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Chapter 24

GENERAL BREA'S MURDERERS.

March, 1849.

The men condemned to death in the Bréa affair are
confined in the fort at Vanves. There are five of them:
Nourry, a poor child of seventeen whose father and mother
died insane, type of the gamin of Paris that revolutions
make a hero and riots a murderer; Daix, blind of one eye,
lame, and with only one arm, a ~bon pauvre~ of the Bicetre
Hospital, who underwent the operation of trepanning three
years ago, and who has a little daughter eight years old
whom he adores; Lahr, nicknamed the Fireman, whose
wife was confined the day after his condemnation, giving
life at the moment she received death; Chopart, a
bookseller's assistant, who has been mixed up in some rather
discreditable pranks of youth; and finally Vappreaux
junior, who pleaded an alibi and who, if the four others
are to be believed, was not at the Barrière de Fontainebleau
at all during the three days of June.

These hapless wights are confined in a big casemate of
the fort. Their condemnation has crushed them and turned
them towards God. In the casemate are five camp beds
and five rush-bottomed chairs; to this lugubrious furniture
of the dungeon an altar has been added. It was erected at
the end of the casemate opposite the door and below the
venthole through which daylight penetrates. On the altar
is only a plaster statue of the Virgin enveloped in lace.
There are no tapers, it being feared that the prisoners
might set fire to the door with the straw of their mattresses.
They pray and work. As Nourry has not been confirmed
and wishes to be before he dies, Chopart is teaching him
the catechism.

Beside the altar is a board laid upon two trestles. This
board, which is full of bullet holes, was the target of the
fort. It has been turned into a dining-table, a cruel,
thoughtless act, for it is a continual reminder to the
prisoners of their approaching death.

A few days ago an anonymous letter reached them. This
letter advised them to stamp upon the flagstone in the centre
of the casemate, which, it was affirmed, covered the orifice
of a well communicating with old subterranean passages
of the Abbey of Vanves that extended to Châtillon. All
they had to do was to raise the flagstone and they could
escape that very night.

They did as the letter directed. The stone, it was found,
did emit a hollow sound as though it covered an opening.
But either because the police had been informed of the
letter, or for some other reason, a stricter watch than ever
has been kept upon them from that moment and they have
been unable to profit by the advice.

The gaolers and priests do not leave them for a minute
either by day or by night. Guardians of the body cheek
by jowl with guardians of the soul. Sorry human justice!

The execution of the condemned men in the Bréa affair
was a blunder. It was the reappearance of the scaffold.
The people had kicked over the guillotine. The bourgeoisie
raised it again. A fatal mistake.

President Louis Bonaparte was inclined to be merciful.
The revision and cassation could easily have been delayed.
The Archbishop of Paris, M. Sibour, successor of a victim,
had begged for their lives. But the stereotyped phrases
prevailed. The country must be reassured. Order must
be reconstructed, legality rebuilt, confidence re-erected!
And society at that time was still reduced to employing
lopped heads as building material. The Council of State,
such as it then was, consulted under the terms of the
Constitution, rendered an opinion in favour of the execution.
M. Cresson, counsel for Daix and Lahr, waited upon the
President. He was an emotional and eloquent young man.
He pleaded for these men, for the wives who were not yet
widows, for the children who were not yet orphans, and
while speaking he wept.

Louis Bonaparte listened to him in silence, then took his
hands, but merely remarked: "I am most unhappy!"

In the evening of the same day--it was on the Thursday--the
Council of Ministers met. The discussion was
long and animated. Only one minister opposed recourse
to the scaffold. He was supported by Louis Napoleon.
The discussion lasted until 10 o'clock. But the majority
prevailed, and before the Cabinet separated Odilon Barrot,
the Minister of Justice, signed the order for the execution
of three of the condemned men, Daix, Lahr and Chopart.
The sentences of Nourry and Vappreaux, junior, were
commuted to penal servitude for life.

The execution was fixed for the next morning, Friday.

The Chancellor's office immediately transmitted the order
to the Prefect of Police, who had to act in concert with
the military authorities, the sentence having been imposed
by a court-martial.

The prefect sent for the executioner. But the executioner
could not be found. He had vacated his house in
the Rue des Marais Saint Martin in February under the
impression that, like the guillotine, he had been deposed,
and no one knew what had become of him.

Considerable time was lost in tracing him to his new
residence, and when they got there he was out. The
executioner was at the Opera. He had gone to see "The
Devil's Violin."

It was near midnight, and in the absence of the executioner
the execution had to be postponed for one day.

During the interval Representative Larabit, whom
Chopart had befriended at the barricade of the barriers,
was notified and was able to see the President. The
President signed Chopart's pardon.

The day after the execution the Prefect of Police summoned
the executioner and reproved him for his absence.

"Well," said Samson, "I was passing along the street
when I saw a big yellow poster announcing The Devil's
Violin. 'Hello!' said I to myself, 'that must be a queer
piece,' and I went to see it."

Thus a playbill saved a man's head.

There were some horrible details.

On Friday night, while those who formerly were called
~les maitres des basses oeuvres~* were erecting the scaffold at
the Barrière de Fontainebleau, the ~rapporteur~ of the
court-martial, accompanied by the clerk of the court, repaired
to the Fort of Vanves.

* The executioner in France is officially styled ~l'executeur
des hautes-oeuvres~.

Daix and Lahr, who were to die, were sleeping. They
were in casemate No. 13 with Nourry and Chopart. There
was a delay. It was found that there were no ropes with
which to bind the condemned men. The latter were allowed to
sleep on. At 5 o'clock in the morning the executioner's
assistants arrived with everything that was necessary.

Then the casemate was entered. The four men awoke.
To Nourry and Chopart the officials said: "Get out of
here!" They understood, and, joyful and terror-stricken,
fled into the adjoining casement. Daix and Lahr, however,
did not understand. They sat up and gazed about them with
wild, frightened eyes. The executioner and his assistants
fell upon them and bound them. No one spoke a word.
The condemned men began to realise what it all meant
and uttered terrible cries. "If we had not bound them,"
said the executioner, "they would have devoured us!"

Then Lahr collapsed and began to pray while the decree
for their execution was read to them.

Daix continued to struggle, sobbing, and roaring with
horror. These men who had killed so freely were afraid to
die.

Daix shouted: "Help! Help!" appealed to the soldiers,
adjured them, cursed them, pleaded to them in the
name of General Bréa.

"Shut up! "growled a sergeant. "You are a coward!"

The execution was performed with much ceremony. Let
this fact be noted: the first time the guillotine dared to
show itself after February an army was furnished to guard
it. Twenty-five thousand men, infantry and cavalry,
surrounded the scaffold. Two generals were in command.
Seven guns commanded the streets which converged to the
circus of the Barrière de Fontainebleau.

Daix was executed first. When his head had fallen and
his body was unstrapped, the trunk, from which a stream
of blood was pouring, fell upon the scaffold between the
swing-board and the basket.

The executioners were nervous and excited. A man of
the people remarked: "Everybody is losing his head on
that guillotine, including the executioner!"

In the faubourgs, which the last elections to the National
Assembly had so excited, the names of popular candidates
could still be seen chalked upon the walls. Louis
Bonaparte was one of the candidates. His name appeared on
these open-air bulletins, as they may be termed, in company
with the names of Raspail and Barbès. The day after the
execution Louis Napoleon's name wherever it was
to be seen had a red smear across it. A silent protest, a
reproach and a menace. The finger of the people pending
the finger of God.

Victor Hugo