CHAPTER XVI. THE HOSTAGES.
I have quoted this interview with Megy at some length, because it shows the Communists painted by one of their own number. Before the reporter left him, he chanced to pronounce the name of Mr. Washburne. "Washburne is a liar and a cur," cried Megy, angrily. "Before the Commune ended, some of our people asked him what the Versailles Government would do with us if we surrendered or were conquered. 'I assure you,' he said, 'you would be shot.' During the siege of Paris, Washburne was a German spy. He is a villanous old rascal."
In studying the history of the Commune, it is desirable to remember dates. The whole affair lasted seventy-three days. On March 18 the guns on Montmartre were taken by the populace, Generals Lecomte and Thomas were shot, and the Commune was proclaimed. Military operations were begun April 4. On April 9 Fort Valerien began to throw shells into Paris. From that day forward, the Versailles troops continued to advance, taking possession one by one of the forts and the positions of the Federals. On Sunday, May 21, the Versailles troops began to enter Paris, and fought their way steadily from street to street till Sunday, May 27, when all was over. The hostages were not hostages in the true sense of the word; they had not been given up in pledge for the performance of any promise. They were persons seized for purposes of intimidation and retaliation, as in 1826 the Turks seized the most prominent Christians in Scio.
During the last five days of the Commune, Dombrowski, its only general with military capacity, was killed, - it is supposed, by one of his own men. The Tuileries, the Hotel-de-Ville, and numerous other buildings were fired, the Dominican Brothers were massacred, and the executions in the Rue Haxo took place, besides others in other parts of Belleville and at the Prefecture. One of the most diabolical pieces of destruction attempted was that of the Grand Livre.
The Grand Livre is the book kept in the French Treasury in which are inscribed the names and accounts of all those who hold Government securities; and as the French Government is the proprietor of all railroads, telegraph systems, and many other things that in England and the United States are left to private enterprise, the loss of the Grand Livre would have involved thousands upon thousands of families in ruin. For a man to have his name on the Grand Livre is to constitute him what is called a rentier, rentes being the French word for dividends from the public funds.
The Grand Livre is kept at the Ministry of Finance; that building Ferre ordered to be summarily destroyed, uttering the words, "Flambez Finances." The building was accordingly set on fire the day before the Commune fell; and for some days after, it was thought throughout all France that the Grand Livre had perished. By heroic exertions some of it was saved, the officials in charge of it rushing into the flames and rescuing that portion of it which contained the names of living property-holders, I while they let the records of past generations burn.
There was in existence a duplicate copy of the Grand Livre, though this was known only to the higher officials of the Treasury. It was kept in a sort of register's office not far from the Tuileries, and was in the care of a M. Chazal. When the Tuileries and the Treasury were on fire, the object of M. Chazal and of all who knew of the precious duplicate was to save it, in case the building in which it was deposited should share in the conflagration.
Of course the Grand Livre is of vast bulk. This copy was contained in great bundles of loose sheets. Luckily these papers were in stout oaken boxes on the ground-floor of a detached building opening on a courtyard. The Versailles troops had reached the spot, and ninety sappers and miners, with seven brave firemen, were at work with water-buckets attempting to save the main building, which was blazing fiercely when M. Chazal arrived. Already the detached building in which the precious duplicate was stored was on fire. There was no place to which he could safely remove the precious papers, no means of transport to carry them away.
During the siege orders had been given to have large piles of sand placed in the courtyards of all public buildings, to smother shells should any fall there. There were three of these sand-piles lying in the yard of this record office. In them deep trenches were rapidly dug; and the boxes were buried. Then the pile was covered with all the incombustible rubbish that could be collected; and had the Grand Livre been really destroyed, as for some days it was believed to have been, every Government creditor would have found his interests safe, through the exertions of M. Chazal and the intrepid band who worked under him.
In somewhat the same manner the gold and silver in the vaults of the Bank of France were saved from pillage. The narrow staircase leading to the vaults, down which only one man could pass at a time, was by order of the directors filled up with sand during the siege.