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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Breadline
By Anatole France (1844–1924)
 
From ‘The Gods are Athirst’

TEN o’clock in the forenoon. Not a breath of wind. It was the hottest July ever known. In the narrow Rue de Jérusalem a hundred or so citizens of the Section were waiting in queue at the baker’s door, under the eye of four National Guards who stood at ease smoking their pipes.  1
  The National Convention had decreed the maximum,—and instantly corn and flour had disappeared. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, the Parisians had to rise before daybreak if they wished to eat. The crowd was lined up, men, women, and children tightly packed together, under a sky of molten lead. The heat beat down on the rotting foulness of the kennels and exaggerated the stench of unwashed, sweating humanity. All were pushing, abusing their neighbors, exchanging looks fraught with every sort of emotion one human being can feel for another,—dislike, disgust, interest, attraction, indifference. Painful experience had taught them there was not bread enough for everybody; so the late comers were always trying to push forward, while those who lost ground complained bitterly and indignantly and vainly claimed their rights. Women shoved and elbowed savagely to keep their place or squeeze into a better. When the press grew too intolerable, cries rose of “Stop pushing there!” while each and all protested they could not help it—it was someone else pushing them.  2
  To obviate these daily scenes of disorder, the officials appointed by the Section had conceived the notion of fastening a rope to the shop-door which each applicant held in his proper order; but hands at such close quarters would come in contact on the rope and a struggle would result. Whoever lost hold could never recover it, while the disappointed and mischievously inclined sometimes cut the cord. In the end the plan had to be abandoned.  3
  On this occasion there was the usual suffocation and confusion. While some swore they were dying, others indulged in jokes or loose remarks; all abused the aristocrats and federalists, authors of all the misery. When a dog ran by, wags hailed the beast as Pitt. More than once a loud slap showed that some citoyenne in the line had resented with a vigorous hand the insolence of a lewd admirer, while, pressed close against her neighbor, a young servant girl, with eyes half shut and mouth half open, stood sighing in a sort of a trance. At any word, or gesture, or attitude of a sort to provoke the sportive humor of the coarse-minded populace, a knot of young libertines would strike up the Ça-ira in chorus, regardless of the protests of an old Jacobin, highly indignant to see a dirty meaning attached to a refrain expressive of the Republican faith in a future of justice and happiness.  4
  His ladder under his arm, a billsticker appeared to post up on a blank wall facing the baker’s a proclamation by the Commune apportioning the rations of butcher’s-meat. Passers-by halted to read the notice, still sticky with paste. A cabbage vendor going by, basket on back, began calling out in her loud cracked voice:  5
  “They’m all gone, the purty oxen! best rake up the guts!”  6
  Suddenly such an appalling stench of putrefaction rose from a sewer near by that several people were turned sick; a woman was taken ill and handed over in a fainting condition to a couple of National Guards, who carried her off to a pump a few yards away. All held their noses and fell to growling and grumbling, exchanging conjectures each more ghastly and alarming than the last. What was it? a dead animal buried thereabouts, a dead fish, perhaps, put in for mischief’s sake, or more likely a victim of the September massacres, some noble or priest, left to rot in a cellar.  7
  “They buried them in cellars, eh?”  8
  “They got rid of ’em anywhere and anyhow.”  9
  “It will be one of the Châtelet prisoners. On the 2d I saw three hundred in a heap on the Port au Change.”  10
  The Parisians dreaded the vengeance of these aristocrats who were like to poison them with their dead bodies.  11
  Évariste Gamelin joined the line; he was resolved to spare his old mother the fatigues of the long wait. His neighbor, the citoyen Brotteaux, went with him, calm and smiling, his Lucretius in the baggy pocket of his plum-colored coat.  12
  The good old fellow enjoyed the scene, calling it a bit of low life worthy the brush of a modern Teniers.  13
  “These street-porters and goodwives,” he declared, “are more amusing than the Greeks and Romans our painters are so fond of nowadays. For my part, I have always admired the Flemish style.”  14
  One fact he was too sensible and tactful to mention—that he had himself owned a gallery of Dutch masters rivaled only by Monsieur de Choiseul’s in the number and excellence of the examples.  15
  “Nothing is beautiful save the Antique,” returned the painter, “and what is inspired by it. Still, I grant you these low-life scenes by Teniers, Jan Steen, or Ostrade are better stuff than the frills and furbelows of Watteau, Boucher, or Van Loo; humanity is shown in an ugly light, but it is not degraded as it is by a Baudouin or a Fragonard.”  16
  A hawker went by bawling:  17
  “Bulletin of the Revolutionary Tribunal!”… “list of the condemned!”  18
  “One Revolutionary Tribunal is not enough,” said Gamelin, “there should be one in every town … in every town, do I say?—nay, in every village, in every hamlet. Fathers of families, citizens, one and all should constitute themselves judges. At a time when the enemy’s cannon is at her gates and the assassin’s dagger at her throat, the Nation must hold mercy to be parricide. What! Lyons, Marseilles, Bordeaux in insurrection, Corsica in revolt, La Vendée on fire, Mayence and Valenciennes in the hands of the Coalition, treason in the country, town, and camp, treason sitting on the very benches of the National Convention, treason assisting, map in hand, at the council board of our Commanders in the field!… The fatherland is in danger—and the guillotine must save her!”  19
  “I have no objection on principle to make to the guillotine,” replied Brotteaux. “Nature, my only mistress, and my only instructress, certainly offers me no suggestion to the effect that a man’s life is of any value; on the contrary, she teaches in all kinds of ways that it is of none. The sole end and object of living beings seems to be to serve as food for other beings destined to the same end. Murder is of natural right; therefore, the penalty of death is lawful, on condition it is exercised from no motives either of virtue or of justice, but by necessity or to gain some profit thereby. However, I must have perverse instincts, for I sicken to see blood flow, and this defect of character all my philosophy has failed so far to correct.”  20
  “Republicans,” answered Évariste, “are humane and full of feeling. It is only despots hold the death penalty to be a necessary attribute of authority. The sovereign people will do away with it one day. Robespierre fought against it, and all good patriots were with him; the law abolishing it cannot be too soon promulgated. But it will not have to be applied till the last foe of the Republic has perished beneath the sword of law and order.”  21
  Gamelin and Brotteaux had by this time a number of late comers behind them and amongst these several women of the Section, including a stalwart, handsome tricoteuse, in head-kerchief and sabots, wearing a sword in a shoulder belt, a pretty girl with a mop of golden hair and a very tumbled neckerchief, and a young mother, pale and thin, giving the breast to a sickly infant.  22
  The child, which could get no milk, was screaming, but its voice was weak and stifled by its sobs. Pitifully small, with a pallid, unhealthy skin and inflamed eyes, the mother gazed at it with mingled anxiety and grief.  23
  “He is very young,” observed Gamelin, turning to look at the unhappy infant groaning just at his back, half stifled amid the crowd of new arrivals.  24
  “He is six months, poor love!… His father is with the army; he is one of the men who drove back the Austrians at Condé. His name is Dumonteil (Michel), a draper’s assistant by trade. He enlisted at a booth they had established in front of the Hôtel de Ville. Poor lad, he was all for defending his country and seeing the world…. He writes telling me to be patient. But pray, how am I to feed Paul (he’s called Paul, you know) when I can’t feed myself?”  25
  “Oh, dear!” exclaimed the pretty girl with the flaxen hair, “we’ve got another hour before us yet, and to-night we shall have to repeat the same ceremony over again at the grocer’s. You risk your life to get three eggs and a quarter of a pound of butter.”  26
  “Butter!” sighed the citoyenne Dumonteil, “why, it’s three months since I’ve seen a scrap!”  27
  And a chorus of female voices rose, bewailing the scarcity and dearness of provisions, cursing the émigrés and devoting to the guillotine the Commissaries of Sections who were ready to give good-for-nothing minxes, in return for unmentionable services, fat hens and four-pound loaves. Alarming stories passed round of cattle drowned in the Seine, sacks of flour emptied in the sewers, loaves of bread thrown into the latrines…. It was all those Royalists, and Rolandists, and Brissotins, who were starving the people, bent on exterminating every living thing in Paris!  28
  All of a sudden the pretty, fair-haired girl with the rumpled neckerchief broke into shrieks as if her petticoats were afire. She was shaking these violently and turning out her pockets, vociferating that somebody had stolen her purse.  29
  At news of the petty theft, a flood of indignation swept over this crowd of poor folks, the same who had sacked the mansions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and invaded the Tuileries without appropriating the smallest thing, artisans and housewives, who would have burned down the Palace of Versailles with a light heart, but would have thought it a dire disgrace if they had stolen the value of a pin. The young rakes greeted the girl’s loss with some ribald jokes, that were immediately drowned under a burst of public indignation. There was some talk of instant execution—hanging the thief to the nearest lamp-post, and an investigation was begun, where everyone spoke at once and nobody would listen to a word of reason. The tall tricoteuse, pointing her finger at an old man, strongly suspected of being an unfrocked monk, swore it was the “Capuchin” yonder who was the cut-purse. The crowd believed her without further evidence and raised a shout of “Death! death!”  30
  The old man so unexpectedly exposed to the public vengeance was standing very quietly and soberly just in front of the citoyen Brotteaux. He had all the look, there was no denying it, of a ci-devant cleric. His aspect was venerable, though the face was changed and drawn by the terrors the poor man had suffered from the violence of the crowd and the recollection of the September days that were still vivid in his imagination. The fear depicted on his features stirred the suspicion of the populace, which is always ready to believe that only the guilty dread its judgments, as if the haste and recklessness with which it pronounces them were not enough to terrify even the most innocent.  31
  Brotteaux had made it a standing rule never to go against the popular feeling of the moment, above all when it was manifestly illogical and cruel, “because in that case,” he would say, “the voice of the people was the voice of God.” But Brotteaux proved himself untrue to his principles; he asseverated that the old man, whether he was a Capuchin or not, could not have robbed the citoyenne, having never gone near her for one moment.  32
  The crowd drew its own conclusion,—the individual who spoke up for the thief was of course his accomplice, and stern measures were proposed to deal with the two malefactors, and when Gamelin offered to guarantee Brotteaux’s honesty, the wisest heads suggested sending him along with the two others to the Sectional headquarters.  33
  But the pretty girl gave a cry of delight; she had found her purse again. The statement was received with a storm of hisses, and she was threatened with a public whipping,—like a nun.  34
  “Sir,” said the ex-monk, addressing Brotteaux, “I thank you for having spoken in my defense. My name is of no concern, but I had better tell you what it is; I am called Louis de Longuemare. I am in truth a Regular; but not a Capuchin, as those women would have it. There is the widest difference; I am a monk of the Order of Barnabites, which has given doctors and saints without number to the Church. It is only a half-truth to refer its origin to St. Charles Borromeo; we must account as the true founder the Apostle St. Paul, whose cipher it bears on its arms. I have been compelled to quit my cloister, now headquarters of the Section du Pont-Neuf, and adopt a secular habit.”  35
  “Nay, Father,” said Brotteaux, scrutinizing Monsieur de Longuemare’s frock, “your dress is token enough that you have not forsworn your profession; to look at it, one might think you had reformed your order rather than forsaken it. It is your good heart makes you expose yourself in these austere habiliments to the insults of a godless populace.”  36
  “Yet I cannot very well,” replied the ex-monk, “wear a blue coat, like a roisterer at a dance!”  37
  “What I mention, Father, about your dress is by way of paying homage to your character and putting you on your guard against the risks you run.”  38
  “On the contrary, sir, it would be much better to inspirit me to confess my faith. For indeed, I am only too prone to fear danger. I have abandoned my habit, sir, which is a sort of apostasy; I would fain not have deserted, had it been possible, the House where God granted me for so many years the grace of a peaceable and retired life. I got leave to stay there, and I still continued to occupy my cell, while they turned the church and cloister into a sort of petty hôtel de ville they called the Section. I saw, sir, I saw them hack away the emblems of the Holy Verity; I saw the name of the Apostle Paul replaced by a convicted felon’s cap. Sometimes I was actually present at the confabulations of the Section, where I heard amazing errors propounded. At last I quitted this place of profanation and went to live on the pension of a hundred pistoles allowed me by the Assembly in a stable that stood empty, the horses having been requisitioned for service of the armies. There I sing Mass for a few of the faithful, who come to the office to bear witness to the eternity of the Church of Jesus Christ.”  39
  “For my part, Father,” replied the other, “if you care to know my name, I am called Brotteaux, and I was a publican in former days.”  40
  “Sir,” returned the Père Longuemare, “I was aware by St. Matthew’s example that one may look for good counsel from a publican.”  41
  “Father, you are too obliging.”  42
  “Citoyen Brotteaux,” remarked Gamelin, “pray admire the virtues of the people, more hungry for justice than for bread; consider how everyone here is ready to lose his place to chastise the thief. These men and women, victims of such poverty and privation, are of so stern a probity they cannot tolerate a dishonest act.”  43
  “It must indeed be owned,” replied Brotteaux, “that in their hearty desire to hang the pilferer, these folks were like to do a mischief to this good cleric, to his champion and to his champion’s champion. Their avarice itself and their selfish eagerness to safeguard their own welfare were motives enough; the thief in attacking one of them threatened all; self-preservation urged them to punish him…. At the same time, it is like enough the most part of these workmen and goodwives are honest and keep their hands off other folk’s goods. From the cradle these sentiments have been instilled in them by their fathers and mothers, who have whipped them well and soundly and inculcated the virtues through their backside.”  44
  Gamelin did not conceal the fact from his old neighbor that he deemed such language unworthy of a philosopher.  45
  “Virtue,” said he, “is natural to mankind; God has planted the seed of it in the heart of mortals.”  46
  Old Brotteaux was a sceptic and found in his atheism an abundant source of self-satisfaction.  47
  “I see this much, citoyen Gamelin, that, while a Revolutionary for what is of this world, you are, where Heaven is concerned, of a conservative, or even a reactionary temper. Robespierre and Marat are the same to you. For me, I find it strange that Frenchmen, who will not put up with a mortal king any longer, insist on retaining an immortal tyrant, far more despotic and ferocious. For what is the Bastile, or even the Chambre Ardente 1 beside Hell-fire? Humanity models its gods on its tyrants, and you, who reject the original, preserve the copy!”  48
  “Oh! citoyen!” protested Gamelin, “are you not ashamed to hold such language? how can you confound the dark divinities born of ignorance and fear with the Author of Nature? Belief in a benevolent God is necessary for morality. The Supreme Being is the source of all the virtues and a man cannot be a Republican if he does not believe in God. Robespierre knew this, who, as we all remember, had the bust of the philosopher Helvetius removed from the Hall of the Jacobins, because he taught Frenchmen the lessons of slavery by preaching atheism…. I hope, at least, citoyen Brotteaux, that, as soon as the Republic has established the worship of Reason, you will not refuse your adhesion to so wise a religion!”  49
  “I love reason, but I am no fanatic in my love”; was Brotteaux’s answer. “Reason is our guide and beacon-light; but when you have made a divinity of it, it will blind you and instigate you to crime,”—and he proceeded to develop his thesis, standing both feet in the kennel as he had once been used to perorate, seated in one of Baron d’Holbach’s gilt armchairs, which, as he was fond of saying, formed the basis of natural philosophy.  50
  “Jean Jacques Rousseau,” he proceeded, “who was not without talents, particularly in music, was a scampish fellow who professed to derive his morality from Nature while all the time he got it from the dogmas of Calvin. Nature teaches us to devour each other and gives us the example of all the crimes and all the vices which the social state corrects or conceals. We should love virtue; but it is well to know that this is simply and solely a convenient expedient invented by men in order to live comfortably together. What we call morality is merely a desperate enterprise, a forlorn hope, on the part of our fellow creatures to reverse the order of the universe, which is strife and murder, the blind interplay of hostile forces. She destroys herself, and the more I think of things, the more convinced I am that the universe is mad. Theologians and philosophers, who make God the author of Nature and the architect of the universe, show Him to us as illogical and ill-conditioned. They declare Him benevolent, because they are afraid of Him, but they are forced to admit that His acts are atrocious. They attribute a malignity to him seldom to be found even in mankind. And that is how they get human beings to adore Him. For our miserable race would never lavish worship on just and benevolent deities from which they would have nothing to fear; they would feel only a barren gratitude for their benefits. Without purgatory and hell, your God would be a mighty poor creature.”  51
  “Sir,” said the Père Longuemare, “do not talk of Nature; you do not know what Nature is.”  52
  “Egad, I know it as well as you do, Father.”  53
  “You cannot know it, because you have not religion, and religion alone teaches us what Nature is, wherein it is good, and how it has been made evil. However, you must not expect me to answer you; God has vouchsafed me, to refute your errors, neither eloquence nor force of intellect. I should only be afraid, by my inadequate replies, of giving you occasion to blaspheme and further reasons for hardening your heart. I feel a strong desire to help you; yet the sole fruit of my importunate efforts would be to….”  54
  The discussion was cut short by a tremendous shout coming from the head of the column to warn the whole regiment of famished citizens that the baker was opening his doors. The line began to push forward, but very, very slowly. A National Guard on duty admitted the purchasers one by one. The baker, his wife, and boy presided over the sale, assisted by two Civil Commissaries. These, wearing a tri-colored riband round the left arm, saw that the customers belonged to the Section and were given their proper share in proportion to the number of mouths to be filled.  55
  The citoyen Brotteaux made the quest of pleasure the one and only aim of life, holding that the reason and the senses, the sole judges when gods there were none, were unable to conceive any other. Accordingly, finding the painter’s remarks somewhat over-full of fanaticism, and the Monk’s of simplicity, to please his taste, this wise man, bent on squaring his behavior with his views and relieving the tedium of waiting, drew from the bulging pocket of his plum-colored coat his Lucretius, now as always his chiefest solace and faithful comforter. The binding of red morocco was chafed by hard wear, and the citoyen Brotteaux had judiciously erased the coat of arms that once embellished it,—three islets or, which his father the financier had bought for good money down. He opened the book at the passage where the poet philosopher, who is for curing men of the futile and mischievous passion of love, surprises a woman in the arms of her serving-women in a state bound to offend all a lover’s susceptibilities. The citoyen Brotteaux read the lines, though not without casting a surreptitious glance at the golden pate of the pretty girl in front of him and enjoying a sniff of the heady perfume of the little slut’s hot skin. The poet Lucretius was a wise man, but he had only one string to his bow; his disciple Brotteaux had several.  56
  So he read on, taking two steps forward every quarter of an hour. His ear, soothed by the grave and cadenced numbers of the Latin Muse, was deaf to the women’s scolding about the monstrous prices of bread and sugar and coffee, candles and soap. In this calm and unruffled mood he reached the threshold of the bakehouse. Behind him, Évariste Gamelin could see over his head the gilt corn-sheaf surmounting the iron grating that fulled the fanlight over the door.  57
  When his turn came to enter the shop, he found the hampers and lockers already emptied; the baker handed him the only scrap of bread left, which did not weigh two pounds. Évariste paid his money; and the gate was slammed on his heels, for fear of a riot and the people carrying the place by storm.  58
  But there was no need to fear; these poor folks, trained to obedience alike by their old-time oppressors and by their liberators of to-day, slunk off with drooping heads and dragging feet.  59
  As he reached the corner of the street, Gamelin caught sight of the citoyenne Dumonteil, seated on a stone post, her nursling in her arms. She sat there quite still; her face was colorless and her tearless eyes seemed to see nothing. The infant was sucking her finger voraciously. Gamelin stood a while in front of her, abashed and uncertain what to do. She did not appear to see him.  60
  He stammered something, then pulled out his pocket-knife, a clasp-knife with a horn handle, cut his loaf in two and laid half on the young mother’s knee. She looked up at him in wonder; but he had already turned the corner of the street.  61
  On reaching home, Évariste found his mother sitting at the window darning stockings. With a light laugh he put his half of the bread in her hand.  62
  “You must forgive me, mother dear; I was tired out with standing about and exhausted by the heat, and out there as I trudged home, mouthful by mouthful I have gobbled up half of our allowance. There’s barely your share left,”—and as he spoke, he made a pretense of shaking the crumbs off his jacket.  63
 
Note 1. Chambre Ardente,—under the ancien régime, a tribunal charged with the investigation of heinous crimes and having power to burn those found guilty. [back]
 
 
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