A BIT OF HISTORY
At the epoch, nearly contemporary by the way, when the action
of this book takes place, there was not, as there is to-day,
a policeman at the corner of every street (a benefit which there
is no time to discuss here); stray children abounded in Paris.
The statistics give an average of two hundred and sixty homeless
children picked up annually at that period, by the police patrols,
in unenclosed lands, in houses in process of construction,
and under the arches of the bridges. One of these nests, which has
become famous, produced "the swallows of the bridge of Arcola."
This is, moreover, the most disastrous of social symptoms.
All crimes of the man begin in the vagabondage of the child.
Let us make an exception in favor of Paris, nevertheless. In a
relative measure, and in spite of the souvenir which we have
just recalled, the exception is just. While in any other great city
the vagabond child is a lost man, while nearly everywhere the child
left to itself is, in some sort, sacrificed and abandoned to a kind
of fatal immersion in the public vices which devour in him honesty
and conscience, the street boy of Paris, we insist on this point,
however defaced and injured on the surface, is almost intact on
the interior. It is a magnificent thing to put on record, and one
which shines forth in the splendid probity of our popular revolutions,
that a certain incorruptibility results from the idea which exists
in the air of Paris, as salt exists in the water of the ocean.
To breathe Paris preserves the soul.
What we have just said takes away nothing of the anguish of heart
which one experiences every time that one meets one of these children
around whom one fancies that he beholds floating the threads
of a broken family. In the civilization of the present day,
incomplete as it still is, it is not a very abnormal thing
to behold these fractured families pouring themselves out into
the darkness, not knowing clearly what has become of their children,
and allowing their own entrails to fall on the public highway.
Hence these obscure destinies. This is called, for this sad thing
has given rise to an expression, "to be cast on the pavements of Paris."
Let it be said by the way, that this abandonment of children
was not discouraged by the ancient monarchy. A little of Egypt
and Bohemia in the lower regions suited the upper spheres,
and compassed the aims of the powerful. The hatred of instruction
for the children of the people was a dogma. What is the use
of "half-lights"? Such was the countersign. Now, the erring
child is the corollary of the ignorant child.
Besides this, the monarchy sometimes was in need of children,
and in that case it skimmed the streets.
Under Louis XIV., not to go any further back, the king rightly desired
to create a fleet. The idea was a good one. But let us consider
the means. There can be no fleet, if, beside the sailing ship,
that plaything of the winds, and for the purpose of towing it,
in case of necessity, there is not the vessel which goes where
it pleases, either by means of oars or of steam; the galleys were
then to the marine what steamers are to-day. Therefore, galleys
were necessary; but the galley is moved only by the galley-slave;
hence, galley-slaves were required. Colbert had the commissioners
of provinces and the parliaments make as many convicts as possible.
The magistracy showed a great deal of complaisance in the matter.
A man kept his hat on in the presence of a procession--it was
a Huguenot attitude; he was sent to the galleys. A child was
encountered in the streets; provided that he was fifteen years of age
and did not know where he was to sleep, he was sent to the galleys.
Grand reign; grand century.
Under Louis XV. children disappeared in Paris; the police
carried them off, for what mysterious purpose no one knew.
People whispered with terror monstrous conjectures as to the king's
baths of purple. Barbier speaks ingenuously of these things.
It sometimes happened that the exempts of the guard, when they
ran short of children, took those who had fathers. The fathers,
in despair, attacked the exempts. In that case, the parliament
intervened and had some one hung. Who? The exempts? No, the fathers.