From A Book of Short Stories (D. Appleton and Company; New York: 1918)
That morning I was very late in going to school, and was much afraid of being scolded; all the more so, as M. Hamel had told us he would question us upon the participles, and I did not know the first word. For a moment I thought of playing truant and setting off across the country.
The weather was so warm and clear!
One heard the blackbirds whistling at the edge of the wood, and in the Rippert meadow, behind the saw-mill, the Prussians who were drilling. All that tempted me much more than the rule of participles; but I had the strength to resist and I ran fast to school.
In passing by the mayor's office, I saw that a group of people had stopped at the little bulletin board. For two years all the bad news had come to us from there, lost battles, requisitions, orders from headquarters; and without pausing I said:
“What is it this time?”
Then, as I crossed the square on the run, the blacksmith Wachter, who was there with his apprentice engaged in reading the notice, cried out to me:
“Do not hurry so, youngster; you will arrive soon enough at your school!”
I thought he was making fun of me, and out of breath I went into M. Hamel's little yard.
Usually, at the beginning of a class, there was a great uproar which could be heard in the street, — desks opening and closing, lessons being repeated all together at the top of the voice, the pupils stopping their ears with their fingers, the better to learn them, and the big rule of the master tapping upon the table,
“A little silence!”
I counted on all this din to reach my seat without notice, but as luck would have it, on this day everything was quiet, as on Sunday morning. Through the open window I saw my schoolmates already in their places, and M. Hamel pacing back and forth with the terrible iron-tipped rule under his arm. I had to open the door and enter in the midst of the great stillness. Well you may think I blushed and was afraid.
But nothing happened. M. Hamel looked at me without anger and said to me very gently:
“Go quickly to your place, my little Franz; we were going to begin without you.”
I stepped over the bench and sat down at once at my desk. Then only, a little recovered from my fright, I noticed that our master had on his beautiful green frock coat, his carefully plaited shirt-frill, and the skull-cap of embroidered black silk which he wore only on the days of inspection and distribution of prizes. Besides, there was something unusual and solemn about the whole class. But what surprised me most was to see at the end of the room, on the benches that were usually vacant, the men of the village seated and silent like us; old Hauser with his three-cornered hat, the ex-mayor, the former postman, and others. They all seemed sad; and Hauser had brought an old dog-eared spelling book, which he held wide open on his knees, with his big spectacles placed across the pages.
While I was marveling at all this, M. Hamel had gone up into his chair, and in the same gentle and serious voice with which he had greeted me, he said to us:
“My children, it is the last time I take the class. The order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. … The new teacher comes to-morrow. To-day's is your last French lesson. I beg you to be very attentive.”
These few words overwhelmed me. Ah, the villains, that was what they had posted at the mairie!
My last lesson in French!
And I who hardly knew how to write. … I should never learn. I should have to stop there! How I blamed myself for the time lost, for cutting classes, to hunt bird's eggs or to practice sliding on the Saar. My books, which only a moment ago I had found so tiresome, so heavy to carry, my Grammar, my Scripture History, seemed to me old friends from whom I should find it hard to part. It was the same with M. Hamel. The idea that he was going to leave, that I should never see him again, made me forget punishments, blows from the ruler.
It was in honor of this last lesson that he had put on his handsome Sunday clothes; and now I understood why the old men of the village had come to sit at the end of the room. It was as if to say they were sorry they had not come more often to this school of theirs. It was also a way of thanking our master for his forty years of good service, and of paying their respects to the departing fatherland.
Such was the course of my thoughts, when I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say from beginning to end the famous rule of the participles, in a loud, clear voice, without a mistake! But I got tangled up in the first words, and I stood swaying against my bench, with a bursting heart, not daring to raise my head. I heard M. Hamel speaking to me:
“I shall not scold you, my little Franz; you should be punished enough. That's the way of it. Every day one says to oneself, ‘Bah! I have time enough. I will learn to-morrow.’ And then you see what happens. … Ah, it has been the great misfortune of our Alsace always to put off learning until to-morrow. Now these people have the right to say to us: ‘What! you pretend to be French, and you do not know how to speak or write your own language?’ In all that, my poor Franz, it is not you who are most guilty. We have all a good share of reproaches for ourselves.
“Your parents have not sufficiently cared to see you instructed. They liked better to send you to till the fields or to work at the spinning mills, for the sake of a few extra sous. As for myself, have I nothing with which to reproach myself? Have I not often made you water my garden instead of working? And when I wished to go fishing for trout, did I hesitate to give you a holiday? …”
Then, from one thing to another, M. Hamel began to talk to us about the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world, the clearest, the most solid, that it should be kept among us and never forgotten; because when a people falls into slavery, so long as it holds fast its language it holds the key of its prison. Then he took a grammar and read us our lesson. I was astonished to see how well I understood. Everything he said seemed to me easy, easy. I believe also that I had never listened so well, and that as for him he had never put so much patience into his explanations. One would have said that before going away the poor man wished to give us all his knowledge, to make it enter our heads at a single blow.
When the lesson was over, we went on to writing. For that day, M. Hamel had prepared for us entirely new examples, on which he had written in a beautiful round hand: France, Alsace, France, Alsace. They looked like little flags waving all round the class, hung to the rods of our desks. It was something to see how each one applied himself, and in what silence. There was nothing to be heard but the scratching of the pens on the paper. Once some beetles flew in, but nobody paid any attention, not even the very little ones, who were busy tracing their strokes with a courage and conscience, as if even the pot-hooks were in French. Upon the roof of the school-house pigeons cooed low, and listening, I said to myself:
“Will they not make them sing in German, too?”
From time to time when I lifted my eyes from my page, I saw M. Hamel motionless in his chair, taking a long look at the objects around him, as if he wished to carry off in his mind's eye all the little school-house. … Think! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his yard in front of him and his class just the same. Only the seats and the desks had been polished, rubbed by use, the walnut trees in the yard had grown taller, and the hop-vine which he had himself planted wreathed about the windows and up to the roof. What a heart-break it must have been to the poor man to leave these things, and to hear his sister as she went and came in the room overhead, packing their trunks. For they were to go on the morrow, to leave the country forever.
All the same he had the courage to go on with the recitation to the end. After the writing, we had our history lesson; and then the little ones sang the BA, BE, BI, BO, BU. Away at the end of the room old Hauser had put on his spectacles, and holding his A, B, C book in both hands, he spelled out the letters with them. He, too, was visibly applying himself; his voice trembled with emotion, and it was so funny to hear him that we all wanted to laugh and to cry. Ah, I shall remember that last lesson!
Suddenly the church clock struck noon, then the Angelus. At the same moment the trumpets of the Prussians who were returning from drill blared under our windows. … M. Hamel rose, very pale, from his chair. Never had he appeared to me so tall.
“My friends,” he said, “My friends, I … I …”
But something stifled him. He could not finish his sentence.
Then he turned to the black-board, took a piece of chalk, and bearing on it with all his strength, he wrote as large as he could:
“VIVE LA FRANCE!”
Then he came to a stop; his head pressed against the wall, and without speaking he signed to us with his hand:
“That is all … Go.”