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Villiers de L’Isle-Adam: Vox Populi

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

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Villiers de L’Isle-Adam
Vox Populi

Grand review at the Champs-Elysees that day!

Twelve years have been suffered since that vision. A summer sun shattered its long arrows of gold against the roofs and domes of the ancient capital. Thousands of panes reflected its dazzling rays; the people, bathed in a powdery light, thronged the streets to gaze at the army.

Sitting upon a high wooden stool before the railing of the parvis of Notre Dame, his knees folded under black rags, his hands joined under the placard that legally sanctioned his blindness, the centenarian beggar, patriarch of the Misery of Paris – a mournful face of ashen tint, with skin fur rowed by wrinkles of the color of earth – lent his shadowy presence to the Te Deum of the surrounding festival.

All these people, were they not his brethren? The joyous passers-by, were they not his kin? Were they not human, like him? Besides, that guest of the sovereign portal was not entirely destitute: the State had recognized his right to be blind.

Clothed with the title and respectability implied in the official right to receive alms, enjoying, moreover, a voter’s privilege, he was our equal except in light.

And that man, forgotten, as it were, among the living, articulated from time to time a monotonous plaint – evident syllabification of the profound sighs of his whole life- time:

“Have pity on the blind, if you please!”

Around him, beneath the powerful vibrations fallen from the belfry – outside, yonder, beyond the wall of his eyes – the trampling of cavalry, the intermittent braying of trumpets, acclamations mingled with salvoes of artillery from the Invalides with the proud shouts of command, the rattle of steel, and the thunder of drums scanning the interminable march of the passing infantry, a rumor of glory reached him! His trained hearing caught even the rustle of the floating standards whose heavy fringes brushed against the cuirasses. In the mind of the old captive of obscurity a thousand flashes of sensation evoked visions foreknown yet indistinct. A sort of divination informed him of what fevered the hearts and thoughts of the city.

And the people, fascinated, as always, by the prestige that comes from strokes of boldness and fortune, clamored its prayer of the moment:

“Long live the Emperor!”

But during the lulls of the triumphal tempest a lost voice arose in the direction of the mystic railing. The old man, his neck thrown back against the pillory of bars, rolling his dead eyeballs towards the sky, forgotten by that people of which he seemed alone to express the genuine prayer, the prayer hidden under the hurrahs, the secret and personal prayer, droned, like an augural interceder, his now mysterious phrase:

“Have pity on the blind, if you please!”

Grand review at the Champs-Elysees that day!

Now ten years have flown since the sun of that festival – same sounds, same voices, same smoke. A sordine, however, tempered the tumult of the public rejoicings. A shad ow weighed on the eyes of all. The ceremonial salvoes from the platform of the Prytaneum were crossed this time by the distant growls of the batteries in our forts; and straining their ears, the people sought already to distinguish in the echoes the answer of the enemy’s approaching cannon.

The Governor, borne by the ambling trot of his thorough-bred, passed, smiling upon all. The people, reassured by the confidence which an irreproachable demeanor always inspires, alternated with patriotic songs the military applause with which they honored the presence of the soldier.

But the syllables of the furious cheer of yore had been modified; the distracted people preferred the prayer of the moment:

“Long live the Republic!”

And yonder, in the direction of the sublime threshold, could still be distinguished the solitary voice of Lazarus. The sayer of the hidden thought of the people did not modify the rigidity of his fixed plaint. Sincere soul of the festival, uplifting his extinguished eyes to the sky, he cried out, during the silences, with the accent of one making a statement:

“Have pity on the blind, if you please!”

Grand review at the Champs-Elysees that day!

Now nine months have been endured since that troubled sun. Oh ! same rumors, same clashing of arms, same neighing of horses, more muffled, however, than the pre vious year, but yet noisy.

“Long live the Commune!” shouted the people to the passing wind.

And the voice of the secular Elect of Misfortune still repeated, yonder upon the sacred threshold, his refrain that connected the unique thought of the people. Raising his trembling head to the sky, he moaned in the shadow:

“Have pity on the blind, if you please!”

And two moons later, when, to the last vibrations of the tocsin, the generalissimo of the regular forces of the State reviewed his two hundred thousand guns, still smoking, alas! from the sad civil war, the terrified people shouted, while gazing upon the edifices flaming afar:

“Long live the Marshal!”

Yonder, in the direction of the pure enclosure, the immutable voice of the veteran of human misery mechanically repeated his dolorous and piteous observation:

“Have pity on the blind, if you please!”

And since then, from year to year, from review to review, from vociferations to vociferations, whatever might be the name thrown to the hazards of space by the cheering people, those who listen attentively to the sounds of the earth have always distinguished, above the revolutionary clamors and the warlike festivals that followed, the far-away Voice, the true Voice, the intimate Voice of the terrible symbolical beggar, of the incorruptible sentinel of the citizens’ conscience, of him who restores integrally the occult prayer of the Crowd and expresses its sighs.

Inflexible Pontiff of fraternity, that authorized titulary of physical blindness, has never ceased, like an unconscious mediator, to invoke the divine charity upon his brethren in intelligence.

And when, intoxicated with fanfares, with peals of bells and with artillery, the people, dazed by the flattering uproar, endeavors vainly, under whatever syllables falsely enthusiastic, to hide from itself its veritable prayer, the beggar, groping through the sky, his arms uplifted, his face towards the heavy darkness, arises on the eternal threshold of the church, and in tones more and more lamentable, which seem, however, to carry beyond the stars, continues to cry his prophetic rectification:

“Have pity on the blind, if you please!”

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