M. de Vilmorin dropped into a winged armchair by the well-swept hearth, on which a piled-up fire of pine logs was burning cheerily. And whilst he waited now he gave his friend the latest news of the events in Rennes. Young, ardent, enthusiastic, and inspired by Utopian ideals, he passionately denounced the rebellious attitude of the privileged.
Andre-Louis, already fully aware of the trend of feeling in the ranks of an order in whose deliberations he took part as the representative of a nobleman, was not at all surprised by what he heard. M. de Vilmorin found it exasperating that his friend should apparently decline to share his own indignation.
“Don’t you see what it means?” he cried. “The nobles, by disobeying the King, are striking at the very foundations of the throne. Don’t they perceive that their very existence depends upon it; that if the throne falls over, it is they who stand nearest to it who will be crushed? Don’t they see that?”
“Evidently not. They are just governing classes, and I never heard of governing classes that had eyes for anything but their own profit.”
“That is our grievance. That is what we are going to change.”
“You are going to abolish governing classes? An interesting experiment. I believe it was the original plan of creation, and it might have succeeded but for Cain.”
“What we are going to do,” said M. de Vilmorin, curbing his exasperation, “is to transfer the government to other hands.”
“And you think that will make a difference?”
“I know it will.”
“Ah! I take it that being now in minor orders, you already possess the confidence of the Almighty. He will have confided to you His intention of changing the pattern of mankind.”
M. de Vilmorin’s fine ascetic face grew overcast. “You are profane, Andre,” he reproved his friend.
“I assure you that I am quite serious. To do what you imply would require nothing short of divine intervention. You must change man, not systems. Can you and our vapouring friends of the Literary Chamber of Rennes, or any other learned society of France, devise a system of government that has never yet been tried? Surely not. And can they say of any system tried that it proved other than a failure in the end? My dear Philippe, the future is to be read with certainty only in the past. Ab actu ad posse valet consecutio. Man never changes. He is always greedy, always acquisitive, always vile. I am speaking of Man in the bulk.”
“Do you pretend that it is impossible to ameliorate the lot of the people?” M. de Vilmorin challenged him.
“When you say the people you mean, of course, the populace. Will you abolish it? That is the only way to ameliorate its lot, for as long as it remains populace its lot will be damnation.”
“You argue, of course, for the side that employs you. That is natural, I suppose.” M. de Vilmorin spoke between sorrow and indignation.
“On the contrary, I seek to argue with absolute detachment. Let us test these ideas of yours. To what form of government do you aspire? A republic, it is to be inferred from what you have said. Well, you have it already. France in reality is a republic to-day.”
Philippe stared at him. “You are being paradoxical, I think. What of the King?”
“The King? All the world knows there has been no king in France since Louis XIV. There is an obese gentleman at Versailles who wears the crown, but the very news you bring shows for how little he really counts. It is the nobles and clergy who sit in the high
places, with the people of France harnessed under their feet, who are the real rulers. That is why I say that France is a republic; she is a republic built on the best pattern – the Roman pattern. Then, as now, there were great patrician families in luxury, preserving for
themselves power and wealth, and what else is accounted worth possessing; and there was the populace crushed and groaning, sweating, bleeding, starving, and perishing in the Roman kennels. That was a republic; the mightiest we have seen.”
Philippe strove with his impatience. “At least you will admit -you have, in fact, admitted it- that we could not be worse governed than we are?”
“That is not the point. The point is should we be better governed if we replaced the present ruling class by another? Without some guarantee of that I should be the last to lift a finger to effect a change. And what guarantees can you give? What is the class
that aims at government? I will tell you. The bourgeoisie.”
“That startles you, eh? Truth is so often disconcerting. You hadn’t thought of it? Well, think of it now. Look well into this Nantes manifesto. Who are the authors of it?”
“I can tell you who it was constrained the municipality of Nantes to send it to the King. Some ten thousand workmen – shipwrights, weavers, labourers, and artisans of every kind.”
“Stimulated to it, driven to it, by their employers, the wealthy traders and shipowners of that city,” Andre-Louis replied. “I have a habit of observing things at close quarters, which is why our colleagues of the Literary Chamber dislike me so cordially in debate.
Where I delve they but skim. Behind those labourers and artisans of Nantes, counselling them, urging on these poor, stupid, ignorant toilers to shed their blood in pursuit of the will o’ the wisp of freedom, are the sail-makers, the spinners, the ship-owners and the
slave-traders. The slave-traders! The men who live and grow rich by a traffic in human flesh and blood in the colonies, are conducting at home a campaign in the sacred name of liberty!
Don’t you see that the whole movement is a movement of hucksters and traders and peddling vassals swollen by wealth into envy of the power that lies in birth alone? The money-changers in Paris who hold the bonds in the national debt, seeing the parlous financial condition of the State, tremble at the thought that it may lie in the power of a
single man to cancel the debt by bankruptcy. To secure themselves they are burrowing underground to overthrow a state and build upon its ruins a new one in which they shall be the masters. And to accomplish this they inflame the people. Already in Dauphiny we have seen blood run like water – the blood of the populace, always the blood of the populace. Now in Brittany we may see the like. And if in the end the new ideas prevail? if the seigneurial rule is overthrown, what then? You will have exchanged an aristocracy for a plutocracy. Is that worth while? Do you ‘think that under money-changers and slave-traders and men who have waxed rich in other ways by the ignoble arts of buying and selling, the lot of the people will be any better than under their priests and nobles? Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness? Oh, I am ready to admit that the present government is execrable, unjust, tyrannical – what you will; but I beg you to look ahead, and to see that the government for which it is aimed at exchanging it may be infinitely worse.”
Philippe sat thoughtful a moment. Then he returned to the attack.
“You do not speak of the abuses, the horrible, intolerable abuses of power under which we labour at present.”
“Where there is power there will always be the abuse of it.”
“Not if the tenure of power is dependent upon its equitable administration.”
“The tenure of power is power. We cannot dictate to those who hold it.”
“The people can – the people in its might.”
“Again I ask you, when you say the people do you mean the populace? You do. What power can the populace wield? It can run wild. It can burn and slay for a time. But enduring power it cannot wield, because power demands qualities which the populace
does not possess, or it would not be populace. The inevitable, tragic corollary of civilization is populace. For the rest, abuses can be corrected by equity; and equity, if it is not found in
the enlightened, is not to be found at all. M. Necker is to set about correcting abuses, and limiting privileges. That is decided. To that end the States General are to assemble.”
“And a promising beginning we have made in Brittany, as Heaven hears me!” cried Philippe.
“Pooh! That is nothing. Naturally the nobles will not yield without a struggle. It is a futile and ridiculous struggle – but then… it is human nature, I suppose, to be futile and ridiculous.”