The Last Lesson
Little franz didn't want to go to school, that morning. He would much rather have played truant. The air was so warm and still,—you could hear the blackbird singing at the edge of the wood, and the sound of the Prussians drilling, down in the meadow behind the old sawmill. He would so much rather have played truant! Besides, this was the day for the lesson in the rule of participles; and the rule of participles in French is very, very long, and very hard, and it has more exceptions than rule. Little Franz did not know it at all. He did not want to go to school.
But, somehow, he went. His legs carried him reluctantly into the village and along the street. As he passed the official bulletin-board before the town hall, he noticed a little crowd round it, looking at it. That was the place where the news of lost battles, the requisition for more troops, the demands for new taxes were posted. Small as he was, little Franz had seen enough to make him think, "What now, I wonder?" But he could not stop to see; he was afraid of being late.
When he came to the school-yard his heart beat very fast; he was afraid he was late, after all, for the windows were all open, and yet he heard no noise,—the schoolroom was perfectly quiet. He had been counting on the noise and confusion before school,—the slamming of desk covers, the banging of books, the tapping of the master's cane and his "A little less noise, please,"—to let him slip quietly into his seat unnoticed. But no; he had to open the door and walk up the long aisle, in the midst of a silent room, with the master looking straight at him. Oh, how hot his cheeks felt, and how hard his heart beat! But to his great surprise the master didn't scold at all. All he said was, "Come quickly to your place, my little Franz; we were just going to begin without you!"
Little Franz could hardly believe his ears; that wasn't at all the way the master was accustomed to speak. It was very strange! Somehow—everything was very strange. The room looked queer. Everybody was sitting so still, so straight—as if it were an exhibition day, or something very particular. And the master—he looked strange, too; why, he had on his fine lace jabot and his best coat, that he wore only on holidays, and his gold snuff-box in his hand. Certainly it was very odd. Little Franz looked all round, wondering. And there in the back of the room was the oddest thing of all. There, on a bench, sat visitors. Visitors! He could not make it out; people never came except on great occasions,—examination days and such. And it was not a holiday. Yet there were the agent, the old blacksmith, the farmer, sitting quiet and still. It was very, very strange.
Just then the master stood up and opened school. He said, "My children, this is the last time I shall ever teach you. The order has come from Berlin that henceforth nothing but German shall be taught in the schools of Alsace and Lorraine. This is your last lesson in French. I beg you, be very attentive."
His last lesson in French! Little Franz could not believe his ears; his last lesson—ah, that was what was on the bulletin-board! It flashed across him in an instant. That was it! His last lesson in French—and he scarcely knew how to read and write—why, then, he should never know how! He looked down at his books, all battered and torn at the corners; and suddenly his books seemed quite different to him, they seemed—somehow—like friends. He looked at the master, and he seemed different, too,—like a very good friend. Little Franz began to feel strange himself. Just as he was thinking about it, he heard his name called, and he stood up to recite.
It was the rule of participles.
Oh, what wouldn't he have given to be able to say it off from beginning to end, exceptions and all, without a blunder! But he could only stand and hang his head; he did not know a word of it. Then through the hot pounding in his ears he heard the master's voice; it was quite gentle; not at all the scolding voice he expected. And it said, "I'm not going to punish you, little Franz. Perhaps you are punished enough. And you are not alone in your fault. We all do the same thing,—we all put off our tasks till to-morrow. And—sometimes—to-morrow never comes. That is what it has been with us. We Alsatians have been always putting off our education till the morrow; and now they have a right, those people down there, to say to us, 'What! You call yourselves French, and cannot even read and write the French language? Learn German, then!'"
And then the master spoke to them of the French language. He told them how beautiful it was, how clear and musical and reasonable, and he said that no people could be hopelessly conquered so long as it kept its language, for the language was the key to its prison-house. And then he said he was going to tell them a little about that beautiful language, and he explained the rule of participles.
And do you know, it was just as simple as ABC! Little Franz understood every word. It was just the same with the rest of the grammar lesson. I don't know whether little Franz listened harder, or whether the master explained better; but it was all quite clear, and simple.
But as they went on with it, and little Franz listened and looked, it seemed to him that the master was trying to put the whole French language into their heads in that one hour. It seemed as if he wanted to teach them all he knew, before he went,—to give them all he had,—in this last lesson.
From the grammar he went on to the writing lesson. And for this, quite new copies had been prepared. They were written on clean, new slips of paper, and they were:—
All up and down the aisles they hung out from the desks like little banners, waving:—
And everybody worked with all his might,—not a sound could you hear but the scratching of pens on the "France: Alsace."
Even the little ones bent over their up and down strokes with their tongues stuck out to help them work.
After the writing came the reading lesson, and the little ones sang their ba, be, bi, bo, bu.
Right in the midst of it, Franz heard a curious sound, a big deep voice mingling with the children's voices. He turned round, and there, on the bench in the back of the room, the old blacksmith sat with a big ABC book open on his knees. It was his voice Franz had heard. He was saying the sounds with the little children,—ba, be, bi, bo, bu. His voice sounded so odd, with the little voices,—so very odd,—it made little Franz feel queer. It seemed so funny that he thought he would laugh; then he thought he wouldn't laugh, he felt—he felt very queer.
So it went on with the lessons; they had them all. And then, suddenly, the town clock struck noon. And at the same time they heard the tramp of the Prussians' feet, coming back from drill.
It was time to close school.
The master stood up. He was very pale. Little Franz had never seen him look so tall. He said:—
"My children—my children"—but something choked him; he could not go on. Instead he turned and went to the blackboard and took up a piece of chalk. And then he wrote, high up, in big white letters, "Vive la France!"
And he made a little sign to them with his head, "That is all; go away."