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Chapter 52

THE ABSOLUTION:--SECOND PHASE: THE OATH


FOR AN OATH, AN OATH AND A HALF


What is Louis Bonaparte? He is perjury personified; he is mental reservation incarnate, felony in flesh and bone; he is a false oath wearing a general's hat, and calling himself Monseigneur.

Well! what is it that he demands of France, this man-ambuscade? An oath.

An oath!

Indeed, after the 20th of December, 1848, and the 2nd of December, 1851, after the inviolate representatives of the people had been arrested and hunted down; after the confiscation of the Republic, after the coup d'état, one might have expected from this malefactor an honest cynical laugh at the oath, and that this Sbrigani would say to France: "Oh, yes! it is true! I did pledge my word of honour. It is very funny. Let us say no more about such nonsense."

Not so: he requires an oath.

And so, mayors, gendarmes, judges, spies, prefects, generals, sergents-de-ville, gardes champêtres, commissaries of police, magistrates, office-holders, Senators, Councillors of State, legislators, clerks, it is said, it is his will, this idea has passed through his head, he will have it so, it is his good pleasure; lose no time, start off, you to the registrar, you to a confessional, you under the eye of your brigadier, you to the minister, you, Senators, to the Tuileries, to the salon of the marshals, you, spies, to the prefecture of police, you, first presidents and solicitors-general to M. Bonaparte's ante-chamber; hasten in carriages, on foot, on horseback, in gown, in scarf, in court dress, in uniform, gold-laced, bespangled, embroidered, beplumed, with cap on head, ruff at the neck, sash around the waist, and sword by the side; place yourselves, some before the plaster bust, others before the man himself; very good, there you are, all of you, none are missing; look him well in the face, reflect, search your conscience, your loyalty, your decency, your religion; take off your glove, raise your hand, and take oath to his perjury, swear fealty to his treason.

Have you done it? Yes! Ah, what a precious farce!

So Louis Bonaparte takes the oath au sérieux. True, he believes in my word, in yours, in ours, in theirs; he believes everybody's word but his own. He demands that everybody about him shall swear, and he orders them to be loyal. It pleases Messalina to be surrounded by virgins. Capital!

He requires all to be honourable; you must understand this, Saint-Arnaud, and you, Maupas, must look upon it as final.

But let us sift things to the bottom; there are oaths and oaths. The oath which freely, solemnly, before the face of God and man, having received a note of confidence from 6,000,000 of citizens, one swears before the National Assembly, to the constitution of his country, to the law, to the people, and to France, that is nothing, it is not binding, one can trifle with it, laugh at it, and some fine day trample it under foot; but the oath that one swears before the cannon's mouth, at the sword's point, under the eye of the police, in order to retain the employment that gives one food, to preserve the rank which is one's property; the oath which, to save one's daily bread and that of one's children, one swears to a villain, a rebel, the violator of the laws, the slaughterer of the Republic, a fugitive from every court, the man who himself has broken his oath--oh! that oath is sacred! Let us not jest.

The oath that we take on the 2nd of December, nephew of the 18th Brumaire, is sacrosanct!

What I admire most is its ineptitude. To receive as so much ready money and coin of good alloy, all those "I swear" of the official commons; not even to think that every scruple has been overcome, and that there cannot be in them all one single word of pure metal! He is both a prince and a traitor! To set the example from the summit of the State, and to imagine that it will not be followed! To sow lead, and expect to reap gold! Not even to perceive that, in such a case, every conscience will model itself on the conscience at the summit, and that the perjury of the prince transmutes all oaths into counterfeit coin.


Victor Hugo