This morning I was very late to go to school, and I was very scared to be scolded, especially since Mr. Hamel had told us that he would question us about the participles, and I did not know the first word. For a moment the idea came to me of missing the class and taking my journey across fields.
The weather was so hot, so clear!
The blackbirds were heard whistling at the edge of the wood, and in the Rippert meadow, behind the sawmill, the Prussians were doing the exercise. All this tempted me much more than the rule of participles; but I had the strength to resist, and I ran quickly to school.
As I passed the town hall, I saw that there were people arrested near the small fence with the posters. For two years now, we have had all the bad news from there, the lost battles, the requisitions, the orders of the command; and I thought without stopping:
“What is it again?”
Then as I ran across the square, the blacksmith Wachter, who was there with his apprentice reading the poster, shouted at me:
“Do not hurry so much, tot; you will always get early enough at your school!”
I thought he was laughing at me, and I went all out of breath into the little court of Mr. Hamel.
Usually, at the beginning of the class, there was a great uproar that could be heard even in the street, the desks opened, closed, the lessons that were repeated very high together, closing their ears to learn better, and the big rule of the master who was tapping on the tables:
I counted on all this train to reach my bench without being seen; but just that day everything was quiet, like a Sunday morning. Through the open window I saw my comrades already lined up in their places, and Mr. Hamel, who was passing by and ironing with the terrible ruler of iron under his arm. I had to open the door and enter the middle of this great calm. You think, if I were red and if I was afraid!
Well no, Mr. Hamel looked at me without anger and said very softly:
“Go quickly to your place, my little Frantz; we were going to start without you.”
I stepped over the bench and sat down at once to my desk. Only then, somewhat recovered from my fright, I noticed that our master had his fine green coat, his fine pleated crotch, and the embroidered black silk cap which he only put on days of inspection or distribution of prices. Besides, the whole class had something extraordinary and solemn. But what surprised me the most was to see at the back of the room, on the benches which were usually empty, people of the village, seated and silent like us, the old Hauser with his three-cornered hat, the former mayor, the former factor, and then other people again. All this world seemed sad; and Hauser had brought with him an old abcedia, eaten at the edges which he held wide open on his knees, with his large glasses placed across the pages.
While I was amazed at all this, Mr. Hamel had ascended his pulpit, and in the same sweet and grave voice which he had received from me, he said to us:
“My children, this is the last time I teach you. The order came from Berlin to teach only German in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine … The new master arrived tomorrow. Today is your last French lesson. Please be very attentive.”
These few words upset me. Ah! The wretches, that was what they had posted at the mayor’s office.
My last lesson in French! …
And I, who scarcely knew how to write! I would never learn! So we should stop there! As I was now angry with lost time, missed classes to run nests or to slide on the Saar! My books, which I found so tiresome, so heavy to bear, my grammar, my holy history, seemed to me now old friends, who would make me very difficult to leave. It’s like Mr. Hamel. The idea that he was about to leave, that I should no longer see him, made me forget the punishments, the blows of rule.
It was in honor of this last class that he had put on his fine clothes on Sunday, and now I understood why these old men from the village had come and sat down at the end of the hall. This seemed to say that they regretted not having come to the school more often. It was also a way of thanking our master for his forty years of good service, and of rendering their duties to the country that was going away.
This was my reflection when I heard my name called. It was my turn to recite. What would I not have given to be able to say all along this famous rule of participles, very high, very clear, without a fault; But I confused myself at the first words, and stood swaying in my bench, my heart heavy, without daring to raise my head. I heard Mr. Hamel speaking to me:
“I will not scold you, my little Frantz, you must be punished enough. That is what it is. Every day we say to ourselves: ‘Bah! I have time. I’ll learn tomorrow.‘ And then you see what happens. Ah! It was the great misfortune of our Alsace to always put off instruction for tomorrow. Now these people are entitled to say to us, ‘How you pretend to be a Frenchman, and you do not know how to speak or write your language!‘ In all this, my poor Frantz, you are not yet the most guilty. We all share a good deal of criticism.
“Your parents did not care enough to see you educated. They preferred to send you to work at the land or at the spinning mills for a few more sous. Have I nothing to reproach myself? Have I not often watered my garden instead of working? And when I wanted to fish for trout, did I bother to give you leave?”
Then, from one thing to another, Mr. Hamel began to speak to us of the French language, saying that it was the most beautiful language in the world, the clearest, the strongest: it had to be kept between us and never to forget it, because when a people falls enslaved, as long as it holds its language, it is as if it held the key of its prison. (‘If he holds his language, – he holds the key that frees him from his chains.‘ F. Mistral) Then he took a grammar and read our lesson. I was astonished to see how I understood. Everything he said seemed easy, easy. I also believe that I had never listened so well, and that he had never been so patient with his explanations. It seemed as if, before going away, the poor man wanted to give us all his knowledge, to make him enter into the head all at once.
When the lesson was over, we went on to writing. On that day Mr. Hamel had prepared fresh examples, on which were written in fine round: France, Alsace, France, Alsace. It was like little flags floating around the class hanging from the rod of our desks. It was necessary to see how everyone applied, and what a silence! Nothing was heard but the creaking of the feathers on the paper. A moment the beetles entered; but nobody paid any attention to it, not even the little ones who applied themselves to drawing their sticks, with a heart, a conscience, as if it were still French … On the roof of the school, pigeons cooed in a low voice, and I said to myself, listening to them:
“Are we not going to make them sing in German, too?”
From time to time, when I looked up from my page, I saw Mr. Hamel standing motionless in his pulpit and staring at the objects around him, as if he wanted to carry all his school house in his eyes. Think! For forty years he had been there in the same place, with his court in front of him and his class all the same. Only the benches, the desks had been polished, rubbed by custom; the walnut trees of the court had grown, and the hops which he had planted himself now enveloped the windows to the roof. What a heartbreak it must have been for this poor man to leave all these things, and to hear his sister come and go in the room above, closing their trunks! For they were to depart the next day, to leave the country forever.
All the same, he had the courage to teach us till the end. After writing, we had the lesson in history; then the little ones sang together the BA BE BI BO BU. Down there at the back of the room, old Hauser had put on his glasses, and holding his alphabet in two hands, he spelled the letters with them. One could see that it was also applying to him too; his voice trembled with emotion, and it was so funny to hear him, that we all wanted to laugh and cry. Ah! I will remember this last class …
Suddenly the church clock struck noon, then the Angelus. At the same moment the trumpets of the Prussians, who were returning from the exercise, burst under our windows. Mr. Hamel rose pale in his pulpit. He had never seemed so great to me.
“My friends,” he said, “my friends, I … I …”
But something stifled him. He could not finish his sentence.
Then he turned to the picture, took a piece of chalk, and, pressing with all his might, wrote as much as he could:
“VIVE LA FRANCE!”
Then he stood there, his head leaning against the wall, and, without speaking, with his hand he beckoned to us:
“It’s over … go away.”