I started for school very late that morning and was in great dread of a scolding, especially because M. Hamel had said that he would question us on participles, and I did not know the first word about them. For a moment I thought of running away and spending the day out of doors. It was so warm, so bright! The birds were chirping at the edges of the woods; and in the open field back of the sawmill the Prussian soldiers were drilling.
When I passed the town hall there was a crowd in front of the bulletin board. For the last two years all our bad news had come from there. I thought myself. “What can be the matter now?”
Then, as I hurried by as fast as I could go, the blacksmith, Watcher, who was there with his apprentice, reading the bulletin, called after me :
“Don’t go so fast, boy; you’ll get to your school in plenty of time !”
I thought he was making fun of me, and reached M. Hamel’s little garden all out of breath.
Usually, when school began, there was a great bustle, which could be heard out in the street-the opening and closing of desks, lessons repeated in unison, very loud, and the teacher’s great ruler rapping on the table. But now it was all so still!
Through the window I saw my classmates, already in their place, and M. Hamel walking up and down with his terrible iron ruler under his arm. I had to open the door and go in before everybody. You can imagine how I blushed and how frightened I was.
But nothing happened. M. Hamel saw me and said very kindly :
“Go to your place quickly, little Franz. We were beginning without you.” I jumped over the bench and sat down at my desk. When I had got a little over my fright, I saw that our teacher had on his beautiful green coat, his
frilled shirt, and the little black silk cap, all embroidered, that he never wore except on inspection and prize days. Besides, the whole school seemed so strange and solemn. But the thing that surprised me most was to see, on the back benches, the village people sitting quietly like ourselves; old Hauser, with his three-cornered hat, the former mayor, the former postmaster, and several others besides. Everybody looked sad.
While I was wondering about it all, M. Hamel mounted his chair, and, in the same grave and gentle tone which he had used to me said :
“My children, this is the last lesson I shall give you. The order has come from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Loraine. The new master comes tomorrow. This is your last French lesson. I want you to be very attentive.”
What a thunderclap these words were to me !
Oh, oh, oh ! that was what they had put up at the town hall!
My last French lesson ! Why, I hardly knew how to write; I should never learn any more ! I must stop there, then! Oh, how sorry I was for not learning my lessons, for seeking birds’ eggs, or going sliding on the Saar! My books, that had seemed such a nuisance a while ago, so heavy to carry, my grammar, and my history of the saints, were old friends now that I couldn’t give up. And M. Hamel, too; the idea that he was going away, that I should never see him again, made me forget all about his ruler and how cranky he was.
Poor man! It was in honour of this last lesson that he had put on his fine Sunday clothes; and now I understood why the old men of the village were sitting there in the back of the room. It was because they were sorry, too, that they had not gone to school more. It was their way of thanking our master for his forty years of faithful service and of showing their respect for the country that was theirs no more.
While I was thinking of all this, I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. I had not learnt my participles and so I could not say a single word. I heard M. Hamel say to me :
“I don’t scold you, little Franz, you must feel bad enough. See how it is! Every day we have said to ourselves: ‘Bah ! I’ve plenty of time. I’ll learn it tomorrow.’ And now you see where we’ve come out. Ah, that’s the great troubles with Alsace; she put off learning tomorrow. Now those fellows out there will have the right to say to you: ‘How is it; you pretend to be Frenchmen, and yet you can neither speak nor write your own language.’ But you are not the worst, poor little Franz. We’ve all a great deal to reproach ourselves with.
“Your parents were not anxious enough to have you learn. They preferred to put you to work on a farm or at the mills, so as to have a little more money. And I’ve been to blame also. Have I not often sent you to water my flowers instead of making you learn your lessons ?”
Then, from one thing to another, M. Hamel went on to talk of the French language saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world. We must guard it among us and never forget it, because when a people are enslaved, as long as they hold fast to their language, it is as if they had the key to their prison. Then he opened a grammar and read us our lesson. I was amazed to see how well I understood it. All he said seemed so easy, so easy! I think, too, that I had never listened so carefully, and that he had never explained everything with so much patience. It seemed almost as if the poor man wanted to give us all he knew before going away, and to put it all into our heads at one stroke.
After the grammar, we had a lesson in writing. That day M. Hamel had new copies for us, on which were written in a beautiful round hand: ‘France, Alsace, France, Alsace.’ They looked like little flags fluttering everywhere in the school room, hung from the rod at the top of our desks. You ought to have seen how every one set to work and how quiet it was. The only sound was the scratching of the pens over
the paper. On the roof, the pigeons cooed very low, and I thought to myself:
“Will they make them sing in German, even the pigeons ?”
Whenever I looked up from my writing I saw M. Hamel sitting motionless in his chair and gazing at one thing, then at another, as if he wanted to fix in his mind just how everything looked in the little school-room. Fancy! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his garden outside the window and his class in front of him, just like that. Only the desks and benches had been worn smooth and the walnut trees in the garden were taller. How it must have broken his heart to leave it all, poor man; to hear his sister moving about in the room above, packing their trunks! For they must leave the country next day.
After the writing, we had a lesson in history, and then the babies chanted their ba, be, bi, bo, bu. Ah, how well I remember it, that last lesson!
All at once the church clock struck twelve. At the same moment the trumpets of the Prussians, returning from drill, sounded under our windows. M. Hamel stood up, very pale, in his chair. I never saw him look so tall.
“My friends”, said he, “I – I -” But something was choking him. He could not go on. Then he turned to the blackboard, took a piece of chalk, and, bearing on with all his might, he wrote as large as he could :
“VIVE LA FRANCE !”
Then he stopped and leaned his head against the wall, and, without a word, he made a gesture to us with his hand: “School is dismissed – you may go.”
– Alphonse Daudet