The Hands of the People
We open on a soldier, Swiss, battered and dishevelled, emaciated from a month’s dreary confinement, now wrenched into the bleary light, stalwart before the implacable justice of the people.
A rifle in the pay of the traitor Louis, one of the foreign battalion that massacred the sans-culottes at the storming of Tuileries palace, abandoned by their slippery patron, worn like a bootheel at the end of a march, now to account for the crimes of that infamous and glorious day, aware they will perish, yet resolved to proffer the flower of life to coquette death with a knight’s gallantry. No timid Capitano this, but a stout Brutus! Our hero, a soldier fit for this grim stage!
Let us shift our gaze to the three men in judgement, nobodies all, with lank, loose hair on heads that slosh with a parsimonious squeeze of learning. They preside at a table buckling under frantic, scrawled petitions and drained wine bottles. The triumvirate pepper taunting questions with mangled legal jargon, and nip at replies like ladies’ miniature bulldogs. One of these nobodies is a nobody of the insurrectionary Paris Commune, here at their order, or here despite them, we do not know, and never will.
Could these be our clowns? Perhaps - they are droll, yes, but note the sabres that ring our soldier. These three command the swordsmen. Moreover, there are two exits from the room for the prisoner, and this tribunal decides which he takes. The door to jubilant freedom, or the feared transfer to La Force? No, these are not our clowns, for that is not laughter outside, it is the mute scream of the skulls impaled on pikes.
Such are the players of the drama, but now consider the audience. We are packed tight in this improvised courtroom like scraps of motley in a pauper’s ragbag. There I see a pinched housewife, fretful over the price of bread, perhaps one of the thousands that camped outside Versailles, drowned by rain and mud in hope of a morsel from the aloof baker or his haughty wife. And here a timid apprentice, a decade of toil before him, possibly a crafter of delicate cups that his master will deign to mar with a languid signature. And there a carmine-nosed shopkeeper, mayhap a seller of wine squished like his grapes under granite rents and tolls, terrified the National Guard will discover he waters his casks. We, the third estate, the nation.
And myself - Jean-Léon Colbert, somewhat respected meddler in theatre, now neophyte meddler in politics.
My days as a player on the stage are over, for beauty flees with youth, and my memory can no longer grip meandering lines of poetry with firmness. Still, there is enough work in Paris for a man who knows the subtle ways of the teeming crowd. For 15 sous a night, I go to the theatre… and I clap.
Do not scoff. For an impresario debuting a promising but nervous soprano, 15 sous is spit, and cheaper than the feting and flattery demanded by your stock writer of reviews. For 15 sous and a free ticket, I slap my hands together, I roar, I cry, I cheer, I hoot, I whistle, I collapse in rapture. I demonstrate the etiquette of sentimentality for my fellow patrons, and I give the pamphleteers colour for their columns. And then I buy bread and wine, and I sleep with the satisfaction of a good citizen performing service in a new age of republican virtue.
15 sous is a respectable fee, but even I blush at the wages conniving politicians offer. Since the long-awaited Estates-General opened politics to a curious and vocal popular audience, there has been employment for a few discreet professionals with my skills in the public galleries, there to coax the general into discovering its will.
My most gobsmacking windfall came from that dotty Prussian, the Baron de Cloots, who decided to inflict a deputation of the peoples of the world on a befuddled national assembly. For this delegation, the Baron cobbled together an ensemble of revolution-cheering nationalities. Somehow, he found an African Muslim, no small accomplishment in papacy-trammelled France, even with the Baron’s persuasive resources. Yet he lacked an Italian, essential to his vision of an international family. On the recommendation of an acquaintance I share with Baron, who I will not name here for delicacy, I was nominated to become this Italian, in costume rented from the Paris Opera. Our troop marched into that long hall in the Tuileries, with the two factions glowering at each other from the left and the right sides of the room. I blew kisses in every direction, and shouted “Ciao!” with gusto. The Baron then unloaded his ramble on the delegates, some confused flattery about Rights of Man and universal republic.
It was not the most polished production I have participated in, but to compensate for any blow to my dignity the Baron paid in gold, not the national assembly’s worthless paper. As silly as the spectacle was, I understand that after we left, weepy delegates voted to abolish noble titles! Every Marquis and Vicomte reduced to citizen, at so feeble a spur as a burlesque Italian bellowing “Ciao!”
But, to return to our Swiss mercenary. Alas, the people will have vengeance. I match the disgruntled murmur of the crowd, muttering about the citizen blood that fertilised the garden of the Tuileries on August 10. And when the wave of anger crests, I yell “La Force!” The housewife follows me, “La Force!” The crowd all yell, “La Force!” The tribunal considers this evidence, and declares the prisoner will be transferred to La Force.
The men with sabres evict the prisoner into the street, where the crowd is waiting, hands ready with bludgeons, saws, knives and hammers. The work is done with efficient relish, for while it is cathartic, there are many similar cases to hear today. What remains of the prisoner is added to a rancid cairn of traitors to the nation.
An unlucky fate for our dashing soldier, perhaps, but nearby Verdun fort has fallen, and Paris can smell the rank breath of the Prussian and Austrian armies, with the commanding Duke of Brunswick vowing exemplary horrors. Of our generals, the butcher Lafayette has fled, and senile Rochambeau has resigned. The long-germinating treason of Louis and his harlot has bloomed, and the sour fruit is that France may cower at the feet of foreign princes.
The National Guard must soon leave the city to confront the invaders, but as honest Marat warns us in his paper, ingenious royalist plots fester in our prisons. The aristocrat-tainted Revolutionary Tribunal condescended to try a prisoner a week, if that, releasing most to renew their mischief. So soldiers of the patriot army can face the enemy without fear for their families, we must eradicate the enemy within our jails. And so, across the city, concerned citizens act where our politicians dither, and deliver the rough judgement of a betrayed nation.
The next prisoner is escorted before the tribunal. A lady of our city’s half-world, gormless enough to bark the fetid invective of the gutter at her leering judges. No royalist this, but a mere criminal stray, at a moment where we have no patience for crime. And yet, there is a whisper of beauty about her, enough that I decide she will not perish today.
First, I mumble about her striking looks in earshot of the apprentice, hinting that she will be grateful to any man who liberates her. He blushes, and is lost. The judges make cruel comments about her vocation. I laugh hard - but a little too coarsely, so that many in the crowd are shamed into sympathy for the girl. Next, I grab the arm of the shopkeeper, and complain that we are here to deal with royalists and traitors, and this common doxy is not worth our time, not when Brunswick‘s army may rampage down the street outside at any moment. This inflames him, and he yells at the officials to let her go and bring out the aristocrats, to cautious approbation. At that moment, the lady lifts her skirts at the judges, and makes a complex, brusque, and innovative suggestion, which involves cleaning their greasy scalps. That is my moment. I laugh from the belly, and begin a gentle clap.
The crowd takes up my offer. Louder hands join mine, and in moments the hall shakes with roars to free the citizen. The judges are miffed to have their fun spoiled, but they recognise a Rousseauian articulation of the general will. And so the lady is freed, and the crowd that moments earlier dismantled our Swiss Guard cheer for this bedraggled discount courtesan. She snarls, and vanishes into the winding alleys.
Next, they bring out the man I am here for, the one who has hired me to encourage their acquittal.
Ah, Augustin, anyone who knows you, knows you do not have a thimble of politics in your liver. You are not one for constitutions or parlements or Mirabeaus or d'Eprémesnils, your world is the cashbox jingle of the nightly takings at your theatre. Yet in these sensitive times, the whisper of royalism can be fatal, and so many plays on your stage have preening Kings and Queens in cardboard crowns and paste jewels. Three nights ago you were snagged in a precautionary round-up of suspects, and have the misfortune to be in jail at the moment Brunswick’s army threatens grisly torture on anyone who wears a revolutionary cockade.
I imagine your brief confinement was somewhat comfortable, for you can pay your jailers, and were even able to smuggle messages outside, to organise petitions in your favour. The soldier and lady would have been buried in a sunless oubliette to crack their will, but you would have had your own room, with fair meals and even a mattress. I can see that you have your wits, and are prepared to grovel to placate our puffed-up magistrates. You have paid me well, and so you have my service, to keep the mob in your favour.
The judges lay charges, quoting suspect lines from performances that may hint at royalist or papist conspiracy. Augustin denies counter-revolutionary beliefs, and offers that he has even staged the aristocrat-mocking Figaro. One of the judges scoffs that Figaro shows how a treacherous noble can wear the apparel of a commoner. Augustin has little charity for the common people in his ledger, but equally he cannot be accused of much monarchism. He declares himself a proud supporter of the insurrectionary commune, and talks of plans to host ceremonies of liberty and brotherhood, to rouse the hearts of patriots.
This is the right moment. The crowd only needs a nudge, and it will acclaim Augustin’s civic spirit. I begin to clap.
There is silence. My hands freeze in the air. The crowd shifts to study me. The sabres quiver. Even the judges peer into the crowd. The eyes that watch me are flushed, and I know that this congregation had a mere tincture of mercy, and just spilled it all for the prostitute. Augustin may not be a royalist, but he is fat and comfortable, where the people are lean and haggard. The crime is not royalism, it is feasting while the people starve. Am I of Augustin’s pampered party? Or am I one of the people?
And so I cry, raw, all my art forgotten, now the one on trial for their life, “Death! Death to all enemies of the revolution!”
We scream for death. We give the order. Our hands are numb from frenzied applause, and words dissolve into growls in our parched throats. Outside, our hands do their gruesome duty. We bring in a new prisoner. We taunt them, and call for blood to balance the scales of justice. We are no housewives, no apprentices, no shopkeepers, no actors. Across France, we are one nation, boiling with a thousand years of rage, and our many hands are busy, and they do the work of the people.