CHAPTER XV. THE COMMUNE.
"One could not help being struck by the contrasts presented at that time in Paris itself: destruction and death raging in some quarters, cannon levelling its beautiful environs, while at the same moment one could see its fashionable Boulevards crowded with well-dressed people loitering and smiling as if nothing were going on. The cafes, indeed, were ordered to close their doors at midnight, but behind closed shutters went on gambling, drinking, and debauchery. After spending a riotous night, fast men and women considered it a joke to drive out to the Arch of Triumph and see how the fight was going on."
The troops at Versailles, reinforced by the prisoners of war who had been returned from Prussia, began, by the 9th of April, to make active assaults on such forts as were held by the Federals. Confusion and despair began to reign in the Council of the Commune. Unsuccessful in open warfare, the managing committee tried to check the advance of the Versaillais by deeds of violence and retaliation. They arrested numerous hostages, and the same night the palace of the archbishop was pillaged. The prefect of police, Raoul Rigault, issued a decree that every one suspected of being a reactionnaire (that is, a partisan of the National Assembly) should be at once arrested. The delivery of letters was suspended, gas was cut off, and with the exception of a few places where lamp-posts were supplied with petroleum, Paris was in darkness.
The Commune also issued a decree that while all men under sixty must enter its army, women, children, and aged men could obtain passes to leave the city at the prefecture of police for two francs a head. The prefecture was besieged by persons striving to get these passes, many of whom camped out for forty-eight hours while waiting their turn.
In the midst of this confused pressure on the prefect of police, Count Orsi took the resolution of visiting him. As a known adherent of the former dynasty and a personal friend of the late emperor, he did not feel himself safe. He therefore took the bull by the horns, and went to call on the terrible Raoul Rigault in his stronghold. He did not see him, however; but after struggling for three hours in the crowd of poor creatures who were waiting to pay their two francs and receive a passport, he was admitted to the presence of his secretary, Ferre. Ferre was writing as his visitor was shown in, and, waving his pen, made him stand where he could see him. When he learned his name, he said -
"Your opinions are well known to us. We also know that you have taken no active part against us. We fight for what we believe to be just and fair. We do not kill for the pleasure of killing, but we must attain our end, and we shall, at any cost. I recommend you to keep quiet. As you are an Italian, you shall not be molested. However, I must tell you that you have taken a very bold step in calling on me in this place. Your visit might have taken a different turn. You may go. Your frank declaration has saved you."
On Easter Sunday, as the English lady to whom allusion has been made, was leaving Paris, the population in the neighborhood of the Place de Greve was amusing itself by a public burning of the guillotine. It was brought forth and placed beneath a statue of Voltaire, where it was consumed amid wild shouts of enthusiasm.
The Freemasons and trades unions sent deputies to Versailles to endeavor to negotiate between the contending parties. M. Thiers promised amnesty to all Communists who should lay down their arms, except to those concerned in the deaths of Generals Lecomte and Thomas, and he was also willing to give pay to National Guards till trade and order should be restored; but no persuasions would induce him to confer on Paris municipal rights that were not given to other cities. On the 12th of May the Commune issued the following decree: -
"Whereas, the imperial column in the Place Vendome is a monument of barbarism, a symbol of brute force and of false glory, an encouragement to the military spirit, a denial of international rights, a permanent insult offered to the conquered by the conquerors, a perpetual conspiracy against one of the great principles of the French Republic, - namely, Fraternity, - the Commune decrees thus: The column of the Place Vendome shall be destroyed."
Four days later, this decree was carried into effect. Its execution was intrusted to the painter Courbet, who was one of the members of the Commune. He was a man who, up to the age of fifty, had taken no part in politics, but had been wholly devoted to art. His most celebrated pictures are the "Combat des Cerfs" and the "Dame au Perroquet." He was a delightful companion, beloved by artists, and a personal friend of Cluseret, who had caused his name to be put upon the list of the members of the Commune.
The column of the Place Vendome was one hundred and thirty-five feet high. It was on the model of Trajan's column at Rome, but one twelfth larger. It was erected by Napoleon I. to celebrate the victories of the Grand Army in the campaign of 1805. He had caused it to be cast from cannon taken from the enemy. When erected, it was surmounted by a statue of Napoleon in his imperial robes; this, at the Restoration, gave place to a white flag. Under Louis Philippe, Napoleon was replaced, but in his cocked hat and his redingote, but Louis Napoleon restored the imperial statue.