George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life
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Apparently the party, about five hundred strong, were members of the business classes, and in this form, that of a large deputation, they began to descend the Rue de la Paix. But immediately upon this, indications as to what their reception was to be began to be heard. Directly after, sharp military commands rang out from the lines of the defenders who held the H?tel de ville, on the Place Vend?me bugles were sounded, and a body of the National Guard advanced at the double and formed four deep across the end of the Rue de la Paix. This thoroughly blocked farther advance, while, to form a reserve, the Place was occupied by a strong body of nearly three thousand National Guards, who stood looking calm and determined and ready to prevent the party of order from passing. Looking more peaceful than ever, the demonstrators came steadily on without the slightest suggestion of military formation.
Henty relates that he did not anticipate trouble, for he felt sure that the demonstrators would not attempt to force their way through the solid body of Communists, and, satisfied with his excellent position as spectator and gatherer of news, he stood fast.
As the black-clothed body of men drew near the line of National Guards they began to wave their handkerchiefs, shouting, “Vive la R?publique!” or “Vive l’ordre!” and then, seeing that the Communists stood firm, they distributed themselves across the street and began to enter into conversation. They formed an irregular group some five or six feet deep, and everything appeared as if it would come to an amicable conclusion. The excitement of the gathering of armed men had passed away, and nothing was heard but the murmur of conversation. So far from anticipating danger, Henty had joined the demonstrators, and was standing in the second row facing the Communists, when all at once something occurred which was like the dropping of a spark into a heap of gunpowder. A musket went off. The Communist who held it had fired in the air, whether accidentally or of malice intent it is impossible to say. The result was that, startled by the report, the lines of unarmed men who faced the Communists took a step or two backward; then, as if ashamed of their alarm, in the silence that followed, a cry arose that it was nothing, an accident, and directly after there was another shout, that of “Vive la R?publique!”
But the spark had fired the mass. Another shot was fired. A sensible and visible thrill ran through the front line of the Communists, they levelled their guns, and the next moment, as if without orders, they commenced a heavy fusillade upon the unarmed lines in front. The French citizen who stood next to Henty, and with whom he had just been in conversation respecting the probable termination of the affair, fell dead at his feet, and many of those in the front row met the same fate, for they were so near the Communists that the hitter’s muskets almost touched them when the firing began.
There was utter paralysis for the moment, and then a wild rush began, men turning upon their heels and running straight up the Rue de la Paix along which they had approached, while others, Henty included, turned off to the right down the first street, a short distance from the entrance to the Square.It was a state of wild excitement, a sauve qui peut, men stumbling and tripping over each other in their desperate haste to escape the storm of bullets that were whistling by them, too many of which reached their mark, probably without aim in the excitement of the discharge. It was a matter of minutes, but the time seemed long enough before the angle of the street was turned and the retreating crowd were in comparative safety, though all were in full expectation, as they tore on, of hearing the Communists’ advancing tramp and halt as they stopped to fire down the street. This did not follow, for the insurgents were too busy in expending their cartridges upon the flying men who were running straight up the Rue de la Paix, giving Henty and those with him time to escape up the next street before they fired in their direction. How many were killed was never exactly known, but it must certainly have been sixty or seventy; and he recalled, long years after, the rage of the peaceful demonstrators against their cowardly assailants. This was undoubtedly the match that fired one of the long trains of disaster that ran through Paris during the holding of the Commune.
It might have been supposed that, warned by the risk of mingling too much with the excited people, Henty would have held aloof and avoided too near proximity to the explosive race, ready to take fire without a moment’s warning. Yet his thirst for news would not allow him to stay in the background when information reached him a couple of days later of the possibility of there being a regular battle in the streets.
At this time the quarter of the Bank was strongly held by the National Guard of that arrondissement, and every approach was thoroughly guarded. A messenger came to Henty at the hotel where he was staying, with the information that the Communists were astir in earnest, and had sent two battalions of their infantry with a battery of artillery to seize the Mairie of the First Arrondissement.
Hurrying off, he reached the entrance to the Place Saint Germain l’Auxerrois as the head of the column of Communists came up, to find themselves much in the same position as their victims of the peaceful demonstration had occupied two days before, for they were immediately facing a strong party of the National Guard, who were faithful to the body of order. These men were drawn up eight deep across the street, the windows of the houses on either side were also filled with men who commanded the approach, while the main body of the Reserve occupied the Place.
Everything looked threatening in the extreme, for upon this occasion it was not the armed against the unarmed, but two strong bodies of determined men face to face. The Communists as they marched up filled the whole street; and while their officers advanced and began to parley, their battery of field-pieces was brought forward and took up position threateningly in front of the attacking party.
There was an excited interval. The defenders of the Mairie absolutely refused to give way, and the angry conference went on, for the Communists were determined to carry out the orders they had received from head-quarters and to obtain possession of the place.
At length, after angry debate, fierce bluster began, and the commander of the Communist force shouted to the gunners in front to load with grape – an order which was immediately carried out. Henty states that, in his eagerness to see and learn everything that passed, he was standing on the footway with a couple of civilians in a line with the officers parleying. He now shifted his position a few yards to an open door leading into one of the houses, which was held by the party of order, so as to be able to rush into shelter when the first shot was fired.
Still the excitement grew. Nothing could have exceeded the calmness and determination of the defenders who stood facing the loaded cannon ten paces away. Meanwhile, though, their comrades who occupied the houses on either side of the line had their pieces levelled in readiness to shoot down the artillerymen as soon as matters came to the worst and the officers in front had withdrawn from their conference. So firm and commanding, indeed, was the position of the defenders, that Henty felt convinced that, in spite of the field-pieces, had the orders to fire come, although outnumbered by fully two to one, the scowling ruffians bent on advance would have been driven down the street, leaving their battery in the hands of their foe. This, however, could only have been a short-lived success, for there were thousands of their comrades at the Communists’ head-quarters, with several batteries of cannon.
Be that as it may, the tension was extreme. The defenders of the Mairie stood silent and waiting for the worst, whilst a roar of angry denunciations and revilings came from the Communists. In spite of the threats levelled at them, the defenders of the Mairie stood fast, waiting for the orders to be given, and this without even attempting to load. Their instructions were to fix bayonets ready for the order “Charge!” and there they stood with their pieces levelled, waiting for the signal before springing forward with a dash to clear the Place and street with the bayonet; the signal was understood to be the firing by the enemy of the first gun. It was, as has been said, a time of extreme tension, and the firm aspect of the defenders had its effect upon the insurgent mob.
The blustering on the part of the Communist officers was succeeded by thought. These men, these leaders of the Communists, were the noisy demagogues and declaimers of the various cabarets; they were men selected not for political knowledge, nor for military instinct, nor for ability as men of brain, but entirely on account of their policy of bluster, their savageness of language, and their denunciation of everything that was opposed to decent policy and order; and now they felt that they were face to face with defeat and probably with their own death. They were being put to the test, and it was no time for carrying matters with words.
They gave a look round, and at the first glance saw muskets at all the windows aimed at them as well as at the gunners at their posts, and the sight of these menacing muzzles made such courage as they possessed begin to ooze. They fully realised that their notion of being able to overawe the defenders by ordering the field-pieces to the front and having them charged was a failure, and they felt pretty certain that were a field-piece discharged they would be among the first of the victims of the defence. Accordingly the leaders gathered together and exchanged whispers, the result of which was that the parley which had come to an end in a fierce bullying way was reopened in a much tamer spirit. There was no shouting, no gesticulation, and at the end of a minute or two these self-constituted heroes of the moment issued fresh orders to their followers, with the result that the battery of field-pieces was run back about a hundred yards. Henty and his companions, who were standing, as it were, strung up and waiting between two fires, now began to breathe again, seeing as they did that the threats of the Communists upon that occasion were empty wind, for the latter had backed down and dared not carry out their threats. The struggle with all its horrors was averted for the time, and to the intense satisfaction of the civilian spectators, the Communist infantry fell back level with their guns; mounted officers who acted as aides-de-camp to the leaders of the enemy cantered to and fro to the H?tel de ville with messages and fresh orders, with the result at last that each party agreed to hold its own till after the elections that were about to take place. Henty, who had stood fast through all, narrates that of all the episodes he witnessed during the Commune, these were the most exciting incidents through which he passed.
Chapter Twenty Three.