenly up to my bed, where she took bites of bread left there, nibbling them at ease, perfectly mocking the movements I made to make her leave, and even worse, making a pantry of the spot under my pillow.
She was not in the cell when I left; I could not put her in my pocket, and I do not know what has become of the poor little one. I admit that when I left I recommended her to everyone’s pity.
Going back to the cradle or to certain circumstances which strike the cerebral organism, we often find the living source of the rivers which carry life away; the starting point of successive comparisons.
Other times, an idea suddenly arises, while others disappear, just as it is the weather which raises the volcanoes under the old continents, and germinates new senses for the next cataclysm.
Thought, rolling through life, transforms and grows, involving a thousand unknown forces. Yes, of course, the future man will have new meanings. We can feel them dawning in the being of our time.
The arts will be for all… the power of the harmony of colours, the sculptural grandeur of marble, all of this will belong to the human race. Developing genius instead of extinguishing it, artists riveted to the past will also slip away from their old wreck; we have to weigh anchor everywhere.
Come on, come on, art for all, science for all, bread for all! Hasn’t ignorance done enough harm? Isn’t the privilege of knowledge more awe-inspiring than that of gold? The arts are a human need, they are needed by all, and only then will the human flock be the human race.
Who will sing this Marseillaise of art, so high and proud? Who will announce the importance of our thirst for knowledge, of the intoxication of marble carved into cords of flesh, of the instruments emulating human voices, of canvases palpitating like life?
The magnificent and voiceless marble would be an awe-inspiring poem of human claim. But no! Neither marble, nor colours, nor songs, can say it alone, this Marseillaise of the new world! We must all deliver everything, beings and the world, worlds perhaps, who knows? Barbarians that we are!
What do you want us to do with the crumbs of bread you give to us, the disinherited crowds? Why do you want bread to be made without the arts, without science, without freedom?
Come on, come on, let each of our hands take a torch, and let us walk in the light with rising step.
Arise all, great starhunters! To the bold boatmen with sails extended: you who know how to die
Come on, all of you, heroes of the legends of the times that are about to arise!
We speak of our ancestors. Over there, fallen with the red roses of the field, dead with the bees, are family legends. Those who told me them will never speak them again.
Like the sphinxes, they bend over me, wrapped in shadow. With the green eyes of sea-maidens, they gaze under the water of the seas. With their tall, skinny witches’ waists, they run over moors. This distant legend goes from Corsica to the wild gorges; to the standing stones in Brittany haunted by chickens; from the red chasm of Flogof, where the Haute-Marne blows in lightning, to the dark lake of Créno.
So many things crowd around a miserable being to widen his horizon, to make him feel and see so that he suffers more; so that he better understands the desert of life where everything has fallen around him. But could we be useful without it? No, maybe.
Even though poetry also arises from the fact of my ancestry, we also become a poet in our solitudes, whether we line up verses or not.
The winds blow a wilder poetry than that of the north, sweeter than that of the seekers, following the great winter snow, or the spring breezes which shake the profuse hawthorn and roses in the hedges of our sunken lanes. Nanette and Joséphine, these two country girls I knew, were they not poets?
Did I repeat their song? l’Age nu deu bos, The Black Bird of the Woods, whose breath I found again by the sea, across the years and over the ocean. Yes, it was indeed the black bird of the wild field that I found at the edge of the waves, singing the brutal stanzas of the wilderness.
Who tells us that our senses do not deceive us? We are absolutely like the traveller who thinks he sees the road walking, when it is he who is walking.
There is always progress. We know that the revolution swells our sails, and that it will one day arrive! It is also true that no one can be praised for what he does, since he does it because he likes it; there is no heroism, since one is only gripped by the greatness of the work to be accomplished, and one always remains below the work itself.
They say I am brave; it is because in the idea, in the staging of danger, my artistic senses are captured and charmed, like a bard, by the pictures which remain in my mind, the horrors of the struggle.
Thus, in March 71, the parade of prisoners going from Montmartre to Satory is still present to me in all its details. We were walking between horsemen, it was dark. There could be nothing more horribly beautiful than the site where we were made to descend into the ravines, near the castle of la Muette.
The darkness, barely lit by pale moonbeams, transformed the ravines into walls, or gave them the appearance of hedges. The shadows of the riders formed a black fringe on each side of our long file, making the paths appear whiter; the sky, heavy with the next day’s heavy rain, seemed to descend on us. Everything was taking fading, dreamlike forms, except for the horsemen who held the head and the first groups of prisoners.
A large ray, filtering from below between the horses’ feet, shed light on them. Red shreds seemed to bleed on us and on the uniforms. The rest of the line stretched out in a long inky trail, ending in the darkness.
They said we were going to be shot there. I do not know why. They made us go up and I looked at this scene, not thinking any more about where we were. It was on the same date that we had fixed with Dombrowski to set up an ambulance at the Château de la Muette the year before.
This amounts to an impression; that of reconciliations. Seized by the idea, I have no merit in ignoring a danger if I did not think of it, or even if, seized by the scene, I looked at it and remembered. I am not the only one in love with the various situations which emerge from the poetry of the unknown.
I remember a student who, without sharing the least amount of our ideas (it is true that he was even less enamoured with the other side), came to shoot with us at Clamart and at Pierre’s mill. He brought a Baudelaire volume in his pocket. We read a few pages with great pleasure when we had time to read. I do not know what fate kept him with us. Together we experienced double luck, quite funny. We were having a coffee in the spot where a shell had already struck three of our members, in the face of death. Our comrades were impatient for us to withdraw; it seemed fatal to them. We moved. Then another shell fell there, shattering the empty cups.
He had, above all, a poet’s nature; there was no bravery either on his part or on mine. Was it bravery when, with charmed eyes, I looked at the dismantled fort of Issy at night, all white in the shadows; or when I saw the lines of us climbing the small steep mounds of Clamart; or when towards the Hautes Bruyères, I heard the red teeth of the machine guns on the horizon? It was beautiful, that’s all; my eyes served me like my heart; like my ear, charmed by the cannon. Yes, barbarian that I am, I love the cannon, the smell of gunpowder and the grape-shot in the air, but above all, I am in love with the Revolution.
This must have been the case with the wind that blew through my old ruined castle; with the old people who raised me; the loneliness and great freedom of my childhood; the legends; the scraps of science I poached from everywhere… all of this was to open me up, to give me the ear to hear all harmonies, and a mind that would be dazzled by all lights, and a heart to love and to hate; everything was merged in a single song, in a single dream, in a single love: the Revolution.
Have I ever been a believer in religion? Was I ever overcome by the overwhelming tenderness of a Tantum ergo, or carried on the wings of a Regina coeli? I don’t know. I loved the smell of incense like the smell of hemp; the smell of gunpowder like that of lianas in the Caledonian forests.
The light of the candles, the voices hitting a vault, the organ, all this is a sensation. It is the impression of wings flapping against a vault. I have experienced the vault in this way, while I was singing in church, when I was a headmistress at Mme Vollier’s. But it’s been a long time since that I no longer believe in religion, and realised that, even in doubting, it can be said that we don’t believe.
My ideas are therefore only truly the product of being a human organism, and yet it seems that sometimes they heat up and throws me over like a switchman drives a machine. This can be explained by observing since human beings are the product of their time, it is this time which raises them up, along with the other dust. The Baccalaureate Manual would answer that the mind, not being composed of parts, cannot dissolve; in addition to seeing it partially extinguish with this or that lobe of the brain, madness attacks it, partially or completely. Universal beliefs etc., are inclinations rooted in the heart of man, etc.
These are all the proofs that make me say: There is nothing after death.
Only one of these reasons, however, is sound. Npouonr, a single being, disappeared with its long ancestral line. It was a brute, like a beast or half-brutes like us, which gave it birth, but was forced to multiply for the sake of that which one calls humanity, which will arrive at this progress that we see without understanding, like a faraway light showing the happiness which we are eager to have, and which no one can have in the current circumstances.
I don’t know which poet said Every man has a slumbering pig in his heart. There is only one word to change for this to be true. Every man has a sleeping monster in his heart. Each dark monster is not the same monster, but each of us sometimes feels the ancestral type that dominates our lineage through millions of millions of centuries of transformations and revolutions.
Is this the beast we look like? Is it the beast we love? One may be the other. For me, I think it would be a tiger, a lion or a cat; I like the feline race. I especially like big beasts. That’s why, if I’m ever free, I’ll go where the beasts of the West are, and I’ll talk to them about the revolution. These too, the brigands, sometimes feel the savage ancestral lineage within them; they believe differently from us, but they believe! Between fanatics we will see.
With these thoughts we risk a bullet or the blow of a dagger, but they don’t make you dirty; death is clean.
An isolated life can only be interesting so long as it relates to the multitudes of lives that surround it. As each foolish loner is freed into a larger context, they become something.
This is why, more and more, associations based on rituals, or hampered by any ritual, will not make progress, until the day when they embrace the only viable association: that of revolutionary humanity. Until then, they are only waiting ghosts.
During the courageous march of the Freemasons in 1871, I experienced the impression of an assembly of phantoms rising up on the ramparts in front of the royalists gorging on the Revolution It was big and coldly beautiful, the same as what one feels in front of the dead.
Later, in New Caledonia, under the rejuvenation of the tropics, I saw the Freemasons again; they seemed to me animated by a great desire for progress, and took the trouble to take part: it was there where the sun was hot.
In Holland, since (in the motherland of the brave), it seemed to me that Freemasonry was undergoing the rejuvenation of spring.
Men of England, wherefore plunged
for the lords who lay ye low?
Men of England, or of the world, it doesn’t matter, why plow for the masters who oppress you? Isn’t it the same everywhere? And yet you still plow, and the harvest follows the sowing.
If we act, it is likely that the gallows will await you. But this detail does not spoil the horizon, come on! There was a time when the idea of making a face at the poor puppets on the end of a string was unpleasant to me. I have since learned that in Russia they put you in a sack. In England, too, things are likely to be done properly. Germany has the block after Reinsord and the others. All this is only a form of death and the more dismal the staging, the more it is enveloped in the red gleams of dawn.
When I had preferences, I thought I preferred the scaffold from where I would greet the crowd. Next I preferred the firing squad on the Satory plain. The white wall of Père-Lachaise or some corner of a wall in Paris would have pleased me; today I’m jaded, and no matter how, no matter where, I won’t sulk. In broad daylight or in a wood, at night, what does that matter to me? I don’t know where the fight between the old world and the new will be, but wherever it is, I’ll be there.
Whether it happens in Rome, Berlin or Moscow, I don’t know, I will go, and probably many others as well. And wherever it is, the spark will reach the world. The crowds will be standing everywhere, ready to shake the vermin off their lion’s manes.
In the meantime, we still talk and hardly act; we are only the rumblings of a volcano. The lava will overflow when we are not thinking about it. We will dance again that evening in the Elysées, and the parliaments will still say It has been rumbling for a long time, it will always rumbling without being able to do anything about it. Then a great debacle will come, as if the uprisings of the peoples did not arrive at their hour, like those of the continents, the race being ready for a new development which will forge ahead without a mould.
My conferences abroad raised two questions in response to which I would have laughed without the respect we have for our convictions
1 ° Where did I find the money to travel?
2 ° What I was doing with the income?
The travel money, when it was not provided by the group that asked me to come, came from Henri Rochefort, who lent it to me and I never returned it to him. I did the return trip on the fees levied on the people attending the conferences. Friends paid for my rail tickets.
Income? Revolutionary groups know how it works, so I don’t have to worry about this question. I didn’t keep anything. The conferences in Brussels, about which more or less true gossip was made, passed suitably, apart from the third or fourth meeting where a young rascal, who claimed to be called Fallou, naively admitted to having come from Paris at the same time as me. Someone tried to create some gossip by claiming that I had asked that a statue be erected to M. Thiers in the name of the Social Revolution!!! He pretended to have a newspaper saying so, and a good number of people swallowed this blunder. It is probably because I had started an article saying “Foutriquet is dog-eared! He tried a child’s hand.” Despite the benches that were thrown onto the rostrum by the friends of order, the session ended, showing (by the example that we had in front of us, better than all the words in the world) that when they said ‘order’ they meant, the right to knock out those who claim that bees should not work forever for hornets.
After this magnificent spectacle of corporations, I had, in Ghent, the spectacle of a medieval scene in a medieval town at night, which added to these kinds of scenes.
Part of the room had been occupied by police officers sent from Paris, and the upper parts of the hall was occupied by students from Catholic universities; their ears were drawn in broad shadows. One of the officers, like a conductor, would regularly give the signal for the bastringue. That is to say, whenever he raised his stick, they would shout over us. If only there had been some real roars at this concert it would have had an effect, but in this case, they only made yelping sounds.
My friends made the mistake of asking that I quit the session. I did not want to; the voices of these little gentlemen would have eventually tired out, and the reasonable part of the room could have judged their conduct to the end. But I regretfully obeyed her will.
They forced me to leave; it was hardly worth it! My friend was separated from me and, in my turn, I tried to exercised authority with the coachman who, after half an hour of silence, where he whipped his horse without wanting to hear me, nor to feel when I pulled him by the arm, was finally forced to go back. We had to negotiate through the schoolboys who were now throwing stones at the meeting room. The windows of the carriage were broken.
The horse walked very slowly, and from time to time, in the pitch black darkness, a young head, red with the intoxication of the hunt, appeared at the doors between the shards of glass, shouting an insult. The city was unfolding before us, dark, as an old ghost town.
Through my concern for my friend Jeanne, I thought of the old days, the Artewelds; the time when the guilds killed those whom they thought wanted power with an axe. I watched the dark edges of the canal; it was a magnificent picture in the immense frame of the night and the water.
There was still a crowd in front of the meeting room; the students and those who were watching them; the middle ages stood assembled.
When I went downstairs to ask them, seriously worried, if they had seen the tall brunette who was with me and what they had done with her, since it was me alone they wanted to kill, a few, finally taking it seriously, made some inquiries.
So a police commissioner helped me to find her; a police commissioner from Ghent, who told me that he was not involved in what had happened except to help me find her, and who did in fact.
I even remember that, finding the students behaviour unsuitable, he stood in front of me, to my astonishment, because I expected to be taken to prison for having been insulted. This is how they would have done it in Paris.
In Holland, besides our friends whom I remember so fondly, and the students, curious to see up close what animals the revolutionaries are. I also met enemies who were more sincere, knowing us only through the gossip of reactionary newspapers, and whom, greatly astonished at having been deceived, later came to understand the revolutionaries.
London! Well, yes, I love London where my outlawed friends have always been welcomed. London, where old England is even more liberal in the shadow of the gallows than are the so-called republicans bourgeois in France, moreover who believe they are!
Do you imagine that those who commit crimes against peoples are all aware of what they are doing? There are those who delude themselves and would willingly give themselves the prizes of virtue and intelligence.
Come on then, intelligence is in the crowds. They don’t have science, it’s true, but with that, science today is unique. It will only open its buds tomorrow, at the right time, and tomorrow it will be for everyone.
If the people do not know certain things, they are not stubborn in claiming that glowworms are stars; it is always something. Before the London Congress, Gautier and I had received many anonymous warnings about certain agents from Mr. Andrieux. But who believes anonymous letters?
For my part, I had asked some of my friends in London to go see a lady who, it was said, had advanced money to Mr. Seraux. Our friends found the lady in an apartment which gave them the impression of having been immediately furnished; but on this impression alone, without proof, they were not to press an accusation. The lady gave them probable explanations, but neither they nor I could think that she represented M. Andrieux.
Whatever the trap set for us, it did more harm to those who set it, than to us. Seeing the grains of sand and the heaps of ripe wheat, and in the deep skies, the stars heaped up, isn’t all the same? Where it all happened, this is where we are going, and here comes the great harvest, pushed up in the blood of our hearts; the ears of grain will be heavier; they will be higher.
The sad days sway in the dark life where we must return; choruses that tear you apart and charm you at the same time.
The blood of the captive flows, flows.
The Bagaudes, the Jacques, all of you who wear an iron collar, let’s talk, while waiting for the hour. The dream emerges from the scents of spring; it is the morning of the new legend.
Do you hear, peasant, these passing breaths in the air? These are the songs of your fathers, the old Gallic bards.
The blood of the captive flows, flows.
See this dewy red on the earth? It’s blood. The grass on the dead grows taller and greener.
On this mass grave of peoples, on the earth, it must grow thickly, but when the people die of hunger they do not always have grass; it does not grow among the paving stones of the cities.
As long as it pleases him to be the ox of the slaughterhouse or the circus – the ox that opens the furrows, or the one that is dragged to the carnival – we will say it, the terrible chorus that both tears us apart and charms us:
The blood of the captive flows, flows!
The year of seventy-one! I open a notebook of mourning paper, on which Marie has transcribed a few of the poems I wrote. There are some written in red ink, still coloured vermilion, like blood.
Marie gave this notebook to her brother Hippolyte, who lent it to me; he won’t have it until after I am gone, and some more of the blank pages will be filled in.
Here are some pages of poems written in red ink
TO MY BROTHERS
Prison of Versailles, September 8, 1871
Pass, pass, hours, days,
Let the grass grow on the streets.
Fall down, things barely born.
Vessels, give yourselves ports;
Pass, pass, O deep nights.
Crumble, oh old mountains;
Dungeons, graves, waves.
Proscribed or mounted we will return.
We will return, this multitude without number;
We will come by all paths,
Vengeful spectres emerging from the shadows.
We will come shaking hands. Some dressed in pale shrouds,
The others still bloody,
Pale, under the red banners,
Bullet holes in their sides.
It’s all over. The strong, the brave,
All have fallen, my friends,
And the slaves are already crawling on their knees again,
The traitors and the debased.
Yesterday I saw you, my brothers,
Sons of the victorious people,
Proud and valiant like our fathers.
Go, the Marseillaise in your eyes.
Brothers, in the giant struggle,
I loved your fiery courage,
The red and thundering grapeshot,
The banners fluttering in the wind.
On the waves, by the great swell,
It is beautiful to tempt fate.
The goal is to save the crowd,
The reward is death.
Sinister and feeble old men,
Since you need all our blood,
Pour out its fertile waves,
Drink all of the red ocean;
And we, in our red banners,
Let’s wrap ourselves in them to die;
Together, in these beautiful shrouds,
We would be well to sleep there.
One of these documents was sent by me to the 3rd Council of War, which had judged the members of the Commune; but the Commission of Pardons is above all guilty of cold evasions. If the blood-drunk soldiers were up to their ankles, the so-called Commission of Pardons was up to their stomachs.
TO THE 3° COUNCIL OF WAR
September 4, 1871, prison of Versailles.
They are there, calm and sublime,
The elected officials of the free Paris,
And you charge them with your crimes,
Furious at their proud contempt.
They have to defend themselves from nothing,
For you made them cowardly.
They valiantly defended
Everything you just bought.
Cassaigne, Manguet, Guibert, Merlin, Executioner!
Merlin, Gaulet, Labat, judging is beautiful.
All these times are your work,
And when better days come.
History, deaf to your rage,
Will judge you, lying judges.
And those who want prey,
Turning around, will follow your steps,
This strike of attacks,
Snitches, bandits, prostitutes.
Cassaigne, Manguet, Guibert, Merlin, Executioner!
Merlin, Gaulet, Labat, judging is beautiful.
The punishment was not long in coming. Commander Gaveau, who everyone knows of; who said “the French Republic” and made impassioned indictments, died mad. They had had to lock him up for some time.
The newspapers of the time say that he suffered the most terrible agony imaginable; he thought he saw, during the whole day which preceded his death, fantastic personages whirling before his eyes; he felt like he was receiving hammer blows to the skull.
The expert Delarue, who had attested that the false evidence that Théophile Ferré had written Burn the Finance! was afterwards condemned for a false expert report which had sent a man to prison for five years.
It wouldn’t cost much more to send the rest of them to the wall at Satory.
The Donjeu farm, belonging to M. Peltereau de Villeneuve, was burnt down by accident. I do not know what accident Colonel Merlin also experiences, who, after having been a judge in the trial of the members of the Commune, commanded the troops who supervised the assassination of November 28.
Why would criminals escape the consequences of their actions more than others? Doesn’t everyone prepare their destiny? Didn’t Clément Thomas prepare in ’48 for what he found in ’71?
The trial of the members of the Commune was full of formal flaws. But the appeal in cassation presented by MM. Ducoudray, Marchand, and Dupont de Bussac had above all the object of seeing Versailles justice to the end; none of the condemned counted for it.
Mr. Gaveau had insulted Théophile Ferré during the trial by responding to his testimony by saying: “The memory of an assassin.” He worsened that prejudice by noting it in the minutes of the judgment.
The same M. Gaveau twice left the seat of the Public Prosecutor empty. He did not appear for even a moment at the audience of September 2, and did not even attend the reading of the judgment (against Théophile Ferré), a judgment in which forged documents appeared.
The members of the Commune did not conceal their actions; Ferré carried his responsibility with his head held high, all the way to the post of Satory ; the others did the same as they were led to prison and deportation. We wanted to add this to the list of the falsities, in support of our cause (including the falsity that we don’t even write in French!).
The hatreds which cling to us, poor grains of sand, are imbecile; they don’t see the storm which rolls us together against the old world. It was not easy to obtain a dismissal when one had done nothing; nor was it easy to be judged, when one felt responsible for one’s actions!
I told how I was sent to Arras by a maneuver of the police headquarters, instead of being judged. A name was crossed off the list of those sent to wait in distant prisons, and mine was put in place. I must say that the Council of War was unaware of it and did not even approve of it.
M. Marchand’s letter will show these calculated delays better than I could. The protest of which M. Marchand speaks in this letter, I wrote it, before leaving for Arras, on the Correction Register of Versailles.
I protested there, not against the prison, where we had found a treatment very different from Satory and Chantiers, but against the infamous manoeuver of this departure, since I belonged to the Councils of War and not to the police headquarters, which wanted to eternally defer my judgment, while insulting me in the trials of the other women (the (pétroleuse) trials of Retif and Marchais).
Here is the letter from Mr. Marchand:
I will respond to your letter as soon as it is received. M. Ducoudray, to whom you wrote yesterday, on the 15th, died suddenly the day before yesterday from the rupture of an aneurism, in the cell where he was going to see Ferré.
Your protest at the registry is certainly worth more than a scene of violence. If you want to be judged promptly, you should write to General Appert or Colonel Gaillard, if necessary by registered letter and notification of receipt, so that the post office does not lose the letter.
Receive, Mademoiselle, my greetings.
H. MARCHAND, lawyer.
This November 16, 1871.
It wasn’t enough during the days of May when, like apple blossoms in spring, the streets were covered with white efflorescence but there were no trees; it was chlorine on the corpses.
An enormous number of missing people proves how the figures of the carnage were attenuated. The soldiers were weary; perhaps the machine guns were breaking down; the arms protruding from the ground, the howls of agony in the heaps of people who had been summarily executed, the mortality of the swallows, poisoned by the flies of the immense mass grave… all this caused cold killings to follow hot killings.
Those who did all this are perhaps closer to Charenton, with Gaveau, than to anything else. But I can’t go any further at this moment without leafing through some old papers. There are issues of the Révolution Sociale.