CHAPTER XV. THE COMMUNE.
On the 16th of May, the day of the destruction of the column in the Place Vendome, a great patriotic concert was given in the palace of the Tuileries, which was thronged; but "by that date, discord and despair were in the Council of the Commune, and its most respectable members had sent in their resignation. Versailles everywhere was gaining ground; the Fort of Vauves was taken, that of Mont Rouge had been dismantled, and breaches were opened in the city walls. The leaders of the insurrection lost their senses, and gave way to every species of madness and folly. The army of Versailles soon entered the city from different points. The fight was desperate, the carnage frightful. Dombrowski, the only general of ability, was killed early in the struggle. Barricades were in almost every street. Prisoners on both sides were shot without mercy. The Communists set fire to the Tuileries, the Hotel-de-Ville, the Ministry of Finance, the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
The rest of the story is all blood and horror. The most pathetic part of it is the murder of the hostages, which took place on the morning of May 24, and which cannot be told in this chapter. The desperate leaders of the Commune had determined that if they must perish, Paris itself should be their funeral pyre.
It was General Eudes who organized the band of incendiaries called "petroleuses" and gave out the petroleum. It was Felix Pyat, it was said, who laid a train of gunpowder to blow up the Invalides, while another member of the Commune served out explosives.
On the night of May 24, the Hotel-de-Ville was in flames. The smoke, at times a deep red, enveloped everything; the air was laden with the nauseous odors of petroleum. The Tuileries, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Ministry of War, and the Treasury were flaming like the craters of a great volcano.
We have heard much of petroleuses. They appear to have worked among private houses in the more open parts of the city. Here is a picture of one seen by an Englishman: -
"She walked with a rapid step under the shadow of a wall. She was poorly dressed, her age was between forty and fifty; her head was bound with a red-checked handkerchief, from which fell meshes of coarse, uncombed hair. Her face was red, her eyes blurred, and she moved with her eyes bent down to the ground. Her right hand was in her pocket; in the other she held one of the high, narrow tin cans in which milk is carried in Paris, but which now contained petroleum. The street seemed deserted. She stopped and consulted a dirty bit of paper which she held in her hand, paused a moment before the grated entrance to a cellar, and then went on her way steadily, without haste. An hour after, that house was burning to the ground. Sometimes these wretched women led little children by the hand, who were carrying bottles of petroleum. There was a veritable army of these incendiaries, composed mainly of the dregs of society. This army had its chiefs, and each detachment was charged with firing a quarter."
The orders for the conflagration of public edifices bore the stamp of the Commune and that of the Central Committee of the National Guard; also the seal of the war delegate. For private houses less ceremony was used. Small tickets of the size of postage-stamps were pasted on the walls of the doomed houses, with the letters, B. P. B. (Bon Pour Bruler). Some of these tickets were square, others oval, with a Bacchante's head upon them. A petroleuse was to receive ten francs for every house which she set on fire.
All the sewers beneath Paris had been strewn with torpedoes, bombs, and inflammable materials, connected with electric wires. "The reactionary quarters shall be blown up," was the announced intention of the Commune. Mercifully, these arrangements had not been completed when the Versailles troops obtained the mastery. Almost the first thing done was to send sappers and miners underground to cut the wires that connected electric currents with inflammable material in all parts of the city. The catacombs that underlie the eastern part of Paris were included in the incendiary arrangement.
When Paris was at last in safety, and the Commune subdued, would that it had been only the guilty on whom the great and awful vengeance fell!