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Days of Judgment by August Strindberg

 

In the northern tower of the Church of Notre Dame de Paris was the tower-watchman's chamber. But it had been arranged like a bookbinder's workshop, for the watchman's day-duty was not particularly heavy, and the hours of the night passed with sleep or without sleep, no one troubling themselves to oversee this now superfluous church servant.

Nobody entered the church, which had been damaged in various ways, and no one ascended the northern tower, for the bells hung in the southern one. There the watchman's duty was regarded more seriously, for on all extraordinary occasions the alarm-bell had to sound.

The watchman kept up a sort of telegraphic communication with the bellringer in the southern tower. In calm weather they could chat with each other, but when it was windy, they had to use speaking trumpets.

The workshop had, in the course of years, developed into a very comfortable room. Its southern side was occupied by a single large bookcase. There the first edition of the Encyclopedie in five and thirty volumes, shone resplendent in red morocco with gilt letters. There stood Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Locke, Hume—all the authors who ought to have been present. There were also periodicals, the Moniteur, Pere Duchesne and Marat's L'Ami du Peuple. This last was bound in somewhat greasy leather, which resembled pig's-skin, and had curled up at the corners.

Another wall was covered with engravings, some coloured and some plain. They hung in chronological order from left to right, from top to bottom, so that one could read the whole history of the Revolution pictorially. The Oath in the ball-room on June 20, 1789, with Mirabeau's portrait; the burning of the Bastille, and the head of the commandant; the Jacobite Club, with Marat, Saint-Just, Couthon, Robespierre; the Feast of Brotherhood on the Champ du Mars; the King's Flight to Varennes; Lafayette; the Girondists; the execution of the King and Queen; the Committee of Public Welfare, with Danton and the newly hatched Robespierre; the Reign of Terror; Charlotte Corday stabbing Marat in the bath; Robespierre again; Feast of the Supreme Being; Voltaire's Funeral; Robespierre again, this time on the 9th Thermidor. Then came Buonaparte and the Directory, mixed with Pyramids and Alps.

In the middle of the room stood a very large table. At the one end were the bookbinder's tools; at the other, writing materials. The inkstand was a skull; the ruler was a fore-arm; the paper-weight was a guillotine, and the penholder a rib.

The bookbinder himself, a centenarian, with an apostolic beard, sat and wrote under a lantern which hung from the roof. He was the only person visible in the room. Outside it was stormy, and the roof-plates rattled from time to time; it was cool in the room, but not cold, for a stove was lit in a corner, where lay the watchman's belongings—a great wolfskin fur-coat, a speaking trumpet, some flags, and a lantern with variously coloured glass sides. The old man pushed his glasses up his forehead, looked up, and spoke, though the person with whom he talked could not be seen.

“Are you hungry?”

A voice behind the bookcase answered: “Fairly so.”

“Are you cold?”

“No, not yet.”

“Wait a little; I must just go outside and make an observation.”

“What are you writing?”

“My reminiscences.”

“Is it quiet in the town?”

“Yes, but they have gone out to Saint Cloud.”

“Then it will soon come to shooting.”

“It won't come to shooting, but we may expect a proclamation. Be quiet now; I must step out, and send a message. Then you will get some food and drink; perhaps a pipe of tobacco also.”

There was silence behind the bookcase, and the old man put on his fur-coat, lit his many-coloured lamp, took up a speaking-trumpet, and stepped out on the balcony.

It was very dark, but the old man was familiar with his menagerie out there on the parapet; he loved his stone monsters—the owl, the griffin, the gorgon, and stroked them every time that he passed them. But the creature with a man's body, goat's feet and horns, inspired him with a certain awe, as it stood there leaning on its hands like a priest, and bending forward as if to preach to the godless city or to hurl anathemas at it. He took his stand near it, and began to signal with the lantern. But the wind was so violent that the old man swayed, and had to put his arm round the creature's body, in order to support himself.

After he had stood for a time signalling with the lantern, and gazing out into the darkness, he suddenly raised himself upright, put down the lantern, and raised the speaking-trumpet to his mouth. Holding on to the stone balustrade, he turned to the southern tower, and cried “Hullo! Francis! Hallo!”

After a while a reply came through the darkness.

“Qui vive?”

“Mont-joie—Saint-Denis.”

“Sacre!” answered the other. “Ring the great bell! Ring, for heaven's sake!”

The watchman remained standing for a while looking at the coloured lights on the church tower of St. Cloud. In order to be quite certain, he repeated his signal, and received for answer: “Right understood.”

The old man sighed “Thy will be done, O Lord!” He was on the point of returning to the turret-chamber, when the wind blew so violently, that he had to seize the arm of the horned monster in order to stand fast. But the figure had got loose; it yielded, and moved a little.

“He too!” muttered the old man to himself. “Nothing stands fast, everything slips; nothing remains on which to support oneself.” He crouched down in order not to be blown away, and so stooping, as he walked, reached the door of the turret-chamber, which he flung open.

“The Revolution is over,” he called out to the bookcase.

“What do you say?”

“The Revolution is over! Come out, sire.”

He laid hold of the bookcase, and opened it like a door on its hinges. It concealed a neat little room furnished in the style of Louis XV. Out of it stepped a man of about thirty, with pale delicate features and a melancholy aspect.

“Sire,” said the bookbinder in a humble voice, “now your time is come, and mine runs out. I do not exactly know what has happened on this eighteenth of Brumaire in Saint Cloud, but one thing I know: Buonaparte has taken the helm.”

“Jaques,” answered the nobleman, “I do not wish to hurt your feelings, but I cannot conceal my joy.”

“Don't conceal it, sire! You have saved me from the scaffold, and I have saved you; let us thank each other, and be quits.”

“To think that this bloody drama is ended—that this madness....”

“Sire, don't speak so.”

His eyes began to sparkle, but he quickly changed his tone. “Let us eat our last meal together, but in love like fellow-men; let us talk of the past, and then part in peace. This evening we are still brothers, but to-morrow you are the lord and I am the servant.”

“You are right. To-day I am an emigrant, tomorrow I am a count.”

The old man brought out a cold fowl, a cheese, and a bottle of wine, and both took their places at the table.

“This wine, sire, was bottled in '89. It has a history, and therefore....”

“Have you no white wine? I do not like red.”

“Is it the colour you dislike?”

“Yes, it looks like blood! You have lost a wife and four sons.”

“Why should I weep for them? They fell on the field of honour.”

“The scaffold!”

“I call the scaffold the field of honour! But you want white wine! Good! You shall have it. You prefer the colour of tears; I prefer that of blood!”

He opened a bottle of white wine: “Suum cuique! Tastes differ. We can now breathe again, and sleep quietly at night. That was the hardest thing to bear during this last decade—the loss of sleep at night. The fear of death was worse than death itself.”

“The worst for us—pardon the expression—was to see the State and society turned topsyturvy, and brutality enthroned.”

“Wait a little! Louis XIV paid two gentlemen of the chamber twenty thousand livres yearly to examine and carry away his night stool every morning. The Sansculottes could not be coarser than that. Marie Antoinette used to go and spend the night drinking with her boon-companions, so that she returned home about eleven o'clock the next morning exhausted; that was coarse conduct for such a fine lady.”

“You may draw the long bow to-night, Jaques; but to-morrow take care of your head! You ought not to speak so of these high personages who have suffered a martyr's death.”

“Stop! stop! The King was what they call 'a fine fellow,' but the Queen was a wretch. But both were justly condemned to death—both! Look you! if Turgot could have remained at his post, the Revolution would not have broken out. All the reforms in the State, Church, and Society, which we—pardon the expression—have carried through could have been carried through then, if Turgot had been allowed to put his plans into operation. The Queen would not endure the Minister's retrenchment of her revenue, and plotted for his removal, and the King supported her. That was a great crime. The second was the overthrow of Necker. Then the Queen and her Court minxes ruled. Both King and Queen sought to stir up foreign countries against their own; their correspondence relating to this was discovered, and then the betrayers of their country were condemned to death. Don't talk of Martyrs, or I shall be angry. For I am angry when I hear lies, and cannot control myself.”

The Count laid his hand on his sword.

“Put your sword in its sheath, young man, or otherwise....”

They sat down on opposite sides of the table, and darted angry glances at each other.

“The ultimate causes,” continued the old man, “may be sought in heaven, but we have here only to do with secondary causes, and those we know. The Revolution was a Last Judgment which had to come, just as it came in England exactly a hundred years before, in 1689.”

“But Cromwell's republic did not last.”

“Nor does this; but it comes again! But let us rather talk of something cheerful on this last evening. I have been present at everything; I have a strong memory, and can forget nothing. But what shines most brightly through all the dark days is the recollection of the day on the Champs du Mars, the Feast of Brotherhood of July 14, '90. Twenty thousand workmen were employed to clear it, but, as they could not finish the work by the appointed day, all Paris went out. There I saw bishops, court marshals, generals, monks, nuns, society ladies, workmen, sailors, dustmen, and street-girls levelling the ground with hoes and spades. Finally the King himself made up his mind to join in the work. That was the greatest feat of equalisation which mankind have carried out; the hills were made low, and the valleys filled. At last the great theatre of liberty was ready. At the altar of the Fatherland a fire of perfumed wood was kindled, and Talleyrand, Bishop of Autun, with a retinue of four hundred white-robed priests consecrated the flags. The King in civil dress and the Queen sat on the platform, and, as the 'first citizens of the State,' took the constitutional oath. All was forgotten; all was forgiven. Half a million people, collected in one place, animated by one spirit, felt themselves that day to be brothers and sisters. We wept, we fell in each other's arms, we kissed each other. We wept to think what wretches we had been, and how good and amiable we were now. We wept perhaps, also, because we guessed how fragile all this was.

“And afterwards, in the evening, when Paris turned out in the streets and market-places. Families ate their mid-day meal on the pavement; the old and sick were carried into the open air; food and wine were distributed at the public expense. That was the Feast of Tabernacles, the recollection of the Exodus from Egyptian bondage; it was the Saturnalia, the return of the Golden Age! And then....”

“Then came Marat, Danton, and Robespierre.”

“Yes! Robespierre, the most hated of all, was not worse than Louis XI and Henry VIII.”

“A murderer.”

“The judge is not a murderer, nor is the executioner.”

“But the Golden Age passed—as it came.”

“Yet it comes again.”

“Not with Buonaparte!”

“No, not with him, but through him.” “Who is he?”

“A Corsican, born in the same year in which France annexed his country. He will avenge it, and, since he can never feel himself a Frenchman, he will exploit our country only for his own purposes. But nevertheless, in spite of his unparalleled selfishness, his wickedness and crimes, he will serve humanity—for everything serves.”

“And afterwards?”

“Who can say? Probably things will go on as they have done hitherto; sometimes advancing, then a halt; then again advance.”

“And then the obsolete turns up again.”

“Yes, like a drowning man. Three times he comes to the surface to breathe, but the fourth time he remains below. Or, like an animal chewing the cud; for some time there are small eructations, re-mastications, and then everything is ejected through the gullet, after going through the circle.”

“Do you believe in the return of the Golden Age?”

“Yes I believe like Thomas, when I have seen. And I have seen. At the moment, which I now recall, on the Champs du Mars,—then I saw! We had a forefeeling of the future, we were sure that we had had a vision of some new order of things, but were uncertain when it would be established.”

“How long are we to wait?”

“We should not sit still and wait, but work! That makes the time pass. The learned say that it took a million years for the Hill of Montmartre to be deposited from the water. Now history is only three thousand years old; for three thousand years more, men can reflect over their past, and perhaps in six thousand an improvement may be noticeable! We are too proud and impatient, sire. And yet things move quickly. America was discovered only three hundred years ago, and now it is an European republic. Africa, India, China, Japan are opened, and soon the whole world will belong to Europe. Do you see the promise to Abraham, 'In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed,' is on the way to fulfilment—on the way, I say.”

“The promise to Abraham?”

“Yes! Have not Christians, Jews, and Muhammedans a share in the promise?”

“Christians of Abraham's seed?”

“Through Christ, who was of Judah, we are spiritually Abraham's seed. One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all!”

“I have listened to you, and must say that your faith is great, and has delivered you.”

“As it will deliver mankind.”

The conversation now ceased, for the alarm-bell began to ring in the south tower. The sound of it overpowered the din of the storm, and filled the room with its vibrations, made the table and chairs shake, and both men tremble. The old man tried to speak, but his guest heard nothing, and only saw his lips move. Then the old man rose and pointed to one of the many engravings.

It represented Anacharsis Clootz, the philanthropist and philosopher, in a convent, with a crowd of people from all corners of the earth—black, yellow, white, copper-coloured—seeking to have them admitted as citizens into the world-republic. The Count smiled in answer half-distrustfully, half-tolerantly. The old man tried to speak, but could not be heard. The boom of the bell seemed to come from the depths of ages, ringing out the past century and ringing in the new, which would commence in a few weeks—the nineteenth century since the birth of the Redeemer, who has promised to return, and perhaps will do so in one way or another.

The Count sat there fingering the letter-weight in the shape of a guillotine. Suddenly he seized it, and looked questioningly at the old man, who nodded in the affirmative. The letter-weight was thrown into the paper-basket.

The great bell ceased ringing, the room was quiet, and the old man, his arms folded over his breast, spoke as though with a sigh of gratitude.

“The Revolution is over.”

This Revolution!”

“'Tribulation worketh patience; patience, experience; experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed!'“

 
 
 

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