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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Street Scene during the Commune
By Maxime Du Camp (1822–1894)
 
From ‘The Convulsions of Paris’

THERE were strange episodes during this terrible evening. At half-past eight, M. Rouville, a Protestant minister, was at home in a house he owns on the Rue de Lille. He heard an alarm, the cry, “Everything is burning! Escape!” Then he went down, saw the street in flames, and the poor people weeping as they escaped. Just as he was returning to rescue a few valuables, some federates rushed into the court, crying, “Hurry! They are setting the place on fire!” He took some money and the manuscript of the sermons he had preached. Mechanically he seized his hat and cane. Then, throwing a last look around the apartment where he had long lived, invoking the memory of the great Biblical destructions familiar to him in Holy Writ, weak and trembling with emotion, he descended the staircase from his home.  1
  There was indescribable tumult in the street, dominated by the cry of women; a shrill wordless involuntary cry of terror, vibrating above the uproar like a desperate appeal to which no supernatural power replied. Pastor Rouville stopped. The house next his own was in flames. They were setting fire to the one opposite. The houses between the Rue de Beaune and the Rue du Bac, red from cellar to garret, were vomiting flame from all the broken windows.  2
  The pastor’s family were not at Paris. He was alone with a faithful maid, who did not leave him for a moment. This doubtless determined his resolution, and gave him courage to brave all to save his house. If he had felt his wife and daughter near, he would have thought only of their safety, and would have hastened to get them away from the place, where, he said, “One could die of horror.”  3
  Pastor Rouville is a small man, whose great activity keeps him young and remarkably energetic. He belongs to the strong race of Southern Protestants, which has resisted everything to guard its faith. I should not be surprised if he has had some nimble Cévennole, companion of Jean Cavalier, among his ancestors. Chaplain in the prisons of the Seine, accustomed to sound doubtful spirits, to seek in vicious hearts some intact fibres which could re-attach them to virtue; fervent in faith, eloquent, with a high voice which could rise above the tumult, knowing by experience that there is no obscurity so profound that light cannot be made to penetrate it,—he had remained on duty at his post during the Commune; for the prisoners had more need of spiritual aid, now that the regular administration no longer watched over them. He had been indignant at the incarceration of Catholic priests, and had signed the fine protest demanding the liberty of the archbishop, which the ministers had carried to the Hôtel de Ville.  4
  Alone in the presence of the great disaster which threatened him, he commended his spirit to God, remembering that the little stone of David had killed the giant Philistine, and he decided to fight for his home. He encamped energetically before the door, to forbid access; and using the weapons bestowed upon him by Providence and study, he spoke. The federates stopped before this man, whose simplicity rendered him heroic. One may guess what he said to them:—  5
  “Why strike the innocent and tender, as if they were execrable? Why be enraged with a Protestant, a minister, whose religion, founded on the dogma of free examination, is naturally allied to republican ideas? The faith he teaches is that promulgated by Christ: Christ said to Peter, ‘Sheathe thy sword’; he said to men, ‘Love one another!’ No, the people of Paris, this people whose sufferings have been shared, whose unfortunates have been succored during the siege; this people, so good when not led astray by the wicked; this people will not burn the house of a poor minister, whose whole life has been passed in the exercise of charity.”  6
  The pastor must have been eloquent and have spoken with profound conviction, for the federates who were listening to him began to weep, then seized and embraced him. Meantime the tenants of the shops in his house had lowered the iron curtains, which at least was an obstacle against the first throwing of petroleum. This lasted an hour. The federates, evidently softened and touched by the pastor’s despair, remained near him and had pity upon him. An old sergeant of the National Guard stayed beside him, as if to bring him help in case of need, and to maintain a little order among his subordinates. Some hope revived in M. Rouville’s heart, and he was saying to himself that perhaps his house would be spared, when some young men, wearing the braided caps of officers, arrived as if to inspect the fires. Seeing one house intact, emerging like a little island from an ocean of flames, they exclaimed. The pastor sprang forward and wanted to argue with them. It was trouble wasted. One of these young scamps said to him, “You are an old reactionist: you bore us with your talking. If you don’t like it, we will pin you to the wall.” Then, turning toward the federates and pointing to the houses on the Rue de Lille, he cried, “All that belongs to the people. The people have the right to burn everything.”  7
  This had perhaps decided the fate of the pastor’s house, when the sergeant of federates interfered, and addressing the officer said to him, “I have received orders to stop the fire just here.” “Show me your order,” answered the officer. The sergeant replied, “It is a verbal order.” Then there was a lively quarrel between the two men. The sergeant was firm. The officer insisted, and according to the custom of the moment, threatened to have the rebel shot.  8
  The situation was becoming grave, when an incident resolved it. A mounted officer galloped up and ordered all the federates to retreat, because they were about to be surrounded by the troops from Versailles.  9
  Nearly all the National Guards hurried away. The sergeant who had remained near the pastor said, “Get away, scurry, father! You will get yourself killed, and that will not save your camp.”  10
  The other officers passed, commanded everything to be burned, and when the sergeant resisted, compelled him to leave. For half an hour the unhappy pastor remained alone, holding back the incendiaries, passing from supplications to threats, and gaining time by every possible artifice. The sergeant returned with tearful eyes, and showed the dismayed pastor a written order to burn the house, sent by his chiefs. Not yet discouraged, the pastor roused the compassion of the old sergeant, and so moved him that the rebel cried, “Ah, well! so much the worse! I’ll disobey. No, I won’t let your house be burned. They’ll shoot me. It’s all the same. I deserve to be.” Then raising his hand toward the sky, where the stars shone like sparks through the veil of wind-driven smoke, he cried “O my father, I believe in God! Fear nothing; I will stay here. They shan’t touch your house. I shall know how to keep off plunderers!”  11
  O strange deceiving people; ready for all crimes, ready for all good actions, according to the voice which speaks to thee and the emotion which carries thee away! This sergeant was indeed thy likeness, and one need not despair of thee, although thou dishearten those who love thee best!  12
  The brandy at the wine merchants’; the ether at the druggists’; the powder and shot forgotten in stations, or secreted in cellars, burst with terrible explosions and scattered flaming coals. The pastor looked at his house, still miraculously intact. He gave it a last look, and departed sobbing. It was eleven o’clock. For three hours in the midst of this furnace he had resisted the incendiaries. His strength was exhausted. The faithful servant, who went back again and again to rescue one thing more from the burning, dragged him away. In the Rue des Saints-Pères they plunged into darkness, all the deeper for the brazier of sparkling lights behind them. They groped their way over the barricades through a shower of bullets. More than once they fell down. Finally, safe and sound despite the dangers braved, they reached the Rue de Seine, near the Rue de Bucy, where they found refuge in a lodging-house.  13
  Next day Pastor Rouville ran towards the Rue de Lille. His house was standing intact. The old sergeant had kept his word. What became of this brave man, who at the risk of his life saved the property of a man whose speech had touched him? Perhaps he perished. Perhaps he received his due reward. Perhaps he drags out a wretched life in some workshop of a penitentiary. I know not his fate, nor even his name.  14
 
 
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